If you guys want to make profits there are no guarantee’s that you will, even with the best and most talented people on your team. There are many reasons why games fail and it’s a complex system.
Remember that people’s time and interests are finite, and that your goods are luxuries. (non necessities) This ultimately will limit any developer, no matter how talented. Lastly you have to study economic data and trends (i.e. how well is the economy doing, are they part of the segment who buys games that is getting hit?) They (people) can only play so many games for so many hours and they compete for time with relationships, social activities, and jobs, etc, and when games are over produced (like many of them are now), or under marketed (i.e. I didn’t know you guys existed until you posted that article on piracy that went around the web)
I think the biggest hurdle is UNDER marketing and lack of market research into what ideas make money, games like democracy, etc, are kind of nerdy (hardcore) and just from the name you know what kind of type of game it is… why not get together and create business opportunities with stumbleupon or Digg other social news sites to spread the word of your games on a permanent basis (i.e. a kind of opt in and allow people to “discover games / advertisement by choice”. Game review sites on the internet aren’t enough, you need a place where you can advertise your products widely and gain widest exposure possible over time. There needs to be a way for people to discover you guys and your games even exist (out of sight, out of mind) thats why tradtionally people spend so much on advertising, if they don’t know you or your games exist, then you’re missing out on a lot of potential customers. Think of brand names like Nike, Mcdonalds, subway, etc… those are universally recognized very widely for a reason.
Next is the mistaken idea, that just because you think a game is awesome, that means other people will think it’s awesome… this is what kills many good developers! You have to know what is good gameplay and what will sell vs what is crap and what has a limited market (the very hard part). At some point you have to really do the boring stuff (market analysis) and really start “Testing” the waters with short games or proto-types, IMHO you guys should be doing small managable prototypes of games as demo’s to see what kinds of interest they generate (I know this is the hard part, time vs money, vs work spent on other more profitable projects), but you have to keep experimenting. The biggest problem is your own lack of creativity and patience (endurance), if you are really hardcore, you might even want to move to another country where costs are lower, learn the language, etc… because you have to recognize the economic reality of you situation and adapt because no one else will, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome” (einstein).
Lastly, not all of your customers or feedback from people will be insightful, you have to really mine for the insightful gems from people. Lots of people can “talk the talk” but they won’t buy your games anyway (i.e. hypocrisy) and we are all hypocrites to some extent, that is the definition of human beings (yes it’s true!), so don’t get mad or be perturbed, just realize we’re all hypocrites in our own way.
It’s tough to be a game dev so you got to pick your battles and keep on learning whatever you do, don’t give in to cynicism, that way lies the end.
I think you have the right idea, but I think you are overestimating the reach of indie gamers. Cliff pulled one of the best marketing schemes he could have - by drawing attention to his company completely for free. He did this by raising the question of ‘why’ on piracy rather than the usual ‘how to stop it’, and in doing so got the entire industry’s attention. Whether he did this intentionally or unintentionally it worked. I would love to know how big of a difference to his sales he has seen in the last week or so compared to before the piracy thing hit the internets.
Regardless you are right, its all about marketing, and unfortunately its what indies are not good at. The idea that Positech will become a brand like Nike (or more relevantly, EA) any time soon is absolutely laughable. This is not a bad reflection on Cliff, but just the way it is. I work at a small games company with about 50 talented staff and we have managed to do some absolutely amazing things in the time we’ve had on our current project(s). I know however that this would mean nothing if our corporate ties, partnerships and management team were not so strong. In a few months we’ll reveal what we are working on and we will see just how good of a response we get to what we’ve been working on - the response so far has been amazing. Sales, further down the line again remain to be seen.
Even with a team of that size, the notion that our company will become a brand in the next 5-6 years is still laughable, and we are 50x Positech in terms of man power. Brands are recognisable, games developers unfortunately are not. Our last 2 (work for hire) games did not even have our logo on them, we got mentioned in the fine print on the back of the box and in the credits. Thats just how it is sometimes. The publisher gets the credit, not the people who actually did most of the work. For a company like Positech which is self publishing (correct me if I’m wrong here), that means you are at a disadvantage to begin with. No advertising budget, no marketing team, no distribution network and no financial safety net in case it all goes wrong.
No, instead of worrying about all that, forget traditional marketing and traditional sales methods. Indies make a living from being creative, not just in terms of their games but also their strategies. Introversion, who did Darwinia, Defcon and others, broke the mould on several occasions with unique games for low prices and this got people’s attention. Defcon was simple and fun. I won’t criticise your games because they are good, but they are complicated. They are not easy to just play for 10 mins, and unless the subject matter is particularly dear to you, say politics, they are inaccessible. Marketing for an indie should be mostly viral. Spread by word of mouth and by social sites as you rightly point out. But it is not the job of the sites themselves, nor is it the job of Cliff to do this. A little nudge and the game will sell itself by the powers of the Internet.
Here are a few ideas that you might want to look into:
The internet masses love flash games. So much so that we have a mailing list for flash games at work. The simpler the concept the better. My favorite at the moment is one called Pandemic 2 (I’ll let you google it). You are a virus and you have to kill every person on Earth. Thats a genius concept. You can make money from flash games with advertising, perhaps even embedded in the game itself. You can also ask for donations or provide ‘Deluxe’ editions that you can download for a small amount. If your design brief is longer than an A4 side, its too complicated.
Take a traditional game and flip it on its head. For example, you could take a racing game and make it so you design the car and the an obstacle course but you can’t drive it. Toribash is another example of this type of thing.
Make your games customisable. As a single person you could never make your game hit its full potential. Provide instructions on making mods, and let your fans build a community for you. You do less work and your fans will love it.
Do a Radiohead. Make a fun addictive game, make it free and let people pay what they want for it. Lots wont pay at all, but it will (hopefully) get you some publicity and plenty of people will pay what they think its worth.
Do a publicity stunt and let the community design your game for you. At each point in your design decision ask the community instead. For example if you are making a game based on a story, let the community choose what happens to character A. Give people some options and let them post alternative suggestions. You will get tons of garbage but you might get something awesome too. Offer to give them a free copy and their name in the credits if you use their suggestion.
I imagine the financial risk of doing a big game like Democracy 2 is great. Concentrating on smaller games with little depth might not seem a viable strategy, but if you look at some of the more popular Indie games like Geometry Wars they are incredibly simple! Your games have a great deal of depth and thought in them and I don’t think people are expecting or looking for that. If they want a challenge they’ll buy Brain Training, an RTS.
Seriously, I don’t want to criticise your games, but I will point out what I see from a consumer point of view rather than focusing on what I see as a developer. Kudos is a lot like the Sims. No, really, it is. In both games you build your character with skills, make friends and get jobs. The only difference is the visual representation of that simulation. Kudos is 2D. The Sims is 3D. In The Sims you can customise your character, in Kudos you can’t. Yes the range of jobs, skills and activities in Kudos far outweighs those in all the Sims expansion packs combined (probably), but people aren’t going to see that. You can buy the Sims 2 now for £16. Thats a LOT of bang for buck and you can’t compete with that on your own. No matter how involved you make it. The vast majority of people who play Sim games watch TV and probably see The Sims adverts on TV. They want to make their characters kiss, set fire to things and play with that cute dog in the advert. Even if that same market found Kudos, it does not deliver what they are looking for. You could argue that its not the same market, but it overlaps sufficiently that I could make my comparison.
I love Indie gamers, they are where the drivers of real innovation. I like Rock Legend, I got carried away playing it until the demo ran out, and I may well buy it** - because its different. Democracy 2 was kind of cool, but too serious for me - not fun enough. Thats what you should focus on, innovation. If the concept is not sufficiently unique that it makes you invent a new word like ‘Eureka’ by falling off your chair in surprise, then you probably don’t have a hit.
You could even try asking the community which game they want you to write. Your loyal fanbase are ideal because they will be the first people inline to buy it. Come up with a few ideas and let them choose and be a part of the brainstorming session.
All I can say is the very best of luck. Coming up with winning ideas is way harder than anything else in game dev. The next time I hear someone call a good designer lazy I’ll kick them up the rear.
** Although just a point, the background music is annoying, it loops too often and I had to turn it off, which I couldn’t do without quitting my game. I suggest making the options menu accessible from inside the game, if its there already, make it more obvious.