The business behind games development and publishing is evolving at break neck speed. The boundaries of social, casual and core games are blurred and our delivery platforms and players are more accessible and eager to consume than ever. So why is the formula for success still so elusive?
I recently attended the Game Horizon Conference. I’d recommend it. It’s a single track conference so you won’t worry you’re missing something better across the corridor and if you’re into the business of games, the delegates are mostly the sort of people you want to meet.
I had the opportunity to listen to and chat with some of the people leading the charge in games across the board; mobile, social, casual and core. I thought I’d share some of the sentiment around what’s driving the success of games right now.
Subtle innovations are no longer enough, radical differentiation is working. Whereas “me too” products were considered safe, they now struggle to grab the attention of the new gamer who craves a point of difference. Established brands can still side step this. They can iterate and find more success, but the window of opportunity to create a “me too” brand is closing.
Indie games are finding success by being different, quirky or otherwise remarkable. They have the freedom to explore creatively interesting visuals and gameplay. They take the risks. Many get the rewards.
Established core game publishers have no such luxury; they are left following a formula or iterating existing brands. Their rewards are slimming.
Aim For Discoverability
We have publishers in digital games. Amongst other things they take on the traditional role of providing PR and access to far flung territories. A lot of developers use them, but many now say that this is a new market, and PR isn’t in tune with it. Where’s the return?
There’s a consensus that we’re past the point of success being down to a lucky strike. There’s now method behind some of the most successful mobile games. Mostly it’s down to discoverability. Here’s a smattering of advice.
Find out what the store owners are looking for. Getting featured in your territory’s AppStore might not make your fortune but it can kick-start it.
Get the packaging right. Your packaging for a mobile game is the icon, for a Facebook game it’s the thumbnail or ad banner, and so forth. Also the name. People with successes under their belt haven’t left it to chance, they’ve tested their packaging.
Look beyond your normal activites. For a while now social game developers have run ad campaigns on Facebook for games that don’t exist. They AB test the name, icon and theme of the game before they even put it into production. Testing the market like this is nothing new in other industries. It’s just one of a raft of proven methods from outside of games that some of the most progressive developers are bringing into their strategies.
Going viral, in the truest sense, is the way a lot of mobile games are marketing themselves. Developers are making products that players want to show off. They’re considering “Will this game make someone get their phone out in the pub?”. And “Will the kids in the playground be shouting about this?”.
There are big challenges around that. How do you measure the success of that kind of behaviour? How do you even understand it? Measuring intangible activities has been a challenge others have been working on across other markets for a long time.
So what makes a game showoff-able? AAA visuals do it (Infinity Blade), so does a quirky art style (Limbo). Innovating a format for a particular audience (Moshimonsters) or focusing on being first into a niche (My Horse) has worked too. There are plenty of doors still to open.
Something that came up a few times was the concept of casual game “snacking” – providing games that allow players to progress in short bursts, while also delivering a deep and engaging experience through longer term game progression.
Torsten Reil of Natural Motion described it as “making a game that people can play in the time it takes Starbucks to make their coffee”. Here at fish in a bottle we talk about the “dump metric”. Natural Motion are clearly more sophisticated than us, but the principle remains the same.
I was really pleased to hear talk of company culture being an important ingredient in successful products. Recognising that today’s players favour innovative games over derivative games, and that we can learn from marketing strategies outside of our industry’s experience means that those who push their comfort zones the most are finding the biggest success.
Achieving that requires a company culture that instigates and embraces constant change, efficiently identify what works and throwing away what doesn’t.
I hope that collection of thoughts is interesting; certainly they align with a lot of what we’re doing at fish in a bottle.
As a final thought, I will end by quoting Torsten Reil of Natural Motion, “by the time you’ve heard all this, it will be out of date”.
Good luck out there.