Thursday, July 13, 2017

Opinion: Real Game Designers Make Millions of Dollars for Their Companies


My N. R. Tran is maybe the only free-to-play game designer on the planet who can claim to have had three different games in the top-100 grossing charts on the mobile app stores with three different companies. She’s an award-winning, “monetization maestro,” hanging out with Judge Judy and Kim Kardashian at the Forbes Women’s Summit, beastly games industry badass ...

“You’re not a real game designer, My: Real game designers make millions of dollars for their companies,” was the obnoxious pickup line delivered to My by a surprisingly sober, super-rich Silicon Valley game designer, as part of a ploy to seduce her.

Moments after My had shut him down like the clown that he is, she stood with me at the bar of a conference party, venting about the audacious attempt on her pants. Together, we watched said super-rich Silicon Valley game designer not-so-humbly brag to people about his awesome yacht.

“Well, he ain’t wrong: Real game designers make millions of dollars for their companies,” I insisted. My has, in fact, made millions of dollars for her companies; let it be known that My Tran is a real mother fucking game designer.

My N. R. Tran with Steve Forbes is high-key goals AF RN my fam


Before we fast-forward our story to another boozy games industry party, I’d like to welcome my readers back to the blog that is too smug for the creator of Minecraft!

“You’re too much of a business guy, Scott,” I was told by the Top Game Designer from one of the largest companies on the planet. “I hope that doesn’t offend you.”

I’m not offended at all. Real game designers make millions of dollars for their companies. With online storefronts reaching their saturation points and free-to-play dynamics annihilating the lines between creative direction and profit-and-loss management, now, more than ever, real game designers need to be business people.

Pop quiz, hot shot: You are handed millions of dollars to conceive and construct a product, the success of which will affect the lives and livelihoods of yourself, your coworkers, your family, their families, and, potentially, the imaginations of millions of people worldwide, all for generations to come. What game do you make?

If you work in incorporated game development of any kind, this is usually the exact situation that you find yourself in as a game designer. And, if you’re the suit who is handing out those millions of dollars, wouldn’t you prefer that the person conceiving and defining the product is somewhat of a “business person?” Really, people, why do we keep offloading the visions for products that cost millions of dollars in production to greasy haired, dirty nailed, fake hipsters?

I want the entire games industry to repeat after me, “M.F.A. stands for, ‘Might Find Audience.’”


Ignited Artists was founded in June of 2014 with the vision of being, “the greatest place to work in the games industry.” Like the sea-change in Hollywood in the 1920’s, where creative movie-making talent broke from being forced into relative servitude by the studio establishment to become shot-callers and monied ballers, we envisioned this decade as the time in the evolution of the games industry when individual game developers would finally find themselves with their hands on the throttles of their own destinies. And, if you’re going to have your hand on the throttle of your own destiny, you had better be damn sure that you don’t crash.

As Game Director at Ignited Artists, it’s my responsibility to set the strategy and tactics for the thirty-some-others working on our game, and to make sure that those thirty-some others have continuous income with which to feed and house themselves and their families. More than that, as part of being “the greatest place to work in the games industry,” we aim to be the highest-paying studio in the games industry; we do direct, pass-through profit-sharing. Real game designers make millions of dollars for their companies, and this game designer needs to do everything within his power to ensure that the profit-sharing pool is as large as possible.

Part of producing big profit pools is in knowing from where profit comes: “Marketing and innovation produce profit; everything else is just a cost.”

One of the most-junior varsity mistakes possible for a game designer is in confusing “invention” for “innovation.” Invention is creation; innovation is creating something that creates value. A hat that dispenses toilet paper is an invention; a one-time-use pill that cures cancer is an innovation. The more innovative the product, the less promotion that product needs: Shit stands up at the end of the day, and the oldest and most-potent form of marketing is Word of Mouth marketing. If marketing is warfare, customers are the bullets.

If you make a one-time-use pill that cures cancer, you won’t have to spend a dollar on advertising, because your customers will advertise for you.

But marketing is not “advertising,” as many often confuse. Marketing is shaping the response of a customer who is confronted with your product into, “I must buy that.” As the old saying goes, “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department,” and, in being a game designer, you are even more responsible than the marketing department when it comes to the sales of your title: Shit stands up at the end of the day, and no amount of clever promotion can save the top-line revenue of an ill-conceived game.

Shower epiphanies can be great, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a game about an Italian plumber who jumps on turtles: That will become the biggest video game franchise of all time!” And, as long as games are made, there will always be shower-epiphanies-turned-hits. But, planning to get lucky at market is like drinking whiskey to get charismatic: The results are rarely what you intended.


Marketing is the act of instilling a buy-response within potential customers. While this sounds like the kind of mercenary callousness that causes indie game developers to cough up hairballs, please keep in mind that making something that people want and that will bring people joy is infinitely better than making a hairball.

Making something that people want and that will bring people joy all starts with the people who are conceiving the video game ...

In the 1940’s, Harvard University professor James Culliton introduced a strategic tool known as “The Marketing Mix,” an evolved version of which is still in use today, one which posits that marketing can be plausibly parsed and then parted as a parsimonious provision of process propositions that prepare with the letter P: Price, Promotion, Place, People, and Product.

Sometimes called “The Five P’s,” “The Six P’s,” “P++,” “P#,” “The P’s and Carrots,” “I Really Gotta P,” or “Are You Down With PPP,” Culliton's theory states that each of these aspects of marketing affects the other …

(Your) People: No company has ever made a game: People make games. Do you have the right People working on your Product? Do those People know how to make games?! Do you have the right People Promoting your Product? Survey the vast elephant’s graveyard that is the history of failed game Products, and you will find one or more People responsible for those failures.

“Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where the bus is going,” and plagiarizing Jim Collins does not help me stress this point sternly enough: If you have the wrong People in your organization, you will fail excruciatingly. “The tree rots from the top down,” and plagiarizing Peter Drucker does not help me stress this point sternly enough: Regardless of how great the People in your organization, without good management People who know both management and the industry, you are well and sonorously fucked.

(More) People: Money doesn’t spend itself: People spend money. Do you know which People are going to be spending on your Product? Do your People know who those People are? What languages do those People speak? Can you get inside of those Peoples’ heads?

Insight is seeing past what People say into what People want - and insight is the most powerful magic at a game designer’s disposal. If a player says, “The save button should be big and red,” a junior designer will insist that the save button should be big and red. A more seasoned designer will act on the insight that, “The player is having trouble saving.”

If “design is law,” insight is the Supreme Court.

What insights do you have into the People to whom you will be selling? Are those insights front-and-center with your team? Are you inviting those People in to experience the product pre-release? Relying only on quantitative data at soft launch or only on forum shitposts during Early Access means that you are already way, way behind the curve.

Place: Where will you be selling your Product: On a console store? On a mobile app store? On Steam? At physical retail? Or, will you create your own clever distribution? (Let’s all pour one out for that depraved genius that created a system to allow using Subway sandwich shop gift cards to make online game purchases.)

If you do have a choice in which Place to sell your game Product, making that choice is going to inform so, so much about your concept: What People frequent that Place and how many of those People are there in the world? What Price do those people expect to pay for gaming Product? What Promotion attracts those People to what game Product?  What will the player interface be? What are the technical requirements and capabilities? Do your People know the Place and how to build for those People to whom you want to sell? Can your Product include bare-breasted boobies without getting banned from that Place?

Promotion: How will you Promote your Product to the people to whom you wish to sell? And to what kinds of Promotion do those People respond well?

Advertising? Public Relations? In-store kiosks? Youtubers and Twitch streamers? Reddit? Facebook Live? Twitter? Discord? LinkedIn? Conference booths? Snail mail circulars? Can you invent a new form of Promotion?

Word of mouth is always, and without fail, the most-powerful form of Promotion: What about your Product is “remarkable?” What viral and bacterial marketing mechanisms can you bake into your Product (without being obnoxious about them)?

How will you seed your Product? One of the things that Silicon Valley does better than anybody in the world is seeding Products with the right groups of People, getting the word of mouth flywheel turning: Is it a wonder that Silicon Valley is the undisputed world-beater when it comes to business investment and exit?

Are you working with a known brand, the Promotion of which you can leverage?

What is this all going to cost?

If you don’t have a strategy, you can’t fail, because you weren’t trying to accomplish anything in the first place.

Price: For how much will your Product sell? What’s the right Price point? If your Product is free, how will you monetize? (Free-to-play monetization is a million articles-worth of discussion; just ask Teut Wiedemann.) Will you be able to cover all costs? What will your expected profits look like?

What are Products like yours charging at market? (That was a trick question! If there is a Product like the one you are planning already at market, you would be better served to go make something else!)

If you Price too high, you’re restricting sales; if you Price too low, you’re leaving money all over the table. Some say that the greatest decision that Steve Jobs ever made was in telling his investment bankers to go diddle themselves and then doubling the Price of the Pixar Initial Public Offering.

Product: Explaining game Product in and of itself would lead to entire college curriculums, hundreds of book series, websites full of instructional blogs, and giant developer conferences all over the world (and especially in San Francisco). Suffice it to say, for all of the talking and writing about game development that goes on in this world, there are relatively few places from which game Product concepts come from …

The Shower Epiphany: “What if there was a game called, ‘Suh, Hunties,’ where a drag queen drove around yelling, ‘Suh!,’ to everybody that she sees on the sidewalk?!” (That’s what I think about in the shower, anyway.)

The Hero Product: The Hero Product is a game that showcases the capabilities trivializes the constraints of a given piece of technology: “The platform that we are launching has neural sensors that read players’ minds, and so we have created a racing game where players drive by thinking really fast.” (Somebody call Tipatat Chennavasin: I’m going to need fifty million American dollars.)

Careful Market Positioning: Market Positioning is the act of developing your Product to stand out against competing Products in ways that are meaningfully attractive to the target consumer: There are no cartoon racing games for males ages six-to-ten on the platform, and yet the platform is only owned by males age six-to-ten that love cartoon racing.”

Unique Selling Proposition: Unique Selling Proposition is an aspect of your Product which is both truly unique and meaningfully attractive to the target consumer: “We will be the only racing game to feature the Ferrari license.”

Dominant Selling Idea: A Dominant Selling Idea is an aspect which is meaningfully attractive to the target customer and permeates every last bit of the Product: “This will be the SEXIEST racing game EVER.”

More, More, More: The More, More, More strategy requires that the Product exhibit more aspects considered meaningfully attractive to the target customer than any other Product at market: “This racing game will have more licensed raceways, more licensed cars, and more licensed music tracks than any other game.”

Licensed Product: Licensed Products ostensibly have a built-in audience: Just add game. “This game is based on The Fast And The Furious movie franchise.”

The Log Line: The Log Line strategy requires that the Product exhibit a combination of two or more aspects considered meaningfully attractive to the target customer which can be found in other games, but which have not been combined before: “What if you took the soccer players in FIFA and replaced them with cars?! This game is about cars playing soccer!”

Inspired By: There’s an old rule in marketing known as, “The Quality Axiom,” which states that, “Consumers don’t really care about quality.” When it comes to video games, The Quality Axiom is unflaggingly full of turtle shit: Gaming consumers certainly care about quality.

If you can make your Product ten metacritic points higher than your nearest competitor, and there is an established market to support you in doing so, then by all means, copy … I mean ... get inspired.

Even better are lowest-hanging fruit: Old games that have slipped into the coma of time, yet still maintain their large, rabid fan bases - games that are desperately in need of modernization. Or outlandishly popular mods of other titles that could use commercialization of their own: Take Defense Of The Ancients, for example, a WarCraft III mod that has a million zealous fans. Just imagine how powerful it would be if somebody modernized and commercialized that mod! 

Disruption: Disruption comes when one creates an entirely new category of Product - what we call in video games, “genres.” I’ll save the beautiful, placid details for another four thousand word article sometime in the future, and, to summarize, “You ain’t never seen a racing game like this before!”


Mommy, where do game concepts come from?

From The Marketing Mix, sweetie.

A lot of designers will light up that dank 🌲🌲🌲 when faced with creative constipation; me, I call my mom. (Well, sometimes I do both.) I’m one of the few lucky, fortunate, blessed, Gumpish handful of souls in this industry to be routinely given millions to make whatever game you feel like, and my seventy year-old mother has been with me every step of the way - my seventy year-old mother, and The Marketing Mix.

It’s not marijuana and mom that these investors are trusting with their money, and that’s the whole point of this Suerat-like super-coating of words: It pays in this industry to be “too much of a business person.” Let’s take a look at how we’re using The Marketing Mix at Ignited Artists to bring you BARBARIC, a game that we feel you will love and want to marry ...

(Our) People: “Talent clumps,” as they say in Silicon Valley, and great People want to work with great People - and only with great People. And you definitely want to be working with great People: A truly great engineer can code ten-to-one-hundred-times faster than an average engineer, for example. Aiming to be the highest paying studio in the games industry is one thing, but, to step through our doors, you’d better be worthy of those money buckets.

Underperformance is contagious, and nuisance is a contagion, the effects of which compound and magnify until the organization expires. We had some nuisances that needed pruning, which we did with haste and with severance packages. (Severance is rare at startups, but, hey, part of being “the best place to work in the games industry” is also being “the best place to be let go from in the games industry.”)

What we were left with after the pruning was a team that very-much resembled Marvel’s Avengers, in that every person on the team was positively outstanding in at least one area of game development. And every person on the team truly loves games.

(More) People: We would need to make a product that we, ourselves would want to play. Yes, there is a lot of opportunity for disruption in making games for people other than professional game developers, but, getting a team of professional game developers synched with the psychographics of an alien target audience is both laceratingly painful and laboriously time consuming: There is a certain trust tax that one does not have to pay when developing games for game developers who love games; e.g., your camera person doesn’t have to ask anybody if the camera feels right; your camera person already knows whether the camera feels right.

Take it from somebody who directed a game for empty nester housewives called Babies Everywhere. And, before you laugh, please keep in mind that anybody who has been in the industry for a couple of decades has Babies Everywhere in his closet. (Please don’t think about that sentence too deeply.)


Place: Mobile app stores were out of the question: We had reached a point in the evolution of the mobile gaming space where some companies were paying a million dollars or more daily in mobile user acquisition. Factor in the thought that some mobile studios were now investing north of five million dollars in development for each title, and, well, trying to compete against those studios was simply obvious suicide.

Virtual reality was also out of the question: We have yet to reach a point in the evolution of the virtual reality gaming space where enough consumers own headsets to lend to repeatable, scalable, profitable business. And, if virtual reality was too early, then dedicated game consoles were too late: Who could say whether game consoles would be anything more than over-expensive decorations for television stands by the time we launched?

Steam, though … Steam is absolutely exploding with game development of all kinds, with billions of dollars in total annual sales, millions of customers that fit our target demographic, and, we saw that if we made our games for Steam, Ignited Artists would be one of the best-funded Triple-I developers in the world. It’s always better to be a big fish in a big pond, and so Steam it would be.

Promotion: At this point in the evolution of the Steam gaming market, a great game with smart marketing can do very well. We would use traditional Promotion tools, such as public relations and various social media channels - and this blog post - but what we really want is streamers.

In 2006, I predicted “gaming as passive entertainment” during an interview for an article that declared me one of the, “Top Three Game Developers Under 30.” Today I’m anciently old, Twitch is bigger than CNN, and ESPN broadcasts eSports. (What’s the opposite of a humble brag?) Today, one popular streamer can swing the entire fortunes for a Product.

And, if you’re going to make a game with streamers in mind, your Product had better (1) be fun to watch and (2) have enough compelling content to support a streamer who broadcasts your game eight hours a day, six days a week, month in, month out. If you’re going to make a game with streamers in mind, have an eye toward the idea that the streamers’ livelihoods depend upon how awesome your game is to stream.

Price: Free-to-play was definitely out of the question. (Yes, I have fucked with free-to-play.) Free-to-play is a scalar multiplier on development and support costs, and lacking free-to-play experience as a team is a sure recipe for losing money.

The Product would have to be pay-to-play, and the Price-point would have to be set once we knew all other variables - set at a Price that more-or-less assured the continued life of the studio for years to come.

Product: We saw that on Steam that “rogue-likes” - games that feature procedural content and permanent death - are incredibly popular, with a total-addressable market (“TAM”) that we estimate to be in area of between 7 and 35 million enthusiastic customers. And yet, the quality of rogue-like games set the bar very, very low: No rogue-like game on Steam actually presents a beautiful modernization of the original Rogue, despite there being millions of potential customers for such a title.

In 1978, people played this …

But why don’t we have something that looks like this?

Even better for us, careful market positioning reveals a gaping market hole: Where are the cooperative rogue-likes?! The original Rogue computer game from 1980 was inspired so heavily by the original tabletop Dungeons & Dragons - a cooperative, replayable adventure! With all of the off-the-shelf online multiplayer software development kits available for today, implementing multiplayer gameplay no longer requires the vast resources that it once did: So where are the cooperative rogue-likes?!

Even better for us, all of us at Ignited Artists were positively thrilled at the prospect of a cooperative online game that features procedural content and permanent death, but we wouldn’t only be creating a cooperative rogue-like: We would be using Blue Ocean Strategy to create an exciting new genre of game - something we will get into in the next installment of this series of improbable-to-read articles filled with hopefully helpful smugness that will, with any luck, inspire you to get rich and then buy an awesome yacht and then hit on people at deep-drinking conference parties.

I don’t allow comments on my blog: There’s just no way to control the quality. Besides, if you have something to say, you can get your own blog. In lieu of comments, I’m just going to leave this savage, captioned image of the tea lizard that I downloaded from the front page of the internet …