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Why DriveThruRPG? It’s the largest tabletop RPG download store and you’ll probably end up buying much more than just your copy of Ludotronics. Which would benefit all game designers!
Why not Amazon? Ludotronics isn’t well-suited for the Kindle format. And at €14.99, Amazon’s cut amounts to €9.75. Well, no.
Level Three: Tough Investigations
What you need to know when you set out to create a game, critically, is what games people buy, play, and enjoy. Which, against the background of the twenty-first century’s information or knowledge economy, should be easy but isn’t.
Beat 1. Searching
In contrast to traditional media such as newspapers or movies or television series that rely heavily on advertising money, which is a forceful driver for transparency, you won’t get any reliable sales and performance data for video game titles. A publisher might proclaim “x copies sold! let’s celebrate!” but rarely if ever back that up with verifiable data. Publishers have no reason to release sales and performance data above what’s legally required.
Since that road is blocked, you have to take a few detours to find out how titles relevant to your game concept perform in the market. Alas, these detours are riddled with potholes.
Try searching for “best-selling games of the year” and what you will find are the usual suspects: that year’s blockbusters. No surprises there. Also, at this point in time, it only reflects retail sales, and no digital sales at all. Neither does it reflect general buyer behavior beyond that best-selling category as a category because retail sales dynamics are driven by the wedded pair of rapid inventory turnover and deep pockets for shelf space and promotion on the retailers’ and the publishers’ sides, respectively.
As to digital game sales, many if not all distribution platforms have sections like “Top Sellers” or “Most Popular.” But these do not tell you a thing. What data or formulas drive these rankings is perfectly opaque from the outside, and a “most popular” game possibly just came out on top during the latest bout of discount roulette. There was a golden age, before the EU data protection laws kicked in, when it was possible to extract, crunch, and compile player data from Valve’s Steam platform, but that’s history for now.
To sum it up, the data horizon looks bleak and dark, without any silver lining. For indie developers especially, it has become progressively harder to calculate investments against returns. That said, you can and should collect and use all these kinds of data just mentioned, if one can call them that. But they’re obviously neither enough nor good enough, neither adequate nor reliable. Therefore, you have to create your own knowledge base.
Beat 2. Studying
What you should be doing is keeping track of what’s going on yourself, all the time, to build your own knowledge base.
You need to play games, talk to people who play games, roam game-specific community forums, and read many different kinds of game reviews (not just those about polys and pixels). You can also check game ratings from aggregator sites, but these have become viciously unreliable as a direct consequence of the developments discussed in the Preliminary phase in Level Three: A Brief Meditation on Words and Contexts.
Keep track of which titles underperform in the market and why, which titles become surprise hits and why, which platforms are thriving and which platforms are struggling. Maintaining a solid knowledge base is immensely useful. You have to have an idea about what’s hot and what’s not, and how long something’s hot, if you want to be a professional game designer.
Within your knowledge base, you should have a data set about particular details players and critics are grumbling about with respect to games that perform really well in the market. This data can turn out to be useful for your value set and your boss fight in Level Six: Capture the USP.
Beat 3. Scouting
Your knowledge base isn’t complete without data about what your prospective players buy and enjoy beyond video games.
Should a story in the traditional sense be involved in your game concept, check what kinds of stories people are actually into at the moment. What are the movies and the movie genres that perform well, besides obvious blockbusters and blockbuster franchises? What kinds of books in which literary genres about what topics sell well? Figures are often available for the print market, but for digital books big publishers themselves struggle to extract performance data for their own titles from digital platform holders. To gain an even better, hands-on overview, visit a few book stores. Which authors from which genres are deemed worthy of precious shelf space? Which of these are even placed face out on the shelves instead of spine out? From those, read a few excerpts. Beyond literary genres and topics, what kinds of settings and characters do people prefer?
Then there’s the music market. What do people buy and listen to besides top hits? Were there any surprise album hits lately? And, apart from artists and music genres, are there identifiable themes and moods that sell well across demographics, including age, class, or culture?
All this will become valuable later to support narrative and aesthetic design decisions in the Process phase. And it becomes even more valuable when your core element falls into the narratological or cinematological dimension.
Historically, it should be mentioned, researching mainstream media didn’t make much sense for designing and selling video games. But times have changed. Customer demographics for video games went off the scales. People who aren’t playing at least some video games have become increasingly rare, and they’re not just playing casual–social–mobile games either. There’s a good chance that the people you meet at the movie theater and the people who buy those books at the book store and listen to that music that sells so well are the very same people who might be willing to buy your game if it happens to meet their wants, needs, and expectations and the approval of their peers.
If you have created your knowledge base, put it in your Ludotronics inventory as a dynamic item so that you can access and complement it with new data all the time. As soon as you’ve accomplished that, you have cleared this level!
Depending on which route you took, Level Four or Level Five or both might still loom before you. If you’ve already beaten both, congratulations! Then you can proceed to the Preparation phase’s boss encounter in Level Six.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One, Level Two, and Level Six.
Level Three through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.