Inseparable Marketing

Recently read BadgerHammer’s blog on video game marketing. Like them, I’ve been pressing all the marketing buttons prescribed by industry “conventional wisdom”, yet getting nowhere. This spurred me to write down some ideas I’ve had mulling in my head for a while now about indie game marketing.

Marketing is usually referred to as something game developers do during and/or after game development. As if it’s a parallel process to the nuts and bolts of making a game. It isn’t.

Way back when I was at school, I did business studies and learned about the 4 P’s – Price, Promotion, Place and Product. They are all interconnected, but the focus of most indies is on promotion and price.

Indies are oft advised to think about who the audience for their game is. This is usually an oblique way of criticising a game’s lack of appeal. However, it can be easily misinterpreted as a retrospective task. To figure out who might want to buy the game, after having already started, or even finished making it.

Go a step further, and developers can see which groups of people are responding to the game, and tweak the game here and there to make it more appealing. It’s an attractive idea, as it allows the developer to still make what they want, but also feel like they’re doing that “marketing” stuff.

In reality, the big changes in direction needed to do this effectively run up against a whole lot of resistance. They compete with the creative vision for the game, and the need to iterate on the core mechanics to find the fun. Added to that, most games aren’t coded with the flexibility to allow quick pivots. Then there’s the sunk cost fallacy at work – developers don’t want to ‘waste time’ ditching a large chunk of their game to go in a different direction.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can’t just arbitrarily pick a group of people and design a game for them. Fifty year old self-employed Mums in Hawaii when you specialise in pixel art isn’t going to fly. It also supposes that imaginary group are homogeneous – all have similar gaming tastes, habits etc.

Asking the Questions

The product – the game – is an inseparable part of the marketing mix. So how to square that with the need to make a fun game? For me, I start by prototyping game mechanics, then seeing which prototypes have the most potential for success if turned into full games.Is the core mechanic fun, does it have depth? Etc. I’m now starting to mix in business-related questions to that list.

Will the game look appealing in video form? With Totem Topple, if you were just watching the game, without having played it, it’s not at all clear what’s going on. With Flight of Light, it looks like a whole lot of other similar games, and without playing, it’s not obvious how it’s any different.

With Atlantis Dare, the disasters both grab the attention within a few seconds of watching a video, and clearly differentiate the game from the competition.

As well, with Atlantis Dare, I have a far clearer idea of who it appeals to. The game looks similar to Civilization and Endless Legend, and it’s fans of that 4x strategy genre who’ve been drawn to it. In testing, those players have played it for the longest. That’s helped validate the game mechanics, but also that there is an existing interested audience out there.

The next question being if I can actually reach those people. Where do they hang out? What sort of media do they consume? If the best way to reach an audience is through TV adverts, I don’t have the budget for that.

When one or more of those questions comes up negative, it’s time to drop the game. This is where I’ve struggled in the past personally. Arguably it’s easier to let go of a game when it isn’t that fun. Less so when I can see people are enjoying a game, but that it’s also unmarketable. My aim for the future is to get much quicker at getting prototypes to the stage where I can assess them. Creatively, moving on from a game is easier if, on failing to tick all the boxes, I’ve invested less time and emotional energy into it.

Where are They?

A note on Place though. In video games, this means platform (or digital storefront). For the last couple of years, I’ve been focused on console, as I think there is less competition on console. However, the experience on Wii U has been disappointing. For both Totem Topple and Gear Gauntlet, there was a mismatch with the console audience. Gear Gauntlet was billed as a Gamer’s game – Hardcore, twitch reactions, fast paced, no faffing around with story. Totem Topple, a weird stylised tower-defence game. Looking at successful indie games from other developers on Wii U, they tended to be narrative driven pixel art platformers – The Shovel Knights and Axion Verges of this world.

From a development point of view, interface usually dictates platform – Is this game better with a mouse, or on touchscreen or with a console controller? That shouldn’t change, but if the game can’t reach it’s intended audience because they aren’t on the target platforms, it’s reason enough to not continue that prototype into full production.

To be clear, I’m not saying to stop doing all those other things like contacting youtubers and press, building a community, being active on social media, and so forth. Simply to stop thinking of making and marketing the game as two separate things.


Kickstarter Launch!

We’re raising funds for Flight of Light’s soundtrack over on Kickstarter! The money will be used to pay a number of different musicians to compose the game’s soundtrack. If all goes to plan, there’ll be four musicians creating two pieces of music each to fit the game’s initial nine levels. (The ninth music track has already been composed by freelance musician Lawrence Shahid, which you can listen to in the trailer above!)

For the next month, we’ll be putting out updates on how the kickstarter is progressing alongside the usual dev diaries and updates on the game’s progress.

Why I’m making a motion control game in 2016

When I first started developing for the Wii U, it had already been struggling for the couple of years since its release. Nintendo were keen for more games to showcase the console’s GamePad, and being the bright-eye’d naive young developer I was, I arrogantly thought I could step up to that challenge!

After spending a bit of time getting the devkit and tools up and running, I realised the Wii U also supported Wii Remotes as well. I wrote out a list of game concepts for both GamePad and Wii Remotes to prototype when my current project was completed. Well that project fell through, and added to that, I’d got the devkit on a deferred payment scheme. So the clock was ticking to get a game finished and released, and make the cash needed to pay for the kit.

I decided to start with Wii Remotes, and an idea I’d had when first exploring the Wii U’s API’s. Wii Remotes at their most basic level output 3 floats to represent x,y,z rotation, and it seemed like most games simply mapped these real-world movement values one-to-one to movement in the game. Swing a tennis racket or aim a gun. Instead, I mapped those values to colour.

Change the hue, saturation and lightness. That was rapidly boiled down to just controlling hue in one dimension, as otherwise people would get lost in an ocean of grey, unable to work out how each movement corresponded to altering the lightness or saturation.

The simplest game I could make from that was matching colours. Players would be given a target colour, and have to rotate their Wii Remote in order to change their own colour to match. Point one end of the Wii Remote up and it outputs a 1. That translates into one end of the colour spectrum – red. Point the other end up, and you get 0, which translates as blue. Rotate between the two in order to cycle through the whole colour spectrum.

Flight of Light has evolved much since then, but in many ways, it is still the same fundamental game, underneath the many layers of visual abstraction that now separate it from those roots. Along that journey, I’ve been advised many times to change the game’s control scheme. Use discreet lanes, or discreet buttons, like guitar hero. Have the colours snap into solid bands. However, I’m glad I resisted those calls, as the game wouldn’t be where it is today otherwise. It’d be just another clone of the many rhythm games that have come before it.

Equally, having that continuous range of input has opened up paths that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Being able to race in-time to the music is now an integral feature, but may never have come about were it not for the way the game is controlled.

More over, it’s allowed the game to spread to multiple different platforms and control schemes. The game can be played with exotic devices like Kinect and Leap Motion, or more traditional mouse or console controller analogue stick. Or even touchscreens on mobile phones.

Why stick with motion control then, if more conventional controls are available? Firstly, motion feels the most natural to play with. That may be a consequence of having spent more time perfecting the control system with Wii Remotes than anything else, but for the most part, it’s intuitive. It’s a lot more approachable to non-gamers. When I take the game to conventions, people still associate the Wii Remote as something that let them be kinda good at games without needing to invest too much time mastering a complex rule set or sequence of actions to perform.

The downside is that Flight of Light isn’t nearly as kid-friendly as I’d hoped. Anyone below a certain age struggles to play, as the game requires fine motor skills and quick reactions. Little kids have neither.

Secondly, and somewhat related to the first point, I feel quite strongly that motion controlled gaming was never given the chance to fully run its course. It feels like most of the industry treated it like something outside of their comfort zone, and something they were all too happy to drop when the chance came. A lot of people bought Kinects and Wii’s, but how many developers stepped up to the plate to serve that audience?

I’m not pretending Flight of Light is anything revelatory or unique, but at least by experimenting with motion controls, I can say I’ve taken a different path to create something people have enjoyed.


Shiny Circles

Upgrading Flight of Light’s graphics had major and unexpected effects on the game’s playability

Previously, most of the game’s art was cobbled together placeholder assets, many of which had gone through multiple iterations of gameplay alterations, to the point where they no longer made sense or didn’t fit with everything else. That was fine for when the game was constantly changing. With the game’s recent change of direction, it also became clear the game’s graphics needed a major overhaul. However, having swapped out the old assets for shiny new ones, it quickly became apparent that the playability of the game had been impacted far beyond what we expected.

The biggest change came from trying to give the player a sense of speed. Pulling back the camera and widening the field of view as the player’s speed was boosted gave a great sense of acceleration. However it left the actual playable area of the game confined to a tiny portion of the screen.

The first instinct was to simply make the notes larger, so they could be seen from a greater distance. This worked, but the extra-large notes would frequently clip through the new scenery. The scenery also needed to be relatively close to the track to help with the sense of speed – trees and rock faces rushing past the player at close quarters.

Reducing the amount of camera shifting,combined with a slight increase in note size made the game much easier to play. No more squinting into the screen to try and make out the tiny notes in the centre. However, that really killed the sense of speed.

Actually increasing the speed (as opposed to simply the illusion of speed) helped, but also brought problems of its own. If corners were too tight, it would cause sudden jarring changes in direction. The notes would travel along the track so fast that the player would barely have any time to react. In the next blog, I’ll detail more about the process of re-making the track and forest level to fix that.

Adding in the new spaceship model also threw up unexpected issues. Being far bigger and, more importantly, wider, than the old placeholder model meant players would often think they had just clipped the edge of a note, only for the game to tell them they had missed. The game doesn’t use physics to calculate the collision of notes with the ship, but rather relies on timings, and on knowing what angle the ship is at versus the angle of the note.If the difference between the two angles is too great, the game will take that as a miss, regardless of what model is being used and how things may appear to the player.

Making the angle range within which the game recognised a hit had the knock-on effect of making the game that much easier. However, we’d noticed already that the effects used to show the player they had missed were already on the extreme side. Violent screenshake and asudden slowdown that really made players feel they were being punished harshly. We’re currently working on a way to make those effects more of a sliding scale, so that a small, occasional miss will still be noticeable to players, but not completely kill the flow of the game.

In the end, it’s been a combination of changes and small compromises in different areas made a huge improvement to the game’s feel and ease of play. And also a lesson learned about just how clousely coupled graphics and gameplay can be.

Change of Direction

Back in May, we pitched Flight of Light to a number of potential investors. However, none of them were particularly interested in the game. A disappointing experience, but on reflection came the realisation the game lacked focus. It felt schizophrenic, two competing personalities and styles, neither of which was really fulfilling its potential.

We decided to redirect attention towards the futuristic neon racer side of the game. The simple reason that it was the closer of the two to being finished. It’s also much more technically within reach to make a really good job of it. I initially spent a number of days trying to improve the algorithm for the unfolding triangles on the Autumn level. So that it could unfold into any given shape, allowing for a whole landscape to unfold in-front of the player. Sadly, it was just beyond my capabilities, and left me banging my head against the wall, going nowhere fast.

Flight_of_Light_byCrystalline_Green_neon_1_720p(from this..)

We’ve also had issues for years with trying to illustrate how Flight of Light is played through video. Incremental changes are slowly making it easier to learn the game without instruction. That’s having a positive knock-on effect that it’s also easier to work out what is going on just from watching the game. However, even if it’s still a little hard to work out precisely what the game is all about, if it looks good, that at least encourages people to want to find out more about it.

Graphics really do matter, especially when selling a game, and it’s easier to create a futuristic racing game than an artsy, low-poly procedural musical experience. Furthermore, the audience for the former is arguably larger and easier to reach with the sorts of tools available to low-budget independent developers like us.


(to this…)

The aim is now to release version one of the the game by end of January 2017 (or thereabouts). That will then provide a platform from which the game can potentially be expanded to include different styles and new modes of play.

Fly Faster – FoL Update

We’ve produced a short teaser trailer for Flight of Light. This shows the latest gameplay and much improved graphics. We’ve also updated the Flight of Light website and presskit with new screenshots and information about the game:

We’ll be going into more detail on how the game has changed in future blogs and videos over the next couple of months.