“The barrier to entry is lower than ever, but the barrier to success is higher than ever before.” – With this opening sentence, Jason Della Rocca set the mood for the “State of the Industry” panel at the QuoVadis 2016. Della Rocca is the co-founder of Execution Labs, a hands-on early stage investor exclusively for game studios. His work with investment seeking independent developers allowed him to closely observe the challenges a game developer faces, particularly those who lack the financial prowess of publisher giants like EA, Sony or Ubisoft.
Della Rocca elaborates further; labour, knowledge and software tools for game creation have never been so accessible in quantity, quality and price. Simultaneously, devices and platforms to publish with have never been so abundant. Anyone can create games nowadays, free of legal as well as creative control from big publishers, and catering to niche audiences who have been neglected.
The foremost challenge on the game market is to gain enough visibility in retail and media coverage among the 500 apps released per day in the last year. Furthermore, the game market is highly fragmented. In such an environment, companies have to think hard about positioning themselves as well as finding the right identity for their games in order to compete in the wild mix.
The panel members agree that integrating a marketing plan into your game development might feel unnatural for most creators but is necessary in the games market of today. By tradition, independent developers are intrinsically motivated to create for themselves and therefore are not driven to play the “market game”. They prefer artistic autonomy over catering to target groups and the freedom of improvising as opposed to adapting to an ascribed business model.
So, what strategy should a developer follow when they want to make a living in such a saturated market?
In the marketing context of the ever-changing gaming industry the panel members highlighted the following four points:
*Creativity is still key; game developers don’t need to abide by traditional marketing methods, rather they should think outside the box and consider alternatives in how to share your work and find your community.
*Find ways to avoid competition with the giants. You probably won’t be featured on the “Steam” landing page and don’t have the brand recognition to throw elaborate release parties. However, seek out your core players where they meet and give them some ownership in the development process. They are your best organic marketing tool.
*Get inspiration and feedback from outside the industry. Experts and non-gamers can provide perspectives that shine light on problems you haven’t noticed or can enhance the immersive quality and richness of your product.
*Use influencers to promote your games in the vast social media landscape. Famous channels on video streaming sites like twitch.tv and YouTube cannot guarantee you a long-term visibility among potential audiences but inject you with enough relevance to boost your campaigns.
Wrapping up the topic of marketing; Christoph Schmitz, Director of Production for Quantic Dream in Paris, points out that new technologies, business models, and genres are developing every 180 days and change the rules for developers drastically. He urges that those who want to stay on top have to adapt quickly.
The culture of game development
Kate Edwards from IGDA (the international game developer association) shared her concerns on the working conditions in the games industry. She talked about “Crunching” (or Crunch Time) which refers to the “practices, or mandatory uncompensated overtime required to finish games, at major game companies“, and compared the games industry to the creaticve industry with their perfectionist tendencies, a ‘get-it-done’ attitude and highly pressured.
While Crunching is also a fading phenomenon and not present in countries with good labor laws like Germany, Christopher Kassulke from Handygames sees the high pressure on labor and the relative short employment cycle as problematic. The games industry can simply not mature if it churns through its best talents at the current rate. At Kassulke’s estimation, the games industry loses half of its workforce within a single century. Unlike the movie industry it does not have its equivalent of a Steven Spielberg or Sophia Coppola, the types of visionaries who strengthen the art form and push the boundaries of gaming as a medium.
In summary, the panel discussion on the state of the industry was an excellent opener for the QuoVadis 2016. It looked critically on the current challenges with diverse speakers. Unfortunately it did not offer much in terms of how they can be overcome but touched on a few approaches for further investigation. Were the game developers and speakers just reluctant in sharing their findings to secure their advantage or are they still looking for solutions? I would have appreciated snippets of visionary insight from potential leaders who will bring the games industry to the next level.
Personally, I see the big challenges for independent developers in building a team from scratch that does not only consist of excellent artists, designers and coders but has capabilities and most importantly capacity for business management activities like community management, online marketing, human resource and finance. Some teams get distracted from development when the attention level rises. A small community of hardcore fans is easy to keep engaged by releasing DevDiaries and discuss design choices openly. But there is a threat in getting sidetracked by catering to a big audience and keeping it entertained. Marketing needs planners and strategists, and developers who know how to stay cool facing emotional critique from impatient or dissatisfied fans.
I am aware that this “professionalization” of game development feels like a diversion for passionate and devoted developers. However, I am confident that as games become more and more integrated in our lives and attract professionals from outside the industry, this paradigm shift will occur in time.
I, for one, am excited to see what 2016 will offer in the gaming world, in business development and entertainment. If the predictions are correct we will soon meet each other in Virtual Reality spaces. See you there!