One of the biggest changes in the games industry over the last decade has been the change in game development from an utterly Top Secret process to a completely open process. While some long-time console game publishers still stick with old never-tell-anyone-anything philosophy about games in development, many newer publishers and developers are doing just the opposite: revealing their games as completely as possible even before development begins. In fact, that’s part of what has made crowdfunding so popular.
There’s a range of secrecy at work in the games industry. The classic game development process for big game publishers has been to conceive of game ideas, approve them and begin development without ever revealing to anyone outside the company that work is underway. Only until the game was perhaps less than a year away would the company admit to working on it. Then there would be a very tightly controlled series of information releases and press events, culminating in a grand reveal a month or two before launch. The idea was to provide retailers enough time to see the marketing for the game begin, and gauge signs of public enthusiasm, in order to place orders. Additionally, advertising would be timed to coincide with the retail appearance, as would feature reviews and interviews with the game creators.
That process perhaps made sense when the games industry revolved around retail sales, and there weren’t very many games being produced (perhaps one or two major games a month for most of the year). Now, though, we are inundated with games on the largest number of game-playing platforms the world has ever seen. Hundreds or thousands of new games appear every week. The main challenge for most game makers is to get some attention in this ocean of games, and to somehow attract an audience while existing games are putting out new content and making new efforts to keep their audience focused on the games they already play.
Let’s examine the other end of the secrecy spectrum, best exemplified by crowdfunded games. In that case, a developer or publisher has to reveal as much as possible about the game in order to get potential customers excited about it. Working demos are often used, too, as well as concept art or even some near-finished art. The prospective audience has to be excited by the idea of the game, believe that it will be fun, and believe that this team can actually carry out what they’re promising. So crowdfunding is a process that demands revealing most, if not all, of the key details of the game.
Similarly, crowdfunding is also a test of the game’s marketing strategy. When you describe the game, you’re road-testing some of the phrases and terms you might use to market the game later on. You’re also selecting which features of the game you think will be most compelling for customers in order to put together your crowdfunding pitch. Of course, one of the best parts about crowdfunding is that you very quickly discover which game features attract attention and which don’t, and what marketing phrases work and which don’t. Hopefully you put in enough compelling material to get the funding needed despite some bad choices, which you can correct along the way.
A crowdfunded game gives up secrecy for the entire development process. While actual code doesn’t get revealed, the development team needs to share progress with the backers, and talk about the ongoing design decisions that are being made. Sometimes the crowd will weigh in on design decisions, and the answers may not be what the development team expected. For instance, early in the Star Citizen development process Chris Roberts asked the backers to rate the importance of various types of game play, so he could focus on the most important parts first. Roberts thought that ship-to-ship combat would be the favorite, since that’s what the basic pitch of the game was. However, with over 10,000 responses, Roberts saw that about two-thirds of the backers wanted exploration as the most important feature of the game, and combat was second. This led to a major shuffle in how development resources were being allocated.
Similarly, marketing strategies are tried out early in the crowdfunding process, and then refined as feedback comes in. Abandoning secrecy means that both game development and game marketing can benefit from idea testing against the audience of the most interested future customers.
Many games now have much more openness in the development and marketing process than ever before. We’re seeing many open betas being conducted in order to test out server code and the robustness of the game design under large-scale, real-world conditions. But make no mistake—an open beta for a game like Doom is also a wonderful marketing opportunity, letting a large number of players get their hands on the game and whet their appetites for the finished product. Yes, there’s a risk that players will find bugs (which they expect) or they may not like aspects of the game (which can sometimes be fixed before launch).
With mobile games, the concept of secrecy has been shredded even more. A typical mobile game from medium to large publisher will soft-launch in smaller countries before launching in major markets. Testing in Canada or New Zealand may even go on for months as a publisher tests and refines monetization and marketing strategies, and tries to ensure that a game will do very well when it launches into major markets like the USA and China. Sometimes games never make it out of soft-launch, when a publisher determines it just can’t figure out how to make the game achieve sufficient profitability. Yet, during this whole process, the game is right there for everyone to see and play—before it gets launched officially in most countries.
There are still some examples of games that successfully use secrecy to boost enthusiasm, as with the very successful Fallout 4 launch last year. Only vague rumors about the game had existed during its years-long development process, at least until a very successful E3 rollout leading up to blockbuster sales. Of course, Bethesda was working with a well-established franchise that already had an enthusiastic audience, so mere mention of the title was enough to get people into a frenzy of anticipation.
Marketing should embrace the idea of greater openness about games under development. Getting an audience excited early is more useful than ever in this age of game abundance. The feedback you get can be crucial to making a game successful. For games that you intend to profit from for years, it makes sense to establish the game’s presence in the market as early as possible.