Barriers to Commercial Success: The Field of Dreams Syndrome

Many game developers are afflicted by what Jason Della Rocca calls the “Field of Dreams Syndrome”. This is also known as the “build it and they will come” fallacy.

Given the young average age of many budding game developers, the reference to Kevin Costner’s great baseball movie of the late ‘80s usually results in blank stares when I deliver the prognosis.

Much like Costner who builds a baseball field in the middle nowhere and assumes that players will find it, game developers are often focused first on the game they want to make and assume that customers will find it. Along the way, they look for every bit of social proof to validate their assumptions about market demand rather than actually trying to determine true product/market fit.

Then, much to their surprise, once the game is released, they are completely baffled that they only sold a handful of copies. Rinse, repeat… Indie apocalypse, startup hell, valley of disillusionment, and all the usual excuses for failure

Understanding the Role of Marketing

The first mistake is not fully understanding or respecting the role of marketing in product development. Most developers reduce marketing to advertising and PR, and largely ignore all that until much closer to launch. However, any half-decent business student will expound on the four Ps of marketing:

  1. Promotion (ie, this is the advertizing and PR portion)
  2. Price
  3. Place
  4. Product.

Meaning, the determination of what product you build is a fundamental piece of marketing. This can’t be done in a vacuum, without consideration for who your audience is (or could be), how you will reach them, what they are interested in, etc.

I’m pretty sure if you tell a game developer they need to be thinking about marketing from day 1 of a new project, you will get slapped (or at least be given the stink eye).

The Importance of Market Analysis

The next mistake is that developers rarely do proper market analysis, and how their planned project is positioned against the competition. Instead, product development decisions are usually based around personal preferences (ie, “it is the kind of game I always wanted to play”), or technical/skill/resources constraints. The common example I give of constraint-based product decisions is with local multiplayer games.

Local multiplayer games (or party games, or couch co-op games) are relatively easy to make as their is no online/networking component, and the action is usually restricted to a single screen/level. If done well and properly balanced, they can be amazingly fun games. However, they typically don’t sell well. Why? Well, for one, it implies that I have friends to play with, that I have enough controllers for them, that they are over at my place, sitting on my sofa, etc, etc. So, I don’t bother buying the game in the first place.

A quick market/competitive analysis will easily reveal this, and demonstrate that commercial success with a local multiplayer game is highly questionable. Perhaps that is fine as a fun hobby project or portfolio piece, but less interesting to pin the growth of my new game studio on.

The irony is that local multiplayer games often get the most attention during game expos like PAX. With players cheering and huddling around the game’s booth, the developer walks away full of pride and confidence that they have a winning project on their hands.

Vanity Metrics ≠ Consumer Demand

This leads us to the next major mistake, which is to equate vanity metrics to actual consumer demand. Vanity metrics are all those little things like Facebook likes, pageviews, Twitter followers, that when added up, give us a false sense of confidence in the future success of our game. Even prestigious stuff like awards or festival selections. But, those elements rarely have a direct impact on the sales of the game. While that is a problem itself, more deviously, it emboldens the developer to continue down their current path, piling in more resources for a project that is ultimately doomed from the start.

Case in point, the complete confusion by Introversion over the lack of sales for their latest game (ie, Scanner Sombre) simply because their previous game (ie, Prison Architect) was a huge seller. A quote from their video post is telling:

"It's not that I arrogantly believe we're the best people in the world or anything, it's that our last game sold over 2 million. So I kind of wrongly assumed that would just give us a minimum number of people looking at our game."

Complete Field of Dreams Syndrome at play, especially since their new game is totally different than their previous game, and suited to an entirely different audience. Past sales of an unrelated game certainly qualifies as a vanity metric.

Game Developers: Artists and Entrepreneurs

And thus reveals a great challenge of the industry. As game developers struggle with their identity as entrepreneurs and business owners, we can no longer be stubborn artists expressing our vision, using vanity metrics to justify a “build it and they will come” attitude. Well, fine if you want to be a starving artists. If you are trying to create a sustainable/thriving studio, then you have no choice but to strive for product/market fit.

As a start, look at what is selling and getting strong engagement from the market. Better yet, look at what is not succeeding. Look at platforms, genres, game mechanics, visual styles, themes, price points, play times, etc. These things change over time.

Think about who the audience is, what community(s) are you building your game for, and how will you grab the attention of influencers they care about. If you start to map all of that out, at least you’ll have a fighting chance.

Remember designing the marketing is part of designing the game. And vice versa. They are inseparable. This is what it means to be an indie entrepreneur in today’s crowded marketplace.

Jason Della Rocca
Jason Della Rocca is a game industry entrepreneur, funding advisor, and cluster expert. As the cofounder of Executions Labs, he was a hands-on early stage investor in over 20 independent game studios in North America and Europe. Between 2000- and 2009, he served as the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). As a sought-after expert on the game industry, Jason has lectured at conferences and universities worldwide.
Read Bio