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GDC 2012: Game design tips for improving sales

Designing a game is one thing, but how do you design a game that sells? At a recent presentation at GDC 2012, Ubisoft Montreal's Alex Hutchinson laid out some key tips for improving a game's sales.
Designing a game is one thing, but how do you design a game that sells? At a recent presentation at GDC 2012, Ubisoft Montreal's Alex Hutchinson, creative director on Assassin's Creed III, laid out some key tips for improving a game's sales. He began by noting that marketers and publishers certainly help to sell games, but the responsibility first falls on the shoulders of the designers themselves. "The decisions we make as designers are our responsibility. If you want to communicate with your audience, you need to take control of your business," he said. They key to reaching an audience, he explained, is to understand what that audience expects, and to create content that appeals directly to their desires or expectations. "Every decision we make affects our chance of reaching an audience," he said, noting that a good way to learn what audiences like is to observe what's out there. He specifically looked at EA's Madden and Blitz franchises, and said that while both games are well-made, one obviously far outpaces the other in terms of sales. One primary reason for this divide, Hutchinson speculated, is that Madden is far more relevant to its audience. The game uses real-world players and teams, and allows players to live out specific fantasies about the teams they care about. "No matter how good it might be, the average consumer is going to go for the game with greater relevance," he said. That's why first person shooters tend to find a solid audience, Hutchinson added. From a mechanical standpoint, shooters provide a very close analog to their real-world counterpart. Players inherently understand how to point and shoot, therefore making those games easier to understand and play. "Make sure your design is always relevant. Make games for real people, and ground your mechanics in real world examples, or you risk having to spell everything out for your audience," he said. "If you have to show them new things, introduce them to new concepts, then you have a tougher hill to climb." Another way to make games relevant is to include content that players already know and understand. Historical figures like Leonardo Di Vinci in Assassin's Creed II, for instance, resonated will with players "because he came loaded with meaning for people." Outside of pure design, Hutchinson said that developers need to make sure to maintain strong and immediate communication with their audience. Box arts, advertisements, and even game titles can be excellent tools for communicating information about a game. "Look at Left 4 Dead. I like it because not only does the cover tell you it is about zombies, it tells you how many players it supports in the title." Oddly named games like Infinite Undiscovery, however, don't give enough players enough information to make them care. "It doesn’t mean anything to people. What are you buying?" Developers also need to make sure the games themselves communicate with the player as quickly as possible. Games shouldn't take several hours to get interesting -- players should enjoy them within moments of picking up a controller. "In Assassin's Creed III, within 30 second of putting the disc in the tray you'll be assassinating someone. I promise," Hutchinson said. His final piece of advice was to make sure that a game's universe and premise stays well within the realm of reason. Take the Harry Potter franchise -- it succeeds because it's just about a group of kids going to boarding school, and it just so happens that they're all Wizards. A game like Too Human on the other hand, blends mythology with science fiction, and has no real bearing on real life. Hutchinson speculated the game's illogical premise kept players away. "When it strays too far, it loses the audience," he said. "You need to focus. Know your audience, and know the cognitive leaps your asking of them." As long as developers keep that advice in mind, he said, their games stand a better chance of connecting with players, and therefore moving units.

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