Week 3 — Creating games with appeal

2021-10-06

Welcome to week 3 of the module indie game startup.

By the end of this week, we will be able to:

  • Identify the hooks in existing video games.
  • Design an engaging core loop.
  • Choose a player fantasy and art style that appeals to a specific market segment.
  • Devise a game concept with commercial potential.

Identifying hooks in existing video games

First, some definitions.

Ryan Clark says hooks are surprising and desirable (2020). If you miss any of these elements, it’s not a hook. E.g. mashing up incompatible genres can be surprising, but not be desirable.

Hooks can be divided into

  • pre-play hooks, like your game trailer, GIFs, and screenshots
  • post-play hooks, i.e. those in the game itself

Mike Rose (2018) goes on to pair the hook with a kicker (which I had to look up, and kind of means twist) i.e. that thing that makes your hook stand out, but it’s not the thing the whole marketing campaign will hang off.

An example he cites: his game Descenders has the hook: downhill mountain bike racing, and the kicker: it’s all procedurally generated.

Hooks make your game stand out, makes folks remember your game, and makes them talk about your game with others.

Portal’s hook is: you have a gun, and instead of bullets, it shoots portals. Perhaps it didn’t have a kicker, because the hook was so unique at the time of release.

Crypt Of The Necrodancer’s hook: a dungeon crawler where you move to the beat of the music. Perhaps the kicker could be that you can use your own music.

Designing an engaging core loop

(All notes below thanks to Ryan Clark (2020), (2020).)

How do you know which hooks could be surprising and desirable? You have to study:

  • which games are selling and which are not
  • watch the top sellers charts and play the games
  • games might sell well, not due to something intrinsic about the game, but due to external factors

On that last point, The Clark Tank (“The Clark Tank! - YouTube” n.d.) streams helps with this: the community can help find these factors which might skew one’s sense of genre viability.

An example of skew is Dream Daddy - it wasn’t due to this being a popular genre, but due to it being made by the guy from “Game Grumps”, resulting in a lot of coverage and videos, also by other streamers. If you made your own Dream Daddy, you might not have the same coverage.

When deciding what game idea to work on next: Does it have testable pre-play hooks? How long will I have to develop the game before I can test those hooks?

E.g. some games don’t lend themselves well to speedy testing. E.g. sims needs layers and layers of gameplay elements before they’re fun, so more risky.

You can do play testing, in-house or at conferences. But many devs can’t honestly evaluate the results of these tests. Also, e.g. at PAX, players will play and hand the controller back saying “thanks, that was fun”, even though it wasn’t.

You know they’re not lying when:

  • they return to your booth
  • you have to kick them off
  • they’re asking to buy it now
  • recommending (leaving, then coming back with friends)

Apart from a good hook, you also need a viable genre. Look at your platform’s top sellers charts to find viable genres.

E.g. for a large genre, you might only need a small slice to be profitable. For a tiny genre, you might not be profitable, as fans in those genre might stick to a few games and not try yours, and you will need a very powerful hook to capture this audience.

Factorio-likes are currently doing well, even if there’s no innovation on the original hook. Folks just currently like this type of game.

Puzzle is a weak genre, but Baba Is You had a super strong hook to allow it to capture a large slice, and it expanded that market by bringing in new players.

Chris Zukowski (2019) says that hooks alone aren’t enough; you also need solid anchors. Something familiar about a genre.

Crypt Of the Necrodancer utilised strong roguelike anchors, otherwise players might have ignored the game as being too silly or different.

You want your game to have many desirable things:

  • graphics
  • audio
  • accessibility
  • game feel
  • surprises
  • genre tropes
  • BUT only a few really surprising hooky elements

Not every game needs a hook to succeed. E.g. some puzzle platformers play like every other puzzle platformer, but can still be successful. E.g. Stardew Valley - there’s no great hook, but there was a pent-up demand for this kind of game on PC platforms. (Harvest Moon was only on Nintendo)

How to generate hooks

3 ways:

  • lightning strikes (just great ideas, very rare)
  • mashups (e.g. roguelike + bullet hell, NOT turn-based + kart racing (surprising - yes, but not desirable))
  • genre twisting

Genre mashups

Here’s a new challenge: find mashups that no-one’s tried before that on first glance looks like a bad idea with no synergy. Just think harder about these combinations, and see if something can be done with it.

Generate mashups by looking at an existing genre, finding the flaws in that genre, then trying to fix those flaws using new mechanics, or lessons from a different genre.

(e.g. Crypt of the Necrodancer: the flaw was that some seeded Rogue games were unwinnable, but Spelunky was always winnable due to its real-time-ness. He wanted the same feeling of fairness but in a game more similar to Rogue. He identified that the feeling of fairness comes from the real-time nature of Spelunky, so he wondered how he could make Rogue more real-time. He didn’t want to completely remove the turn-based nature of Rogue, so he opted to make COTN skill-based by opting for “fast turns”, a forced move every second, so it felt like he was playing to a rhythm. He tried it with music, and the COTN as we know it, was born.)

Evaluate genre overlap with tools like Game Data Crunch .

If someone thinks a game sounds cool, they might wishlist it and never come back. Ideally, you want to get players excited enough to buy it right away.

Genre mashups might work really well here, as your target player might love both genres. If someone hates both or either genre, they won’t buy it.

Genre twisting

E.g. Braid’s reversal or time, or Max Payne’s slowing of time, or Superhot’s time only moving when you do (and it had a striking art style).

How to: look at a common genre, and see which of its tropes you can twist. Then see if that idea is both Surprising and Desirable.

Ideas:

  • What if entities in the game have timers on them? Like entities getting bigger over time, or items getting weaker over time, or a mech tactics game where you can scrub through time
  • audio changes: what if vital info comes to you via audio only? (accessibility issue?)
  • what if you in-game avatar is a piece of audio?
  • what if instead of controlling the protagonist, you’re controlling the enemies? Or the ground, or the world.

You usually come up with the Surprising half this way, and rarely the Desirable half. So, come up with a lot of ideas!

Choosing a player fantasy and art style

…that appeals to a specific market segment.

  • Look at what a particular market segment currently plays
  • Look for common themes across those games w.r.t. art style and player fantasies
  • See if any of those art styles or fantasies are trending up or down
  • Ensure the player fantasy is anchored in something they already know
  • Conduct interviews and survey your audience
  • Fake MVPs to gauge interest
  • Have a mascot, and make it attractive and appealing
  • See what other games in your genre do with their mascots (e.g. face covered, cute, aspirational, etc)
  • Art can be vibrant, have “juice”, have good animation, appealing characters (it’s wise to spend money here, as customers buy with their eyes)

Just as I was writing this:

Devising a game concept with commercial potential

After having looked at current gaming trends (e.g. top seller charts) in particular segments (e.g. you might just want to make PC games), once you come up with a unique mash of genres and a hook (and a kicker!) anchored in familiar territory, think about testing these ideas as quickly as possible, either as pre-play hooks (screenshots, mock-ups), or post-play hooks (MVPs, prototypes). Do this quickly, so you can get to the working idea quickly.

Nick Popovich (2019) has some good advice:

  • can your game design fit into a (shareable) GIF?
  • Avoid complex ideas, but allow complex design or execution on simpler ideas.

Be realistic about how well your game can do. Base your predictions on the lower-performing competitors (GDC 2018).

Keep players engaged

Think about engagement, and keeping players engaged.

Why?

Over a long period, they are more likely to:

  • write a positive review
  • share the game with friends
  • appear as playing your game in steam/discord
  • buy expansions, sequels, DLC, or other games from your studio

How?

  • Core gameplay loop MUST be compelling.
  • Build compelling goals on top of engaging moment-to-moment gameplay.
  • Core gameplay loop has to build up to those bigger outcomes (reaching goals, defeating bosses).

(I have a lot of notes about good UX and good game feel, which I won’t repeat here, as it’s in my shiny new zettelkasten!)

For a large genre, you might only need a small slice to be profitable. For a tiny genre, you might not be profitable, as fans in those genre might stick to a few games and not try yours, and you will need a very powerful hook to capture this audience.

Once the game with commercial potential is out there, keep it relevant. The best marketing strategy is “keep working on your game” (GDC 2019). You don’t release and just walk away. Treat every port as a new launch. Avoid Steam reviews like “this is a dead game”.

Concurrency: at any given moment, the number of people playing is key to success, as they are the group talking about your game.

Look at your metrics. Which content updates had the largest upticks. Do more of those.

Bibliography

  1. “Game Data Crunch: Data Is Delicious.” n.d. Available at: https://www.gamedatacrunch.com/ [accessed 6 Oct 2021].
  2. “The Clark Tank! - YouTube.” n.d. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLUPKuAVC8PO7uIGiDCHUZGDNYAyRmW6NC [accessed 6 Oct 2021].
  3. ZUKOWSKI, Chris. 2019. “How Steam Users See Your Game.” Game Developer. Available at: https://www.gamedeveloper.com/business/how-steam-users-see-your-game [accessed 6 Oct 2021].
  4. BRACE YOURSELF GAMES. 2020. “Clark Tank DEEP DIVE \Textbar How to Make Video Game Hooks: Part 2.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-8N0DuHwJo [accessed 6 Oct 2021].
  5. BRACE YOURSELF GAMES. 2020. “Clark Tank DEEP DIVE \Textbar How to Make Video Game Hooks: Part 1.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOb-PdYwkwk [accessed 6 Oct 2021].
  6. GDC. 2018. “Marketing on Zero Budget.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3QnovWYvwo [accessed 6 Oct 2021].
  7. GDC. 2019. “Making Games That Stand Out and Survive.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTvBgmNL-p0 [accessed 6 Oct 2021].

This post is part of my critical reflective journal and was written during week 3 of the module indie game startup.

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