OH! how to make games people play

DON'T cater to the players of your competitions' games. Instead, make a game for those who have avoided playing their games.

For a TLDR and parting thoughts, skip to the end. (You can CTRL+F “TLDR:”)

I, too, have experienced the game industry layoffs recently covered by Hasan Minaj. I seed funded and served on the board of Wavedash (circled above). Our game, Icons: Combat Arena, fell short of our playerbase goals to sustain our studio.

Wavedash Games was not alone, clearly. I am most familiar with two examples. As I will outline in this post, they should serve as a warning for future game developers:

In both cases, they focused on the wrong audience. I will explain how they did, but first I need to give some background:

Both of these games targeted hardcore audiences (knowingly or not). The more passionate your audience, by nature, the smaller they will be.

First of all, small playerbases are problematic for Player vs. Player (PvP) games. Smaller playerbases make it harder to find opponents at any time. Longer wait times make the games less fun to play.

That aside, targeting hardcore players goes against a 20 year trend toward accessibility:

So you say, “Okay that’s cool and all, but why is it bad that they’re fighting the trend? Trends aren't your friends!” In this case, the trend towards accessibility is the direct result of successful audience targeting.

Please let me explain this through a short story about a "Smart Game Studio:"

The Smart Game Studio knows games are risky: “You don’t know if people will play until you make it.” That’s how the saying goes, anyway.

“I have an idea,” says the Smart Game Studio. “I already know my last game was a hit, so I’ll make a sequel!" Turns out the Smart Game Studio IS smart. Here’s why:

Of these two reasons, Audience Retention is what makes a sequel safe. But Audience Growth is why games have shifted to greater accessibility. You need to fix the right things. Those aren't quality of life improvements and bug fixes. To understand what those things are, ask the following questions to the right people:

Let's take a break from the story of the Smart Game Studio for a moment. If you ask non-players why they don't play a certain game, the conversation will go something like this:

  1. “...because it’s not the type of game I like."

  2. “...because I’m not good at this type of game."

  3. “...because …

    • …I don’t know how to do “X.” (In this case “X” is a core mechanic in the game).

    • …I like to do "Y” and "Y" isn't in this game. (In this case “Y” is either a player-friendly mechanic OR something only in other genres of games)

Back to the Smart Game Studio. If they want to do something about this "X" or "Y,"the Smart Game Studio as a couple options:

For both of these paths, the result is a more accessible game.

So you say, “Okay… that’s great. CAKO, but Boss Key and Wavedash couldn’t make a sequel. What does the Smart Game Studio have to do with them?”

Well, let’s look at the options New Game Studios have for finding an audience for their new game:

Audience Retention is off the table. Audience Growth is their only choice. Now the question is how much do you change to attract new players to a game? To answer that, let's review how these two genres have evolved since 1999:

Within Shooters, a different company made each game. RTS's are different. Two games were made by Blizzard. Then Blizzard made Starcraft II rather than expanding the more accessible Warcraft series. This left an opportunity for Riot Games.

Each of these cross-company shifts also represent quantum leaps of accessibility. These competitors were successful because their games achieved significant Audience Growth.

These quantum leaps are necessary for New Studio’s survival. A well designed game cannot easily be responded to by incumbents. Quantum leaps necessitates a new game, not a sequel or one-off game mode. As we already outlined, new games are not something incumbents want to do!

As proof, look at Blizzard's failure to create a timely competitor to League of Legends. The delay in creating Heroes of the Storm is reportedly Mike Morhaime’s biggest regret.

Despite this dire warning, incumbents let this happen all the time. If your new game forces incumbents to make a new game to respond, you’re in good shape:

If you are not different enough, even a larger playerbase and marketing cannot save you from an incumbent's wrath. A great recently launched game called Apex Legends proves my point:

While Apex Legends made a more accessible gameplay experience, it wasn't enough. They followed the rulebook by Adding Good and Removing Bad. But, they didn't stray far enough from the incumbent, Fortnite.

  • Adding Good: Apex Legends added new communication tools to make it easier to cooperate online.

  • Removing Bad: Apex Legends added a ‘revive mechanic’ so dying was less punishing for players.

Did either of these force Fortnite to make a new game to respond? No. These improvements were added into Fortnite within months.

Apex Legends had to solve problems in a way that Fortnite could not respond. This means creating new gameplay, not optimizing it! Instead, Apex Legends basically jumpstarted Fortnite’s accessibility roadmap for 2019.

That said, it will be more challenging for Fortnite to copy Apex Legends’ character design and unique abilities. If Apex Legends can dive deeper into team roles and add new gameplay experiences around them, they might have more success retaining their players!

The bar also might not be as high as I am making it seem. Forcing your competitors to make a new game mode is likely good enough. Every shooter now has a battle royale mode, but they haven’t come close to de-throning Fortnite.

TLDR: So… back to Icons: Combat Arena and Lawbreakers.

Was there anything that they added or removed significant enough to attract people who didn’t play their incumbent’s games (Super Smash Bros. or CSGO/Overwatch)?

No. Instead, they focused on creating solutions for the audience who already loved these games. As a result, they created incremental improvement.

They were chasing a fool’s errand. Their initial playtesters were all passionate fans. They took the time to focus on nuanced differences and deeply appreciated them. These same improvements would be invisible to 99% of their potential audience.

That 99% would look at these games and call them “bland,” “uninspired” and “not unique.” If you’re getting similar feedback it means you are not being different enough.

Here's the last chart to summarize this entire post. The greatest opportunity comes from winning over people who don’t like your competitions’ games!

OH! Parting Thoughts:

  • Look at the audience sizes of the major games now. League of Legends and Fortnite are among the biggest games in the world. Are you more likely to reach people Fortnite couldn't reach OR are you more likely to grow the audience for a niche game with 10M hardcore players?

  • If you would like to learn more about Lawbreakers or Icons: Combat Arena, I highly recommend you watch these post-mortem playlists on each (Lawbreakers) (Icons: Combat Arena).

  • Yes! I am actually in game design and co-founded a studio called Vortex: “We take beloved game designs and push them beyond the boundaries of their genre. Join our community so, together, we can redefine what is possible.”

  • We’re turning hardcore niches into mainstream categories. To maximize potential for audience growth! If you’d love to team-up, learn more or just chit-chat, hit me up at chris (at) vortexrising.com