Experiments in Games

I’m a big fan of running personal experiments. Testing assumptions is a good way to avoid falling into the same pitfalls everyone else is. Sometimes you want to make sure old assumptions are still correct. Sometimes you need to make sure you’re not the one off your rocker.

Sometimes you’re pretty sure everyone else seems to believe something they never bothered to verify.

Here are some experiments I’m currently, and will be, testing with my next game, Steam Marines 2:


1) “You need a trailer.”

I’m not so sure you do, at least not for all games. What is a trailer? Typically a combination of video and audio. How many people have audio on on mobile devices? Or aren’t annoyed on desktops when they’re not on YouTube/Twitch et al?

Most distribution platforms have a prominent embed link for trailers, and Steam actually requires it to even launch a game’s start page. I have a suspicion that despite how ubiquitous this is trailers aren’t always worth the bang for the buck. The alternative? Gifs.

And why not? They’re easier to make, more portable, easier to digest, Vine made an entire business out of short form video/audio clips, and frankly static images and gifs have just as high or higher potential to go viral. They’re certainly easier to share across social media in the sense that they will simply load automatically and quickly across most feeds.

How far can sheer imagery and no audio carry a game’s marketing?

Aside: If audio is an integral part of your gameplay experience, like most of the horror genre, this may be a bad idea. But maybe not? #ThatsThePointOfExperimenting #WhoWillBeBraveIRL

2) “Everyone’s complaining about that, so that’s what you need to focus on.”

Survivorship bias is a hell of a thing; I’ve mentioned the airplane story before on here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fix things people complain about, but I keep repeating this and, it feels like, people keep ignoring me.

When you look at a bunch of games that “made it”, that met their goals, made at least a reasonable profit, et cetera, there is a tendency to look at criticism and shore that up. But if the goal is to get your own game across that same finishing line, look to what they did well and capitalize on that.

They combined X and Y mechanics and got Z and it was good? Cool, you can follow suit. I feel like one of the best examples of this is game interfaces. How many games have “terrible” interfaces – but they sold amazingly well and people kept playing them anyway? The games were so good players overlooked their bad interfaces. I’m not saying to deliberately make bad interfaces. I’m just saying that it would appear that there are a lot of people who are willing to overlook terrible UI/UX/controls for a morsel of something else good.

Concrete examples include Skyrim (made better with mods like SkyUI!) and basically every (traditional) roguelike in existence. Games like Fallout 3 onwards suffer from terrible gameplay bugs, but people still love and play them anyway.

I have spent more time and effort on Steam Marines 2’s overall presentation and UI/UX, but that’s still not the primary focus of the game. I’m banking on gameplay and overall theme much more than sexy icons and meter layouts.

Aside: The “reverse” works as well. The failed games? Look at a bunch of them and see what they did well. Those things they did well? Apparently not good enough. Personally I’ve found that art style and X-likes fall prey to this a lot of the time.

3) “Show, don’t tell.”

I dislike this advice . There’s something to be said for direct and blunt communication. It seems rooted in the idea that, at least in games, players tend not to read anything. This has been my experience as well. But it’s one I’m still testing deliberately.

Most things players don’t read. Tutorial? Nope. Tool tips? Rarely. In-game lore? Whoa, wait up. That’s something a lot of players actually do read. Weird! Steam Marines 1 had a tutorial in a pre-assembled level with text popups and dialogue explaining the basic gameplay and mechanics. Most people skipped right over that shit. Steam Marines 2 is going about that a different way: no explicitly tutorial, but more marine banter that players might read and inadvertently learn about gameplay.

Ultimately I don’t expect “show, don’t tell” to be very wrong, but again testing is the point of this.

Aside: I expect this to live or die a lot based on the game genre in question. Probably more true in a RPS, less true in a full blown RPG.

4) “Indie games can’t charge more than X dollars.”

X varies, and largely seems to be reflective of the graphical fidelity involved. Well balls to that. Steam Marines 2 will be launching at an alpha price of $25 USD. It will be an actual alpha – playable, but rough around the edges, with content missing. It will not be unique in this set of qualities, but it will be one of the few.

Getting ~20,000 unit sales (depending on distributor percentages) at that price point will cover the entire projected cost of the game’s development.

I have some mobile game side projects as well, and I’ll be experimenting with payment models/pricing in that arena as well in the same general vein.


Thanks for reading,
Mister Bums

You can contact me at [email protected]Twitter, or leave a comment below!