Indie vs Retail

Can indie developers breath new life into flagging video game retailers? I decided to try and find out

It should be obvious to all that bricks and mortar stores selling video games must adapt or die in the face of digital distribution. To make those physical spaces justify the overheads they generate, there need to be reasons for people to come into the store and spend their money in person, rather than simply going online and having their purchases delivered to their front door or downloaded straight to their gaming device of choice.

One possible avenue is to get indie game developers into the stores to demo their games. This gives indies a platform to showcase their work, get feedback from the general public on their games, and provide a new way of connecting with their audience. For the store, it means an added attraction to bring people through the doors.

It just so happens that I’m working on a game for the OUYA, which is being retailed through GAME here in the UK. Since OUYA have been pushing how ‘open’ their platform is to develop for, there haven’t been the NDA’s or legal issues one might usually expect with grabbing the devkit and publicly showing it off to everyone and anyone who cared. In fact, this was something I’d already taken it upon myself to do, organising a number of meetups of developers and fans prior to the console shipping to kickstarter backers, as well as taking it to the Gadget Show Exhibition and an Anime and Comic convention (MCM Expo) down at the NEC

While the cost/benefit equation of these events is somewhat questionable from a pure sales point of view, in terms of increasing exposure and the possibility of generating press interest, they are well worth it. Plus they are just fun to do for an indie developer working from home and not getting out enough.

The logical extension would be to demo the OUYA (and by proxy, my own game) in branches of GAME, and after approaching them about the idea, they proved receptive and willing to give it a go. So, last week I headed down to Northfield, a suburb of Birmingham, to the local branch of GAME to test drive the idea.

What went right?

Position / Setup
Full credit to the guys at the shop, who before I arrived, had collected together all the OUYA boxes in the store and arranged them on an old PS3 stand. While some people were a little confused as to what the OUYA was or mistook it as having something to do with playstation, the setup by and large looked the part.

The stand was also well positioned, so as not to get in the way of people moving around the store, whilst at the same time not being hidden in some dingy corner or away from where customers glancing around the store might notice

GAME Northfield OUYA

Engagement
People responded really positively to the live demonstration, whether they were just watching myself or others play, or actively trying it out themselves. Also, not only being able to respond to customer’s questions directly, but not being directly affiliated with OUYA, I was able to honestly address some of OUYA’s shortcomings, which helped build trust and a rapport with customers

Local Multiplayer
After a bit of experimenting with various games, I came across a couple that really let people jump in quickly and play with/against each other. This was a big bonus as lots of customers were out shopping with someone else (A husband and wife, or mother and child, or group of friends etc). Or alternatively, seeing one person play would often draw the interest of another unrelated customer, and being able to have them hop into the game was a big advantage in retaining their interest

OUYA
The small size of the OUYA made it easy to transport and get set up. The downside was that it wasn’t obvious until pointed it out to the customer, that the little box, tucked away in the corner, was actually running all the games. Also having the devkit, which is a different colour scheme to the version actually being sold, caused some confusion and questions about whether it was available in different colours (and why not?!)

No Internet
Although unfortunate from the perspective of being unable to demo the online multiplayer games, it meant there would be no issues with customers attempting (accidentally or otherwise) to make game purchases on my credit card. Having already downloading a good selection of games before hand, ensured that there was enough variety in the titles on show to make the console feel rich and varied content wise. The (online) store being unavailable had the added bonus of focusing customers’ (and my) attention on those pre-selected games. The OUYA has also been criticised for having a laggy UI, but since there was no need to exit the game library and navigate around the rest of the UI, that particular problem didn’t come up at all.

Furthermore, no one was exposed to the lower quality games lurking in the depths of the store, and no one asked for specific games to be downloaded on the spot (which would inevitably have meant hanging around ages for it to download, causing everyone to lose interest in the meantime).

What went wrong?

Footfall
The number of customers who actually came to the shop that day was disappointingly low. Far lower than expected according to staff, considering a couple of major releases were coming out that day.

No Promotion
I was in such a rush to get my game ready in time that I didn’t do any promotion of the event beyond a few tweets the day before. No attempts to contact press or otherwise generate interest beyond (figuratively) grabbing people as they walked past in the street

Game Specifics
My own game is both quite abstract and complex (requiring players to get through a substantial tutorial before they can really get going), and slow paced. As a result, I found it wasn’t really hitting it off with customers, so in the end I didn’t actually demo it to that many people

Closing the Sale
In terms of generating extra pre-orders of the OUYA, I was quite poor at closing the sale and getting those genuinely interested to actually commit the £10 pre-order deposit. That’s partly because I suck at sales, but also due to it being too easy for customers to get out by saying they can just buy it when it comes out.

Securing the OUYA and Controllers
Being small and light, and having completely wireless controllers meant that someone had to keep an eye on the equipment at all times to avoid it getting stolen

Limited Play
Some games I had not played extensively enough prior to demoing them, only to discover that they used a limited number of plays per day, leaving customers disappointed that they could not continue.
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From a practical, proof of concept point of view, the whole day was a success. However, as already mentioned, it clearly isn’t effective in terms of raw sales generated for the indie, and in terms of generating press interest, it’s only going to work once or twice.

Interestingly, in discussing these issues with other devs, the example of Games Workshop came up a number of times. Every store has a dedicated space for players to come in and play tabletop battles together. Even if just watching other people’s battles, it brings people into the store with something exciting and participatory, which in turn helps create a lasting connection with the product and relationship with staff and other members of the community.

Stores like GAME already do a similar thing, with consoles set up for people to have a go at playing the latest games. However, what Games Workshop also do is run sessions for beginners, and for helping improve people’s skills in painting and crafting scenery.

As it happened, I’d help arrange for a number of other developers to demo their own OUYA games at GAME, including Jamie Lowes of Vamflax, who headed down with his own game, Chopper Mike, to the large GAME store at the Bullring in Birmingham the day after my own adventure.

jamie lowes bullring small

One thing that he reported came up repeatedly was that customers were also enthusiastic in getting into game development themselves. It makes sense that people think to themselves “I can do that as well,” especially when the developer is no longer remote and hidden behind corporate logos, but there in person and able to talk about the issues that directly affect game development

Retailers could co-opt the indie community by providing the co-working spaces and environment where they can get out of the home office and interact with other developers and gamers. Get feedback on their latest builds or inspiration from what others are doing. A sort of indie games incubator that doubles as a store and hub for all things gaming related.

Whether you could truly justify that cost if you’re not a platform holder like Google or Microsoft is a question that can’t be easily answered without taking some big risks to try and find out

Indeed, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to retail. Perhaps the game industry will trend back towards larger, more professional studios and indie games will once more cycle into the background world of underground niche development, making all this irrelevant. The incoming new generation of consoles will no doubt boost retail and allow long term issues to be kicked down the road for another few years.

However, these are questions that need to be answered now if retailers are to have enough time to make them work before the inevitable changes in the industry finally catch up with them.

I’ll be trying to answer some more of those questions when I demo the OUYA again at GAME Perry Bar on June 1st. If you missed the chance to play Chopper Mike before, you can catch up with Jamie Lowes in GAME Solihull also on June 1st. Martin Caine of Retroburn Game Studios will also be demoing, at GAME in Leeds, again on June 1st, and also June 2nd

In Search of Art

Games need to look further afield and to other arts for inspiration

With an eclectic mix of game developers, creatives and students, I had a lot of fun demoing Executive Star and the OUYA at Gamecity Nights in Nottingham on Thursday evening. I was able to get much useful feedback about the game, and had some interesting discussions with both sceptics and supporters of the OUYA, with a couple of kickstarter backers in the room most excited to pose with a dev kit.

IMG_20130328_211548Gotta love that quality camera-phone imagery.

I also had the opportunity to meet Ollie Clarke, who I must admit, I had previously not heard of. However, after hearing his presentation and the unique and eye-catching art style of his team’s games (The Button Affair and The Cat That Got The Milk), it started me thinking about the oft cited “unique art style” that indie game developers in particular would do well to use as a differentiator for their games in the face of big budget AAA graphics, with which they cannot hope to compete.

In fact, the art style of both Ollie’s games are not in the least bit unique. They are both borrowed (one from abstract modern art, the other from 1960′s technicolour television shows). The inspiration for The Cat that Got The Milk was as simple as a day wandering around the Tate Modern Museum.

It’s drawing on the many different art movements, styles and scenes that seem to exist in strange isolation from the world of video games. Even the briefest flick through a history book will land you with exotic landscapes, colourful characters, world changing events.

We live in an age where it has never been easier to access culture. Here’s hoping that video games can go beyond their narrow range and really tap into that

 

In The Land of Cosplay and Cupcakes: Expo Post Mortem from an Indie Developer’s Perspective

What went right and wrong and what lessons I learned from exhibiting Executive Star and the OUYA at a comic convention

Last weekend, I headed on down to the MCM Comic Con in Birmingham. It’s primarily a comic book and memorabilia convention, but is chock full of everything science fiction and fantasy related. I had been toying with the idea of exhibiting my game at such a convention for some time, but this time finally got round to doing it.

Background

The convention is one of a number organised by the same company around the UK every year. I’d previously visited their London expo as a regular punter, since I’d always had an interest in comics and anime in particular, and it was within walking distance of my home at the time in London.

However, when I got there, I found there was a whole section of the exhibition hall dedicated to gaming. Whilst my game was not directly related to comic books or anime, it was the same story for many of the other stands and products on sale (everything from ninja lego sets to custom cupcakes).

So I eventually got round to booking a dealer table, hired a car and packed together everything I’d need to put on a show!

mcm exec star

Costs and Objectives

There’s no point charging off to do something like this unless you know what you want to get out of it. Ultimately, it costs time and money, so there has to be a way to measure whether it was worth it.

Costs:

  • £160 – Dealer table (stand), backing table & venue entry
  • £110 – Electricity
  • £10   – Materials for stand (table cloths)
  • £53   – Accomodation
  • £0     – Car/Van Hire (borrowed from my parents)
  • £56   – Fuel Cost
  • £??? – Opportunity Cost (3 day’s development time)

Total: £389+

Objectives:

  • Increase game sales
  • Raise company/game profile
  • Get feedback on game
  • Determine if future events are worthwhile

What went wrong?

Nothing to Sell:
I booked the event about two months beforehand. I thought at the time that I would have a far more presentable and complete product. As it transpired, I had completed the tutorial, which subsequently served as the demo, rather than something I could fully show off or even take pre-orders off. I also had no OUYA consoles to sell, since it hasn’t shipped yet.

Low Traffic Location:
My position in the hall was a low traffic location. The t-shirt sellers next to me has a particularly torrid time. The exhibition was split between two halls, with a wide central connecting corridor connecting them together (floor plan). My stand was in a block in the middle of the left hand hall (E12). I picked this spot because on the plan from the previous year, the video games exhibits had all been clustered at the back of the left hand hall, making my stand right next to them

Turns out I guessed correctly that this would be the video games area, and my stand ended up directly opposite the shiny corporate Nintendo 3DS stand. In that regard it was perfect, as gamers attracted to the other games would be attracted to that part of the exhibition.

In practice, the Nintendo stand had been set up with a waist high wall around its circumference, with entrances to the left and right, where there was more space for people to queue. That meant people who were exiting that stand did not necessarily spill straight out with my stand in front of them, but rather, with my stand out of their immediate eyeline:

mcm nintendoIt also meant there were no stands for people to look at immediately opposite. People who have just finished looking at a stand opposite yours often turn around after finishing with it to see what is next. It also gives people somewhere to go if you are currently busy / until the stand is free, and they can have a go themselves. Finally, not being the stand at the end of a T-junction made a big difference. People are already walking sideways / across the stand and have to actively look left or right, instead of straight ahead, to see the stand.

I should also note that the highest traffic volume area (the corridor between the two halls) would probably also have been inappropriate, as people need space to stand whilst they play the game

No banner:
Most exhibitors, stands and sellers had relatively cheap, pop up banners with glossy images of their products, which I didn’t have. That made the stand look a little less polished and professional, and meant people could not see what the product was from a distance (despite having the big TV screen showing the game).

Contact details:I had the two side monitors showing the game’s main splash screen / box cover art, but only one of them had, in rather small writing, the company logo, website and twitter handles. On the first day, I forgot my business cards, and a lack of flyers meant people who wanted to know more had to take a blurry photo with their phone cameras of the screen corner.

No Camera:
I forgot my digital camera (hence the lack of photos on this blog post). This was a major fail I realised, as otherwise I could use that as valuable marketing material for my game (showing people playing it, showing it in a colourful and active environment, and providing something to write about on this blog, on my development log, on other websites that might pick up on this story).

No t-shirts:
I didn’t get round to printing any t-shirts for myself to wear. Although it was probably too cold in the hall to wear just a t-shirt, it still represents a missed opportunity for additional advertising of the company/game. It looks more professional and at moments when I was wondering around the exhibit, it would be something different that may later lead people to come and visit the stand when they see it later on

No helper:
At times, I had to go get lunch or a drink or visit the toilet. As I had no helper, I had to trust those on the stands next to me to make sure no one stole the equipment (especially the wireless controllers). Plus obviously lost sales, and it doesn’t look very edifying when sat hiding behind the screen, quickly stuffing ones self with whatever lunch could quickly be got hold of

Black tablecloths:
Black might fit with the space/scifi theme of the game, but they really show up any dust, dirt or bits that get on them, especially under the harsh lights of the venue. An iron and board might have also been an idea, since the setup of the stand meant a large area of just tablecloth in front of the screens, which was a bit creased and wrinkled from the packaging in which the freshly purchased sheets were in

Music too quiet:
Music can be a great way to attract people to the stall, but generally it was too quiet. The exhibitors at the stand next to me actually commented I should turn on the music if I had it, and sticking my ear near the speakers, I realised the music had been on the whole time, and myself and everyone else had just not noticed. Obviously there is a balance between the already noisy environment, and blasting out excessively loud music, but I definitely got the balance too quiet this time

Difficult for kids / not interactive enough:
A lot of kids were naturally attracted to the game, but had difficulty understanding it was just a demo / tutorial and struggling with the abstract nature of the game. Something more interactive (for adults as well) might well have been better than something complete, but largely passive

Where to stand?
When talking to people, standing behind the screen feels a bit removed from them, and also makes it very awkward to see what people are actually seeing on screen. There was a gap between mine and the next door stand for access, but it was too small and was being used by the neighbouring stand to likewise stand to the side of the customer and the product whilst making the sales pitch. I spent a lot of time actually standing in front of the stand, making it harder to make eye contact with incoming people, whilst also confusing people as to whether I was the stand owner or another customer, and that the stand was currently being used (so no chance for them to have a go).

Hostels:
I was feeling cheap after all the accumulated costs of the event, so booked to stay in a dormitory in a youth hostel. This was great in the evenings, as it gave me people to socialise with and practice my sales pitch on

However, being woken up at 4am one night by other guests staggering in drunk, and having to wait 30 minutes for the shower to become free on the next morning (which meant I nearly didn’t get to the venue on time), was a big downside.

Electricity & Wifi:
I got passed around between various different companies when I first booked the stand/table, and it was only about a week before the event that I was able to secure electricity supply. Furthermore, there was no wifi, which was fine for this event, as the OUYA store was offline anyway, and it would prevent people from being distracted by wanting to play other games they saw on the store. However, it will be a problem in future if I want to demonstrate any features of a console that is entirely digital distribution for its games

What went right?

New / unusual product:
Many people had heard of the OUYA, but never seen one. That was a great way of attracting people over, before going on to introduce my own game. Equally, people who had no idea what it was or had never seen one before could be drawn in by telling the story of the console (and by the fact people just wanted to know what on earth it was). Again, that made a good way to lead into my own game

Multiple sales pitch angles:
I was able to talk about the OUYA, about board games and strategy games, the state of the games industry, independent game development, or even some of the other games on show at the event (f.e. Crysis 3 was on show and made by a company based in Nottingham, where I’m from). All these things gave me multiple angles to lead into the pitch about my own game

Engaging with customers:
I felt I was really able to engage with customers, not so much being able to talk directly about all things to do with the product, but being able to answer their questions and have an open and honest discussion with them. Being able to have rebuttals to questions about both the game and OUYA in advance, and being able to spin them in an honest / ernest way helped connect with people and make them feel positive and included in the conversation, rather than just sold to

Near the Gaming Section:
Being near the other games was a big bonus, as evident by the conversations I had with most people who stopped by the stand.

Interactive:
The line “want to have a go?” worked fantastically in drawing in people who had already glanced across at the stand or who’s eye I had caught. Being able to immediately offer something of value to the customer gives a platform to build a rapport with them that will eventually lead to a sale. Seeing people already having a go drew in yet more, who were interested in just seeing what was going on.

The downside is that only one person can have a go at a time, and the experience is quite time consuming, so it is difficult not to lose customers who are interested, but can’t have a go, or who I can’t focus attention on because I’m already talking to someone. This can be solved by having the multiplayer version of the game completed (which in time / next time, it will be), and also by having more consoles and more helpers (though both of those increase cost)

Results

Since I wasn’t able to sell the game, the objectives change slightly from sales, to promoting the game, getting feedback and determining if future events are worthwhile.

Promoting Game / Company:
This is easier to measure, as you can see how many times people have tweeted about the game, followed the company on twitter or liked it on facebook. I picked up a couple more followers on twitter, which is quite clearly completely not cost effective. However, I think with the lessons learned (as per above), this can be turned round, and as a purely marketing exercise, the event can probably be made to at least break even

Feedback:
One of the really great things was the amount of encouraging feedback I got about the game. Clearly it is difficult to give valuable criticism in terms of game development, especially to the game creator’s face if that feedback is negative. However, from a morale point of view, it has been really encouraging, and hopefully will translate into increased productivity

Research:
For determining if this sort of event is a good way to promote a game, I think it definitely fulfilled that objective. It has helped in assessing the different demographics of people interested in the game, which will be useful for picking the events most worthwhile. It has helped confirm that it is possible to sell at events outside of the usual gaming oriented / dedicated conventions. Also the usefulness in terms of generating press interest and gaining industry contacts: I did meet a couple of people in the industry who took an interest and who might not have otherwise been present at traditional, gaming centric events. I also noted a distinct lack of press interest, so I can probably assume that unless it is a lack of banners and other stand presentation factors (and the fact I didn’t advertise the fact I would be at the event beforehand), it is probably safe to assume the event will not get me in any newspapers or website articles.

Finally, it was useful talking to other stall holders. Their experience of different conventions, from science fiction to board games. How this one compared in terms of stall location, visitor numbers and the makeup of those visitors (the Sunday at this event for example, had a lot of families, which makes for a very different sell)

Conclusion

Taking all the lessons learned to future events, I don’t believe in terms of raw sales, that it would ever actually do more than break even. Feedback I’d been hoping to get on the game was also thin on the ground (this is perhaps where meetups with others in the industry are more valuable). However, the additional factors, such as motivation (getting me out of the house) and raising the game/company profile tip things over into positive territory.

This is not the marketing magic bullet that will make all the difference. I won’t be doing this every weekend, but I will definitely be trying this again. If, with a finished product and these lessons learned and effectively applied, it proves more measurably successful, it will make a useful addition to the suite of tools (mostly social media) that is within the reach of the average indie developer and plays to their strengths