Ian Baverstock is the head of British independent developer Kuju (Battalion Wars 2, Geometry Wars: Galaxies
), which has six studios. He's also the chairman of the British developers trade group TIGI. When he spoke at GDC Lyon, he reminded the attendees that he's a programmer: "My background is not in marketing, even though that is my topic." But, he says, the business of games has matured, and with that he's begun exploring a new role.
Most developers, said Baverstock, have a horrible view of marketing -- "They think it’s evil, slimy, and one of the bad things in life," he said, citing what he calls a general feeling among developers that marketing is deceptive.
"Now, I don't take that view," he said. "Marketing as applied to a developer is very different than applied to a publisher, or a game.”
Baverstock explained how his company's evolution helped change his view -- the company was bought by Eidos in 1995, and was purchased back by the founders to become the independent Kuju Entertainment in 1998. And it wasn't just a name change at that time, as Baverstock explains it was about "trying to figure out what the company's identity was."
“Figure out what market in you’re in," he advised. "It’s not obvious -- certainly not to a lot of game developers.” Once you figure that out, he added, you tell people again and again.
Of developers, Baverstock said he's often found that they have some idea of what they want to do. "But they don’t necessarily understand the business, the market that they’re in.” He advised learning to see yourself from the customer's viewpoint -- and know who your customers really are.
“I think this level of marketing is what developers should be doing," Baverstock said, presenting an point of opposition to the deceitful type.
He continued onto a new theme: “Massive amounts of confusion about publishers.” Said Baverstock, "The real key issue for us is that most games don’t see royalties. I think if most games did see royalties, I think this game would be radically different."
Publishers don't realize they're customers, said Baverstock. They see themselves as partners. The critical success is in the developer's hands, and yet they have no control over sales. "The conclusion that most indie developers that stay in business come to is that the publisher is
the customer," he said.
He explained that the only money you can rely on getting comes from the publisher, similar to most other "production intensive" creative media. "If you’re a western developer, you’re probably looking at one market. That market is North America. It does help, I think, to have a presence in the US, particularly on the West Coast," said Baverstock.
Most people are confused about what the developer gets paid for, continued Baverstock. "It isn’t at all clear. Are you selling an idea, or the ability to execute on it? If you build a game, and it’s not fun, it doesn’t matter if you met the product specifications in your contract. It might get you past the contract, but it won’t get you anywhere in the market.”
Every developer has intangibles, he said -- game quality track record, delivery track record, named "star" developers, and industry relationships. "Which is probably why developers don’t spend much time thinking about marketing… it’s pretty damn confusing," Baverstock added.
He continued, “Ideas are cheap, frankly. There are lots of them around. It’s more about the implementation of them.” Part of the track record are previous game sales. “Sales do matter, particularly for the US, particularly for US publishers.” And contacts are important - a lot of it is who you know.”
He discussed project costs, pointing out that on average, publishers pay $10,000 per man-month. If a developer is paid that average rate for a project, they must naturally find the most inexpensive, junior developers to work on the title.
There’s a better way, said Baverstock: "The 'take it of leave it' model: ‘It costs Y, take it or leave it.’”
But that takes market strength.
A Schizophrenic Market
“It is a people business," he continued. "You can’t get away from the fact that games are made by a small number of people working together.” That requires super project managers, he added, but, "Fortunately, we don’t have to wear ties yet,” he joked.
When delving into the market truths, Baverstock refers to it as a “schizophrenic market," consisting of "customers who don’t think they are customers," people "simultaneously buying a product and a service.”
"Weird people happen to make these games," he said. Some are purely technical, some are purely artistic, or as Baverstock puts it: “From a very mixed group of people.”
According to Baverstock, self awareness is the first step to success. "Once you understand where you sit in the market, and what this model is, then you can begin to develop a strategy. Test it against how the market really works, not how you want it to be. We all know how nasty marketeers are,” Baverstock smiled.
Looking at the market lets you know what you should talk up, and what not to talk about, Baverstock added. “It also helps to tell you how much shouting you need to do. There’s lots of ways of saying what your company stands for.”
Continued Baverstock, “In this cynical industry, it’s hard to talk about your core values without everyone laughing at you. But you have to try, you really have to try. What you end up with at the end is a development studio that’s focused. Saying we make great games isn’t enough. It’s got to be very specific.”