Cool Factor vs. Purchase Intent
Apr 29th, 2009 by worldblee

Gamasutra had an interesting article today looking at game awareness vs. sales in the case of the Wii game MadWorld from PlatinumGames and SEGA. The game had high awareness and good reviews (80+ scores) yet sold only 66K units in the US according to NPD. VGChartz tracks it as 100K units in the US and 180K worldwide, but either way its sales numbers were smaller than expected based on awareness and coverage of the title.

Here’s a quote from the article:

There has been a great deal of speculation about the underwhelming retail performance of PlatinumGames’ MadWorld, but now research firm OTX’s business intelligence tool GamePlan Insights shows detailed data illustrating the often-thin correlation between online acclaim and real-world retail success, particularly on the Wii platform.

As demonstrated by OTX Gaming Insights director Nick Williams at the Los Angeles Game Conference, with slides made available to Gamasutra, the game’s strong awareness among the hardcore online gaming community bore little relationship with its weak awareness among the wider gaming public.

OTX‘s GamePlan Insights tracking tool, based on a survey of 1,000 gamers, had MadWorld‘s purchase intent at only 2.8%, which placed it 41st among Wii titles. Conversely, IGN‘s tracking of its users had the game ranked highest in interest among Wii games.

So what can we learn from this? For starters, without the aid of research we can probably predict that an extremely violent black and white game (although technically it’s not black and white since the blood is red) won’t sell very well. Feast your eyes on the screen below.

MadWorld screenshot from

MadWorld screenshot from

As you can see, this is not a game that your average Wii Sports player is going to snap up in the first week of release. It has what I would describe as a self-conconsciously ‘edgy’ design style and really violent play mechanics (although in truth the outcome of gameplay is no more violent than most shooters; you’re carving up people with a chainsaw rather than a shotgun but the effect is the same).

Aside from that, it always, always, always pays to look at interest in your game title from the perspective of your actual customer. You (the designer, producer, artist, writer, engineer, product manager, etc.) may love your game, but if it only appeals to people just like yourself your market will be smaller than if it appeals to, for example, the afore-mentioned Wii Sports players. And gamers on IGN’s Wii channel are not representative of the larger Wii market; they’re core guys closer to your dev team than they are to Wii Fit customers.

In this case, we have a cool niche title that appeals to niche players, which is great if that’s in line with your expectations and budget. But if you’re dealing with Other People’s Money (OPM), which you usually are when dealing with a disc-based console game, you have to know the realistic potential of your game (Note: realistic potential, not the potential you wish for your labor of love).

Depending on the dev budget and marketing, MadWorld may end up turning a profit or at least breaking even (Wii-only development, single player, so they have a shot). But if they overshot the mark, they have no excuse since it should have been easy to prognosticate that this game was not likely to be a huge seller (easy for me to say, I know). New IP, developer not that well known, smaller publisher, and niche-oriented gameplay. Not a single one of those attributes screams, “breakout title!”

The lesson: If you’re making a full budget title don’t let interest from the game press–or from your dev team–get you too excited unless it corresponds to larger (and quantifiable) customer interest. If you’re making an indie game for a core audience, on the other hand, this interest can mean you are on track with something that is going to work for your audience and your budget. Just don’t confuse the two.

Judgment Day
Apr 21st, 2009 by worldblee

I don’t want to play Wii Fit right now. My weight is up a few pounds and if I step on the Balance Board Wii Fit will tell me that I’m moving in the wrong direction from my weight goal of a 22 BMI—and I don’t want to get chastised.

Wii Fit, preparing to judge me

Wii Fit, preparing to judge me

Has the fear of being judged by a PC or video game ever kept you from buying or playing it? If so, you’re not alone. Whether it’s perceived difficulty, fear of multiplayer competition (online or offline), or any numerous ways of being shamed, most of us don’t want to play games that are going to make us look or feel bad.

(Of course, there is another class of gamer who seeks out tough challenges so they can affirm their gaming skills. They’re often referred to as hardcore gamers. This post isn’t about them. It’s about the rest of us.)

For teams working on games, whether from the development or business side, having a strong sense of how much hand-holding and challenge your audience wants is critical. There’s an old adage that to determine game difficulty, have your team play through the game and then take what they call ‘easy’ mode and set it as ‘hard’ mode, making two easier modes below it for normal gamers. That’s not a bad rule of thumb in terms of level design and AI tweaking, but it doesn’t take into account how the player is treated for what the game perceives as success or failure.

If the player character dies and it’s ‘game over’, then you’ll have a brutally difficult game that only hardcore, old school gamers will want to play. If there’s no way you can fail in the game (whether through the character dying or some other metric) then you have a game that hardcore gamers will hate—but other audiences may appreciate.
But between outright success (you beat the whole game) and failure (you’re dead; game over) lie a multitude of smaller outcomes. How you communicate to the player in these smaller outcomes is every bit as important as the philosophy for winning and losing.

Going back to Wii Fit, the animation that plays when you achieve less than two stars for an event (showing your avatar slumped over in defeat) was really hard for my wife to get over. It almost made her stop playing the game altogether. And when did she see it most? Right at the beginning, before she got better at the games, at the time when she needed her confidence boosted. If she hadn’t really wanted to improve her balance, she would have walked away from the game. Anecdotal evidence suggests that few Wii Fit owners play very long after their purchase, and I would posit that the game’s negative feedback plays a factor in this (the abysmal amount of time it takes to get in and out of an activity, coupled with the lack of a real ‘career’ mode are others, but that’s a discussion for another day).

Nintendo may laugh off this issue since they’ve sold a boatload of Wii Fit units and it doesn’t cost them money if no one sticks with the game for long. But what if you’re selling your game through online trial? If you have any missteps in user feedback during your trial you’re not going to make any sales beyond the hardcore gamer—you can kiss that larger potential market goodbye.

This is a factor I’m facing right now with a client developing games for the casual market, and I get on my soapbox about it on a weekly basis. We’re taking it seriously both in terms of the game’s challenge, especially early on, and in how we provide feedback to the player. Any lost sale that occurs during the game’s trial takes money of their pocket, and ultimately, out of mine too.

If we in the game industry are serious about expanding the games market, we need to take a hard look at how we provide positive motivation that encourages success and keeps players gaming—and also how we let people know they can play better without making them feel rejected. If we keep doing things they we did in the past there’s a chance we’ll someday end up like the music CD market: facing declining sales and relevance.

The Recession vs. the Console Cycle
Apr 7th, 2009 by worldblee

Game publishers and developers have been laying off workers right and left. Game stocks are depressed. EA, Activision Blizzard, and THQ, among others, have announced quarterly losses. But game sales are not down—in fact, US sales were up 19% in 2008 compared to 2007.

The old adage says that entertainment performs well in recession compared to consumer goods. And it’s true. While I wouldn’t want to launch a pricey new console in today’s economy, there is a vibrant market for quality games.

Recession advertising

Recession advertising (and yeah, I am linking to a stock image)

Let’s look at our situation in 2009 compared to the environment of 2005-2006 when the Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii launched. During that period game publishers and developers faced a falling curve of demand for PlayStation 2 and Xbox titles while the market for so-called ‘next-gen’ titles had yet to materialize. That meant that R&D costs were up while revenue for titles based on that R&D investment was still low.

You’d think that the stock prices for game publishers would have been lower during that time, wouldn’t you? But if you look at the record you’ll see that companies like Electronic Arts had a robust stock price of around $60, more than three times its current price of $15-20 per share.

So what is going on?

One factor is that the large publishers haven’t created healthy studio systems on par with the Hollywood studios of days of yore. They want a large staff around when it’s time to make a hit game, but when production is done they want those costs eliminated, pronto.

And as publicly traded companies their CEOs and Boards of Directors answer to shareholders (including themselves) who want to see stocks go up, up, up. At the hint of financials that are not rising at a healthy clip—and remember that while industry numbers were up, the numbers at individual companies were not necessarily as healthy—their answer is to cut costs. Capitalism doesn’t care if profits come from rising incomes or cost cuts; profit is profit.

So that means layoffs for internal development teams and a continuing reliance on outsourcing for development. This will bring development costs down since external studios pay their workers less and offer fewer benefits than the big US publishers, especially if they’re located in countries with lower living costs and/or government tax subsidies. It also lowers fixed costs since you’re only paying people when they’re working on a project, and if the contract is milestone-based, you’re only paying if you’re getting the game you want.

This means the situation for creative workers is worse now than it was in the last platform transition even though the market for games is larger now than it was then. The economic meltdown gives game companies a plausible reason to cut their staffs while slowing salary growth or even implementing wage reduction. Because we’re at the point in the cycle were console technology is well known and game development risks are lower, publishers don’t need as much experienced talent as they would if they were preparing to launch PS4 titles. Thanks for your help; don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

This is not to trash game publishers; they’re merely acting in what they perceive are their interests. But for creative workers and for game developers it offers opportunities as well as challenges. If you’ve saved your pennies and can subsidize starting up quality IP that appeals to a sizable audience (remember the Concepticate adage of the right game with the right message for the right customer at the right time) you are in the driver’s seat, no matter what’s happening with game publisher stock prices or the overall economy. Know what your partner on the other side of the table is thinking, make sure your business case is sound, and seize your opportunity.

And should you fail, you can always go back and work for the man when the next generation of consoles comes around. This business goes in cycles and your experience will still be needed.

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