June 13-15, 2017 marked an interesting time for the gaming industry. It was E3, the annual event that celebrates gaming and showcases what players can look forward to in the next year. But this year, something was off. It was less about what gamers want, and more about what developers were trying to sell.
It was a combination of, “We’ve created the most powerful console yet” but there weren’t enough games; or there were many games but nothing necessarily jaw-dropping; and there were even gimmicks like unveiling a new Porsche at a video game event. Wrong audience, but hey, at least it made for some great jokes, courtesy of journalists.
Whatever happened to innovation? What happened to catering to your players in a way that wasn’t salesmen style? Yes, development is a business, and the priority is to sell copies in order to fund another project, but sliding into that role headfirst can’t be a good thing, right? Whatever happened to being a creative in love with his/her work?
And what is going on with players? Their thoughts have been heard, but their wants and needs aren’t being met. Unless game developers want to lose fans and sales, here’s the 411.
1) Avoid Rehash at All Times
Let’s not deny: E3 2017 was filled with reboots, sequels, and was an overall rehash. There were few new IPs, and even those were reminiscent of other games. Game developers, whether they’re AAA or indie, love to create things that have already been successfully proven. If a game builds a following, there might be a sequel to it. There might be so many sequels that it starts killing the franchise. All because of what started as a need to create something players love and want to purchase. The trouble is every story needs to end. And when an original story is beloved, leave it be. Don’t reboot it to create something that isn’t—and never will be—as good as the original. It’s a disservice to the original game/series, the iconic characters, and the players.
2) Remember Good Isn’t Always Good
God of War looks like it could be a good game. So does Uncharted. But sometimes putting out a good game isn’t enough. This is the reality that game developers need to swallow: good isn’t always good enough. It’s not enough to create a game that people want to play. It needs to be a new experience. And no, taking a known game, redoing a few things, touching up other things, then slapping a new name on it doesn’t count.
Players don’t want to purchase something well-known. They want something new.
3) Stop Using Gimmicks to Kill Time
Unveiling new sports cars to the wrong crowd can only kill so much time, people. Putting out an overly powerful console with few exclusives is only going to kill so much time too. Gimmicks can only do so much! Especially if all your games don’t even showcase your console’s power. Misleading people by saying you have a timed exclusive?
Players won’t be buying that car—or even that console unless there are games to play on it.
For indie, this means something much simpler: Don’t use cheap tricks to make up for lack of content. That means don’t rely on hyping up new gear, weapon skins, or characters if you’re not delivering anything significant to the community to begin with. Don’t talk up something relatively insignificant because that’s all you have. Contrary to popular belief, sometimes it’s better to be upfront publicly and tell people you need more time to create something worthy of their attention. Own your responsibility and your actions.
4) If Everyone Agrees, You’re in the Wrong
Everyone has that one friend that’s been in a dozen relationships, and doesn’t understand why no one wants him/her. You know, the friend whom you always comfort. You say something along the lines of, “You just haven’t found the right person yet,” or even, “They were all crazy!” But after about the third or fourth breakup you just know it’s your friend who’s crazy. They’re the common denominator.
Turns out, if everyone agrees, you better shut up and start taking notes. Looking up E3 2017 will lead to a series of angry forum posts, negative feedback, harsh jokes, and even reputable press pieces following suit, albeit in a more polished way.
And that means it’s AAA’s time to change. It’s now or never. And for you in the indie sector, that means you as well. As part of this industry and community, it’s everyone’s duty to take the blame, dust off, and change what we do.
5) Failing to Understand The Problems
For the longest time, Microsoft has been in trouble. Sony has taken the majority of players, because they have the games to do it. Their sales are up, and their new PS4 Pro isn’t even as powerful as the new Xbox. What’s going on here?
Well, it’s really just the games. That’s what it boils down to. If you don’t have the games people want to play, you can wave goodbye to return on investment on a powerful console.
Does hardware matter? Of course it does! But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything to play on it. What will players do—pay $500 for a nice console just to have it collect dust while they play their real games on PS4/PS4 Pro?
In the case of indie, the message is simple: listen to your fans. Understand what it is they’re saying. If they keep saying “we care about hardware and games,” deliver on both fronts, not just one. Some players want to play your indie game on their computer with a PS4 controller. Can you give them that?
6) Dish Details
That’s right. If you have a game and it’s launching, tell people when, where, and how. People want all the details upfront, because otherwise, it means they need to keep tabs on you, which frankly, seems rude. You’re not that important, sorry. In the big scope of things, people are busy every single day with work, school, loved ones, errands, etc..
That means you need to act under the impression that they will not research you or your game, ever. Always. Only in this way will you provide all the essential detail upfront, ready for them to make calendar reminders for right in that moment. Don’t make Sony’s mistake of showing trailers for games with no release dates!
7) Pay Attention to the Crowd
It’s funny, how no human being can really hide their disappointment. When they’re excited to be somewhere or see something, you can see it. It’s in their eyes, their smiles, the way they cheer or raise their hands in the air. But when they’re disappointed? It’s also clear as day. Take a look at the crowd getting up after the Sony conference:
A few odd smiles, the random clap, and then . . . the awkward shuffling out. No one truly cheered, and the random person who did quickly quieted down.
This is a goldmine of information and feedback if there ever was any. And everyone can learn from it, AAA or indie. Suppose you’re at an event and you give a presentation of your game, and the crowd looks like this. It would be absolutely wise to conduct an impromptu Q&A to get some more feedback on their dislikes, or at the very least, ask on a public forum, like Reddit. Do something, even if it’s just going through the game by yourself and criticizing it like they would behind your back.
8) Don’t Bank on Trends
VR is kind of a trend with a few games to play and enjoy, but it’s not a console or PC replacement. It’s not proven to be everlasting. As an indie developer with limited resources, chances are you’re not out there making VR games, but what you might be doing is experimenting with trends in the hopes of selling more copies. And it’s these trends that can actually lose you money in the long run.
For instance, while Bethesda has a loyal fanbase and their games are great, they spent most of their time at E3 unveiling games for VR. Hypothetically, say even 50% of Bethesda fans have VR at home already. There’s still the other 50% that don’t. In fact, the other 50% feel excluded from the projects, which by the way, are rehash delivered in a new form. That’s a loss in potential sales.
Whether VR is here to stay or not is irrelevant. The point is that not every gamer has it, so investing in trends means leaving out some passive sales potential.
9) Don’t Play Magic Tricks
EA was its usual self this E3. However, something interesting didn’t escape player’s attention: “They fumbled on only showing a trailer for Battlefield 1‘s Tsar content, rather than gameplay.” They tried to play mind games and give people an aspect of what they were expecting, but not the actual thing they were expecting.
If you promise your fans that you’ll be putting out certain content by a certain time, whether it be the actual game, a trailer, screenshots, patches, etc. keep that itinerary unless you absolutely, positively need to change it. And if it boils down to that, let the fans know. Honesty is the better approach, especially when compared to magic tricks.
10) Show Up
Sony has been majorly criticized for showing trailer after trailer of games and barely taking to the stage. They played it safe, just showcasing what they have to offer but not elaborating on any of it. Compared to the other showcases, such as EA, Ubisoft, and Microsoft, which made for a huge distinction. The rest of them actually took the time to engage the audience.
Here’s the thing: at a conference or event where you’re given a large (or small) stage, you need to use it. It’s there for a reason. Engaging your audience is a great way to connect with people, make them feel heard and appreciated, as well as provide a flair of personality to your company. If all you do is show them videos, then why are they even there? They could do that at home, on YouTube.
11) Don’t Start Rumors Too Early
Bloodborn 2 was missing from E3 2017, even though the rumor mill has been going haywire for months regarding the game being in development. Fans are still holding out hope that it will be revealed later this year. The problem with this is pretty straightforward: people wanted to see it, the media was bringing it up like clockwork, and then everyone was let down.
This is what happens when you start rumors too early, when you promise things too early, or when you don’t protect your material enough for it to not be leaked. If someone out there creates a rumor that isn’t true, shut it down. Let people know the truth.
By showing that you care about what’s said, and proving you’re a reliable game developer, you build trust with other developers as well as the players. Anything too soon, and it becomes this obsessive game of speculation and mistrust. Don’t let it come to that!
12) Don’t Appeal to One Type of Player, Unless That’s Your Goal
So here’s a difference between AAA and indie: AAA is expected to cast a wide net. While their games might be known for a particular style or genre, ultimately, they’re supposed to entice players from all walks of life. Indie is different in that studios are small, can only do so much, and tend to focus on core strengths (things they know they do well). As a result, their player base tends to be niche.
For instance, players who play FPS games like Battlefront will also play other games. And EA, the studio behind Battlefront, doesn’t just make FPS games. They make racing, sports, and platformer games too. Games like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Need for Speed: Payback, and FIFA 18.
Indie is pretty limited by comparison. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore and experiment. Trying out new genres or approaches to how you normally develop a game can lead to some interesting discoveries. In other words, don’t limit yourself to being a one-trick pony. Unless, of course, that’s all you want to be!
13) Don’t Be Olive Garden
Jack Fennimore, writer for Heavy wrote the most epic sentence known to man when describing EA’s share of the conference: “EA Play 2017 was watchable the same way Olive Garden is edible.”
Yes, it’s pretty hilariously harsh, but it makes sense. Just like no one has ever said “that was the most amazing meal I’ve ever had in my life” while walking out of an Olive Garden, no one was saying that while walking out of E3 this year either. When something is just decent enough to eat, or watch or play, it’s not amazing enough to stand out. It’s not that monumental game that strikes us at our core and leaves its mark.
In other words, don’t aim to be halfway decent in a sea of unsavory treats. Although EA and Ubisoft had the better conferences this year, they were the best of the worst E3 pretty much ever. It’s not much of a compliment.
14) Don’t Be Slow. Stop! That’s Too Slow.
Seriously, get some pacing. The PC Gaming Show was a good example. That segment was slowed to a crawl because of all the interviews. It was informative, but players are going to start yawning the first fifteen minutes in if they don’t see more games. That’s what E3 is for.
And yet Nintendo’s video presentation (seriously) was the opposite. It was only 25 minutes long, before they showed more detail and games from their Tree House, which frankly, should never be done. It’s a conference, meaning it’s one presentation, not two, not three. Also, it means it’s not a video!
Indie developers, this PSA is for you: don’t be like AAA. When you have a conference to attend, give one presentation that is long enough to showcase the games, and then make time for interviews that people can linger around for and listen to if they want. Don’t take up people’s time, and don’t rush through anything of value either.
15) If You’re Creating Something Unoriginal, Make It Great
Skull and Bones. Sea of Thieves. Both games are about naval battle and pirates, but only one of them is getting attention. Microsoft’s Sea of Thieves is being regarded as the kiddy version of Skull and Bones, created by Ubisoft. This is going to be the classic case of Overwatch vs. Battleborn. Anytime two games are similar, one of them ends up winning in terms of sales. The other kind of dies in its wake—and results in the lead designer posting risky tweets from an official account in the hopes of drawing in more players.
So, unless you want to be that guy, make sure to be on the Skull and Bones and Overwatch side of the fence. Make your game better. And if you can’t, or you feel like you can’t, then why are you creating something that someone else is literally doing already? Avoid the hassle. Create something else.
Learning From the Big Guys
AAA may be huge and wealthy, but they’re still accident-prone. They’re not perfect. If anything, whatever they fail to do gets placed under a microscope just a few seconds after it occurs. And E3 2017 was the best example of that. Despite Microsoft, Sony, Ubisoft, EA, Bethesda, and Nintendo’s successes in the past, they were all guilty of making mistakes at the conference this year. It doesn’t make them any less amazing, it just means that this was a failure.
But you in the indie sector can use that to your advantage. Take these lessons, and set sail on your pirate-filled seas. Create games that are innovative and push the boundaries on what is expected. Stand out, and remember that more than showing what you have to offer to sell, a conference is about connecting with the audience. Don’t slap a video up there in your place!
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