Hey guys, I recently attended a conference about the video game industry: the Gaming SDForum. During the conference I had the chance to hear the inside scoop from a lot of industry professionals. I left with 6 major takeaways that I think can help every game developer.
1. Make your game fun!
This was opening speaker, Bernie Stolar's, main point. This sounds like an obvious one. After all, a game is intended to be a mechanism for delivering entertainment. However, as barriers to entry into the gaming industry continue to drop, Mr. Stolar has observed the market becoming over-saturated with sub-par content (actually he used the word "crap" ). The key to survival, is developing a product that's more fun than what the rest of the crowd is making.
I had the good fortune to be able to tell Mr. Stolar about Wolfire's policy of openness with its fans. He agreed with me that accepting and responding to fan feedback during the development process is a good way to help you stay on the path to crafting a fun game.
2. Make your game social!
So now youve thought hard about how to create fun and you've come up with a great structure for your game. Wouldn't it be even more fun to incorporate chatting with friends, battling strangers, bragging about achievements, and showing off custom user-made items? Current market trends say YES! Do everything you can to foster a sense of community within your game.
FUN GAME + ONLINE COMMUNITY = VERY FUN GAME
3. Physical distribution is losing to online distribution, plan accordingly!
Now that almost everyone with a computer also has a broadband internet connection, online distribution is on the rise.
Consumers like it: Ever gone to the local GameStop and found out the store was closed or that the new game you wanted was out of stock? Well that never happens online. With online distribution consumers never have to leave the comfort of home to access their entertainment.
Game Developers like it: Online distribution does not involve manufacturing costs, transportation costs or renting shelf space from Best Buy so profit margins from online sales are much better. The best case scenario for game developers is distributing through their own site which gives them 100% of the profits.
Make friends with online distributors (thank you Steam) and try to streamline the purchasing process on your site. Realistically, only the big boys can still make good profits off traditional retail at this point with what Dan Winters of Activision called the "home run" model (very few highly developed and highly promoted products).
4. Consider All Your Monetization Options!
The hard truth is that if you want to be a full time games developer, your games have to earn you enough money to pay the bills. After listening to a discussion among representatives of Double Fusion, Echovox, Playspan, Offerpal and Twofish it is clear to me that we are in a new era of game monetization methods (but not all of them necessarily work for us indie game devs).
In-Game Advertising: Unless you have millions of users, you will not be able to convince many people to buy your in-game advertising space. Also, if your ads dont fit well with your game, your gamers experience may be negatively impacted. Be careful with this one.
Subscriptions: Only mainstream MMOs can really pull off a subscription model (like WoW).
Micropayments: Look at what iTunes has done with music. Instead of having to commit to buying full albums, we can now snipe our favorite songs for just 99 cents a piece. Some games are now starting to successfully incorporate micropayments for items, levels, episodes and upgrades.
The Freemium Model: The freemium approach is a secret weapon that can complement all of the monetization methods above. The freemium model is comprised of both free and premium (paying) users. The freemium approach encourages a lot of people to try the game for free (pumping up your user base, thus "adding fun" and increasing the value of your advertising space). Then if premium users are walking around sporting upgrades and special paid-for content, free users may transform into subscribers or make micropayments for better stuff.
Theres nothing necessarily wrong with the old model of selling a game for a fixed price but its important to know that new monetization options are out there. The trick is figuring out what kind of game youre trying to make and what payment system is likely to work best for you.
5. Know The Endgame (according to Lars)
Lars Buttler, CEO of Trion gave the closing speech at the SDForum. His prophecy described a world where gaming platforms are no longer consumer-owned hardware. The gaming platform of the future will be comprised of a server and your internet connection to that server. The device sitting in your house will be just the physical UI you need to interact with the game.
Buttler said WoW is the first step. You take a solid genre, in the case of WoW an RPG, and then make it an MMO. However, WoW is still a static framework with dynamic players bouncing around inside of it. Lars says the endgame (pun intended) is "server based games" where the whole world is perfectly dynamic and determined by every action of every user. Lars believes there are still short-term holes in the market where other tried and true genres (FPS, Sports, RTS, etc.) can be made into MMO's.
I think this prophecy is credible especially with respect to the mainstream gaming industry. How will this affect tiny indie developers like us? Only time will tell for sure. Hopefully, as long as indie game devs remain agile and courageous enough to innovate beyond the status quo set by the mainstream industry , we will have a chance to carve out niches where we can survive.
6. Where There's A Will, There's A Way
I had a chance to speak with Professor Zyda after his speech about the USC Gamepipe Laboratory curriculum. Professor Zyda is the same guy who served as development director for the US goverment's game America's Army. I asked him what his major advice was for small indie developers like Wolfire. He said simply "Make games that you are passionate about". If you are prepared to pour your heart and soul into a project, working long hours everyday, this will be reflected by the quality of your game. I guess there's still hope for us hard-working indies (just look at World of Goo)!