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The Top 10 Mistakes Tool Developers Make

January 31, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Since 1999, I've had the luck to work in the game middleware industry. It's been extremely interesting, but something of a crusade. Why? Probably because game middleware is one of the hardest things to market and sell.

The electronic entertainment industry is a fast maturing sector, especially since the rapid democratization of online games and more recently mobile games on smart phones and tablets. If you're old enough to have been young in the 80s, we're back -- definitely for the good, to an amazing opportunity for talented creative individuals and small teams to create a blockbuster with limited investment.

Quite a few tools and middleware have popped up over the past 10 years to try and build a healthy business out of this booming industry. For example, there was a great opportunity to innovate gameplay by adding real-time physics in the mid-2000s, with the rise of Havok and PhysX (both companies have been acquired, respectively by Intel and NVidia).

There are many more opportunities to come with the ever-growing processing power of the gaming devices, and one of these successful tools could be coming from you. In order to maximize your chances to be successful, here are some easy-to-remember rules that I try to work with when helping other middleware vendors to go to market.

Some of these recommendations may seem obvious to you, but I can tell you many companies aiming to go after this market often forget some of these essential parts.

Mistake Number 1: No Marketing, No Social Network Presence

Whatever you promote and sell online and offline, putting the right marketing strategy in place is absolutely essential -- even if your product is a killer, and you expect it to sell without any type of effort.

There are some easy ways to market your product at low cost; some others are rather more expensive, and require a much higher investment:

A good website. Obvious but essential. The look must be modern, alive, the information easily accessible, the pricing exposed, and in most cases I would recommend online sales.

Social network presence. Your company must have a LinkedIn profile and I recommend Twitter and YouTube accounts, too. Facebook fans are a nice to obtain very casual support, but it's not the main revenue driver at this stage.

PR and communication. You must share your story and successes as much as possible. Blogging and tweeting is a real commitment, but it will improve your reputation and credibility over time, as well as your search engine optimization (SEO). If you can afford it, a PR agency is highly recommended, though you must be very clear with your goals in order to maximize the return on investment.

Be present at tradeshows. The game community is rather small and while people tend to travel less than a few years ago, a few major game events tend to gather most of the people you want to target first, starting with the San Francisco-based Game Developers Conference. Whether or not you are present on the show floor as an exhibitor, make sure you carefully plan your participation in advance, in order to optimize the costs and maximize the impact. Set meetings weeks in advance and prepare your demo material carefully.

One of the things you can do is to be hosted by larger technology providers/exhibitors. They usually offer a package with some marketing exposure and a kiosk against a limited fee of $2,000 to $5,000 if your product is compatible with theirs, and it will save you a great deal of organization to rely on them.

Advertising. This isn't my preferred track, but it can't be ignored. It starts with Google AdWords and goes all the way up to printing advertising in professional magazines. In any case, if you advertise, make absolutely certain you can measure the return on investment (by creating custom URLs, landing pages, promo codes, etc.)

Mistake Number 2: No Easy Access To Evaluation Copies

You have just completed the packaging of your product, following a long discussion with your peers to try and monetize your internal tools and tech. Congratulations! Well, wait -- how are other developers going to take a look at it?

In today's world, not providing an easy access to an evaluation version of your technology, whatever it is, is simply unacceptable. You will have to decide what licensing mechanism to implement, in order to track the usage. Warning: implementing some licensing tools can be very complex and costly. Internal tech is often used at first, but there are a number of products available. For more information about licensing, check this Wikipedia page.

It will require quite some work for another developer to evaluate your middleware, so the evaluation must also contain documentation, samples, and other elements listed on the next page.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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John Byrd
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A great article, and I agree with everything on the list... but I can't believe you left this one out:

Mistake Number 11: No documentation or sample code.

Martin Zimmerman
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I think good examples, good documentation, and access to source code should all go together. There are fewer things more frustrating than samples or documentation that are out of date.. And good examples are critical. I can't count the number of times I have wanted to do something basic, that was glossed over in sample leaving out the critical bit needed to make something actually work. When that happens being able to read the existing source to find out what is going on is critical.

Lars Kokemohr
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My personal pet peeve are samples that use dozens of features instead of showcasing exactly one.
Some middleware developers seem to think that even the most technical demo has to impress the managers and game designers.

Virgile Delporte
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You are totally right, it would have deserved such title -I integrated this into mistake number 2: "no easy access to evaluation copies" but it's not visible enough. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Virgile Delporte
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@Martin: you are right, but to be precise this should be called "sample code", not source code. Delivering full source is something much more difficult to accept for a software vendor. Properly documented and up-to-date sample code is however very useful. In addition, by delivering sample code, you don't upset investors who don't really like a middleware company to deliver source code :)

Martin Zimmerman
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I know it is a difficult proposition for some vendors to accept, but I was definitely referring to actual source code. I consider including what you term "sample code" a given. Each vendor can choose for themselves, but by not including it they are ceding a major competitive advantage to open source products.

Jonathan Jennings
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number 4 is the biggest killer in my experience, if you can't make a decent product with a framework or tool that YOU developed why should I be able too? It doesn't even have to be an extremely elaborate demo but just a solid application of your tool can be the difference between me mentioning it as a valuable tool to my producer or simply cycling onto the next competitors product and putting your product as a potential solution in the back of my mind .

Henrik Strandberg
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I'd add as #11: do NOT sell or promise anything that is not already done, DIDDLY-DONE and in the can. You will spend more time managing your schedule, backlog, priority list and roadmap than writing code, and at the end of the day, everyone will still blame YOU for not delivering on time, and THAT'S why their whole project is slipping. So even if you have a roadmap you feel great about - don't use it in a sales pitch, and don't ask anyone to pay for vaporware.

But yes... key accounts may need customization or branched one-offs - as bullet #8 lists. This brings me to my second DON'T: be wishy-washy. Rather, be super-detailed about exactly what you will deliver, when (=i.e. what time, not just what date), in what shape, to what environment, to meet which specific functional requirements and user stories, etc. Even if it's a royal pain in the ass, you really want to have those discussions up-front. Your customer has a lot of dependencies and especially late in a project, the acceptance level for late "surprises" is, well, low.

Lastly - recognize that everything in this list is the responsibility of one or more dedicated product managers; not your engineering lead, CEO, intern, producer, or bus dev guy (although they all need to support the product managers and vice versa).

Evan Simeone
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This is an excellent list and has value beyond game middleware and tools. The vast majority of these mistakes apply to a broad range of B2B software offerings.

Frank Kane
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Totally agree on most points, but one question - you mention a couple of times that pricing should be simple and transparent. This isn't exactly standard practice; many middle-tier middleware companies require you to contact their sales staff before divulging their pricing. Why do you think having a price list out in the open is important?

Virgile Delporte
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Hi Franck, thanks for bringing up this point, which is a sensitive one. If you put yourself on the other side of the fence as a technology buyer, nothing more frustrating than not knowing how much you may be spending if you decided to go ahead and license middleware or tools. As a buyer, you don't want to have to talk to a sales guy who will try to extort information from you before giving a number you have the feeling he just made up for you. With the explosion of social network platforms, you cannot prevent people to talk these days, and they might start mentioning your price in public -not disclosing relevant information many times. My recommendation is to be transparent -which shows you're easy to do business with. This is another reason why Unity3D was so successful pretty early on. If you don't do it, your competitor will do.