This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the seventh in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
One of the most frustrating things a game developer will ever hear is “that [PERCEIVED GENRE] game isn’t worth [PRICE]—I can get [OTHER GAME] for [LOWER PRICE].”
It’s frustrating for a whole bunch of reasons. Your game might not be very similar to the games to which it is being compared, or might offer more content or replayability. Heck, you might simply think your game is “better” and deserves a higher price. But it doesn’t matter. The comparisons are being made and now you’re getting 2-star reviews calling your game good but your company “greedy.”
If that sounds familiar, congratulations: You are part of the very large and growing club of developers who underestimated the power of relativity. No, not E=MC2. I’m talking about the fundamental human tendency to compare everything in our lives to something else we’re familiar with. An organic apple seems ludicrously overpriced to you at $1.99 because conventional apples sell for $0.79, but that same apple would have seemed cheap if your grocery store only carried the organic variety and if organic mangos appeared nearby for $5.99 each. It’s all relative.
For a trip down memory lane, check out this old TV commercial for Super Mario Bros 2:
What I find interesting about this commercial (aside from the cheesiness) is how pure it is. Unlike its predecessor, Super Mario Bros 2 was a game about defeating your enemies by throwing stuff at them as opposed to jumping on them. So Nintendo focused their commercial almost exclusively on that aspect of the game.
If the first Super Mario game was all about “amazing jumping” (as Miyamoto has supposedly said), then the sequel added and focused on “amazing throwing.” The developers got it. The marketers got it. And not surprisingly, the rest of us got it, too.
What’s the essence of your game? Can you say it in a few words? Can everyone else you’re working with say it in a few words?
Anyone developing an original IP for XBLA, PSN or Wiiware should take note of LucasArts’ Lucidity. Why should you take note? Because Lucidity is a truly delightful game that unfortunately showcases two of the most common “big mistakes” made by developers and publishers on XBLA. If the leaderboards are any indication, Lucidity’s sales are suffering as a result.
First, it’s worth recognizing how many things Lucidity gets right. It is beautiful, distinctive, and offers an original gameplay mechanic that actually works. Many game developers will never manage to create something that meets all three of those criteria in their entire careers. And many developers, with such a game on their hands, might assume that their success is all but assured.
There’s just two problems. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant period of time, you already know one of those problems: insufficientmarketing. Lucidity was unveiled mere weeks before it was released. No time to build consumer awareness. No time to woo the press. Nothin’.
The other problem is the game’s unforgiving design. (I won’t say the game’s “difficulty”, as something can be difficult without being unforgiving.) Lucidity lacks a checkpoint system, and that combined with a few other design issues causes the game to quickly become a punishing experience. This is apparent to players even in the demo.
It’s no accident that most modern platformers are more forgiving than their ancestors. While many XBLA and PSN users enjoy a stiff challenge, their patience is ultimately limited. Don’t let the success of a few insanely challenging retro titles fool you — those games have generally succeeded because of nostalgia, not because today’s gamer longs for the relentless butt-whooping of old.
1) Come up with a meaningful value proposition for your game. 2) Craft a gameplay experience that emphasizes that value proposition and that accommodates as many players in your target demo as possible. The latter can almost always be accomplished without noticeably diluting the gameplay experience. 3) *Repeatedly* communicate the value proposition far in advance of your game’s launch. –> These are the fundamental tricks of our trade.
If you are developing an original IP for XBLA or PSN, or hope to develop one someday, this post is for you.
Given the sales estimates being reported by Gamasutra (see thesehelpfulexamples), given what I’ve heard from individual developers as of late, and given the relative strength of established IP on the platform to date, I estimate that in general, no more than nine truly original IP-based games will succeed in any given year on XBLA. This is obviously a rough guesstimate at best; there is certainly the possibility that you will see more (or less) hit original-IP based titles in any given year. But even if I’m off by a few, you’ll see shortly that it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post.
Now assume that approximately four (or more) of those original IPs will be successful partially because they are high quality, but partially because they are king-made by Microsoft. They might be included in the annual Summer of Arcade promotion. They might support a new 360/LIVE platform feature and be showered with tremendous dashboard and press exposure. They might be internally developed by Microsoft Game Studios. And the list goes on… (I would have included winning the Dream Build Play competition, but it seems like Microsoft is now keeping the winners in the Indie Games Channel.)
Now assume your original IP is not king-made. Darn!
You’ve got approximately five chances left to turn a serious profit on your XBLA game. You’ve worked endless hours and paid yourself peanuts, all in the name of making a great game. You’ve taken the time to create a decent demo experience. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something… but what could it be? Frustrated, you decide to take a night off and have some fun at PAX. But when you walk through the main entrance, it hits you:
Twisted Pixel, showing off The Maw, Splosion Man, and their upcoming title, Comic Jumper
Slick Entertainment, showing off upcoming title, Scrap Metal
Ankama Games, giving private demos of upcoming title, Islands of Wakfu
Klei, showing off the upcoming title, Shank
You spent so much time developing your baby that you forgot to get out there and talk about it… but the competition didn’t! There were at least six different XBLA development shops parked right by the main entrance! Handing out toys. Showcasing their games. Kissing hands and shaking babies. (Or is it the reverse? You’re so distraught that you can’t remember!) And for many, this isn’t their first conference. The Behemoth… what conference do they not go to? And Twisted Pixel… those wacky guys never cease to charm the public with their adorable Maw plushies.
You play a few demos and grudgingly admit that these guys are making pretty decent games, too. A pit forms in your stomach as you realize that you might be screwed. But hey, that won’t happen. Marketing is bullshit, right? Quality always wins, Right?
One argument I made during my lecture at GDC this year (video of a nearly identical lecture available here) was that downloadable game developers and publishers need to start putting much more energy into marketing and PR way earlier in the development cycle of their games. I was talking about XBLA, PSN and Wiiware, but you could apply this to any video game ecosystem, really. As I was catching up with developers and publishers over the course of last week, this issue came up over and over again (i.e. they were on the verge of launching a game that hadn’t been promoted in any significant way) so I thought it worth writing about.
I have no way to incontrovertibly prove that I’m right about the importance of long-lead PR, but I believe that plenty of public information is available to back up my assertion. For example, the large majority of really big, known hits on XBLA: Braid, Castle Crashers, Worms, both Street Fighter games, etc, are games that were revealed to the public well over a year before they were launched (well over two years, in the case of some games.) They were covered by the press and discussed on active consumer forums repeatedly before their release. Very few big hits were announced in just the few months (or worse yet, weeks) leading up to the game’s release, with a couple of notable exceptions that Microsoft put some big PR and marketing muscle behind and/or were released back in the “golden days” of XBLA (when every game was doing quite well.) More importantly, some very good XBLA games that received absolutely zero advance promotion have failed to meet their developers’ expectations.
Lots of buzz today about Gabe Newell’s DICE Summit keynote. Gabe noted that price promotions on certain games on Steam have dramatically lifted sales. He emphasized that when Left 4 Dead was recently discounted by 50% (to $25), the discount increased sales by 3,000%. He added, “We sold more in revenue this last weekend than we did when we launched the product” and claimed that brick-and-mortar sales were unaffected by the Steam promotion. Gabe concluded that video games are probably too expensive, in general. (There was more to the presentation, including some comments about the evils of DRM, but I’m more interested in focusing on the pricing stuff right now.)
A couple of caveats, before I write anything further. #1: Gabe is one of the smartest people in this industry, and he has much more experience than I do. I’m not questioning his intelligence or judgment in any way, but I’m also not foolish enough to believe that his keynote statements encompass the sum total of his thoughts on this matter. More importantly, I’m not foolish enough to believe that Gabe is without agenda. He clearly wants to sell games for a lower price (for one very obvious reason related to the retail ecosystem, in particular.) This keynote presentation was an opportunity for Gabe to advance his agenda, not to share the full scope of his thoughts on pricing strategy or on Valve’s unique position in the industry.
Caveat #2: In my gut, I’ve long suspected that many console video games may in fact be over-priced (at their launch and later on in the life-cycle.) But I don’t know for sure, partially because the data that is needed to prove this assertion simply does not exist in sufficient quantity yet, at least to my knowledge. More on that… now.
Yesterday, my family and I visited Epcot at Disney World. It was Eve’s first time there, whereas I’ve been to Disney World many times as a child, so I was looking forward to showing her around! Of course, I’m incapable of seeing Disney World in the innocent way that I used to — not just because I’m older, but because now I can’t help but look for elements of game design and marketing theory in every element of the park. As far as game design is concerned, I was disappointed. Where was the playable Epcot metagame? And why were so few of the rides really interactive? But on the marketing front, I certainly can’t complain. Nobody knows how to market quite like Disney.
One example: I was exploring the Norway exhibit in the Epcot world village, and popped into the exhibit’s clothing store. The first sweater that caught my eye, displayed prominently along the wall, cost $540. I played “guess the price” with Eve, who made seven guesses before stopping at $450 and insisting that I must be pulling her leg. Nearby the sweater but farther down the way was a rack of toddler’s clothing. There was a cute winter jacket on display which I was guessing would cost about $200, but in fact, was tagged at $40. The first words out of my mouth were, “hey Eve, here’s a bargain!” And then I bit my tongue. They almost got me.
While at the GameOn Finance event in Toronto, I found myself in an interesting conversation about ways to maximize the revenue generated by MMOGs. I found it difficult to fully express my thinking on the matter at the time, so during my flight home I wrote this post. Consider it a sneak previous into my upcoming IGDA Leadership Forum lecture on MBA Lessons applied to the game industry. :-)
One of the concepts I learned in business school was the “two-part tariff,” which is best explained through a simple example that we’re all familiar with: a nightclub. Most nightclubs generate the majority of their revenue from the sale of liquor. Why then do some of them also choose to charge a cover fee? Doesn’t that turn away potential customers? Well, part of the reason is simply to “keep out the riffraff,” but bouncers at the door can (and generally do) already reject anyone who looks like they won’t be a valued customer. Part of the reason is to project an aura of quality and/or exclusivity, but again, a velvet rope and an obstinate bouncer can already accomplish that as well.
Two kinds of customers
The third major reason for a cover charge at a nightclub is revenue maximization, pure and simple. Here’s the underlying rationale: nightclubs basically have two kinds of customers. One kind buys a lot of drinks (the especially valued customer buy a lot of the most expensive drinks.) The other kind buys one drink and nurses it all night, or even — heaven forbid — just a glass of water. Both kinds of customers are attracted to the nightclub because it offers music, attractive people to dance with, etc. Both kinds of customers clearly value the experience. But only one kind of customer will be profitable for the nightclub. Sound familiar?
At Comic-Con, Cliff Bleszinski revealed that Gears of War 2 would feature linked Achievements, or special content that is unlocked only if you’ve earned a specific achievement in the original Gears of War. For example, if you’ve completed Act One in Gears Of War, you will unlock a playable Anthony Carmine in Gears of War 2. This is similar to what Peter Molyneux is doing with Fable on XBLA, i.e. enabling you to win currency that can then be spent within the world of Fable 2.
I suspect that this sort of thing will become increasingly popular with developers, some of whom will do it simply because it’s cool, and some of whom will do it because it can be useful for promotional purposes. (Use the earlier release of “Game A” to help drive interest in “Game B.” Or alternatively, take “Game A,” which isn’t expected to be a huge hit, and link it to “Game B,” which is expected to be a huge hit, in hopes that “Game A” benefits — a potentially more subtle or interesting version of the “bundle Game A with a demo or beta of Game B” strategy.)