Essays on marketing and a meaningful life

Ada Chen Rekhi

Category: Events Page 1 of 2

Four unSEXY Startup Lessons

unsexy-logo-tagline

Last Friday I attended the unSEXY conference, a one-day conference hosted by 500 Startups focused on the unsexy topics of distribution and money makin’ for startups. You can see the conference slides here.

I thought I’d briefly summarize four key lessons for startups. While they aren’t all non-obvious, it’s good reminders for every business builder out there.

Lesson #1. Customer service is an unfair competitive advantage for startups

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Ranjith Kumaran (of PunchTab and formerly YouSendIt) talked about how authenticity translates to LTV, and how great customer service directly contributed to winning deals over and competition. We saw this lesson at my company Connected as well — it makes a huge difference to the customer when the founders of the company are replying to your emails and implementing your feature requests overnight.

While big successful companies worry about how to minimize customer support costs, Ranjith as well as others including Patrick Collison from Stripe talk about how non-scalable customer service can be the delightful point of differentation which makes your deal happen.

Lesson #2. ‘Gerbil’ your startup to success

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On the heels of Paul Graham’s essay Do Things That Don’t Scale, Patrick Collison from Stripe talked about what they called “gerbiling”- the ruthlessly unscalable activities Stripe did which worked fantastically well for the team. They wrote custom code for customers, set up PagerDuty to staff their chat room at 3AM if a customer logged in, and used a human in lieu of a payment fraud detection algorithm because it’s expensive and hard to write an algorithm which can beat a human. These are all activities which many large companies would consider a near-impossible waste of time.

But for an early startup, it makes a lot of sense. Why focus on the expensive task of building a scalable solution when you’re focused on growth and survival? Activities to build scale are non-productive for growing your business, and are only useful when there’s a real opportunity cost on your time.

Lesson #3. Distribution is everyone’s job

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Growth, as always, is a huge topic in the unsexy parts of making a company. As Rashmi Sinha of Slideshare aptly put it, stop looking for a superhero growth hacker to solve your problems. In addition to Rashmi’s talk, there were some great sessions on this topic from many speakers including Richard White (Uservoice), Alex Moore (Baydin), and Michael Mandal (CompStak) which I’d encourage you to check out.

The takeaway from all of this is that growth is a hard and messy problem which is not necessarily just a product or marketing problem. In fact, there are a LOT of examples of great growth channels for an early-stage startup to reach the scale it needs to survive. These examples include:

  • Press — CompStak empowering every employee to pitch the press
  • SEO — SlideShare extracting slideshow text into the page for SEO
  • BizDev — HelloSign/HelloFax getting distribution deals into Gmail
  • BizDev — Baydin’s early distribution success from feature in Chrome Web Store
  • App Stores — Evernote coming in early and fast to Apple App Store
  • .. the list goes on

Many of these examples include growth channels which aren’t classic examples of viral. The lesson learned here is that early startups need to encourage everyone to be thinking about growth, and not just make it a product-virality problem.

Lesson #4. Startup serendipity is one part luck, and three parts hustle

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I love hearing startup retrospectives on how they achieved success because it invariably goes something like, “I happened to meet this guy at (random event), and we got to chatting … and that’s how I got my (funding / press article / partnership)!”

This story replays itself over and over again for how startups get funding, get acquired, make deals, and so forth. People who listen to this often scratch their heads and think, how can I possibly make my company a success when it’s all luck?

The reality is, these chance moments of serendipity are lucky, but also manufactured. Founders who get out there and get in the right place at the right time are increasing the likelihood that they’ll meet someone who can change the trajectory of their business forever. A lot of these startup founders are the people who are deeply passionate and talking about their startups non-stop.

Lessons from designing a product in less than 24 hours

Last weekend, Sachin Rekhi and I did connectme.cc as a little hackathon project for the Cloudstock Hackathon. I’m proud to report that we were a finalist for the event and even made it onto Techcrunch!
 
If you’re not familiar with it, Cloudstock is a small event offshoot off of the larger Salesforce.com Dreamforce conference designed to bring developers and cloud technologies together.

Meet our project: connectme.cc

The premise behind connectme.cc is simple. Send your business card with one text.

connectme.cc

Even though we’re living in this world with social networks and online profiles, many of the existing applications are dependent on both people having something common installed. Unfortunately the assumption that you’re both on the same network isn’t reliable, so most networking reduces to the business card. The business card is the lowest common denominator way to share information. The problem is that there’s only so much information that you can cram onto one small business card.

What if there was a better way to share your contact information with others?

A novel solution to solve this problem is the iPhone app Bump. But when was the last time we used Bump? The biggest issue with Bump is that it requires both individuals to have the application installed.

Instead, connectme.cc uses a simple push method to reduce the friction of sharing your information. After signing up to create your virtual card, you can send that card to anyone you want via their phone number, email or Twitter handle.

You text connectme.cc’s number with the other person’s cellphone, email or Twitter account. Right after you text the app, the recipient will receive a text, email or tweet with a link to your virtual card.

Lessons learned from designing connectme.cc

This was my first hackathon, and I wanted to share quick thoughts on the experience of creating connectme.cc:

Timeboxing is a great way to reduce an idea down to its essence

We had a lot of great ideas on what to build, but the constraint of creating a one-day project helped us refine these ideas to simple values. We set 3 rules:

  • Achievable within 24 hours
  • Useful enough that we would use it
  • Uses one of the APIs included in the conference

The interesting thing was that many of our ideas failed the second constraint, which is products that we would use. Instead, they tended to fall more into the class of technical toys. It’s great to prove that we were able to complete something with an API, but difficult to explain how we’d use it. We finally decided on the idea of connectme.cc because it’s a simple idea with clear usefulness.

It’s better to be positive about ideas than to reject them

Once we generated a great list of ideas, we went from brainstorming to the evaluation phase. One observation from this process is that it’s way better to call out the ideas you like rather than the ones that you don’t. Rejecting ideas seems to diminish our creative momentum and slow us down.

It’s important to change the question from “Is it a feasible idea?” to “Is this a useful idea?” It was easy to reject many ideas because they were too big, rather than because they were useful and interesting. If you dig deep enough into an interesting idea and what makes it interesting, you can start refining it into a minimum viable product.

Simplicity takes work

Creating simple and easy to use experiences is a lot of work. In my experience, products often benefit far more from what you take out than the functionality that you add. Making the whole user flow functional and simple to use was a big challenge and just about as much work as the technical implementation.

After we decided to work on the idea of connectme.cc, we set up a basic user scenario that we’d want the user to work through. We spent quite a bit of time discussing how to make this simple. We were able to reduce the user sign-up from four screens to just two, but creating even the simple user flow, front page and messaging was a significant amount of the work involved in putting this app out.

Conclusion

I had a lot of fun working on this weekend hack! Getting a fun little product like connectme.cc out is a great exercise of trying to be creative within constraints. Try it out and tell us what you think!

Quick Notes from Smartphone Games Summit — Android, Social, Freemium and More

I stopped by the Smartphone Games Summit today, and thought I’d post a few notes. Great job to Charles Hudson and mediabistro for another great event. One of the interesting sessions in the morning was a session called Smartphone Game Trends, presented by Peter Farago, VP of Marketing for Flurry.

Smartphone Game Trends

  • Consumers are changing in their behavior from portable games (DS) to iPhone
  • On iPhone, 1% of games are on iPhone (in a pie with portable and console) but they claim 5% of revenue share.

Issues with Android

  • Install base for Android is almost equal to iPhone, but Android users don’t behave like iPhone users
  • Android users don’t use apps as much vs iPhone, with fewer sessions
  • Games is a significantly less popular category
  • Fragmentation is a problem
  • No in-app monetization
  • Lack of consumer credit cards
  • 24 hour no questions asked return policy is an issue

Etc.

  • Apple does a great job of monetizing each user. Monetization per user per year: $18 for Google, $14 for Apple, $6 for Yahoo, Microsoft $4, Facebook $3, Twitter <$1
  • Space has shifted a lot, only in 2010 is the first time mobile hardware has been good enough to support games.
  • Developers want businesses and not just a great operating system. They need the full spectrum of device and OS, broadband, consumer base and one-click purchase.
  • The mobile space has evolved from ship & forget to a service model with updates.
  • Developers are in a great and bad spot since there is significant investment in apps, but the low barrier to entry creates a moshpit effect.
  • Mobile business models include free2play, microtransactions, ad revenues, premium, trial to pay.
  • There was a great slide on this, I hope he posts this, but Flurry has an estimate of the promotion cost and approximate installs to reach top spots on the app store. Barring any typos in my notes his estimates have the Free games #1 spot worth approximately 130–250k installs, and costing $100–450k promotion. For paid #1 spot, it’s 25–30k installs, and 50–150k promotion cost.

Other misc soundbites notes from the summit

  • On mobile vs social: mobile games see 50% of players playing daily, higher monetization per active user than web social games. — Jason Oberfest from Ngmoco
  • New Toy is making $1mm+ per month on Words with Friends.
  • Analytics: There are plenty of good 3rd party services are definitely out there. What is missing today is good crossplatform analytics on games.
  • On Social: The more friends people have, the more engaged they are — the longer they play, the more often they play. — papaya games
  • On freemium: Using a freemium game instead of an upfront payment model increases audience/players by 10x
  • Playfirst has generated $1 million in new sales via cross promotion in their existing applications

GDC10 Notes: The Evolution of Habbo Hotel’s Virtual Economy

Session Title: The Evolution of Habbo Hotel’s Virtual Economy by Sulka Haro (Lead Designer, Sulake)

Overview of Habbo Hotel

  • Age range is 12–17, with $74 million in revenue
  • Offices in 13 countries
  • They maintain 16 instances = 16 separate virtual economies
  • 10 years old this year

Sulka describes the 6 phases of change that the Habbo Hotel’s Virtual Economy has gone through

  1. No currencies
  2. Emergent currencies
  3. Paid currency
  4. Tradable paid currencies
  5. Dual currencies
  6. “Official” secondary market

Phase 1: No Currencies

When the game started, there wasn’t an in-game currency and players would just text-message to buy a chair. This made sense because their audience had high mobile penetration.

They began to encounter problems with social engineering attacks. For example, if you had to buy a chair by texting a message to a number saying “Habbo Chair Sulka” to buy a chair for your username Sulka, people would spam the room saying text “Habbo Chair 100X Sulka for one hundred chairs!” but ultimately the user 100x would get the chairs. They also encountered problems with just having 2 in-game price points, cheap and expensive. The expensive one wasn’t a good fit for most of the cheap virtual goods in the game, and the cheap one wasn’t particularly profitable for them due to the commission rate associated with SMS transactions.

Phase 2: Emergent Currencies

Players had always been able to trade items with one another, and created an emergent currency amongst themselves which was essentially a really cheap chair.

Phase 3: Paid Currency

With their 2001 UK launch, cellphone penetration wasn’t high enough so they created Habbo Credits, their first paid currency, and introduced additional payment mechanisms.

1 Habbo Credit = $0.15

They chose this ratio based onthe $0.79 SMS price. Super cheap items were 1 credit, medium items were 2–3, expensive items were 4–15 credits. The issue with the credit pool is that it makes it hard to predict value.

Increasing credit consumption doesn’t necessarily mean increase in revenue. Haro warns us to look out for an accumulation of goods in the economy, and this is part of the danger of having persistent goods — although there’s a lot of trading it doesn’t map to real life where things break. It’s important to have sinks to pull credits out of the pool.

So to help with persistent revenue, they launched the Habbo subscription club, subscriptions and virtual goods are very different models. In subscriptions, the revenue model is linear, and the virtual goods model is not.

Trading is great content for the game — it’s a way for players to spend more time in the game, and engaging because there’s a lot of item value speculation. Hence since it drives time, trading drives sales. Their highest value traders were also the highest ARPU users. Haro warns that “average” metrics lie — always expect the power law to be in effect.

Phase 4: Tradable Paid Currencies

The most liquid currency is the most desirable currency. It’s important to remember that the smallest currency value defines the smallest value. If one credit is $0.15, then that’s your lowest item value. So keep that in mind when setting a currency price.

Prior to making currency tradable, same number of buyers as sellers, and more traders than buyers.

After the change, more spenders than buyers, more traders than buyers, leading to more buyers.

Then they tackled the item inflation problem. How can we solve the persistent goods problem? No matter what you think, inflation is a problem. Secondary market prices go up, and that alienates new players. Items purchased in the primary market start becoming a bad deal in inflationary situations. And if your item catalog is the primary sink, then inflation is even worse.

It’s hard to measure information though, since the number of players grow and so does the amount of currency. Good rule of thumb is that the average amount of currency per player should be constant. One way to measure this is to set up your own consumer price index — pick a set of items (especially emergent currency items) and track their value in the after market.

One of the worst causes of inflation is to give free currency — this works in the short term for engagement, but doesn’t work out long-term in the economy.

But how do you reward users if you aren’t using paid currency?

Phase 5: Dual Currencies

Habbo introduced a currency called pixels, which you get for performing in-game actions. Pixels are used to buy expendable items, and for discounts. Primarily geared toward engagement. Credits, the paid currency, are used to buy persistent goods and services.

Some people say that having one currency keeps things simple, and dual currencies makes it more difficult. But one currency, one size fits all, that’s bound to be complicated. Two currencies is easier since each is simple and can be optimized independently.

Phase 6: Official Secondary Market

The market was designed to remove friction in trading. Prior to this, people had a very difficult time trading — you’d go from room to room and get booted from rooms for spamming, shouting what you were selling and hoping you’d intersect with a buyer. Often didn’t even get what you wanted in exchange for a trade or purchase.

They created an anonymous marketplace for players. It’s anonymous to keep people from circumventing it. Part of the marketplace shows trade value and historical price values. Users like it because it feels safer (even if it’s no different) but interesting that there’s still a huge amount of arbitrage in the market.

The marketplace has the following rules:

  • 0.2 credits to post, and the posting is value for 48 hours
  • Sale price is the offer price + 1% commission (minimum 1 credit)

Due to the minimum, their actual commission could be as high as 50%.

Final Notes

Make sure you’re in control of your own currency and maks sure you remember the smallest unit of currency = smallest item price.

Payment methods — Habbo has over 100 payment methods, due to huge variations depending on the market. System viability changes from market to market, and credit cards, SMS and prepaid cards are not universally viable globally

Payment method optimization is a true art and part of Sulake’s secret sace

The Big Balancing Act — primary and secondary markets follow different rules. Economics is necessary, not just for price and revenue optimization, but also to keep the world safe

GDC10 Notes: Sid Meier on Why Everything You Know is Wrong

Friday morning’s keynote was from none other than Sid Meier himself, co-founder of Firaxis and the creator of the Civ series.

Session Title: The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know Is Wrong) from Sid Meier

Meier began his talk with the assertion that gameplay is primarily a psychological experience and player psychology is primarily based on egomania, paranoia, delusion and self-destructive behavior. If you like playing the Civ games, it’s because you love being a god-king and controlling everything, therefore you are an egomanic.

However, game play doesn’t map to real life. He described the Winner Paradox, in the real world you never really win, but in games you almost always win. In the real world, the Super Bowl has only one winner, sports leagues have only one winner, you almost never win. In the games world, you almost always win.

Reward vs Punishment — players are inclined to accept rewards.

Meier talked about “the first 50 minutes rule”: the first 50 minutes must be very compelling and fun, and show the player a preview of all of the fun they’ll have for the rest of the game. In trying to engage them during this time, you almost can’t reward the player enough (though this doesn’t negate the difficulty level).

He used to believe that players only needed 4 difficulty levels, but in Civilization Revolutions he discovered they actually need 9 difficulty levels. The difficulty levels give a player a feeling that they’ve mastered a level. The psychological conclusion for gamers is that everyone is above average.

Meier then talked about his “Unholy Alliance,” which is the connection between the player and the game designer. All of these things must match in order to create a compelling game experience.

  • The player is the star of the game
  • Players must be willing to suspend their disbelief, and fall into the story of the game
  • Moral clarity — don’t put users in dilemmas, it’s more satisfying to win against a cranky ruler in Civilization than a pitiful begging one telling you about the women and children you are killing
  • Mutually Assured Destruction
  • Humor / Style / Music / Atmosphere must match

Meier warns, be careful to be true to the vision of the game and value the players time. You have to be consistent with the style and the vision of the game, to keep the player engaged in the game.

Meier described then what I will paraphrase as: game players aren’t rational and don’t understand probability.

In playtesting, a player always expects to win a 1.5 to 0.5 battle, even when probability dictates that sometimes they will lose. He had to make the odds even odder in many cases to adjust for players’ expectation of how “fair” a game feels. With his mathematics background, he learned this his brain is too logical and scientific, and he didn’t take psychology into account.

My Bad — Meier recaps mistakes, or his “my bad” moments

  • Real-time civilization — the first version of Civ was a real time game where the player is just an observer, similar to the style of sim city. This didn’t create the feeling of control and egomania that the current turn-based civ does, where you are the god-king
  • Rise and fall — first version fo Civ had an idea of civilization where you have a setback and recover and rise to an even greater prominence. Players want a game about progress, and the rise and rise of civilization, not the downfall. Lots of players reloaded from a save file at the first setback
  • Tech tree — he used tot hink a tech tree is about a rise through darkness, and you wouldn’t know what’s at the end of the path. It’s incongruous to learn writing and know that in the future that will lead to a jet fighter. But players want predictability and want to be in control. Randomness must be treated very carefully, because random acts create paranoia
  • The Dinos Game — the game which was never made
  • Civilization Network

In playing a singleplayer game, feedback and validation is really important

Protecting the player from themselves — keep them from reloading their save files to win every fight, don’t give them too many options/settings, cheat codes are questionable and mods are good.

What’s the point of all the game design? Meier describes game design as trying to create the epic journey. The epic journey is full of interesting decisions, learning and progress, the feeling of just “one more turn” (players are riveted and always leaning forward to ask for one more term) and replayability.

GDC10 Notes: Achievements Considered Harmful?

Last week I sat through a couple sessions at GDC10 — excellent talks all around. Here’s a quick write-up of my notes part 1, but more detailed coverage also available here.

Session Title: Achievements Considered Harmful — Chris Hecker

Hecker classifies achievements as

  • tangible — cash, gold star, trophy
  • verbal — praise
  • symbolic — achievements like on Xbox

And also breaks them down on a variety of criteria

  • expected vs unexpected
  • informational (objective feedback) vs controlling (opinionated feedback)
  • task contingent vs engagement contingent vs performance contingent
  • free choice vs self-reported
  • dull vs interesting
  • transitory vs long-lasting
  • endogenous vs exogenous

tangible, expected, contingent reward situations reduce free choice intrinsic motivations

verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases free choice intrinsic motivations

The data Hecker quotes shows that if you pay for grades, grades actually go down. Extrinsic motivators actually do damage to what they are supposed to do. In order to minimize the potential damage, Hecker advocates:

  • don’t make a big fuss about achievements
  • use unexpected rewards (this is difficult to do, but try)
  • use absolute scale not relative
  • use endogenous rewards (rewards that are related to the context in which they earned it)

Hecker’s call to action is for the games industry to better consider the impact of achievements on players. While he doesn’t specifically condemn achievements, the point he makes is that it’s questionable whether or not the long-term effects of achievements are driving the right player behavior. He described what he calls the doomsday scenario, where intrinsically interesting games have the intrinsic motivation to play them destroyed by the design of many extrinsic motivators. Hecker talks about “metrics fetishism” leading to short-term optimization, and dull tasks designed around extrinsic motivators.

Overall, Hecker was really interesting and thought-provoking and raised good questions about the psychological impact of games which are over-focus on achievements and player reward. Reward is a great way to drive player engagement and activity, but what are the long-term impact?

GDC Austin: MMO and Virtual World Monetization

An MMOs and Virtual Worlds Panel at PlaySpan’s Monetization 2.0 Forum had some great data points. I did some scribbling and typed up my notes below so forgive any inaccuracies.

photo.jpg

The panel was moderated by EA’s Nanea Reeves with panelists:

  • Jim Crowley l CEO, Turbine
  • Cary Rosenzweig l CEO, IMVU
  • Johny Mang l EA- Dice
  • Tom Hale | Chief Product Officer, Linden Labs/ Second Life
  • John Bates | Entropia
  • Joshua Hong | K2 Network

Linden

  • Second Life makes close to $100 million and not less than $80 million. They make money in three ways: 1) sale of currency, 2) premium subscription and 3) a hosting model where users pay them to allow their 3D objects to persist
  • Linden tracks engagement (user hours), transaction value, % paying, repeat usage, $50 MM user value is exchanged each month.
  • More focused on retention instead of acquisition, looking at users over 2 year lifetimes.
  • Fraud is definitely an issue especially when $$ can come out of the system. Just a cost of doing business.
  • Top merchant at Second Life is making $1 million/year selling sweaters/skirts

IMVU

  • 80% of revenues are from consumers (micro-transactions and user-generated content) and 20% from advertising
  • The essence of monetization is building a service that customers will pay for. You have to be massive to be viable with an advertising model.
  • In Asia (in general, not IMVU) 5–10% range of free to paid conversion % is the common stat
  • Free users add value to the paid users, larger and engaging community
  • IMVU is like Ebay, with 2.5 million items and 20,000 developers creating them. Entrepreneurs creating and selling for others and IMVU is the neutral party since they aren’t creating the goods directly
  • Top 10 creators on IMVU each made over $100k annual revenue
  • Paid items are long tail, top 10 items are only = 0.2% of sales. Users want to be different.

Turbine

  • Turbine recently transferred from subscription to a hybrid subscription & micro-transactions model. Hybrid model offers greater flexibility and choice.
  • Subscription only models leave out the audience that are willing to pay less and don’t capture those that are willing to pay more, so they’ve moved to optional subscription.
  • Since announcing their service they’ve actually seen subscriptions go up and concurrency rates rise too.

K2

  • 100% of K2 revenues are from item sales
  • MMOs: “ARPU is high, relationships is long and persistence is everything”
  • K2’s focus is being very involved with community management
  • Item sales mean that countries such as Turkey, Brazil, the Eastern bloc are full of opportunities for free to play.
  • Free to play is nothing but a pricing option
  • K2 uses traditional resellers of prepaid card codes to reach emerging markets like Turkey, China, Eastern Europe

EA

  • Battlefield: Heroes sells mostly decorative items but launched Boost packs and this item immediately went to the top of the list
  • They also have a RTS with boost items and found conversion rates are much higher
  • Items that have usefulness in the game tend to convert better
  • EA is targeting a 7–8% conversion rate for free to play games, but expects that to lower to 5% with social network traffic

9/18 EDIT: Added photo and Joshua Hong of K2 to the speakers list (thanks Clay!)

PAX 2009: What is an ‘Indie Game’? Panel

I’ve cleaned up a quick version of a transcript at the ‘What is an “Indie Game” Panel’ at PAX over the weekend. As these things go, it’s probably only about 80% complete so please excuse any omissions in the content. Enjoy!

PAX 2009: What is an ‘Indie Game’? Panel

Panel Description:

The rise in game platforms and distribution mechanisms has elevated the cultural profile of indie games. But along with this increased attention is an increasing debate about how to break through in the market. What really makes an indie title? Is it the game’s budget, art style, community outreach, or their distribution mechanism that really makes indies soar? This panel will examine the success stories within the indie gaming community to begin to expand and educate developers and gamers about this in-demand space.

Panelists include:

  • N’Gai Croal [Moderator] — (Consultant, Writer, Columnist, Hit Detection LLC)
  • Boyd Multerer (XNA General Manager, Microsoft)
  • Simon Carless (Chairman, Independent Games Festival)
  • Derek Yu (Editor-In-Chief, The Independent Gaming Source)
  • James Silva (President, Ska Studios)
  • Mitzi McGilvray (Executive Producer, TikGames)

NC (Moderator): What defines an indie game?

SC: Have an indie, execute on it, and that’s indie.

JS: Indie games are defined by no budget. have to figure out how to do stuff without a budget.

DY: When the idea of indie game became real, the main concept is that anyone can and should make a game. Now it’s distilled to intent & priority. What is your intent when you’re making a game and what are your priorities? That changes depending on a number of factors including budget. When your budget goes up the intent and priority of your game design changes. When team size gets bigger, the intent and priority changes. It’s not necessarily how much money and how big your team is but something changes when those things increase. I would love to see indie developers that have budgets as long as it’s tied to them and not a company.

BM: When you put money into creating a great experience, you start thinking about things like risk management. Independent games are about innovation and fun. Lower budgets free you to take risks that you wouldn’t find in other places and would otherwise not exist.

MG: Independent means that you’re not beholden to shareholders and purely profit driven

NC (Moderator): When you talk about engineers loving games and games responding to the market, should indie developers be responding to the market?

MG: Not necessarily, it’s important that developers pay attention to it. Primarily you do it because you love it, and you have to look at what it takes to be successful in the market. If you see that there’s a lot of competition in a game genre, don’t focus on being independent, build what people want.

JS: I just make games that I like to play. No budget forces you to be more creative. Bigger companies just invest more to make bigger, better more bad-ass games. To make a sequel to my game without a budget, you have to be more creative and think laterally.

NC (Moderator): Is independence defined by walking away from other people’s desires and do something for yourself. There’s a service aspect to it where you’re creating what people want. How do you separate what your fans want to do and what you want to do?

JS: I just do what I want to do. I’m not going to change, sorry.

SC: As far as being more or less indie, intention and attitude are different. Are you making a game in a pure, apart way? Are you making a game because you really care about games? The best indie games from the last few years like Katamari come from this.

NC (Moderator): Derek, can you expand on the idea of intention and priorities?

DY: The intention and priorities change when you get bigger and you get more mainstream. One of the big changes is making the kind of game you want versus making a game which satisfies a certain number of people. Accessibility is a concept which gets more priority once you get bigger and leave the “indie core”. A great example is a game Dwarf Fortress, which is one of the most inaccessible games I’ve ever played. Probably one of the most complex simulations out there. One half of a game you control a dwarf fortress. Very text based ascii graphics. His priorities and intentions are different from any mainstream company that has to make a living and a ton of money out of a huge investment.

NC (Moderator): Boyd, why rename Microsoft community games to indie games?

BM: The intentions are the same, we want to enable people to come in and make games. What you have to get are really good games and fun games. Focus on the fun part. There are people who are going to make a living off of it, and you need to make a fair representation to them that you’re going to get some good quality stuff and some more experimental games that won’t appeal to people. This will speak better to the type of games that we’ll see in the system.

NC (Moderator): While anyone could make a game that would go up on the indie games channel, it’s unlikely that everyone would.

BM: It’s not the easiest thing to do, there’s a lot of room in the industry to make it more approachable and allow people to write their own games. Even if you know how to write the code, the artwork is not super easy either.

NC (Moderator): In reference to kodu, do you think there’s a distinction between amateur side and commercial side? is there a further difference in pro and amateur indie games?

JS: You can’t really tell how much resources have been put into it. The one thing that would help with division is a difference between apps and games section.

BM: I see a division, but as long as it’s clearly defined it’s fine, the pro and the amateur division. I don’t care who makes it. I just want to help people find the better content. the user rating system is really important.

NC (Moderator): Simon, how do you choose what to cover?

SC: It’s interesting, it’s been running for a while. Most of the content is free and it’s mainly flash and freeware stuff. There’s quite a few flavors of indie developers out there. The word indie is being overused right now. Anyone who is not a major publisher is calling themselves indie. They have good methods for filtering the good stuff. It’s so easy to make games nowadays and there’s millions of them. How do you know what to play? TIGsource, user ratings, indiegames highlight the good stuff. The selection for them is a bigger problem than making games for games. the problem is how to make sure people see them.

NC (Moderator): Do you think micro-transactions will help indie games?

MM: Hopefully one of those days that will a feature

NC (Moderator): Derek, what do you think of add-in sales?

DY: If an independent developer finds an interesting way to sell their game and keep on going, I’m not one way or another. As long as the motives are pure.

NC (Moderator): Do you believe indie games is overused?

DY: It runs the risk. People are going to latch on to it and run with it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The people for that the label is genuinely important and whom it means something to and to whom the recognition is important, those people should work hard to define it for themselves by the kind of work that they do.

SC: We’ll step in if someone is egregiously not indie. But otherwise it’s a label that people associate themselves with. For example, Pixel Junk Eden was a bit of a controversy. They are based in japan and 30 people. In terms of intentionality, it was self-funded, completely on the side, and it was published on the side. Some people had a problem with the fact that the guy worked on the original starfox and have been in the industry for quite a long time.

NC (Moderator): What would you want to see more of to see indie games thrive?

MM: It would be awesome if there were more ways to help fund and find ways for more people to get started on indie games. Micro-financing for games to help encourage people to publish their games.

BM: For independent games and to raise the overall awareness, I want to see a couple more hits come out of it. I’m still waiting for the game that comes through and everyone wants to play it. When everyone knows about the space, there’s money there, there’s audience there, it’s a virtuous cycle and you’ll see more games.

DY: More hits would be fine but I’d like to see more people making games and getting involved in communities. The big surprise for me out of the whole indie scene is that the people who are involved are so tightly knit. Everyone loves what they do. I would like to see more indie games. Games are a great way to deliver educational topics and to get people to learn things without them getting to know it.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote last week on MochiLand. Original post linked here.

PAX 2009: A Strategic Approach to Game Design

Geoffrey Zatkin, president and COO of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR), gave an interesting talk about what strategic questions developers should ask themselves before diving into game development. While I don’t believe that this is 100% relevant to the Flash games market, it did raise some interesting questions for me on how smaller indie devs can look for market data in planning their games. It may not be to this level, but it’s a great framework to think about what questions you could ask! I’d love to hear anyone who has thoughts on this.

A Strategic Approach to Game Design

Zatkin defines strategic game design as focusing on the WHAT and the WHY, all in advance of the tactical execution side where you focus on HOW you implement and build the game. What and why are all about the big picture and why you’re making the game in the first place, and is strongly based on the purpose and atmosphere of the game and planning for any anticipated problems. He makes the argument that many teams during production lose sight of the strategic vision, reverting to tactical decision making.

He started off by asking about your planned goals as a developer, such as whether or not you’re building a commercial or independent game. Are you hired to do it or trying to make $$? If your goal is to ship a game, then your goal is really making a game that will sell well. You can take that one step further and ask where you’re planning to have it sell, because that has implications that can incur cost afterward. If you’re launching in Asia, gamers must be able to play with one hand so that they can drink/smoke with the other. In Germany, you can’t build a game with red blood but you can have green blood. Overall, there are a lot of considerations to explore early because it’s expensive to adjust this later.

“The most common reason why games suck is lack of resources or money and then re-working and re-engineering it,” Zatkin said to the crowd. To him, it’s about planning the core of the game and setting a clear vision that can be communicated to everyone in charge of building it. Decide what you’re making early on and disseminate it to your team so that they are surprised as little as possible. “Write it down, use lots of adjectives, make a lot of references to other games,” he urged.

Gathering Data

  • Sales and sales projections
  • Sales from comparable games
  • Check your hardware and see if gamers can actually play it
  • Who are your competitors? What’s their launch schedule?
  • Look at your feature set

Zatkin presented a bunch of interesting data/graphs as an example. I snapped a few photos from his presentation, please don’t mind people’s hair/shoulders getting in the way.

PAX 2009

This graph indicates that the first three months of a console game represents the bulk of sales for the game title. There’s a little bump comes from the holiday wave. The big problem is that games don’t have a secondary distribution channel (e.g., movies can go on dvd, tv, airplanes) so for big-budget and even mid-budget games, you should be careful.

PAX 2009

This is a boxplot graph of racing genre games — light blue is 25%, dark blue is mid 50%, bottom blue is bottom 25%. The average revenue price is misleading, since the high performance games drag the average up to 110k but the median is 65k. In general, 25% sold 18k units or less and devs get 20–30% of box sale prices.

PAX 2009

This was Zatkin’s example of a competitive matrix with a listing of features. Creating these can be helpful for competitive information and to understand what your audience expects. Also, market size can defer dramatically based off of a couple big factors (e.g., teen shooters and adult shooters).

Zatkin makes the point that developers need to be thinking about data like this. While everyone can make a game, making a game that does well requires forethought about how to get the game out and sell and market it. From the game design standpoint, he says that you need a strong leader in the group that pushes a clear vision along.

Pax 2009

In the console world, Zatkin’s data indicates that game quality is a strong indicator of game sales. Realistically, since all games are compared relative to other games, not every game is going to get a 8/10 or higher. Looking at groupings of game reviews and sales. getting a 90+ game sells three times on average. Looking at 5,267 games across consoles. game reviewers have a strong correlation to the gaming audience. In short, quality really does make a difference.

Making a Game

  • Fun — It’s important not to lose sight of making a game fun. Fun is a nebulous concept and contextual. However, while it’s hard to make a game fun there are some very concrete things that will keep a game from being fun. Keep those not-fun elements out of control so that the fun elements can shine through.
  • Priorities — No team has ever gotten everything they want into a game, you have to prioritize. Discipline in making a list of what you want pays off because it helps you prioritize and place new features onto the list and show what will drop off. This helps make sure you have time to focus on finding the “fun” level.
  • Feedback — start getting feedback early on m1 or m2, especially if you’re an indie developer. Getting feedback early is important to make sure you’re building the right thing. Consumers vote with their dollars.
  • Marketing — integrate with your promotional group. As a game developer, find out early what your marketing and promotion group needs and when. Is it a demo for GDC and a separate demo for PAX? Knowing these things early helps you plan for knowing when the engine is in a good enough state. This also avoids the classic developer and marketing clash. While many developer teams think that if they have a great team, the game will sell by itself. However, data seems to indicate otherwise.

This graph was interesting — these compare game sales between games which release: demo & trailer, demo only, trailer only, no demo or trailer. The vast irony is that some games just aren’t very fun once you actually play them.

This is a re-post of an article I wrote last week on MochiLand. Original post linked here.

PAX 2009: Designing Indie Games With a Team of One

I spent the past weekend at Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. It was a fantastic, packed event and definitely felt more like a gamer convention than a developer convention. The gamer enthusiasm ran the gamut from complex D&D games featuring 20-sided dice, card games like Magic, to XBLA games and hardcore console games. This year, PAX was huge with an estimated count of 75,000 attendees.

Designing indie games with a team of one

One of the most interesting talks I attended was “Designing indie games with a team of one” given by Michael Todd, the creator of several cool games and most recently a neat RTS game with a distinctive visual style called Broken Brothers. You can visit his site to check out his games at www.spyeart.com.

The biggest point in Todd’s talk was the idea that a one-person indie developer should focus on making games that take short periods of time. In specific, he advocates that developers focus on creating short, 7-day games to flex their muscles and get better at game design and development. He says, “Try not to make games that take years, there are lots of penalties to doing it alone and more advantages.” He goes on to outline the advantages and disadvantages of the one-person development team.

Todd started off by describing his first game project, which was an 8-month standard game that cost him $5,000 to publish. The budget for his game was spent on an artist and marketing, but discovered that it is truly difficult to stay motivated and in the law of averages, there are lots of ways to fail in a larger project. According to Todd, working solo is not well suited to long-term projects but works well with short term projects. It’s easy to get depressed, bored, and distracted. Despite the strength of your work ethic, the lack of deadlines and the office environment with others to buoy you up often make it harder to complete games. He advocates the idea of a “game in 7 days” where the idea is to make a game in under a week, forcing you to adapt to a time limit. His games Garden, Beekeeper and Broken Brothers were all 7-day games.

Benefits of making games in 7 days:

  • Some game design scales, while some doesn’t. Lessons learned for small projects are often the exact same learnings as for a larger project but you learn them faster.
  • Game in 7 days forces you to make simple choices and creates a clear success/failure feedback loop so you can learn how to do it better each time.
  • Building experience — you’re creating actual games, not mods/game docs. This is a great way to get games onto your resume to get into a gaming career.
  • Understanding the need for simplicity in design because you have to plan and time-manage closely to complete a game in 7 days.
  • Game in 7 days allows you to try crazy ideas that you wouldn’t risk for a larger project. Afterall, it’s only a weeks worth of time!
  • Petri Purho did 10 games per week until he got crayon physics. Compare this to warcraft 3 or spore and it’s a lifetime to get 10 games out.

Todd candidly admits that small free indie games don’t make any money, and cautions the audience not to have the expectation of becoming millionaires overnight — “statistically, it’s not going to happen”. However, creating many small games does increase the chance of succeeding and being turned into a large game that does make money. Making games in a week over a few months is a great way to increase your ability to properly design, build and finish a game and this teaches you the discipline to finish a game with a limited amount of resources.

The Pros of Working Solo

  • Perfect team communication and high efficiency. Two people is the worst team size for games because there’s a cost to communication and everything has to be verbalized.
  • Passion — get to make the game you want to make (idea method style)
  • Money — You get all (most) of the money. Even a decent sized check split between 3 people quickly becomes a small amount for each person.
  • Doing whatever you want

The Cons of Working Solo

  • Less total labor available.
  • Multi-tasking and dealing with art, programming, design & business on your own.
  • Prone to failure over long time periods because it’s hard to stay motivated.
  • You pay for everything (even if you get to keep all the money that comes in)
  • Doing whatever you want can bite you, because it can be hard to maintain a good work ethic.

Development in Practice

If you’re trying to work successfully as a solo developer, Todd recommends that you get rid of your TV and other distractions and try to connect with a community. To actually get this done, he cited a couple things: using easy tools like Flash, Gamemaker and Unity to get started building games quickly; learning colour theory (“If you don’t know it, learn it, it’s awesome”); and combining several easy cool art styles if you’re not great at art — e.g., combined circles, lines, shapes, tiny art. He emphasizes avoiding programmer OCD and getting bogged down in the small details (perfect spacing, comments, etc.) and focusing on getting the game out while staying motivated. Having a good relationship with other indie developers in town can be be crucial for this. “Don’t get ground down into making a dull game,” he cautions, “Get your game out early and get feedback so it’s fun.”

This is a re-post of an article I wrote last week on MochiLand. Original post linked here.

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