Sometimes I like to waffle about thoughts in my head. This is one of those times. I hope you enjoy or get something from this...
The first thing I want to make clear is that I do not think that anyone can guarantee success – certainly not me. However, I think there are some things you can do to help you stack the deck in your favor. Just making a good game is not good enough.
Whether it means you have to work your tail off and/or hire exceptional talent, you must go into the development of a game with the intent and resources to produce a game of high quality. This should be in all areas of game development: design, art, programming, audio, and planning. If you skimp on any area, it is going to show and bring down everything else. Set yourself up for success. If you are unsure of the level of quality that you should aim for; look at similar games and analyze the overall production quality as well as the small details. The magic is in the details.
With Mutant Mudds, I felt confident in my ability to handle the design, art, and planning. If I did not, I would have hired someone else to handle it. Matthew Gambrell is a very experienced programmer, and has a natural interest in all things 2D and platformy, which made him a wonderful member of the Muddy Team. I considered writing the music for the game, but I do not have any experience with chip music. I have mainly worked with samples/synth devices to create music, such as the Dementium title tune. Therefore, Troupe Gammage was a perfect candidate to handle this aspect of the game based on his prior experience with chip music as well as being an accomplished musician in his own right.
Some people call this the games’ “hook”. My personal issue with using this term is that it puts undue pressure on the hook being extraordinarily important in comparison to everything else involved in the development of a game. A great game is the sum of its parts – not just the “hook”. Nevertheless, you need something a little different about your game; something that you can explain quickly and easily when someone asks about your game. If you find yourself going into too much detail each time someone asks you about your game, you may have a problem. The unique aspect of your game doesn’t have to be groundbreaking or innovative. It just needs to be different than the other guys’.
Super Meat Boy, for example, offers hard-as-nails gameplay and a somewhat controversial theme. This isn’t to say that the game relies purely on these qualities – Team Meat hit every aspect called out in this blog piece – but at its’ heart, it’s easy to explain what’s cool and different about Super Meat Boy. For fun, determine what’s unique about Braid…
Mutant Mudds is a challenging retro-themed platformer that allows your character to literally jump into the background and foreground, thanks to the awesome 3D capabilities of the 3DS. I’m sure there’s a more elegant way of explaining the game, but you get the idea.
Familiarity vs. Innovation
Don’t get caught up feeling as though your game must be 'completely' different from everyone elses’. Sure, innovation is great. Innovation is important. But, I firmly believe that a healthy dose of familiarity can be equally important in regards to connecting with your audience. Let’s take Dementium, for example. When we announced Dementium: The Ward it was immediately obvious that the game was a survival horror experience viewed from the first-person perspective. If you like these types of games, and want to play one on the DS, the only question remaining is, “Is the game any good?” A quick look at your favorite website(s)' review will give you a good idea of the games’ quality.
If you’re developing a game that offers more new elements than familiar ones, like Pikmin, Pushmo, or Pong, it may take a lot more effort to connect with your audience. It could certainly take more words or imagery due to the fact that it is something never seen or experienced before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of.
Looking at Mutant Mudds, as an example, it obviously offers a heavy dose of the familiarity, but with a 3D twist. This small tweak on the visual presentation and gameplay experience can spark the imagination of the audience and take it from a standard game to a special game. A simple concept can go a long way.
In my mind, value is relative to price. If you’re asking for $40, you need to provide value equal to that of other video game experiences offered for the same price. Not going overboard on content is just as important as providing enough in terms of budget and return on investment. This is a business after all.
Because Mutant Mudds was always intended as an eShop title, I looked at Cave Story, Shantae, and Dark Void Zero for reference in terms of content versus cost. In the end, I felt that Mutant Mudds sat well offering 40 intricately designed, challenging levels for $8.99. In fact, I think it’s a bargain! ;)
The more people who know about your game, the more people can buy it. Assuming your game is in –line with the aforementioned criteria, the next thing to do is get the word out. I have found that contacting the press directly via email, whether they are a website or print magazine, resonates very well with journalists. The majority of games these days are handled by internal PR personnel or PR firms, who contact the press and coordinate previews, interviews, reviews, etc. This has many pros, of course, not least of which is the fact that good PR people do an incredible job of presenting games to the press. It is their full-time job, after all. However, if you’re like me, and don’t have a PR rep or firm to call on, contacting the press directly can have a positive result.
Make sure you send individual and personal emails to each journalist. Nothing says lazy more than a standardized mass email that has obviously been written in such a way that it can be sent to anyone. Take the time to write a quick and personal email to each person. It makes a big difference. The members of the press whom I have met are all great people. They are gamers who want to play great games. You are on the same side. If you have a great game, you should want to contact them and gush about it. When you do, they’ll feel your passion and look forward to getting their hands on your game.
Independent games, with no PR/marketing budget, can benefit from a long campaign to create awareness from word-of-mouth. I first announced Mutant Mudds at E3 2011. Over the course of six to seven months I attempted to keep the momentum going with interviews, carefully chosen screenshots, previews, video trailers, music tracks, and competitions – anything to keep the name out there and keep it fresh. Print magazines have a long lead time, meaning they need assets a month or two before the actual article will hit the street. Nintendo Power is a great magazine, and I felt it was very important to make sure they had a timely preview and review in their mag. We were lucky enough to have a two-page announcement in June, a full-page preview in December, and a full-page review in January. I think working directly, and respectfully, with the fine folks at Nintendo Power really made a difference. When it finally came to the release of the game I also sent out dozens of download codes to reviewers one week before the games’ release to ensure reviews would be on-line on or before the day of release. The PR aspect of the project kept me very busy, but it was well worth the exposure the game received. Awareness of your game cannot be underestimated.
Success can be measured in many different ways. One of the ways of measuring success, which is important to me, is the number of people able and willing to play my game. This does not discount the feeling of success, or accomplishment, from completing the development of a game that you’re proud of. But, for me, I need confirmation from other people to convince me that I am not just high on my own jazz-juice.
With that in mind, I feel that it is important to aim for a large audience. Know where that audience exists. Have a good idea of what that audience may like/dislike. Deciding today that you want to develop a mature first-person shooter for the Wii may not be the best idea. The current state of the market, and where you think it’s going, is very important.
We knew the eShop audience was going to be relatively small at the time we intended to release Mutant Mudds. Being a new market, there’s the added risk of no audience there at all. But, considering Nintendo’s history, it felt like a calculated risk worth taking.
I think it is fair to assume some things about the early-adopter audience who is eager and/or savvy enough to be on the eShop within the first year of the market. A large majority of them will be gaming enthusiasts who want good games and not just games with a Spiderman license attached to them. Chances are, they like Nintendo style games. They might even like retro themed games. These are all just hunches. In some cases, you can obtain historical data with some of this information, which can help you determine whether an audience exists.
In summary, you need to look at many different facets if you want to set yourself up for the potential of success. You can’t rely on just one of the things I listed above. You really need to focus on all of them equally if your goal is to get a great game in the hands of the largest audience possible. I'm sure I have missed out many other important aspects that you should feel free to add in the comments below. :)
Please share your thoughts on this subject. Good luck with your future endeavors.