Monday, February 18, 2013

Marketing: From Passive to Active

To-date, NEO Scavenger's had a pretty low-key marketing strategy. As a title that's still under development, there haven't been many points where I felt comfortable actually driving folks to the game. I always figured that I should wait until I can put on the best show possible before I pump a lot of resources into marketing. As such, NEO Scavenger's been in a "passive" marketing mode.

Passive Marketing

Passive marketing mode is "word of mouth" marketing. I.e. the "soft sell." Rather than going out and seizing eyeballs and ears, I'm building something worth experiencing, and letting satisfied customers do the talking for me.

I'll gladly talk about NEO Scavenger to anyone who asks. I give interviews, give review copies to journalists when requested, and actively participate in fan discussions when I can. But I've only initiated a few marketing initiatives of my own, outside of

I've read in more than a few places that this is a terrible strategy for indie developers. The "build it and they will come" strategy, while comfortable for introverts like me, is not known for being very effective. And I think there's validity to that argument. Unless it's the right set of circumstances, or something that has an element of virality, word of mouth is a pretty unreliable method of marketing.

However, the soft sell has its place in a marketing strategy. For one thing, it's a good time to test the waters, and see how your product is received on a small scale before going big. You'll have time to see how the product behaves in the wild, see how people perceive it, assess feedback, and improve the product. Maybe people are excited about different elements than you expected, or your big selling point is still broken?

Plus, some target audiences are more receptive to a softer sales pitch (or no pitch at all). As a member of the audience my game targets, I can say with some authority that I appreciate a product that doesn't excessively toot its own horn. I like finding a product that is honest in its advertising, and sets appropriate expectations, rather than resorting to fanfare and hyperbole.

The operative clause above, though, is "before going big." Word of mouth shouldn't be one's only marketing tool. Instead, use it where appropriate, and plan on mixing it with some active strategies when the time is right.

Active Marketing

Active marketing is pretty familiar to most of us, by definition. From ads to interviews, "Let's Plays" to AMAs, it's the messaging with which we get bombarded every waking hour. "You can't buy it if you don't know it exists," as they say, and active marketing is trying to remove that very obstacle.

I think NEO Scavenger is starting to near a point where active marketing makes more sense. One of the biggest obstacles to enjoying NEO Scavenger has been legibility of its substantial text, and ugly aliasing when trying to play above the native 800x600 resolution. With fixes for those issues imminent, I think it's time for me to start warming up the marketing engine.

Building a Strategy

Even though NEO Scavenger's been "on the QT" so far, I've actually been building a strategy behind the scenes since day one. Whenever an opportunity for active marketing popped up, I may have passed it up, but I still made a note to myself for later. For example, IGF 2011 would've been pretty premature for NEO Scavenger, since the game was not even playable at that time. However, I made a note to look it up later, when it made more sense. All of these notes are in a text file that I've creatively named "PR.txt."

Since I'm starting to review this process, I figured I'd share some of my notes with any other readers who may be formulating marketing strategies of their own. In no particular order, here are some ideas to consider:

  • Press Kit - This is actually pretty useful even during passive marketing. Basically, it's a handy collection of anything a journalist would need to feature your game in their publication. Usually, it includes several screenshots, gameplay videos, company and game logos in some print-ready format (or high enough resolution for print), and any other relevant materials you can offer (such as company info, team member bios, etc.).
    • Rami Ismail has actually put together a DIY press kit that many indies have used with success.
  • Website - This should be done as soon as possible, way back in the passive marketing phase, if possible. Having a website is pretty much a requirement these days. You could get by without one, but if you're serious about building a brand and a community, you should consider how folks are going to find more of your work after they discover you. This is a whole topic unto itself, and I've already discussed website and business planning a bit.
  • Game Journals - Contacting your preferred game magazine is probably the bread and butter of a game marketing strategy. Gamers each have their journal of choice, so it's a good idea to figure out which ones your audience reads, and see if any journalists there might be interested in doing a piece on you or your game.
  • Sales Channels - Whether you think of them as such or not, sales channels are a form of marketing. Players will discover games as they shop for games, so having your game in their store of choice increases the chance your game will be discovered. And while big names like Steam, Desura, and GoG may come to mind, don't overlook more niche locations. Often the smaller or newer channels mean the competition is lighter, giving your product a greater chance of being noticed.
  • Festivals - Indie games are fortunate in that they are often celebrated in festivals expressly designed to highlight their unique styles. While not every festival is a good fit for every game, many can be a great way to raise awareness for your title. Plus, many offer prizes to winners!
  • Kickstarter - Kickstarter is a fund-raising tool, first and foremost. However, that almost always has the side-effect of raising awareness of the product along with the funds (in fact, even if the funding fails). While I don't think Kickstarter is right for NEO Scavenger right now, it might be something you're considering. And if so, it makes sense to use it in synergy with your other marketing efforts.
  • Greenlight - Rumors of Greenlight's demise may or may not be greatly exaggerated. However, for the time being, it still represents an opportunity to raise awareness for one's game. NEO Scavenger garnered some considerable publicity as a result of Greenlight participation. However, the hints at Greenlight going away, coupled with the $100 entry fee, may mean it's best saved for games which already have some marketing working for them, or are expected to go viral somehow. Based on stats I see for the top 100 games, it appears it's still possible to skyrocket into the top slots with good marketing, but the long, steady climb may not pan-out anytime soon.
  • Bundles - As I discovered last October, bundles can have a pretty significant effect on publicity. Bundles combine the traditional deep discount motivator with cross-promotion between games to produce a strong synergy of sales. There are probably more owners of NEO Scavenger from that one 5-day bundle sale than there are from NEO Scavenger's entire year of sales.

    The down-side, however, is that these customers have usually paid a small fraction of the asking price for the game. In my case, some 16k customers bought the bundle, but my share of the revenue was only $5400 (before income taxes). So the average sale price for each of those copies was only about $0.30-0.40. That, and some fraction of the game owners weren't interested in NEO Scavenger, but rather bought the bundle for other games.

    Still, that's a significant number of people who have the game, whereas before they didn't. Getting the game in front of a player is often the hardest part!
  • Promotions - While bundles combine deep discounts with cross-selling, the discount can be a formidable source of publicity on its own. Steam's holiday sales are nothing short of a media event these days, as are the GoG sales. Putting your game on sale for a limited time can spur renewed interest, as can interesting pricing schemes.
    • Piracy - I include piracy as a subheading here because it can be a form of discount promotion. Sean Hogan has creatively leveraged piracy to this end, offering his game freely in exchange for the increased publicity and Greenlight exposure.
  • Demos - Having a demo is a powerful way to increase awareness of your game. Demos let players see if they really enjoy the game. And a good demo may be so engaging that the customer is enticed to buy the game, to access more of the same experience.
    • Portals - There are several websites which specialize in hosting game-related files and demos. Like with digital storefronts, having a presence on such a site provides a boost to awareness. Often times, these same demos will be picked up by other sites as well, further increasing your game's spread. This is particularly the case in the Flash demo scene. Just make sure that your demo includes some way for the player to find you should they decide your game is worth their time and money.
  • Let's Plays - Quite a few folks like to record playthroughs of games, and publish them with commentary on the web. Sometimes, these are simply fans who want to share, or show various strategies. Other times, these can be widely-known video producers with huge followings.

    Whether you plan for this or not, it's going to come up. So it's best to decide how you'd like to handle Let's Plays and other videos of your game early. It wasn't long before I was asked for permission, and in some cases, you may be asked to sign paperwork authorizing them to publish videos of your game, depending on the video service.
    • Once again, I have to defer to Pixel Prospector here, as they maintain an excellent list of YouTubers.
  • Videos - Let's Plays aren't the only video format that can be useful for promoting your game. Creating videos with gameplay footage, teasers, or backstory can provide yet another a way for customers to explore the world you're creating. Some folks prefer watching a video over playing a demo or reading, so this opens up the game to that demographic. Plus, if the video is hosted on a socially-enabled website, viewers can easily share your video with others, or post it in reviews and other articles. Some places to consider publishing your game videos:
    • YouTube - Probably the easiest to do, by far. Offers monetization via ads, though I would tend to stay away from any advertising to avoid branding confusion.
    • Vimeo - Another popular video service with emphasis on creativity and quality, though it's had some run-ins with indies in the past.
    • Any place your game is sold online (e.g. your website, Desura, Steam)
  • Ask Me Anything - AMAs are pretty much what they sound like. You'll find quite a few game devs conducting these on Reddit, or similar. In practice, I find I'm doing a little bit of this every day, in various locations around the net. However, setting one up personally can lend an air of authenticity to the discussion, and help centralize and focus it, which might help it grow to larger proportions.
  • Forums - Discussions tend to pop up all over the net, and I'll often swing by to read comments as they develop. I have my own forums, of course, and they provide the greatest volume and detail of all. However, it doesn't hurt to keep an eye out for discussions elsewhere, as they can often provide useful feedback of their own.
  • Social Tools - It's also worth considering which social channels you plan to use. Every person has their preferred suite of social tools, and every one you support caters to that type of person. A word of caution, though: don't bite off more than you can chew. A stale or abandoned social channel can cause as much harm as good.
    • Twitter - Very popular with indie developers. Provides easy sharing, direct access to fans, and all in bite-sized chunks.
    • Facebook - A lot of indies have setup Facebook pages or sites for their companies and games. Provides a means for fans and developers to communicate directly. Can also be a cheap alternative to a website for burgeoning indies. However, be careful about making Facebook (or any third party service) the official site for your game. If things ever turn sour with the service, they've got your community as a hostage.
    • Subreddit - Reddit can be a powerful tool for promoting content, if that content proves popular. A number of developers have setup specific subreddits, and often post updates to their projects, or other promotions.
  • Conventions - Having a presence at a game convention can mean a couple of things. One option is to rent a booth, and show your game on the expo floor along with other developers. Alternatively, you could try to get a speaking gig, and use it as an opportunity to garner more focused attention. Game conventions each have a different flavor and style, so there's no guarantee a convention will be the right fit for your game. However, if you can find a way to make your game work with the format of the con', it can be useful for meeting fans and other devs alike. And if your presentation or personality are memorable, it can really stick with visitors long after the show is over.
There are others, for sure. Just about anything can be used as a tool for raising awareness, with the application of an appropriate amount of creativity and elbow grease. In particular, see if there are certain strengths you can leverage which set you apart from the crowd. Uniqueness usually more than compensates for volume, and is cheaper!

A Note About Messaging

Before closing, it's worth pointing out the importance of messaging. Take some time to get a real handle on what it is about your game that makes you special. Why would customers care about your game? What types of customers would most like your game?

As Tadhg Kelly puts it, You Need a Marketing Story.

The better you can tailor your messaging to the intended audience, the more effective it will be. Similarly, the more you can narrow your focus, the higher the chance is of getting through. Trying to reach "everyone" puts you in direct competition with AAA marketing. In that arena, money wins more often than merit. And believe me, they can outspend you.

So stay light. Stay nimble. Use guerilla tactics. And most importantly, be interesting. We're game designers and developers, after all. If anyone is equipped to design an engaging experience, it's gotta be us.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Gameplay Verbs and Ratios

This past holiday season, I decided to pick up a few games on the cheap. Courtesy of the Steam and GOG holiday sales, I picked up a handful of excellent games, two of which are Morrowind and Planetside 2.

That last one wasn't strictly on sale, since it's free-to-play. However, it's the one that got me thinking a lot about gameplay verbs recently.

Gameplay Verbs

I think I was first introduced to the idea of gameplay verbs in Jesse Schell's "The Art of Game Design: A Series of Lenses." The idea's been around since long before that book, of course, but that book formalized it quite a bit for me.

In short, a gameplay verb is one of any available actions the player can take in a game. Schell uses checkers as an example, citing its three available verbs: move checker forward, jump an opponent's checker, and move checker backward (kings only).

Schell goes on to describe what he calls "resultant actions" (as opposed to the "operative actions" listed above). These resultant actions include such things as protecting another checker by moving a checker behind it, or sacrificing a checker to trick one's opponent. They are perhaps more akin to strategies, or verbs with intent.

Verbs themselves can be entertaining, such as driving a sports car in a racing game. However, most of the staying power for games comes from the strategies; the emergent gameplay. Emergent gameplay includes such activities as trying to beat other drivers to a destination, or trying to jump the furthest off of a cliff. In essence, using simple gameplay verbs in meaningful and creative ways.

Verbs and Planetside 2

As mentioned above, I recently started thinking about this topic while playing Planetside 2. For those unfamiliar to the game, Planetside 2 (Ps2) is a massively multiplayer online first person shooter. In a given match, players on each of three teams are trying to gain control of the whole map via armed combat and capturing control points. It shares some similarities with games like the Battlefield series and it's conquest mode.

Players in Ps2 have a wide range of verbs available to them right from the start. They have the usual walking/running movements, jumping, primary and secondary weapons. And all have a special tool associated with their role. A sniper has a cloaking device, an engineer has a repair tool, etc.

Furthermore, as one plays the game and accumulates points, they can spend those points on upgrades for their character. These upgrades can include new tools, enhancements like higher ammo capacity and faster running speed, and even metagame enhancements, like shorter waiting times for vehicle respawns.

It didn't take me long to discover that I favored playing the light assault trooper role. They start out fairly out-gunned, having only a short range carbine and pistol, and out-armored, having the least armor of any class. However, they're faster than any other class, and have one thing which, in my mind, is a game-changer: jet packs.

In a game where all other soldiers are earthbound, I cannot emphasize enough how exciting it is to be able to use the third dimension as a tool against one's opponents. It opens up avenues of approach, evasive maneuvers, hiding places, and generally lets one go where no one else can.

High Resultant Action Ratios

In Schell's terms, this is a verb with a high ratio of resultant actions to objective actions. It's one action (limited vertical movement) that opens up a raft of new strategies.

However, it wasn't jet packs that got me thinking about verbs (although it did prolong my interest in the game considerably). I started thinking about verbs when it came time to upgrade my character.

Faced with a seemingly endless array of upgrades, my first inclination was to simply reinforce the thing that attracted me to the class: upgrade the jet pack to fly further. I was encountering some obstacles that I still couldn't surmount with my pack, so I figured I could bump it up a notch or two.

As upgrades progressed, though, I quickly reached a point where the pack was "good enough." Additional upgrades just didn't seem very worthwhile, nor exciting. Beyond clearing major obstacles, the pack upgrades were a case of diminishing returns.

Instead, what I found was that I started gravitating to upgrades that let me do new things. One of my first upgrades was the C4 explosive charge. Suddenly, my plucky gnat of a soldier packed some punch, and made me a threat to armored opponents. To my arsenal of disruptive strategies, I could now add dropping onto vehicles from above, and planting charges. Or, I could set the charges in a choke point, and detonate them as a trap. I could even set them someplace far away from my objective, and use them as a diversion. C4 was a high ratio upgrade.

What I didn't opt for, however, were upgrades with low ratios.

Low Resultant Action Ratios

Quite a few of the upgrades in Ps2 are little more than incremental changes to existing verbs. These upgrades include more armor, faster shield recharging, or extended ammo supply. Compared with what I experienced after unlocking C4, these seemed downright boring. Sure, they allow one to last longer in a toe-to-toe fight, or generally out on the field, but that's not really offering me a new strategy. It's more like a higher chance at success with existing strategies.

As I write this, it occurs to me that this may be one of the reasons I lost interest in Dungeon Siege II so quickly. It had many of the elements I enjoy in an RPG: fantastic worlds to explore, character creation and customization, party-based combat, and room for strategy.

However, after playing for a while, it became apparent that I wasn't getting any new verbs to play with. Most of my progression was incremental in nature, offering me progressively better chances to hit, damage rolls, and resistances. Rarely was anything introduced which made new strategies and techniques available.

In fact, I reached a similar point when playing Ps2. After unlocking most of the high ratio upgrades for my soldier, my interest started to wane. The idea of grinding for hours to get more armor just didn't have any appeal.

High Verb Count, Low Ratio

Let's take a moment to consider another arrangement: games with a large number of verbs, but introducing chance to determine success. A good example of such a game is Morrowind.

When one starts a game of Morrowind, one quickly learns to accept failure at nearly every task. Swinging a sword at a mudcrab? Miss. Casting a heal spell? Spell failed. Picking a lock? Lockpick broke. Jumping? Not over that tree stump.

Usually, several hours of gameplay are required to achieve a level of basic competence in most verbs. Instead of unlocking new verbs over time, Morrowind gives you nearly all the verbs at the start, but lets you unlock incrementally larger chances of success, and larger effects, when performing said verbs.

However, I think what we start out with in Morrowind are actually false verbs. They purport to do something, but when enacted, have little or no effect. Unskilled jumping doesn't really give me any new strategies, for example, it just has a cosmetic effect until it's leveled-up sufficiently. And the starting fireball spell doesn't really belong under the destruction school as much as illusion. It serves to get a creature's attention, but little more.

In other words, even though Morrowind starts players with a large number of objective actions, the resultant action ratio is still pretty low, in practice.

That said, the potential for a high ratio is there. Indeed, the promise of real power is one of the reasons many are willing to endure the slow start in Morrowind. Having a high acrobatics skill can be as liberating as the jet pack was in Ps2. And the upper range of destructive power in magic is nothing short of god-like. In Morrowind, a fully-formed verb is a sight to behold. For kicks, try opening Morrowind's debug console, and typing player->setacrobatics 250. Have fun :)

Improving Verbs and Ratios in Games

So what can we glean from this discussion to make our games better?

Adding more verbs seems obvious. However, as we can see in the Morrowind case, verbs alone are not always satisfying.

Most of the games we enjoy tend to have a high ratio of resultant actions to objective actions. In Super Mario Bros., the player's jump not only clears obstacles, but is a means of defeating enemies, getting power-ups out of boxes, and reaching secret areas. In Thief, the moss arrow can place a blanket of growth on the ground to mask your steps, but it can also push a button silently from a distance, or even temporarily choke NPCs for a quick getaway.

So designing games where each tool has multiple use-cases is probably more effective than simply adding more single-case verbs.

Having the high ratio verbs isn't enough, though. The player will also need occasion to use them. I feel like NEO Scavenger's biggest shortcoming right now is that the story affords too few chances to use the character's skills and items, along with the player's creativity. Ideally, there would be more opportunities for players to meaningfully use whichever skills they chose and items they found.

Introducing high ratio verbs gradually is also a useful technique in game design. The Zelda series, for example, is renowned for its gradual bestowing of new tools. The controlled rate of discovery means that new players can focus on broadening their mastery and creativity of one tool at a time, and also gives players something to look forward to.

Note that gradual doesn't necessarily mean incremental. In the case of Zelda, we get a reliable boomerang, and not a boomerang that only has a chance of stunning enemies, or retrieving objects. In Thief, the water arrow puts out fire reliably, not 25% of the time.

Morrowind's "training skills via their use" is certainly a realistic approach, and the outcome may also be realistic (i.e. unskilled alchemists might botch the potion recipe). However, long, arduous training probably isn't the element of fantasy we most want to experience. On the contrary, good storytellers usually know when to skip the long, boring parts to arrive at the scene of interesting action or dialogue: the part where the character is creative when faced with an obstacle; bold in the face of danger; or rational in the presence of escalating tempers. We want to vault over the chasm heroically, stare down the bodyguard, or negotiate the ceasefire.

And in situations where we must have a chance at failure, content creators can try to make those failures more interesting. This is definitely possible in cases where a skill check is done in dialogue, or a similar branching encounter. To do so, the designer ensures that failure cases present new opportunities for creative problem solving, or at least tell interesting stories. It's hard work for the author, to be sure, but as they say, "nothing worth doing is easy."

Ultimately, game designers are creating systems, not just stories. Stories may be told within our games, but they are not the linear stories one finds in other media. In games, players have agency, which is to say that they have verbs they can apply to objects in the game. And by virtue of their agency, they may not do what the designer intended.

Rather than curtail players' actions to keep them on a prescribed path, we should endeavor to validate and reward any path they may choose.