22 September, 2010
Sometimes the world of business seems inscrutable. An idea you are sure will never work goes on to set new records, while that sure-fire concept goes nowhere. If you've studied business at all, you've read stories, usually apocryphal, about how some idea was looked down upon or succeeded despite the odds (a college paper describing FedEx getting a 'C' grade, the epic battle of VHS vs. Betamax, etc.) Despite the fact that we'd like to believe a great idea will always succeed, this isn't always the case.
So, what contributes to success in business? Particularly in (indie) games?
Insert mining-related pun here
Like seemingly the rest of the internet, I played a fair amount of Minecraft over the weekend since it was free due to the authentication servers being overloaded. Minecraft is the indie darling of the moment, so I'll look at it as an example. Note that I'm an interested outsider; I have no particular insider knowledge here.
Let me give a quick review: It's a procedurally generated game that can be surprisingly fun and at times beautiful. It's funny, because a lot of the gameplay can be boiled down to "digging a sodding great big hole in the ground." There's just enough to the game that keeps things interesting. There's also an impressive variety to the game despite the simple "building blocks"; one world I was in was really flat with a lot of water and lots of small caves, while another was very mountainous with caves that were more like shafts dropping into the void.
In a Twitter update, I wrote: "Short take: interesting, but not purchasing it." It's not that it's a bad game, but if I'm going to spend hours making something I should probably focus on something that keeps rent paid and food available. I've got more game ideas than lifespan to make them in at this point, and I want to do my own work. As a result, I usually don't get deep into sandbox type games. I enjoyed playing Minecraft over the weekend, but I can't justify spending a lot more time on the game.
A quiet success and a flood of coverage
Minecraft has been quietly chugging along without much promotion. I think the game came to the forefront when there was news earlier this month that Paypal froze the developer's account with 600,000 Euros in it. Wait... how much money?
This human interest story seemed to have opened the floodgates of coverage, including "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" doing a multi-part series about their adventures in the game. When Penny Arcade covered it, it broke the servers. The developer decided to be a nice guy and let everyone play for free over the weekend while he got things back up and running. (Oh, to be so popular that your servers crash!)
There's a joke that the best way to get popular is to be popular. Minecraft hit the critical mass in getting coverage with a trifecta of stories that has kept the game discussed in the media for most of the month. (And now I'm contributing to that.) Obviously with 600k Euros in a Paypal account, this isn't an example of an overnight success.
Despite all odds!
My good pal Dave 'Over00' Toulouse points out that Minecraft violates some "rules" of game development. While it can have a sort of stunning beauty, the game doesn't have high-end graphics. In fact, the blocks that make up the world are bigger than the pixels on the old Atari 2600. It's also a surprisingly complex game with crafting: you can create tools, weapons, armor, structures, mine carts, explosives, and so on. But, as Dave points out, there isn't even a decent tutorial. Conventional wisdom is that the trial and error system for crafting items wouldn't appeal to typical players. But, there's something that has struck a chord with enough people to keep them talking about it.
But, Dave does have a good point in his post: there will always be people who tell you that you must do X or should never do Y. Having a detailed tutorial and having amazing graphics are two "requirements" that a lot of people point out. And, the current fashion seems to be against having a complex game. But, obviously, these aren't strict requirements for a successful game. People will still play your game even if you don't "follow the rules". The secret is to find the market for your game. Sometimes an otherwise brilliant game simply won't find its market for whatever reason.
Familiar patterns emerge
But, if we dig a bit deeper we start to see that perhaps Minecraft's success isn't all that inscrutable.
In reading up on Minecraft, I read some references to a game called Infiniminer. A quick search later and I found an interesting video. After playing a hardcore weekend of Minecraft, the game in that review looks pretty familiar. It makes some odd things in Minecraft, like the ability to make TNT, make more sense. A Wiki on the game even calls Infiniminer "a predecessor" to Minecraft. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say. I'll also point to my post on The Innovation Paradox and say, once again, that it's easier to take an already proven idea and polish it than to create a whole new idea.
(Note that the original developer of Infiniminer wrote, "In the aftermath of Infiniminer, feeling nothing but disgust in the pit of my stomach, I told people that I was done making games." I'm not sure what caused that attitude, but I think it's obvious that sometimes trying to develop a new idea can be rough, even for an indie without typical business worries.)
Of course, one must be careful. You can't just copy something else and hope to succeed. As I pointed out in my previous blog entry, Blizzard's brilliance is knowing what to polish to a high shine. It seems that Notch, the developer of Minecraft, has some pretty good ideas in mixing in crafting and monsters into a building type game. You still need to be good, even if you're borrowing from others. In addition, you need to think about what you copy. Sadly, a lot of game business is based upon copying others and hoping that it works at least as good, if not better, for the imitator.
So, what makes a success?
Okay, so we've looked at Minecraft in depth. What makes a success?
As I said above, the trick is to find your market. Unless you have really esoteric tastes, your game will probably appeal to a number of other players out there. In some cases, your market might be obscure and hard to reach; a game about calligraphy might have a hard time finding its market since, at least in the U.S., fans of calligraphy may not be big game players. In other cases, competing games might serve your market better; trying to clone WoW is only going to end in crying because WoW fans already have WoW. But, assuming you have something that people want to play and isn't a poor copy of another game, how do you reach that audience?
Some people want to attribute success to luck. It can be tempting to do so, especially if you've been hard at work on your own project and had little success. Others scoff at that idea. The cliché "fortune favors the bold" echoes a modern sentiment: you make your own luck. Getting the word out about your game takes a lot of hard work, and getting to the right place at the right time takes a lot of careful planning and dedication.
At Dragon*Con, a panel of writers said the most important attribute to succeeding at writing was persistence: sticking with it and enduring the seemingly endless rejections. Assuming you aren't hopeless, eventually something will come through if you keep writing and keep improving your writing skills. I think that game development works the same way, where you must keep working at it.
Personally, I think that hard work can take you part of the way, but there's nothing quite like catching a lucky break. But, just because someone seems to be enjoying some luck, like a lot of concentrated media coverage, doesn't mean there wasn't a lot of hard work done to be able to take advantage of it. In the case of Minecraft, I wonder if the frozen Paypal account story helped give a bit more attention to the game that was otherwise doing pretty well for itself; assuming this isn't a hoax or a stunt, this does seem to fall a bit into the realm of "lucky break from an unfortunate circumstance."
Unfortunately, there's no magical formula to follow, otherwise we'd all be following it. I think the best option is to work hard and be ready to spring on opportunities as you see them.
What do you think? Luck, hard work, or something else? What helps one succeed?