Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

22 September, 2010

Success, opportunities, and luck
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:52 AM

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?

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  1. Brilliant article, and all points can be taken as solid gold advice for any of us struggling indies out here. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!

    Comment by the Jack — 22 September, 2010 @ 11:01 AM

  2. I don’t know about the game industry, but if it’s anything like publishing, it’s most of all about hard work and persistance. Inspiration/talent? Not that much. Maybe a little bit of luck, but you really need to keep on working regardless of all those rejections. My husband is a good example of this. He worked on a novel and then got it published. It wasn’t a huge hit, but still. He got it published. By a real publisher, not some print-on-demand-stuff. But imagine spending 18 years on one book. Writing it and then rewriting it over and over and over again. And once he had it accepted he had to rewrite it several times again. That novel wasn’t his first written one. He had written several before that, novels that never got published. But gave practice.

    I think you have to be a little bit nuts to succeed. Be obsessed. And judging from what I read about the gaming industry I can imagine it’s valid in that case as well.

    Comment by Larísa — 22 September, 2010 @ 11:20 AM

  3. Fascinating stuff about Infiniminer there, when the video opened on the first shot of the game it could easily have been Minecraft they were showing, as you point out.

    Looking at that game though, I couldn’t see myself playing it. Whatever magic pixie dust Notch has spread over his game means that there’s something much more compelling about the worlds in Minecraft, whether that is down to the more satisfying sound effects and animations when you mine, the crafting, or the more artistically pleasing graphics, a combination of all of these, none, or more, I couldn’t say. As you point out, if it was easy to put one’s finger on why such a game was a success, we’d probably all be doing it.

    I do think the game was already a huge success, financially speaking if nothing else, well before the PayPal hoo-ha, and indeed led to that problem. I certainly wouldn’t rule out (and I’m not saying that you were) the massive popularity that can be generated by a simple grassroots and word of mouth campaign in these days of Internet society.

    Comment by Melmoth — 22 September, 2010 @ 12:26 PM

  4. Did you see the hate for

    How dare you copy this game which is a copy of another game?

    “You just decompiled minecraft and loaded it into MS VC++.”

    Comment by Kriss — 22 September, 2010 @ 12:39 PM

  5. How about “keep working hard and improve yourself until you get lucky”?

    Some don’t like the word “luck” because they think it’s “just sitting there waiting for something good to happen”. You still have to do something and work to “try your luck” (to attempt something without knowing if one will be successful).

    To pick back the publishing example of Larisa, if it would have been obvious that Harry Potter would become a smashing hit then Rowling would have not needed to go through 12 different publishers before finally getting a deal. She could have stopped after 10 publishers and then maybe she would have thought her idea wasn’t all that good after all.

    The following article is enough for me to call this luck even if I can agree that she did work hard and kept doing what she believed in:

    To remove “luck” from the equation we would need a “succes-o-meter” that compiles everything like work, dedication, skills, fun factor (anyone have a “fun-o-meter”?), knowledge, people you know, timing, etc. Then we would know exactly what we need to adjust to have success each time and we couldn’t call that luck. Sure we get better at this with time and work but I doubt anyone can master all of this at once.

    Since there’s no exact recipe for success we just throw in the word “luck” in there to define the obscure missing piece of some work.

    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

    The only problem here is that there’s no time limit. That could take 6 months, 2 years, 20 years, 50 years… Or like some artists once we’re dead!

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 22 September, 2010 @ 5:54 PM

  6. As several have pointed out, it’s (usually) a matter of working hard until the luck comes along. And being patient/dedicated/obsessed.

    I’ve seen it multiple times in my business of 15 years (and counting). Our first 2 years we barely scraped by, nearly gave up several times… but that put us in a position where we were ready to act on taking over a profitable support contract when it came along… 3 years later, that contract was winding down, but it had given us the people, infrastructure and capital to land some ISP/ASP apps and support, which gave us the track record to land a major development project (that we got invited to bid on by a freak circumstance) for a Fortune 500 Co. 2 years after that… and so on.

    My take is the same as Psychochild’s… that hard work (and/or talent) better prepares you to take advantage of the opportunity, whatever it may be, whenever it may appear, which is the “luck” part of the situation. Sadly, it is fairly rare that hard work or talent actually _creates_ the opportunity… unless you are in marketing and sales, perhaps (and even that is usually more like panning for gold than building a bridge.)

    There is no guaranteed ROI on diligent effort… it shifts the odds of eventual success dramatically, but they neither start at 0% nor move to 100%, nor is there any clearly marked finish line.

    Comment by DamianoV — 23 September, 2010 @ 5:22 AM

  7. IMO luck is the final step to put your work in the limelight. Then everybody will look at you. When you don’t have the skills to keep the ball rolling in this situation you will become a one hit wonder and disappear again. So practicing and building up skills in anonymity is hard work but will pay off when luck comes into play.

    Notch must have done something right BEFORE the 600K € were frozen by PayPal. That’s what I wanna know: how to make this amount of money with a chunky game in ALPHA state!

    Comment by hermitC — 23 September, 2010 @ 6:54 AM

  8. Wow, the infiniminer point is bang on. However, you could probably have picked a better example of something “odd” than explosions. Pick any movie or any game — weighted by popularity — and nine times out of ten something will explode. Even if nothing explodes something probably will have the decency to catch fire. Why does Michael Bay keep getting money?

    However, you’re right, even explosions aren’t always the answer. One of my favorite gamimg moments was walling a Sim into a room with nothing but a phone. He would repeatedly order a pizza, and break down crying when the pizza guy gave up trying to deliver it and dropped it on the front lawn. Cruel? yes. Unnecessary? yes. But would the game be better for adding the ability to lay down an IED to kill the pizza guy on the way to your house? It’s an explosion, after all. Answer? Absolutely not. It simply doesn’t fit with the domestic aesthetics of the Sims.

    Second, I would argue Infiniminer is the engine, and Minecraft is the game. I’m basing my opinion on Infiniminer only on the video; it may not hold true with actual Infiniminer exposure. I have two reasons:

    First is the sound. I’m 35 and I lived in a household that sheltered me from most video games through the early 90s. I never experienced the MIDI craze. To me, Infiniminer’s main theme is worse than white noise, and the in-game bleeps and boops are terrible. I realize taste is subjective and there is a certain nostalgia for people who played old-school games. However, there is an entire new generation of teens and early twenty-somethings for which the sounds will come across as grotesque and off-putting. There are some exceptions, I’m sure :)

    Second, where was the gameplay in that Infiniminer video? On the weekend, I was trying to find the source of all the zombie moaning in my elaborate hole. I used the sound effects and tunneled up/down/right/left towards them. It turned out to be a big cavern with a river running through it and God knows how many undead. I was creating a third outpost/possible attack point when I accidentally fell in. I ran to the nearest wall and made myself an emergency shelter.

    I had to fend off three of those sodding creepers with a stone sword. (I have better equipment, but my first rule is not to sojourn off into the unknown with valuables). I eventually won, and tunneled my way to freedom. I am now working to flood the entire place with seawater.

    How can I do that with Infiniminer?

    I thought so.

    Comment by Brian — 23 September, 2010 @ 8:42 AM

  9. There was a lot of underground buzz in the indie development scene and on places like Reddit for this before the Paypal story appeared. The developer’s original blog post implies that the 600,000 euros was accumulated in one week. That’s 60,000 sales before any of the above publicity existed. So perhaps we’re looking too far along the curve here.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 24 September, 2010 @ 4:04 AM

  10. The post for reference:

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 24 September, 2010 @ 6:13 AM

  11. @hermitC: “Notch must have done something right BEFORE the 600K € were frozen by PayPal. That’s what I wanna know: how to make this amount of money with a chunky game in ALPHA state!”

    I’d put it down to finding and implementing one or two core mechanics that powerfully support multiple playstyles, and then wrapping those mechanics in a relatively attractive (sound/image) presentation.

    Consider the primary play mechanic of MineCraft: mining blocks to see what goodies are in/behind them. That single action hits on multiple preferences of play at a remarkably deep level. It’s about discovering new things, which is to say uncovering knowledge about the structure of the world. That absolutely delights Explorer-types (who frankly don’t have many games that cater directly to their interests). Finding a vein of gold; breaking through into a new cave system; seeing a new overworld vista open up for the first time — that such a simple action as mining a block of stone can yield so strong a jolt of the “discovering something new” feeling is amazing, but it really does work.

    It’s also worth noting that the primary mechanic is both simple and fast: holding down a button for something like one second (in most cases) is enough to add to your pile of loot. That’s like steroidal catnip for Achievers. In fact, it’s brilliant — the main thing you want to do in the game can be done extremely quickly. That is exactly the power behind the “just one more” effect. Original Civilization had it; MineCraft has it. Goodbye, sleep.

    MineCraft also has a couple of valuable secondary mechanics, of which being able to move blocks from the inventory back into the gameworld to build new structures is the more important. (The other is the crafting of tools — nice, but not exciting at this time.) Restoring blocks, like mining them, also serves multiple playstyles. Explorers like the creative aspect; it’s like a world-sized Tinkertoys kit. And Achievers get into the competitive building game — have you seen some of the amazing things in the various YouTube videos of MineCraft constructions? Wow.

    (Speaking of serving multiple playstyles, the ability in MineCraft to mine blocks out of the gameworld and then restore them in new configurations reminds me of the “thinnner” and “paint” mechanics promised for Epic Mickey. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Epic Mickey implements simple/fast forms of destruction and creation mechanics while Warren Spector has been saying recently that “playstyles matter.”)

    The one area where MineCraft doesn’t satisfy is in storytelling. There are no people in MineCraft, which means there’s no opportunity for personal interactions or relationships to form and be maintained. That’s not necessarily a Bad Thing; not every game has to be about emotional connections or drama. But what if there was some simple/fast MineCraft mechanic that did scratch the roleplaying itch as effectively as mining satisfies the desire to explore…?

    That said, I think MineCraft is a fair answer to Brian’s question: a game that powerfully serves multiple playstyles in a reasonably attractive way has a good shot of blowing up into a minor hit purely on its features. (Beyond that you need the Hula-Hoop Effect, where something becomes popular because people think it’s popular, but there’s no way to force that to happen.)

    Is that “luck?” Or just smart design?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 24 September, 2010 @ 10:30 AM

  12. So, on Infiniminer vs. Minecraft… everything is better with zombies?

    Comment by Tesh — 24 September, 2010 @ 11:13 AM

  13. Oh this is a tough one to answer as it affects so much in our lives, everything from startung a business to becoming a writer or actor or making games. Personally I think the only answer lies in a combination of both luck and hard work/quality/talent. One just needs to keep striving to produce the best quality things they can and stick at it, no matter what, hoping that it not only has the qualities that appeal to people but also receives that little stroke of luck to put it over the edge.

    I think all that we can do is try to make sure we enjoy our pursuits and get fun from the sheer act of doing it because grinding away at something you hate day in and day out just in the vauge hopes of one day “making it” and achieving great rewards is potentially a way to waste your life.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 26 September, 2010 @ 4:14 AM

  14. Ahhh… that explains the TNT! Great post!

    Comment by Bruno Campolo — 27 September, 2010 @ 12:29 PM

  15. As I’m currently lost deep into Minecraft to the point that I don’t launch Civ V much, I just want to answer to Bart Stewart about storytelling.

    Yes, there are no people in Minecraft (well, there is in multiplayer, but I haven’t tried it), however, have I got stories to tell to people. Never, never have I played a game where I had things to relate to people that I knew where unique, and that were interesting enough that people ask me “so, what happened to you since yesterday?”. I build my own stories through my exploration of the world, and through the goals I set myself. Through the trials I have to go through. Through the experiment I make in this strange world…

    As for business, I’m impressed that it does so well, that an alpha is so enjoyable, I’m sure luck has something to do with it, but I also knows that this game answers needs I’ve had for some time and did not find in regular video games…

    Comment by Modran — 29 September, 2010 @ 3:28 AM

  16. You can copy the steps and still not copy the success

    [...] I've said before, success isn't entirely random, but luck does play a non-trivial role in a lot of success. I don't think the path to success is [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 9 July, 2012 @ 2:37 PM

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