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At GDC today in San Francisco, Monomi Park chief Nick Popovich offered some advice on how to help your game stand out in an increasingly crowded market.
He was quick to disclaim that the nature of your game is what matters most, and that his own experience co-founding Monomi Park and shipping Slime Rancher won’t necessarily mirror your own experience.
“This stuff might not be a fit for your game, and that’s totally okay,” he said. “This is not the one true way of getting your game out there and getting people to notice it.”
That said, Monomi Park has now sold millions of copies of its debut game, and Popovich suggests it's because the studio spends a lot of time thinking about how to keep people playing.
“Your game is what customers buy from you, and time is what you buy from them,” said Popovich. “It’s not enough to sell a game to someone, because you’re taking something else from them: time.”
His point is that you’re not just competing with Fortnite, Apex Legends, and other games: you’re also competing with Netflix, HBO, Twitter, and everything else someone can do with their time.
Popovich’s top bit of advice for helping your game win that competition? “Sell it with a gif.”
“Gifs are good,” he explained. “They communicate things quickly, especially on Twitter,” and he advises devs to do their best to sum up the core selling points of their game in a gif.
“Can you present your core gameplay loop in a gif?” Popovich asked. “Can you show that in a span of five or six seconds?”
If you can, Popovich believe it will help you get people immediately interested in your game’s unique core play experience. If you can’t capture a good bit of readable, sellable gameplay in a gif, he suggests trying instead to capture a big, exciting or engaging moment in your game so that people can quickly grasp what's great about it.
“If you can give someone a sense of what it’s like to play your game, if they can understand it, if they can picture themselves playing your game, you’ve accomplished a huge step,” he added.
To make a great gif, ask a simple question: “What do you want the player to feel?”
Monomi Park tried to do this with Slime Rancher, inspired by the clear, immediately graspable, eminently giffable Spelunky.
For example, “Spelunky shows you everything you need to know about this game in the form of a gif,” said Popovich. “If you were my dad, you might look at a gif of Spelunky and say ‘this looks like Indiana Jones meets Mario.’”
And since every gif of Spelunky shows different sequences of characters and mechanics interacting with each other, just a few gifs can give someone a good sense of Spelunky’s breadth and volatility.
“A perfect analog to this, in terms of a simple idea with a complex execution, would be Portal,” said Popovich. “[Players can look at a Portal gif and] very quickly see what it means to play with two different portals.”
As another example he pointed to underwater survival sim Subnautica, since almost any gif of Subnautica will show the player diving below the surface or coming back up for air. Popovich suggests Subnautica's gifs are strong because they quickly convey a key piece of the game’s core loop, while presenting a relatively rare (and beautiful) look at a game about sci-fi deep sea diving.
But hey, if you happen to work at a big company with lots of resources to build big, flashy games, show that!
As an example, Popovich showed some flashy gifs of big monster battles in Monster Hunter World, noting that Capcom did something unusual (and potentially eye-catching) when marketing the game.
“They flip the script and they focus on the monsters, not the player. So Monster Hunter trailers, and anything they show online, typically isn’t showing you crafting systems and stuff like that. It’s all ancillary to the main show, which is big monsters doing cool stuff."
This approach can also be a good influence on you and your team, because in order to sell the core appeal of your game you need to be certain what it is. “You need to be lean and focused to do this,” advised Popovich.
Of course, getting the word out about your next game is only the first step in what’s (hopefully) a long and fruitful lifespan. As you move past the launch and start thinking about how to keep people playing (and buying) your game,
“I believe your game needs a pulse to survive,” said Popovich. “Games with a beating heart have a far better chance of staying on the charts.”
So what makes up your game’s pulse? Regular “beats” you can shout about to your community: everything from content updates to ports to new DLC.
“Supporting a released game is easier and less risky than building a new one,” Popovich added. “Just remember that concurrency is king.”
“I’m talking about, at any given moment, the total number of people playing your game, in this moment, by the day or by the week, is really important or relevant to your success -- even if you have, like we did, a single-player game.”
His point is that concurrent players is an easy way to quickly evaluate the health of your games, and they’re also a valuable, somewhat overlooked way of attracting more attention. Because even if players are just playing your game, without talking about it to anyone or buying anything more from you, they’re reminding everyone on their friends list that your game exists.
“All the while they are blasting to their friends list on these platforms that they’re currently playing Slime Rancher. And if you’re the new release for today,and some of your friends are playing that game, you’re gonna hear about it as it pops up in your friends list.”
“I think sometimes we fall into this trap of thinking, I’m going to release my game and all the people who are ever gonna buy it, they’re gonna buy it or not,” he said. “That’s not true. You gotta keep working it.”
“In summary: your game is a garden: nurture it,” Popovich concluded. “Stay relevant by doing things that give your game a pulse. Keeping a pulse keeps your game selling.”
To close out, Popovich encouraged game makers to also spend some time thinking about where players encounter friction in your game (both within the game and without) and trying to minimize it.
“Friction kills,” said Popovich, both within your game and in your players’ minds, since if they feel like they’ll have to do a lot of work to pick your game up (for the first time or the fourth), they’ll probably play something else instead.
“The idea that friction exists in the game creates friction in the mind of anyone playing your game,” he added. “The solution to this is to give your game a place to call home.”
Here, Popovich means “home” as “any environment, mode or activity in a game that allows for relaxed, low-consequence play buy still issues meaningful rewards or progress.”
As example, he points to the regularly-refreshed patrol and bounty activities players can choose to engage with in the Destiny games, which are comfortable, approachable, low-stakes activities players can mess around with while taking a breather between bigger, more demanding activities,
Similarly, he points out the experience of swinging through the city in Marvel’s Spider-Man as a great “home” for players to return to, since a) swinging is one of the best “feeling” parts of the game and b) the stakes are low, and players are likely to stumble across new rewards and challenges.
“Offer home, and I firmly believe it will allow players to engage with your game more easily,” said Popovich. “Home is what gets people in the door, but its also a comfy couch players can return to.”
And if a lot of this advice sounds like what you hear when you’re making free-to-play, regularly updated “games as a service”, well...it is. Popovich acknowledges Slime Rancher benefited from being supported and updated like a live game.
“And that’s okay,” he said. “Copying business practices that work is okay. Even if you’re not in that business, it’s okay! Steal the good stuff.”