What’s In A Game?
Game development is an extremely difficult pursuit. There are so many more aspects to the process than found in any of other entertain mediums. In film you take a shot or a frame. In games you develop entire worlds with three sixty-degree environments. In film you have linear plot lines. In games, the user experiences are mostly non-linear and determined by the players in-puts All possibilities need to be considered in the code behaviour from the get go. When you start thinking about every aspect that needs to be considered in an eighty hour plus video game epic, the mind boggles.
Along with resourcing plans, level design, character creation and of course the story - one of the most important things you can do in the game planning process is consider the audience you are making a game for.
That sounds like a sermon from the church of the bleeding obvious but it’s not at all. The game process is a long one. A big triple A game based on a new IP can take up to five years to deliver and involve many hundreds of different people working across multi-disciplined creative and technological roles. A lot can change in five years.
Now before I get ahead of myself, I have to stress that I have never worked as part of a studio team and don’t know that much about Unity, Unreal Engine or C++ development or how best to structure a team. I will leave that up to the fantastic people who have built careers around coding — but that said however, I have sold millions of games over the course of my career. I have sold games that were so easy to sell my grandma could have done it. They were so well known they essentially sold themselves. On the other side of the coin, I have sold games that no one in the world wanted to consider buying. I have sold games that were so far ahead of themselves that there were five machines (not owned by the studio) with a high enough specification to run them. I have sold games as a Publisher. I have sold games as a wholesaler and I have sold games as a retailer.
If I had one thing to contribute to the method of making a video game, it’s the understanding of the process of selling the game and understanding exactly who your customer is.
My personal philosophy when it comes to game publishing and development, or in fact any intellectual property, is that targeting the right customer should be the first priority in the game development process. In my experience it’s a key issue that is often overlooked, and most importantly is that over the game or project development cycle the target audience behaviours can shift.
So to build insurance against these circumstances destroying your projects, it’s important to understand what your target audience is actually doing now. If you’re starting a game development project now, then you’re likely looking at a game window 2024. Your target audience in 2024 will likely need to be 16+. This means that they are now between the ages of 11 to 15 years of age. What are they playing? Most likely they are playing Fortnight, Sports games or some other mobile or PC based game that encourages a PVP gameplay.
How does this impact your future development and what trends will emerge in the coming years that will impact that audience being available for your IP at your future release date?
This may seem like a simple thing, but actually there are many developers and studio projects that targets an audience through the lens of today rather than at the end of the development cycle.
As a publisher I got to see these processes over and over and had many surprising conversations with key studio people that hadn’t considered an audience of the future.
One instance was in 2010, with a world-famous Producer whose games were a household name. He was a Rockstar of the game development world, and we had him in a media tour throughout South East Asia. We had a meeting to kick off his tour, where we walked through the results of his game release. At the end of the presentation we thought we would table an idea we had about smart phone games and mobile games, and how his (or our) IP would translate really well to this platform. He literally laughed off our suggestion telling us in no uncertain terms that “the install base of smart phones is not big enough, and we should stick to sales and marketing”. Needless to say, the game eventually did end up on mobile, but it took another seven years to appear there. By that time the game franchise was now more of a niche title rather than a big triple a marquee title.
If you are making a game today there is some really important information that you have to take on board if you are going to find an audience. You have to consider a whole raft of new things, some that weren’t an issue three years ago.
Firstly, replay ability. One of the large shifts that we have seen over the past few years is that games consumers are just as likely to want to watch someone play through a game than play it themselves. If you release a game that is a single play, linear, level driven, puzzle-based game — you need to expect that players are likely to post play throughs to YouTube and at least fifty percent of your targeted audience will be happy just to watch it. Once the puzzles and the levels are known — the game will likely disappear from the public stream of conscious (we have seen that a few times last year). What you really want to capture in your gameplay is replay ability. There needs to be components of the gameplay that only exist once, and that happens mainly in a PVP arena not a linear game play structure. Gamers in five years will likely look back on linear game play like we look at vinyl collecting. Yes, still interesting — but very niche. The popular game landscape will more likely resemble something like what 12–14-year olds are playing today but on a much larger scale.
Secondly, a game economy. If you were starting build a new IP today, and had ambitions to build a Triple A marquee title across all platforms, you would be wise to consider the buying habits of today’s gamers. I have had the opportunity to pear into some of the world’s largest B2C gaming sites and see the average basket sizes and let me tell you straight up — it isn’t $79.99 or $49.99. These artificial prices that are legacy of a high street gaming world, that no longer dominate the game landscape. If you were starting a Triple A development process today and looking to target users in 2024, you would be targeting a whole lot of users that have predominately known in-game purchases as the way to enjoy sophisticated content and whom even today are only buying one to two full price (legacy model) games per year. A figure that will likely shrink between now and 2024. So if you are looking at how to engage with the end user in a way that makes financial sense for the developer/ publisher then you will need to understand what your potential audience is doing now — they are buying in game content. They are purchasing for both advantage and prestige.
Thirdly, you need to learn to iterate. This goes against the grain of the whole idea of large triple A marquee titles — where you usually have one chance to ship, and one chance only, but again, like pricing, this idea is a real legacy idea that gets less and less attractive every year. Even now we are seeing major patches released at day one that are almost as large as the game code on the disc (which sneaky iteration). If I had to point to a direction that the games industry is going, particularly when it comes to developing new IP, it’s going to be via iterations. We have seen this in the past and we are seeing more and more games are developing in iterations along with audience participation. Whether it be via early access or by open beta access, these iteration releases allow you the option to change tac if you are finding resistance or choke points or focus in on key mechanics that really work and engage your audience. It also allows you to build and iterate on smaller more manageable budgets. There was a time when anything below fifteen million Euro was considered too small to build a triple A game. Iteration affords you the opportunity to build smaller, high quality stages that can be monetised more swiftly and give you the momentum to build your audience the same time as you build your game.
Why I love the games business so much, and this rings true with the entertainment business at large, is that it is completely devoid of any rules. I have covered three key components that I would insist be considered in any development process — but the truth is there is no guarantee that your game can be successful regardless of how much money, time and effort you spend.
So how do you mitigate the risk of investing in game development? Well you can’t completely. There are some great people in the games business that have had some really invaluable experience in all facets of the game development and publishing. The more you integrate their experiences and advice into your game development program — the more you can lessen the risks of failing spectacularly and the more insurance you buy yourself, but still there is no avoiding the risk. Though if your’e truly honest with yourself — its that risk that drew you here in the first place.
The history of the games business is littered with the next big things becoming the next big casualty. Oddly enough, getting it right once is no guarantee to getting it right twice. This is art that utilises technology to execute its vision not science that becomes art. If it was science, then the large publishers would have worked out a formulaic practice that guarantee success long ago. As they say in the games business, show me someone that can guarantee you a hit, and I will show you a scam.