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Marketing, sales, and other scary new game development tasks

Yesterday morning in the office, after my second cup of espresso, I wrote a tweet. And then another, and another, and pretty soon I had about 6 or so:

The rise of social games means more developers need to get comfortable with the concepts of marketing, selling and profit.

Seth Godin makes a strong argument in Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside that design = marketing. (In fact he says everything is marketing.)

In fact, the rise of social games is just ONE of several factors that put pressure on developers to change their attitudes to development.

Or rather, the rise of social games exemplifies several forces that have been growing over the last few years.

Lower barriers to entry. More platforms. Direct access. Disintermediation (insourcing, if you like). The common factor is the internet.

A lot of changes, and changes are scary. A lot of new skills to learn, and so a lot of new ways of failing.

(David Barnes from Facebook Indie Games, who writes about similar topics, kindly bundled these tweets and commented on them here.)

This all ties back to a whole bunch of somewhat related topics I have been thinking about over the last couple of years.

This Economist article (for subscribers only, sadly) explains that blockbusters have grown bigger, not smaller as many people expected due to the effects of the Long Tail. This was one of the most interesting articles I read in 2009. Dave Edery referenced it in his talk at GDC this year. Basically, in media these days, you want to be huge and number one, or tiny and quirky (like a tiny purple cow). You don't want to be second best. This goes for TV, movies, music, newspapers, books - and games. There are a lot of interesting conclusions to be drawn from that.

At GDC this year, as you may have heard, there were some quite vocal reactions against Zynga and Farmville. What caused those reactions? I say it's fear, fear for something new which is not the something new that some of us were hoping for, or striving for.

That doesn't mean Zynga is the future of games. But everyone in the industry is now aware that Farmville's 70 million monthly players, not to mention its revenue and valuation, are remarkable. (There are, of course, other numbers that are as impressive as that iconic 70 million, and other markets that are as interesting as Facebook - see, for example, Nicholas Lovell's provocative post.)

This February I was at Casual Connect in Hamburg, my first time at Casual Connect. It was weird: the majority of sessions were about game design AND business. Which makes total sense in the casual / social / free to play space, but which probably confuses and scares a lot of game designers out there. Are we no longer cool? Are we going the way of the adventure game designers? (Many of my adventure game designer friends are actually doing quite well - some of them in social games.) Did I waste 20 years thinking about storytelling in games?

Changes on the internet, over the last 5 years or so, have revolutionized every single aspect of game development and publishing, and are continuing to do so. I held a presentation on this in 2007, and things have only accelerated since then. You can develop your game using open source software (itself developed and distributed over the internet), then market and sell and distribute it over the internet. Players can buy it and play it over the internet and you can converse with them over the internet.

One of the biggest changes caused by this is disintermediation. Basically, getting rid of publishers. Because from one perspective, developers have been outsourcing marketing and distribution. As I said about a month ago:

We're in the middle of a major transformation of our industry that was essentially caused by the internet and the various disruptions it has enabled. One of the questions small developers should be wrestling with right now is whether to self-publish. I know I've been thinking about this a lot in 2009. Developers building up expertise in marketing, PR, financing and other business areas that we traditionally have no experience with is going to transform the games industry (in fact it's probably happening already). I'm not saying everyone should do it, and in fact there are good counter-arguments - there is a reason why there are developers and publishers. But I think the status quo has been out of balance for a long time and that things are now moving the other way, towards self-publishing.

But that is a big, big leap for people who tend to think of themselves as artists and engineers. And you can bet a lot of institutional knowledge - the way things are done - no longer applies. And some of that knowledge is encoded in how companies are structured, in how they work. (When a older, bigger company is disrupted by a younger, smaller company, it's the differences in company culture that cause this as much as the technology.)

Working at a small games company, I think a lot about this stuff. About my experience, about what I instinctively think is the right way to make games, about how to make big leaps. About my fears of the unknown, of failure, of being laughed at. Even though it's not all that hard and lots of people have done it before.

Reading the two Seth Godin books I mentioned above made me realize a lot of people in a lot of industries are probably going through that. I don't buy all of what he says, and I am not quite sure which conclusion I am going to draw from them, but I recommend reading them. Fodder for a future blog post, or a bunch of caffeine-fueled tweets.