I will outline the problem here, and then add it to my business article.
Marketing: An Overview
In case you are a marketing novice like me, I will briefly cover the basics. Firstly, the most important thing to realise is that marketing is not just advertising. Selling, advertising and promotion are all components of marketing, but marketing as a whole encompasses more than just those fields. As a start I like Tim Cohn's definition of marketing: marketing is finding out what your customers want and then giving it to them. However I would extend this to the following: marketing is the processes that form the relationship where you share value with your customer. You produce a product your customer wants, they give you value in return (money and/or kudos), in a process where everyone ends up happy.
The impression I get from scanning forums, both here and in other more indie centred places such as the Indiegamer Developer forums, is that most developers underestimate the value of marketing. Most indies seem to just throw out a few press releases, post on a few forums, sign up to the portals, maybe write a few ads and hope for the best.
It might be because I am inherently aware of my weaknesses in marketing ability, but I am sure there is far more potential than that. My gut feeling is that marketing is one of the core factors that separates the successes from the failures in the indie world, and as such I am going to get at least a basic understanding of marketing before I start a game I feel has the potential to go commercial. My impression is that marketing is to business as quality assurance is to software development; any mistakes that you miss at the beginning magnify to huge disasters if caught at the end.
What I am trying to do now is basic market research, which is reflected in the initial part of my business planning article. The first part of my marketing decision is identify my target market segment: the customers I wish to market to. This is not a simple decision, and it will reflect the path I should take with the rest of development.
Is the Hardcore market unfeasible?
Now we come to what is the dilemma that has been troubling me lately: I am increasingly coming to the impression that the hardcore market is just too unfeasible for an indie. Aiming he casual market seems to be the only tenable
As far as I can see it, the hardcore market is centred around teenage to college age gamers, primarily male, and typically have a lot of time to play games. These types of gamers prefer lots of content and fancy effects to show off the capabilities of their gaming system, which is the mainstay of the mainstream. Casual gamers are simply looking for a fun way to spend a bit of time.
Similarly, that target market also typically values their money over their time, having little of the former and lots of the latter, making them far more likely to pirate rather than buy. Casual gamers tend to have more money than time, and are more willing to buy a quality game.
Furthermore, the mainstream has the lock on the hardcore market, given that they have been their bread and butter for the entire existance of the video game industry. You will be competing right against the cashed up publishing houses for the attention of the hardcore market.
Lastly, the casual market is far larger than the hardcore. I have seen factors saying there are four times as many casual gamers than hardcore. Granted, they probably do not spend nearly as much as a hardcore gamer, but it is an addition factor to consider.
The dilemma of casual over hardcore
This creates a challenge for a potential indie developer. To me it seems that game developers (both indie and commercial) typically aim to make games that please themselves first and foremost. In fact, that is one of the reasons many people want to go indie in the first place: to give themselves the chance to make their dream game. Of course, the problem with this is that if the target customer market that you are considering consists of just yourself, you may end up alienating everyone else.
The dilemma comes from that if you do not make a game that you passionately care about, then it becomes a burden to put your heart into the game. If you do not feel some passion towards your game, then you will not put in the extra effort to make it truly shine, you will not give it your all to promote it, and it will become painful to continue supporting your game for the years of sale life an indie game can live for.
This would not be a problem if developers prefered casual over hardcore. However it is rare to find a developer with this mindset. It usually takes an extremely hardcore person to decide to dedicate a significant portion of their life to making games.
The scope of hardcore
I used to think hardcore simply meant those people who were rabid gamers; the kind who spend more on their PC than the value of my car, update their video cards at least once a year, and buy a couple of the latest and greatest games every month. The kind of people who running a game at 120 over 90 FPS actually means something.
But now I realise that these are just the ultra-hardcore. Really, hardcore
just means anyone who spends a significant amount of time gaming as a hobby.
If "playing video/computer games" lists as one of your top five leisure activities, then you are hardcore. Given I spend a significant part of each day working on game development activities, that pretty much makes me hardcore by definition.
I knew that the mainstream deals primarily with the hardcore, and it is folly as an indie to try and compete with them. This means that trying to do something along the same vein as Half-life, Neverwinter Nights or (heaven forbid) World of Warcraft would be truly foolish.
However the hardcore extends beyond the popular mainstream games of the last few years. The simple fact is that "hardcore" extends to all games that primarily appeal to people who play a lot of games. Thus a modern Super Mario Bros is hardcore; you need a lot of interest in platform mastery to enjoy Mario. The Legend of Zelda is hardcore - even the original. Any MMO that requires a lot of playtime is hardcore. Nearly every RPG is hardcore.
My personal dilemma
How this affects me is that if I had the choice, I would ideally love to make games that harken back to my own "golden era" of games that defined my childhood, the ones that graced our consoles and PCs from the mid eighties to the mid nineties. I loved all those games I played on my PC, especially the shareware titles that were often influenced by earlier console games, and look to them as inspiration.
The problem is that many of these games would have core gameplay dynamics that I now see as "hardcore". Even platformers such as Commander Keen would probably not appeal to the casual market.
Now I do not consider it a massive disappointment if I were forced to focus on the casual market. I do enjoy the great casual games out there, and would not making puzzle games my speciality, as long as they were more along the lines of The Incredible Machine or Lemmings rather than a Match 3 block game. However it is true that I would like to make something a bit more hardcore at least occasionally; the odd platformer, shooter or especially a strategy game would be ideal.
Thus I really think I need to study the market a bit more to see if I am wrong on this whole market segment issue. I am sure the market is far more of a continuum than a lumping into "casual" and "hardcore", and there are people like me that are somewhere in the middle enjoying both. There may be viable niches in the hardcore zone that are tappable by a shrewd indie.
My strongest hope is that there is a viable market in the gamers around my age demographic; those who grew up with fond memories of the early computer games who are now in the workforce, possibly with families of their own, and thus have a taste for old-style games but do not have the time to spend on the mainstream hardcore games. A mix of casual and hardcore elements. However I am unsure as to how tenable this market is for indies; whether I have misjudged how tenable aiming for such a market this would be.
At the moment however I am unsure of the best way to assess the nature of the market other than by scanning the list of indie games at the portal sides and reviewers such as Game Tunnel. This invloves testing with my "marketing antennae", which frankly I do not trust to be developed enough to give accurate results. I will need to see if there is a better way to guage customer reaction, maybe by asking potential buyers. Unfortunately the GDNet forums are not quite so ideal, because the vast majority of GDNetters are very hardcore in their tastes.
Questions and comments are welcome. I may spin this out to a few forum posts anyway to see what comes from it; it cannot hurt.