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Opinion: Game developers, remember priority #1
Opinion: Game developers, remember priority #1
July 5, 2012 | By Aaron San Filippo

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Raven Software veteran and Flippfly co-founder Aaron San Filippo argues that many game developers have forgotten the most important factor to success.]

I questioned the wisdom of writing this, since as of yet, I've not released a highly successful game as an independent developer since quitting my day job back in April. Forest and I have high hopes for Flippfly, but aside from our moderately successful Monkey Drum Deluxe, there's really not a lot of inherent credibility to my words that comes with having highly successful products to back them up.

But there's a trend of beliefs and focus among some indies that's really kind of discouraging to me.

Namely: I think many have forgotten that the most important factor to success as a game developer is making an excellent game, and started to believe that financial success is either random, or mostly due to factors outside of the game itself.

Now – keep in mind that I said excellent (as opposed to decent, good, or even great) and that when I use that word, I mean: fun, appealing, polished, and accessible (and don't take accessible to mean casual or broadly appealing.)

Recently a tweet from Jon Blow (developer of Braid) made me think on this issue again:
This was in response to a business-centric postmortem about a game that sold 7 copies titled "Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop."

Jon went on to explain: "He made a game that there's no reason for people to want, but acts like he is entitled to have people buy it / press cover it."

Now to be fair, I think Jon's take on this was harsh – I found the article in question to be informative, and as pointed out by Michael Brough, talking about failures is important. The developer acknowledged mistakes, and ultimately showed no regret at having done something he loved and believed in.

My concern is that people seem to have an expectation that their game will do reasonably well as long as they get all their ducks in a row, and if this doesn't happen, often the last thing they focus on is the game itself. Time and again I've seen people reference their 75 percent or so ratings and then go on to talk as if these are "great" reviews and that they just need to get their great game in front of people.

I think this kind of thinking is a big mistake.

Hear me out: it should be a self-evident fact that if you expect to succeed financially, you're going to need lots of eyes on your game, especially if you're charging a couple bucks or less for it. This can happen in a variety of ways, but it mostly boils down to two: either you spend money on marketing, or you make a game that is so good that its quality and value make it impossible to ignore.

You want people to play it, share it, tweet about it, talk about it at work, review it, and feature it, not because of a great icon or an attractive promo video, but because it's unquestionably just that good. You want it to be the game about which people say "you really have to play this!"

You should be able to think of your game like a dry pile of sticks doused in gasoline, that just needs a spark to ignite it.

It's tempting to look at counter-examples: all the good games that somehow get passed over, and all the mediocre games that somehow manage to sell millions.

But in the absence of big marketing dollars, I would argue that:

Mediocre games usually fail.

Good games often fail.

Excellent games rarely fail.

Every other case is just noise.

So am I saying that marketing, PR, great icons, promo videos, a great website, social features, killer screenshots, and personal connections are unimportant?

Of course not!

But if your game is less than excellent, then all this stuff is like trying to push a rock up a hill in today's market. That's not a fulfilling way to spend your life. And the weaker your game is, the more time you're going to spend trying to make all these supporting factors make up for it – a really bad cycle to be in when time is your most precious asset!

What's cool about setting out to make excellent games, is that in addition to taking so much of the randomness out of your success potential, you're going to enjoy a much more fulfilling career!

Now I feel I should make a point to say that sales isn't the only type of success – and there is certainly room for every type of game, as Rami Ismail of Vlambeer points out. It's a big space and not everybody in it is trying to make a living at it.

We actually just submitted a little toy to the app store called "Creepy Eye" – an experiment using face-tracking and the gyroscope that we hadn't seen explored before. Making an artful experiment or a cool diversion is a reward in itself.

But my concern is when people start to feel a sense of entitlement or surprise when these experiments and "pretty good" games don't garner any attention or sales, with sometimes lengthy and publicized business-focused analysis of where their monetization strategy failed, or scary-sounding warnings to other would-be indie developers.

If you want to sell games, and you don't like throwing dice with your financial future, you need to be determined to produce excellence.

So do yourself a favor: take a break from your monetization strategizing, video-editing, press-emailing, buzz-creating, and icon-tuning for a minute, and ask yourself: "Is this game excellent yet?

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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George Kotsiofides
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I couldn't agree with you more, sir. Great article :)

Tiago Costa
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Altough for some reason still unknown to me, I dont like Jonathan Blow nor Notch... I have to agree with Blow this time. I had the same reaction to that article.

I just didnt see a good/excelent game in that game, the reason it flopped was probably because it had little game to start with.

Kudos to him for creating and publishing a game even if it is a bad/average game, but really if you didnt see that flop creeping up on you... you weither:

1. didnt listen to you testers
2. selected the wrong people to test it
3. fell in love with your work so much it you ignored the testing altogether

About this article, I support every word said... Too bad I see little excelence in games these days, indie or AAA, mine included of course.

Michael Rooney
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@"Kudos to him for creating and publishing a game even if it is a bad/average game, but really if you didnt see that flop creeping up on you... you weither:

1. didnt listen to you testers
2. selected the wrong people to test it
3. fell in love with your work so much it you ignored the testing altogether"

His game was the best reviewed mobile game during it's release window. I don't really think it's for me, but I wouldn't go quite as far as you're going.

I also didn't read his article as whining about anything except for the 7 indiecity ltd sales, which is pretty terrible tbh. I'm not sure what else he could have expected, but I'd probably be upset if I sold single digits too.

Tiago Costa
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@Michael Rooney

"His game was the best reviewed mobile game during it's release window. I don't really think it's for me, but I wouldn't go quite as far as you're going."

It says a lot about reviewers doesn't it? All the reviews I found were a bit shallow and full of trying to rate this game better than it deserved.

Now I admit I may have come a bit too harsh on him, but I saw an initial potential in that game but no real lasting gameplay there... it felt gimmicky without any substance for me to play it over the first time. If no one pointed this out for him than any one point above applies.

Once again... kudos to him for publishing a game, I'm sure next game will be amazing.

John Byrd
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This article should be required reading for anyone with less than 10 years experience in the industry.

Despite the social gaming revolution and the cell phone revolution, the basics of creating profitable games haven't changed since 1981.

To make money, it's not enough just to "get a game out there." It is not enough to "monetize," to "F2P", to "freemium," to "gamify," or any combination thereof.

If you ever want to have a hope of making your money back... it HAS to be a Good Game. It HAS to be fun. It HAS to be polished like a friggin' diamond.

Getting a game to run on Facebook is easy. Getting a game on the App Store is easy. Getting a game to run in a web browser is easy.

Relatively speaking, even signing a publisher is easy.

And making a Good Game is very, very hard.

Michael Rooney
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@"fun, appealing, polished, and accessible (and don't take accessible to mean casual or broadly appealing.)"

I feel like 'polished' specifically is something that's taken for granted a lot atm. It's the largest reason I don't play as many mobile games as I otherwise would.

TC Weidner
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umm, last I checked some people like vanilla ice cream, others chocolate, some strawberry. You act as if "excellent" is some sort of tangible variable that can be attained and recognized while you are doing it. Thats a fantasy IMHO.

You simply make something you enjoy, you are proud of, and what comes next, comes next. You cant control it. Listen to some of the greatest success in movies, books, and games, they are constantly surprised by their successes. Rowling and her Harry Potter novel was rejected by dozens of publishers, Lucas and the first Star wars was shut down as it was being made, it would of died if not for one man.

Over and over you find this.

I agree you have to do your best, but you have to hope for the rest.

Corey Cole
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Yes, different people like different flavors. But that's no excuse for mediocrity.

There is vanilla ice cream with a careful balance of flavors, creamy texture, etc. The makers spend a lot of time perfecting that balance. They might need to use more expensive ingredients - natural rather than artificial flavoring, etc. Such an ice cream will always find an audience. Once a few people try it, they will spread the word.

Then there are many ways to make a mediocre vanilla ice cream. The texture might be slushy or crystalline. It might be bitter or sickeningly sweet. It might leave a vaguely unpleasant artificial aftertaste. Some people might like one of these, but it's completely hit-or-miss because the creators did not take the time and effort to develop their skills and craft a great ice cream.

I see arrogance over and over in the game industry and in wannabe game developers. Lots of other places too, for that matter. :-) Vision and belief in oneself are important traits, but there is no place for arrogance in game design. If you can't learn to listen, test your own work, and constantly refine your game, you are unlikely to reach excellence.

I visited one of the Global Game Jam sites a few months ago. Some of the jammers were happy to have me look at their works-in-progress and make suggestions. I'm sure they didn't slavishly treat every suggestion as a command, but I'm also certain they thought about what I had to say and made the changes they thought would improve their games.

Other developers were too busy packing in every possible feature to listen to anyone else, or to really think about whether they were creating an excellent game or a mediocrity. With a little trimming-back of their designs and focus on the most important parts of their games, they could have finished something really fun and exciting. Instead, they ignored feedback and created mediocrities.

Take the time and do the work to be EXCELLENT. Aaron San Filippo gave some great advice, and we should all strive to follow it. Great games take an enormous amount of hard work and a constant process of testing, refinement, and improvement. You can spend that time tweaking camera angles or creating 70 new types of opponents, or you can step back and make sure that the UI is fluid, the story flows, the player has an important role in the story, rewards are appropriate, game play is balanced, and all the other things that take a game from generic, cheap vanilla to a truly excellent French Vanilla.

In general, if you find yourself arguing with advice, and others seem to be benefiting from it, stop arguing. You don't have to agree with everything to be able to find some bits that are valuable to you. People who listen, and who can integrate advice into their worldview, are the ones who will lead, succeed, and create excellent games... or excellence in whatever they do.

Learn and grow.

E Zachary Knight
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Excellent is in the eye of the beholder, but it is also a defining factor of a niche game. If you want to make a business at creating chocolate ice cream, you either have to make excellent chocolate ice cream, or passible mass market ice cream. Anything in between will not bring success.

Same with a game. You either have to make a mass market game that everyone will play, or an excellent niche game. Targeting a niche is not enough. You have to make a game that fans of that niche will love.

Harlan Sumgui
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Star Wars and Harry Potter are [i]not[/i] examples of excellence ensuring success. As far as works of fiction/film, they are quite pedestrian. Their success came from the products becoming cultural phenomena, kind of like the Angry Birds or the Wii. If you want to look to those two mediums for analogies, try Citizen Kane and the original Foundation series.

IMO, excellence ensures success but it does not ensure the same level of success a cultural phenomena does. Shit tonnes more people have seen Star Wars and read Harry Potter than Citizen Kane and the Foundation books. But trying to replicate the success of SW/HP by creating a cultural phenomenon is a fool's errand.

The only almost guaranteed route to success is excellence, but people have to know that success via excellence will not have the same rewards as success via cultural phenomena. But I will take rewards of excellence over the cultural phenomena dice roll any day of the week.

Harlan Sumgui
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@Corey. One of the problems with large teams is that usually each subteam is isolated from the others, and compounding the problem further is that each member of the subteam can become isolated from others in his particular group. Which leads to the phenomena of an individual coder not knowing or caring what the overall project even is. It is more obvious in large scale non-game software development, but the same phenomena applies in game dev.

So you can have a bunch of people doing fantastic work at each individual task, but because they are separate the whole is less than the sum of the parts. So, the most important aspect of creating excellence in a large scale environment is not so much focus grouping, play-testing, and feedback; rather it is in having and organizational genius that can cause a group of people to gel and work together. Unfortunately, those types of people aren't well rewarded in gaming, and leave for greener pastures.

Which is why gaming excellence cannot occur in AAA games. And that is why marketing budgets like EA's are so huge. The only products that need giant marketing pushes are mediocre ones.

TC Weidner
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and you make my point, even though you might not of tried to, Others miss my point entirely, but you nail it. You seem to think Harry Potter and Star wars were not excellent.. Me and millions of others disagree, but thats my point.

You say cultural phenomenon, I say at that point in their careers Lucas and Rowling did excellent work.

so who's right? and thats my point.

TC Weidner
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@ Gary

who said anything about mediocrity? I certainly didn't. My point is you make an ice cream you like and are proud of. Thats ALL you can do. Listen to your inner voice.

Will So
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I think TC is saying, you should just make something to the best of your ability. If it is excellent? That is great. If it is not? You know that you didn't leave anything on the table and you gave it your best shot.

I think it is easy for people from the outside and look at someone's creation that was not successful or was not "excellent" and think "they could have done better." As if these people who is trying to build the games of their dreams decided "Hey, i am only going to go 75% here, and than i will stop trying".

I might be wrong, but I think that is what TC might be trying to say.

It is wrong to say other people's failure is because they did not strive for "excellence". Unless, of course, when you know that is actually the case.

John Rose
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excellent articles make waves. well done!

Muir Freeland
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I agree with this. One of the predominant philosophies that I see with my co-workers always, "Release as many games as humanly possible for as cheaply as possible and hope that you get lucky with one of them." They point to the low success rates of indie games like that somehow justifies this, as if it's simply not safe to spend too much time or money polishing a single product when it could all be undone by random chance.

And I get it! I totally do. Entering this arena is scary as hell, and it's natural to want to protect yourself.

At the same time, that mentality strikes me as giving up before the battle has even begun. If a huge percentage of indie developers are releasing products that they're fully aware are mediocre and if they're releasing more of them as a result, then of course the statistics are going to show a smaller number of success stories: there are simply too many games, and too few of them are worth anyone's time. It's no wonder that only a few succeed.

At the end of the day, there's no amount of marketing spin that can trick people into wasting their time and money. The most genuine solution is simply to make products that don't do that.

Jerek Kimble
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A tad bit off-topic, but people do the same thing with investing with penny stocks when the most successful investors out there research and invest in solid companies.

Hoping one mediocre game takes off is like gambling and when better alternatives are available, like make an excellent game, why gamble?

Lex Allen
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I think there is some luck and randomness though to your success. I released several flash games which didn't get a lot of traffic, but one managed to get over 2,000,000 hits because one big site picked it up and a lot of others copied or something. There wasn't anything particularly good about it, and it definitely wasn't better than some of the others. Even though my games have improved after that, I still get relatively low traffic.

I'm not sure that an excellent game is any guarantee even though it seems like it should be.

Will So
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Anyone who claims luck and randomness had nothing to do with success had luck and randomness that gave them their success. They just chose not to acknowledge it.

Aaron San Filippo
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Thanks for all the great comments!

Just to clarify what I was trying to say a bit:

I agree, there is a level of randomness, no matter the quality of your game. If it were some kind of scatter plot, I think odds of success tend more towards the "guaranteed" side for games that are great though.

I also agree - excellence is subjective. On the other hand, there are games that are objectively mediocre, and objectively flawed. As Corey said, sometimes the developers put the blinders on. This isn't unique to any particular corner of the industry either - I distinctly remember Warren Spector defending the objectively-flawed camera system in Epic Mickey as if it were some kind of extension of his creative expression. It's hard to admit it when you put out a flawed product.

My overall point was: be passionate about your work, and do your best to pursue excellence first. You'll know it when you're there, when you find yourself wanting to play your own game, when others keep asking to play it, when reviewers start asking *you* to look at it, and when the "buzz" that's happening isn't just your mom retweeting you. If you find yourself saying "well, I'm not really happy with it, but I'm sure there is *someone* out there who'll love it" then you're not there yet.

TC Weidner
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If you find yourself saying "well, I'm not really happy with it, but I'm sure there is *someone* out there who'll love it" then you're not there yet.
agree 100%, thanks for the thoughtful article and comments

Nagesh Hinge
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Thanks. Great article!!

Nick Harris
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Get rich. Be independent. Make art.

Pick any two...

Will So
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Great article. Thanks!