Ten months and countless hours later, I’ve finished my book. There are still a round (or two?) of edits to be made, but the bulk of the writing is finished. It’ll be in stores in October. I’m looking forward to when I’ll be able to post an Amazon URL here. :-)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I still can’t seem to summon the energy to write a long and thoughtful blog post about, well, anything right now. All I really want to do is work in my garden and hang out with long-neglected friends and family. However, this experience has taught me a few things which I think are relevant to Arcade games (not just books) and which I’d like to share while the memories are still fresh:
From what I’ve gathered, less than 1% of published books turn out to be hits. The odds for a first-time author (who isn’t a big name, like Bill Clinton or Alan Greenspan) are so incredibly low that even if your publisher loves your book, your marketing/sales forecast is unlikely to exceed 20k copies at best. At that level, it simply doesn’t make sense for the publisher to do much in the way of marketing until the book has already proven itself. Even though the Arcade console game space isn’t nearly that tough, there are parallels. After all, because of the economics of the Arcade space today, most publishers aren’t willing to spend more than $100k on marketing their games (and usually far less than that.)
I’ve debated writing this article for a long time. My hesitation has stemmed, in part, from the recognition that many people have already beaten this particular horse. At least once a year, I hear an excellent presentation on this subject, usually at a casual games conference (where necessity breeds ingenuity). That said, I believe that many developers and publishers are making mistakes — on many platforms, not just XBLA — which if corrected could improve the sales of their games. So what the heck, I’ll jump on the bandwagon and say a few things. Hopefully some of them will actually seem insightful.
PR… it’s not just for Halo
Having a free trial does not exempt a downloadable game from taking advantage of PR; not even in XBLA, where every game gets downloaded by a large number of people. Why? Two reasons. First, that “large number of people” could be a lot larger. 2x (or more times) larger, in fact. Just because a lot of people download every game that comes their way doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore the people who don’t. Plenty of consumers only think to download the titles they are familiar with — that’s why licensed IP is so popular with many publishers.
Note: I think this post may be interesting to anyone creating, investing in, or distributing games (regardless of whether or not they are Xbox Live Arcade games.) However, I needed to ramble through some seemingly tangential stuff to make my point. Please bear with me. :-)
XBLA portfolio management is a complex thing… I’m one part cat-herder, one part traffic cop, one part talent scout, and one part “quality control.” (The latter part is especially tricky… who wants to be the guy who turned down Katamari because “the art was weak”, or one of the eight publishers who turned down Harry Potter because “the writing could use polish.”) I approach these roles with a healthy dose of humility (and even anxiety), knowing that at any moment I could become “the moron who turned down [fill in the blank].” Unfortunately, the longer I hold this position, the more likely that becomes!
Trying not to be a moron
So I’ve put systems in place to hopefully help reduce the risk of my own tastes (or lack of vision) from polluting the portfolio. I can’t really discuss the details, but they include a sort of “wisdom of crowds” feedback loop, in which indie submissions are screened and rated by a group of my colleagues within Microsoft (who are asked NOT to discuss the submissions with each other before rating them — mainly to avoid group-think.) The wisdom of crowds can make my forecasts more accurate, and it can help compensate for any subconscious biases I have. Unfortunately, what I don’t believe it can do is help me identify future mega-hits (i.e. “the next Geo Wars“.)
It recently occurred to me that video game publishers might be well served by having an internal advocate for different demographic groups. (The details: i.e. is it one specific person or several people with other responsibilities are less interesting to me than the idea itself.)
The idea came to mind when I was thinking about Marble Blast Ultra, one of our XBLA games. I have heard it said on more than one occasion that “if Marble Blast Ultra included a sandbox mode in which there were no penalties, no timers, etc, it would be a perfect kid’s game.” Conversely, when playing Pokemon Diamond, I’ve often thought “if only there were a way to speed up the rather slow and repetitive feeling of battles (among other related issues), this game might have some chance of appealing to more adults.”
(Those of you who’ve played Pokemon will understand what I’m talking about here. How many times do I need to sit through the same animation of the same attack? Is it OK to be bored after the 500th time I’ve watched the “throwing my pokeball into the field” animation? The repetition is valuable to kids but adults might enjoy a “skip” option…)
I stumbled onto an interesting mashup of Halo and Metroid (plus a little Matrix) via Penny Arcade. But the mashup itself, while impressive, didn’t inspire me to write this post. What caught my eye was the commentary on the mashup by its creator, Monty. Let me quote the relevant portion:
A hot topic among game designers today is: should designers aspire to celebrity (of the kind possessed by famous movie directors and producers) and if so, how? Raph Koster frequently talks about this, and I believe his rationale is fairly solid. But Raph, who does a good job of reaching out to the community (via his book, press interviews, conferences, and blog), is still completely unknown to the vast majority of human beings who regularly play video games (much less humanity in general.) For that matter, even our most beloved industry icons (like Miyamoto) are basically unknown outside the enthusiast market.
Since I singled out Raph, I should note that he doesn’t always talk about individual celebrity. His use of the term seems to extend to corporate brands (i.e. what Rockstar aspires to in every regard, from their name to their products.) But it’s hard to turn a corporate brand into anything even remotely resembling a mega-celebrity brand (i.e. Steven Spielberg). Across all entertainment industries, there are few examples to aspire to.
So if a celebrity-level corporate brand is generally out of reach, and some of our most outspoken and engaged/engaging game designers are still unknown outside hardcore circles, what can be done to harness the celebrity power that designers and companies crave?
I don’t usually post quick one-offs, but this is worth it. Welcome to one of the most foolish PR moves in the history of the video game industry. Followed by an understandably quick (and rather humiliating) reversal.
Can’t claim I’m posting this for purely innocent reasons (I have a competitive streak a mile wide) — but I do honestly believe that this is an excellent example of a big corporation being completely out of touch with the rules of the blogosphere.
Want a lesson in handling a potentially negative situation on the Internet in the appropriate manner? See Linden Lab’s handling of the “First Life” campaign.
Professor Stacy Wood, faculty advisor to C3, has unveiled more research on consumer behavior; this time, she studied the consumer’s emotional reaction to the process of learning how to use a product (and the customer’s subsequent overall satisfaction with that product). Stacy’s research isn’t game-specific, but is particularly interesting in the context of games. After all, video games have evolved (by necessity and definition) into some of the most elegant learning systems ever designed!
Stacy’s key conclusions, which probably won’t surprise members of this industry, are as follows: