|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #111:
Publishing Games: An Overview, Part Two
March 13, 2003 Last week, I talked about the fact that we'd released two new games to the Skotos community: Meridian 59: Sacred Haven and Underlight. It's all part of our Associate Game program, which is described a bit more in a press release we put out on Tuesday. The gist? We're now offering infrastructural services to companies that have a game, and want to get that game out to a larger set of players.
And, I used that topic as a segue to talk about the many things required to put out a game, beyond actually developing the game. My previous column was all about the pre-release nuisances that a game designer has to worry about. This week I want to finish up by talking about the post-release side of the business.
Clearly the first thing you have to do is actually get your game out to rest of the world. After all, the definition of "publish" is "to make public".
You should stop for a few moments and offer thanks that, because you're an online venture you don't have to go through the layers of corruption built into the retail software business. Or rather, you offer thanks if your product isn't so big that it requires a set of CDs to be put on a store shelf, rather than a simple download. Instead of retail hijinks, you have things sort of easy because you're on the Internet distributing a product that that'll be run on the Internet.
Still, you do have to think about distribution at least a little bit. You need a web site to house your game, and you need to hire a designer to make those pages look nice. (And I'll take a moment here to plug our web designer of four years, FreeFrog Designs; they've done all the beautiful work on the Skotos site, and they're freelance which means you too can hire them.) If you want to do anything fancy you'll need someone with experience in Perl, PHP, or one of the proprietary web scripting languages.
You'll also need to think about bandwidth, to make sure that your pipe is big enough to deal with downloads and playing, and to make sure you won't lose your shirt in the business.
But, web hosting is an increasingly big part of our society, so this probably isn't all that big of a deal. You'll put up a site and then, poof your game will be downloading to the masses.
And we're now into the post-release world...
However, contrary to what Kevin Costner hears in his own field of dreams, if you build it they won't necessarily come. You can have the bestest game in the whole world and if you don't figure out a way to promote it, it'll be utterly lost amidst the millions of web pages on the Internet. At work, I currently spend a lot of my time on the myriad of topics that I've classified here under the umbrella of marketing, and perhaps that influences me a bit when I say that marketing is almost as important as your original game design.
But really, marketing is almost as important as your original game design. For purposes of discussion here, I've broken the topic of marketing up into five broad classifications: traditional marketing, guerilla marketing, referring, branding, and business development. I'm going to hit each in turn, to tell you why they're all totally vital to the success of your game.
Traditional Marketing is the simple purchase of ads to promote your game. They could be electronic banners (or towers or interstitials or whatever) or they could be black-and-white or color ads within the pages of your favorite print periodical. In my personal opinion, this is the least effective type of marketing that you can do. It might be necessary to get the initial word out, and to make it obvious that you're still alive, but it's unlikely to do much more than break even overall. But if I'm going to do ads, my personal preference is for electronic ads over paper ads by a considerable margin, because of the fact that you're trying to sell an electronic commodity. If people have to set down their magazine and type a URL, you're losing 99.9% of them already.
Guerilla Marketing has nothing to do with either apes or grown men playing in commando outfits. Rather, it's the art of taking the best advantage of your existing resources. Make sure your game is listed in directories of games; if you've got a great articles section, make sure interested people know about it. I include press releases in this general category, because in that case you're letting people with news resources know about your news. Another way of looking at it is thus: the Internet is full of information repositories; make sure your information is correctly listed among them.
Referring is, I think, the most useful type of marketing. At Skotos it brings in at least 25% of our new customers. At the simplest level referring involves your current customers telling their friends how cool your games are. That might seem somewhat beyond your control, but you can try and encourage it with incentive programs.
Branding involves getting your company or game name out there, even if a potential customer isn't immediately drawn to your site. Many marketing books say that you need a ridiculous 17 or so impressions before one of your ads is going to actually be remembered by an individual person. Every time a potential customer sees your logo, you're part way there. Branding is built into every type of marketing I've described to date, but it can also be an end in and of itself. For example, sponsoring a site can provide brand recognition. I see the results of branding every time a player comes to our games via a search engine. They knew the name "Skotos" or "Castle Marrach" or whatever, and so found their way here. Thus, on the Internet, the success of branding also depends upon your successful introduction into the many search engines out there (but mostly Yahoo! and Google). Branding seems to cover another 25% of our new customers nowadays, and is slowly growing.
Business Development isn't exactly marketing, but if you're a small company, it'll be the same person doing both things. Business development is actually the art of making deals with other companies that are mutually beneficial to both of you and allow each company to take advantage of some of the resources of the other. Whenever you see the phrase "partnership" in a press release, that's business development.
As you've seen in some of my other articles, it's been a hard road trying to make our game company successful on the Internet without using traditional smoke and mirrors (which is to say 3-D eye candy made of many dead polygons). I think the success we've found thus far has been based on great code, correlated with solid marketing efforts, and the latter is part of what we offer to our Associates.
To make this all a bit more concrete, I've outlined some of our own marketing efforts as examples:
For more information on the underlying work that needs to be done to support any type of marketing see Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #85, If You Build It, They Might Come, Part One: Attention.
So you've got a game and you've got players into it... the next step is to administer. You need to keep your game interesting, which may mean special events or other oddities. In addition, you need to help new players who are entering the game for the first time, you need to help arbitrate conflicts between players and there will always be conflicts no matter how great your players are and you need to figure out what to do with the inevitable grief players.
Grief players are, perhaps, the biggest nuisance in the online medium. It's all very anonymous, and so normally rational and sane people often feel the urge to act like 3-year olds. They vandalize, they start spurious arguments that they pretend are educated, they flame, and they manipulate. Though some griefers are easy to spot because every third word out of their mouth is an invective, others are tougher to figure out because they slide by just on the edges, flittering between normal player and griefer in the time it takes to blink an eye. Some griefers are ultimately just immature, and with a little work become some of the better players in your game. Griefers could have an article all to themselves. Or five.
The bottom line is that administration is a lot of continuing work. But, you have one bonus: players will love to help make their community better. Let them.
I've talked about administration quite a bit in the past. Some of my favorite articles are: Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #16, Guiding Lights, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #43, The Power of the Medium: People, and Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #91, Advice from the Castle.
If you're building an online game, you really want to do more than just administer your game; you also want to administer a community. Games are fun and enjoyable (or else I wouldn't have written 110 previous columns, let alone the games I've designed and game books I've written), however I think they only really reach their greatest heights when they generate a community.
Part of building a community has to do with administering well so that you game is fun and feels free and yet doesn't include griefers.
Part of building a community is seeding the right memes in your community from the start.
And part of building a community is purely technical. We, for example, provide forums here at Skotos, and I think that's part of what helps people interact above and beyond the constraints of the individual games. Allowing for avenues of out-of-character talk within your game also can do a lot to help gel your community.
Some sites actually had "community leaders" during the height of the Internet boom. It's still not that bad of an idea to assign people to help moderate out-of-band communication of this sort.
I've also talked about community in the past, including in the following articles: Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #2, Keeping Up with the Joneses and Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #58, Future Memes: Community and Reputation.
I want to close up by reiterating a point I've made in the past: it never ends. Once you've created a game, you'll probably want to keep upgrading it, thus bringing the whole pre- and post-release paradigm back to the thing that kicked it off in the first place: designing, developing, and engineering a game.
See Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #68, The Upgrade Game for a bit more on this topic.
So, what's it all mean?
Over the last two and a half years I've touched on many of the other tasks required to get your game out and running. This week and last week I tried to turn those various data points into entire skeleton to put it all in perspective. Pre-release to Post-release, QA to continued development, there's a lot more than just getting your game out the door.
And let me one more time address the question of Skotos' Associate Game's program and how it relates to these after-the-release publication issues. Basically what we're offering to do is to publish other people's games online and in many ways that falls back to the standard author-publisher arrangement. Last year at WorldCon, one of the panels I sat in on was labeled, "After the Sale". Tom Doherty, or Tor Books, said something that really made me better understand this type of relationship. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, something like "We're choosing to publish a book because we think we can sell it, and advertising is a very important piece of that."
We offer a lot of cool infrastructure at Skotos for our Associate Games, from hosting to billing depending on each company's particular needs but at heart we accept games for the program because we think we can sell them with our marketing, branding, and business development. We've been working on it for the Skotos community for two and a half years, and we think we have some good buzz going.
Next week it's back to strategic games. I've got a whole set of questions to ask about hidden information: why, who, what, how, when, where, and whatever.
See you in 7.