Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 July, 2016

The long road to success
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:01 PM

As a society, we tend to have a few specific narratives we apply to specific situations. As I wrote in the last post, we love the scrappy underdog that fights against all odds to succeed; the classic David vs. Goliath. We also love the “overnight success” story; however, most of the time the success did not happen overnight. This is especially true for games.

Let’s take a look at some “overnight” successes and how they actually took a while to develop.

The recent example: Pokémon GO

So, lots of obscure has-beens have been coming out of the woodwork to write about Pokémon GO the last few weeks. As the information rolls in, it’s hard to deny the overwhelming success: the game has doubled Nintendo’s market value and made it worth more than rival Sony. Let that sink in: the maker of the Wii U is worth more than the maker of the PlayStation 4 because of a mobile game.

This game seems to come out of nowhere, but it was built on top of two other games. Both Pokémon and Ingress, Niantic’s previous game contributed to the success of the new game. The history of Pokémon is easy to see: it’s a game series with a nearly 20 year history. People in their first jobs probably fondly remember playing the games as a kid, and are eager to relive memories with a modern update.

Ingress‘s influence is a bit less obvious. The most direct influence is the data; gyms and pokestops are portals from Ingress. Niantic took the information collected from running the game for about two and a half years and used it to populate the world. After all, Ingress players spent a lot of time finding interesting places for people to visit as portals. People have even figured out that concentrations of XM energy in Ingress correspond to higher Pokémon concentrations as well.

In addition, running Ingress gave Niantic a good test bed for game design concepts the ability to build out infrastructure. Imagine how bad server uptime would be for Pokémon GO if Niantic hadn’t had some experience with Ingress! Niantic probably also collected data about player behavior to develop a better model of player actions for the new game. Having a prior game helped Pokémon GO succeed; the success didn’t come out of nowhere.

The classic example: World of Warcraft

Back when MMOs seemed to be slowing down, World of Warcraft launched and amazed everyone. Designers thought MMOs had a new lease on life, and we’d see a glorious era of huge games. Okay, maybe some people got a bit optimistic, but WoW did dominate MMOs for the next decade and more. Lots of people tried to capitalize on its success, but couldn’t quite catch lightning in the bottle again.

I wrote an analysis of WoW’s success a bit after its launch about a decade ago. I said there what I’ve said repeatedly since: that the Blizzard and Warcraft brands were vital for WoW’s success. It was the familiar names that got people to overcome obstacles like paying a subscription and having to always be connected to the internet. (As an aside: remember when those were actual concerns?) It was the decade plus history of the game company and setting that generated enough interest to catapult WoW to the subscribers barely considered possible even a few months before its launch.

And this is one big reason why a lot of the WoW clones that followed in the game’s wake failed to gain any sort of traction. No investor wants to read that the first step to big success is “spend a decade or more building critical and audience acclaim and build a recognizable brand.” It’s interesting to note that the only game to rival WoW is based on another long-standing (if a bit more long suffering) franchise: Final Fantasy. It’s also interesting to note that Elder Scrolls Online has been quietly doing pretty well. The brand name is working for them as well, even if the company headed by long-time MMO developer Matt Firor is distancing themselves from the “MMO” label.

The indie example: Machine 22

Some indie developers have seen success after their first game. Some indies struck it lucky with their first game, and now live comfortable lifestyles without ever having held a “proper job”. However, these stories are pretty rare. It’s much more common that the indie worked long and hard on various games before they had their big breakthrough games. As I mentioned above, some news sites spin this into the popular “overnight success” stories which obscure the work that went into that success.

I’m probably going to embarrass my friend Dave Toulouse a bit and talk about how awesome he is. But, I’m going to use him as an example here because I know exactly how hard he’s worked to get where he is now.

Dave contacted me a long time ago, I think it was in 2008, when I was still working on Meridian 59. He was developing this quirky little game called Golemizer. He had worked on a few other small games before, and he wanted some advice. I thought the game was interesting, and gave him a bunch of advice. The game had a four year run before Dave decided to close it down.

After that, Dave worked on a number of games. The highlights are Bret Airborne which is a fun little match 3 RPG game, Human Extinction Simulator which is a challenging deterministic strategy game, and March of the Living which is a zombie-filled “roguelite” (and March of the Living is currently 25% off on Steam!) Each game did a little better than the others, with March of the Living being Dave’s biggest success to date.

I’m currently chatting with Dave about a new game he’s planning. I won’t say too much, but let me give a little tease by saying I’m digging out some of my old Storybricks notes for reference.

But, Dave’s success was built up slowly over time. He developed games, tried new things, developed his craft, and continued learning. He’s worked hard, even if he didn’t see success out of the gate like some people. I think this makes Dave a better developer, as he can strive to improve with each game and doesn’t have a massive success looming over him, crushing him with the impossibility of doing even better.

Failure doesn’t preclude later success

Creative work is hard and uncertain. Audience tastes can be fickle, and the gatekeepers are often just as hapless as creators in knowing what will work and what won’t. Working hard on a creative work hardly ensures success, despite our cultural mythologies that treat “hard work” is the mythical key to a rewarding life.

There are plenty of examples where people or companies failed repeatedly before seeing success. Rovio famously worked on 50 or so games before their massive hit Angry Birds. Square was about to go bankrupt when Final Fantasy was shipped; the game saved the company and spawned a series of games that has spanned almost 2 decades.

Outside of games, writers often have to endure a lot of rejection before they see success. J.K. Rowling being a particularly famous example, where Harry Potter was rejected a dozen times before it was published and made her a billionaire.

How to be successful

What’s one lesson you can take from all these examples? Persevere. This is common advice for writers, as you will see a lot of rejection before you get your shot at being published. And, even if you are published, you might languish for reasons beyond your control.

For games, the advice is the same. Dave kept his day job as long as he could while working on games during his nights and weekends. Blizzard made a variety of games before they created Warcraft and started to focus on that gaming franchise until they made the MMO that damn near everyone played. Make good games, but you might need to plan for the long term.

In the end, you might just create the next big gaming phenomenon.

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