Monday, February 3, 2020

The Contradictions of Game Development in 2020

"It's the easiest time to get into game development." VS "It's the hardest time to get into game development."

It has never been easier to make and self publish a game. There are many powerful engines to choose from, and you can put your game on major online stores like Steam at the click of a button - without needing to convince anyone your game is worthwhile or get through Greenlight. While people still struggle to finish and release a game, that is usually due to lack of time, motivation, and perfectionism (internal struggles), not external hurdles that you need to overcome.

Probably everyone has seen this graph by now...

At the same time, because of this there is a flood of games - over 8k games were released in 2019 on Steam alone! It's easy to say these are mostly low quality games or asset flips and that the "good" games still do well, but far too many of the games that fail were works of passion that simply weren't well tested, polished, didn't find their audience or simply disappeared in the flood of games. The problem is, when so many games are being released every day, people don't even have time to look at them all - they have to assume every game is trash until proven otherwise. Yes - this means even if you spent years making the perfect game and finally released it, the vast majority of people - even those who might love the game if they played it, will skim right past it and not give it a try.

In 2020, the base assumption is that your game is crap - and you need to convince the world otherwise! But how?
This is why you'll hear so many people complaining about marketing or asking how to do marketing. No one believes their game is trash, and everyone is trying to get people to even consider their game.

"A great game will market itself." VS "You need a focused marketing plan in action 2+ months before launch."

Nowadays, word of mouth is everything - with social media, streamers, etc, it's easy for people to spread the word about great games. That is the reason for the argument that a remarkable game will sell itself - people will love it, share it, and momentum will continue to grow even if the launch was lackluster.

One popular you-tube video can easily build momentum months after launch.

On the other hand, many will argue that a game NEEDS at least a few months of a focused marketing campaign before launch - that even the best game will get swept up in the never-ending stream of new game releases without any marketing.

The issue here is that while it is true that word about a remarkable game will spread - this is only true if people know about the game in the first place. If too few players give it a try - their circles of influence will only extend so far. You NEED a remarkable game - something that will get players to talk about it - but you also need players. It doesn't have to be a traditional marketing campaign, but you need a way to build a community and get a large enough seed of players for talk about the game to grow.

I had a lot of success sharing a free web version of my latest game, Aground - over 3 million people played it, and while only a tiny fraction of that bought the game, enough people enjoyed it and joined the discord or talked about it that Aground continues to sell well to this day - over a year since the early access release.

"You need to accept feedback to make a good game." VS "You need a strong vision of your game and stop adding unnecessary features."

Once you've made a few games, you'll come to realize that you're a terrible judge of your own work. You may love it when others hate it, or hate it when others love it - either way, you'll need some unbiased feedback if you want to get a good idea of how the game actually plays to tweak and polish it.

Unfortunately, people suggest what they know, and their feedback will often skew your game to becoming less unique and further from your vision (and, therefore, less remarkable). Additionally, for some reason, people LOVE suggesting new features and can quickly overwhelm you with feature bloat if you accept them all.

My latest game, Aground, has multiple suggestions threads on our subreddit with more feature suggestions than I know what to do with (and I accepted way too many)... 

The key here is that you NEED feedback, but you can't just take every suggestion at face value. You have to try to understand why they suggested it - what were they thinking and feeling? Why do people keep suggesting new features? Could it be because there's not enough to do in the game, or that the main gameplay loop feels repetitive and needs something to break it up? Do they want you to add a traditional health bar just because it's what they're used to, or are they unable to understand your way of managing health - perhaps because of a lack of tutorials?

Playtesters are vital, and are very good at detecting problems... they just tend to be poor at explaining what the problem actually is. And while sometimes their suggestions are great, sometimes they are ineffective as they are trying to solve a deeper problem with the game by just slapping on a new feature.

"People buy what they know they will like." VS "Make something unique and remarkable to stand out of the crowd."

One of the easiest ways to get players to consider your game is to be similar to past games they enjoy. If someone likes Pokemon, and you have a game that appears to be a Pokemon clone, they are likely to check it out. There was a whole study about this which you can read here:

One of the store page evaluations in the above study. It looked like something they would enjoy - in fact it was in a series they had played before - and the tags matched their preferences.

On the other hand, you need something remarkable that will spread via word of mouth if you want to be successful. Is a clone remarkable? Maybe within a community that likes that game, wants more and there isn't a surplus of clones for. But it's certainly not unique or something that will spread beyond that community, and the more similar games that appear - games that might have better art or push the boundaries of that style of game more - the less appealing your game will be relatively.

This is probably where "know your audience" becomes the most important - make something remarkable and unique so that it will continue to spread and grow, but also figure out how to appeal to the audience that will enjoy that unique experience. What genres do they like? How about art styles? Your game must both BE something they enjoy and APPEAR to be something they will enjoy (even at a very cursory level) so that they will try your game and have a desire to talk about your game when they finish it.

"Making games isn't all fun and games." VS "Have fun when making games, and your passion will shine through."

This last one is more of a joke - but there is truth to it. Even now, when making and publishing games is easier than ever - it is still hard. I haven't heard of a single game launch where everything went smoothly - it always takes longer than you expect, and there are always rough patches before you get to the end, and bugs and crises when you do. But, if you aren't enjoying making games, then why are you even making them? Beyond the fact that you might be making bland, soulless things you just hope will sell - you'd probably have a much easier and more successful shot making... almost anything else.

So have fun. Make games. Play games. Navigate the seemingly impossible contradictions of gamedev to struggle your way to success. Or don't - definitely give up and do something easier if you find you're no longer passionate about gamedev and are falling into debt. Here's one last contradiction to mull over:

"Never give up - keep on trying until you succeed!" VS "Fail faster - give up as soon as you realize it will be a failure, learn what you can, and move on."

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