This article by Steven Long originally appeared on the author’s Patreon page.
Why should anybody buy your game? In marketing and sales, we have a nifty acronym that pretty much sums up the customer’s thinking: WIFM. That’s pronounced like, “whiff ‘em,” as in, “Are these underpants clean?”
“I don’t know, whiff ‘em!”
It stands for, “What’s In It For Me?” and it is a question developers should ask themselves constantly throughout the design process.
The question is central to creating something that people will want to buy. Of course, if you’re the type of developer who doesn’t care if you sell copies, then you can stop reading now. I understand the art-vs.-money battle that has been raging for an eternity. Many amateur devs scoff at the idea of doing it “just for the money.” But more and more indie developers seem to be realizing there is no shame in actually wanting to succeed. In fact, if you’re making good games, then you owe it to your audience to be as successful as possible so you can keep making awesome games. Actually, we’ll draw the line at EA’s level of success.
One way to help ensure the success of your game is to approach your product with a customer-first perspective.
What Will Your Game Do for Me?
If your answer to this is, “You get to play my horror survival game with jump scares,” then you have missed the point. Good products—even video games—have what we call a “unique selling proposition.” Which is a hoity-toity way of saying that a product fulfills a unique niche, solves a specific problem, or addresses a customer’s desire that competing products have neglected.
So what sorts of problems can a game solve? That depends on the kind of game you’re creating.
Diablo was a smash because it provided constant, ramping gratification in the forms of wiping out hordes of enemies and grabbing piles of loot. Diablo fulfilled players’ desire to be constantly rewarded.
Doom solved players’ need for visceral, fast, and brutal combat. It addressed their desire to make bloody violence and indulge their dark side.
The Sims appealed to players’ sense of familiarity, providing a means of fulfilling life goals in a few hours instead of decades.
Pac-Man tweaked players’ adrenaline by providing a frantic chase that tested their reflexes and gave them a challenge.
Besides providing a truly fulfilling experience, those games also looked pretty amazing for their time. That’s no coincidence. While there are great games that look ugly (I’m thinking about old-school Apple and DOS text-based adventures,) they are vastly outnumbered by games that became popular and looked good. I was recently shown a study showing that attractive visuals are far and away the top reason consumers become interested in a game. So if you want to sell your game, make sure it looks as polished, slick and artful as possible. And if you want it to stand out, try to find a way to visually differentiate it from the competition.
Another feature those games shared is that they were all pretty groundbreaking. They innovated gaming in some way that provided a really fresh and new experience. And while creating an original experience is a good idea, it’s not always necessary. Command & Conquer was a monumental franchise back in the day, mimicking the success of Warcraft a year before. RPGs feature shared elements across the board on every system, and there are many standout RPGs that couldn’t exist at all if not for the success of previous games. Your game doesn’t have to be original. It just has to do what it is meant to do.
So what is your game meant to do? Ask yourself and be sure you have an answer before trying to sell your game. In today’s market, a directionless game will have a nearly-impossible chance of success and will certainly not get an “Add to my wishlist” on my Steam queue.
Here’s a Tip: Don’t Try to Do Everything
It can be tempting to say, “I want a game that constantly rewards the player AND fulfills a visceral need for violence AND rewards tactical thinking AND has a deep and satisfying story!” That may sound like the perfect game—and I can even think of a few incredible games that match this description. But for better marketing, pick one unique selling point. You can do the other stuff too, but stay focused on the one thing you’re sure your game can do better than anything else out there. If you spend too much time trying to do too many things, you will not do any of them as well.
Pick what your game does best, and do it the best you can!
This is sort of a subtle concept, but it is powerful! There was a time decades ago when players would install and play a game just because it was there. Demand far outstripped supply and consumers (like me) eagerly consumed demo discs and shareware because we literally couldn’t get enough!
Today’s games market is completely opposite. It’s an uphill battle to simply get your game noticed. Where there are a hundred survival horror games released monthly, buyers need a damn good reason to make yours the ONE they decide to purchase. You have to decide what need your game is designed to fulfill, then make sure that every step of development is contributing to that goal of satisfying the player.
Even with careful planning and a polished game that clearly satisfies players in a unique way, there’s no guarantee you’ll rise to the top. Marketing and advertising are every bit as crucial and challenging as creating your game. But if you want to sell it, you better get to work showing it off. Or better yet—contact a professional!
Steven Long is a lifelong gamer and professional marketer for companies like Capital One and American Airlines. He’s available as a marketing consultant for indie game developers and contributes regularly to IndieWatch. Find him on Patreon and Twitter.