13 min read

The 10 Minutes Game Sales Potential Test

For today's exclusive Gamasutra feature, programmer and designer Pierre-Alexandre Garneau presents his ten-minute test any developer can use to evaluate the marketability of their game, and illustrates its use with test results for Grand Theft Auto 3 and Psychonauts.

Everybody in the gaming industry has a great idea for a game. The desire to see that idea become a reality is what brought many of us to this industry. Sadly, the quality of this idea – or even of the game itself – isn’t enough to guarantee a commercial success: critically acclaimed games like Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil have sold far fewer sales than they deserved.

How can you tell if a game has the potential to become a huge hit based only on its design? Marketing executives at major publishers have sophisticated tools to evaluate that kind of things, but you don’t need all that complexity to find the potential of your idea. With just a few questions, you can evaluate the marketability of your game. I compiled these questions in a simple test that you can use in 10 minutes.

The test assumes that the game is good – if it’s bad, chances are it won’t sell no matter how high it scores on this test. Many factors affect the success of a game beyond the marketability of the initial concept. This test will give you a rough idea whether a project is worth pursuing or not, but it doesn’t replace market research and focus groups.

The Test

  1. Is the Game Distinctive?

    1. Does it stand out viscerally?

    2. Does the gameplay stand out?

    3. Does it involve the player socially in a unique way?

  2. Can the Game Reach a Large Market?

    1. Is the idea behind the game easy to communicate?

    2. Is the game based on something the market already knows and loves?

    3. Is the target market large?

That’s it. The more questions you answer “Yes” to, the easier your game will be to sell.

The two big questions to ask yourself are whether your game will stand out from the crowd and whether it’ll be able to reach a large audience.

If your game isn’t distinctive enough, it won’t stand out from your competitors. It would be hard to sell a new World War II FPS with no unique features these days because there are so many on the market. It could be a great game, but few players would notice it since their attention is split among other similar titles. If your title stands out, players will give it more attention and are more likely to purchase it.

The reason for the second big question is obvious: if your game can’t reach a big market, it won’t sell much. There are two parts to this: to target a big market and to successfully reach it. If the market is small, you’ll have few sales even if the game is perfectly suited to it. On the other hand, if the target market is huge, but nobody understands or likes what your game is about, nobody will buy it.

Let’s look at each sub-question in more details. They’re the key to answering the big questions with a resounding “Yes!”

Does the Game Stand Out Viscerally?

When people look at a 30 seconds trailer of your game, is their reaction “Wow! This is cool!”? If so, congratulations, your game stands out viscerally.

This question is all about gut reaction: if people have an immediate positive reaction when they see the game, they’ll want to know more and they’ll want to play it. This factor is very important because it’s easy to show in advertisements. Deep and subtle gameplay is a great thing to have, but it’s a lot harder to convey in a short trailer than awesome graphics.

Indeed, awe-inspiring graphics are one of the most popular ways to make games stand out viscerally. Gears of War owes much of its success to this. Problem is, everybody is trying to have great graphics, so you need great technology, great artists and a big budget to be distinctive this way.

Capcom's Okami

Good news is, there are other ways to stand out viscerally. Okami did it with its unique visual style, Nintendogs did it with cute puppies and Burnout did it with over-the-top car crashes. If you don’t have the greatest graphics on the market, be creative and find another way to give players a positive gut reaction when they see your game.

Does the Gameplay Stand Out?

Once gamers have their hands on the game and the initial visceral reaction ends, you need to give them a unique experience worth talking about. Unique gameplay is what makes a game stand out fundamentally from the others.

While it’s harder to communicate gameplay in non-interactive ads, this factor becomes very important once a demo is released and when the game is sent to reviewers. If your game is just a clone of other games, it’s not likely to make players enthusiastic about it. Enthusiastic gamers are more likely to purchase the full version of the game and they’re more likely to evangelize the game to people they know.

Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth marketing. With the popularity of blogs, a few enthusiastic comments can reach a lot of people. The buzz around the Wii comes in large part from players passionate about the unique controller talking a lot about it.

Players don’t become passionate about ordinary gameplay. If you want passionate players who’ll rave about your game, you need gameplay that stands out.

Is the Game Unique Socially?

Another great way to create buzz around your game is to involve players in a community. If your game doesn’t promote activities going beyond the game itself and make players reach out to other players, you’re missing on a whole level of word-of-mouth generation.

Pokémon is the best example of this, with more than 140 million copies sold. The marketing genius behind these games is to make players trade creatures with their friends. It created a strong network of people trading with each other, and it also made players try to convince their friends to get the game so they’d have more people to trade with.

MMORPGs are another great example of the positive effect that involving your players socially can have. The passionate members of those games’ communities can be very vocal about the game. They also tend to recruit their friends because they want to play with them.

Being distinctive in this aspect is very important because people don’t talk much about the ordinary. When mods were new, there was a lot of buzz around the games allowing them. Now that they’ve become common, the buzz surrounding those games has dropped substantially. Finding a unique way to involve players socially will help to build buzz.

Is the Idea Behind the Game Easy to Communicate?

Can players explain quickly, easily and in a convincing way why your game is awesome? Can the marketing team? If the high concept of the game is hard to communicate, then you’ll have a hard time convincing players that it’s worth their time.

Peter Molyneux understands this principle very well. The ideas behind his games are strong and simple. Take Black & White: a god game in which you can be the good or the evil god. It’s simple and it’s effective. Another good example is Project Gotham Racing: “It’s not how fast you drive, it’s how you drive fast.” That motto explained the points-for-style system perfectly.

Bizarre Creation's Project Gotham Racing 3

There are many games on the market and many pieces of news about those many games. If you can’t communicate very quickly why your game is worth the interest of the public, the public will just move to the next news story and ignore your game. If players can’t easily tell their friends why your game is cool, they won’t.

In fact, a concept that’s hard to explain may not become a game at all. If you can’t explain the idea behind the game clearly, chances are management or publishers won’t choose that project because they don’t understand it. No matter how good your game idea is, if you can’t communicate what makes it good in a simple and compelling way, it won’t become a success.

Is the Game Based on Something the Market Already Knows and Loves?

Put in other words, will the market “get it” quickly? It’s a lot easier to convince people that a game is good if it’s related to something they already like.

A very popular way of answering “yes” to this question is to base the game on a popular franchise. For example, a popular movie’s fans are more likely to be interested in the game based on it. Same with sequels: if you liked a game, chances are you’ll also like the sequel.

Attaching a popular brand to a game makes it easier to sell, because the game rides on the brand’s popularity. Brands go beyond popular franchises – successful game studios (like Blizzard) and even successful individuals (like Sid Meier) have become powerful brands by themselves. Be sure to get a brand appropriate to games, however: Marc Ecko may be a popular fashion designer, but his name on the box wasn’t enough to make Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure a hit.

You can answer this question positively even if your game is for an original title with no established brand attached. If the game is related to something popular among your target market, it’ll help get them interested in the game. For example, pirates are popular these days because of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. If you make a game about pirates, you’ll indirectly appeal to those movies’ fans.

In short, the fewer obstacles you put in the player’s path to liking the game, the better. Linking the game to something the player already likes is a very good way to achieve this. What’s more, using the right brand can catch his interest in the first place.

Is the Target Market Large?

If you target a very large market with a superior game, you’re bound to sell more than if you target a small one. Is your game concept tailored to please a large group of people?

This question is tied to the previous one, because the people who “get” the game become your market. It’s not the only factor however; many factors affect how large your market is. If you make a very complicated game while trying to reach casual game players, you’re limiting the people you can reach, for example.

A medium-sized market that you can reach very effectively can be better than a huge market that you can’t reach well. Finding a good niche for your game can make your job easier: it’s often better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. Make sure to always target a market large enough to be profitable, however.

Some large markets are still left nearly untouched by gaming. That’s what made The Sims so popular: hardcore players didn’t understand why a game about real life could be exciting, but for a lot of people that was more interesting than blasting aliens invading the earth. By making sure your game fits the taste of a large number of people, you increase its sales potential.

Anatomy of a Mega Hit: Grand Theft Auto 3

Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto 3

Now that we’ve covered the questions of the test, let’s see how they apply to a mega-hit: Grand Theft Auto 3.

  • Does GTA stand out viscerally? Definitely. You can seemingly go everywhere, do anything and playing a gangster was new at the time.

  • Does GTA’s gameplay stand out? Yes, its open-ended gameplay was among the first of its type.

  • Does GTA involve the player socially in a unique way? Not directly, but it’s a lot of fun to tell your friends the crazy way you found to get through a mission.

  • Is the idea behind GTA easy to communicate? Absolutely: “You’re a gangster doing missions for the mob, stealing cars and doing whatever you want in the city.”

  • Is GTA based on something the market already knows and loves? Not only was GTA3 the sequel to the previous Grand Theft Auto games, it’s also set in the popular gangster culture.

  • Is the target market for GTA large? History showed it was the case, which is unsurprising considering it’s based on a popular theme.

Besides the social aspect, Grand Theft Auto 3 does very well in every other category. Even in the social aspect, it’s better than most single player games. With such a high score, it’s no surprise Grand Theft Auto became such a phenomenon.

Anatomy of a Commercial Miss: Psychonauts

Double Fine's Psychonauts

I love Psychonauts. It’s one of the best Xbox games I’ve played – one of the best games for any platform in fact. That’s why it’s so painful to see how unsuccessful it was commercially. Let’s see if this test could have helped anticipate trouble.

  • Does Psychonauts stand out viscerally? Yes. The unique visual style and the humor help make this game stand apart.

  • Does Psychonaut’s gameplay stand out? Probably not enough – the core of the gameplay is pretty standard platforming action, even with unique levels.

  • Does Psychonauts involve the player socially in a unique way? Not really, there’s nothing to make players want to become active members of a community about it.

  • Is the idea behind Psychonauts easy to communicate? No, and it’s probably the game’s biggest problem. “It’s a platform game in which you’re psychic kid exploring people’s minds” – it’s hard to understand why that’s cool unless you’ve already played the game.

  • Is Psychonauts based on something the market already knows and loves? No. Kids at psychic camp exploring surreal representation of people’s mind just hasn’t become mainstream yet.

  • Is the target market for Psychonauts large? While a lot of people like platformers, how many of those are interested in surreal experiences involving psychic kids? The market was limited by the strange theme.

While Psychonauts’ gameplay is very solid, it lacks most factors that would make easy to sell. The result: a great game that didn’t get the sales it deserved.

What About Creativity?

There is a lot of money going into making games and the people with money want to see profits, ideally large amounts of it. If original games are created without an eye to achieving large sales, investing in those projects will be risky. If investing in original titles becomes riskier, the people with money will prefer to invest in safer, less creative projects. If that happens – and it seems to be happening right now – creativity suffers.

I hope this test will help find the creative game ideas that have the best sales potential, so that costly mistakes can be avoided. A rising tide lifts all ships: the fewer mistakes we make, the stronger the industry will become.

If you have any questions or comments about this test, don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]

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