March 23, 2005

Spending The Marginal Dollar

by peterb

Recently, Thurston Searfoss, author of the superb strategy game The Lost Admiral Returns, dropped me a line. He's considering adding some features to the game -- online play, a scenario editor, more special missions -- and wanted my opinion as to which of those features I personally thought, as a gamer, would help with sales. I like Thurston, and I love his game, and so I wrote a detailed response to his questions. After sending it, I decided it made interesting reading on it's own, and Thurston graciously said he wouldn't mind if I posted it here.

Dear Thurston,

Thanks for your mail. Let me make sure I understand your question. You began by asking me "which of these three features (more bonus/different types of missions, a scenario editor, or online (hot seat) play) will draw people deeper into the game" but you ended up asking "which of these additional features will help improve sales of my game?" I think the latter question is actually a better one. So that's the one I'm going to focus on.

One of the web sites I read regularly is Ron Gilbert's Ron was the creator of the Monkey Island games. What Ron said, recently, was that distribution really isn't the stumbling block in selling games. Marketing is. Marketing is what turns "this game is downloadable on the internet" into "this game is being bought by lots of people on the internet." (or "this game is on store shelves" into "this game is flying off store shelves.") I don't know a lot about marketing, but I know a little. My understanding of the discipline is that the rough flow is: (1) identify a target market, (2) craft a message that reaches that market that (3) convinces them that they need your product. To some extent, I see you taking what I think of a hacker's perspective towards the sales of your game. It's very analytical. "I'd like to sell more units. What technical features can I add to the game that will make it even more irresistable to my potential market?"

The problem I see is that in order for those features to make a difference, the people who care about those features need to hear about your game. Right now, I'm not convinced they are. So, without being flip at all, my gut instinct is that the best thing you could do to increase sales would not be to do more product development, but figure out how to better market the product you have.

But let's assume that you've already got someone thinking about those issues, and you want to do as much as you can on the product side to expand the target market. So let's talk about that.

I think we can eliminate "additional missions and content" from consideration. It really isn't a draw. Lost Admiral Returns already has a ton of different types of missions, and I can't see anyone saying "Whoah, there are 14 special missions, not 9 — I'm in!" As someone who favors single-player play over online, mostly what you want to know is that there is some degree of complexity. Above a certain point, more than "enough" is just gravy. So in terms of attracting more people to buy, I think this would probably not be time well spent. This is probably also the easiest to implement, so I realize it's a shame to say that it won't expand the pool of potential buyers. But I think that's the truth.

That leaves us with online play and a scenario editor. These have similarities in their effect on the customer base, but also some differences in terms of ongoing support.

I'm going to eliminate discussion of the technical aspect of these. Obviously there are technical challenges to making online play work well, and you are going to have to tackle them if you do it. Instead, I'm just focusing on "will it help make people buy your game?"

One thing that these features have in common is they have the potential to create evangelists for the game, although for different reasons. Online players are evangelists because they need to make sure there are other people to play against. Scenario builders are evangelists because they want to garner accolades and appreciation for their design talent. It's clear that both of these features can help create evangelists. You can look at Neverwinter Nights, which is really just a decent 3d engine wrapped around a vaguely OK set of D&D rules for an example of this. It ships with both online play and a scenario builder, and a quick look at user-created scenario archives like the Neverwinter Vault shows that people really have swarmed all over both aspects (although to be fair, I'll point out that the marketing behind the game was brilliant, aggressive, and ubiquitous — you couldn't open a web browser in 2002 without reading about NWN.)

My instinct about the tradeoffs between the two (assuming they are both implemented perfectly, etc) are as follows: a scenario editor creates more aggressive evangelists (because they want to "publicize" their work), but far fewer of them, because the cost of entry ("sit down, learn to use the scenario editor, and design a scenario") is fairly high. Online play will create less aggressive evangelists, because lots of games support online play, but more of them. Hell, I got Madden '05 just because psu wanted to play me online.

There are also compatibility and upgrade issues. No one really expects to be able to play LAR 2 online without buying it, but everyone who develops scenarios for LAR will be bitter if they don't import perfectly into LAR2 (maybe it's too early to be talking about a sequel, but it's worth thinking about). I also think that online play will give you more insight into the needs of your players. Eventually, you'll have to start thinking about the next product, and the online users are going to give you more feedback than the single-player users, by their very nature.

So between the two features — online play and a scenario editor — "all things being equal" I'd say go for online play. And if you want the get the scenario editor for free, tell people that you won't be mad at them if they reverse-engineer your file format.

The one thing about online play that concerns me is whether people would find "hot seat" play intolerable. What does a player do when it's not their turn? I worry that the hotseat experience won't be a compelling experience unless you come up with a good answer to this question. No one wants to stare at a "the other player is making his moves" status screen for 10 minutes. One suggestion a friend of mine made was "online co-op play". Two (or more?) allied players enter moves to a disjoint set of ships at the same time, all playing against a computer opponent (presumably being hosted by one player's machine). when they're all done, combat resolves and displays for all of them. Combine this with a decent chat interface and you'd have something compelling and, I think, unique.

But: right now, based on what I see on the Internet, I'd bet that the universe of people playing your game — including people who are just evaluating, not buying — is way too small. You know better than I do what your numbers are. Let's say you've only got a 1% conversion rate on "people who download the demo" into "people who pay for the full game." Adding a whole new feature to the game to try to bump up that number is indeed a viable strategy, but I think you should ask yourself whether there are viable (or cheaper) paths to simply get the demo into the hands of more people instead, and increase sales that way.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the issue. I hope you find them helpful.

Kind Regards,


Additional Resources

  • Ron Gilbert's article on marketing and games is worth reading. But then, so is everything else on Grumpy Gamer.

  • The Lost Admiral Returns is, without question, the best wargame of 2004. If you like wargames, and have a Windows PC, you should go download and install it right now. It's fast-paced, simple to learn, while still being deep and subtle. If you want to try it and tell Thurston which features you think are most important, please be my guest -- I'll leave comments open on this thread.
  • The Neverwinter Vault is a repository of user-created scenarios for Neverwinter Nights.
  • Posted by peterb at March 23, 2005 05:15 PM | Bookmark This

    I've wanted to try LAR since your first glowing review of it. I downloaded the trial yesterday, and well... when you mentioned there were a few UI issues, boy was that an understatement !
    I did push on through the incredibly verbose and confusing screens though, and by the time I finished tutorial 3 I was starting to have some great fun. The core gameplay is indeed very good, but frankly the UI just gets in the way big time. I honestly can't imagine that many people will take the time to look beyond that awful initial impression to truly appreciate the gameplay.

    The gameplay reminded me a lot of Intelligent Software's "Wars" series (whose latest incarnation is Advance Wars 2 on the GBA), but then again I don't play many turn-based wargames so for all I know they may all feel the same. The budgeting phase is an interesting innovation though.

    So if I had to give any advice to the author (not that I'm particularly well placed for that, mind you - just an average gamer and would-be game developer), it would be to borrow a whole ream from AW's book :
    - drop half the text in the tutorials. I thought AW's tutorials, which are presented in the form of short, cheesy dialogue with your superior, were a bit juvenile, but now I realize how effective they were compared to reading page after page of text.
    - simplify the UI... I really don't know how to describe this (I wouldn't know where to start !), but let's just say AW's UI with LAR's gameplay would be totally killer. Of course, I realize that completely redoing the UI is unrealistic given your resources... yet I don't think you need to look farther than that to understand why many people won't play your game. I'm sure that most of those who are tolerant enough to get past that barrier will love the game anyway - the problem is that we are a very small group these days.

    If the author reads this, please forgive the harsh words - I am not a native english speaker so they may well go beyond my feelings. I have absolute respect for the tremendous amount of work you managed to put into this, particularly given that from what I've read here it's only a part-time occupation. I still think it's a shame that gameplay with such wide potential appeal (AW's success proved that turn-based wargames are not just for grizzled veterans) is marred by a difficult-to-approach "packaging". Best of luck in your enterprise anyway.


    Posted by Jonathan Perret at March 25, 2005 05:09 AM

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