Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, developers had a single task: work hard, respect deadlines and deliver a quality product. The studio – and publisher – would have to deal with the risk while handling all marketing and PR.
Black & White 2, back when Lionhead was an indie studio
Then digital distribution arrived. Mobile gaming. Social games. The market for AAA games went “soft” and the (supposedly) recession-resistant game industry started to lose its luster. Publishers were closed by creditors. Studios were closed by publishers. Whole countries saw their game industry shrink and almost die of starvation.
But mobile gaming and social games are not the villains here. You can demonize social games like it’s 2009, but they are here to stay. A huge portion of Facebook users play games. Since Facebook just crossed the 700-million barrier, if 0.5 percent of its users play your game you end up with… 3.5 million users.
That’s a staggering number -- even from a AAA perspective.
CityVille, Zynga's latest social masterpiece -- and the company's largest launch, ever, with 100,000 players in the first day
Now let’s look at mobile. Apple has sold 18.65 million iPhones just in Q1 2011. Almost 20 million potential gamers in 3 months time.
Yep, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
THE NEW WORLD
The current decentralized business model turned out to be surprisingly open. Budgets became manageable once again after $50 million blockbusters bled many publishers dry.
(in contrast, some estimate Firemint spent $1.5 million on Real Racing 2, for example – and Angry Birds cost around $100,000)
The standardization of iOS and, to a lesser degree, Android allowed developers to build once and sell it everywhere, freeing themselves from The Big Three. A return to the free-for-all days of PC gaming, we all saw fortunes being made on a weekly basis along with talented developers going supernova almost overnight.
Halfbrick's Fruit Ninja is a huge title on both iOS and Android
Highly-playable (and welcoming) mobile games, addictive social games, Flash-based virtual worlds, low-budget PSN/XBLA titles… They changed the landscape as we know it. An audience of millions (billions?) was suddenly out there, bigger than AAA could ever be, console-free but eager to play.
We are dealing with massive challenges and astonishing opportunities. In the new world, there is no publisher. No distributor. Only you, your studio and your brand. From crews of three to massive indie studios of 25, from Mojang to superbrothers, FPS-savvy teams in Slovenia and game dev simulation experts from Japan – they all need to explain what they’re here for. Every. Single. Day.
So who, exactly, are you?
IDENTITY MATTERS -- MORE THAN EVER
If I am a VC and stumble on your Twitter account, is that an accurate representation of the studio? Is the company blog a better fit? How about that Q&A you did with GiantBomb – or the Game Developer post-mortem?
I am a social gamer. I “like” your Facebook page. Do your updates reflect your core beliefs?
I saw your ad on TV. I see your ads in Google. Who are you, again? And why are you placing ads in front of me?
Evony pushed the boundaries of good taste with ads that got more and more suggestive. This is one of the tame ones
When you lose a publisher and a distributor, you regain your voice. You can now show the world who you really are and that’s an awesome, immensely fulfilling feeling.
Remember when blogs and forums were already too much? When all that mattered were a few TV shows and print magazines? That world is dead and buried. The sheer number of communication avenues today makes it very hard to keep a cohesive message. And without it, no one will know who you really are.
Welcome to the cacophony of the REAL.
THE MASTER PLAN
The discussion around how to define brands – and identities- in a world filled with targeted, segmented communication channels is just starting. I don’t intend to offer satisfaction-guaranteed advice and cake recipes here. These are just a few things to keep in mind as you surf the treacherous waters of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and beyond.
Stick to what you know
Never write about something you don’t fully understand. If necessary, take a step back and go over any numbers you mention, any concepts you may not be familiar with. You need to message that you are an expert, not that you were too lazy to check the facts.
Keep off-topic rants to personal sites and private social media profiles
If you have a rant against Time Warner Cable use a personal channel to get it out there, not the corporate blog. On the other hand, if you have just completed a full analysis of the iPhone ecosystem, go ahead and tweet, Facebook the hell out of it.
Make sure to match the copy on all app stores
It’s essential that the iTunes copy communicates the same as the Android Market and similar Android app stores. Put your best foot forward every time you send a message to both current and future customers. Don’t forget to lead them to a forum or social profile for support – the traffic figures of app stores are often underestimated.
Redesign your site to match your audience
Websites are so 1995, but also so important still. Make sure your “look” works for all your audiences. For example: if your customers own iPads, avoid using Flash. If they like cuddly, light-hearted games, make a cuddly-light-hearted website. If you have users all over the world, translate your site to the top languages popular with your users (English, French and Portuguese, for example).
Use YouTube to your advantage
Having your game on YouTube is always a plus (unless bugs are the ones getting the spotlight!). Engage with your fans, let them know it’s ok to post in-game footage on YouTube and assign someone to go over comments on the most popular videos. Nothing should go unanswered – showing you care enough to reply is often the first step to truly get to know your audience.
Participate in podcasts
Podcasts are everywhere. Think of them as modern, targeted talk shows. Assuming you’re OK taking part in the format, you can only gain from it. It’s also a lot easier to get a guest spot in a podcast than on Conan.
Make yourself heard
Take a position you believe in and stick with it. Become an advocate. Help the industry advance. Participate in indie gatherings, offer to help the local IGDA chapter. You have a voice – go ahead and use it.
Now that you’re free of publishers and distributors, how do you deal with the multitude of channels available to all of us? What is the secret sauce for crystal-clear back-and-forth in the mold of Valve and other sucessful indie outfits? And who would win in a fight, Yahoo! Answers or Quora? (bonus question!)