Editor's note: Paul makes a compelling case that indie game developers should emulate the organic foods industry. I'd make a point of buying indie all the time if developers followed his advice. -Brett
If there’s anything that the panels and discussions at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference reaffirmed, it’s that the success of Facebook games like Farmville and Mafia Wars — games that are free to play but force players to pay nominal fees in exchange for expanded content — have game makers frothing over new revenue models for their products.
At the same time, companies are experimenting with new ways of releasing games and game expansions on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. The announcements that both the upcoming Lara Croft and Sonic the Hedgehog games will be smaller-scale experiences that will not be sold in stores (and that Sonic will be released in episodic form) are huge. These two titles alone carry the combined weight of more than 30 years of franchise history on their shoulders.
Independent game developers are in a prime position to take advantage of the new revenue models. The little guys can offer things that the EAs and Activisions of the world cannot: the care, time, and attention of a small group of people focused on a product for a niche audience.
To best harness these resources, indie developers should look to an unlikely source: the world of organic food.
Why do people shop at organic co-ops or farmer’s markets? Here are four core reasons that I feel indpendent game developers/publishers could translate into a hugely successful business model:
Organic producers offer consumers a narrative of how their food they consume is manufactured, cared for, grown, etc.
For a slightly higher price, they assure consumers that their product is in some way superior to a name brand.
Organic grocers provide their consumer with more individual attention, so consumers can tie the relationship they have with the grocer to the product they purchase.
Organic grocers provide consumers with altruistic images that make them feel good about buying organic — the hardworking farmer, the foreign growers who receive better pay because of fair trade practices, etc.
Offer consumers a narrative: Pick up a bottle of organic anything or talk to a merchant at a farmer’s market and you’ll be told a great story about how your food got in front of you. A good indie studio should use the Internet and community resources to share the story of how its game is being made and what it looks like in different development stages. How did the studio overcome financial hurdles? Were there any creative differences when the game was being made? Using blogs and video “developer diaries" to chronicle the game design process would give the company an identity and a pulse that larger companies spend millions in PR and advertising to attain. Luckily for indie developers, the Internet is pretty much free.
Assure customers that your product is somehow superior: Indie developers can’t afford to put their games on the shelf without major publisher assistance, so instead they offer digital downloads. What can they offer a person who feels ripped off that they’re not getting a physical product? Try bundling the download with limited edition artwork, a “making of” video, a free soundtrack, or some other cool swag that was custom designed by the development team. Offering the consumer a choice, with a tiered pricing system that gives more extras the more you spend, will only increase consumer satisfaction.
This "superior product" pitch can also apply to the game design itself. Sure, Major Company X has poured millions of dollars into cutting-edge graphics and voice acting for their games. But do those games explore offbeat narrative themes? Do they have an appealing or interesting artistic motif or influence? The big guys have big audiences to cater to, and an army of guys in suits with big pockets who want them to play it safe to guarantee a return on their investment.
Indie developers typically aren't beholden to anyone. Use that freedom to woo the customer with discerning taste.
Provide consumer with more individual attention: If an indie company releases regular content for an online/multiplayer experience, it makes sense to charge a subscription fee. What can the company provide to players that goes beyond the service offered by MMO companies such as Blizzard?
Real human interaction, for one. People like talking to other people rather than automated systems. One-to-one correspondence with a member of the design team via Skype or Gchat would go a long way winning over gamers experiencing technical difficulties.
Or perhaps a company could charge a flat rate for their products, instead of per game, and promise a new game or expansion released on their Web site every month. This model would improve brand identity and the company's reputation, and it’s also another opportunity to deliver on the promise of direct interaction with the people who play their games.
Provide consumer with altruistic images: Gamers love learning about the people who make their games, just like people who shop organic love learning about the people who make their food. Indie developers would do well to show off the individuals that comprise their companies and turn them into rock stars — in the same way Activision tried to do so by putting employee bios inside their instruction manuals in the 1970s.
Create a company podcast and put a different member of the team on each episode. Highlight their backgrounds, histories, and individual personalities. Game designers can be fascinating people with a lot to say. Who doesn’t love hearing someone whose game they admire speak about it on a podcast?
Putting faces on the names that appear in the credits is something that big developers can’t always do with 200-person teams. But with a half-dozen guys, it’s easy. Reinforcing the idea that the company isn’t some massive, anonymous corporate entity is a big step towards leveling the playing field.
I think it’s a shame that more independent developers can’t make a decent living doing what they love and have to rely on mainstream industry support to thrive. But I don’t think it has to be that way. If there’s any hope of creating sustainable companies that are truly independent, developers would do a lot worse than to take some nods from the organic foods industry. I know I will when I leave game design school and attempt to blaze my own trail.
What does Bitmob think about “organic game development"? Would you pay money for a product that’s technologically inferior but was created with care and attention absent from big companies? Let’s hear your thoughts.