Friday, 13 May 2011

Game Marketing and a look at Super Meat Boy

In between my masses of uni work yesterday, I found myself reading an article on regarding marketing in games. It was pretty interesting, and while it didn't really reveal much that was new to me, it did manage to serve as a nice reminder of one of the most important aspects of the game development cycle.

Unless you stick to the blockbuster games of the year, you might already have an idea of just how many fantastic games have underperformed or flopped on their face because of poor marketing. Games like Okami, Psychonauts, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. These are just immediate examples that come to my mind, but there are many, many more. And it scares me.

Picture it for yourself: working on a game for 18 months or more, creating some of the most innovative and brilliant gameplay - only to have your game ignored because of lack of advertising or releasing it the same week as the new Call of Duty? Maybe this is a bit of an understatement, but that shit would suck.

The interesting revelation of the article in question wasn't the fact that marketing was important, though. It was the fact that marketing starts with the conception of a game. From day one you are (hopefully!) deciding who your target audience is and the features your game will include. Once you've got that, making advertisements is a cinch - hell, if the gaming community likes where your ideas are headed they'll do a lot of the tough work for you.

Get used to seeing blood-stained saw blades in this game. There'll be a lot of 'em.

Super Meat Boy was the game that I was instantly reminded of upon reading this article. Created largely by two people, there was no confusion over what type of game SMB was and who it was directed towards.

The game was hardcore. As in, balls-to-the-wall, mind-numbingly difficult. Masocore, if you will. The devs knew this was the kind of game they wanted to create from the beginning, but with some super smart design decisions they were able to make the game stand high above other similar games in the genre.

Masocore games are difficult by default, but Team Meat knew that the difficulty of SMB had to stem from challenging levels where timing was key. Not stupid surprises and gimmicks (like in I Wanna Be The Guy and Megaman 9). Not from slippery controls - they made it their mission to make Meat Boy's controls as tight as possible so that when you died, you had nobody to blame but yourself.

Another large problem of Masocore games is how easily they make you want to quit them forever. Super Meat Boy still keeps its levels frustrating, but it managed to cut out a whole lot of unnecessary crap that would have made things even more frustrating even after you'd died. Upon dying, you'll be zapped back to the start of the level to retry in less than a second, giving you virtually no time to throw your controller across the room.  The music is also fantastic and will continue playing no matter how many times you've died - by contrast, IWBTG's music started over every time you died, and while it had an alright soundtrack, the original songs didn't loop properly - possibly because the designers thought you'd definitely die before it got to loop anyway.

I might be getting a little off topic here, but anyway. Point is - Super Meat Boy was a great game with a sense of direction. It knew what it wanted to be, and because it was so well designed it had a myriad of features which made advertising it that much easier - both for the professional advertisers and regular gamers spreading the love through word of mouth. While its target market was the hardcore, its brilliant design gained it fans from all sorts of other corners of the gaming community too. Try and please everyone and you'll end up pleasing nobody - but try and please a select group of people, and somehow you might gain everyone else's attention, too.

Super Meat Boy is a testament to what small game developers can do with the right sense of direction. As of April 6th 2011, the game has sold roughly 600 000 units across all platforms - a tremendous feat for an independently developed download release. Designing games, I shall always keep it in mind as one of those true, inspirational success stories which only come about so often.

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