Friday, July 28, 2006

Bursty Indie Sales Cycles

I had a delightful lunch today with Amanda F. and her handsome, watch loving friend. She is the driving force behind the new indie RPG Aveyond and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what she does next. Most of my contacts with the game industry go back to the old PC shareware glory days, so it is quite enjoyable to connect with one of the rising stars of the new generation of entrepreneurial game developers.

Out of the many topics we meandered through, one jewel was the bursty nature of shareware game traffic. She’s been noticing a trend. Whenever her game hits a new portal, there is a rise in traffic across all portals that the game is featured, even her website. Portals where her game has long fallen off the chart suddenly start featuring her title again.

There are two potential reasons here:
  • Repeat impressions are needed before customers take action.
  • The downloadable market is highly fragmented.

Repeat impressions matter
People don’t look at a game and think “hey, I’ll try it out.” The first time, they become aware of the title, they might be about to wash their laundry or perhaps they are at work. Maybe they aren't in the mood to check out games. (Shocking!) The moment passes and the title that has consumed a year or more of your life passes out of their heads without a second thought.

Getting people to download your game is a lot like playing one of those maddening quarter games at the arcade. The machines taunt you with dozens of quarter balancing precariously on the edge of a small ledge. All you have to do is place in a single quarter and you’ll push an avalanche of coins over the edge.

But imagine that you start with an empty machine and each quarter is actually a mention of your game. You need to build up quite a few impressions of your game within a potential buyer’s head before the cascade of impressions overflows into action.

When a title hits a new portal, there is a buzz of word of mouth around it. This leads to lots of people getting fresh impressions of your title. Only a few are saturated with enough of your message “Hey, this is a cool game” to actually take the extraordinary effort to search the internet and download it. This leads to more word of mouth and more downloads. Thus the single media event leads to a burst of sales across multiple distribution sources.

Market fragmentation
The fact that the downloadable and casual games market is fragmented isn’t really news, but it too informs your sales patterns. Think of the new shareware market being composed of dozens (if not hundreds) of population pockets. Each group might be built around a single portal or a special interest group.

They don’t talk to one another much, nor do they read common news sources. Many don’t consider themselves mainstream gamers. I like to think of them as the oil shale of the gaming market: A bit difficult to reach in larger numbers, but still highly valuable customers if you can figure out the techniques.

The result is that long term promotion will often have incremental payoff even with products that a no longer ‘hot’. There will almost always exists large populations of players that will have never heard of your game. Don’t be surprised if you end up getting letters years after your initial launch that exclaim “I had no idea that this [insert superlative] game existed!”

Often someone who just heard about your game may introduce it to new markets. Within a short period of time, the number of people who become aware of your game can increase dramatically. This also contributes to and magnifies the bursty nature of sales.

You must pop little markets one at a time over a long period of time before the total number of customers that might buy your game is tapped out. Indie games are in many ways closer to evergreen products than your typical launch and dispose commercial titles. Think about it. Bejeweled is still selling to this day and it is doubtful that the majority of those customers are repeat buyers.

Marketing is a long term effort
There is the dark side to all this as well. If your game doesn’t trigger a big enough burst of word of mouth, you may see a small spike that fades away rapidly. Quite likely your awareness raising event isn’t large enough to ignite a chain reaction across all the sparsely connected social nodes. Alternatively your game isn’t good enough to inspire strong word of mouth. Or maybe you are popping smaller markets and not reaching the bigger ones.

I think of the system as the following (completely unscientific) equation:
  • [# of promotional events]
  • * [Average reach of promotional events]
  • * [Word-of-mouth worthiness of your title]
  • * [Average number of existing impressions]
  • * [Number of new markets that you breach]
  • * [Average size of each mini-market]
  • - Percentage of market already reached.
  • - Percentage of people who just don't give a damn.
  • = Magnitude of each PR burst.
You’ll likely have to promote your game for longer than expected. Don’t give up on an older title just because it is no longer the latest thing. Re-releases, targeting radically different audiences with an existing products, as well as shameless and consistent broad-based self promotion are all valid and useful techniques for getting your games out in the public eye.

Here is to a long and bursty sales cycle,

Links and such

A description of that darned quarter game