Jeff Hangartner – Revealing the Path Less Travelled in Video Game Industry

Jeff HangartnerJeff Hangartner, the founder of the gaming start-up, Bulletproof Outlaws has been a professional developer of games over the last half a decade. Creator of Pixelation, the 1st Pixel Art Forum and also originator of the Pixel tutorials which have been published in the form of a book. Jeff has always been a pioneer of the gaming industry.

CG Today is proud to present Jeff’s exploration as he shares the whole process of creating a start-up right from day 1. With the belief that gaming development is coming back to its original “one programmer in the basement roots” idea, Bulletproof Outlaws is chronicling every step of its start-up process from strategies, to marketing, setting goals and outsourcing, successes and failures. The aim is to help other developers who have ideas but are intimidated by the whole start-up process and are not sure how to go about it.

You can visit his website Bulletproof Outlaws to know more about him or send an email to get connected.

Financial Security

On that note, I think it’s important to approach Indie gameDev expecting to make more than one game and to get your finances in order ahead of time to support yourself through flopping a few games. If you’re financially secure enough to survive 3 flops, you’re in a great position…if any of your first 3 games hits, awesome. If your first 2 games don’t hit but the 3rd gets you attention for the first 2, awesome. If your first game flops, your 2nd hits and gets some attention for your 1st, you don’t have to worry while you develop your 3rd game. But if you approach things going “I’m going to put everything I have into this one game, it’s going to be my Magnum Opus right off the bat” you’re playing a MUCH riskier game.

Now I know that there are exceptions to that, and that ideally you shouldn’t hold anything back and you should put out the highest quality game you can as soon as you can because just from a philosophy/respect point of view you should be doing your best work at all times…plus logically a quality game is more likely to catch on and make you jillions, etc. But from a business stability standpoint, you’re taking a much bigger gamble that way, especially with the way the App Store has changed things. Releasing a game on the App Store, you’re looking at having to release it for $0.99 or $1.99…you can’t release a game for $19.99 or $49.99 on the App Store like you could if you were Konami or Capcom releasing a game on a console. So instead of releasing one huge epic quality game, why not take some time and release a few smaller quality games, until you’re financially stable as a studio, and THEN work on that Magnum Opus when it won’t cripple you if it flops.

Ya, Ya, Let’s See a Sales Chart Already!

Bulletproof Outlaws - Elusive Ninja

Not pretty, eh? I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little embarrassing haha I was hoping I could turn things around by the time I wrote this article so I could be like “How I went from 1 sale a day to 10,000 sales a day” but no such luck…yet!

I’ve sold a whopping 256 copies (haha programmer number!) as of writing this, and the vast majority were at the start when I Launched and that was no doubt mostly my friends and family, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, etc. buying it. Along the top of the chart, R represents when I got a Review, B represents buying a Banner ad and P represents something Press related (in this case, sending out a bunch of review requests).

256 copies x 1.99 = 509.44 minus 50% (30% for Apple, 20% for my programmer, Derek) = 254.72 actual theoretical money in my pocket so far. Dev costs plus advertising has been around $3,000 so that’s nowhere near enough to break even yet.

You can definitely see that when I “do stuff”, my sales go up, when I “don’t do stuff”, my sales go down. Obvious, but the problem is that “doing stuff” tends to cost money and the timing of “stuff” is important…I’ll get into that in the Reviews, Banners, and Super Combo sections.

Wasting Money

I’ve also admittedly (and at times knowingly) dumped money into certain marketing avenues that were dead-ends and a total waste of money, and I’ll probably do so a few more times before I’m done experimenting. My thinking is that because I have a quality product and I’ve hit a wall, I should explore getting around that wall now while I have some money to do it with and while I don’t have to make much to recover the development costs…otherwise all that’ll happen is I’ll develop another game and hit the same “how do I get it noticed?” wall. If I can at least figure out the weak points in that wall and learn how to chip away at them efficiently now, I can focus a little more strategically when I’m marketing my next game. I consider this a shotgun blast, so that I can figure out the best places to aim the sniper rifle.

Why Not Just Add More “Stuff”?

Some people have suggested adding more to the game, changing the price, etc. but going by the vibe I’m getting from how the App Store market and general marketing process appears to work I honestly don’t think that would do much. I could have 50 different objects to dodge or 5 different ninjas to choose from and I don’t see a way that that would get me any more attention than I’ve gotten…it’s just another stat for the marketing blurb which isn’t getting read to begin with. Now if I added like 100 different objects, 10 different ninjas, 20 levels, RPG gameplay elements, a 5 hour fully animated plot, etc. I’m sure that’d get noticed more, but development-wise that would be a ton of time, money, and man-power, and I’d still be gambling and hoping to get noticed. The easy route would be to just make the ninja a big-tittied ninja chick and put in a Nude Code and I’d get all sorts of attention haha

Anyway, this is getting into theory now. So let’s get back to actual results and data and take a look at the different types of marketing I’ve tried and my experiences with them:

SOCIAL MARKETING

Word-Of-Mouth

These days word-of-mouth is probably the most powerful form of marketing at your disposal. It generally doesn’t cost money directly, like putting up a banner ad does, but it DOES cost time. Word-of-mouth tends to require a lot of building hype, networking with the Press, interacting with your fan-base (even if it’s just a handful of Twitter Followers), participating in forum threads, responding to E-Mails…I truly think this alone can be a full-time job and down the road when I can afford to, I’d like to actually hire someone to handle some of this stuff just because it’s such a massive time-sink and you end up having to check threads, E-Mails, Twitter, etc. 24/7 to keep on top of it all.

On the plus side, while it’s time-consuming to build up word-of-mouth, it’s not torture or anything. You make new friends, you reward fans for helping you out, you get to participate in different communities, etc. It’s pretty fun actually, it’s just that at the end of the day if you’re a small studio you have to consider “How much of my time am I spending doing this, and how much more work would I be able to get done in that time?” You’ll have to balance this stuff in a way that’s comfortable to you.

Why’s It So Important?

I think when you’re starting out, it’s probably the most important category to focus on. Think of it like the gold and wood collecting stage in an old top-down Warcraft game. Sure, making Barracks and Knights and laying siege on your enemy’s base is awesome, but to get there you have to spend some time building up your resources. Unless you fluke out and create Angry Birds on your first go, or already have a fan-base of some sort from other projects you’ve done, you’re probably going to be starting out as a total unknown. Collecting all the gold and wood all by yourself as just one unit would take forever and wouldn’t leave anyone left to build the barracks. By making friends and building a fan-base of Followers, you’re recruiting an army who will help you spread word about your game.

The Angry Birds guys can announce ANYTHING and it’ll be posted on the front page of every game news site that day. They have the brand recognition, studio reputation, and fan-base that demands attention when one of their Press Releases pops up on Editors’ screens and that “ROVIO ANNOUNCES…” headline catches their eye. Plus it’s probably safe to assume that they’ve made a lot of great contacts in the media since Angry Birds first exploded onto the scene. Whether the way this works is good for the game industry in general or not (hope you like Halo, ’cause I hear 4, 5, and 6 are coming) is a discussion in and of itself, but for the sake of keeping on topic I’m not touching that haha I’m not bitter about this at all…I’m just saying: This is how it looks like things work from what I’ve seen, so our question to solve is how can we work within this system as Indies with limited funds and reputation?

As Indies, we generally can’t afford to post a full-page ad on all the top gaming news sites and run promotions where we give away a dozen iPad 2′s. But socializing doesn’t cost us money. Imagine if you had even 100 fans following your game’s development, and each of those people has 100 fans. When you release or update your game, that’s 100 people Tweeting, Facebooking, etc. about your game’s news and now you’re reaching 10,000 people through them that you never would have had direct access to. Now say you’re friendly, out-going, social and polite with various game news Editors and Reviewers that you meet on your development adventures…if a handful of them decide to cover your game because they dig you, well now when you Launch your game, you’re hitting that 10,000 people from before plus all the people who visit those news sites.

Meanwhile the guy who’s making a great game, but sitting in his basement keeping to himself is Launching his game to..well, the handful of people who happen to notice his icon on the New Releases page in the few hours it takes for it to be bumped off there. There are success stories where the Developer doesn’t do anything and word-of-mouth just happens to spread because the game catches on, but that’s rolling the dice and crossing your fingers. We want to be a little more pro-active and tilt things in our favor here, otherwise we might as well just be buying lottery tickets.

Bulletproof Outlaws - Elusive Ninja

Okay, so it’s important to not be anti-social…but where do you begin?



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