A favoured put-down in business blogs at the moment is the phrase ‘If you build it, they will come’. It refers to Field of Dreams in which a man sets out to build a baseball field in the middle of his farm because the ghosts of baseball tell him that he should. The theme of the film is to do with following your dreams. Don't worry, it promises. Everything will work out if you commit.
Nonsense, says the business community. Believing in dreams is the path of irrational exuberance, vanity and storytelling. Validate. Get out of the building and talk to customers. Sell them something to prove that you really do have a market and not a whole lot of hot air. Measure. Learn.
Are the naysayers right or wrong?
The Problem With Being Sensible
Most executives regard build-it-and-they-will-come as folly. They think that following your dreams without proof is a recipe for disaster, and that emotions and subjectivity make for bad decisions.
Perhaps that is true in meat-and-potato industries, but then meat-and-potato industries (by which I mean products and services) tend to be looking to find replicable processes (secret sauces) that they can scale. It makes more sense to figure out the right flavour for a cola before you manufacture 100m bottles of it and spend $100m on a flashy advertising campaign, not after.
All very sound and sensible. And for games, misguided.
The arts are generally resistant to proof and process. About the only replicable process in the arts is to sell to the young (who are impressionable) via massive television campaigns and hope to dominate their attention enough to succeed. And that doesn’t work so well any more. The problem that executives across all the arts are facing is that they are increasingly being sideswiped by the Justin Biebers or Angry Birds’s. Nobody seems to have a formula for success any more, and publishing as we used to know it has become unstable.
So anyone can see why the validate-and-then-commit approach is so attractive. It seems to offer some sense of sanity in a world apparently gone mad where even the go-to strategy of hot ticket platforms is no longer safe.
Here’s the problem though: Proof is slow. Too slow.
Avoidance Through Metrics
As I wrote on Monday, you need a marketing story. And also, if you wait too long then you risk surfing at the back of the wave. Furthermore, going down the route of building a minimum viable product doesn’t often work well because it confuses loops for functions. Selling for features is also on a hiding to nowhere because customers don’t care about features. Lacking a story, waiting too long, building for features and thinking you will find a market with poorly built functions is just a waste of time.
The downfall of relying on proof in game publishing (and many other large organisations) is that there is never enough data. There are always new ways to examine behaviours, test prototypes and analyse purchase motivations. So much so in fact that those data points all become ways to avoid decisions.
It is human nature to want to choose obvious right answers. Teachers often find that most of the pupils in their class will not put their hands up to answer hard questions, for fear of the embarrassment of being wrong, and this is the sort of behaviour that carries forward into the workplace. In many workplaces, those who are wrong are often punished or side-lined, whereas those who cast their weight in with the obvious consensus answer are the ones that succeed.
Metrics are thus an ideal method for avoiding commitment, and thus the embarrassment of making bad decisions. Whenever the situation is unclear, ask for more data, more analysis and more presentations until the situation either resolves itself or an obvious answer presents. That can take months, or even years.
And then you’ve missed the wave.
Leadership Is Better Than Proof
If you build it they will come is a creation. Somebody wrote it, put it in a movie and it spread around the world as a cultural meme far beyond the film. The creators of that film just did it, and it spread. It’s a marketing story.
The story itself is an example of how things not proven, but created, resonate. So too is Beyonce Knowles' Single Ladies music video, the Star Wars kid, the humour of Ze Frank, Paranormal Activity, the early success of Harry Potter and the popularity of Doom. They were built. People came. They resonated.
Is it just luck?
Sometimes. The Star Wars kid is an example of an accidental meme. He became famous for a little while, but where is he now? The one-hit wonder manages to stumble into a marketing story but then fails to really do anything with it, and so becomes a passing fad. And it’s creator along with it.
However, the majority of successful marketing stories are not just luck. Madonna is not simply lucky, nor are Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs or Peter Molyneux. What distinguishes the successful marketing story is leadership. Leadership requires a leader, who has a cause, a vision and a creation to sell to customers who want to believe. In many cases the reason why a one-hit wonder subsequently goes nowhere is that the storyteller either remains anonymous, or has no real follow-through to give his audience. So the resonance fades.
At their heart the marketing stories of games are heavily intertwined with the marketing stories of their developers, in particular the person or label that symbolises leadership. Leadership is driven by personality, humanity and instinct. A sustainable marketing story requires a storyteller who lives the story and leads others to follow it.
What games sell is entertainment, but the successful marketing story sells not just one game, but a lifetime of connection (and therefore more games). They sell communities, membership, belonging, culture and art. Regardless of where a game sits on the engagement hierarchy, small or big, for a fee or via a virtual good, it’s the same.
When a game resonates with its customers, the marketing story forms a relationship. The customers sees something in that artwork, song or movie that tells that story to them, it becomes something significant, and they want to know more. The leader is able to keep telling that story, faster than metrics can possibly hope to.
How To Decide?
The difference between the leader and the validator is that a leader is willing to make decisions while a validator waits for the universe to make a decision for him. The leader has a vision and the will to make it happen. The validator says wait. The leader says that the organisation is going one way. The validator says keep your options open.
The problem with the validator is that he will want to wait forever. In my experience most startup investors in the UK are in love with the idea of investing but actually never make an investment decision. They are always waiting for the universe to align perfectly, and so they they are permanently in validation mode.
The pure leader on the other hand, runs the risk of being a pure ego. Some projects have spent tens of millions of dollars in the service of a leader who has no idea what is going on in the outside world, and they subsequently fail. Tabula Rasa certainly seems to have been that kind of project.
As a designer, I have found metrics to be useful, but at other times I have made decisions based on a gut feeling or an idea and just hoped that things would work out. Even in this blog I have metrics from Google and Typepad giving me some indication of post popularity, but in reality the depth of information that they give is not that useful for deciding what to write about next. Instead, I write to my passions.
The middle way is to use specific metrics to answer specific questions, but to deliberately keep the number of metrics low. If you are not sure whether the difficulty of a loop in your game is actually too hard, then you should work to measure that and be sure.
On the other hand, you should be very wary of allowing your metrics to start dictating your marketing story. It is very easy to get lost in metrics and to become one of those people who is obsessed with measuring everything all at once. What happens if you do that is endless analysis of what data points might mean. This lengthens the amount of time that it takes to respond to the market and lead, and that in turn compromises your marketing story.
And when the marketing story is compromised, the game and the company eventually suffer, and are probably doomed.
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