At Game Connect Asia Pacific in December (aka GCAP 2011) Neil and I gave a talk about building a brand as an indie. Since then I have meant to get the slides and stuff up for people to see but have been a bit busy 🙂
Last week I got to give a quick talk at a special IGDA Melbourne event alongside Brad Giblin from Film Victoria, Chris Wright from Surprise Attack, and Chris Watts from Playbit Entertainment. We all talked about how to get funding for your indie project. As always, there was a huge amount of talk about marketing and having a marketing plan etc. Indie devs are notoriously bad at marketing and we are always looking to get some advice or help wherever we can. That reminded me that I should get off my ass and finish this post.
So, here we go!
First off, if you have the time, I suggest you just go and watch the video.
This post is going to be me doing a rough transcript of the whole talk, and I will try to sprinkle in any new insights we have discovered over the past few months.
The talk centers around the story of Tin Man Games and how we decided to build the Gamebook Adventures books, and how we approached the original project not only from a technical and game design standpoint but also from a brand and marketing standpoint. Hopefully we can give you some insights that will help you build your games into sustainable brands and businesses.
For anyone who has not watched the video or met us, neither Neil nor I are Australian. Neil is from the UK and I am from the US. That said, we both love Australia and that is why we founded the company here. The Melbourne development community is the best in the world and we are lucky to have had the opportunity to live and work here.
So, a quick intro:
Neil used to run an art outsourcing company and he moved to Australia with a big chunk of savings intent on starting up an indie studio. His first step was to come to GCAP 2007, and he was inspired by the talks he heard there and decided that Melbourne was the place to start his new company.
My story is a bit different as I came to Australia originally working on a few feature films, and then I met my wife and decided to move to Australia to be with her. That was around 2006. As part of the process of getting a proper resident visa I had to spend about a year popping in and out of the country on tourist visas and that meant whenever I was in Australia I couldn’t work locally. So instead I spent my free time burning through my savings working on open source projects, and generally doing stuff that I always wanted to do but never had the time for. Mostly this was building games and game engines etc.
Since this is the history portion of the talk, this is the point where we go into all of the mistakes that we made in the hopes that new indies will hopefully learn from them.
This is the ‘holy trinity’ of game creation. This idea that if you have great code, great art and great design then you will have a great game! There is this notion that if you build a great game, then you are bound to succeed.
Sadly, building a great game has very little to do with how successful you will be. And what is a great game anyway? Back when I started I thought that great games were fun and fun to play.
I build a heap of games that were very well received by players and games that I enjoyed playing myself. But they all fell flat.
At the same time, unbeknownst to be, Neil was making the same mistakes as I was. He had formed Tin Man Games and built a fun little game that was not selling very much at all. Both of us were swept up in that ‘gold rush’ mentality that you just have to get a fun game out on the app store and you will sell a heap of games and be able to jumpstart your business.
Since you have probably never heard of any of these games in the above slides, you can imagine that lots of money was spent and very little money was made.
Both Neil and I, separately were failing pretty hard. I am a big believer that in order to learn and succeed, you first have to fail a whole bunch, and we were definitely doing that.
This repeated failure leads one to learn quickly though and we both sort of came to the same sort of conclusions, albeit before we ever met. That is: that in order to have a successful game you need more than just good code, good art, and good design. You really need so many other things, and marketing is probably the biggest thing.
Now, as game devs, we tend to cringe at the word ‘marketing’. The term is used so often as a negative. When we hear the term ‘marketing’ we think of skeezy people trying to get you to buy things that you don’t want and don’t need.
This is pretty far from the truth. Good marketing is about the whole picture. You need to know who you are selling your games to, who your market is. You need to figure these things out before you write a single line of code or draw a single concept image. Who is your market? Who will ultimately buy your games?
Marketing must infuse every part of your game design and game development. You need to think in terms of your market at every stage of development. This doesnt mean that you spend all of your time trying to come up with schemes to squeeze every last dollar out of your players in some sort of Zynga-esque accounting-driven design. Instead it is about understanding your players. Understanding how they play and why they play. Once you have that understanding then all of your design decisions will be 100 times better.
So, how do we do this? How do we find a game idea that fits with our ideal business model? This is the question that all game devs must ask themselves when they are starting a new project. A very popular approach is to build a whole bunch of prototypes and then start weeding them out based on whether they are fun to play, or whether you think you can sell them. This is a great approach to finding a good single game, but the question you need to ask is: how do these games help us build a sustainable business?
Our goal from the beginning (after the failing part) was to not just create a game, but create a sustainable business building games. To do this we had to start narrowing down our possibilities.
So we ask ourselves these questions:
What are games that would be totally awesome? Awesome not just for players, but games that we would enjoy making. Games that we would be proud to say: “Hey! I made this!”
What are games that we have the resources to build? This is a tricky one, and will be very different for each game developer. But it is important to be realistic about how much money you have and how much you need to earn to keep going. Don’t make games that will take 2 years and $200k to build if you don’t have that kind of money in the bank. Instead pick a few smaller projects to build your base, and then go for the big game later on once you have established yourself.
Finally: what are games that are marketable? This is usually where most indies fall down. This is where both Neil and I failed with our earlier games. All of the games we had made previously were games that fit in the first two circles, but did not fit in the last, most critical circle: can you sell this thing?
Neil plugged this idea of a digital gamebook into the above formula and found that it fit pretty well.
Gamebooks are a retro experience that we both loved as kids. These would be games that we would really enjoy making and also enjoy playing ourselves.
In terms of game mechanics and getting an app built: there was this new thing: the iPhone and it was the perfect fit for a digital gamebook experience. We both had released games on iPhone so we knew it was something that we could build.
Finally (at the time) there was nobody else doing this. This meant that there was a niche in the marketplace that we thought we could fill. It turns out we werent the first people to have this idea and Fighting Fantasy beat us to market, which was a bit of a bummer at the time, but worked out in the end (more on that later).
So, we had our product. We would take this concept of an interactive, branching narrative and update it for the digital age. We wouldn’t just rehash the old ideas in pixels, but instead commission new works that specifically took advantage of the new platform and try to advance the gamebook experience while keeping true to the nostalgic roots.
If you are reading this blog, and have lasted this far, you probably already know what gamebooks are, but just in case, and for completeness sake, I will include this brief history of gamebooks.
Note to gamebook history buffs: Yes we know this is a very brief history and leaves out heaps and heaps of stuff, but you get the idea 🙂
Probably the best known gamebooks are the ‘Choose your own Adventure’ series of books. These were fairly simple branching stories. No dice or character sheets, but they were massively popular in the 80s. They sold something like over 200 million copies and have published some 185 books under the CYOA brand.
These are the gamebooks that I grew up with. It was CYOA books that got me ultimately into tabletop role playing and RPG/adventure games in general.
The Fighting Fantasy series was seminal in bringing the ‘game’ to the gamebook genre. These took the CYOA concept and added in some D&D style dice rolling and character sheet style game mechanics. These books were very popular in the UK and are the titles that really got Neil hooked when he was a kid.
There are heaps of gamebook series that spun off from Fighting Fantasy and have all sorts of different rulesets and genres. One of the other really popular series was the Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk. The Lone Wolf books were unique in that they added this idea that you could continue your character from one book to the next, tying each book together into a cohesive campaign.
As a side note, (and we will talk about this more later in the talk) Gary Chalk is now working with us to do a new series called Gun Dogs, which we are very excited about.
SO! We had a product: gamebooks on iPhone. From the very beginning we knew that gamebooks would be a very niche market and that no single gamebook would ever be enough to keep the company going.
This is pretty much true of most any indie game, even the ones that we hear about that do really well. One single successful game can make you a good amount of money, but %99.99 of the time, even successful games wont generate a steady income. For that you need a successful studio. For that you need to build your brand.
So, before we had our first prototype finished for Gamebook 1, we had this idea that the brand would have to encompass everything that we do. Every single decision you make will affect your brand. Not only your games, and how they are created and presented, but how you deal with your community, how you respond to bug reports, how you deal with bad reviews, how you deal with good reviews, how you deal with other devs and other businesses, how you write your contracts… etc
Every single thing that you do affects your brand, so you need to be aware of what it is you are trying to say with your brand, what is your brand identity? make sure that all of your actions and decisions reflect this brand identity.
It is exactly analogous to good game design. In a good game design, every decision you make: art, code, mechanics, interface, these all must build upon the core design priniciples. Any part of the game design that detracts from the core game experience is bad and should be redesigned or removed.
This is the same for your company brand. Anything that you are doing that detracts from your brand should be rethought or abandoned.
With this overarching idea of a brand fresh in our minds, we set out to design our product and ultimately our brand identity.
The kernel of our products and our identity is the digital gamebook. So we needed to figure out how we could take this idea and make it unique and enjoyable. Our goal was to be the premier purveyor of digital gamebooks, and so we had to sit down and figure out what it was we thought that entailed.
It was always important that we kept the book feel. Much of the nostalgia for both Neil and myself was that book experience. The feel of the book, the turning pages and bookmarks, all of these things that are not strictly necessary on a digital platform we wanted to keep that retro/nostalgia as a core part of the games.
The classic books always had black and white illustrations, and it was a very deliberate decision for us to keep those black and white illustrations in the early books.
Similarly, all of the classic gamebooks had these little filler images to take up space when the paragraphs didn’t fit entirely on a page. These little filler images were very much a product of the printing process, and would be wholly unnecessary on a digital device. However we wanted to keep those in to help anchor the books into that classic feel.
Very early we had this idea of a really nice classic paper-esque character sheet. These are the sorts of things that I really remember from my tabletop days. It was important that we try to never veer off that classic feel. We still have some popup menus in the game but even those we tried hard to make them look and feel like the old-school character sheets and rulebooks from our tabletop days.
The last thing we kept, which I think has been one of the best decisions was to keep the page numbers. When you make a decision in Gamebook Adventures, it tells you to ‘Turn to 324’, or whatever. Absolutely no reason to have that in a digital medium, but that one thing has probably triggered the most nostalgia of all of our design choices.
We had many many discussions about whether the books would be more hardcore or more casual. We originally leaned a bit more hardcore because the original books were pretty stats heavy and you needed to be pretty into the gamebooks to really enjoy them.
However, once we had our first book out we got lots of feedback that they were a bit too hard. We had a whole heap of players who really wanted to play the games but had a hard time getting into them.
This is where the marketing comes back in. We had to think more like the people we were trying to sell to, and adjust our game designs to better fit the market.
It was here that we decided to try to ride that fine line between casual and hardcore. We decided that we wanted to always stay firmly in the camp of Gamebook and try to stay out of the camp of ‘RPG’. While the gamebooks are definitely a form of RPG, there is a certain investment of time and effort that an RPG implies, and we always wanted to be a fun and lighter way to get that same role playing/tabletop experience, but with a more casual level of effort.
In the slide above you can see one of the decisions that we made towards this goal: we added the ability to tailor the difficulty to your individual preference. We have this idea of bookmarks as save points. The easier you set the difficulty, the more bookmarks you get. This lets the novice or casual players put in bookmarks at pretty much every juncture where they might be faced with a difficult choice or combat. Whereas it leaves the hardcore players to try and get through the book with very few strategically placed savepoints.
In addition to finding all of the good things that we remembered from our gamebook filled youth, we also wanted to jettison any of the stuff that we didnt like about the classic games.
These were things like: stat handling. Some people really love it, but in general the need to keep your own character sheet and deal with your own stats takes you out of the game. Not to mention that our users were going to be playing our games where they dont have a pencil and paper to keep track of their own character. So not only do we have a lovely character sheet to keep track of your gold and vitality, it also keeps track of everything you pick up and clues that you find. This way you dont need to remember that you learned the name of the murdered nobleman from the bartender, it is right there on your character sheet.
Similarly there are lots of limitations that a printed gamebook has by its very nature: things like limited paper space, so you are limited to a smaller number of sections, which means you are also limited in the amount of story you can tell. We no longer have that limitation so we made our adventures more epic in scope than the originals.
When we were younger getting through a fighting fantasy book felt like quite a big adventure. Nowadays they are still great, but they feel a bit short, and a bit outdated. The modern adventure landscape has changed quite a bit and the expectation of the consumer is much greater now. Our goal was to make deeper more interesting stories. Not just dungeon crawling and monster killing (although we have plenty of that) but also some political intrigue and more complex storylines.
That was our product defined, we knew what it was we were going to sell and who we were going to sell it to. By defining the product we also defined many things about our brand: we wanted to be the best digital gamebooks out there by advancing the art of interactive narrative while staying grounded in the roots of the adventures that came before us.
So now we defined some goals for ourselves, some concrete aspirations to build towards. This basically boils down to becoming peers with the traditional brands. When people think of fighting fantasy, we want them to also think of us. When people remember ‘The Cave Of Time’ fondly, we want them to also think that Gamebook Adventures is the spiritual successor to that series. These were not small goals but very ambitious. However this was our plan from early on.
So how do we achieve this?
We have a product and we need to build a brand around it. At this time we still did not have a brand identity.
We needed a name.
Choosing a name is very important. This is by far more important than the name of the company or even the names of the individual books. The brand name will tie all of our games together and give people an anchor to think about and talk about our games.
However, in the style that we like to work in we had to fail a few times before we hit on something that worked.
Guild of Gamebooks was one of the early ideas that we had. As Neil says in the talk: “What is a guild of gamebooks? what does that even mean?” While the name had some nice sounding fantasy-ness to it, there was no real life to it. Guild of Gamebooks just didn’t really hook you in as much as we wanted.
Both Neil and I attended the Digital Distribution summit in 2008 here in Melbourne. Rob Murray of Firemint gave a talk about their recent runaway success: Flight Control. One thing that he said that resonated with us was that you need to put the game into the title.
These days the average game player maybe spends just a few seconds looking at your game icon and reading the title of the game before deciding to move on or click through for more information.
So in order to get people to click through you need to put the game into the title. The example given was of course: Flight Control. What do you do in this game? Well you control flight paths. Simple. It is easy to understand and easy to tell your friends about.
Similarly ‘Choose your own adventure’ is a great brand name. The whole narrative mechanic is basically summed up in four words. We wanted something similar.
And so Gamebook Adventures was born. It tells you what they are: Gamebooks, and it tells you what you do with them: have an adventure.
The logo was nice and simple and it can easily be incorporated into lots of artwork and done in many various styles without losing the distinctive shape and recognizability.
Now that we have this brand identity we are going for, and this product we are building we can start to shape our design decisions based on this brand. Again, going back to what I said earlier: everything you do will affect your brand. So you should take every opportunity to strengthen the brand with every design decision you can.
This is just an example of one of the things that we did to shift our designs towards our newly decided brand identity.
Trail of the Assassin was the original title of the first book. This is a fine title, but doesn’t help push the brand in any way.
Ok, this is a bit better. We knew from early on that we would be building at least six books. Neil had secured the stories early in the production. Knowing that we had at least six books to bring out allowed us to think about how to position the brand name, and we decided to use it in all of the game titles.
This is pretty standard stuff. We pretty much just followed what other book publishers have been doing for years and years.
However, we had this other goal, and that was to introduce our readers to the fantasy world that our first six books were set in. Even from the outset we planned to move out of Orlandes to scifi and mystery and other genres, but we were in a unique position that we could use the first book to set up the next five books so we decided to change the name to An Assassin in Orlandes.
This title has a great deal of utility for us now as it is the first book, it introduces the brand name as well as setting the scene for itself and the next five books.
At the same time we decided to add a ‘1’ to our logo for the first book. Seeing all the logos together like this you can tell they are all part of a series. But when our first game came out with a ‘1’ in the logo and the brand name proceeeding the book title it implies that there will be more to come.
So with these few tiny changes we were able to turn our first book launch into an introduction to our brand, an introduction to our universe, and introduction to the whole series and an entreaty to buy the ones that would follow.
On top of changing the name and adding numbers to our icons, we also wanted to sprinkle our logo throughout the interface. Not so that it gets in the way of the game experience, but in a nice way that helps tie each of the books together.
This pretty much brings us to the present day (or at least the present in terms of GCAP 2011)
By using all of the above techniques and strategies we managed to build a brand that lasted two years so far, and has attracted some big players in the gamebook industry.
Jon Green agreed to write a book for us and we had just released it previously to GCAP 2011.
There are some interesting things to notice about the Spider God logo, as well as the gamebook itself. We broke many of the rules that we had set up in the beginning and rules that we followed for the first six books.
The goal behind these changes was to utilize the strong brand base that we had built up to expand our market to try and reach some new readers.
Some of the changes we made: we removed the number from the icon. This was a bit of an experiment and the thinking behind it was to let people know that they did not need to play the first 6 games to be able to enjoy this one. Also, because we were making these changes we wanted it to represent an evolution of our games and so we didnt want to tie it to the older books.
(as a side note, we have recently added the ‘7’ back into the logo. We had so much feedback about it not being there that we felt we had to put it back in. Our community really enjoys collecting each book as then come out, and they really felt that the numberless icon felt out of place.)
Also we decided to go with color illustrations instead of black and white. This was again to expand the brand and encourage new players and new readers who may have been put off by the black and white artwork.
Our first six books were about anchoring our brand by associating with the brands of the past but make a name for ourselves by bringing new and interesting features to the genre. Now that we have that stable brand recognition, we are more free to expand on the gamebook concepts and try new and different things.
Another example is our newly released Infinite Universe. It is a whole new genre for us; sci-fi, and it uses a very new payment model: free to play with in-app-purchase to unlock content as you go along.
Had we started our brand like this we may never have made it this far. By being persistent and patient and building the brand first, we are now able to take more risks and our players will come along with us.
So, lets look now at how we did. We did not make it first to market as we had hoped. About two months after we started production and we were working on all of the things this talk is about, Fighting Fantasy announced that they were going to iOS. Then about a month before we were to release Gamebook 1, Fighting Fantasy released their first book on iOS.
The Fighting Fantasy brand was huge, so they got lots of coverage.
However, by coming out just a month after and with a very different interface and a very different sort of gamebook, we managed to get covered in many of the same articles as the Fighting Fantasy app. This had the effect of immediately making us peers with Fighting Fantasy, at least in terms of iOS apps. This was one of our brand goals and we got it almost straight away!
After that in most any article where Fighting Fantasy was mentioned, we would also get coverage. The converse was also true, whenever someone did an article on Gamebook Adventures they would inevitably mention Fighting Fantasy. However, since they were the much bigger brand, we got far more positive effect than negative from it.
So, this is the part where you go: this is all swell, but how does this apply to you and your games?
It is important to note that making a great game is just the first step in a very long process. Obviously you need to have good games to sell, or you wont do well. However, once you have that game to sell you need to be constantly selling it.
You need to engage your audience: This means going and doing stuff with them. Whether that be attending conferences or making youtube videos or commenting on TouchArcade forums, you need to have a constant and active presence in your player’s lives.
Twitter, and Facebook are critical these days, especially for indies. Tweeting and facebooking costs you nothing but time. But you have to be there, because that is where your players are.
Also, the great thing about these forums is that you are interacting directly with your players. Neil tweets as ‘The Tin Man’ and has a persona built around that character. He has a ‘Tin Wife’ and a ‘Tin Toddler’. These things are small and subtle, but our community really identify with that character and that helps up not only make our brand more approachable, but also keeps us in touch with the people we are marketing to, so that we can better know what it is they want and how to make our games better for them.
Similarly, we use this blog as sort of a long-form way to connect with our readers. To let them know what we are doing and often (like this post!) show them how the sausage is made, and what goes on behind the curtains.
Finally we have the Gamebook Adventures main site. This is more like the storefront, it is there for people who maybe haven’t ever heard of us, who aren’t part of the inner circle of fans who read this blog. The GA site is there to help people learn about us for the first time. We have lots of informative stuff up there about what a gamebook is and what we do, and we have lots of links back to this blog so that once people grow accustomed to the brand they can join the community, follow us more closely and give us feedback when they want.
All of these bits and pieces allow us to tell a story, not just the gamebook stories, but the story of Tin Man Games and of Gamebook Adventures.
This story is why journalists want to cover you. If you have a great game, you will get come coverage, but if your studio has an interesting story AND a great game then you will get lots more coverage and you will have a way for players to relate to you.
When I play Skyrim, I really have no way to relate to the people who made it and I generally dont give them a second thought. The devs on Skyrim are ultimately just people like ourselves who make games, so there is no reason I shouldnt be able to relate to them, but their story isnt generally told.
In contrast, games like World of Goo, or Castle Crashers, or Minecraft, when I play these games I feel a connection to the developers because I know their stories. Much of the coverage of World of Goo was not just about the game, but about 2D Boy and how Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel left their jobs as game devs and devoted a few years of their life making a great indie game out of a gamejam idea. The Behemoth and Mojang are similar, we relate to those games and those devs because we know their stories.
So find your story and make sure that you tell it. Make your story part of your brand and part of your press kit.
So what is next for Tin Man Games? If you read the other posts on this blog, then you already know most of this.
We are constantly looking and signing new writers and new book series and new genres. We want to bring fun and interesting adventures to as many people as we can.
We are moving our tech over to Android and Mac and PC, trying to leverage our existing and future properties onto as many platforms as possible. There are heaps of people who have iDevices and play our games, but there are far far more who dont have an iPhone and we want those people to be able to play our games as well.
We are constantly trying to enhance our tools and our pipeline so that we can make our games better and get them out quicker.
So what has all this brand building effort gotten for us? Well, a better and better brand, and good brands attract good talent.
We are working with Jon Green on more books, we are working with Gary Chalk of Lone Wolf fame, and with Greywood publishing who were involved with the Fabled Lands series of gamebooks.
We are also working on a whole heap of other deals that we cant talk about just yet, but are very very exciting!
We announced our upcoming Judge Dredd book. Followers of this blog or our twitter accounts will already know all about this, but at the time it was a pretty big announcement. And since then we have started talking with some other as yet unnamed big license holders to do gamebooks for them as well.
So this is pretty much the end of the talk. To sum up:
Fail early and often, learn from your failures.
Know who you are making games for before you begin.
Choose your game so that you can maximise your strengths as developers as well as maximise your appeal to your target market.
Decide early on what sort of message you want to send with your brand, and make sure that message is reflected in all that you are doing.
Stay constantly active, constantly engaging your players.
Tell your story.
That is it!