[In this op-ed from the May issue, Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield argues that developers should stop focusing on monitoring metrics and emulating popular games, and instead be successful through interesting titles that are true to their own vision.
A lot of people say that if you want to make a popular game, you need to listen to focus groups, carefully monitor metrics, and focus on the mainstream. I say: bullshit. Scaling small and being true to yourself can win you free marketing and make you rich, if you do it right. Even better, your games will be way more interesting!
Let's look at some examples. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
for iOS is single-player, has a singular aesthetic, and launched at $4.99, which is expensive for the App Store. It was a recipe for commercial failure in a world where the birds are angry, and the top games are free. Still, the game wound up selling 300,000 units in the first 6 months, because the game was absolutely true to its creators' vision. They made it for themselves.
is another easy one. Notch made the game that he wanted to play. Granted, he knew he was making a sandbox for other people to fool around in, but he didn't do any market research first. In making Minecraft for himself, Notch created a massive self-perpetuating hype machine, because when people like your game, with the proliferation of social media, they can't help but talk about it.
Something that resonates with a small group of people will expand to their friends, and then their friends, and eventually to their parents and grandparents, who would never have otherwise thought of playing one of these games.
The reason this works so well is because people want to identify with cool things, and they want other people to think that they're cool for thinking that this "cool thing" is cool. This little corner of the world they've discovered is something they now identify with, and they'll want their friends to like it too. When they share it around, they've already put the weight of their appreciation behind it.
Okay, let's do it
How do you emulate these successes? Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn't emulate the actual products. Instead, pay attention to the thought process that goes into making them, beginning with the initial idea.
There is something that you like more than anyone else you know does. Maybe it's Apple II-era platformers. Maybe it's fractals. Maybe it's dubstep, god forbid. Find it, and dive right into it.
What qualifies as a niche, then? "Sports" is too vague. The Olympics gets a bit closer, but if you take, say, the Hurdle event in isolation, you're starting to get somewhere. Now you need to find a visual or gameplay hook that really appeals to you (and hasn't been done to death).
A good example of this is Qwop
, which was a massively popular Hurdling game for browsers. It had stupidly difficult controls, but was hilarious to watch in action, so people played and talked about it religiously. The game has since gone on to App Store success, and is a great example of a good niche game.
Once you've established your niche and tone of gameplay, determine the targets you want to hit, and never deviate from them. If the mandate is "everything blows up," then make everything blow up, even your UI. Rules like this can help you scale small. Throw out everything that doesn't fit your vision.
You may worry that people won't latch on to your idea. But none of us is unique, as much as we might like to think so. There's almost certainly someone else out there that likes the things you do. If you make a game for yourself, you're also making it for them. Nobody expects you to make a game that targets their weird special interest, so if yours matches theirs, they will sing your praises to the ends of the earth.
Nathan Vella, president of Sword & Sworcery
developer Capy Games said this quite well. He said, "I believe that when you're targeting everyone, you're really targeting no-one. You're not making it for anyone specific, so your target group is no-one."
People can feel when a product is genuine, and there's nothing more genuine than something you've made for yourself. That feeling of "I can't believe someone made this" is what gets you instant success on aggregator communities like Reddit, which are huge drivers of content.
Your method of delivery is important too, though. If your game is hard to find, none of what I just said applies. Consider BloodyCheckers
, which is an Xbox Live Indie Game. Players explore a massive first person dungeon, with loot, items, and experience points, as they battle the denizens of a haunted castle - all by playing a bizarre version of checkers. If this game were on Steam, the creator would be a millionaire. You have to go where the people are.
If you're developing a game for yourself, you can make something smaller for less money and only take a minimal risk. But the payoff can be huge. You might think this doesn't apply to you if you're working on a big team, and you might be partially right. But the principle of digging deep can be applied to one or two features just as nicely. If your open world game has a really deep crafting system, for example, someone out there will play it just for that.
And who says you should be anonymously toiling away on that big, bloated team anyway? If you have an idea, just get out there and make it. So find your passion, see it through, and don't let the bastards get you down. I'm taking my own advice, and I'll live or die by it.