Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Why is marketing still a blind spot for indies?

What early lessons can VR devs take from the indie scene, where the marketplace is already mature and getting crowded? We asked indie game marketer Hannah Flynn to write a follow-up to her Develop 2016 talk about this indie blind spot.

I work within a medium-sized team, covering all aspects of comms with my marketing manager. Our meta-job is to ask questions, raise flags, and encourage the right amount of thought about how the rest of the world will perceive our games. Sometimes that results in changes to the games! But marketing monsters with ridiculous demands are a thing of myth (or possibly just of AAA, I can’t be sure - I haven’t worked in AAA).

The videos of sessions from Develop 2016 have just been released to ticket-holders, meaning you can go back and pick up sessions you missed.

I spent probably three or four days working on my session, You Need to Hire a Marketer, to which about 10 people came, most of whom I knew by name.

Other than making a clear attempt to tug your heartstrings and get you to watch my video, I want to ask: why didn’t people come? Why do so many indie studios still treat marketing as a hindrance?

I’ve got a few hypotheses:

Marketing is evil. Or so the popular narrative goes: marketers are suits who interfere with game designers’ craft. Pushing poor decisions based on what will sell and blaming devs when games fail.

Marketers are expensive. Some of us are. But these days there are different ways to pay people, options for flexible working, and more graduates than ever wanting to get into games. There are ways to afford marketing support which don’t break the bank.

Marketers are scammers. As soon as you’re on Steam Greenlight you’ll probably be approached by marketing firms offering you services. Some of these make sense but others will sound like they’re promising the world, meaning they couldn’t possibly deliver it.

I can do it myself. Anything looks easier from the outside. I’m sensible enough of my abilities to know that I couldn’t make a game, and I’d invite you to consider that marketing is a career path in itself which requires its own skills. Some people are excellent self-promoters, bloggers, tweeters - this is wonderful. Hire someone who can help you with the rest of the marketing mix.

Marketing is scary if you have no experience of it, but releasing is scary without marketing. It’s far better to investigate getting marketing support early than to bury your head - your money, time, life - in a game, in the hope that people will just find out about it because it’s good. That can’t happen for all of us.

Hire a marketer. Give the responsibility to someone who likes doing it. Spend more time on your game. Be happier. Sell more games. Make another game. Survive.

If you can’t watch the video, you can view my presentation here. I hope you’ll have a read and tweet to me @h4nchan with your thoughts!

Hannah Flynn is Communications Director for Failbetter Games, makers of Fallen London and Sunless Sea. She has previously worked for Penguin Books, Tate and the NSPCC.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Guest Blog: Developing for VR - Lessons from the Leaders

In this article I’ve interviewed seven leading VR/AR developers to better understand their motivations, challenges, and hopes for the future of the platform. I’ve summarised their answers below.

The people interviewed were:
Patrick O’Luanaigh of nDreams (VR only)
James Marsden of Futurlab (traditional and VR games)
Martin de Ronde of Force Field (VR/AR)
Dave Ranyard - independent VR developer (VR only)
Jason Kingsley of Rebellion (traditional and VR games)
Sam Watts of Tammeka Games (VR only)
Mark Knowles-Lee of Fracture Games (AR only)

Q1. What motivates you to develop for VR?
New challenges - the unknown.
New experiences – possible through new interactions.
Innovation – new possibilities for creativity.
New opportunities - cutting through the noise of other games.

Q2. How do you decide which platforms to target?
Target them all. Many of the studios stated that they’re device agnostic.
Target platforms with unique differentiators. i.e. if a specific device has a differentiating feature, how can you make best use of that.
Go where the audience is. E.g nDreams only develop for devices which they think will sell over one million units.)
The game concept dictates the platform.
Make use of existing partnerships. E.g Futurelab have a fruitful relationship with Sony so it was natural for them to begin working on PlayStation VR.

Q3. What are the specific development issues you face?
People’s variation in sensitivity makes it difficult to design for. Several studios comment about always needing ‘fresh’ players who have not yet built up a tolerance to VR.
Risk. Studios commented that they weren’t sure how big the market will be for some platforms. E.g. Sony have a huge advantage in this area due to its large install base and lower cost of the VR headset.
The lack of a VR IDE. In particular judgements made on scale, lighting and legibility makes development a clunky iterative process (guess, build, test).
Difficulty in accessing hardware.
Need to prototype even the smallest feature. Some things you think will work just don’t. Don’t assume anything or rely on your past experience.

Q4. How do you design for VR?
Test everything – assume nothing.
Comfort is king so be prepared to throw things away - if a feature reduces player comfort for any reason, it has to go.
Change your thinking. Whereas in traditional game dev you want to turn everything up to 11, be more reserved for VR.
Is your experience unique to VR? Could your game only exist in VR? If not, then perhaps it’s not really a VR game, but rather a VR ‘version’ of a traditional game.

Q5. How do you evaluate the VR experience?
User test with as many people as possible due to player variation.
Aim for player comfort first, then emotion.
Is it compelling? The experience should be unlike anything else players have experience before.
Get platform owner feedback.

Q6. What are the key lessons you’ve learned so far?
Player comfort is king. A variety of issues emerged from the studios, however above all is player comfort and making sure your tech and design choices are in line with delivering it.
Experiment. Some things you think will work don’t, and some things which shouldn’t work do.
Technical aspects underlying VR are hugely important. It doesn’t matter how great your game idea is, no one will enjoy it if the tech can’t support it.
Poor design leads to motion sickness, not just frustration.

Q7. What kinds of new games / genres / interactions does VR allow?
It may be go beyond games, into experiences
A greater range of input, such as whole body interaction.
Increased presence - the potential for a greater social experience than ever before.
Design specifically for VR. Don’t ‘port’ your game from the traditional screen into VR.

Q8. Do you have any concerns?
Health and safety.
Market adoption.
Business models.
‘Bad’ VR games may put many people off. There are already some awful VR experiences out there getting high profile exposure, and these may put people off for a long time.

Q9. Will VR be a Success?
VR will be a success.  Our experts are  certain that VR will be a success, however that may take longer to happen than expected.
VR will not replace ‘traditional’ games, it’s just another way to experience them.
AR is likely to eclipse VR for non-entertainment applications.

Summary - Developing for VR Top Lessons Learned
Bear in mind that I only spoke to studios who had already invested in VR development, so this is not a representative sample of developers. So, taking the most popular responses from these developers, here’s the top lessons learned:
Player comfort is key.
Test your assumptions.
There is an opportunity here, but it is a risk.
Is your game unique and compelling for VR?
VR will not replace traditional games, it’s an alternative.
VR will be a success, but it might take some time.

Graham McAllister, Director, Player Research
Graham is the Director of Player Research, an award-winning games user research and playtesting studio based in Brighton, UK.