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You'd regret not reading this

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I read the book "Lean Startup" a few months ago (ok, actually I just read the first six chapters). It was given to me by the game developers working upstairs. The take away from the book is that the processes we use in the software development industry should and can be used towards business and product development. Your product is your test case, your test is your customer response, and you always come to the test table with assumptions which will be shown to be wrong through experimentation. I imagine that the "being wrong" part scares people, especially if a career or loss of face is on the line. Silly, right? Somehow, we think its "bad" to be wrong, so we do our best to avoid the "bad" by either avoiding the ugly wrongness, or sugar coating it, or ignoring the facts, etc. I read an interesting article recently about "big data" hype and how most people are doing it wrong. They collect the data. The data itself is useless without analysis which yields knowledge, right? Well, what if the analysis indicates some really bad things? Like, you're going to miss your sales targets, or customers just don't care about your product? What does the big data analyst report to their manager? "Well, uh... XYZ doesn't look good, but QRS does!" The manager sugar coats the problem and abstracts it, puts it up to senior staff, who then sugar coat and abstract it some more, and by the time it gets up to the CEO, it's not even apparent that there's a problem. Hello?! This is the whole point of doing this "big data" stuff! To find the problems so that you can solve them as fast as possible! Big data isn't supposed to reaffirm our biases, you know... It's supposed to be a way to get scientific about business! Anyways, all of this reiterates that you need to get as close to the bare metal as you can so that you can fail quickly and figure out how to adapt fast so that you can fail your way into success. As programmers, we all probably at one point thought that the most glorious, hard core programming was at the assembly language level. There isn't any bullshit between the code and what the computer does. Same thing in business -- that bare metal is right at the consumer level. Let me get into that here...

So, this last weekend I went to support my girlfriend at a fair in Idaho. She sets up a booth and sells hair clips to women. She is a sales TORNADO, and it was a rare privilege to see her in action. She's got the sales process down and has lots of practice at it. Essentially, she is talking face to face with each of her potential customers. She introduces herself, tells people she wants to put her product in their hair, then talks about the features of her product, tells a narrative, and when she's done, she gives them a mirror so that they can see how the hair clip looks in their hair. 90% of the people love how it looks. They want it. Then she talks price and gives a few different purchase packages. Some people don't buy, but most do. Then she conducts the transaction, where she takes their money, gives them a hair clip, and continues to sell them the product even though they already bought it (to prevent buyers remorse). Over the weekend, she made about $5,500 selling hair clips for about $15 each. For a comparison, I would guess that booths nearby probably grossed $750 with their products. The money and volume are valuable, but the true value is figuring out exactly what customers are looking for. We found that the brown ones sell out the fastest. We found the booth presentation doesn't matter very much. We know which feature statements people like the most. We heard every objection a person might have and crafted our sales pitch to address them before they objected. The end goal is to scale the operation and use this sales data to create a great sales pitch. And, the number one most important factor in sales success is the sales person. Everything else is just an excuse.

I went and walked around a lot at the fair as well to look at the products other people were selling and how they were doing. You walk up to a booth, and a lot of the booth attendants will just say, "Hi, how are you? let me know if you have any questions.". Some don't even say anything. But, that's not how you start your pitch. If people are looking at your product, **they are interested enough to stop and look!** If you let them walk away without buying anything and you didn't at least try to tell them more about what they're looking at, then you're a bad sales person. This is the default sales behavior of everyone there. They don't want to seem to bother you, so they try to be there in the background. That's not how you make $5,500 in a weekend.

I've always known sales are really important to the success of a video game. Video games are a product, and I'm developing a product which will have to sell well. If I can't do that, I'm not going to be making games much longer. Okay... how do I do that? It's complete bullshit to put yourself in the mindset of "I'll build it and then the sales will come." No, no, no, no! The *correct* approach is to figure out what your customers WANT and then you build THAT. How do you figure that out though? You have to start somewhere. You have to build your minimum viable product. Something for your customers to get acquainted with, to play, to test out. You have to have a product you can test on the consumer market testing bench. Once you have something, you gotta get people to start playing it! At the early stages, who cares about money. Let them try it for free. This month we're building a version of our VR zombie game for people going to the Penny Arcade Expo. I tried to get an indie booth there, but I missed the deadline because I was traveling. Damn it. Does that mean I'm fucked? No, of course not! My office is in downtown Seattle, very near the PAX convention. I'd be stupid to not take advantage of that. I talked with the indie team upstairs and we made a deal where we're going to join forces to demo each of our games out of our offices for PAX attendees. To get PAX people to come, we're going to put out a bunch of sign boards on the sidewalk directing them to our offices and have a person down at the building entrance snagging people to come in. We'll have snacks, soda, food, a couch, and maybe some discount coupons. The PAX people are our potential customers, so anyone who walks in will already be exactly the type of people we want to try out our game. Interestingly enough, we can be *at* pax without paying for the booth and dealing with all the logistical headaches that go with it. Getting the game ready for PAX is going to be the primary focus for the month of August. But, merely showing people our game for marketing purposes isn't the objective. We want to figure out what our customers want, so we're going to conduct exit interviews (formally and informally) to figure out what people like and don't like in our game. I've already lined up a series of questions which can help us guide our development efforts.

PAX is just the beginning though (as you may be able to guess by now). My girlfriend suggested that I take my VR game to a bunch of fairs and setup a booth. Just to try it out. We can let people play the game for 5-10 minutes for $10-15 dollars (or something reasonably priced). Here's what gets me excited. What if we can learn the same deep customer insights which we got from selling hair clips, but applied to the game we're building as we're building it? And what if we can figure all of this stuff out *before* we put our game up on Steam, *before* we get blindsided by bad reviews which we should have been able to identify before a mass market release? I suspect that a lot of game development is a lot of guess work and luck, where we build something which *we* think is cool and we do it to the best of our ability, and then throw it up on steam and hope it sells. Now I know that is the wrong approach. You're essentially throwing jello at the wall and hoping something sticks. What if we demo the game each weekend at a fair and figure out what people like and don't like, and then spend the week fixing things and adding more stuff, and then showing the game the next weekend at another fair? What if... we made enough money at the fairs to cover the costs of development?? What if... all the people who paid money to play our game at a fair could be turned into customers immediately when we release our game online? What if we put up this SUPER AWESOME fair booth and people are so excited to try our game that they're willing to form a long line that goes around the block? How many VR headsets should I buy to support the traffic volume we'd get? Or, what if we find out that nobody wants to play our game and we figured out why and fixed it?

One last thing. I'm going to take my artist with me to these fairs. He isn't a sales person, but I think it's a super valuable to experience the sales transaction. It's vital to be able to bridge the gap between building artwork and collecting money as direct feedback from it. People are giving you MONEY to play something YOU made. They're giving you green paper to explore a world which only existed in your imagination until you made it real. Wow. If that doesn't inspire and motivate you, then you should check your pulse because you might be dead. If we can orient our development process to be focused on giving customers a freakin' awesome experience, incrementally making it better and better, and delivering on it every weekend, we'll be indestructible.

I'm feeling excited.
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Sounds like a more direct from-the-source version of analytics driven design.  It also brought to mind Jon Grall's experience with testing mobile games at the DMV, which worked quite effectively for them even with a less primed-to-purchase audience that you might find at an actual industry event.


Good luck with it, looking forward to seeing how well it works out for you. :)

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