Is there another way?
Game dev folks, I’d like your thoughts on this one: Michael Martinez, CEO of JuiceBox Games, wrote a smart and heart-felt mini post-mortem of his company, which is shutting down. In it he details the difficulties of running an effective game development business in today’s market.I don’t know Martinez, but I agree with most of what he says 100%. And of course I have immense empathy for him and his team, and the difficult decisions he’s had to make.
That said, I’m left with the nagging feeling that he (and many other smart people) have bought into the equation of “game dev success” that requires many millions of dollars of investment. JuiceBox had a $2.54M seed round, the kind of money which then requires hit games to sustain the business. This view is hardly new; it’s how people have been setting up businesses for a long time (and how I’ve set up some of mine in the past). However, it also leads to the kind of tunnel vision that makes the conclusion that “games are a hit-driven business,” inevitable. It’s the classic (if often self-defeating) “go big or go home” mentality that shoves aside all other possibilities. The thing is, I don’t think that conclusion is actually all that inevitable: we can do this differently, with less risk and more success.
By an “entirely capricious market” what I mean is that there seems to be little rhyme or reason to commercial success in games today, especially in the mobile and tablet market. Having a great game is usually a pre-requisite, but as difficult as that is to do it isn’t sufficient (as Martinez notes). Spending millions on marketing isn’t any sort of guarantee either, especially as user acquisition costs rise to points well above any reasonable lifetime value for those users.
What has changed is that we now have options beyond “take millions of dollars, rent expensive space in San Francisco, gather a great team, and … hope for the best.” The technological and distribution barriers to game development have all but vanished, and there is little reason (other than mythology) to site your company in an expensive location — or even in a single location at all. Having smart, hard-working people is still necessary, but they ways they can be smart and work hard have changed completely in the past decade. This may, I think, have changed the equation necessary for commercial game success, if we’re willing to take the chance and embrace it.
What this argues for is a concept of success that’s anathema to the “take as much VC money as you can swallow” mindset: it means aiming for smaller successes, ones where you get to continue making games, feeding your family, buying a house, and slowly building up credibility and a following — but probably not doing what’s often called “swinging for the fences,” a baseball analogy that implies the result lies in you and your talent, not in how well you can scratch off venture capital lottery tickets.
The one aspect of designing, developing, launching, and running a game that becomes a commercial success that is still outside of the control of small (and large!) developers is discoverability. If people can’t find your game, they can’t play it. And now developers and publishers are faced with the fact that hundreds of new games are published every single day. If you launched a game on the iOS app store yesterday, it would be in the jumble of several hundred others that came out the same day, and a few thousand in the past week. Advertising is incredibly, untenably expensive, and the old standby of “getting featured” no longer seems to be generating a significant bump in sales.
But ultimately this is just one aspect of a deeper strategy that also argues against the “investment lottery ticket” approach: beyond building “games as a service” (as Dan Cook suggests), build games as a community. This takes time, personal presence, brand-building (of yourself and your games), and patience. This is the opposite of the new version of the old “fire and forget” retail strategy that’s come up again with online sales. Instead, it argues for a small developer playing a long game, looking to make and keep customers. It means calculating LTV over the life of the player, not the few weeks they’re likely to stay with any one of your games.