Joe Lieberman is the head of business development for ArcadeTown, a network of over 12 million unique visitors a month. He also authored the recent book The Indie Developer's Guide to Selling Games. See the GameDev.net review here
Remember that movie, "What A Girl Wants?" Well this article is just like that movie, only shorter and actually worth the price you paid to see it. The most common question I get when I tell people it is my job to accept or reject games for online distribution is, "What do you look for in a game?" It may surprise you to learn that many developers don't ask this question until after their first game is finished... and in many cases their third or fourth game. Oh, yeah, did anyone else notice I get paid to play games? Take that mom!
So, following this article, you will no longer be able to claim ignorance of at least one portal's opinion. Keep in mind this is just what we look for at ArcadeTown, every portal is different and looks for different things. ArcadeTown takes a more cutting-edge approach. We are bold enough to embrace more traditional games, from 1st and 3rd person shooters to RPGs and beyond. We also sell plenty of traditional casual style products, like action puzzles, but my point is we're more diverse than many other "casual-only" destinations- and this affects what we look for in a game.
First, there are things that are absolutely going to hamper your acceptance. These are:
- Requiring a connection to a third party site - Whether it is to register for multiplayer or to submit a high score, a requirement to connect to your website (and therefore leading people away from ours) is a major strike against accepting your game. If we like the game we may ask those features be removed in our version, but then it becomes a pain for you to rework your game, and more trouble for us to keep track of the fact the versions are different. My advice: Keep it in the game guys!
- Gore, Excessive Violence, Language, Sex - Sex may sell on a porn site, but we run a family-friendly portal. Guns are ok, shooting things may be ok, limbs being torn off in a fountain of blood is not ok. Basically focus on keeping your game T for Teen or E for Everyone in rating.
- Download Size - Download size is less of an issue than it used to be. There was a time when any game over 5 megs had serious sales problems. Currently we try to keep things under 40 megs for the demo, but we do occasionally distribute larger games. Still, the more you get over that 40mb mark the harder it will be to get a deal with portals. And don't forget, even with people at home having broadband, the smaller the game the more likely it is to be downloaded, and therefore played and purchased.
- In game branding - Sometimes developers get the great idea that they are going to place their own branding inside the game. To a limited degree this is ok, but all of that has to be hashed out. If you submit a final build and a portal sees that you are still branding your game heavily, we're going to ask you to go back and remove it. It's needless hassle for everyone and could create some animosity, which may impact your future dealings. Branding is really anything beyond your company logo. Some developers commonly place a splash screen with their company logo, but placing your website's URL inside the game isn't going to fly. Other portals are far more strict about this, so be up front with the portal and ask how much branding you're allowed with specific examples of what you'd like to do. Communicate, it's worth it.
With those rules in mind, there are a lot of other factors that are far more subjective. The personal tastes of the reviewer, in this case me, play a large role in what gets into a portal. Here are some major factors that I find influence my opinion.
- Cute vs Gory - Make it cute and cuddly. It isn't actually the cuteness that I look for, it's a lack of aggressive imagery. A lot of our (and most other portals) fans are female. Not to stereotype, but aliens with dripping fangs don't do so well with my mom, wife, or daughter. A cute game always seems to win out over an invasion of greasy aliens in sales and downloads.
- Will it Sell? Is it a Good Game? - Funny that I thought the game should be cute before I thought it should be good. This is a complicated issue, though. We accept any game that we feel is good. However, we let our users decide what sells, and often times being good just isn't enough. What makes the game sell are the little features, referred to as polish, which make a good game great. These would be great graphics and sounds, smooth play, unlockable bonuses, little animations that do nothing but make you smile, good music, etc. The list goes on for ages, but if you take a look at the top games on every portal you'll begin to see a sharp contrast between them and most other me-too games that don't have the right amount of polish, appropriate basic concept, or appropriate originality. You should also be on the lookout for similarities between all 10, they're typically pretty obvious. Again, being good will usually get you a contract, but just because we believe the game is good doesn't mean the game will sell by the boatload.
- Which Genre? - ArcadeTown is less picky when it comes to genre. You have a FPS? We'll look at it. Still, we know for a fact certain genres outsell others on our site. Whereas other portals may concentrate on other categories that aren't as strong on our site. Action Puzzles (the Mystery Case Files series for example), Shooting Games, Adventure Games, RPGs, and Strategy Games are all pretty hot categories for us, but all of them need to be "casual" in nature. A hardcore turn based strategy game may not do so well here. Games like Aveyond, Cute Knight, Westward, or Age of Castles are what we're looking for. The farther you get from a casual design the less likely we are to accept it. Also we aren't too big on genric me-too clones of other games, unless you can surpass their level of polish or provide a twist that is truly unique that will appeal to users (see above).
- Professional Developers - We like working with people who are reasonable and easy to work with. Developers need not acquiesce to our every whim and desire, but returning calls, e-mails, and builds on time, as well as considering any suggestions we make is key. The stark reality is most of the games out there are average (that is the definition of average), so in a sea of mediocrity we'll work with the people who appear professional to us in their response and willingness to work with us over the classic closet developer who believes social graces have no place in business. My advice to any of you out there who hate social/business e-mailing, just pretend it's an RPG and you're playing a business executive who has a penchant for profit-based world domination. Oh, should I have used my "Not to stereotype line again?" Oh well!
- The Name - I hate to name names, but I have seen some awful game names. A horrible name can seriously turn a submission into an instant reject; though these are few enough I didn't feel it fell into the first list. A bad name can hurt sales though, and we may ask you to change it. If we do ask, it isn't because we're egomaniacs, it's because we think your name is actually going to decrease sales! Don't take it as an insult, take it as advice from someone who knows their audience. It may just be that our audience will react negatively while your own direct audience couldn't care less. What's in a name? A whole lot! Just ask a guy named Joseph Lieberman...and no, I am not related.
- Online Web Versions - Having a solid online playable web version of your game definitely helps a lot on our site. Users will keep coming back to play your game over and over, helping to drive eyeball exposure, downloads, and sales. Web versions also help nicely on some other portals. Many developers also report that web versions help to re-invigorate sales of their older good selling titles. Unfortunately some large portals don't provide web versions to their users, even when available, so some developers don't see the value. Trust me, web versions are good!
That's really all there is to it. I would also offer the following advice. We don't e-mail replies to everyone who submits games. If we love the game we obviously reply and begin negotiations. If we do not like the game there usually isn't any reply at all. It's got nothing to do with disrespecting you or your game, it has more to do with saving us time and the inevitable argument-reply we get on why we should accept it. Even if you are mistakenly insulted, it is important to follow up with us even when we don't reply. If you make a new build with significant improvements, submit it again and let us know! We'll look at it once more. If you make a new game entirely, submit it! Even if we didn't get back to you on your first game there's a good chance your second game will be improved enough that we'll get in touch. That said, if you DO get an e-mail back from a portal that is not a "let's talk about a contract" but instead focuses on things we liked or wished were improved... take that as a great sign! It means we're interested but not convinced. This e-mail is the opportunity you have to make the game into something that works for us and likely for other portals as well. I would say about half the e-mails we send of that nature never bear fruit, which translates into an opportunity for you to capitalize.
The final note I deliver is ArcadeTown is not evil. We're here to make money, and in the process help you the developer make money, too, simple as that. A lot of people seem to have a vision that portals do everything in their power to bleed the developer and that working with a portal is the death knell for direct sales from your site. The opposite is true: when a game goes on a major portal and does well it is almost always coupled with an increase in direct sales on the developer's site as well. Working with portals should be a win-win situation, and if it is not, let the portal know and try to sort it out. You'll find that most portals are professional and responsive to your needs; but we can't fix a problem we don't know exists!