6. A Unique Hook
This is a big one for me. The wonderful thing about indie games is that there's additional freedom to think outside of the norms - taking a chance (high risk, high reward) is okay, and it's often the undercurrent of indie genius that draws out new mainstream innovation. If I see a game that is bringing something new or eye-opening to the table, it catches my attention. BIG TIME. Even if it's not a total success, having some sort of hook may peak curiosity enough for me to grab for my wallet.
Another way to think about it is to consider a press release. If you write a press release for the game (and hopefully you are), are you telling the public something that will catch their attention? Or are you struggling to come up with anything? Hooks can come in all sorts of forms, but most games seem to falter or forget to really develop one that garners interest and buzz.
Light's End is a good example of a gameplay innovation hook. When I read about a little RPG that lets the player play as ANY character in the game...woh. What? I was hooked on learning more and knew I had to at least try it out. I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 had such a ridiculously awesome and catchy theme song, that people bought the game just to hear it. Hooks, my friends, hooks. Reel me in.
These are some of the more in-your-face examples, but even a less-obvious hook like "pirate-themed mix between an RTS and tower defense game" or "dual trigger racer" - well okay, you didn't knock me over, but you've got my interest. It sounds obvious, but do something noticeable, and you have a better chance of getting noticed. Often times the bigger the better.
7. Polish Baby, Polish
I remember when I first loaded up an XBLIG called Chalked, the title menu screen was so cool, stylish, and tight that I was stuck playing with the menu for a good minute. While the rest of the game didn't exactly follow suit, the level of style and polish on the title screen had me amped.
Polish is a broad concept and can apply to most aspects of the game (controls, art, interface, effects, bugs, etc). It's usually the well-polished game that was created with care/patience that stands apart from the competition. If I demo two Arkanoid style games but one carefully perfected the paddle movement to feel natural/responsive, heightened the visual/sound effects to feel explosive, along with a well-conceived theme/story - while the other just feels like "plink....plink....plink" guess which one will get my money?
Even the most forgiving and open-minded gamers are going to gravitate towards games that appear professional and polished. This doesn't mean games can't look or feel retro or campy - that's a matter of taste not polish. There are wonderful examples of successful games that use simple/old skool graphics combined with extremely refined gameplay (N+ comes to mind). If the style is consistent and attractive, like Fishing Girl, we gamers still nod approvingly.
Looking at the literal definition of "polish," you can jump from A to Z quite quickly. Is your game smooth? Is it shiny?
8. The Right Price
Talkin' bout money, yall. Keep in mind that as a consumer/gamer, I am not interested in the politics behind the MS pricing schemes and developer's sales strategies. I just want a game that feels like it's worth the asking price. I may not even know that a pricing structure exists, so it's not on my mind. The nice thing about Indie Games is that nothing costs more than $5, so for most consumers, that's a reasonable price point for a full-fledged game (key word, full-fledged).
At 80MP ($1), I am expecting a quick return on my investment - a burst of entertainment! The game might not have long lasting appeal, tons of features, or hours upon hours of gaming in store, but it needs to satisfy a thirst. It needs to do at least ONE thing, very right. That's why people classify this as an impulse buy price point, because it's doing something to snare a quick purchase. 80MP games can really benefit from a hook. Because Flash games of the same production level are often free, and because most screensaver/massage/slideshow apps are also $1, it's worth trying to do something to differentiate. A game that successfully delivers a game that offers immediate satisfaction will be a no-brainer at $1. You really only need to win me over on first impression.
At 240MP ($3), the game should no longer feel like a whimsical investment. As a gamer I am expecting at least a couple hours of gameplay and the feeling that the game was not made in a couple days - along with some features like leaderboards, multiple game-modes, difficulty modes, etc. This is a good price point for shooters and platformers and puzzlers that can deliver the feel of a full "start-to-finish" game even if it's on the smaller side.
400MP ($5) is still a low price to pay for a game, but because it's an Indie Game I am expecting something fairly impressive contextually. With many of the high-level (and excellent) Xbox Live Arcade games being priced at 800-1200MP, this is a price point where I'd expect to see the cream of the crop within XBLIGs. I am looking for a game that does something on the more professional level - potentially a larger graphical investment, a robust and long-lasting experience, voice-overs, slick animations, etc. If I can see that the time and money went in, I am more willing to shell it out.
There are lots of "ands, ifs, and buts" when it comes to the above, but those are some loose guidelines based on the thoughts that go through my head when I am deciding to purchase. If the game feels it's worth every penny of the price, and I'll get my investment back in "fun coins," you've got a sale.
9. The Right Timing
This can be a little bit tricky, but after dissecting some recent information, I realized that the timing of an XBLIG release is pretty key. If I am knee deep in the latest Call of Duty, and trying to squeeze it in before the new Bioshock comes out, chances are I am not testing out an experimental FPS on XBLIG.
In other words, try not to release your game when the gamer population (or Xbox'ers) are distracted. If you release the same week as another big AAA/XBLA game (and especially if it's in the same genre), you might be overshadowed. This is obviously tough because of the admission process for XBLIG, but if you can do some research on the competition, it might be worth planning to avoid months/weeks where you see them popping up. I'd actually consider Nov/Dec (the holiday release blitz) pretty dangerous territory, but I don't have numbers to back that up. I personally find myself hunting for games most around June/July/August...feels like there is a summer lull across TV and gaming.
On the positive side, I've read about success with timing a themed release around holidays/events. If you have a Halloween game (or even a spooky/zombie/ghost) game, why not try to release right before Fall? The TV and movie industry take full advantage of people "getting in the spirit" - why not gaming? Also consider worldly/current events - political games are a small niche that often release around election times. Olympic games during the...Olympic Games?
Timeliness can affect the buyer's mindset and availability, so give it a little thought.
10. The Demo Pulls Me In
Obviously the demo is a major element is what games I decide to buy. And considering how seriously the indie developer community takes "conversion rate" (demos downloaded divided by actual sales), it's worthwhile to think about the gamer's experience when they demo your game - what are they thinking and feeling?
Well, I usually get 8 minutes of play - sometimes it's restricted to certain portions of the game, or there is a cap on how far I can progress/play. I believe that's entirely fair, but let's look at some of the pitfalls.
- Most of the game is playable without the need to purchase. The game is either so short or so simple (or progress is actually saved) - so that I never need to hand over my hard-earned dough. Eeep!
- It takes so long to gear-up and play/understand the game that by the end of the demo I am more frustrated than thirsty for more. Sometimes I don't even grasp the controls or have time to look around for a tutorial - then the demo ends and I feel too confused to bother with more.
- I never get to see some of the best features. If the game's progression curve is so slow that the demo only consists of the most basic uninteresting material, I'll miss out on some great reasons to buy. (this is also an "immersion" issue, but that's for a different post)
- It's rare, but I've played demos where almost the entire game is locked which means I never even really get to see/play the game. I believe this might be because the game is so simple that 8 minutes would be too much in the developer's mind (see first bullet). Don't do this, regardless. It's a negative play experience and mostly frustrating.
So conversely, I'll follow through and purchase a game if a demo is engaging, tempting, and satisfying - while leaving me wanting a bigger taste. I've also seen demos make good use of splash pages and text that tell the player what else will be in store if they buy the full game. When done tastefully, this is very smart. It's a good way to combat the fact that the player might not see some of the best stuff. But if overdone, I start to find it abrasive and offputting.
The demo is a gamer's speed date with the your game, so make an impression. Think about the best features of the game, and make sure the player either experiences them, or knows about them before he/she is timed out.
I hope this was fun reading - let me know if you want to see more features like this in the poll above.