Tales From the Dev Side: Standing Out by Alex Jordan

Alex Jordan is celebrating his 28th birthday today.  Now that I’ve opened up Indie Gamer Chick to developers to sound off on whatever is on their mind with the Xbox Live Indie Game community, Alex had to take me up on it.  I admit, my advice to developers is not always helpful.  I usually just say “don’t let your game suck” and “make sure you name it something that sticks out in a Google search.”

Alex is going to take it a step further.  His game Cute Things Dying Violently was the best-selling title of the 2011 Indie Game Summer Uprising.  With a name like that, it only had two options: XBLIG or Disney movie.  His naming strategy worked, and Cute Things Dying Violently was the top-selling game of what was the biggest promotional event in Xbox Live Indie Game history.  Of course, the largest revenue went to Train Frontier Express, which is mud in the eye of myself and Ian over the whole pricing thing.  Either way, Alex has some helpful tips for your game to stand out. 

Like Ian Stocker did with Escape Goat, Alex has also generously put up two copies of Cute Things Dying Violently that you can win by either retweeting this editorial or by following him on Twitter.  Winners will be drawn on Wednesday, December 21.  (I know it originally said December 14.  That was an error on my part.  Hopefully everyone is willing to cut me a little slack given the circumstances.  These Tales from the Dev Side contests should run a week after the editorial is published.)

Standing Out

by Alex Jordan

So, you want to make an Xbox Live Indie Game?

What is wrong with you?

I’d hazard the answer is “quite a lot”, but you seem determined to proceed down this disastrous, masturbatory route, so you might as well do it right.  Or at least competently.  Or semi-competently. You know what, fuck it.  Drink this wine, eat this stale bread, worship this white guy on a stick.  You’re gonna need all the help you can get.

Why?  Because XBLIG is a market that is as crowded as it is small.  Prepare for your game to get dropped unceremoniously into a writhing pit of more than 2,000 titles, all of which are clamoring for attention.  Your game will have a week and change on the New Releases list on the Xbox Dashboard, and after that you’re destined for obscurity unless you can work your way onto the Top Downloads or Top Rated list.  That means that you’ve got the run-up to your game’s release and a short period thereafter to get some groundswell going.

You’ve got two targets: the gaming press and the consumers.  Yes, they’re both groups of mouth-breathers.  But with a little effort and some luck, they can be your mouth-breathers.  Here’s how to make your game stand out to them.

Concept

Let’s begin at the beginning. You’ve decided to make an XBLIG title, I’ve asked “What is wrong with you?”, and you found Jesus.  The next step is to decide what type of game you’re making.  To be honest, the most successful XBLIG titles heretofore have involved zombies, avatars, massaging (this fad is over, thank God), MineCraft, boobs, farting, or some combination of these.  Feel free to do something in this vein, but please understand that while making one of these game types means tapping into base market demand for these things, it’s not an instant ticket to success.  A compelling concept (either attached to one of these subjects or standing on its own) will get you much farther.

You’re an indie developer, so think indie.  Consider making a genre mash-up, or come up with a neat gameplay hook.  Experiment with a novel control scheme, or show off a sense of humor!  You don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck on XBLIG, so you’re free to do whatever you want.  Just make it compelling.

Not to mention good, wholesome fun for the whole family!

Name

The first thing people are going to hear about your game is its title. I recommend naming it something punchy, like “Cute Things Dying Violently.”

In case that title is already taken, you still have other options. Some of those options are retarded, though, so steer clear of them.

Are you making a fantasy game or RPG? Do not do “Noun of Noun”, okay? Kingdoms of Amalur, Shadows of Nightwatch, Pillars of Regret, Anal Polyps of Indifference… these names don’t stand out!

Are you making a platformer or action game? Do not go literal. The Thousandth Zombie Game, 2D Retro Chiptunes Platformer, Toy Helicopter Awareness Month… stop it!!

You have a creative vision behind your game!  Come up with a creative title that can serve as its own marketing tool.  Humor, irony, brevity, or mystery.  You have a lot of options.  Don’t be vague, don’t be genre-literal, and be sure that the few words that your game is named after have enough pop and weight to do their own marketing.

Aesthetics

Actually, who the hell am I to talk about aesthetics?  My game seemed to fall into this weird valley of (a) too graphically advanced to be retro, and (b) not graphically advanced enough to be “artsy.”  I still cry over my ice cream about this, but there is a good lesson in there.

People like retro.  They also like artsy.  Can you do one of the two?  Do you want to do one of the two?  If not, find an artistic style that nonetheless fits the game you want to make and execute it as faithfully and tastefully as you can.

If you suck at art, find someone else who can help you.  Or, if you’re the stubborn type, read Photoshop tutorials until your eyeballs bleed… when you break it down, creating artwork is still just manipulating 1s and 0s, and you’ll be surprised what you can pull off with a little practice.

Just remember… absent a physical copy of the game being in hand, your game’s name and its look are going to be doing the most work in spreading word about it.  You have to get this right, preferably 2-3 months before release, or else you’ve lost the war before it’s even started.  Share your artwork with friends and fellow developers from the get-go, listen to their feedback, and course-correct if necessary.

It looks like a game to me. What else matters?

Gameplay

Make your game not suck.

And I don’t mean “make Kairi like it”, because she is a baby-eating succubus where mirth and happiness go to die and get reborn as little poop nuggets of spite and wrath.  Just eliminate bugs.  Vigorously polish gameplay mechanics. Refine controls to make them intuitive.  Balance your difficulty curve.  Anticipate the player, both for good and bad things.  Most of this can be accomplished by repeatedly getting other human beings into your domicile and having them play through the game.  Do this early and often.

I, uh, love you, Kairi. (Uh huh)

Marketing

Do not be lazy or fatalistic.  You are not a pretty princess.  You are not a delicate flower.  People are not seeking you out.  You need to seek them out.  Every single corner, every single terrace of the video game market is already saturated.  People don’t need your game.  But they can be made to want it, once you’ve told them that it exists.

Have a blog.  Talk about your game, even if nobody’s listening.

Get on Twitter.  Coerce your friends to follow you so that you have more than zero followers, then start chatting with fellow indie developers.  Put stuff out there, be it game design theory or screenshots or what have you.  Slowly but surely, people will start to follow you.  It’s not about vanity, and you’re not Kanye.  It’s about building a cloud-based resume and a large selection of professional or semi-professional contacts in the developer and gaming journalist communities.  These people can help you spread your word.

Don’t be shy, cast around for interviews and preview pieces.  Bloggers need hits and content as much as you need attention.  There’s a bunch of easy jokes in there, most of which involve references to whores, but I’ll let your imagination fill in the gaps.

Make a good trailer for your game.  Do not make a tech demo.  If you want help making a good trailer, talk to Ryan “MasterBlud” Donnelly at VVGTV.com.

And above all else, push content. Constantly. Before, during, and after release. Blog posts, previews, reviews, screenshots, YouTube clips, dev diaries… everything is fodder that you can push at the gaming press. Start by registering a free account at gamespress.com and go from there. Heck, if you want my personalized list of gaming journo contacts, just email me and I’ll hook you up (alejandrodaj at gee male dawt calm).

Marketing is also easier if your game involves words like "Cute" "Violently" and "Dying" though not necessarily in that order.

In Conclusion

Three years after its inception, XBLIG is a bit, shall we say, troubled. Like Baltimore. Hell, we even have our own Omar analogue in the form of whoever the hell goes on those malicious down-voting sprees!

As far as gaming markets go, XBLIG is a low-volume, low-interest one. Even if your game is a real gem, the odds are kinda stacked against you and your ability to make a big profit. Hmm, maybe I should sound harsher. Okay, there is no Santa, the Easter Bunny is dead, and your mom had sex with your dad at least once.

That said, there is hope. Provided your game meets Microsoft’s terms and conditions, it will get on the Xbox Marketplace, and then you’ll have an honest-to-God video game on an honest-to-God console. That’s an incredible opportunity any way you cut it, so make the most of it.

Why waste that opportunity on a Solitaire game or (cough) a geography quiz? It’s your game, your vision. This didn’t become your hobby so you could crap out boring, uninspired retreads!  Get an idea with some spark to it, give it a great name, make it look pretty and play well, and then market it until the cows come home, leave, then come home again.

I’ll defer to others for their advice on commercial success. But as far as simply making your game stand out? Shoot for the combination of a great idea and the earnest execution thereof. Nobody bothers to talk about stupid or boring shit, so avoid either of those adjectives like the plague. Mate creativity with good engineering. Show the world that you’ve got a thing or two up your sleeve, and you know what to do with it.

Then one day you can write sarcastic columns for Kairi Vice.  It’s pretty great.

Damn straight it is, Alex.  Your expired Red Lobster voucher is in the mail.

Check out Alex’s games on the marketplace.

Cute Things Dying Violently

Around the World

Hmmm, Around the World looks interesting.  And what kind of baby-eating succubus would I be if I didn’t give every game a, heh, fair shake?  He.  Tee he. 

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14 Responses to Tales From the Dev Side: Standing Out by Alex Jordan

  1. Dcon6393 says:

    That was a good read. Sarcasm is always fun. I agree with all of the points you made, but two things you forgot to mention are box art and screenshots. Assuming that your potential consumer finds your game in the new marketplace, it needs to catch their eye. A lot of game are getting more exposure with the related games tab. If you can manage to draw in the person with a pretty box art and make them hit a few buttons to check out your game, the you then have to worry about impressing them with your screenshots.

    Examples of how to do that (at least I think they are):
    Avatar Legends — http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Avatar-Legends/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d80258550879
    FortressCraft — http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/FortressCraft-Chapter-1/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d80258550821

    These games have images that are either good looking, interesting, or funny.

    Now for examples of how not to do that:
    UK Something — http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/UK-Regions-Counties/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802585509f3
    Canyon Viaduct — http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Canyon-Viaduct/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802585509e9
    Masters of Influence — http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Product/Masters-of-Influence/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d802585509de

    The first one uses the menu and control screen as screenshots, while the next two games use the same level and same type of picture. Both bad practices that make me want to cry a little bit.

    Also, I like your advice on Gameplay. “Make your game not suck”. Totally wrote that in my notebook as inspiration.

    • The box art and screenshots are implied in the “Aesthetics” section where I hector you to get them out 2-3 months early.

      As far as the box art being compelling enough to lure customers in… sorry, but I’m hitting the buzzer on that one. Yes, you DO want good or great box art, but it’s just the cherry on top of everything else. If you’re at the point where you’re just relying on it to passively snare would-be customers, you’ve already lost the game. The box art, the screenshots, trailer, interviews… everything should be gotten out there as soon as possible before your game is released to generate some buzz.

      XBLIG is too small a market for you to just rely on nabbing a customer every now and then with good box art. It should be part of the complete package, and shopped around way beforehand.

      • Dcon6393 says:

        I didn’t mean to imply those being the only ways to lure customers in. I meant as a way to draw in the casual consumer. I have plenty of friends who have just stumbled upon XBLIG and just picked up the trial for a game because it looked good. But like you said, if that is your only way of sales, you will definitely not sell as much as you could have. For gamers like me who are constantly, or gamers who are just remotely following the indie scene, the interviews, trailers, etc. are all very important. I just know that when people stumble upon XBLIG that box art and screenshots are the things that get you trials. I have no idea how much of the market is made up of people like me and how much of it is made up of “stumbled upon” purchases, but I assume they are both sizable amounts. I just feel like that casual crowd is sizable enough to where randomly luring in a customer with a nice box art should be a minor goal.

        • The funny thing about the comments here, as well as on Ian’s piece is, everybody’s right, bits and pieces on some, entirely on other points. You do have to work beforehand to get the info out to anybody that’ll listen, and definitely directly after release, even months later when any semblance of heat you’ve generated has died down. Depending on your game, and attitude, of course, that may or may not be possible, but you’d do better to try than rest on merit.

          Daniel’s right as well, with the box art and screenshots, more so now after reading the comments on Ian’s. I’m beginning to suspect, like the pricing issue, that even the colors and style you use can make a difference in whether you pull casual browsers in or not. I don’t want to agree with that notion, as that means as a developer, you’re more or less caving to popular demand, or making decisions not your own, but if that grants more exposure, it could be a necessary evil. Alternatively, as Team Shuriken says below, doing little to hype your game gives you more time and focus on the product and its content, yes, but while making a really good game may give you the warm and fuzzies inside, it’s not going to put any seal pelts in your digital wallet if no one unwraps your surprise.

          The third factor to this equation is dumb luck; that none of the above, or any combination of other elements under your control, can translate to success. Timing, perception, indifference, word of mouth, random chance; all impossible to account for or change. Add this to XBLIG’s less than stellar location and layout, now you’re the 2,200th player into the game, and paint the picture as bleak as you’d like. I don’t want to leave on a sour note though, so take this smiley… :)

  2. An entertaining read that also makes some good points. Thanks for that.

    This one, in particular, needs to be learnt more widely: “People are not seeking you out. You need to seek them out.” It’s something some developers seem to overlook.

    I got a good laugh from “2D Retro Chiptunes Platformer”. I had to rack my brains to remember if it’s a real game. With a title like that, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  3. I think you won half the aesthetics battle just by picking unique and appealing palettes for your levels.

    Each of the above screenshots, at a glance, has that “Oh, I wonder whats different in this level!” quality that you lose if you only have one set of level-building assets that is used through the entire game.

  4. Thanks, Scott. The scary thing is that practically all the artwork was generated in about 1-2 weeks between when the game was picked to take place in the Uprising and when I formally uploaded it to Microsoft’s servers. I wasn’t kidding about the “art is 1s and 0s” thing… what you see above is me struggling to come up with an aesthetic, practicing on it, and then executing it as well I could. And as quickly as I could.

    I think I might try to refine the style for the next game, and give myself plenty of time to do so.

  5. Team Shuriken says:

    Very good article :)

    I’m not sure about all the twitter and gametrailers and blog stuff though. In my experience, all this work as amounted to no/almost no benefits back when we cared about such things in tokyo 2029 and karnn age. There didn’t seem to be a link between the gaming press liking a game and people going to try/buy it on XBLI. I think those 2 games were just not original enough to cut it regardless, but there’s also a lot of other developpers who had similar experiences.

    Our new philosophy is to put out zero hype about upcoming games. We think it benefits us because consumers see our boxart/screenshot/trials, they get that good first impression/surprise more strongly then if they had been exposed to the game before. We believe that to survive in the XBLI market, the most important thing is to feed the gamer’s curiosity since we believe they are browsing to find something special/unique/charming above all.

    Also, It’s a lot less time consuming for us so we can spend more time developping :)

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  7. Great article! Wisdom from experienced devs definitely help out! Although I’m not sure about releasing screenshots and gameplay vids 2-3 months in advance is a good strategy (specially if you’re working on something original), I agree on everything else. Unless you have a pretty game like Orbitron or Brand, or featuring in events such as Summer Uprising, I believe the game will be forgotten shortly after you announce it.

    I think some people forget there is more to making a game than just.. making a game. We’re about to release our first title, We Are Cubes, and the amount of work to produce a decent trailer and getting the word out is immense. Put the effort in to get your game some visibility. Like it or not it’s part of the development process!

    • Well, I mean, if you start spreading the word about your game early and nobody pays attention in spite of a media blitz… what does that say about your game, or its sales potential? Granted, your objectives for how well the game sells could be limited. But, if standing out is your goal, you don’t want to make a game that’s easy to ignore or forget 2-3 months out.

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