Joe Lieberman is the head of business development for ArcadeTown, a large part of the Demand Media Games Division. He also authored the recent book The Indie Developer's Guide to Selling Games. See the GameDev.net review here
I'm sure you've seen it: A great game: fun, challenging, nice art, good sound... and it just doesn't sell. I'm certain you've heard the mantra, "If I build a good game it will sell because it is a good game."
I'm not here to shatter your hopes and dreams or anything like that. A good game will sell. I'm here to give specific examples and ideas on how you can get your good game to sell more.
Ok so the term everyone likes to use is "polish". That is like the shine on your dining room table, not a person from Eastern Europe. It referrers to the level of shine on a game that transcends what is necessary and enters the realm of superfluous fluff... but gosh people really do love fluff. So take some advice: Make sure you have some fluff... not too much, not too little... but make sure your fluff is the stuff clouds would look up to.
Extended analogy over, lets get down to it.
Beyond the Demo
How many times have you seen a game that takes 9-12 months to create and all they do for their demo is place a 60 minute timer on it? You're willing to put a year of work into something but not spend an extra month in making a "good" demo? Sounds like a serious problem to me, and one really easy to overlook.
Most recently I praise Kingdom Elemental as having a demo that goes above and beyond an egg-timer system. They almost put together a separate game with their demo, featuring locked items, voice-over nagging (that is, they have a voice that interrupts you while playing to tell you about features and insist you purchase). Best of all, they designed it to cut off right when you face something new and challenging - right when you most want to continue.
Did the developers have to do this? Is a voice-over tutorial and nag 'screen' necessary? Did they have to lay out their game specifically so they could turn it off at a crucial moment (and one that is pretty easy to get to in less than 60 minutes)? Nope. It's fluff, but it is fluff that is going to help them sell units. If I had to pick between having a game with a great demo, but a full version that wasn't good and a good game with a bad demo, I'd take the good demo every time. Consider how much effort you put into your game and at least put a pinch of that effort into constructing a solid demo... and hopefully you'll get to pick having a great game and a great demo.
A surprise to many people was the impact the Xbox Live Arcade's "Rewards" system would have on the mentality of players. Players are no longer content to just beat a level and get a score, they need some visual gratification of their successes. Rewards seem to come in two varieties. Easter-egg rewards, or rewards that are hidden until you do them, and stated awards, or basically a laundry list of things to achieve. Rewards, psychologically, deliver two things: A goal and a gratification. This means in general something completely superfluous, which may not even affect the game in any way whatsoever, makes your game more gratifying as well as helps focus the user's attention - and hopefully you're focusing it somewhere that is more fun.
Rewards have been implemented on many scales, ranging from Dr. Lunatic Supreme with Cheese and their over 300 Easter-egg style system to a multitude of laundry list reward systems found in games like Fizzball, Family Feud, and plenty of other games who's names don't start with F. In the end, rewards are a big deal. Usually a laundry list style is best, because you can use it to focus the user's attention to achieve a specific goal - a goal they will enjoy achieving. Achieving one goal and then another will hook them into wanting to complete more goals, but oops- they're out of demo time or their demo has ended.
The Top of the Pyramid
A shameless plug for my book, but those familiar with it will recognize this idea (which is discussed in greater length) from the last chapter. Basically, there are levels of motivating users to want to purchase. At the very top, there is an item that distinguishes the ordinary games from the extraordinary. These are game items that the user may or may not even consciously know exist, but they enhance the game without even affecting it. Basically they are sensory items, sound or sight, that brings the game to life, absorbing the player into the world you created as opposed to having them simply manipulating a toy.
In the game Aveyond, water drops make sound based on your relative character position. In the game Chuzzle, the eyes of all the chuzzles follow you around, not to mention the adorable cuteness of when you click on them repeatedly. Maybe its grass blowing in the wind or the clouds floating lazily in the sky, perhaps it is as simple as having a character that blinks. These are all superfluous items and they are the absolute hardest to measure when it comes to seeing the effect the have on people... but I know when I watch someone play chuzzle that every so often they'll spend a minute just clicking on chuzzles to watch them make cute noises, and that is a sign that they are enjoying something that goes beyond the game mechanic, but enjoying the game world in which it is constructed. RPG, casual game, it doesn't matter... bring the user into your world through dynamic sights and sounds.
Tell Me a Story
I see a lot of games every day. A huge number of those simply lack a story. Maybe you can get away with no story when your game is truly unique, but if you want an edge, make a good story and find a good way to tell it. Many I have seen lately use a comic book style approach every few levels to tell an ongoing story... but what makes that story come to life?
I believe the biggest factor in a successful story is having a main character to which the reader can relate. This comic book style was seen in Diner Dash, Cake Mania, Betty's Beer Bar - all those games used the same story style (hell, almost the same story period). A female heroine trying to accomplish something in the 'real' world - usually with some grand agenda, like saving your family home or something equally corny. However, you look at the audience who is buying those titles and they are primarily older (by game standards) females. What a perfect main character for your primary audience. Each game genre will be different, but a strong connection to the character enhanced by good story telling will radically increase the player's attachment to the game and ultimately their likelihood of purchase. The biggest issue with story is it is the easiest one to 'mess up' and it is a fluff item that takes quite a bit of resources to do well, usually artistic resources. The most common way to mess up a story is to use a lot of text. People don't want text. The second most common is to use a character or motive that doesn't match your audience. The gun slinging gangster kid is not the right character for my cute bakery game. The third most common is to force the user to actually read and pay attention to it. A lot of people like the idea of a story and like to glance at the pretty pictures. Few of them actually want to know what's going on. Hence why it's so superfluous.
How to Score
Gee, I know you guy's aren't thinking this part of the article is a romantic advice column... but I have advice in that field as well. Flowers and Chocolate. Now, lets move on to something more important. Points. Almost every game has some kind of scoring system. It was Popcap who pointed it out to me first, the score impacts how people perceive they are doing in the game; and therefore impacts how much they enjoy it. Simply put, everyone likes to win. So what did they do to make people feel like they were winning more? They added 3-4 zeros to the end of the score. No longer were you condemned to get a mere 10 points, but now you could get 10,000 points for your brilliant move! I'd also avoid using score to attempt to dictate things like "how many lives you have left" - it makes score a source of pressure instead of a measurement of success. Simple stuff like adding some "particle" sparkles every 100,000 points or animating the score board in a "cute" way all make your game better. But the real thing to walk away from this discussion with is people like to win, and if all it takes is multiplying everything by 1,000... well I am no programmer but I can't imagine it's a hard change to make.
I'd like to thank everyone for reading the article in which I use the term superfluous more times than I ever have in a single document. It's a great word. Another great word is non sequitur.
What you should be taking away from these examples is that there are a lot of tweaks and changes that can be done to a game to simply make them sell better. There are plenty more than these 5 brazenly obvious examples. I tried to select ones that are very easy to see and recognize and did not influence the game play its self. However, there are a lot of these kinds of changes that are less obvious or do impact game play; such as power ups. Everyone loves power ups. Experiment, try new things, and be critical when asking yourself "Will my users get more joy from this, and will their enhanced joy bring me more sales?"