Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Paying the distributor

Thought this post from Seth Godin was particularly interesting and have wanted to share it for a week or so.

It talks about retail, where the last mile, getting your good or service to the consumer:

accounts for the bulk of the cost of the service or good being sold.
Retailers get half. Insurance people get commissions. Distributors make their share.

In the downloadable distribution model of games, we run into the same issue. After making the game, how do you get it to consumers? Though it seems like the Internet should solve this issue and make it easy to find people to buy, the sheer amount of information on the Internet makes finding customers as difficult as it was in retail. (which, btw, is why casual game portals can give developers a 25-40% of the revenue and keep 60-75% for themselves)

Seth addressed this point and should get you thinking about a solution:

If you're not going to plan on paying the messenger, your offering better be so remarkable and have such a viral story that your investment in product eliminates the need for media and sales.

Many Indie game developers start out with the idea that they can simply make their game and that people will naturally pass it on. Viral marketing is really hard. There are very few products that are viral. Expecting your product to be viral is probably not the best approach.

What is the best approach?

That depends on you and your product. At the Game Developer's Conference in March of this year I did a session on marketing Indie games. I suggested that developers should use the portals, and abuse the portals by placing things in their games such as level editors and obvious, but obscured secrets, that would cause players to go out looking for the developer's own website. Over time, you can build an audience that comes directly to you.

Friday, November 16, 2007

NPD - Spin it good

A goal of marketing is to control the message. I found the messages near the NPD October results particularly interesting.

  • Microsoft's Message - You may have sold more, but our stuff sold for more money. Therefore we are king. (Just overlook the fact that all 360 stuff costs more, hence the higher gross...)
  • Sony's Message - October was bad, but it's also in the past. Forget the past, live in the present. Right now, we are king. (which of course we can't confirm, and that is kind of the point)
  • Nintendo's Message - We're selling as many consoles as ship to retail. (...but note, they aren't shipping all the consoles to retail! They state they're making 1.8 million consoles per month. NA 520k + Europe 500k + Japan 150k = 1170k. Where are the other 630k? Not in Australia! Guaranteed they are in a warehouse, being held until the holidays to ensure that Nintendo is the top selling console for December in NA, instead of coming in second b/c it didn't have enough units to sell. There is no spin like a spin you are preparing for two months in advance.)

So coming out of the NPD spin did you get spun?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sales data and Top 10 Lists

Recently the NPD had stated that they would no longer be providing their estimates of hardware and software sales to the media, which meant that the public wouldn't be seeing them. The public was outraged and NPD was surprised by the widespread backlash.

This phenomenon is really quite interesting. After all, if you've already bought a Wii or X360, why should you care how many are selling each month? What difference does it make when you've already made your purchase?

In July of this year I did a compilation of 3 years worth of GameTunnel's monthly round-up, creating a Top 100 games list based on the round-ups. In addition to learning that most people don't actually read an article before responding to it, doing the top 100 compilation reinforced something I'd already learned through my Game of the Year articles, people need context.

Each year GameTunnel has done a game of the year article highlighting the Top 10 Indie games. It's an impossible task that cannot possibly please everyone and will even leave some people indignant. Doing the Game of the Year awards takes around 160 hours of my time every December. So why am I doing it again?

If you go to the listing of Action games on GameTunnel, you are quick to become overloaded. There are so many games! Which ones are good?

This is the problem of context.

There has been some decrying of review scores lately and I agree with the complaints. In fact GT did away with review scores 3 years ago. However, I'm not sure that not having review scores helps the general public.

The general public needs some sort of context to make decisions or the decision will be to do something else with their time and money. Looking at the list of Action games on GameTunnel, you should be able to find a game you will absolutely love. However, due to the fact that you have no context to compare the games one to another, you are more likely to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of games and quickly move onto somewhere else where there is context.

The GOTY awards for GT provide context. Though impossible to make the perfect list of top games, it provides a list of games that are considered to be the best. It's a starting point. It gives the reader a context to work within. It keeps people from feeling overwhelmed by the available choices and gives them direction.

NPD data also provides direction. Though the blog commenters who complained about not having the data have already purchased hardware and software, most of them are trying to put their purchases into context. Are they a part of the majority? Are they missing out on something? There is a secondary issue of the comfort of the majority, but the primary issue is context.

If you make games, what is the context that will get people to notice them? Nintendo used alpha moms to make the Wii more relevant and a brilliant pack-in game. Mystery Case Files launched a new game this week that is more of the same, but more polished. However, the brand gives context and makes the game have tremendous value that it wouldn't have had if it had been released as a MCF game. Jay Barnson runs a blog about RPGs and development and sells games he recommends alongside the blog.

Indie and casual games both face a low awareness and struggle in having the right context for the customer. How to help customers find quickly find something so they don't leave, and so that they also add the vendor's website to the small list of sites they visit frequently.

How are you providing context to what you are doing? How are you helping your customers find things for them? If you aren't doing it, be assured someone else is.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Wii bit of fun

After reading an interview from Eidos' CTO Julien Merceron I couldn't help but blog about it. The thought put forward is that if 3rd party games don't sell on the Wii this Christmas, 3rd parties will decrease their support, and that will hurt the Wii sales. (read it here)

The Wii is really leaving people scratching their heads as it seems that most 3rd parties aren't sure what to do. However, I think the clear thing to do is to make good games. No 3rd party has yet tried something as ambitious as Zelda, Mario Galaxy, Super Paper Mario or Metroid on the platform. That's understandable as a year ago the 3rd parties were caught totally surprised when the Wii sold and the PS3 floundered. Immediately effort went into making Wii games, but they've mostly been low-effort games such as the library of Ubisoft ports and rushed EA efforts like EA Playground (no depth) and Boogie (no fun).

But let's think about the logic put forward by Eidos.
1 - 3rd party games aren't selling
2 - if they don't sell this Christmas 3rd parties will decrease support
3 - if 3rd parties decrease support the Wii won't sell well.

Do you see the problem? #3 isn't supported by numbers 1 & 2.
If currently condition 1 exists and the Wii is selling well, than condition 1 does not have any impact on the Wii selling well. Removing games that are already not selling well won't impact the Wii.

The second issue is the one that I alluded to earlier. 3rd party games aren't selling well because, 3rd parties aren't making good games for the Wii.

What is the highest profile 3rd party release so far on the Wii? I think it is Red Steel, an early effort that was a decent try, but beyond that, what high profile games have been made? Mario & Sonic at the Olympics isn't exactly 3rd party. Guitar Hero 3 is, and it's probably the highest profile, however its not exclusive by any means, and most would state that it was the number 3 sku for the Activision in terms of importance.

If 3rd party developers don't make good games they aren't going to sell on the Wii. Blaming Nintendo for the problem is disingenuous. Unless of course the blaming is something along the lines of "we can't compete with Nintendo on the Wii, their games are so much better than ours that we don't stand a chance." No CTO in their right mind will state that, but its a lot closer to the truth of the matter, but it has probably more to do with publisher's not understanding what a good game for the Wii is.

As soon as I see any 3rd party game near the quality of the top teir 1st party releases on the Wii (or even the DS for that matter) and receiving a lot of love from its developer (sorry Zach and Wiki, that's where you get off), and it doesn't sell well, then we can talk about the problem being Nintendo. Until then, 3rd party developers should focus more on making solid products and less on blaming Nintendo for their shovelware not selling.

Interestingly, the top 10 Wii games for September are as follows:
Wii Play W/ Remote (Nintendo)
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Nintendo)
Mario Party 8 (Nintendo)
Carnival Games (Take-Two Interactive)
My Sims (Electronic Arts)
Mario Strikers: Charged (Nintendo)
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 (Electronic Arts)
Madden NFL 08 (Electronic Arts)
Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo)
Resident Evil 4 (Capcom)

5/10 games are by Nintendo, 3/10 by EA and the other 3 are split. RE4 was initially an exclusive for the GCN (and was the top selling GCN game the year it was released).

The more interesting point is one that Bill Harris made in regards to Carnival Games being the best selling 3rd party game despite getting horrible reviews. I wanted to echo his point.

Reviews on mulitiplayer games are scoring the games badly because they are looking at the single player experience. I've rented a lot of multiplayer games and my biggest surprise has been that games that received horrible reviews like Donkey Kong Barrel Blast and NBA Live 08 are actually good games. However, if you play them alone they are horrible. Since most of my play is with my kids, and we play A LOT, I have a very different perspective on what a fun game is. EA Playground - not fun, because it isn't fun playing it together. NBA Live 08, great fun because we can really enjoy playing together. However, in playing single player on both those games my opinion is reversed. EA Playground is a great single-player game with decent depth. NBA Live 08 is a horrible single-player basketball (as usual). The problem began with low scores on Wii Sports, and as a single player it isn't great, but as a multiplayer it is without question one of the best games every made.

However, review scores are clearly focused on the single player experience or the multiplayer experience where each person is located in different locations and connected by the internet. There is a new type of gamer, those who play together in groups. Reviewers are starting to note the trend, but they aren't sure how to review for it. Most interesting was the recent Mario and Sonic at the Olympics review by GamePro that suggested casual gamers would like it (though the reviewer wasn't a casual gamer). I think a lot of reviewers are starting to feel like they are having to guess a game might score better for a different crowd...and they are starting to realize, the Wii has succeeded in bringing in players who the reviewers have very little in common with.

End result?
Developers for the Wii need to focus on making great games first. RE4 is selling (over 1 million copies so far), Metroid is selling. Good games sell. Carnival Games is a good game, but I think most publishers, like most reviewers don't understand why, and THAT is why publishers are having a hard time selling games on the Wii.

Those publishers who understand why are going to find themselves selling plenty of games on the Wii. Publishers who try the more traditional approach of putting their third string developers on a port of some key title from another platform, so that they can say they have games on the Wii, are going to find themselves at a loss as to why not only Mario Party and Metroid, but also Carnival Games and Cooking Mama sell and their games don't. In either case, learning who the market is and making good games for that market is the key. The only thing that has changed on the Wii is who that market is. Some developers are still trying to figure that out.