It's really tough to design a game, prototype it, ship it and fix all of its bugs. It feels like that should be the end of the story and that - if you do all of the above well - rewards should be yours. Execution, not ideas, etc.
And yet in all likelihood the media and the public will react with apathy. The fault is likely not with your coding skills, production values, the quality of your music or your design. It's with your approach. You are telling a story which is all about you.
'Me Me Me', your story cries, look how cool I am. Look how quirky I am. Look how awesome I am. Now pay me. That’s a product story, but it’s not a marketing story. A marketing story is about them, not you.
The Masterwork Age
A marketing story says look how this game lets you do awesome things. Look how this game validates you. Look how this game's values resonate with yours. Look how this game is about you. Look how this games is part of a movement that you believe should happen. Players buy into marketing stories because they resonate with something in which they already believe.
It's really important to understand this:
We do not live in the founderwork age. That was when nobody had expectations of what games are or should be, and when every new discovery was an eye-opening revelation. I know a lot of you (especially those of you who actually make games, or want to) think we still live in that age of innocence and infancy, where making games is all about the invention of genres.
But we don’t. We live in the masterwork age.
The player still wants to be inspired, but he is not innocent. He is complicated, has a mix of common or eclectic pre-conceived ideas swimming around in his mind. He is media literate, communicates with like-minded people online about his ideas and so is a member of at least one subculture. He has signifiers, coded communication and often a pre-existing sense of what he believes is right and true about games.
The founderwork believer thinks he is the market, but really he’s just a member of one of the innumerable niches that make up the masterwork age. He thinks of games as mechanisms, products, whose appeal is entirely about their frame. But that’s just him, his values and his sense of what games should be. When a game that satisfies those values comes along it resonates with something which he already believes.
In the masterwork age everybody has expectations.
The Storysense of a Market
This is what marketers mean when they describe a product or service as having a story. A marketing story is one with storysense, rather like how playing a game also has storysense. There is no beginning or end as such, just a sense of a place, a motion toward some achievement far away and a tension or agitation that propels the player toward action.
In the masterwork age, the story is constantly interpreted and evaluated by both reviewers and customers. Cool is not so much about how inventive you are, it is about your pedigree. It’s about where your game sits in a context. What it says about the medium. What it says about them. Whether they identify with the story.
Authenticity is the most important currency. The same trends driving people toward artisanal goods, interests in history and remade movies applies to games too. Players don't want the new, they want the new that has a clear link with the best of the old. Heritage, lineage and cultural self-identification matter. The idea of taking some old ideas and refashioning them (or “doing them right”) is often more powerful than just making something up.
It is no accident that the rock stars of 10-30 years ago are still the rock stars of today. It is no accident that many successful indie games have an identifiably traditional aesthetic. On the surface this kind of purchase behaviour looks a lot like either buying for status (to be in the in crowd) or defeatist conservatism. It’s neither.
While fashion-ability certainly plays its part, as does a tendency for lesser makers to just clone each others’ work, it’s not enough to explain many successes. This behaviour is instead about affirmation. The products that speak to players’ faith (in regards to games) in their self-formed niches (religions) are the ones that ignite their passions. Starting from that point you can go on to change their world, but you need to talk to them on their own terms first.
A great marketing story resonates with a niche and turns it into a tribe. It says something, and embodies the values or ideas in a storyteller (a person or group that stands for the cause). That could be a belief about what games should be, what awesomely futuristic use their platform can be put to or what fantasy they have always nurtured. Whatever. It's about them.
I see the failure to realise this all the time: Well produced games, about which their intended market has no reason to care, because the games say nothing about the beliefs that the market holds. Games that try to advertise themselves, convince people to buy them, fall over themselves practically begging players to try them. Games that are in a world of taglines and trailers and guerrilla marketing deceptions to try and steal attention. Me Me Me.
And yet I also see projects with (perhaps) poor production values with 100,000 paying users. Often this happens much to the general amazement of their creators. They wonder how they managed to catch such a lucky break, and how they might do it again. Though they might not realise it, they’ve tapped into a story that the market already believes in. Them Them Them.
On the iOS platform alone there are 700,000 apps making the same proposition for players as you. Me Me Me. Try Me. Faced with such a wall of choice, players plum for what's in front of their faces (visible), what they already know (familiarity), or what speaks to them (marketing story). Everything else is shovelware.
The ‘speaks to them’ factor is why Tim Schafer got funded. There are at least 87,142 people out there who believe that adventure games are not dead. Are they right or wrong? That doesn’t matter. They’re willing to donate to support their religion, and that’s how you need to think. Like a preacher.
Lean startup advocates say that customer validation is about testing whether they will pay, but in games I think it needs to go one step further. Player validation is about finding out whether they will talk. Will they market for you without incentives? Will they share, encourage, make videos and meme jokes about your game? Talkers indicates that you have found a tribe. They care.
If they don't talk, they just don't care. You're not tapping into a story about them. You're not validating their life choices. You're not inspiring them on the terms that they find inspiring. It sounds weird but unless you know the tribe will talk, then it is a mistake to just make games.
Trying to make players care about something that is all about you is the best way to get very depressed, by the way. Their indifference will sap your soul. The better strategy is to talk to the audience and engage with the stories that it cares about. Let that be your starting position for going on to change the world.