Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Why is marketing still a blind spot for indies?

What early lessons can VR devs take from the indie scene, where the marketplace is already mature and getting crowded? We asked indie game marketer Hannah Flynn to write a follow-up to her Develop 2016 talk about this indie blind spot.

I work within a medium-sized team, covering all aspects of comms with my marketing manager. Our meta-job is to ask questions, raise flags, and encourage the right amount of thought about how the rest of the world will perceive our games. Sometimes that results in changes to the games! But marketing monsters with ridiculous demands are a thing of myth (or possibly just of AAA, I can’t be sure - I haven’t worked in AAA).

The videos of sessions from Develop 2016 have just been released to ticket-holders, meaning you can go back and pick up sessions you missed.

I spent probably three or four days working on my session, You Need to Hire a Marketer, to which about 10 people came, most of whom I knew by name.

Other than making a clear attempt to tug your heartstrings and get you to watch my video, I want to ask: why didn’t people come? Why do so many indie studios still treat marketing as a hindrance?

I’ve got a few hypotheses:

Marketing is evil. Or so the popular narrative goes: marketers are suits who interfere with game designers’ craft. Pushing poor decisions based on what will sell and blaming devs when games fail.

Marketers are expensive. Some of us are. But these days there are different ways to pay people, options for flexible working, and more graduates than ever wanting to get into games. There are ways to afford marketing support which don’t break the bank.

Marketers are scammers. As soon as you’re on Steam Greenlight you’ll probably be approached by marketing firms offering you services. Some of these make sense but others will sound like they’re promising the world, meaning they couldn’t possibly deliver it.

I can do it myself. Anything looks easier from the outside. I’m sensible enough of my abilities to know that I couldn’t make a game, and I’d invite you to consider that marketing is a career path in itself which requires its own skills. Some people are excellent self-promoters, bloggers, tweeters - this is wonderful. Hire someone who can help you with the rest of the marketing mix.

Marketing is scary if you have no experience of it, but releasing is scary without marketing. It’s far better to investigate getting marketing support early than to bury your head - your money, time, life - in a game, in the hope that people will just find out about it because it’s good. That can’t happen for all of us.

Hire a marketer. Give the responsibility to someone who likes doing it. Spend more time on your game. Be happier. Sell more games. Make another game. Survive.

If you can’t watch the video, you can view my presentation here. I hope you’ll have a read and tweet to me @h4nchan with your thoughts!

Hannah Flynn is Communications Director for Failbetter Games, makers of Fallen London and Sunless Sea. She has previously worked for Penguin Books, Tate and the NSPCC.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Guest Blog: Developing for VR - Lessons from the Leaders

In this article I’ve interviewed seven leading VR/AR developers to better understand their motivations, challenges, and hopes for the future of the platform. I’ve summarised their answers below.

The people interviewed were:
Patrick O’Luanaigh of nDreams (VR only)
James Marsden of Futurlab (traditional and VR games)
Martin de Ronde of Force Field (VR/AR)
Dave Ranyard - independent VR developer (VR only)
Jason Kingsley of Rebellion (traditional and VR games)
Sam Watts of Tammeka Games (VR only)
Mark Knowles-Lee of Fracture Games (AR only)

Q1. What motivates you to develop for VR?
New challenges - the unknown.
New experiences – possible through new interactions.
Innovation – new possibilities for creativity.
New opportunities - cutting through the noise of other games.

Q2. How do you decide which platforms to target?
Target them all. Many of the studios stated that they’re device agnostic.
Target platforms with unique differentiators. i.e. if a specific device has a differentiating feature, how can you make best use of that.
Go where the audience is. E.g nDreams only develop for devices which they think will sell over one million units.)
The game concept dictates the platform.
Make use of existing partnerships. E.g Futurelab have a fruitful relationship with Sony so it was natural for them to begin working on PlayStation VR.

Q3. What are the specific development issues you face?
People’s variation in sensitivity makes it difficult to design for. Several studios comment about always needing ‘fresh’ players who have not yet built up a tolerance to VR.
Risk. Studios commented that they weren’t sure how big the market will be for some platforms. E.g. Sony have a huge advantage in this area due to its large install base and lower cost of the VR headset.
The lack of a VR IDE. In particular judgements made on scale, lighting and legibility makes development a clunky iterative process (guess, build, test).
Difficulty in accessing hardware.
Need to prototype even the smallest feature. Some things you think will work just don’t. Don’t assume anything or rely on your past experience.

Q4. How do you design for VR?
Test everything – assume nothing.
Comfort is king so be prepared to throw things away - if a feature reduces player comfort for any reason, it has to go.
Change your thinking. Whereas in traditional game dev you want to turn everything up to 11, be more reserved for VR.
Is your experience unique to VR? Could your game only exist in VR? If not, then perhaps it’s not really a VR game, but rather a VR ‘version’ of a traditional game.

Q5. How do you evaluate the VR experience?
User test with as many people as possible due to player variation.
Aim for player comfort first, then emotion.
Is it compelling? The experience should be unlike anything else players have experience before.
Get platform owner feedback.

Q6. What are the key lessons you’ve learned so far?
Player comfort is king. A variety of issues emerged from the studios, however above all is player comfort and making sure your tech and design choices are in line with delivering it.
Experiment. Some things you think will work don’t, and some things which shouldn’t work do.
Technical aspects underlying VR are hugely important. It doesn’t matter how great your game idea is, no one will enjoy it if the tech can’t support it.
Poor design leads to motion sickness, not just frustration.

Q7. What kinds of new games / genres / interactions does VR allow?
It may be go beyond games, into experiences
A greater range of input, such as whole body interaction.
Increased presence - the potential for a greater social experience than ever before.
Design specifically for VR. Don’t ‘port’ your game from the traditional screen into VR.

Q8. Do you have any concerns?
Health and safety.
Market adoption.
Business models.
‘Bad’ VR games may put many people off. There are already some awful VR experiences out there getting high profile exposure, and these may put people off for a long time.

Q9. Will VR be a Success?
VR will be a success.  Our experts are  certain that VR will be a success, however that may take longer to happen than expected.
VR will not replace ‘traditional’ games, it’s just another way to experience them.
AR is likely to eclipse VR for non-entertainment applications.

Summary - Developing for VR Top Lessons Learned
Bear in mind that I only spoke to studios who had already invested in VR development, so this is not a representative sample of developers. So, taking the most popular responses from these developers, here’s the top lessons learned:
Player comfort is key.
Test your assumptions.
There is an opportunity here, but it is a risk.
Is your game unique and compelling for VR?
VR will not replace traditional games, it’s an alternative.
VR will be a success, but it might take some time.

Graham McAllister, Director, Player Research
Graham is the Director of Player Research, an award-winning games user research and playtesting studio based in Brighton, UK. 

Monday, 11 July 2016

Guest Blog: War Child

1995 saw the release of War Child’s famous HELP album; a revolutionary project where some of the most high profile British musicians came together to record an album for children in war torn Bosnia. 20 years on, I find myself working at War Child working on a project which aims to follow in the footsteps of that famous record – but with a twist.

War Child’s new project, HELP: The Game, mirrors the collaborative efforts of the 1995 record, which asked artists including Paul Weller, the Stone Roses and Blur to record a song in a day to be released on a live album.

This time round however we’re working with some of the most talented gaming studios in the world who will take part in a unique game jam; each studio have been allowed a total of six days, the same time it took for the original album to reach number one in the charts, to bring their creation from concept to completion.

Funds raised will be used for War Child UK's ongoing activities to support conflict-affected children and their families. The result of all of this international collaboration will be brought together as HELP: The Game, a compilation of games which will be published by Sega on Steam as a digital download this summer.

As War Child UK’s gaming manager, it’s been a real honour to lead this project for our charity. But it’s important to note that the game is the creation of the War Child Gaming Committee, made up of the great and good from all over the gaming industry, including Sports Interactive, Gamer Network, YouTube, Sheridans and Bossa amongst others.

The bundle includes games from some of the world’s most innovative and exciting games studios, including Sports Interactive, Rovio, Team17, Hardlight, Creative Assembly, Bossa, Curve, Sumo Digital, Modern Dream, Spilt Milk Studios & Torn Banner.

And it’s really great that here at War Child we’re able to expand our involvement in gaming. The process began when Sports Interactive first got involved with us, contributing 10p from every game sold for War Child since 2007. Our other gaming partnerships include 11bit Studios with their charity DLC and now an additional $1 donation per sale of The Little Ones DLC as of June and’s charity packages – which was then topped up by the studio in aid of world’s most vulnerable children.

When it launches later this year, HELP: The Game will take the collaboration between gaming and charities to a new level. For me, knowing how many more conflict-affected children will be supported as a result of the money raised for War Child, I cannot wait to see it get started.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Guest Blog: Kate Russell

I’ve been writing about gaming and technology since 1995, the year the dot-com boom started. Back then, less than 1% of the global population was connected to the web – today that figure is around 40%. There are 6.5 billion mobile connections globally – almost one for every person on the planet.
Today’s gamers live in a hyper-connected online world where community and the ability to play together, and against each other, are often at the heart of enduring success for a game. The human desire to connect, be social, be part of the creation process, to interact and not be restricted by narrative or geography, manifests today in the phenomenon of live streaming on platforms like Twitch. 

I am one of over 13k streamers who earn a living playing games for others to watch. Last year Twitch had half a million average concurrent viewers devouring 459,366 years’ worth of video, with viewers on average watching over 7 hours of content per month. Those kind of sticky numbers are metrics traditional broadcast and entertainment producers can only dream of. And they are liquid, trackable gold to the advertising industry.

More and more indie game studios are approaching influencers on these platforms to tap into their audience for up and coming games, getting their support for crowd funding campaigns by providing early release download codes to whip the audiences up into a storm that often raises hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If you’re in the process of developing a game or looking for funding and support, you’d be a fool to overlook these avenues. But it’s not just shouting about your vision and hoping people will hear. ‘If you build it they will come,’ does not always work. Building a strong online community is a real art form that begins by understanding your audience and finding ways to relate to them.

You’re going to need to be friendly, interesting, honest and transparent. You’re going to have to involve your fans in conversations about the development process and as a result will likely be put under constant pressure to get it right. And you’re going to have to learn to take criticism on the chin. 

But get it right and you stand to gain a rock solid army of supporters, promoters and friends behind you, who are personally invested in seeing you succeed; emotionally as well as financially.

And that is a pretty good engine to build the success story of your future on.

I’m going to be talking more about this in my upcoming Develop keynote in Brighton on 14th July. During the session I’ll be revealing some of the tricks I’ve learned along the way - having successfully ran my own crowd funding campaign and being a partnered Twitch Streamer for almost a year. I’ll also be suggesting a few ways you can structure your own community activities to increase engagement and motivate your fans to campaign on your behalf. 

If you have a game to promote or get funding for, I hope to see you there.

Journalist, reporter and author, Kate has been writing about technology and the Internet since 1995. Appearing regularly on BBC technology programme Click she is also a partnered Twitch streamer and speaks at conferences and lectures in schools and universities inspiring the next generation of technologists. Her website, , won the 2015 UK Blog Awards for best individual digital and technology blog, and in June 2016 she was voted the Computer Weekly 13th most influential woman in UK IT. Her debut novel was published in 2014 under official licence to space trading game, Elite: Dangerous, the childhood passion that inspired her love of technology. As part of the licensing deal she got to name a planet in the latest release, Elite: Dangerous. She called it Slough.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Guest Blog: Stories Are Places We Go To

When you think about your favourite place, I bet it’s not just a location – it’s the people who are there with you, and the things you are feeling. It’s a magical place. I think the job of a storyteller, particularly a visual one, is to elicit wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder from their audience. And great stories make us feel like we belong inside them, they transport us to different places.

When you experience a good story, you feel like you’ve gone on a journey, returning to your own life changed by the experience. The first time I saw The Breakfast Club when I was 15, I felt like I came back older, wiser and a bit taller. And I remember watching Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend one afternoon when I should have been in school and emerging blinking into the sunlight a changed person. That was a seriously messed up place to visit, especially on a Tuesday. 

I read somewhere that stories are survival training, giving you a chance to try things out in a safe environment before you might need to face them in real life. In hero’s journey structures, there’s always a phase where the protagonist acquires and tests out new skills before they master them in order to triumph in the climax.

Like dreams, stories are places we visit in our minds. The fantastical, and unsettling, nature of dreams and stories intertwine in cinema, television and games. Nightmare on Elm Street is a brilliant example of this, or the work of David Lynch, like the creepy scene in Mulholland drive where a man has brought his friend to a diner because he has dreamt about being there with him, and being scared. The source of the fear is a third man, “in the back of this place”: someone so scary that our erstwhile hero hopes never to see his face “outside of a dream”, yet before we know it, he’s headed out back to see if the man is really there, at which point Lynch switches the a point of view shot and we become the man, travelling towards the place which terrifies us.

In Back to the Future, we find ourselves aligned with the hapless Marty McFly, struggling at home with our cowardly father and alcoholic mother. However did these two deadbeats even wind up together? The mum recounts the story of how they met, but something doesn’t ring true. Marty ends up visiting the story himself by travelling back in time. In doing so, he smashes the story to bits and has to piece it back together in order to return home. Back at home in his own time, he momentarily becomes a helpless observer in his own story, watching as his friend Doc Brown is shot down.

I’m rambling on about this stuff because I think it’s particularly interesting given the surge in 360 degree video and virtual reality; advances that might herald a new era of immersive storytelling. Anyone who’s a cinephile and telephile knows what its like to want to live inside a favourite film or show. Good stories have always allowed us to do that, but using head-sets and 360 degree environments, we might take one step further.

I got really excited when I first discovered you could create interactive video that responded to what the viewer was doing: sharing control with the viewer over how the story unfolds rather than it carrying on regardless. Edits and music that change dynamically depending where the viewer is looking or what they are looking at with their mouse cursor (now finger). My first major foray into this world was a horror experience called The Burning Room, and I still love the sense we managed to instil of being present in a haunted place.

Sitting in a cinema or living room while the stories play out on screen allows you to experience love, terror and everything in between while simultaneously feeling the comfort of not really being there, of the characters being oblivious to you spying on them. Some filmmakers have played with this brilliantly, like Lynch’s POV shots, Michael Haneke acknowledging our complicity in his brutal Funny Games, or the classic fourth wall breaks in comedies. Deadpool prides itself on having a fourth wall break within a fourth wall break; “That’s like, sixteen walls!”

When you are free to look and roam around inside a story world, there’s potentially even more fun to be had with these concepts. Like immersive theatre in which the characters/actors are simultaneously aware and unaware of your presence. You can be acknowledged or ignored, the centre of the action or on the periphery. Perhaps you get left in one place while the story is happening down the corridor and its up to you to go and find the next act. Like real life, you can be anonymous in a crowd, a star in the movie of your life, or free to explore and find meaning – assuming you’re not supposed to be at school or work, or perhaps then also.

Stories are places we go to. Good virtual reality stories could be places you want to stay.

Jon Aird
Producer, writer and creator with a track record in making smash hit projects across online, social media and TV. Passionate about future trends and harnessing technology to delight audiences. Past projects include the BAFTA award winning digital Psychoville Experience and the viral hit interactive video The Burning Room.
Jon will be delivering a session at 11.15 on Thursday 14 July entitled Virtual Reality Thrills, Spills and Bellyaches 

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Guest blog - First impressions of the great wall

It is my first visit to China and I have been both scared &  excited for the previous week about this trip. As a new indie, an exploratory trip to China is a speculative luxury. But when I was invited by an old friend to join a cross border investment roadshow I decided to take the plunge, just as I did when I left Sony 3 months earlier.

As I am travelling on airmiles I had to leave a day early, but at least this gave me a day to visit China's most amazing construction, the great wall. And what a sight. Just the basics are astounding. 5500 miles. 1 million workers. 4 trillion bricks. A seemingly impossible task, just like starting a studio. But they broke the wall down into sections & subsections, dividing it into more manageable sized tasks. Good advice for me as I see the enormity if my own ambitions ahead of me.

And after a few days being here, meeting other CEOs, startups & investors from China and silicon Valley, I realise that the great wall itself is like a reflection of China today.

Firstly, the scale of China is staggering. There are 1.4 billion people & 560 million smart phones. Email has been leap frogged and everyone uses wechat to communicate, send files &  even pay for stuff. As a new market it is simply huge, and it is interesting to note that Western platforms like Facebook messenger lag behind the functions on offer from their eastern equivalents. They openly admit they are good at copying, but what seems obviates a couple of days is that they also improve on the original by using a very pragmatic approach to design & development. Another great takeaway for an aspiring startup.

Wealth. The great wall didn't come cheap. It was a huge investment of time, money & infrastructure on an incompressible scale. Everyone I meet tells me there is a ton of cash in China and they are keen to invest abroad. For tech that translates to silicon Valley so I am a bit of a novelty coming from the UK. Although it doesn't seem to put people off. They do however, have clear guidelines as to how to evaluate you as an investment. (see 5 steps at the end). 

I have asked a few people where the money comes from with a variety of answers. 
  • it has always been here
  • it's pent up capitalism 
  • China makes everything the world uses (the most likely one imho) 

Power. With wealth comes power and there are clearly many power structures here. From the SOEs (state owned enterprises) which we are warned against due to their red tape and misguided targets (volume as opposed to performance of foreign investments) to the huge publishers &  investment houses, enough to make even Mr Zuckerberg blush.

Control. The control required to harness 1 million workers to build the wall is difficult to comprehend. Imagine being the lead producer on that project, with your life at stake for missing a milestone. But with control comes protection. The wall was built to keep the marauding mongels out. If food was scarce they would raid the Chinese villages. And now there is the great firewall of China, designed to protect the citizens from the evils of Google, Facebook & the like. It can be bypassed by vpn clients, but these are flaky & intermittent at best due to government attacks to bring them down.  A personal realisation is just how much I rely on these platforms and services. And more useful advice for me, always look after my team. 

Achievement. And finally, What an achievement the wall is. It would be impossible today, even in China. It is clear to me that people here pride themselves on personal and societal achievement. Before coming, many friends told me how crazy it would be, which is true. But actually, I am really impressed by the infrastructure. There are tough traffic jams, but let's be honest, London is no picnic in rush hour, neither is LA (#firstworldproblems?) the outlook by most people is optimistic although I pick up similar concerns from the younger people of the impossibly high housing costs in the affluent cities.

The difference here is that top down control is in force again. Drivers must forgo using their cars one day per week (eg everyone whose registration number ends in 2 or 4 cannot drive on a Wednesday) with heavy fines as penalties.  Interestingly, the structure is designed for overall efficiency much the same way we organise our development teams. There is a clear influence from californian startup culture and everywhere has incubators or wework equivalents. Allowing teams to focus on their key goals.

I will sign off with some great advice I was given by a Chinese American as to how he evaluates a company to invest in.

1. Geography. Is the economy stable?
2. Sector. Is the business in a growing sector? (games &  vr both pass this with flying colours)
3. Is the business model sound?
4. Is the team good, great or outstanding?
5. Is the product worthy of investment?

My final thought is this. I am near the end of my trip and I have learned much more than I ever expected. And just as I have fallen in love with the majesty accomplishment of the great wall, I am falling in love with the county & culture of China itself. This is my first trip and I very much hope it is not my last. One of the developers I met here gave me some advice...  Maybe use some Chinese architecture in my products to help them sell in China... I think I will, and actually, I think it will help them sell in the rest of the world too. 

Dave Ranyard is a virtual reality developer and will be speaking at this year's Develop:Brighton conference on Tuesday 13 July at 5pm. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Guest Blog - Why My Mum Likes VR Better Than You Do

“How do I put this thing on,” she said, looking warily at the VIVE headset and controllers. Mum’s not a gamer; she’s never so much as dropped a quarter in an arcade machine, let alone picked up a console control. Hell, she struggles with her smartphone. “This is heavy,” she sighs, as I fit her with the headset, and guide her hands through the controller straps. “Ok,” I said, “I'm going to turn on a game called ‘Space Pirate Trainer’. It’s really easy, you have two guns, you pull the trigger on your controller (I showed her where they were), and you shoot the floating orbs that are trying to shoot you.  Don’t let them hit you.” As I started the game she gasped. “OH MY GOD, I'M IN SPACE! CAN YOU GUYS SEE THIS??” The last thing I said as I popped the headphones over her ears: “Use the gun in your right hand to shoot the box that says ‘Play’. Have fun.” And then I got the hell out of dodge.

My mother is 61 years old, somewhat arthritic, but still relatively spry. I watched, grinning, as she transformed from a prim and proper real estate agent into her own personal incarnation of Lara Croft. She ducked and weaved; she hurled strings of four-letter-words at the robots. I do believe she accidentally kicked the cat at one point (he hasn't forgiven her yet, poor kitty). And when she “died”, she wailed “NOOOOOOO”, immediately followed by, “I want a do-over.” Before I could say anything, she’d hit the Play button and was back in. Her only break was when we had to tear her away for Mother’s Day brunch, but all in all, she played SPT, Fantastic Contraption, and messed with the IKEA demo (“I wanted to rearrange the cabinets! This is a let-down…”) for roughly 3 hours. On the other hand, my twenty-something brother-in-law, who plays a lot of WoW and Call of Duty, etc, tried it out, and got bored after about 15 minutes. “That’s nice, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s worth the money, and I'm just in a room here by myself.”

This kind of engagement - for lifelong non-gamers to suddenly become avid enthusiasts – is practically unheard of in previous iterations of game evolution. Yet change is generally difficult for the established culture/mindset to adopt (hence the addage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”). So why is VR, this cutting edge technology, more attractive to older people?

My theory is twofold: First, that because the controls are still very crude, the games must be designed simply. The quality of a game becomes more reliant on storytelling, visuals, audio, and ease of navigation. My folks still go on dates to the movies 2-3 times per month. They watch whatever movie or show BBC America is running. They want to the entertained, but in a way that’s low effort/thinking on their part. Gaming, for them, is “too hard”. But VR is easy.

The second is that the GenX/Boomers came of age in a time where real life experiences were tantamount to electronics/media. VR is the first tech where games truly emulate real life. Finally, here is a technology tailor-made for the vast majority of older people who grew up wishing they’d done something different with their lives (because no one gets to maturity without some kind of regrets). Not because they don’t like what they have or what they have done, (read: anyone who can afford VR is probably doing well for themselves), but because they wonder what it would have been like to be a musician instead of a sales agent, or an artist as opposed to an engineer. Well, turns out it’s not too late; now you can live those imagined lives vicariously through… you. Wanted to try Alpine downhill skiing but didn't because it was “too dangerous”? Not any more. Decided against that summer of slumming it in Paris to save up for a “practical” home downpayment? You can still waste a few hours at an outdoor café (with a view of the Eiffel Tower!) catching tidbits of murmurs in French. VR lets you be someone else for a little while, gives you a mental escape. So why aren’t younger generations just as excited about all the opportunities VR offers?

Millenials, unlike previous generations, are exceptionally self-actualized. VR is a nice distraction, sure, but it’s still a game, albeit really cool. However, Millenials want more. They don’t want to just watch a 360º movie, they’d rather actually go to these places or do these things. Being “in the game”? That’s nice, but Millenials want to control the story and change the outcome. This is now the challenge for VR developers: How do you create an authentic, fulfilling experience? What will it take to make VR indistinguishable from the real thing? That’s a question we’ll be able to answer hopefully in the next few years.

The good news? A healthy market for which to create content already exists. Right now, folks like Mum (Boomers and Gen X) are quite satisfied with today’s tech. When she finally put the headset down, smiling, she wiped the sweat off her brow and quoted a phrase I'm very fond of using: “We really are living in the future.”

Sophie Wright is the Product and Brand Evangelist for Human Interact, currently working on an unannounced VR project. 15 years of experience in an engineering leadership role led to a passion for exploring and sharing the possibilities of VR. In this reality, she enjoys gin, tinkering with her Mini Cooper, meteor showers, and having meaningful experiences with people.