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Indie vs Retail
by James Coote on 05/21/13 07:22:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

It should be obvious to all that bricks and mortar stores selling video games must adapt or die in the face of digital distribution. To make those physical spaces justify the overheads they generate, there need to be reasons for people to come into the store and spend their money in person, rather than simply going online and having their purchases delivered to their front door or downloaded straight to their gaming device of choice.

One possible avenue is to get indie game developers into the stores to demo their games. This gives indies a platform to showcase their work, get feedback from the general public on their games, and provide a new way of connecting with their audience. For the store, it means an added attraction to bring people through the doors.

It just so happens that I’m working on a game for the OUYA, which is being retailed through GAME here in the UK. Since OUYA have been pushing how ‘open’ their platform is to develop for, there haven’t been the NDA’s or legal issues one might usually expect with grabbing the devkit and publicly showing it off to everyone and anyone who cared. In fact, this was something I’d already taken it upon myself to do, organising a number of meetups of developers and fans prior to the console shipping to kickstarter backers, as well as taking it to the Gadget Show Exhibition and an Anime and Comic convention (MCM Expo) down at the NEC

While the cost/benefit equation of these events is somewhat questionable from a pure sales point of view, in terms of increasing exposure and the possibility of generating press interest, they are well worth it. Plus they are just fun to do for an indie developer working from home and not getting out enough.

The logical extension would be to demo the OUYA (and by proxy, my own game) in branches of GAME, and after approaching them about the idea, they proved receptive and willing to give it a go. So, last week I headed down to Northfield, a suburb of Birmingham, to the local branch of GAME to test drive the idea.

What went right?

Position / Setup
Full credit to the guys at the shop, who before I arrived, had collected together all the OUYA boxes in the store and arranged them on an old PS3 stand. While some people were a little confused as to what the OUYA was or mistook it as having something to do with playstation, the setup by and large looked the part.

The stand was also well positioned, so as not to get in the way of people moving around the store, whilst at the same time not being hidden in some dingy corner or away from where customers glancing around the store might notice

OUYA display at GAME

Engagement
People responded really positively to the live demonstration, whether they were just watching myself or others play, or actively trying it out themselves. Also, not only being able to respond to customer’s questions directly, but not being directly affiliated with OUYA, I was able to honestly address some of OUYA’s shortcomings, which helped build trust and a rapport with customers

Local Multiplayer
After a bit of experimenting with various games, I came across a couple that really let people jump in quickly and play with/against each other. This was a big bonus as lots of customers were out shopping with someone else (A husband and wife, or mother and child, or group of friends etc). Or alternatively, seeing one person play would often draw the interest of another unrelated customer, and being able to have them hop into the game was a big advantage in retaining their interest

OUYA
The small size of the OUYA made it easy to transport and get set up. The downside was that it wasn’t obvious until pointed it out to the customer, that the little box, tucked away in the corner, was actually running all the games. Also having the devkit, which is a different colour scheme to the version actually being sold, caused some confusion and questions about whether it was available in different colours (and why not?!)

No Internet
Although unfortunate from the perspective of being unable to demo the online multiplayer games, it meant there would be no issues with customers attempting (accidentally or otherwise) to make game purchases on my credit card. Having already downloading a good selection of games before hand ensured that there was enough variety in the titles on show to make the console feel rich and varied content wise. The (online) store being unavailable had the added bonus of focusing customers’ (and my) attention on those games I had pre-selected to show. The OUYA has also been criticised for having a laggy UI, but since there was no need to exit the game library and navigate around the rest of the UI, that particular problem didn’t come up at all.

Furthermore, no one was exposed to the lower quality games lurking in the depths of the store, and no one asked for specific games to be downloaded on the spot (which would inevitably have meant hanging around ages for it to download, causing everyone to lose interest in the meantime).

What went wrong?

Footfall
The number of customers who actually came to the shop that day was disappointingly low. Far lower than expected according to staff, considering a couple of major releases were coming out that day.

No Promotion
I was in such a rush to get my game ready in time that I didn’t do any promotion of the event beyond a few tweets the day before. No attempts to contact press or otherwise generate interest beyond (figuratively) grabbing people as they walked past in the street

Game Specifics
My own game is both quite abstract and complex (requiring players to get through a substantial tutorial before they can really get going), and slow paced. As a result, I found it wasn’t really hitting it off with customers, so in the end I didn’t actually demo it to that many people

Closing the Sale
In terms of generating extra pre-orders of the OUYA, I was quite poor at getting those genuinely interested to actually commit the £10 pre-order deposit. That’s partly because I suck at sales, but also due to it being too easy for customers to get out by saying they can just buy it when it comes out.

Securing the OUYA and Controllers
Being small and light, and having completely wireless controllers meant that someone had to keep an eye on the equipment at all times to avoid it getting stolen.

Limited Play
Some games I had not played extensively enough prior to demoing them, only to discover that they used a limited number of plays per day, leaving customers disappointed that they could not continue.

____

From a practical, proof of concept point of view, the whole day was a success. However, as already mentioned, it clearly isn’t effective in terms of raw sales generated for the indie, and in terms of generating press interest, it’s only going to work once or twice.

Interestingly, in discussing these issues with other devs, the example of Games Workshop came up a number of times. Every store has a dedicated space for players to come in and play tabletop battles together. Even if just watching other people’s battles, it brings people into the store with something exciting and participatory, which in turn helps create a lasting connection with the product and relationship with staff and other members of the community.

Stores like GAME already do a similar thing, with consoles set up for people to have a go at playing the latest games. However, what Games Workshop also do is run sessions for beginners, and for helping improve people’s skills in painting and crafting scenery.

As it happened, I’d help arrange for a number of other developers to demo their own OUYA games at GAME, including Jamie Lowes of Vamflax, who headed down with his own game, Chopper Mike, to the large GAME store at the Bullring in Birmingham the day after my own adventure.

Chopper Mike being Demoed in GAME Bullring, Birmingham

 

One thing that he reported came up repeatedly was that customers were also enthusiastic in getting into game development themselves. It makes sense that people think to themselves “I can do that as well,” especially when the developer is no longer remote and hidden behind corporate logos, but there in person and able to talk about the issues that directly affect game development

Retailers could co-opt the indie community by providing the co-working spaces and environment where they can get out of the home office and interact with other developers and gamers. Get feedback on their latest builds or inspiration from what others are doing. A sort of indie games incubator that doubles as a store and hub for all things gaming related.

Whether you could truly justify that cost if you’re not a platform holder like Google or Microsoft is a question that can’t be easily answered without taking some big risks to try and find out

Indeed, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to retail. Perhaps the game industry will trend back towards larger, more professional studios and indie games will once more cycle into the background world of underground niche development, making all this irrelevant. The incoming new generation of consoles will no doubt boost retail and allow long term issues to be kicked down the road for another few years.

However, these are questions that need to be answered now if retailers are to have enough time to make them work before the inevitable changes in the industry finally catch up with them.

 

I’ll be trying to answer some more of those questions when I demo the OUYA again at GAME Perry Bar on June 1st. If you missed the chance to play Chopper Mike before, you can catch up with Jamie Lowes in GAME Solihull also on June 1st. Martin Caine of Retroburn Game Studios will also be demoing, at GAME in Leeds, again on June 1st, and also June 2nd


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Comments


Lex Allen
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It's great to see that people are doing this. Thanks for sharing your experience, though I will say, even if you advertised, I'm not sure how many people would have been interested in going just to try out a new console, and most people still don't know what indie games are probably.

Ted Brown
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Hmm!

Thanks for the detailed writeup! I appreciate the thoughtfulness you've put into this.

I've considered making a little arcade cabinet at my local corner market, with a free game playing and a handful of business cards with a URL where players can purchase it.

I wonder if something along those lines in a game shop might help drive sales?

James Coote
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Actually having discussed it with a bunch of other indies, the conclusion was that the time of arcades is gone forever.

People aren't going to go to the store to play the sort of games they can already easily get on their phone. 30 and 40 somethings, for whom it is a nostalgia trip, aren't the sort to spend their time hanging around in game shops after work.

It's the same argument as with something like j.s. Joust. It's novelty value that is better placed in a travelling fun faire than in a permanent location

Axel Cholewa
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"... a travelling fun faire ..." is a wonderful idea! :)

Craig Stern
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Arcade bars are actually growing quite popular in Chicago--the combination of games and drinking is appealing--and the retro nature of it, perhaps unsurprisingly, appeals to the native hipster element.

Our local indie group, Indie City Games, actually has an indie arcade cabinet sitting in one of these place, Emporium Arcade Bar. Polygon published a piece on it: http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/3/14/4090234/community-servi
ce-the-story-of-chicagos-indie-city-arcade-cabinet

I don't know if this would work all that well inside a game shop, mind you, but it's certainly been good for us in that bar. :)

Matthew Mouras
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Yep - would have to agree with Craig above. My hometown of Madison, WI just had an arcade bar open up last year and it's doing well. Maybe it's a Midwest thing? What is there to do in the winter other than hole up in a bar with a drink... and now some games? :)

E McNeill
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Interesting! I might want to do something like this with my own OUYA game, though I guess I'd have to do it in a Gamestop since I'm in California. How did you approach them? Did you just call the local store?

James Coote
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I spoke to the guys at the store on twitter and offered to show them my OUYA (since none of them had really seen one up to then). Then pitched the idea at the store and once the store manager got the backing of his regional boss, started setting things up

(edit: by "setting up" I meant organising a date when I could come back and do a proper demo and make a day of it)

Lucky Red
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Fascinating story, I am quite sure with more exposure the Ouya could actually compete with other consoles on the market.

Harry Fields
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I don't think it's supposed to compete. It's a different beast altogether. I have one preordered, to be sure... but it sure as hell won't stop me from buying X-one or PS4.

Thomas Bedenk
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Nice story! What OUYA games did you end up playing?

James Coote
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Bombsquad was the coop game that really worked well, though going to try some other coop games as well next time. I had about 20 odd games that I thought were really well polished and fun and gave a good representation of what was on the OUYA

Kim Pallister
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Let me start by just saying that the idea of Ouya not having point-of-sale kiosks and so taking it upon yourself to work with your local shop and just make one out of a PS3 kiosk, is badass. It doesn't get much more roll-up-your-sleeves indie than that. Kudos.

Also, I love the idea of the 'workshop'. There are many parallels with indie bookshops, game stores, etc, where building a relationship with the local community can provide a path for indie shops that the big chains can't follow. I think the idea has real legs, especially in places with a fair size dev community (SF, London, Paris, etc). I hope someone runs with the idea.

Fantastic work James, and thanks for writing it up.

Dave Scheele
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The comment regarding the potential advantages of retail working with indies hit home for me. I got my start in game development many, many years ago when a Commodore store in a nearby city hired me to clone Apple Panic for the Vic-20, and then the C-64. They had a small group of people developing games for them that they'd hang on the wall in zip-lock bags .. but the key thing is, they encouraged game development and provided a retail outlet for it at at time when there was no other alternative.

Forward-looking retail outlets with a strong local indie presence could create relationships that benefit both parties. I wonder if we'll see more of that kind of thing going forward?

Dave Ingram
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Thanks for the excellent article -- you've got some great ideas on how retailers can evolve their business models to remain relevant in the future. Your comments on indie game workshops resonated with me. My local IGDA meets up at Gamestop regularly for events or general meetings, and I wonder how well it could work if Gamestop officially sponsored these meetings and took over the local marketing for the IGDA events.

Like @Craig, I also have a thriving arcade bar in my home town. It's packed to the rafters every night with people ages 21-40ish, and they have a wide range of classic 80's and 90's titles. People are just as interested in the arcade games as they are the alcohol and giant Jenga. The bar sponsors original Mortal Kombat tournaments, Kong tournaments and range of other competitions. I can guarantee you that an arcade machine with a collection of indie games from local devs would not collect dust in this bar (www.the-1up.com/). Whether it would generate sales is another question, but it would most definitely boost exposure for the entire local scene.

Ismini Boinodiris
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Suggestion for Closing the Sale: Why not offer them a coupon with some sort of an in-game freebie-- perhaps even work out a deal with the store to cover the cost of the in-game freebie since they are directly profiting off of your efforts?

Lihim Sidhe
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Thank you for writing the artcile Mr. Coote. Some very informative stuff!

Your tale reminds me the most of a band going on tour to promote its record. Instead of arenas your venue are gaming stores. If one has the resources and is truly passionate about their game this seems like an option that can't be ignored.

For the game devs living in high cost of living areas I wonder if 'going on tour' for a month (most likely living out of their car) would be cheaper than rent+bills? You may have accidentally started a movement of game dev drifters!

That would be something....

Joe Saputo
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First off I'd like to say Thanks for the article, It was a very good read.
I hope things go better for you next time.

BUT How did you get to do that in that store, I'm sure we all know what store it is and that solicitation, So were you able to go around this without the Members of that store not shutting you down, and you know that if corp saw this they will look into it.

I do not work for this store but I have a good friend who does, and I asked to do something similar and was shot down with a big NO b.c it's solicitation and he could lose his job and risk the store getting shut down. Maybe the law's are different, were you are from, but you are crazy for even doing what you did there, so I *BOW* to in your efforts to get heard and show your talents, Keep at it and don't ever give up.

James Coote
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Heh, Solicitation has a very different meaning here in the UK (both legally and general parlance). The plan was approved by the higher ups in GAME before I was given permission to do this.

Thing is, what I was doing directly helped GAME get more OUYA pre-orders. I think if I'd been selling my latest mobile game, then the store probably would have said "no thanks" since it wouldn't actually benefit them except in the more intangible ways I talked about later.

Glenn Sturgeon
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This should be adapted by all game stores as it would indeed be an actual reason to visit the store rather than buying online.
Great ideal, also a very enjoyable and informative read.

John Gordon
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This is a very cool write up!

Just have to add that I think when the time comes, the Ouya will not find much success in established game stores. It should find venues where game consoles are not traditionally sold. Why? Because it is actually in the game store's best interest that the Ouya not sell.

Let's say you are a manager of a GameStop, and you get a bonus based on your store's annual profits. Would you rather sell a console from the big 3, which costs $300+ or a console that costs $100? Keep in mind that the big 3 consoles will play retail games, and this will lead to used game sales which are GameStop's bread and butter. A Ouya sale will mean you will never see that customer again. Do you really even want the Ouya in your store? (If it is, it will be put in some place where it is hard to notice.)

In fact the Ouya is not just competing with the big 3. It is competing with GameStop at least as much as it is with the big 3, because it is a purely digital console. That is why it should be sold in stores that are not already heavily invested in console gaming. (Maybe a Radio Shack or a Walgreens or something.) The retailers that are already invested into console gaming will want the Ouya to fail.

Kujel s
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They [GameStop] are branching out more and more so they don't just sell the games and consoles but also toys, transmedia, accessories, etc. They can sell you various related products as well as payment cards. They don't just make money on the software and hardware so Ouya doesn't effect those purchases and lets not forget most owners will own at least one other platform in addition to their Ouya(s).

Jon Hayward
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I’m curious about the side effect of getting people interested in game development (bringing it down to an achievable level) is any different on the Ouya to iphone or android devices? I assume you found this not only due to your location but also because the Ouya is a games console first?


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