Monday 27 February 2012

Indie Exposure: Making the most of your USP

The articles in this series are featured as guest posts on GamesBrief: The Business of Games

In my previous article I discussed how and why exposure is the major issue facing independent developers. In the next few articles I want to talk about some of the key ways I feel this can be overcome, drawing on my own experience with the Greedy Bankers games on iPhone and iPad.

It can be very easy to see marketing and game development as separate disciplines - that creating an awesome game and drawing in new players are separate tasks requiring separate sets of skills. The reality is that designing your game to be marketable is a key part of development. It's up to you as a designer to identify, develop and promote your unique selling point.

Lessons from Greedy Bankers

Greedy Bankers on the iPhone was very well received by those who played it, but it was hard to get it into the eyes of more established reviewers, or a significant audience. After much experimentation with promotion, I identified a key issue with the game, which was firmly pitched as a casual arcade puzzler. When there's plenty of gem-filled puzzle games on the App Store, some of them with million-strong fanbases, why would you buy Greedy Bankers? My own assertion of its individuality and quality wasn't enough.

With Greedy Bankers vs The World for iPad, I wanted to transform the game and do something special, more recognisable, and clearly different from the experience you could have with other puzzle games. I built up the multiplayer aspect as its focus, with players actively encouraged to steal from each other and cheat to win. As I often pitch it, there's not many multiplayer games on iPad, let alone ones that encourage you to play dirty.

It was much easier to explain the merits of Greedy Bankers vs The World - it was a conversation starter, and generated anecdotes, photo opportunities and good memories among friends. It was very popular at Eurogamer Expo, with players tweeting about it, and coming back multiple times with new friends wanting to show it off. It also made Tap! Magazine's App of the Week, and was selected by podcast Media Pulp as one of their games of the year. At the bottom line, it has sold more units than the iPhone original, despite being more expensive and on a less popular platform.

Be Remarkable

Purple Cow, by Seth Godin, is a brief but detailed book promoting remarkable product design, and well worth a read. One particular sentence stands out as a mantra for game design:

The opposite of "remarkable" is "very good."

This is exactly the issue I came across with Greedy Bankers on iPhone, and tackled with Greedy Bankers vs The World on iPad. I had created a game that lots of people enjoyed, but noone felt excited about recommending. I'd focused on smart design of the game mechanics to create a simple-to-pick-up game that facilitated complex strategising under pressure, and was very happy with what I'd achieved as a designer.

But how do you communicate that as a selling point to players? They'll only have your word to go on that it is as smart as you say it is. How do you announce it to the games press in a way that they'll see potential for an interesting story?

A shining example of remarkable game design is Artemis: a six-player LAN game which simulates the bridge of an Enterprise-like spaceship. Each player manages their own work station just like the Star Trek crew and boldly embark on virtual adventures. Even if it's not your kind of game, you can see how this warrants discussion, especially among into sci-fi and war game fans. It's also easy to see, from the point of view of the games press, that it provides a fascinating story to tell to readers.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean you should ditch a well-designed but unremarkable project. It may be relatively simple to find and expand on a unique selling point. In my own case, I began by taking the best bit of Greedy Bankers (the simplex mechanics) and found a way to make it sing in a way that people could, and would want to talk about (multiplayer and stealing).

Targeting Otaku

Nonetheless, finding a point that people will want to talk about is only part of the battle. Who is going to talk about your game, recommend it or discuss it with other members of their social group? Who is going to be looking for the next big thing and end up finding your game? This is an audience that Seth Godin would refer to as otaku or sneezers, and they are the kind of people who will make your USP pay off.

Tadhg Kelly wrote a superb article on Muggles and Magicals, referring to casual and core gamers, which is a must-read. He argues that casual gamers are not sneezers, and compares the way they approach and talk about games to their core counterparts. Arguably, the mobile games space is predominantly casual (I would argue even core gamers with mobile devices treat it as a casual platform), and won't tend to go looking for the next big thing. It's why a good review on Touch Arcade could have little effect, and why most iOS games are bought almost entirely from the top 20. Casual players tend to gravitate around what's popular and easy to reach.

However, there are niches that will go digging, that do form communities, that do make recommendations, and whose tastes their more casual friends will trust. So a Rock Paper Shotgun piece on a PC RTS could propel it to enthusiast recognition. There's definitely niches in competitive fighters, art-games, board games, retro and indie games. You can also give otaku a developer story or motivation they want to believe in, indeed engage with their communities actively.

Sell it in a Sentence

This is a fairly simple rule of thumb that I firmly believe in. There's two groups of very busy people who want to hear from you but don't have a lot of time to listen: the games press and media, and consumers. If you're sending a press release to games journalists, they probably receive a hundred similar emails every day. They simply don't have time to sit through your email to find the interesting bit. If you can immediately explain what your game is and why it's worth their attention, then they'll be interested in reading the rest for the details. Consumers act in the same way when reading articles and reviews, and your App Store page, by sheer volume of the other options available to them.

Being able to sell your game in a sentence, an image or a second of video is also a good judge of a remarkable design. A simple premise that can conjure up visions of endless possibilities is surely going to have a good viral capacity. If it's a design worth talking about, making it easy to explain can make it a hundred times easier for players and press to recommend it.

Safe is Risky, Risky is Safe

This is one aspect where we indie developers are actually in a fantastic position. We are small in scale, low in budget, and we can take on risky ventures without shareholders getting anxious. In fact, because we can't promote as heavily as better established and better funded studios, being risky is actually a necessity. There's no point in thinking through what would sit well with a typical casual audience, for example, as PopCap is already as good as you could ever hope to be in that respect, and has an established audience to give its products credibility.

To get even casual eyeballs, you need to give them something they have never seen before. You're in bigger danger of not being noticed at all than of having consumers turned away by your product not fitting their taste. If your game simply meets expectations, why would anyone want to talk about it? If your game fits a common mould then it blends in, and will have a terrible time getting spotted.

One final unique selling point…

Of course, there is one asset that is unique to indies and that encourages conversation. It's who we are: our stories and identities as independent developers.

... and that will be the topic for the next article.