Dev Update #5 – Releasing a Game is like playing the Lottery

The above statement might be bold, but I am going with it. Let me explain why.

Even with the best production values, you can hit bad luck and your game simply doesn’t perform well. At the same time, a game that plays more like a bug than a game gets featured in every magazine. Just look at the goat simulator. One could argue that it is the novelty factor that makes the difference. And while that is true to some extent, I am sure there are plenty of games with unique and novel gameplay out there that no one has ever heard of. Why are they not equally successful?

An angry man yells that the game "Sliced Bread 2014" is vile, despicable, racist and kills puppies. The text below him reads: "If People Hate Your Game Enough, They Will Do The Marketing For You".

You can get lucky and your game hits a nerve, or caters to a niche that happens to be ‘in’ right now. Maybe a journalist has an empty space to fill in a magazine and your game falls into his hands at the right moment in time. Maybe your game happens to come out when some other unpredictable but thematically matching major news event hits and acts like free marketing for your game. Or someone will randomly feel provoked by your game and start a big controversy about it (again, free marketing).

Neither of these events can be predicted or planned. There simply is a random element in the process that cannot be denied. That doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do about it.

Releasing a Game is like playing the Lottery… but you are allowed to improve your odds!
There is a random element in the process of releasing a game. But how big that random element is, is another matter entirely! You certainly can improve your odds in several ways. Disclaimer: This is not a complete list in any way, this is not an article about marketing strategy.

  1. Be as bug free as possible
    This one is self-explanatory I hope. Nothing wil turn people away from your game faster than bugs. Bigger studios have their own Quality Assurance departments, that do nothing but test a game for bugs all day long.
  2. Have high production values
    This one is more complicated, as it essentially has two levels. In the basic level this means your game should be complete and tested. I don’t mean tested for bugs, but for gameplay. Is your game fun? Does everything make sense? Are all features in? Is the UI easy to use? This type of testing is best done with people that have never played your game before, and this is called “Focus Testing”.
    On the second level high production values means high quality in everything else in your game, most prominently graphics and sound. High Quality doesn’t necessarily always translate to expensive. For example say your game has a sound effect with scratches and compression artifacts playing every time your click a button. It will annoy the heck out of people. Essentially, file off the rough edges if you can, and make your game more polished.
  3. Put some money into marketing
    It’s no secret that marketing is important. I listed it as number 3 on this list, but that is more ideology than truth. In reality, this one might be even more important than the other two. Everybody knows, even if a game is bad, it can still make a fortune with the right marketing. I heard rumors that publishers actually have internal guidelines to tell them when it makes more sense to pump the money into marketing for a mediocre game, rather than use the money on development and trying to make the game better. I have no idea whether there is any truth to that, but from a business standpoint, it would make a lot of sense. It’s the bottom line that counts.

Why does this matter to Game Tower?
These concepts should be applied to my virtual game studio as well. I mentioned in an earlier post that I strongly dislike the idea of the player choosing game genre and type, because it is such a poor way to predict a game’s actual success on the market. Even if it wasn’t, Game Tower is supposed to be about the management aspect of game production, not about designing games. So I needed another way to determine how successful a released game would be.

I chose to copy reality and actually made it a game of chance! Not a lottery, but a slot machine to be exact. At game release, the player will play a one-armed bandit with three categories: Reviews, Bugs and Pirating

A slot machine with three barrels. One for reviews, one for bugs and one for pirated game copies.

Note: This image is just a mockup graphic!

The game is a normal one-armed bandit slot machine. All three drums will roll and the player can hit a button to make them stop individually. Depending on what symbol the drum stopped at, your game will receive a bonus or a penalty. If you manage to get a heart in the review category for example, the reviewers will love your game more than usual and this will boost your game’s sales.

To really stick close to reality, the odds can be improved in my little virtual world as well. The thing about the slot machine is that the player can build floors, such as Focus Testing and Quality Assurance, that change how many hearts or skulls are on each of the drums of the machine. Releasing a game that is unfinished will increase the number of skulls on the Bugs drum. On the other hand, running a game through QA will add another heart on it.

Slot Machine from the game Super Mario Brothers 3. You could win extra lives and powerups by playing.

What I especially like about this solution is the fact that the user will trigger the slot machine himself. Technically, with some skill and good timing, that could improve his odds further. Do you remember this mini game from Mario Bros 3? With the right timing, you could get extra items. Timing is important for a game release too, after all 🙂 (OK, I might be stretching this analogy a bit thin at this point.)

Johnny Depp in a pirate costume explains that he is, in fact, a pirate. If there was ever any doubt.

I am not sure how much pirating would really influence the revenue. A game has to be somewhat successful to be pirated in the first place. DRM methods have proven mostly ineffective, and the question of how many people would actually buy the game if they couldn’t pirate it, will probably never be answered. At this point, it is just a number to factor into the revenue of the game. I needed a third category however and excessive pirating can definitely hurt sales. Instead of DRM the player can increase his chances here by building a Community Management floor. This floor will increase player’s loyalty – and also scout the warez and torrent boards for pirated copies.

Dialog Screen showing the end result of the game release lottery. The results were great reviews and only a few bugs, but the game was pirated too often. The end result gives a bonus of 0% to the sales of the game.

If you paid attention, you’ll have noticed that the three categories for the one-armed bandit are not a direct match to the list I created in the first half of this article. I found that I couldn’t really fit the marketing into a game of chance. Marketing – to the point where one can actually influence it – is rather linear. The more money you spend on it, the more your game will sell.

And even that will be available. Players can build a marketing floor and have it work on a game. This will directly increase the maximum amount of money it can make. But it won’t influence the lottery at game release.

My game design document is done now. Before I finally allow myself to begin with the implementation, I want to do a balancing pass on my game design on paper. Or in a spreadsheet, to be exact. But more on that in my next post.

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