Develop for gaps

In this day of “it’s all about marketing” talk, I for one still firmly believe that the biggest part to a game’s success is its quality; a great design paired with a great execution will hardly ever meet failure. However, that is not to say that the entirety of a game’s success is a direct and guaranteed result of its quality. No, the second biggest factor to the success of a game is that how much competition it has, and how big of a gap it tries to fill.

Nature abhors a vacuum

Whether this is true in nature or not, the fact is that the market abhors a vacuum. Let me explain what I mean by that:

Let’s pretend for a moment that the video game scene has failed to produce a single RPG in the pas 20 years. Before that period, people had many RPGs to enjoy, a few classics, and to this day they still dream of getting a remake of the games they loved so much, or at least something to bring back that genre that they so miss. And that, right there, would be a gap. A massive one at that mind you but this example is extreme for the sake of clarity.

Now just imagine what would happen if a studio were to announce that they were working on a new RPG. Not only would they get the regular interest that they normally would get, but all those hungry RPG fans are sure to jump on the occasion, follow every step of the development, talk about it with everyone they know and finally buy the game as soon as it’s released. It almost wouldn’t matter if the game was good or not; anything not utterly terrible would be a welcome gift to them.

Right now you probably understand the strength of releasing in a vacuum. Everyone who was silently wishing for a game to come and fill their need will rejoice at the sight of your game. If the saying goes that nature abhors a vacuum, it could be better said perhaps that the market adores a vacuum. Anything released where there is a strong need will increase its chances of success tremendously.

Now, away from our 20-years-without-RPG example and back to reality, you’re probably thinking “Yeah well that’s the problem, there’s just TOO MANY games being released nowadays and there’s no need left to fulfill”, and you’d be very wrong in my opinion.

The market as I see it

You see, the thing is that even though I will admit that there are a lot of games being developed and released today, it’s still very far from the truth to think that all needs have been cared for and that there are no gaps in the current market. Firstly, the AAA studios have a profound fear of risk, and because of that they tend to stick to what’s already being done. They saturated their own market with a ton of competing titles and hope for the bigger share. At the same time, a lot of indie developers try and emulate these big studios, and with less than a fraction of the resources, they very rarely have a chance at holding their ground against the giants of the industry.

Then you have all the other developers, those who supposedly cater to every need and fill every gap. In my own experience, a crushing majority of small developers fall into these categories:

1. They make terrible games not ever worth buying. Sadly—or luckily for us—a impressive number of developers fall into this category. Half-baked, poorly designed and just as poorly executed ideas that were bad from the start. These developers didn’t do any of their homework concerning market research, pre-production, prototyping, play-testing and polishing. They simply put the effort required to actually make the game, but never bothered to see if it was a game worth making.

2. They make sub-par variant of already established games. Admittedly, some variants are worth doing and a few even surpass the games they were based on. But in the majority of cases, the much smaller budgets and lack of experience make for bland games that offer no real competition to the originals. Don’t go creating the “next Call of Duty” on a zero budget, or creating the “next World of Warcraft” as a small developer (Yeah, that’ll definitely work. Folks at Blizzard are trembling in fear and the whole player base is abandoning its huge investments of time and money into their favorite MMO for your cheap clone as we speak.)

Even if you could somehow compete with AAAs, people wouldn’t care for your game if another is already sitting at the top of its genre. You would have to really stand out and surpass the other games out there; nobody is going to abandon their League of Legends account because some random guy developed “League of Legend PLUS” which has like more items and characters. That’s not what surpassing is about. If you’re going to compete with a giant, make sure you have something that sets you apart; you’re basically David against Goliath, make sure you have your sling…

3. They make a seemingly interesting game that turns out to be a hollow shell. I dislike these developers the most. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but a lot of these games—and often times kickstarter projects—turn out to be money grabs. The design is innovative or interesting, the concept art is gorgeous, the trailer is amazing, the game is ambitious… but it turns out to be too ambitious maybe. The lack of resource becomes apparent in just a few minutes into the game; the art that was used for promotion is nothing like what the game feels like, the controls are clunky, the game is buggy, there’s no content, and more than half of the features are “in development.”

These are also the developers that go cry to everyone saying “How could my incredibly awesome game not be an overwhelming success? Just look at this [misleading material]!”, and then everyone proceeds to talk bout how the market is terrible, how hard it is to be a developer and how it all comes down to luck.

4. They give interesting concepts a bad execution. A lot of developers also fall into this category. They also tend to complain that it’s impossible to make a living being a developer, but most of the time they weren’t that far from creating an honestly good game; they just gave up a little too soon. These will also make you feel like there are no gaps in the market, but in reality they don’t fill their gap whatsoever; if anything they leave their niche hungry for more and better games.

Now I know this sounds hash, and maybe you disagree with me, but there’s a reason people say that only about 5-10% of indies make it. It’s not because the market picks a game title out of a hat and buys it en masse, it’s because those developers did something right—or did a lot of things right.

So if 95% of the AAA stuff is targeted narrowly at a few genre, and if the vast majority of other stuff is crap, then that means there’s a lot of gaps to tend to in the market. You just have to work a bit on it. Speaking of which…

Think before you act

If you’re serious about being financially successful as a developer, you have to give your designs and ideas a lot of thought. I’ve once heard someone saying that developers plan their weekends more than they plan their projects, and I have to admit that it seems to be true for a lot of people.

So here’s what you should do. As soon as possible in the pre-production or production process, you should evaluate whether your game fills a void in the market, if it’s up against incredibly fierce competition in a crowded market or if it sits somewhere in the middle. I see this as a “multiplier” for the success of your game.

At the competitive and overcrowded end of things, your game will likely get only a fraction of the success it deserves. People just interested in the genre will pick one of the many games there is, and only those truly interested in your game in particular will buy it. Think of it as opening up a general store between a Target and a Walmart. Hint, it’s a bad idea.

If it’s not in a gap, but not in a particularly crowded market, then it’s going to get about what it’s worth as a game. People who like the concept don’t have many alternatives, and so long as your game stands out a little it should do just fine. Think of it as opening a second general store in town, and the other is at the other side of town.

Now if you’re filling a gap and people are just praying at night for such a game to come out, then you’ll most likely get twice or even more than that the worth of your game. Even if people don’t entirely agree with your take on the genre, the lack of alternatives will have the lot of them buying your game since no one else is offering the same kind of experience. Think of it as opening a general store in a town that has none, surrounded by small towns and villages that don’t have any either. Everyone in the region pretty much has to shop at your place.

In conclusion

If you can spot a niche where there exists a strong demand for a certain product, people will try really hard to love your game—a luxury any developer would wish for. Find an area where you can be the best, even better where you can be the only one there. But don’t go inventing stupid shit and think you’ll make millions just because you are the only one with a “racing-animal-town-building-mediaval-tetris-dating-sim” though, that’s not finding a niche, that’s setting yourself apart from the rest of society.

Being the “big fish in the small pond” is in your best interest since indies can’t possibly hope to be bigger than AAA studios. Find that place where you could be king.

If you want to achieve success, always start with a need in the audience, a hole in the market, something that hasn’t been done recently or correctly that many people are wishing for. (Hint: Minecraft 1.5 and COD: Indie Warfare aren’t good options)

If you’re unsure, perhaps test the waters with a small release, a playable demo or even just some concepts. Releasing a really scoped-down version of your idea could also be a viable option; a lot of series started with a pretty humble first game and got bigger and better with each new release or update.

And finally, SPEND – TIME – RESEARCHING. You wouldn’t spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars building a house without checking if you’re building it on quicksand or halfway off a cliff. Don’t make your work useless because you were too lazy to invest a few days or weeks at the beginning; that’s the opposite of working smart, it’s working hard and incredibly dumb.