Glamorous software doesn’t equal instant success

Let’s face it. Building games is cool. It’s one of those software disciplines that until recently, was something that you had to pick up on your own and with a little luck, land an entry level job with a game development company. In recent years, colleges and universities have begun to offer concentrations in game development. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the game industry any easier.

Back in 2000, it was predicted that the game industry was about to take off. Sometime in the last year or two, the revenue generated by the game industry has surpassed the movie industry. Now, think about that for just a minute. The computer and console game industry has only been around for some 25 years or so. The movie industry has been around for decades. The game industry has been growing exponentially over the past couple of years. You would think that this means it should be a great place to be.

I don’t believe this to be the case. Interest in this sector has grown so much that major players have entered the market and are making life difficult for all of the smaller ones. Electronic Arts is one of the largest game publishers in the world. Other players include Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega, the restructured Atari, and others. If you are starting a new business and are short on seed capital, competing with these companies is an exercise in futility.

There are some obvious, and not so obvious ways around this problem. The first would be to become larger than them. Good luck growing your startup into something larger than Microsoft’s Games division. I wish you the best of luck, but I just don’t see it happening.

The second option is to partner with one of them while developing your games. This takes quite a bit of effort and is not an easy path to take. Just getting them to talk to you is difficult enough. Writing a game is not a joke either. It can take years of effort to finish a game that they would be interested in. The worst part is that funding that development long enough to get a semi-finished product for them to look at is next to impossible.

I’ll put it out there right now for those of you thinking that a game idea alone is enough to get a publishing contract. Your ideas are worthless. In fact, they’re worth so little, that it’s amazing that publishing companies don’t charge you just to listen to them. If you don’t believe me, send emails to 10 game companies, telling them that you have an idea for the next great game that will make Quake 4 look like a two year old wrote it, and wait for their responses. If you want to kick it up a notch, ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement as well. When one of them agrees to pay you for your idea, let me know. I’ve got a notebook full of them, after all.

A third option includes doing contract development work for a game company. It will get you some experience that you may need, as well as make you some decent industry contacts that you can use later. Still not a great option though. Landing contract jobs for game development is difficult unless you know people, which is sort of the point of taking a contract job.

Starting small is definately a viable option. It used to be that small puzzle games were great games to make. The shareware market suffered from a severe lack of decent puzzle games. It’s a market that is pretty neglected by the large publishers because it includes mostly casual gamers who don’t play games a lot, nor do they spend a lot of money on a regular basis for games. Contrast that with the high end gamers who buy a new AAA title every month, or as much as every other week. But a few small game developers have cornered this market as well, and have done a very good job at it.

Developing small games when you’re starting out is a great idea, but it is a path even more fraught with peril than most others. The problem is one that most game developers don’t think about.

There is a very big difference between selling games and selling other types of software.

Go back and read that again, because it’s important to realize this. Done? Ok now. The biggest difference between writing games and writing business software is the necessity of the software and the demand for it. Games are not necessary in the marketplace. There is certainly a demand for them, but they are not a requirement for anybody. When you sell a game, you are competing against every single game that is in a similar genre. When you sell business software, you are competing against only the software that provides the same functionality that your software does.

Business software solves a business problem, and businesses typically have the money to solve their problems. This means that even if your software doesn’t do exactly what they need it to, if it comes close enough, they will purchase it anyway. When a customer downloads a game, it is because he is bored and wishes to solve the problem of boredom. If you do a good enough job on your game, you will cure his boredom and he will buy it. But you need to make an extremely good first impression. Ever buy a game in a store because the box looked cool, only to get home and find out that the game sucks? I know I have.

I put far more faith in shareware games than I do in retail games for that reason. Flashy graphics are simply not enough to make a game good. Unfortunately, they’re often enough to sell it. This is why shareware games have more difficulty selling than retail games. For retail games, you either have to rely on the opinion of a friend, a review, or what it looks like on the box. On the other hand, shareware games give you the opportunity to evaluate the game to see whether you like it or not.

Now this alone is not enough to differentiate business software from games. The second component that you absolutely must keep in mind is the shelf life. Retail games have a very short shelf life. Perhaps six to nine months. Shareware games have a much longer life, which can span a year, to several years. There are exceptions to this of course. Recently, I purchased a copy of Civilization III, nearly three years after it was originally released.

Business software is in a realm unto its own when it comes to shelf life because as time goes on, it can be made better, and expand its market as a more attractive product to other companies. Oracle has hit version 11. Windows has been around for around 20 years now and has undergone a number of version upgrades. Rhinosoft makes some great products, including an FTP client, for which they have passed version 11. The software I’m using to write this article is called CityDesk, and it has reached version 2.0.

The biggest problem with a game is that you have no idea when you’re making it if you will ever get to a version 2.0, which is typically a second iteration of the game because the first one did so well. You are taking a huge risk in writing the game to begin with because if it isn’t well received or if it doesn’t do well enough to recoup all of your development costs, you’re going to lose money on it.

Now, I know that everyone thinks that if they write a game, it’s going to be different and their game is going to be awesome. But having worked with a number of different games while I was running Game Thoughts, it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. Not only is developing a game hard work, once you’re done with it, you’re not really done. You absolutely, positively must have it tested, and it must be tested by your target audience. Basically, you need your beta testers to not only find bugs, but to tell you what’s wrong with the game, why it won’t sell, and what sucks about it. Then you need to tweak it, rewrite some sections, add content, and a whole mess of other stuff before you can release it.

Now, there are some types of games that you can get away with releasing things like add on packs, expansion packs, etc, without a huge amount of extra work. But it’s fundamentally different than releasing a new version of a business product. So before you take the plunge to write a game, make sure that you remember that if this is going to be your first project, it could also be your last. Make sure you have a contingency plan. Or even better yet, start off writing other types of software. As the company grows, you can expand into different markets, including the games market.

Games are definately a cool place to be right now. But if you’re losing money faster than you are making it… well, let’s just say that the results aren’t always pretty.

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