Here's something a little different. I am taking a short break with my reviews to try to give some perspective on my buying process (specific to XBLIGs). You ready?
I spend much time perusing, downloading, and reviewing these games. So I thought that my perspective as a gamer (with a taste for indie games!) might be useful. Two other reasons I might have a useful perspective - one, I am currently developing on XNA so I understand the process and model well. And two, I spend obnoxious amounts of time lurking on forums and blogs that discuss sales data on XBLIG, so I know the numbers.
Now of course, before the guy in the back raises his hand to point out the obvious, making a great game is the main reason anyone will buy a game. Make an amazing game, and word of mouth can work magic for you, but there's other controllable factors that can help too. And if no one ever tries your game in the first place, you're DOA.
Disclaimer: the tone is meant to come across as helpful and realistic, not judgemental or know-it-allish.
If your a gamer who reads this blog for reviews, maybe you can add some ideas or give feedback as well. If your a developer, share what you think worked or did not work for you.
1. I've Heard of It
If I have never heard a peep about your game, I'm already half way to a "pass." When it comes to the Xbox Live interface, it's easy for window shoppers to assume that if no one is talking about it or writing about it, then it's probably not that good. Even if that's not accurate and the game is decently rated, it's undoubtedly easier to shuffle past a game that's not ringing any bells. On the flipside if you've created a little name recognition, you've taken a big step towards getting that extra "let's see what this is."
Yes, this is also known as "do some marketing." I'd estimate that at least 70% of the XBLIGs put forth essentially zero marketing efforts. Dedicating some time here is key and if you don't, chances are you want have any "inbound" players coming to look for your game either. That's not smart, as you're relying on the random eyeballs passing through the XBLIG library. Why not go beyond that audience? Guide some traffic in your direction. I won't get into details, but there are many routes to explore and many great articles on how to do it right. At the very least, look at what other successful XBLIG devs are doing.
Semi-tangent: Sometimes the active developers who market their game can actually do everyone else a favor. Well-marketed games like the Halfbrick titles, Clover, Duality (still not even out yet), Weapon of Choice, Zombies, and Angry Barry (among others of course) are actually bringing more eyeballs to the XBLIG platform. If every developer made a similar effort and found new inroads to gamer communities , everyone would win.
2. The Box Art is Sexy
If I am sorting though the latest titles, or any collection of titles, I naturally gravitate towards attractive box art. It's the first (and often the only) thing that I see when perusing. I'd recommend putting some serious effort and thought into box art design. We all judge books by their covers, just admit it.
Things that turn me off are poor/amateur art, impossible to read text, abrasive colors, low rez images, cluttered space, or anything that indicates that effort was minimal. Why? Because it's only natural to assume that the rest of the game follows suit.
Box art should be clean, appealing, and tell viewers something about the game. Think about setting the tone, showing us the main character, giving an indication of the genre - these are all good moves. You want to capture the appropriate audience right? If you made a cool platformer, but platformer fans can't tell that there's a whole bunch of super sweet platforming to be chomped on, they will probably skim on by until they see something that looks like what they want.
I am making an RPG action game with an attractive female lead character - We're trying to give some indication of that with my box art. Feel free to let me know how we're doing. :) (plug one!) (Bonus points for anyone who can name the rap group with a rapper who went by "Plug One.")
3. The Title is Relevant
I like games that have intriguing and/or informative names - sounds obvious, but how many actually deliver? You can balance this against your box art of course, but the combined message you're sending out is absolutely crucial. If your game is named something ambiguous and I am left clueless about the type of game, you've lost me and your chances of snaring a trial download are that much less. If your title is utterly boring and generic, same deal - and even worse, chances are I'll never remember it even if I want to come back and check it out.
Use the title to convey a message and create interest. Sometimes this is easier than others - for example, the developer of a game like Avatar Drop (which has been well-received and popular) had the fairly easy job of telling gamers what the game was all about. "I get to drop my avatar? Sweeeet." Other games will have tougher go, but think about the genre you're in again, and consider words that suggest that genre. Weapon of Choice is clearly a shooting game with a focus on weaponry. Wordzy is most likely a word/puzzle game, etc etc. But be careful to go too far and hit the generic spike-trap - something like Ship Blaster or Block Jumper leaves gamers like me shaking our collective heads.
I investigate (and often buy) games that are named things that intrigue me and make me want to learn more and/or allude to a type of game that I know I usually enjoy. Keep that in mind when you are brainstorming about a game name.
4. The Screenshots Excite Me
So assuming the you've captured my interest in some way or I am feeling extra patient, I am now able to see four (only four!) screenshots of your game to learn a bit more. This is the next hurdle before I make the final leap and put the game/demo on my active download list.
First of all, use all four slots! Not doing so makes me suspicious, and just seems lazy. Pick dynamic shots. Show me some of the effects you've implemented, some of the flashier enemies, a unique feature - whatever you think stands out about your game. I don't want to see menus or title screens unless they are seriously amazing and convey professionalism/polish. What does make sense is showing dialogue systems at work, a slick looking inventory system, a skill tree, etc. Those count as features in my book. But I don't recommend using more than one shot like that.
Attractive gameplay shots are going to be king - show at least three of them, if not all four. I want to see what the gameplay looks like, it's that simple. Play to the game's strengths and appeal to your target audience.
5. I See Positive Press/Reviews
If I've read another gamer's opinion and it's generally positive or even just mildly interesting, I might very well play the role of sheep and follow in those footsteps. As a gamer, I spend time reading reviews, forums, and plenty of notable gaming webpages. If I see something that makes me go "hmmm" (more bonus points for naming the artist of "Things That Make You Go Hmmm."), I may find my way on to Xbox Live and locate your game.
It can be a comment on a YouTube video, a random post on a forum, a tweet, or a formal review. But if someone else liked it, I immediately begin to think that I might like it as well. And I won't know for sure unless I try it.
So this obviously relates heavily back to #1 - get the word out so that others can too. But the secondary point is that positive press can spread and influence others in a viral like manner. Sometimes this can lead to a lucky break in the form of a more high-profile review/coverage. You just never know who might pick up on some positive tidbit that someone wrote about your game. If you know a couple people who like your game, see if they will blurb it in their inter-stomping grounds. In the professional world, this is known and accepted as a "reference."
Come back for reasons 6 through 10 tomorrow.