Thursday, June 9, 2011

Love Your Niche

"Sometimes, the customer isn't always right. Sometimes the customer is an asshole." I lifted that from some site linking the above video, so I can't claim credit. If you haven't seen it, it's brilliant and hilarious (although it's got some NSFW language). If you can't watch it, basically the Alamo Drafthouse threw out, without refund, a patron that wouldn't stop texting during a movie. The exceptional part isn't that the Drafthouse did this (they're apparently vigilant about enforcing their no talking/texting policies), it's the ejected patron's frothing response.

But equally exceptional is the Drafthouse themselves for actually enforcing this policy. As I'm sure anyone that's been to a movie in the last half-decade is aware, this is something you'd almost never, ever see in a chain megaplex. Not only would enforcing this kind of policy at a big theatre be difficult at best, but it's not at all in the theatre's interest. They're basically the default movie destination and rely on accessibility and volume. The Drafthouse could not be more different.

Rather than attempting to compete with the giant megaplexes, they're trying to cultivate a very different audience. Single screen theatres, holding hosts of special events, good food and drinks standing in stark contrast to $4 sodas and greasy popcorn (seriously, look at this bloody menu); the Drafthouse is trying to be everything a megaplex is not. And that includes throwing out undesirable customers who would disturb the type of patrons they're actually trying to court.

Essentially, the Drafthouse knows their niche and they're creating an experience that supports it almost exclusively. Rather that trying to beat billion dollar corporations at their own games, the Drafthouse decided the best way to win is not to play. And that, three of a half paragraphs in, is why this is very relevant to games.

I look at this year's E3 coverage and I see titanic corporations throwing tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours all trying to creating the best experience of shooting some men. And don't get me wrong, I love to shoot me some men every now and again (and a few, e.g. Bioshock Infinite, appear very genuinely ambitious), but they can't all be the best. And more importantly for me, there's effectively no way for a smaller developer to compete with that.

So I ask, why even try? Working on smaller downloadable games almost by definition means you're making a game for a niche (and in the great scale of culture and entertainment, games are already a niche). The more successful downloadable games sell maybe 300,000-400,000 copies. The towering successes, of which there have probably been less than ten, just break a million. For most AAA games, 1/3 of a million sales is an unmitigated disaster. Smaller downloadable games are afforded tremendous freedom because they are small.

In terms of actual development, much as the Drafthouse can toss unwanted customers, smaller games can afford to be inaccessible to some players. If you need to move 5 millions units, you have to appeal to a broad swath of players, with different skill levels, goals, etc. If you need 1/20 of that, it's far easier to say, "This game just isn't for them."

All too often, I hear talk of "the player" (and I fall into this trap myself) as if there's some Platonic player that all games should be made for. The truth is, you need to understand who your target audience is as well as who they are not. There are a variety of techniques for this, e.g. user stories, but it's really about having a clearer understanding of who you're making this game for beyond just "the player."

I groused about Frozen Synapse's poor tutorial last week, but the truth is, if a trichromatic, asymmetrical turn-based squad shooter where every level looks literally identical and you can control your squad's actions to the tenth of a second sounds appealing, you've already self-selected. I'm not sure how many folks are on the fence there.

Small downloadable games have tremendous potential to do things that larger games simply cannot do, because the experiences hit too small of an audience. And the Alamo Drafthouse will never grow to compete with Cineplex (or whatever theatre chains exist in the States, I don't even remember now). But they don't really intend to. They know who their audience is and they just want to ensure they're well served and they keep drawing in like-minded souls. Keeping that lesson is mind is something I intend to do so more and if that means kicking out some insane lady for texting, so be it. If nothing else, it sure does result in a lot of Internet fame (beyond, you know, just being so totally badass).



Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I am so glad you did a post on this! I am someone who works in retail management myself and sometimes you have to make decisions like this. Sometimes it is obvious when people don't like your work and they are just complaining for no apparent reason but you also must listen when real people do have complaints. The bigger question is figuring out who is an ass vs. who is upset? I think we have a duty to help those who are upset but not those who are asses.

I think indie games are great because they can do what they want, because of their low price point. It can be hard when your company is to concerned with the profits. I think if your produce a good product at the end of the day, people will buy it. No matter what, there will be an ass on the forums to tell you how bad your game was!

Great Post!

June 14, 2011 at 4:39 AM  

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