When I decided to start Stigma Games, I thought I knew a lot about game design. I've spent more time playing computer games than most gamers. Like most serious gamers, I know what makes a fun experience and what doesn't. Of course, actually being able to make a great game, isn't as easy as it seems. Still, I have confidence in my design abilities. But what I’m slowly figured out is that making a great game is only one third of game development. I think of the three elements of a successful game project as: a product enjoyable to get people playing, the marketing / viralness / social draw of the game, and the right monetization for it.
Put another way, if the game isn't fun, no one will play it. If the game isn't marketed well or doesn't have word of mouth, it doesn't matter how fun it is if no one knows about it. And three, if everyone on the planet knows about it and plays the hell out of it, but no one pays to play it, none of that matters either. It didn't used to be this complicated.
About three years ago, the free to play monetization strategy was just starting to take over. Before that, game development consisted of: make a great game, market the hell out of it, and sell it for X dollars. But that’s not the case any more. Buy to Play is still a valid, though diminishing option. Free to Play is out pacing it. As a side note, let’s talk about why Free to Play works.
One of the first heavily pirated games that we can point to as such was Leisure Suit Larry. We know this series of games was heavily pirated because Sierra sold far more hint books than they did copies of the game. Today, we have p2p networks and torrent sites to track how many people pirate games. A couple months back, Ubisoft released a statistic suggesting that 96% of people that played Assassin's Creed did so illegally. They based this off of torrent downloads. Otherwise, a more generally accepted statistic is about 90%. Think about that. That means 90% of people who play popular to semi popular games do so illegally, paying the developers absolutely nothing for their efforts.
Now, let’s talk about the Free to Play model. Can you image the first development companies that started talking about trying it? Can you imagine a conversation like, “Wait, so you mean we’re going to let people play our game for free in the hopes of about 10% of gamers spending money to buy stuff?”
There are lots of ways to pull off Free to Play effectively, and lots of ways to either anger or be ignored by players. Even more confusing, different strategies can have different effects based on the genre, objectives, platform, and even art style of a game. If you don’t understand the underlining theories for these connections, then all you can do is copy other existing models. Copying other games can be problematic for two reasons. One, what you change to make the “game idea your own” could be enough to break what it is that works, and two, by the time you finally get your game out, player behavior, the target platform, technology, etc, could have changed.
Focusing on making a fun game and selling it at a reasonable price and earn a living doing that… those days are over. Today’s game developers have to do more. Now game development is about Psychology, player behavior, spending habits, monetization strategies, demographics, localization and emerging markets, price points, and marketing as much as it is about making a fun game. I find it interesting how Indies brag about how they can pay their bills without a dime spent on marketing. If it was just me, I'm fine with Indie4lyfe Pride and all. But it's not just me that I have to worry about. Stigma Games isn't some fun thing to do for me on my own. I have a few dozen other people involved who I really want to be handing a pay check to each week. This isn't going to be easy.