Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Building an Indie Brand

So I played Pioneer Trail yesterday. (Bizarre aside: it took me longer than I expected to find a link to it via Google) A friend of mine invited me to try it, and I've been meaning to for a while. NEO Scavenger has its roots in a post-apocalyptic homage to Oregon Trail, so it makes sense to see someone's modern interpretation of a "Trail-like" game.

I'd played a social game or two before. (Literally, I've played two.) So one of the first things I did was to check the game permissions. I wanted to cut off all attack vectors from Pioneer Trail, so I didn't spam my friends' walls with game messages.

It started out innocently enough. You're presented with a small homestead, peppered with plants, rocks, and a few animals. The art is real slick-looking, and a friendly gap-toothed prospector fellow is helping you get started. You're hand-held through some user-friendly harvesting and clearing, and before you know it, you've leveled-up! And completed your first goal! And the game is now asking you to broadcast it to the world!

I declined, and continued to follow ol' toothless's advice. Sure enough, I managed to trip another game event that wanted to be broadcast. I think the rhythm was about one spam request per minute. I was glad I turned off as many of the game's permissions as I did.

Then, it was trail time. I was ushered into the trail mode, and told the virtues of "friending-up" for the trip. Each of the characters was demonstrated via tutorial. I didn't get much of a chance to see if any of the mechanics were reminiscent of Oregon Trail, because the game thought it was high-time I "friended-up." The entire interface shut down, except for a throbbing "hire a friend!" button at the bottom. No other buttons functioned anymore.

The game was literally dictating that, in order to continue, I'd have to reach out to a friend. Uncomfortable with the idea of bothering someone I care about just to try the game, I closed the app. And removed it from my Facebook entirely. I guess that's what folks call "rage quit" these days.

Slimy Games
As I was composing a message to my friend, describing my first impressions of the game, I couldn't help but notice I was getting riled up. Pioneer Trail really struck a nerve with me. This type of friend-peddling just seemed wrong to me. I kept thinking of the day I was helping my mom clear out all the wall posts from her friends' Facebook games.

"Why do they keep posting these on my wall?" she'd ask. And "I keep clicking on them to go away, but more keep cropping up." She just wanted to use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, but she could hardly see any through the wall of noise from games. I showed her a few tips for preventing apps from showing up, but there was always a new mole to whack.

She doesn't use Facebook anymore. That's right. She dropped a whole service, one which was actually helping her stay in touch with people she cared about, because of some disproportionately loud and annoying apps. Which brings me to the heart of this post.

Building an Indie Brand
A while back, I blogged about my core values. In #2, I talk about respecting the user. I want my game to treat the player as if they're someone special. I don't want DRM to get in the way of easily playing the game. I don't want to trick them into playing, or playing at certain times. I don't want to hang banner ads and placards all around my games like a kiosk in Times Square. And now that I'm reminded of the "creepy social game touch," I don't want to trick them into getting friends to play either.

I want to build games for people like me. People who enjoy sitting down with a cup of tea, and cracking into a deep, enjoyable, thoughtful game. I want people to go to my games because there aren't ads, spam, or friend requests chipping away at their suspension of disbelief. I want to make games that treat people the way I wish games treated me.

How the Hell Are You Going to Monetize That?
That's a good question. I'm not entirely sure yet. I do have a few streams in mind, though.

  1. Ads - Ads are almost universally regarded as a minor revenue stream in Flash games, so it isn't a huge sacrifice to axe them. And I think the brand gain to be had by being ad-free is more than worth it. So no ads.
  2. Sponsorship and Site Licensing - Sponsorship is an option, as is site licensing. Apart from the monetary gain, there's an advertising benefit to being featured on various portals. The potential downside is portal branding competing with my own brand, but I think that largely depends on the details of the arrangement. This seems like a reasonable avenue to keep open.
  3. Time-limited demo - NEO Scavenger is fairly well-suited to a time-limited demo format. It's an easy-to-understand business model, for both me and the consumer. Choosing a price point is a risk, though. Whatever number I choose, I'm cutting off a chunk of players uncomfortable paying that amount, and missing out on those comfortable paying more.
  4. Area-based demo - NEO Scavenger also fits into an area-limited model pretty well too. The game is bounded on all sides by obstacles, by design. It was originally my intention to allow free-play in the Michigan area, and charge for access to each of the zones outside of that. Each zone would have unique content to offer, but you'd have to buy passage to that zone. It'd be a pittance to cross the border each time, but players could also "buy-off" the ferryman, so to speak, for permanent access. I really like this model, as it allows for unlimited free play, and a "pay what you want" fee structure to get access to other parts of the game.
    The down side? It makes more sense to launch the game later, when this content is in place. I'd have to take more time to make the content.
  5. Player-Created Content - This one is likely part of #4 above. In this model, there is a zone which is entirely player-created encounters. I create a tool for making encounters, and charge for access to that tool (as well as the fee for playing in that zone, in #4 above). Players could rate encounters, and create "playlists" of encounters to tailor their experiences. The upside here is that it can supplement or replace the content creation budget of #4. It also fosters a community of content creators. The down sides include moderating user content, griefing, cheating (Monty-Haul encounters), and building the content creation and management tools.
  6. Microtransactions - I brainstormed a list of features that could be charged for. Things like buying premium listings for your created content, buying a clone in case you die, buying extra character slots, buying increased storage capacity or recipe capacity (for crafting), etc. All of which are viable, they just take development and community management time to implement.
So far, #s 2 and 4 seem like my favorites. As a player, #2 is invisible to me (maybe even my entryway to the game universe), and #4 makes sense to me. I would feel like I'm buying something of value, and being charged a fair price since I can play for free, and pay what I'm comfortable with for extra content.

All of this assumes I'm able to pull off the user account management and billing systems. My hope here is that I can leverage third-party services to handle as many transaction types as possible in one, easy interface. Social Gold/Google are candidates here. Zong is another I'm looking at. And with any luck, I can use their APIs to do the customer management, so I'm not storing any usernames, passwords, or billing info.

With my soft deadline of September rapidly approaching, and given some of the significant chunks of work implicit in the monetization section above, I appear to be behind schedule. But I'm still motivated, still pleased with my work so far, and still optimistic there is a chance at success here.

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