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Games: Understanding What You Are Selling

When we make a game and put it up for sale, we think people are buying a game. But when you boil it down, there are too many games for people to play all the ones they might enjoy. So what are they buying? Or more importantly, how are we selling it?

I have been making games now so long that I remember a time when the only games you could buy were on self-contained machines that included one game with some variations. What is amazing is that I was recently reminded about how many hours I spent playing Pong, often creating my own version where I would play both players and actually care which side won. That was state of the art circa early 1970s.

Games and game machines have come a long way baby, but the reality that there a bunch of people spending arguably too much time playing games is stronger than ever. I still go into a game like Starcraft II and say I am going to try and win the level building nothing but Zerglings.

What you may have noticed is that the game changed, but how I play them has an underlying pattern - I want to master the corners. Even though Starcraft II is over 2 years old now, I am still playing it. In fact it is the only game I play other than my own Crystal Quest Classic and Hat Man: Shadow Ward. So I have 1 slot for a game that I bought. I have bought other games for research but rarely put in more than 20 minutes on each. If I were not a game developer I never would have bought them.

A common sense person might look at Steam and go "They have 125 million active accounts. If I get 1 percent to buy my game, I can retire." But the reality is that most of us will never get 1 percent. Most of us are in the 1 percent of 1 percent of 125 million, or less. And there is no way to fix that. Why? If you understand what we are selling, it becomes obvious.

What we are selling is an alternative way for people to spend their time. The graphics, the sound, the puzzles, the controls, the interaction with other players all add up to an experience. What you are advertising to people is that you have created a compelling experience that is worth it for them to spend their time on. But no matter how big the number of users, they all have a limited amount of time to play games.

Once you get that, you need to realize that people already have a lot of other options, including other games, to fill their time. To get their attention and earn your spot is nearly impossible. To reach your goal you need to do a lot of things right.

Start by imagining the ad for your game. How does how you sell the game effect how you are designing it? What can you do to make it more likely that people will choose it over other options?

"A Quality Game" will not cut it. There are something like 500 games launched per day on iOS. Who has time to even go through those? Game magazine reviewers? Hardly. YouTube reviewers? As a whole maybe, but no individual is going to spend 1 minute per game for 8 hours just to see if there is a worthy game.

Here are 7 things that you need to keep in mind while designing and building your game:

#1 - Build An Audience While You Build The Game

When I just checked, nine out of the ten Top Sellers on Steam today are sequels to games that have been around for 10 or more years. The goal is not to get into the top ten. The goal is to improve your sales so you don't have to go back to building websites for a living. To do this you need a following.

There are many articles on how to build a following, so I am just going to say - "DO IT!" Collect the email of everyone who contacts you about your game. I know that you would prefer to spend the day writing a new shader, but mix it up.

#2 - Create Something That People Want

The reason you create an ad for your game when you are starting your design is that the quality of the message of your ad will tell you the quality of your idea. If your ad reads - "A better version of Fallout," it will not work. If I am reading your ad, I probably have already played Fallout. If I am looking for something new, tell me why it is new.

Crystal Quest Classic - Same as it ever was.

Here is my ad for Crystal Quest Classic: "Crystal Quest is an award winning action/arcade game that was a huge hit on the Macintosh in 1987. It has never been available for PCs. It is now available, using the original graphics, sound, and source code for Windows and once again for the Macintosh. No emulators required."

You have a target audience. Does your ad sell to your target audience? Once your answer is 'Yes', make that game.

One last thing, make sure your target audience is big enough. If you believe your target audience is everyone, you are wrong. Some people will think that developers making games like yours are what is ruining the game industry. There are people who say that about Call Of Duty so get over it. The important thing to make sure is that the target audience for your game has to be big enough to reach your target revenue numbers. I have a saying that goes - If you want to make a million dollars, you have to do something that can make you a million dollars. So make sure your game has wide enough appeal to keep you in a style that you can get accustom to.

#3 - Do Not Anticipate Any Sales From Reviews

One of the biggest mistakes is assuming sales will come from reviews. If they do, you can count them on your hands. Hat Man: Shadow Ward was pre-Alpha, but was in the middle of our Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight. We got an email from a PewDiePie helper saying he wanted to review our game. So he did. Neither our Kickstarter nor our Steam Greenlight had any noticeable increase in traffic even though his review was seen by over 4 million people. And major game companies are walking away from Metacritic. Reviews do not have the impact they used to when games were more expensive.

The reason this thinking still pervades can be attributed to a thing that pervades the game industry referred to as Group Think. The industry often moves as a group even when all the evidence points to the contrary. Why? If so many people are saying it, it must be true, right?

Here is a clear example of Group Think: A few years ago I was working at Sony and the idea came up to make the game I was working on free-to-play. This new free-to-play idea sounded a lot to me like shareware which died 20 years ago because nobody paid for it. I was told that I was not keeping up with new ideas (being almost 50 at the time) and that "Free-to-play is going to lead to more money for all games. This is the future of the industry. There will be more money because there will be a lot more players who can try a game before they buy it." They released my game and it was successful in that lots of people played it. The revenue was almost non-existent. Almost everyone played for free. Free-to-play in our case should have been called play-for-free.

The message is that just because lots of people are saying it, even people who are supposed to know, does not make it true. I was told that reviews are the basis of a game's success. That is wrong for almost every recent title. When Starcraft III comes out, I will buy it because I am part of their audience regardless of the reviews.

#4 - Getting The Word Out Is Essential

Wait, what? Didn't I just say that reviews were useless? Aren't they a method of getting the word out? The reality is that people do not buy games because of reviews. I have been in the game industry for over 35 years and only read the reviews of my games. When was the last time you read a review and it swayed your decision on whether or not to buy a game? If it ever happened, I imagine it was rare.

Advertising and content articles are the way to go. The real way people are convinced to buy things is when they think it is their idea. They found a diamond when they were just walking down a path. And when you advertise, you control the message. You don't have PewDiePie finding an empty corner and inserting kittens into your horror game "review".

#5 - Make Sure Your Game Is Worthy Of Someone's Time

Money is something you can earn more of. Time is not as easily obtained. Do not waste people's time. For one, they will not be part of your audience for your next game. And 2, you probably will waste your time building something so bad that people will not even be fooled into trying it.

Flappy Birds was not a waste of time. Why? It used classic game design tools to create a game that while simple, challenged people. It was very simple but it was a game.

Years ago I played a game Bioforge that was a waste of time. Why? In the first scene I find out who the bad guy is and the whole motivation for continuing the game was to get the guy in the next scene. So I played through the entire game and in the last scene, the bad guy climbs onto a ship and gets away. They had wasted my time. The premise was that I needed to right a wrong. The game ended saying that I could not accomplish the premise set forth in the first minute of the game. They lost me as a customer forever.

#6 - What Will People Talk About After Playing Your Game

You should know before you start the thing that make your game potentially go viral. Whether it be a gun that makes your target small so you can step on them. Or enemies who take extra damage from crotch shots. Or extra points for running over grandma. These used to be the bread and butter of the games we played. Nowadays somebody makes a clone and says it is different based on the artwork. Don't be lazy and expect to get paid.

#7 - Give Them A Reason To Part With Their Money

While the price of games keeps going down, there is always a point where the player has to decide to part with their money or not. What is it that will convince the player that they are better having the game than they are the money it costs? If people who like your genre of games like big explosions, make your explosions bigger. If they like their ponies pink, give them a pink pony.

I used to run a playwriting group. After we read a play as a group, I asked the author of the play what she liked about the play. She gave me all these great reasons. I then asked her to point to where those things were in the play. She realized that the things she liked about the play were still in her head and not on the page. Make sure that what people like is actually in your game. I often play games where the developers talk about the features they did not put in the game as if them telling me that there could have been more is a good thing. If it is not in there, it does not count.


The basic problem comes down to this: There are not enough hours in the day for all games that are made to be successful. Even if they are all great. Even if everyone does everything right.

The reason there are things you can do to be more successful is that the other guy is lagging. I am going to make a conjecture here that I am pretty sure is true - If there are 500 games a day coming out, many of them have to be by teenagers living at home with their parents. Or at least people who are just doing it to see what happens. Whatever the case, the bar for quality is really low. Do as much as you can right and you won't have to go back to building websites.

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