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How we at Big Ant were able to succeed with niche sports that no one else wanted to try

If we were to distil our strategy behind developing uncompromising editions of niche sports, there are three core areas that I think have been the secret to our success over the years.

As a genre that features so many blockbuster titles and franchises, from FIFA to PES, MLB to NBA 2K, consumer expectations are incredibly high when it comes to sports games. It doesn’t matter if you’re developing a game for a sport with a relatively tiny following globally, such as Lacrosse, or you’re working on a sport whose primary popularity centres doesn’t include Japan and America (the largest markets for games), such as cricket. Your audience have the same expectations for the game as they would if they were buying a FIFA title.

That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to make compelling games based on these “niche” sports. We’ve been working in the niche sports space for nine years now, and our titles have been well regarded by fans of their respective sports. We’re also able to compete on a presentational and features level; certainly above some other examples of developers working with niche sports.

If we were to distil our strategy behind developing uncompromising editions of niche sports, there are three core areas that I think have been the secret to our success over the years:

 

1) Understand that the core mechanic behind every sport is very simple, and enhance that feature until it is competitive with any sports game on the market, blockbuster or otherwise.

People look at a sports game and they generally see something quite complex, for most sports however, there’s relatively few mechanics that actually drive the majority of the sport. For example, Cricket is really a sport about a single fraction of a moment, where the ball connects with the bat. In making sure that the ball behaves realistically as it comes off the bat; that it flies in the right direction, and that players have a lot of control over that moment (how they swing the bat or throw the ball), we were instantly able to create a Cricket game that we could then build on. In Lacrosse, where the “moment” to focus on is the shooting the ball at the goals, we’ve focused on that at first too.

As long as you get that core “moment” right, the fans will appreciate what you’ve done with their sport, and they’ll then be happy to support it. From that foundation you can then refine the more tangential elements through patches as the community feedback rolls in. With Don Bradman Cricket, for example, our fielding engine needed work, but we were able to work on that because the core game – that moment where ball hits bat – was sound and drew a significant enough audience to justified additional work on the game.

 

2) Understand where costs can be pulled out of the process.

Team and player name licenses is one of the more expensive parts of the development cycle, so we have avoided this, the base game of both Don Bradman Cricket and Casey Powell Lacrosse come with made up names. Conventional wisdom would suggest that this is a bad idea, because the fans simply don’t like that, but by providing comprehensive player and team creation tools, as well as the ability to simply upload these to the Internet (and then have the community rate user created player and team names to enable people to find the best teams easily), our players may develop teams that represent their real-world counterparts or any fantasy team they wish. Also, as it’s very easy to simply download the teams, our audience that don’t want to spend hours messing around in the player creation mode themselves don’t need to do so, either.

Through the development process, look for ways to keep expenditure down, without compromising the quality of the end product. A bit of creative thinking will actually save a lot of money.

 

3) Be active with the community.

The main people that you’re marketing a niche sports game to are, of course, the people who are familiar enough with that sport to be interested in it in the first place. They’re also the ones who are most likely to know the most important mechanical elements of their sport, and what they would like to see those reflected in a video game adaptation of it.

There tend to be online communities around these sports, so becoming an active participant in those communities allows them to become your greatest development ally. Patch your game, based on the feedback they give. To go back to our example in the first point above, with the first release of Don Bradman Cricket on PC and PlayStation 3 we had fielders that were incapable of making mistakes when throwing the ball at the wicket, and thus players would get “run out” too easily and too consistently. This was something the community let us know needed to be fixed as a priority, so we prioritised that and improved on it through active patching in the subsequent months and years. By the time we released Don Bradman Cricket on the PlayStation 4, we had a game that was patched to the point that, in addition to the graphical updates, we were giving fans an entirely different fielding experience.

And with our upcoming Don Bradman Cricket 17 we’ve been able to build on that feedback even further. It does not make commercial sense with niche sports to try to find ways to appeal to casual “non-fans”, it’s only the likes of FIFA that can potentially rope in new or casual football fans when a World Cup is on. Hire passionate, sports-mad, knowledgeable staff and target the most committed fans and really work with them so you can understand their sport better than you did going in. 

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