Notes from the Nordic Games Conference

ImageSkrevet av Charles Butler, høgskolelektor ved NITH.

For the benefit of those that were unable to attend the Nordic Games Conference, I’ve compiled a few notes to share.  These are some of the more useful points and lessons that I took away from the conference.  I hope you’ll find something useful or interesting here as well.  As a caveat, all of these notes are from my personal interpretation of the sessions and shouldn’t be considered a perfect representation of the speakers’ intent.

This blogg post contains notes from the following sessions at the conference:

  • Secret identity: How Gearbox Software manages its image, With Randy Pitchford, President, Gearbox Software
  • Building Bastion, With Amir Rao, Studio Director, Supergiant Games
  • Promoting games… on your terms, with Nathan Vella, President, Capy
  • Live Pitch Session, Presented by Richard Phillips and Fred Hasson, Games Capital

SECRET IDENTITY: HOW GEARBOX SOFTWARE MANAGES ITS IMAGE
With Randy Pitchford, President, Gearbox Software

Gearbox was founded in 1999 and launched Half-Life: Opposing Force with only twelve people.

One central point of this talk was that you need to manage both the internal and external aspects of your company’s image.  It’s quite easy to think of your image as being limited to the public’s perception, but it’s also useful to consider what all of the employees of a company think and how they see themselves.  The self-perception of a company has a significant bearing on the quality of the work it does.  The stated purpose of Gearbox is “to entertain the world.”  The idea is that while other companies may provide incredibly important products and services that make our modern life possible, the entertainment companies of the world provide the joy that makes our lives worth living.  This is a key part of the company’s internal image, and it shapes the work that everyone does there.

Game companies start with grand dreams and the desire to make fantastic products, but this sometimes comes at the expense of paying attention to the more practical business matters.  Randy wants everyone at the company to keep their mind on the actual dollars that their products have the potential to bring in.  In service of this, they share 40% of their profits with their employees, and the share amounts are based on the length of time one has spent at the company instead of their title or position.  The intent is to ensure that every employee, from the top to the bottom of the organization, has a fair and equitable stake in the financial success of a product. As he put it, “We have to remember that we are a business, and without the business, the dream would end.”

The external image that Gearbox created was focused on expanding the opportunities available to the company.  The credibility comes from choosing to create products that are relevant to their fans and the industry, but they also needed to build experience in a variety of areas in order to avoid being thought of as a company that can only make one type of game.  The company started with work-for-hire shooters but expanded to original games as soon as they were able (creating nine games for others before being in a position to create something original).  They pushed for early deals with Activision, Electronic Arts, and Microsoft in order to get the experience of working with the biggest publishers in the world.  They’ve worked in multiple genres with multiple platforms and have even returned to licensed material, all so that they can be seen as a company that is highly capable in many different areas.

——————-

BUILDING BASTION
With Amir Rao, Studio Director, Supergiant Games

Supergiant was founded in 2009 with two people, and they have grown to seven thus far.  The creators left their previous jobs because in AAA companies, where the focus is on risk mitigation, “the forces of cynicism are strong.”

Bastion’s production was pushed forward by what they called “event-driven deadlines,” meaning that their milestones centered on having builds ready for industry events, such as PAX and GDC.  They didn’t create separate demo versions of their game, so they had to keep their actual build playable and polished throughout production.  One other point about their development process was that the company is not run as a democracy.  In a team of experts, people should make decisions based on their areas of expertise.

They tried to ensure that any additional features were driven by actual player needs.  In one example, players had difficulty navigating, but they thought that adding a map would draw too much focus away from the gameplay.  They needed a way to guide the player without being obtrusive.  The solution was to have the intended play area only come into existence once the player neared the edge of the existing area.  This gave players constant and visual feedback about where they should be going without taking their attention away from the gameplay.

In speaking about the decisions that most games offer to players, Amir said, “If people aren’t afraid to make the wrong decision, then it must not be engaging enough.”

They took the Bastion to PAX 2010 with no publisher, which was risky, but they were counting on a positive reception to help them sell the game.  They never bothered pitching it on paper, only through demos of the actual game.  Considering negotiation with publishers, he said, “Getting what you want means suppressing being reactive.”  Also, when talking about the chance of failure and the risk of leaving their successful careers behind, he pointed out that “failure is capped, success is limitless.”  The idea was that even in the worst case scenario, they would just run out of money and have to look for new jobs, so the downside for them wasn’t really all that bad, while the potential upside could be incredible.

Supergiant began development in September 2009 and launched Bastion in July of 2011.  It has gone on to sell 700,000 copies of the game and 75,000 copies of the soundtrack.

——————-

PROMOTING GAMES… ON YOUR TERMS
With Nathan Vella, President, Capy

Capy was founded in 2003 by a group of friends with no experience making game.  They spent three years making their own mobile games before landing their first “real” game contract, which was for the Cars mobile game.  Now they are up to 23 people working on 3+ projects simultaneously.

Steps to promote your game:

Spend time figuring out why your game is cool

Find the best and most interesting bits of your game promote those.  This also requires you to find out which things aren’t cool.  A few examples of non-cool things that you shouldn’t use to promote your game (but everyone does anyway):

  • Number of levels
  • Duration
  • Leaderboards
  • Technobabble
  • Anything that all games have
  • Number of permutations of X

Create compelling promotional content

Make sure that you coolest parts are clearly communicated in your promotion.  For any mobile platform, icons are incredibly important.  Be careful to control your media distribution or your old, terrible screenshots will end up in your reviews.  People will often just grab the first thing they see on Google when doing a write-up of your game, so you need to do what you can to ensure that they use the media that presents your game in the best light.  Furthermore, the first bit of media that someone encounters is often the only thing they will use to decide whether or not to buy your game.  Considering that, be sure a player’s first experience with your game is the one you want them to have.

Trailers: Only make your own trailer if you can do a professional job of it.  Use very limited text and no bullet-points. Trailers are very often the purchasing decision point for players, so take them seriously.

A good example of a trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xk2fjtryfYc

It has nothing at all about gameplay (which I normally despise), but it does a great job of communicating the mood and tone that the developer wants the game to have.

Making effective trailers:

http://blog.kertgartner.com/2012/03/making-entertaining-and-engaging-video-game-trailers/

Know who you’re promoting to

Which gamers?

Which platforms?

Who will be the early adopters?

Don’t forget to promote to the platform distributors.

Be a valuable member of online communities.  (There’s a BIG difference between a new member obviously trying to promote their product and a long-term, valuable member of a community letting everyone in on some inside info about his current project.)

Drink all of the beers

Spend time getting to know other people: anyone making games, reporting on games, attending conferences, etc.

Be honest while telling your story

People are very good at noticing when you’re trying to sell them something. If you aren’t being honest, your audience will know.

——————-

LIVE PITCH SESSION
Presented by Richard Phillips and Fred Hasson, Games Capital

The finalists of the Nordic Pitching competition pitched their games to a panel of judges who then had an opportunity to ask questions and offer feedback.

Here are a few issues that arose with the judges’ feedback and questions.  If these areas aren’t being adequately covered by the finalists, I imagine that they would be problem areas for most teams.  Anyone considering pitching a game (or probably any project) should keep them in mind.

  • What is unique about your game?
    • Is this differentiation actually an advantage?
    • What’s the problem you’re solving?
    • If trying to combine elements of different games:
      • Why will the combination work?
      • How do you know?
      • Will you have to be good at both to be successful?
    • Adding complexity and tons of features isn’t always a good thing (“Your user will have to figure out ALL of that BEFORE they can play???”)
    • You’re talking more about what your team wants than what the customers want.
    • You have no business proposition.
    • You should be more focused on the market and sales.
    • Why didn’t you list how much money you want?
    • Why can’t <insert big company name> kill you?
    • Do you think your budget is realistic?
    • Where’s the marketing budget?
    • Are you sure there’s a demand for your game concept?
    • Have you tested/validated <any claim that your presentation makes>?
    • Is this a game or something else? (Not being clear about the product or what players will get from using it)
    • Is your timeline realistic? (“Oh, you can launch in three months?  I’ll wait three months.”)
    • Be aware of standard practices before pitching anyone.  A publisher isn’t the same as an investor, which isn’t the same as a bank, etc. (“You’re asking venture capitalists for a loan?  Good luck…”)
    • Be careful if your pitch involves pulling customers from other games.  Even if you don’t say so directly, you’re still doing it if your pitch involves explaining why other games are broken.

In addition to the points from the judges, here are a few bits of feedback that I would have given the finalists after seeing their pitches:

  • Be careful with middle-of-the-road strategies.  There’s a reason that some players play FPS games and some play RTS games. An FPS/RTS may not appeal to either group.
  • Make sure your presentation (visual and verbal) is polished and professional. Don’t rely on pause words like “uh” (practice in front of your team and have them count every pause word you use).
  • Play-testing on target users is a big positive.
  • Never get defensive about a question or piece of feedback.  How you feel about the comment doesn’t matter.  Consider it a valuable piece of information about how people perceive your pitch.  Getting defensive or lecturing the commenter is a GIANT red flag.
  • Minimize negatives.  You can be honest without degrading yourself.  Don’t say things like “I don’t have a lot of numbers,” or “I haven’t done extensive user studies.”  Talk about the things you have done, and the things that you plan to do.
  • Don’t be too uncertain. Saying “We may promote our engine, but we’re not sure,” makes it sound like you don’t have a plan.
  • Don’t focus too much on the minute details of the game, especially not before the big picture is communicated.  Why should I care about the names and abilities each class in your game when I don’t yet know what kind of game it is or who would play it.
  • Consider your audience.  What do they know, and what do they care about?  For instance, a game publisher is probably going to care a lot more about your game mechanics than a venture capitalist or a banker.
  • If you use any business estimates, be able to back them up with solid reasoning.
  • Be careful starting with trailers (or even having too much text on your slides).  Your presentation should be a visual aid for you.  You shouldn’t be a verbal aid for the presentation.
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