Marketing: The Indie Dev’s Achilles Heel

I’ve been having a lot of fun recently reading game post-mortems from indie game devs. Like the name suggests, post-mortems are basically articles by game devs looking back after their game is released,  going over what went wrong and what went right.  A few collections of them can be found here and here.

As I started reading through these I was going to write one of those “5 mistakes every first time indie dev makes” lists, but going through more and more stories, one problem stuck out more than any other: marketing. A depressing number of the post-mortems went essentially like this:

  1. Small indie dev gets an idea for a game;
  2. Dev + a few friends work for months or years on said game, sometimes at great cost to their personal health and finances;
  3. Game is finished and goes up on Steam, no one finds out about it, game fails.

Part of this seems to arise out of the fact that many devs treat marketing as a bit of an afterthought, believing that making a quality game will automatically result in press coverage and sales. When their game finally hits the market many of them seem to have an “Oh shit!” moment, realizing that’s not the case, and that marketing the game is a job in and of itself and a far bigger time-sink than they thought it would be. Atillo Caroteuento, the developer of bullet-hell game An Oath to the Stars puts it pretty bluntly in his post-mortem:

Most importantly, what you really need to understand and always keep in mind, is that nobody cares about your game. I thought that, having worked in famous game studios and having a lot of cool promo art would ensure coverage, and I was wrong.

You’ll need to chase people and journalists, create an amazing presskit and a lot of social media work just to get them to look at your page for 10 seconds. It’s exhausting…

Many indie devs find essentially beholden to media coverage and twitch streams to get any traction in the marketplace. Without those, their game is essentially dead. This is neatly summarized by game dev Hugh Monahan in the post-mortem for his game Brigador:

This is what selling an indie game is like … Media coverage, both press and YouTube/Twitch, largely determines both how high your sales peaks are, as well as how quickly they decay. When all mention of you or your game disappears from the internet within a few days, you don’t have momentum so much as a flatline.

Making games takes a toll. Brigardor dev Hugh Monahan before and after his game was completed.

It’s kind of sad to see this kind of thing, especially because many of these were quality games with good reviews, and just seemed to fail because they couldn’t rise above the noise and get any exposure.

I guess the lesson is that if you’re going to take the plunge and spend months or years of your life making a game, make sure you spend some time planning out how you’re going to sell said game as well.

6 Excerpts From the Official Overwatch League Rulebook That I Found Randomly Interesting

A couple of weeks ago the Overwatch League’s official rule book and streaming policy leaked. While there’s already been quite a bit of reporting on the major features of these documents, I finally got a chance to read them start to finish, and here’s a few additional minor tidbits that I found randomly interesting for various reasons:

1. Players Can’t Get Involved in Politics

The streaming policy has an “Off-Limits List” of things the players can’t be seen to support or endorse. Aside from standard things like drugs, weapons or gambling, players are forbidden from supporting “Political Candidates or Initiatives.” Fairly standard, but if you don’t see xQc at any Donald Trump rallies, this is probably why.

2. There’s Technically No Limit to What Teams and Players Can Be Fined

The rules simply say that if a team or player violates the league rules Blizzard may “levy fines against the Team and/or Player.” They don’t say anything about the amount of any such fines, or place any other restrictions on what kind of violations warrant what level of fines. This kind of unlimited power on Blizzard’s part could potentially become a biiiiiit of an issue in the future, so look for the teams/players to try negotiate some clearer restrictions on this at some point (if they can).

In case you’re curious, the league so far has issued fines ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 to players under this provision for various fun activities I’m not going to go into detail on here.

3. Players Can’t Wear Excessive Jewlery

While playing in matches, players are limited to wearing “a reasonable amount (as determined by the League Office) of jewelry, rings, bracelets and necklaces.” I have nothing to add except that I really, really want to see someone force Blizzard to invoke this policy at some point.

4. …Or Smart Watches

The rules also prohibit players from wearing “smart watches … smart devices, fitness devices, or any other devices with computing capabilities of any kind, other than a digital watch.” I guess this rule is in place to prevent cheating, although I fail to see how wearing a FitBit or something like that is going to give someone an unfair advantage.

Untitled
The cover of the leaked rulebook. I’m pretty sure in real life it smells like old baseball cards from the 1970s.

5. Failing To Report a Code of Conduct Violation is a Code of Conduct Violation

The league has an extensive code of conduct governing things like harassment, match fixing, drug use, etc. The code of conduct also states that “Upon becoming aware of any [prohibited conduct] players, team managers are required to immediately report the details to the league office. Failure to comply with this requirement is an independent violation of these league rules.”  So if a player becomes aware of someone else violating the code of conduct, they have to report them or they themselves will face potential discipline by Blizzard.

While there’s probably good, reasonable reasons for having this rule in place, I can’t help but get a bit of a 1984 vibe reading it.

6. Blizzard Is Explicitly Permitted to Film the Players 24/7

The rules anticipate Blizzard creating reality-show style content surrounding the league, and state that the players give Blizzard the right to monitor their daily life “using persistent, 24/7 cameras that may be placed in the team house, training facility, competition venue and other locations frequented by team members (provided that no such filming or recording will occur in any team members’ bathrooms).” My favourite part about this is the explicit exception for players’ bathrooms, in part because it implies that literally nowhere else is off-limits.

Lawsuit Filed Against PUBG Mobile Clones

PUBG’s publisher has filed a suit in California for copyright and trademark infringement against Chinese gaming behemoth NetEase, developers of “Knives Out” and “Rules of Survival,” two popular PUBG mobile clones. The move comes only a few days after the release of a mobile version of PUBG, and after its publishers attempted to remove the clones from the app store without success.

Hmmmmmm.

It will be interesting to see how this one turns out. While PUBG essentially created its own genere, things like game concepts and ideas are not protectable IP. Any developer can make their own battle-royale style game, copying things like the airplane drop, last-man-standing format, shrinking play area, etc. without worrying about a lawsuit.

However, it’s still possible for PUBG’s publishers to succeed if they can establish NetEase’s games copied the “look and feel” of PUBG . This is a pretty nebulous legal concept that basically means that, even if NetEase didn’t directly copy any actual code or art assets from PUBG, if the two games are substantially similar in terms of both visuals and overall functionality, NetEase will have infringed the PUBG’s publishers’ copyright.

Generally these kind of infringement claims have been successful in regard to less complex games with easy-to-define rule sets like Tetris or simple tile-matching games. PUBG is of course a far more complicated beast, and its publishers will probably have an uphill struggle on their hands showing there are enough similarities between it and NetEase’s two clones to establish infringement. If this claim succeeds it will probably be the first time the a court will have found this kind of infringement between games of this level of complexity.

The Biggest Problem Facing Esports Right Now

What would you say the biggest problem facing e-sports right now is? The lack of mainstream TV deals? Dangerously high levels of energy drink consumption? The occasional collapsed lung?

This man has a problem.

While I think we can all agree the collapsed lung issue needs to be closely monitored, in my view there’s one fundamental problem facing esports that’s bigger than all of these: game companies have way too much power.

The reason for this is simple: they own copyright to the games, and if anyone, anywhere wants to run and broadcast an esports tournament, they need to get their permission. Because of this game companies basically have the ability to exercise absolute, 100% control, over the esports ecosystem. Some companies are currently taking advantage of this more than others, but in the long run they all have the ability to do this.

This is probably the most fundamental difference, business-wise, between esports and traditional sports. Imagine if someone needed the NBA’s permission to start a basketball league, or the PGA’s permission before running a private golf tournament. That’s basically the situation with esports right now.

In my opinion, is a very bad thing for the long-term health of e-sports, for two reasons:

  • Lack of Competition: I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that competition is crucial for the development of a healthy esports scene, especially at this early stage. If you want the best possible esports product to develop, you need to let different people with different approaches try things out. Some will work, some won’t, but ultimately the market will ensure the best products come out on top. If game companies can deny licenses to any potential competitors and basically set themselves up as the only game in town, then this process can’t happen, and we’re all the worse off for it.  The best example of this is probably the Overwatch scene for most of last year. Despite the game being hugely popular, its competitive scene was essentially dying on the vine and teams were shutting down left and right because Blizzard was  refusing to grant anyone licenses to hold Overwatch events (this was because, of course, it didn’t want these events competing with the Overwatch league it was going to start up itself).
  • Lack of Bargaining Power for Teams/Players: This is a corollary of the competition issue. As discussed in this post, because they control the games, the game companies have essentially all the bargaining power in negotiating how revenue gets split with players or their teams. Using the Overwatch league as an example, if the teams/players aren’t happy with how much money Blizzard is offering them, they can’t really tell Blizzard to f*** off go and set up their own competing league. Their only options are quite literally to take or leave what Blizzard’s offering. In the long run this means less salary money for players, less money for teams to market themselves (and by extension esports), less interest by investors looking to start or fund teams, and, ultimately, a less vibrant evolving esports scene.

This problem also applies to other parts of the esports ecosystem like streaming. Every single streamer right now is  infringing on a game company’s copyright. While most companies are currently being cool about the issue, as the money being made from streaming continues to increase, how long until more and more of them start going all Nintendo and shutting down streamers unless they agree to kick in a huge chunk of their profits to the company? Or how long until they decide only a select group of company-approved streamers can stream their games? And if this starts happening, what effect do you think that will have on the quality and variety of gaming streams available out there?

So what’s the solution? Simple – create an exception to copyright law that lets anyone, not just the game companies, operate and broadcast esports events (and streams) without needing permission of the holder of that game’s copyright (i.e. the game’s publisher).  Anyone who wants to set up an esports event or stream a game would have the unencumbered ability to do so, and the free market would be free to work its proverbial magic. Fans of Overwatch wouldn’t be forced to cross their fingers and hope they like what Blizzard does with the Overwatch league because they know they have no other options. Blizzard would have a bigger incentive to make sure it puts out the best product possible because it knows it can’t simply sue the competition out of existence.  The cream would rise to the top and we’d all get the best esports product possible.

Of course, I think there’s about zero chance of this kind of change happening for the foreseeable future.  For something like this to happen you’d need (1) a change to the copyright legislation creating some kind of exemption for operating or broadcasting esports events, (2) a court decision changing the interpretation of the existing copyright legislation on the terms above (maybe expanding the fair use doctrine to cover something like this – how likely such a challenge would be to succeed I have no idea, I’m just spitballing here).

As things stand, there isn’t really any big groundswell of support that could motivate the former, and I’d be surprised if anyone involved in esports has the resources and incentives necessary spend huge sums of money and years in court arguing about the latter. However, as more money starts being made in esports, don’t be surprised if this becomes a bigger point of friction between the game companies and the team owners/players, and some serious legal fights in this area taking place (maybe instead of going for the clickbaity title, I should have called this post “The Biggest Problem Esports Will Face In 5 Years.”). It will be interesting to see what happens when/if this does occur.

Is the Clash Royale Crown Championship the Future of E-Sports?

If any of you are wondering what the e-sports landscape is going to look for most games coming out the next few years, the best place to look probably isn’t major events for established titles like the International, or Blizzard’s Overwatch league, but rather Clash Royale’s Crown Championship Series.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Clash Royale, it’s a mobile game by the makers of Clash of Clans. It’s got its’ own small (but growing) fan base, but it’s no DotA or CS and doesn’t have a huge pro scene. However, that didn’t stop SuperCell, the game’s publisher, from pulling out all the stops in putting this event together.

As you can see from the video above, this event involved, among other things: a full studio arena with live crowds and expensive-as-hell looking giant projection screen showing the proceedings, multiple sets of commentators and assorted studio people, and an $150,000 USD grand prize for the winner. For some previous events they even traveled to the players’ homes to do human interest pieces on their home lives and families.

There’s absolutely no way that SuperCell came anywhere close to making back the money it put into this event (the video above only has 1.5 million views for instance). But you know what, they’re probably OK with that. Putting something like this together helps generate interest in the game, which should lead to more revenue in the long run. And if it helps kick-start a pro scene, perpetuating self-reinforcing cycle of interest in the game, which leads to more events, which leads to more interest, and so forth, even better.

If I had to guess, I’d say that in the long run, this will probably be the model followed by games that aren’t quite at the top-tier in terms of an e-sports audience. Putting together events like these, and supporting a competitive scenes that would otherwise probably not be strong enough to support themselves, will become almost standard practice for companies that can afford it, going into their marketing budgets right beside traditional advertising like TV commercials, magazine ads, and paying for good reviews sending swag and perks to game websites.

 

Pokemon GO Lawsuit Settles for $83,000

Remember that Pokemon GO lawsuit I posted about a few months ago?  It turns out that Pokemon GO probably is protected by the right to free speech, as the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has agreed to settle the case for the sum of $83,000, with the entire amount reportedly going to the plaintiff’s legal fees. The park board will also agree not to enforce the ordinance at issue, which creates an awkward permitting process for any augmented reality games to be played in Milwaukee public parks.

This settlement comes after a July court ruling holding that it was likely that the plaintiff would succeed in establishing that the park board ordinance banning augmented reality games from public parks violated their right to free expression under the first amendment, and granting an injunction preventing the park board from enforcing the injunction.

This is as close to a 100% win as you get in law, with the board agreeing to give the plaintiffs everything their were asking for, and pay their legal fees. Score one for the forces of justice and freedom.

How is the E-Sports Revenue Pie Going to Be Split?

Pie
Yes, I got lazy with the picture, but you try finding something that matches “e-sports revenue pie”

I recently did a podcast with local game developer Christian Sears, and a really interesting question came up and I thought I’d write a post about it, as it’s probably one of the most interesting issues to follow as the e-sports industry develops. The question comes down to this: as e-sports, and in particular e-sports leagues, become more established, how are revenues they earn going to be split?

One good starting point for an answer to this question is probably traditional sports. In most traditional pro sports leagues like the NBA and NHL, revenue is generally split roughly 50/50 between owners and players. Each league has arrived at that split after years of hard-nosed labour negotiations, including lockouts, strikes and countless melodramatic press conferences, so maybe there’s something about that number, and we can expect that in e-sports revenue will also end up being shared along those same lines.

Of course, with e-sports you have a third power group that doesn’t really exist in traditional sports: the companies that make the games. While no one “owns” basketball or hockey, someone does own games like Overwatch, League of Legends and DotA. Anyone who wants to operate an e-sports event needs the game maker’s consent, which means the game maker is going to get a piece of the pie. For this reason, I think the key issue regarding how revenue will be allocated in e-sports leagues is not the split between players and owners, like in traditional sports, but the split between the game companies and everyone else.

That seems to be the direction things are heading for a lot existing sports leagues. For instance, the League of Legends North America League Championship Series (NALCS) recently unveiled an overhauled revenue sharing model that states revenue will essentially be split three ways with Riot Games, the company behind LoL, getting 32.5% of league revenues, teams getting 32.5% and players getting 35%. In Blizzard’s upcoming Overwatch league, the split is apparently going to be 50/50 between Blizzard and the teams (with no details regarding how much of the teams’ share will go to the players).

While 32.5% and 50% are already significant numbers, if I had to guess, I would say that as things continue to shake out, the revenue going to the game companies is only going to increase. This is because, as discussed above, they’re literally the only game in town, and have all the bargaining power.

Say for example Blizzard goes to the owners and players in the Overwatch league a few years from now and asks for 70% of revenue instead of the current 50%. Even if all the owners and players were united against Blizzard’s demands, they can’t exactly tell Blizzard to f*** off and start their own league, because, as discussed Blizzard literally owns the game their league is based on and can prevent them from doing that. Instead, the owners and players would have essentially two choices: (1) take the 30%, or (2) stop operating and make nothing.

Blizzard, on the other hand, could always find more teams and players to replace the ones sitting out. They probably prefer not to go through the effort, but if the league is making money hand over fist and that extra 20% of revenue works out to a lot of cash, the effort may be worth it to them. Plus, if the league is doing well financially, there will probably be no shortage of new teams and players looking to sign up, even if they’re only getting 30% of revenues instead of 50%.

The bottom line is that Blizzard can always find more teams and players. The teams and players can’t find another Overwatch league.

Right now, the owners and players in e-sports leagues are basically in the same situation baseball players were before unrestricted free agency came along. They’re basically at the mercy of the game companies, who can pay them the minimum they’ll accept to continue operating and no more, then keep all the remaining profit for themselves.

I may be overstating things here of course. There’s obviously PR aspects to this I haven’t really considered. As EA has learned recently, the gaming community can get petty worked up by things they perceive as unfair. This would also take a certain cold bloodedness from the game companies that we haven’t really seen yet, nor would I expect to see anytime soon given that a lot of these e-sports leagues are just getting off the ground, no one knows how successful they’ll be, and everyone is in the “let’s all get together and make this thing work” phase.

However, and as e-sports gets more established and the amount of money at stake increases, that phase might start to give way to a more business-minded approach by the game companies (it’s worth noting, for instance, that Blizzard has essentially spent the year essentially shutting out independent Overwatch tournaments, harming the Overwatch scene in the process, in order to prepare for the roll out of the Overwatch league), and lead to the kind of negotiations you see in traditional sports. If that does happen, I can tell you right now who’s probably going to win, and it’s not going to be the teams or players.

Is EA Greedy?

ea_money

In a rare misstep for an otherwise much beloved game company (OK I’ll stop), it looks that EA has gotten itself into a bit of a hot water over the microtransactions in Star Wars Battlefront 2.

While it was probably a matter of time until some company went too far and something like this happened, it’s sill surprising to see how far this scandal has gone – from the most downvoted reddit comment of all time, to even making CNN.

I have to say, though, while I’ve been as entertained as the next person by seeing the Reddit snowball of hate roll down and crush everything in its’ path this past week, I’m kind of of two minds about the way everything has unfolded.

I’m usually a bit turned off by all the moralizing that happens when companies are accused of being “greedy.” My question whenever the issue of “greed” comes up is this: how much money is someone allowed to try to make before they’re considered too “greedy”? Is there a specific line that needs to be crossed? If someone tries to make a 20% profit margin on a product they sell is that too greedy? How about 10%? Is that morally acceptable? Who gets to decide these things?

Greed is when there’s 10 kids and 10 pieces of cake at a birthday party, and some kid takes two. Greed isn’t the baker charging the parents for he cake. He made the cake, and he’s free to charge as much as he wants for it. He doesn’t owe the parents cake, and if they don’t like what he’s charging they don’t have to buy it.

EA doesn’t owe anyone a game any more than the baker owes those parents cake. They sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into making a Star Wars Battlefront, and if they feel the best way they can make that money plus a profit back is charging players 5 cents every time their character ties their shoes, then they have every right to try that. That decision may be stupid and counterproductive, it may turn off players and end up sinking the game, but it’s not “ethically” wrong and not really a basis for any kind of moral outrage.

At the same time, though, I’m sure if people playing Battlefront after launch and getting destroyed by a Darth Vader character that someone spent $1,000 to unlock wouldn’t really comforted by the idea that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is working in the background making all right with the world. They just want to have a good time with the game they spent $60 on, without having to shell out next month’s rent to be competitive. Are they “wrong” to be angry at whatever executive at EA decided to try to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the player base at the expense of everyone’s good time? In theory, based  my little rant above, I guess you could argue that are.

But then again…I mean…Fuck that guy.

Six Random Thoughts About the Overwatch League Announcement

This is the Overwatch League logo right? Sorry guys, I get confused sometimes.

So it looks like at least 7 people are willing to spend $20 million dollars on an Overwatch frachise, as Blizzard has announced the first seven teams of its Overwatch league, as well as some more details about how the league is going to work. A few random thoughts about all this:

  • The investors behind the teams are a truly eclectic group, with a couple of traditional sports names (Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots, Jeff Wilpon, COO of the New York Nets), a few existing e-sports Teams (NRG Esports, Misfits and Immortals), a rich businessman (Kevn Chou, co-founder of mobile game company Kabam) and a tech company (Net Ease, the company that operates Blizzard’s titles in China). I have no comment except to say that putting all these people in a room and having them interact with each other might be more entertaining than the actual Overwatch matches.
  • You have to think that Blizzard would have preferred to announce a full roster of teams at this point, not just 7. It looks like they were indeed having trouble getting people to put up the entrance fee. Still, like the old song lyric goes, 7 out of 10 ain’t bad.
  • In keeping with the above, the Net Ease addition is a bit puzzling. Investing in something as risky and untested as an E-Sports league isn’t something corporations are known for doing. Given Net Ease’s existing relationship with Blizzard, you have to wonder if maybe someone called in a favor of some kind to fill up a spot.
  • Two of the teams will be based in Asia (Shanghai and Seoul to be exact). So it looks like e-sports has beat traditional sports on the trans-continental sports league issue. At the same time, all the games (at least for the first season) will be played at the same arena in Los Angeles, so it looks like this will only make a difference in terms of the city each team will be flying from in order to get to Los Angeles. Still not a fan of Blizzard trying to force its’ league into a traditional sports model.
  • Blizzard also announced its’ player “scouting report,” which is basically the e-sports equivalent of a minor league baseball team holding open tryouts. The top 500 ranked players in Overwatch in the last six months (not in pro tournaments, just regular Overwatch players playing for fun at home in ranked mode), will be contacted by Blizzard asking them if they want to be eligible for the league. If they say yes, their names and info will be provided to the current team owners and they’ll be eligible to sign a deal for that sweet, sweet $50,000/year minimum salary. While this is certainly cool in an “anybody can make it” kind of way, you’d think we were past this at this point, and that the Overwatch talent pipeline would be mature enough that this kind of thing wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe Blizzard slowly suffocating the rest of the Overwatch scene since the beginning of the year wasn’t a good idea after all.
  • Lastly, just because I don’t want to end on something negative, it’s still really, really cool that this is even happening. If you had told me even a few years ago that something like this would exist, I wouldn’t have believed you. Even if the traditional city-based model doesn’t work out, it will still be really interesting to see how this shakes out. And if it’s successful, I have no doubt that this league will probably be seen as a major turning point in the development of e-sports when people look back on things 20 years from now. Congrats to Blizzard for putting their effort behind this.

 

MLB to File Trademark Dispute Regarding Overwatch League Logo

From the “this is why people hate lawyers” file, it appears that Major League Baseball has filed a notice with the US Patent and Trademark Office stating it intends to dispute Blizzard’s registration of the logo for its upcoming Overwatch league, on the grounds that it may be confusing with its own logo. Here’s the two logos side by side for comparison:

Logo ComparisonConfused? Me either. The main similarity between the two appears to be the image of a white silhouette bordered by a two tone background. Hmm, why does that sound familiar? Oh right.

                    NBA Logo

So watch out NBA. After the MLB’s inevitable crushing victory against Blizzard, you’re next.

My favorite thing about this story though? Technically this isn’t really news. The MLB actually filed the notice at the heart of this story almost three months ago, in late April. No one reported on it at the time, and since then there’s actually been no new developments on this (the MLB has until July 26 to file their legal argument in the dispute).

As far as I can tell, the only reason this has become a story now is that New York entertainment law firm Morrison Lee posted an item about it on their firm blog and everyone else just ran with it, with the story even ending up in non-gaming publications such as Deadspin, and CBS Sports. This probably says a lot of things about how the media works that I’m not smart enough to encapsulate in writing here. In any event, it looks like one little law firm blog can change the world after all. In keeping with that, if anyone out there has any sweet, sweet industry gossip they’d like to leak, please know that I am available.