Worth Reading #7: Getting to the heart of the matter

Worth Reading is a weekly rundown of interesting stuff I've found. Sharing is caring! <3

Your target audience doesn't exist

Sergey Galyonkin (A.K.A. the SteamSpy guy) posted a doozy of an article a couple weeks ago. In it he argues – with convincing data – that our whole thinking about the concept of a "target audience" is skewed.

For example: we might think about a target audience of "MOBA players". And then we look at, say, how many people are playing DOTA 2 (which is a ton) and we think, "Hey that's a big healthy target audience, our MOBA is sure to be a hit!" But of course it isn't, because the DOTA 2 players are too busy playing DOTA 2 and aren't interested in switching.

The DOTA 2 players weren't part of "the MOBA market". The MOBA market isn't really a thing. The market you were actually looking at was "the DOTA 2 market".

He doesn't use this example in the article, but it's one I think might resonate a little better with all of us here. Remember when the first Xbox came out and Halo took the world by storm, how all of a sudden we started noticing those "jock" gamers who only played Halo? Here we were, all us nerdy kids, with games collections numbering in the hundreds, and down the street was the kid that used to steal our lunch money and make fun of us for playing video games, and now he's obsessed with Halo... and only Halo. For him, "playing video games" literally only ever means "playing Halo". They are one and the same.

That guy's not part of the "core gamer market" or the "Xbox market" or the "FPS market". He's part of the "Halo market", and if you're not selling Halo, you're not going to reach him. If you think he's your target audience, you're going to fail.

Here's maybe the most important numerical takeaway: according to SteamSpy data, just 20% of Steam accounts own a collective 88% of of the games, and moreover, in order to be included in that top 20%, one most own a mere four games. That means 80% of Steam accounts own three or fewer games, and if your target market is meant to include them, well, bad news: it probably actually doesn't, because those are the people for whom "playing video games" only ever means "playing DOTA 2" (or whatever).

Food for thought.

The giants hiding a growing problem

Thomas Bidaux is always good for some fascinating market analytics, and he delivers again in this piece from late July in which he investigates a growing and problematic trend on Kickstarter: projects with very large funding goals have started to take up a huge percentage of the overall pie, and mid-sized projects (in the $10-50k range) are getting very much squeezed out.

I don’t like the trend. While Kickstarter is growing (more projects gets funded; more money is pledged) this growth is at the extremes: very small projects and very large projects. Here I was hoping that the wave of big projects would benefit projects across the board.
— Thomax Bidaux

He has three theories on why this might be happening:

  1. Kickstarter fatigue is real and is hitting mid-sized projects the worst, and the very large nostalgia-driven successes (like Shenmue) are just hiding that issue.
  2. Many mid-sized projects are in a weird budget range where they seem like they're either asking for way too much or way too little, and audiences may be wising up to this.
  3. There might be more going on outside Kickstarter (e.g. on Indiegogo, Patreon, etc.) than was previously thought, and the mid-sized project revenue might be being siphoned off to those channels.

Take special note of #2, because it leads us to...

"Big indie" Kickstarters are killing actual indies

Here's Katie Chironis, writing for Polygon:

When you ask for half a million dollars when you really need $5 million, it becomes impossible for games with realistic budgets to survive. It’s not that people don’t understand what a game costs, it’s more that Kickstarter is actively distorting people’s understanding of a sane budget. The ecosystem is being poisoned for projects that need to raise their actual, workable budget for a game.
— Katie Chironis

There's a growing mismatch between Kickstarter asks and actual, realistic game dev budgets, and any of us who've ever seen the numbers for a real project have been well aware of it for a while.

There are a few things going on here.

First, some teams are simply inexperienced and don't factor in the many hidden costs that come up on a real project. Consequently, their asks are way too low, they end up running out of money before completing the project, and they either kill themselves to get across the finish line or else they just quietly disappear, leaving behind a community of disappointed, angry backers. This case sucks, but it's an educational issue, not an ethical one.

The ethical issue is with the teams that are using Kickstarter to raise supplemental funds or as a proof-of-demand to a publisher (who will then fund the bulk of the project themselves), but they're not being transparent with their backers about this fact, leading to the impression that their Kickstarter ask is in fact the entire budget for the game.

What you get, then, is a publisher-funded team promising like a $2 million production for just a $50k "proof-of-demand" ask, and then along comes a small, bootstrapped indie studio promising a $100k production for a $100k ask, and their backers are all, "Wait, what? Why is your game twice the cost but waaaay smaller? You guys are just making a money grab."

It's a transparency problem, and it's really on those big teams to fix, because they're the ones causing it. But we all know they're probably not gonna do anything about it, because the status quo is proving really lucrative for them... so how do the rest of us deal?

I think we have to take up the mantle of transparency ourselves and use our own, smaller projects as vehicles to educate our backers about not only the true costs of our projects, but the reasons why those big projects are able to do what they're doing on what seems like so much less money. We're going to have to be the ones explaining the distinction between "we are asking for 100% of our production budget" vs. "those guys are asking for 10% of their production budget as a proof-of-demand to secure the other 90% from a publisher". And since this is wonky, behind-the-scenes business stuff, we'll need to be creative in how we package and message it to our audience so they actually get it and understand where we're coming from, and get past the whole "you're just greedy" knee-jerk reaction.

That, or we're gonna have to get real comfortable eating nothing but ramen while making games for 1/10th the budget they actually need... and nobody wants that.



Robert Fearon makes a really important point:

One of the things that holds us back so often, that makes being in videogames more perilous than it needs to be is that it’s hard to talk about failure, disappointment and pitfalls without a pile on of people to tell you how to fix a thing or how you did it wrong so what did you expect and so on.
— Robert Fearon

Survivorship bias is a huge problem in the indie game dev sector, and the reason for that is precisely that we collectively suck at talking about our failures. We all need to consciously work on sucking less at that.

Ok, enough of all this depressing "oh my god we're all doomed and everything sucks" talk. Let's finish off with something so awesome I kind of can't believe it exists at all...

Chrono Trigger – 1994/95 developer interviews

shumplations.com is a site dedicated to English translations of interviews with Japanese game developers. It's brilliant, and this time they've scored quite the coup: a set of interviews from 1994/95 with the developers of seminal SNES RPG (and my favorite game of all time) Chrono Trigger!

(If I have to explain to you why this is amazing then we can't be friends any more.)

I'll pull out some of my favorite highlights:

Aoki: And that causes the player to take a stance on whether he likes or dislikes this hero. At the same time, if you make your hero do bad things, players will hate him. That’s why protagonists in most RPGs who do talk have mostly had bland, inoffensive dialogue. From that perspective, I think there’s a definite advantage in having a protagonist who does not speak at all.
Aoki: This system also allowed us to prepare a bunch of cool little individual scenes: for example, you’re walking down the path and your foot gets caught in a vine, and then enemies that were hiding in the bushes suddenly appear! We created over 100 of them—all by hand. Like the event system, the battle system was another way for us to make Chrono Trigger more exciting and dynamic. For us creators who had to make all these scenes though, it was very difficult.
Kato: For the enemies, at first we had a mechanic where certain enemies could only be killed with the right weapon, like a bow and arrow. But it was annoying so we cut it out.
Kato: We had done our best to fit all the graphics into 24 megs, but it turned out to be too much. We couldn’t fit all the scenarios we wanted in either. It’s thanks to those extra 8 megs that Magus’ castle looks so fantastic. Those setpieces couldn’t be done just by reusing sprites and tiles from other dungeons. Well, we always try to reuse things where we can, like that moon. At the planning stages of a development, when your mindset is much more conservative with regard to memory, you can’t really create elaborate setpieces and scenes. So that 8mb came at just the right time.
Matsui: It’s not easy, but even for me, if I can’t reduce my ideas to actual data then I’m out of luck. Plus, I feel like the real work of game development isn’t just coming up with ideas, it’s translating those ideas into actual data. If you don’t have those skills, then you’re at the mercy of the programmers when they tell you something can’t be done, and if another planner comes up to you asking how to do something, you won’t be able to help. So you see, it’s really those with ideas (planners) who are most hurt by not knowing anything about data and coding.
Kitase: I hadn’t thought about it that deeply, but Sakaguchi insisted that we should focus on building these characters consistently and thoroughly. It left a big impression on me. Even at the very end, just before the final deadline, Sakaguchi was saying we should add extra scenes to flesh out the characters. Tokita did Marle’s scenes, and I did Lucca’s.

Sakaguchi: Those turned out really well too. Since they were made at the very end, everyone was settled in and acclimated to the development by that point, and knew what they should be doing and how to do it. Those episodes came out in one burst of energy. That last bit of seasoning is very important for a game. When people are under pressure, their best comes out, and that’s how interesting games can be made. Players may think, “oh, they must have had the story all planned out from the beginning.” But that isn’t always the case!

I'm nerding out so hard right now. <3

(By the way, you can also support shmuplations on Patreon.)