15 June, 2016
A lot of people have incorrect perceptions about making games. For example, people on the outside of the industry think that making games is like playing games. This is obviously pretty far from reality.
But, even indies have a lot of wrong ideas about game development. Let’s take a look at another recent example.
Cool guy Timothy Lochner shared this Imgur gallery. (Make sure to click “Load remaining 5 images” at the bottom to load the text, too.) In this gallery an aspiring indie dev laments a total and utter lack of coverage of his game, Brigador.
The game looks pretty cool. You pilot a giant mech across a fully destructible environment. It supports different playstyles and looks like it has a fair amount of content. But, they just couldn’t get any attention for the game. Which, honestly, isn’t unusual. My good friend Dave Toulouse has been making games for a quite a while now, and he still has trouble getting the press to cover his games.
The game looks good
Honestly, they did almost everything right reading through the discussion.
Unique selling point with fully destructible environments? Check.
Unique name with “Brigador” so it’s easy to search? Check.
Great elevator pitch with “a kool-aid man simulator”? Big check.
Great development philosophy of, “make something that respected players’ time and [gives] them a large variety of ways to play the game”? Check.
But, that’s only part of the battle. What seemed to go wrong?
If you build it, they may not come
You might remember my friend Dave when he asked a question back in April. He wondered what it took to succeed as an indie, and you might see that my answer included… marketing.
This is a lesson that indies need to take to heart. Too often developers see the important part as finishing the game. But, as the developer says, players “can’t buy what [they] don’t know exists.” That’s what marketing is about, getting the word out there. You can’t work on a game, release a few trailers, do a dev diary, and then expect lots of attention when you release. It doesn’t work that way.
The reality is that there are a lot of indie games to cover anymore. And, some sites just don’t care to review even a fraction of them. You might get lucky and get some coverage, but that won’t be enough. As the developer says, you really want a critical mass; ideally you want it to appear like “everyone” is talking about you.
One thing that the developer didn’t cover in his post-mortem is the development length: 5 years. To be honest, that’s an incredibly long period of time for just about any game that’s not an MMO. And, it’s particularly too long for a game that is a self-funded game without an established fan base.
This development time is too long for three reasons: it drives up costs (financial and sanity), it alienates you from your audience, and it doesn’t allow for iteration on the idea.
The costs issue seems obvious. It costs money to live, and expenditures for 5 years are going to be roughly 5 times what they would be for 1 year. But, there’s the hidden aspect: your sanity. MMOs separated out development teams from live teams because people realized that working on a project for 5 years skews your perception. Working on the same game day in and day out for years on end wears on you, and also makes you too close to the game. You start to see your work as a massive investment, and the sunk cost fallacy starts to kick in and you value your past work more heavily.
Long development cycles also alienate your audience. What seems like a good idea five years ago may not be a great game today. You might get excited responses when asking friends about a game concept, only for that concept to feel trite in a few years time. Now, Brigador doesn’t seem to have suffered from this in particular, but consider this: if they had finished a two simpler games in 2 years each (the original and as sequel), the developers could have been in a great position to work on a new and exciting game now. Imagine Brigador type gameplay in VR. You could literally be the Kool-Aid man in first person!
Finally, you need iteration. Ideas aren’t always great. My friend Dave and I have been talking about ideas for his next game. He cycles through ideas at a rapid rate, thinking of something cool then working on it, discarding part of all of it depending how well his sketches and prototypes work out. Releasing a game is a great way to get feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Let’s face it, some ideas just don’t have an audience, and figuring out if your sales are going to be terrible is a good idea. Again, it seems Brigador doesn’t suffer from this as when it has gotten attention that has translated to sales. But, not every game is like that.
But, shorter development cycles can be a real boon to game developers. Personally, I think that’s a big problem with MMOs, the multi-year marathon development times mean they can’t iterate and get feedback from the audience very well. Ideas grow stale and the fans from a few years ago start to lose interest. This is a big problem, and I’m firmly convinced that the current state of MMOs is directly related to time and money it takes to develop the things.
Learning lessons too late
Unfortunately, it appears that the developer learned a lot of these lessons, but learned them too late. The tragedy is that this could have been avoided. Seeking out someone who has done game development before can help a lot. Yes, the big name people are going to be busy. But, there are plenty of resources out there: forums, blog, social media, etc. Finding someone who has run an indie game business (and who hasn’t run screaming from the industry) isn’t impossible. And, most of us are more than happy to share our advice. Just ask my friend Dave. :)
I wish the developers of Brigador well. Obviously they created that Imgur gallery in an attempt to get a bit more attention; it echos their accidental marketing boost they got when they replied to someone complaining $20 was too much. They’ve learned to reach out to others for help, even if it’s a community instead of other professionals.
Who knows? Maybe this will turn things around for them. Maybe they’ll have enough sanity to develop another game. And, hopefully they’ll take the hard lessons learned from their first game and do amazing work next time.
What do you think? Any deep insight into how to market a game like this? What types of marketing work best on you to let you know about exciting new games?