So they spent a million buckazoids doing a game that has it all: motion capture, voice actors, the latest unreal engine license (or something of their own), teams strategically scattered all over the world and even coffee mugs with their logo on. Amazing. That's today's game industry. But what happens when you go to their websites? They suck. Every single one of them. I haven't found one good example of a well designed game website: and when I say well designed I'm not talking about colors or images, no... I'm talking about crappy designs that makes them lose money with each visit. You can't possible think someone will order a game through one of those sites. All you end up thinking is why, oh God why game developers have crappy websites?!
That's good for us indies. It means opportunity. Those big fishes are too busy sending pancakes to someone at IGN to notice us coming from behind. This is our chance. Read on and learn why game developers have crappy websites and what can you do as an indie game developer to take advantage of this situation.
Why are they losing money?
The short answer: because they don't know any better. Most game companies usually have someone who work the marketing campaigns. This person is well-intentioned and all she/he wants to do is get the game on the stores. In today's market there's a ton of work to be done in terms of marketing: you have to talk to the press, send emails, see publishers, coordinate the marketing strategy at the offline stores, do events, presentations, manage several social network accounts, etc. It's a tough racket. They have their plate full and I don't blame them when they turn around to one of the programmers for help when they have to make the game's website.
So in most cases (not all, but in most cases) the programmer ends up doing something he/she isn't ready for. Besides, programmers have their plate full too (and it's one hell of a plate to fill let me tell you). So they end up bringing one of the artists into the equation, so "it looks good". Now we have three people who don't know nothing about (and they don't have to) web design and online marketing doing something they aren't ready for. Guess what, on top of this "little new responsibility", they also have to finish their own jobs. Marketers have to market the game, programmers have to code (a lot) and artists have to blow minds with their art.
And so, the ugly website from hell that doesn't sells shit is born.
Are really losing money?
Of course they are. Sure, you look at it from what I call the "ubisoft perspective". Quick question: what does the Ubisoft website looks like? And their shopping cart? Don't look, just answer. No? Okay, now how the TellTale website looks like? Got it? See? You have probably bought one of their games through their website or steam, and if not, answer this: what does CYPHER website looks like? Of course, you are here so you know, and yet, you don't have a clue what Ubisoft (one of the biggest --if not the biggest-- game companies on this side of the milky) website looks like. That says something right there, but let's move on. Say you know what the ubisoft website looks like. Now answer this:
How many games have you bought through ubisoft.com? And through gog.com? And through Steam? Now you know.
EA was the one to realize they were not doing as good as they should have on the internet. Good for them. Despite all their offline marketing, events, press contacts and booth babes, they made a wise move: they chose to invest some of that hard earned money online and created ORIGIN, the first Steam direct (haha) competitor.
How Many Sales are They Losing?
I blame traditional publishers. Game developers are too busy doing what they do best: games. It has always been the job of game publishers to push the market to a better tomorrow by improving what we had and solving mistakes along the way. Somewhere in that long journey, they forgot the riddle of steel. They dropped the ball gentlemen. Admit it. You don't know what the hell the web is for. So how many sales you ask? Enough for Valve to create Steam. Enough for CDProjekt to create GOG. Enough for GamersGate to show up at the party. Enough for Desura and the AppStore to make a move of their own.
Enough for them to lose the entire market. Yes offline games still sells, but not as much as it used to; no one can denny this awful truth. It is actually funny if you think about it: through the whole wide world, online sales are on top of game developers sales and yet, those same game developers are losing more and more sales through their own websites (or not making one at all). Here's the opportunity for freedom and what do they do? They go with publishers again. This time, online publishers.
I'm not saying they don't need to go with online stores. I'm saying they should be also creating their own. The folks of HumbleBundle understood this early on and now look at how well they are doing.
Each visit can be a sale. Each sale, is a player. Now we had a small advantage with our game CYPHER, I won't deny it. I've been working in web design and development for the last +10 years, so I knew exactly what had to be done with our website.
CYPHER vs Steam vs GOG
When we launched CYPHER some people thought we were crazy. Not only because CYPHER was the first commercial text adventure to see the light since the Infocom guys went to Valhalla, but because the website was "difficult to browse". Some even went as far as to call it "a mess". The truth is, CYPHER website was a labor of the mind, carefully calculated pixel by pixel to meet only one criteria: sell to a certain group of gamers.
The old 1980 advertisements from game magazines were the visual inspiration for the website. We wanted to take gamers who lived through that wonderful era back to the years where you actually HAD a damn minute to read. Today's gamers want to click click click click! Madness! Let me click! Where's the buy button! I want to click! naw! naw! meme cat! meme cat!.
Well, its not like that for everyone. Our target was the guy/gal who had played text adventures back in the 80's and has collections after colletions of beautiful game magazines laying somewhere on his/her attic. The people who still keeps their VCR: that's the people the website is aimed for. The design is a gift from us, to all those hardcore retro enthusiasts. And boy... it worked amazingly well.
This is what the order page looks like. I bet you used to do this when you were a kid too: spread all the goodies on the floor and the game in the middle. That's why we made it look like this.
Our target audience is special: they are the patient kind, so we give them a little present for their patience. Those who were patient enough to wait at the top of the page were greeted by a giant blimp crossing the skies of NeoSushi. You know the movie.
Many asked us why we put the "buy now" button at the bottom of the page since (apparently) goes against all good practices of web design. People don't scroll pages. They hate scrolling pages. They get violent. They get mad, they throw stuff at the screen. Then why? Because there are no rules in web design, that's why. What works for a target market, doesn't work for another. While some people requires to have a big ass button throw at the center of the screen with the exact amount they will be paying and a big "click here TO BUY NAW! NAW!" text underneath, others demand to know WHY they need to order your game first.
With CYPHER's website, we aimed to engage those players. Simple as that. The website was a success, we didn't hit Steam or GoG (although we tried) but it made no difference to us: the sales went through the roof. I'm not going to share how much we sold, because that's ninja-top-secret, but I'm going to tell you this: we sold enough so we can make another game this year and Carlos can finally buy his gold teeth.
Bottom line: the website worked for us ONLY because there was a plan behind it; there was market research, there was UI design and there were usability practices in use: all that was put together into one fine package that impressed the right people and brought more sales to us.
How can YOU take advantage of this information
Indie game developers should think twice before making a website. They shouldn't just drop some HTML files and get on with it. Specially indie devs. You should do market research first. Who is going to read your page? Everyone. But who is more likely to buy from you? That's your market. You can do a one-fit-all on webdesign. No when it comes down to sell a product or service. You need to target an audience and you need to target it right. You screw up your website, the whole operation goes down.
You are looking at zero sales a month here. Ubisoft/EA can handle that. They don't sell through their website, they don't care. They have the floor of some local event fill with babes dancing half naked and I applaud them; because when you get the kind of money those guys have it gets THAT easy to sell a game. Throw some geek-star into the equation and you get yourself all the attention news outlets can offer.
But we aren't talking about news outlets here. We are talking about sales through your website. People buying your game, which ultimately, is all that matters to you. Let the IGF star of the month keep the fame: you want sales, and the only way to do that without getting naked and dancing at the PAX floor is having a web site that sells your game.
Now you know why game developers have crappy websites and why they are losing sales.
One last thing: what we learned from CYPHER
At the end of the day, our website was up to the challenge and it worked amazingly well for us engaging a specific audience AND newcomers, but we made a fatal flaw: we didn't provided the press with a simpler version or what marketers like to call "a press kit". Stay tuned for the next post, I'll show you how to make the perfect press kit... and will throw in a little surprise too.
If you found this post useful, go check my profile for my every-day blog: IndieLife. Cheers and keep sharing Gamasutra articles with your indie friends!