A curious blog post over at Develop maintains that big-console developers and publishers need to be secretive to avoid over-promising features and getting yelled at. Whereas independent developers can apparently be open because indie players are much more forgiving.
Anyone who works in metric-led development will probably see this as flawed reasoning. They come from the school of minimum viable product, customer validation and proof. Hiding your game and ensuring that nobody gets to see it until you are ready to rock? That's just another way of saying you want to spend millions of dollars inflating your ego for no real purpose (in their view).
Are they right? Mostly.
Robert Levine (author of "Free Ride") uses the phrase "pixie dust" to describe the enhancing effect that well-packaged media can bestow. Pixie dust is the advertising, trailers, previews, interviews and teasers that comprise the promotion of the game. Its purpose is to foster a sense of illusion and myth around the art and artist, thereby enhancing their value. So they become celebrities.
PR people, publicists, advertisers and journalists are essentially a part of the same cycle, and this technique to promote is used widely in film, music, book and game publishing. Technology companies also use much the same approach, as do politicians, religions, and various other figures.
A common assumption in retail-ish markets is that you need pixie dust to be successful, and so game makers big and small have often tried to project that image. They're secretive, salesy, hire publicists and try to play the PR game. In more recent times (even in digital formats) the same logic has reappeared. Developers are increasingly stressed about discoverability, about getting featured in blogs and the like. Even this specialist blog receives press enquiries on a daily basis, wondering if I'll write a feature on a new mobile game or accept a guest post about a social game that I've never heard of.
All pixie dust strategies about getting on front pages. The primary strategy of all pixie dust is to get into the top slot, the front bay of the retailer, of iTunes and so on. If you can generate enough attention then you can generate enough demand, which in turn will generate retailer interest and so place your product in front of a much wider audience.
But what if you can't do that?
Another way to look at pixie dust is to think of it as being good on TV. Most of the people that we consider famous, legendary or otherwise talented are good on TV, and TV is good for them. TV gets their message into the homes of many millions of people.
TV essentially is a giant pyramid, and those who are atop the pyramid are like pharohs viewing over all. They become mythic by virtue of their position (good or bad). However have you ever noticed that we still have many of the old celebrities today that we used to 20 years ago, that many of the new figures that appear (in any industry) seem more ordinary and accessible, but also less legendary? That the pyramid seems shorter?
There's a very good reason why: the internet makes culture more conversational, which makes the broadcast messaging of the TV era much less effective. People connect, talk, comment, tweet, make jokes, undercut, laugh at and otherwise take the sting out of that which is supposed to be magical. And only those with long histories are immune to that effect. Their reputations were built in a time before commentary, not after.
For most of us, the world is much flatter. It seems as though there might be new gatekeepers which replace the old, like Facebook and Apple instead of TV, or blogs instead of magazines. However that's not really the case. While the front page effect of iTunes is not to be sniffed at, there is far less direct commissioning of creative in that environment than ever there was on TV. Meanwhile Facebook may have 950m eyeballs, but all of its content is algorithmically sorted.
The kinds of song-and-dance that events like E3 represent have zero effects in those newer markets, and instead they are heavily influenced by social conversations, which have the twin effect of bursting pixie dust bubbles while elevating those who have made genuine contributions, warts and all.
Unleash the Geeks
In the stereotypical carnival there is always a tent which promises to show the viewer the geeks. They are kept behind curtains and a sales pitch invites the audience to step right up, step right up and witness astounding incredible and indescribable marvels. That's the pixie dust method.
However in flatland there are too many carnivals and tents, and many of the geeks are the same. The problem is not the pitch or the magic, but the fact that there are so many. Being secretive when everyone else is doing likewise and trying to play the celebrity without the broadcast reach doesn't work. It's just silence, and there is so much more free noise out there for the audience to pay attention to instead.
Increasingly what works is the strategy of unleashing the geek, showing off early and getting conversational with early adopters. Firing up Kickstarter campaigns to see if the market really considers your geek worth seeing, a story worth buying into. Measuring impacts and changing accordingly. Being open, on Twitter, willing to respond to everyone if need be. That's where projects like Black Mesa Source and Planetary Annhilation come from. They construct their own pyramid.
However this is where most studios get it wrong. They stay very quiet, becoming self-congratulating echo chambers. They hide, fret over whether they are giving away too much and letting the audience see what's behind the curtain. Developers get fired if they break the seal without proper stage management and pixie-dusting. And when time comes to launch, said studios essentially deposit their product on "marketing" (i.e. advertising dollars) to do whatever it is that it is supposed to do.
By not unleashing the geek, they avoid the truth. "We should have marketed better" they say. What they should say is "We hid in a tent and nobody came to see us".
Staying secret and relying on pixie dust is really not about the fear of being yelled at. If you're being yelled at it means you are doing something wrong, but within that is the possibility to do something right. The fans care enough to be angry, and that's not nothing. What it's actually about is the fear of being ignored, that in unleashing the geek the audience will judge the game average, and that sort of truth is hard to deal with. Yet if you want to overcome that discoverability issue then that truth is what you need.
So unless you already have celebrity, do not act like you do. Be open, and don't worry about being embarassed or harassed. Worry if nobody seems to give a damn.