Game Developers: Remember Priority #1
(Note: this was originally posted on Flippfly.com)
I questioned the wisdom of writing this, since as of yet, I've not released a highly successful game as an independent developer since quitting my day job back in April. Forest and I have high hopes for Flippfly, but aside from our moderately successful Monkey Drum Deluxe, there's really not a lot of inherent credibility to my words that comes with having highly successful products to back them up.
Namely: I think many have forgotten that the most important factor to success as a game developer is making an excellent game, and started to believe that financial success is either random, or mostly due to factors outside of the game itself.
Now - keep in mind that I said excellent (as opposed to decent, good, or even great) and that when I use that word, I mean: fun, appealing, polished, and accessible (and don't take accessible to mean casual or broadly appealing.)
Recently a tweet from Jon Blow (developer of Braid) made me think on this issue again:
This Gamasutra article just kind of makes me angry. I should learn not to care: gamasutra.com/view/feature/1…
— Jonathan Blow (@Jonathan_Blow) June 29, 2012
This was in response to a business-centric postmortem about a game that sold 7 copies titled "congratulations, your first indie game is a flop."
Jon went on to explain:
"He made a game that there's no reason for people to want, but acts like he is entitled to have people buy it / press cover it."
Now to be fair, I think Jon's take on this was harsh - I found the article in question to be informative, and as pointed out by Michael Brough, talking about failures is important. The developer acknowledged mistakes, and ultimately showed no regret at having done something he loved and believed in.
My concern is that people seem to have an expectation that their game will do reasonably well as long as they get all their ducks in a row, and if this doesn't happen, often the last thing they focus on is the game itself. Time and again I've seen people reference their 75% or so ratings and then go on to talk as if these are "great" reviews and that they just need to get their great game in front of people.
I think this kind of thinking is a big mistake.
Hear me out: it should be a self-evident fact that if you expect to succeed financially, you're going to need lots of eyes on your game, especially if you're charging a couple bucks or less for it. This can happen in a variety of ways, but it mostly boils down to two: either you spend money on marketing, or you make a game that is so good that its quality and value make it impossible to ignore. You want people to play it, share it, tweet about it, talk about it at work, review it, and feature it, not because of a great icon or an attractive promo video, but because it's unquestionably just that good. You want it to be the game about which people say "you really have to play this!"
It's tempting to look at counter-examples: all the good games that somehow get passed over, and all the mediocre games that somehow manage to sell millions.
But in the absence of big marketing dollars, I would argue that:
Mediocre games usually fail.
Good games often fail.
Excellent games rarely fail.
Every other case is just noise.
So am I saying that marketing, PR, great icons, promo videos, a great website, social features, killer screenshots, and personal connections are unimportant?
Of course not!
But if your game is less than excellent, then all this stuff is like trying to push a rock up a hill in today's market. That's not a fulfilling way to spend your life. And the weaker your game is, the more time you're going to spend trying to make all these supporting factors make up for it - a really bad cycle to be in when time is your most precious asset!
What's cool about setting out to make excellent games, is that in addition to taking so much of the randomness out of your success potential, you're going to enjoy a much more fulfilling career!
Now I feel I should make a point to say that sales isn't the only type of success - and there is certainly room for every type of game, as Rami Ismail of Vlambeer points out. It's a big space and not everybody in it is trying to make a living at it. We actually just submitted a little toy to the app store called "Creepy Eye" - an experiment using face-tracking and the gyroscope that we hadn't seen explored before. Making an artful experiment or a cool diversion is a reward in itself. But my concern is when people start to feel a sense of entitlement or surprise when these experiments and "pretty good" games don't garner any attention or sales, with sometimes lengthy and publicized business-focused analysis of where their monetization strategy failed, or scary-sounding warnings to other would-be indie developers.
If you want to sell games, and you don't like throwing dice with your financial future, you need to be determined to produce excellence.
So do yourself a favor: take a break from your monetization strategizing, video-editing, press-emailing, buzz-creating, and icon-tuning for a minute, and ask yourself: