Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Consistent Quantity of Sufficient Quality, and the Long Tail

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 14, 2016

Across the board, entertainment industries are overwhelmingly hit-driven. Super high-quality and super innovation both have a chance of knocking things out of the park in a HUGE way. Combine with some luck (the right game at the right time at the right price) and / or excellent marketing (sometimes fan-driven), and the rewards are tremendous. That’s how the game is played in the mainstream games industry, and in much of Hollywood, and the big book publishers, and the big music studios. It works for them because it maximizes the chances for the people with the deepest pockets.

But the other thing they do is throw a LOT of product out there, shotgun-style, seeing what lands.

The thing that I keep seeing across multiple industries is that for the little guys… the individual authors, indies, that group … who don’t have infinite time and resources, there’s another path that is by no means guaranteed, but seems to work better. The problem I have is that there’s a difference between knowing it and executing on it. So I keep harping on it and hope that I can figure it out myself.

The key to (eventual) success seems to be “consistent quantity of sufficient quality.”

Parsing it a bit… what does “consistent quantity” mean? That really comes down to regular, frequent releases. Customers / fans can’t wait forever for the next release. In the book world, every six months is sort of the rule-of-thumb for the acceptable time between novels. More than a year apart (at least for an author, maybe not for a series), and you start losing audience interest. For games… it’s probably about the same. For mobile, I’ve heard the number being between 3-6 months. I think for big-budget PC games, the time might be longer. For indie PC games… I think consistent releases in a relatively short time-frame might be key.

This is sort of what the big publishers do with their shotgun approach, but in slow motion.  A slow-mo machine-gun approach, maybe? The advantage the indies have is a level of authorship. This has always been the case with books, but with games, the big studios crank out big games that often don’t have any kind of personalized signature, or personality. In Hollywood, there’s a little more of that with the key people (screenwriter, director, starring actors), but it’s still a bit generic.

That’s a huge problem for me with the next Frayed Knights release, because it has taken long enough that the first game is now ancient history. It’d be one thing if the first game was a mega best-seller or something and this was the long-awaited sequel. But while critically acclaimed, it was kind of a niche RPG. It’s a problem with all RPGs, in fact. These things just are not quick and easy to make. Not of sufficient quality, anyway. Which brings us to the next point.

What is “sufficient quality?” Now, in a hit-driven world, it’s “equaling or surpassing the production values of all of the competition.” But for indie game developers, that’s another story. But doing some comparisons with indie film, music, and novels, I don’t know that it’s a totally different world. The specifics vary greatly, but ultimately it comes down to a few things:

  • Reasonable degree of craftsmanship. Not an amateur or lazy hack-job.
  • Professional level of polish. No glaring mistakes that break the enjoyment of the product.
  • Engaging product
  • Reasonable uniqueness (at least from the customer’s perspective)

One thing I really wanted to put on that list was something about passion. But… as important as this is for me, I’ve discovered that skilled creators can shine it on pretty well. I know people who have really fallen in love with what a writer considered just another pot-boiler. So that’s really more of something the audience brings to the table, although I’d like to think that real passion and enthusiasm going into the making of the thing will translate into a more engaging result… and might make up for some small lapses in craftsmanship or professionalism.

This combination works because of the “long tail” in digital distribution. There are some suggestions out there that it even works without it, but it customers having access to a creator’s backlist in one way or another is critical.At the simplest level, it’s the difference between making a game every 2 years that must make $200,000 to keep a (tiny) studio afloat, and making a game every 6 months that must make only $50k. But it goes further than that… maybe one game every 6 months that needs to make only $30k, while the other 16 games in the backlist (which will grow to 20 by the end of 2 years) need to make an average of $5000 each over the course of the 2 years.

But there’s another factor which belongs to most entertainment media, but not so much in games: When the stars align and a product does well, the whole backlist does well as new people discover preexisting works. Historically, games have been so tech-driven this wasn’t the case. Newer games were almost always superior to older games in most ways. However, now that the technological growth curve for games has flattened out a bit, that perspective is more tradition-driven than reality-driven, and may change over time.

I grow convinced that video games may be an odd duck in many ways to other forms of entertainment, but that while some of the details may change, the root behavior is the same. I think (with help) there are a lot of things I could do to make a game like Frayed Knights faster, I don’t think I could get it to the point where I could come out with a game like that every six months.

I don’t think a rich, paint-by-numbers toolkit is the answer, either. I think some of the reason for the backlash against RPG Maker games on Steam and the like is that the toolkit disguises the quality. A really horrible, thrown-together title may look almost identical until the player has invested time and money into both.

The solution many game-makers have discovered is that rather than release an entirely new product, they can dole out DLC and enjoy a similar effect. And maybe that is the happy medium and I’ve been stupid for not doing the same thing.

I dunno. This is something that has been bugging me a LOT lately.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • Mat Willows said,

    Sounds like exactly what’s need to keep a blog going… 😀