Finding Your Niche (and the Games Worth Making)
“Find that sweet spot between what you want to explore in a game, and what other people are getting together to talk about, and you’ve got a game worth going indie to make.”
[This article follows Self Publish First (Platforms and Publishers are Plan B)
Why focus on a Niche Community at all?
No sales. No advertising. You’re just expanding your game design out from the .exe into the world. Connecting the people you think will love this game from wherever they’re meeting, online and off, back into an experience that explores the kind of stuff you think is really nifty.
You didn’t get into game development to figure out which shade of green is going to be the most appealing to your demographic. And when the hell did we start thinking of human beings in terms of spreadsheet analytics anyways?
People don’t make buying decisions based on a/s/l. I don’t consult my boobs before making a purchase and I only buy something when I know that what I’m getting is worth my time and money.
I bet you’re just as discerning and would be as offended at the notion that any kind of advertising alchemy designed to appeal to your sexuality would influence you to spend money on something you don’t need. Did that branded booth babe at E3 make you want to buy their game? Didn’t think so.
So lets assume our players are as intelligent, varied and interesting as we are. And if you’re making a game to explore concepts that interest you…then there’s going to be a niche community of people out there that will find a game about this stuff just as interesting. They’ll want it to exist as much as you do and will be there with you figuring out how to make it feel complete and look awesome.
What the hell do I mean by “Niche Community”?
You will get to know your first fans. You’ll recognise them on facebook and twitter and they’ll be the first to shake your hand at cons. An email from them makes it all worth it: long hours of crunch, the non-existent social life, internet trolls taking pot shots from anonimity and the same cheap meals week in and week out.
You’ll know someone who’s life you have improved in some small way. And that is a powerful motivator to keep creating in the midst of whatever crazy stuff life throws at you (and sometimes Real Life just happens. You deal with it, factor in new circumstances and keep making great stuff).
Once you have your first 10 fans you’ll start to think about reaching the next 100. You’ll naturally find yourself researching the right kind of business model for your game that helps you reach more of the people you think are most likely to enjoy it.
From 100 you’ll work towards 1000. Again the shift in thinking happens almost without you realising it. You’ll find yourself working out how to make sure people you’ve never met will have an awesome experience wherever it is they hear about you and your game for the the first time. This influences every conversation you have about what you do and why you’re making games. It determines what sites you write articles for, conferences you speak at and conventions you attend. Each of these events creates a thread that leads back to your site and your games.
And you’ll make sure that it’s easy to follow those threads back to the core experience you want to share with them – they may end up on your site first or find your game in the ecommerce shopfront of their choice. Either way you’ve had a hand in crafting each channel that reaches out to the kind of people your game has been designed for (whether they realise they’re gamers or not!).
Questions to Figure Out Your Niche (AFTER Prototyping)
- What intrigues YOU about the project?
- Where do people go to explore that interest (online and off)?
- What itch does your project scratch?
- what questions does it answer,
- what problems does it solve,
- what experience does it satisfy?
- What else are they doing to scratch that itch? (activities, movies, books, etc)
- What kind of experience can you provide that they can’t get anywhere else?
Now, if you can’t find any answers to the above questions OR you find that your project tries to scratch an itch that’s already being thoroughly scratched by a game with a bigger production budget than yours – then it’s time to find something else to work on. What you’ve got right now might be FUN to make, yes. But is it going to be worth sacrificing your lifestyle, social life and financial security to make exist?
If you don’t feel, with every fibre of your being, that the answer is yes – then you may have a nifty hobby project on your hands, but not necessarily the game worth making.
Questions to Figure Out Your Niche (BEFORE Prototyping)
This is my favourite way of operating. It feels natural and it feels easy which means you can dedicate all your brainspace to answering the big design questions around whatever gameplay you’re setting out to explore.
- Explore what fascinates you right now
- what questions do you want to answer?
- what problems do you want to solve?
- what experiences do you want to have?
- Where can you go to start exploring these interests?
- What kinds of games (digital or non-digital!) exist that scratch that itch?
- What do they do really well? (what you can build from)
- What itch do they leave unscratched (questions unanswered, problems unsolved)?
- Where are people going to scratch that itch right now (online and off)?
- What’s the cheapest/easiest/fastest way you can start scratching that itch?
- (after research/testing) do you really want to prototype to find out what this would play like?
- (after prototyping) is this gameplay really worth spending the next “however long” developing?
- If yes – move into Pre-Production (see the Step by Step Production Framework for details)
When working this way you start to think of the game as the core of a larger experience that extends out from the .exe – and into the online and offline spaces where you’ll most likely find your community. Your community being a group (or groups!) of people who are fascinated by the same things that got you interested in testing this gameplay in the first place. You may find your first fans in these groups or you may find the domain experts and potential partners that will help you flesh it out into a complete experience.
In Practice: Experience Design for a Niche Community
Silver Nova Software is going through this process right now on Protocol E. They’ve prototyped a really cool new control scheme for real time strategy gameplay (it feels really natural for anyone used to digital painting or drawing on an ipad) and their lead programmer is some really cool stuff internationally with his research on artificial intelligence. Recently they’ve brought on myself and Christian Read, super awesome writer, to weave a story around this space and craft a great experience for our players both in and out of game.
What intrigues YOU about the project?
Protocol E appeals to me as a designer for two reasons:
Real time strategy for the right brain thinker. It’s the kind of fast, reflexive strategic thinking needed in political wargaming, intense chess matches, the combative dance of the Roda. Appealing to the kinds of minds that shine in the midst of chaos and adversity when wits and reflexive thinking means the difference between success or failure. There are left brain thinkers and creatives all over the world who rarely get to experience this kind of play in a digital game (myself included) and I want to help make that game exist.
Science fiction as social commentary. Writers and filmmakers have been using science fiction as a channel to open hearts and minds to complex social issues and cultural dangers for generations. From our concerns about freedom of education and information to exploring the effects of new and emerging technology on society – we get to extend to extend this social commentary out through a variety of mediums, each hooking back into the core experience of our game.
This is the kind of game I would be playing if it existed exploring the kind of stuff I’m interested in right now, and there are people like me all over the internet and in offline meetup groups. There are creatives out there with the potential to be left brain strategic thinkers and gamers who are asking the same questions we are.
Next Steps: Player experience influences game design
Now that I’ve worked out what communities share my interests and might want this game to exist as much as I do – I can start looking for them online and offline and get involved. Understanding what they’re doing to scratch that itch now is going to help me design a better experience for them later AND I have the opportunity to get to know the people I’m making a game for (and they have the opportunity to get to know me).
When we start inviting these folks into closed beta we’ll already have an idea of what they’ll enjoy playing, which makes beta a confirmation of assumptions as opposed to a blind test. Those players would have already had a chance to see the kind of experiences we’re crafting and get involved in the process early, so for them beta testing becomes the realisation of the game they’ve helped shape instead of unsolicited spam (“hey look! We made a game! You like games right? Play this one!” yeah, no thanks buddy).
It’s important to note that we’re not asking our players to be game designers. If they wanted to make games they’d be making games (and I do hope we’ll inspire them to do so because we need more people pushing the boundaries of our medium!). We know that the responsibility of designing a great game rests on us. But the least we can do is be a part of the community we’re designing games for and open ourselves to being influenced by the same experiences that shape their lives.
In the same way that a writer will immerse themselves in the details of the kind of world they’re creating and a director will surround themselves with the lives of the people they’re filming – game designers can be open to the experiences of the players they’re creating a game for.
[You just read an article from The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Self Publishing Your Games Online series. Agree? Disagree? Awesome! Tell us why in the comments! And if you want to keep reading, the next article is a Case Study with Camshaft Software on how they found their niche and made $60k in 9 months – before launch!]