Tales From the Dev Side: Standing Out by Alex Jordan
December 14, 2011 14 Comments
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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.