It’s always good to take inspiration from other creative mediums, folks. And right now, my kid is a little bit obsessed with Adam Rubin & Daniel Salmieri’s (adorable) story book Dragons Love Tacos.
I thought it might be an excellent starting point to examine why some things break out - and how you can stand out better with your game.
So let’s break this down. What can we learn about Dragons Love Tacos that you can apply to your video game?
- Firstly, make the concept ‘pop’.
Dragons Love Tacos works, as an idea, because the front cover perfectly encapsulates why you might love the book. Dragons are cool. Tacos are yummy. But these things are not - generally - seen together. It’s absurd AND silly.
Now, I fully admit that I’m a big fan of the meme - the concept of a replicating idea. The meme phrase is more often used with wacky Internet pictures or GIFs, but it’s clear that a number of popular video games have memetic ideas.
I’m also aware that Dragons Love Tacos is a book made for four year olds, and not grown men & women. But the point is - the idea ‘pops’. When I look at the cover, I think - yep, this book is going to be fun, and goofy. It passes the two-second ‘immediate reaction’ test.
So that would be a good question for you. Does your game pass the two-second test? If somebody sees the name and a screenshot, do they get a ‘feeling’ - and what is that feeling?
[Fan art purchase-able via HolyHandGrenade.]
Some example of games that I do feel like pass the two-second test in a particularly meme-heavy conceptual way:
- Untitled Goose Game - probably the poster goose for this, recently, of course. But it has the gameplay and stealth mechanics to back it up. Nonetheless - ‘you are an evil goose’ is a clear standout immediate conceptual win.
- Last Man Sitting - from KevKev, who is a conceptual meme machine - he’s now making Pigeon Simulator for Bossa Studios. A bunch of hitmen are sitting in swivel chairs and they move around with the recoil on their shotguns as they try to shoot each other. Works visually, too!
- Speaking Simulator - you have to manually move an alien’s tongue to get him to speak like a human. Think of Edgar in Men In Black, but looking a bit more like Sid Meier for some reason (is that a coincidence?) Silliness and physics/physical manipulation are a particular hallmark of meme-worthy games.
- But beware: high concept may lead to low depth.
So yes, I’m a big fan of using absurdity to your advantage. But I think too much novelty and absurdity, and people may think that your game doesn’t have enough depth.
And in some cases they may be right! Some of the most meme-ish games of yore like You Have To Burn The Rope (Flash player required, folks!) were deliberately tiny for a conceptual reason.
How do you guard against the idea that these types of games can lack replayability? If your idea can be understood and encapsulated in just a couple of seconds, then where’s the tenth hour of gameplay coming from?
Often, a visual idea that is absurd doesn’t twin well with a gameplay idea that is unique and replayable, in other words. (I am a sucker for hook-first things because I get distracted quickly and easily.)
Let’s explore this a little bit more.
Even the games that are memeworthy because they do have differentiated or somehow ‘surprise’ gameplay - for example Frog Fractions (which has a Steam remaster coming soon, yay!) eventually run into replayability issues because you only get the surprise factor…. once.
And in this odd case, you can’t understand the hook in two seconds, because the concept being shown to you is not the 'true’ concept of the game, haha.
(Which is a whole other subgenre of discoverability, the ‘I can’t explain it to you but you really have to play it’ school. This can be a good subgenre to get into, but VERY tricky to get right.)
Anyhow, in Dragons Love Tacos’ defense, dragons loving tacos is not the entire theme & point of the book. There’s a twist involving, well, dangerously spicy salsa - see below.
So, much like Untitled Goose Game has some well thought-out gameplay that makes use of the goose, Dragons Love Tacos has a well-considered plot which fleshes out - at least as much as a children’s book should - the dragon taco universe.
And it’s not solely about being memeworthy. Chris Zukowski has written persuasively about your game’s ‘anchor’ being as or more important than your ‘hook’.
Which is to say, there may be key elements of the genre your potential players identify you with, and you need to have those for players to be reassured enough to buy your game. It’s the ‘solid backing’ to the initial rush of ‘whoa, that sounds really cool’.
There’s also what I might consider a ‘delayed hook’, or perhaps, in record industry parlance, a ‘grower’. So you look at the game’s name and screenshots or video and go ‘huh, you know, this looks sorta neat’.
And then you look for a little bit longer and start to understand that it perhaps has depth, or neat features, or some cute animations, and you start slowly falling in love with it. The delayed hook fades into the anchor. And then…. you buy it!
Instant hook, delayed hook, anchor - why not all three?
So I think we’ve identified three elements here. Instant hook can come out the gate incredibly strongly, but then fall down later on lack of replayability.
Delayed hook - which I often see in ‘oh, this game DOES look really cool after a bit’ titles like Noita - bleeds into anchor & requires that you capture people’s attention for long enough for them to pay attention into the delayed hook.
And then anchor is… the genre and feature underpinnings that give players the implicit permission in their own brains to buy the game. The ‘I know this will be worth the money I pay for it’ backing.
But here’s the bottom line. The sheer amount of games I see coming out which are ‘X genre with decent graphics and no particularly novel themes or hooks’ is - in general - insane. And it generally doesn’t fly in 2020.
I feel like a lot of those games aren’t thinking - at all - about some of these issues. Are you solely relying on your anchors to draw people in? Or are you not fully aware what is ‘hook-y’ or not in your market?
Hooks of any kind are obviously a hideously subjective concept, at least before the game launches. But what do people think when they look at your game the first time? (You can even mock up some logos & screenshots and ask your friends, separately of having your own opinions on it.)
Some of this may start to sound dangerously close to *spits on ground* market research, of course. And I’m not suggesting you can reverse engineer genius. But still, just step back and think about this a bit. And ask some people. People will give you opinions! (Which you can evaluate and filter accordingly.)
And look, in the end - dragons love tacos. But don’t feed them the spicy salsa! It gives them… tummy troubles.
[This piece was originally published as part of the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know Simon from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]