How to make a successful game?
Good games are not always successful and successful games are not always good. That’s the hard reality of our industry. Why does a game like Flappy Bird succeed when each month thousands of fantastic games don’t get the attention they deserve?
The wrong question to ask
When browsing the game dev forums and social media groups, I often read about developers dedicating years of their life to their passion projects, working day and night to turn their vision into reality… Unfortunately, these stories often end with questions such as “Why does no one play my game?” and “How can I promote it better?”. The honest truth is that asking how to make your game successful is the wrong question to ask.
Startup game developers can be stubborn. They have this really cool idea and instantly begin working on that dream project, no matter what. That’s a big gamble. Maybe one in ten of these passion projects turns into a success and even that might be an optimistic figure. One often sees small studios start, release one game, and then disappear soon after. That’s a tragedy every time, a hard reality I don't wish on anyone. However, there’s a smarter, safer route to follow, that still involves passion... and satisfaction at the end of the day. Rather than starting from a game and trying to make it a success, first define the success story and turn it into a game.
Learning from mistakes
For the first few years, our studio used to only focus on work-for-hire projects: games for other companies, organizations, the government,... you name it. Though these projects are a lot of fun, we also longed to realize our own game concepts.
One of our first personal projects was Pinball Planet, a casual mobile pinball game, with cartoon visuals, power-ups, and fun challenges. It’s a game we still enjoy playing years later. Though we are convinced it was a good game (considering the limited time and budget we had available), calling it unsuccessful would be an understatement. We honed in on a fun game concept, wanted to make it at all costs, but failed to think about the market potential and business model. In hindsight, it seems silly, but after six months of dedicated work, we realised that the mobile app stores already had hundreds of pinball games, often free to play… We simply could not compete with that. This is something we could easily have figured out months before, and yet we were stubborn and made that beginner mistake we see thousands of developers make every week.
Learning from success
Luckily we didn't go all-in with Pinball Planet. We still had our customer projects that helped us pay the bills. I think LuGus Studios is still around today because we never gambled everything on “cool ideas”. We always made sure we had a plan B, one or several additional revenue sources. Yet this is often not how many startups work, instead risking everything on that one big passion project.
So what did we do next? We made a game in 3 weeks time that got 600k downloads in one month. Not a joke. We did this, not by developing a fun game concept, but a clever one, something with a hook to it. We made a “topic game”, a small casual game by name of Battle for Donetsk, focussed on events happening in the world at the time.
Although the game was about as basic as can be (though not quite yet Flappy Bird basic), it tickled public interest and provided something the press wanted to write about. Without any PR or marketing budget, our game went instantly viral all over the world, being featured on news papers and TV and being shared on social media by thousands of players. While this was not a commercial project, we learned that a successful game didn't necessarily require an expensive, complex development process. We simply had to make a game that was relevant. In a way, that means that everyone, no matter the time, budget, skillset or help available, can make a successful game. You just have to be clever about it.
Making a relevant game
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Likely, these anecdotes don’t really help you along that much. In more concrete terms, what you want to do is this: find an audience first. In business terms that’s called looking for a product with a “Unique value proposition”. Searching for an untapped market is classic Marketing 101.
Business developers will suggest you try doing market research. However, what that means in practice is often very vague, especially for games. Yes, you can use tools such as SteamDB or Steamcharts to figure out what games are popular on Steam right now. You can look for similar games to compare your concept to. But in the end, no two games are alike. Simply proving that a similar game is doing well does not guarantee that yours will.
We’ve learned that the best way to make a game that’s relevant and successful is to test the market first. Don’t just start building a game; start building an audience right away. Start with your success and then make a game around it. If your audience doesn’t show up, don’t be afraid to kill your babies. Consider jumping to that next creative idea you have… and be prepared to jump a few more times until you find the holy grail.
That’s what we did with our commercial success Liftoff: FPV Drone Racing. Learning from our previous viral experience, we looked for hot takes on the internet. We discovered a fascinating and inspiring video of people racing drones through a forest, looking through the camera of the drone, flying at a 150km/h. It was cool, exciting, easy to translate to a game, but most of all: it had a clear audience.
Even so, we didn’t go all-in on this idea. We decided to put no more than two weeks of work in a proof-of-concept prototype that we could share with the public. We released a video of our prototype, shared it online and got some positive responses. Unfortunately there weren't nearly enough responses to validate a large-scale development process, and so we moved on to the next project. Somehow, months later our prototype video started generating more interest and we were contacted by a big-name manufacturer in the drone racing world. Suddenly our audience was born. Our social media page started attracting followers quickly and organically. We had our success - now we had to make our game around it!
We are now five years past the first official release of Liftoff: FPV Drone Racing. Our audience has grown massively, year after year. It has allowed our company to grow and invest and eventually also made it to XBox One and PlayStation 4, we even won the Best Business 2019 award on the Belgian Game awards. This game has not only been an absolute success for us; it’s also a dream project that the whole team is very passionate about and yet... it’s not a game we ever imagined making, nor our first. It's a success because we learned to ask the right questions, be patient, and approach projects from a clearly defined market potential.
- Kevin Haelterman