Interactive adventures marketing: the basics to make your adventure a commercial product

Posted by Miguel Alda.
First posted on 03 July 2000. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
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"One of the things I love about the IF community is the do-it-yourself vibe", said Jim Aikin, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way"

- XYZZYnews, Issue #18

Games understood as business

The IF example

This is the main handicap that commercial interactive fiction or IF, (and, by extension, all interactive adventures) faces—the DIY vibe. I remember, back in my London university years, that feeling about Newton's theories, "Why no one at all thought about it before him? It is so simple." Of course it is simple, but just the basics. Many ancient scholars have had thought about universal or local attractions, but we have to wait 2,000 years for Newton to come along with that bunch of formulae that can solve the problem. The same is with IF. Anyone can think a plot, draw a map, download some good software, and create its own adventure—that is ok. You can even alpha-test it, get some friends to beta-test it, paste it on the internet with some added values like software, news, articles, but if your intention is to get an audience or to commercialize it in some way, you are going the very wrong way. Why?

The role of the developer

The developer develops the idea (obviously). Yet, an interactive adventure is too complex a thing for just a single person to handle. Take the 3 key elements for a good adventure—script, graphics, and action. Make a table with these elements and be truthful with yourself—I am pretty good at plots/scripts (say 8/10), can think some serious enjoyable action (7/10), but I am null at graphics (0/10). My developer's "quality" mean is hence 5/10 and the adventure is going to be that—5/10 (being generous) or just another homemade adventure pasted on the internet with a thousand visits/players a year (if I am lucky and have some good friends).

The role of the beta-tester

If you want a commercial product, you need a team. Recall my score—script 8/10, graphics 0/10, action 7/10. I need someone to help me out with the graphics. Now there are a couple of us and the adventure looks pretty attractive to us, which is good enough; but then your cousin phones you up and says, "Look, when I get the map and the lighter, why is it that when I try to use the lighter with the map (or type, in pure Text Adventure mode, "light the treasure map"), I get the message "The torch is still wet?" What torch?" He has come across a bug, and quite a serious one.

Beta-testers are the key component of any good computer product. Microsoft spends millions on them. They are the guys who give you a fairly large list of "do's" and "do not's" and desperate you with zillions of comments. Learn from them, be humble, and redo every bit that seems not to be in its place. Never an adventure shall end up being what you have thought at the beginning.

The role of the player

Now you are ready for the final stage—the anonymous player. Take the player into account from the very first moment. If you aim to an adult audience (for example), do not entitle it "The Pink Pony Fairyland", and vice versa. If they are children, teenagers, or football players, do not include obscure puzzles to do with some metaphysical idea you read somewhere.

The point to do with players is, of course, how to reach them. That is what marketing is about—customers. You have been careful and have tailored a pretty good game, but need an audience. How can you get it?

From marketing to e-marketing

Internet is the battlefield; and software (professional applications and games) is the queen of the ball. This article is not about how to build up a nice web page, but how to profit your efforts to its maximum. Internet is cheap, but be careful and do not get fooled. I do not mean that you do not need money to develop a good successful idea; I mean that a good successful idea on the internet pays itself (for example, Yahoo!). I know pretty good personal sites with an average of 60,000 visits per month with no formal publicity at all (just mouth-to-mouth or a couple of articles in newsgroups), and quite a large bunch of well known commercial sites or portals with a cost per visit of hundreds of dollars. Hence, make sure your idea is good and competitive, and then get started—do some "guerrilla" like publicity around, construct an user-friendly site, and offer many, many, many things for nothing—tips, FAQs, links, demos, pictures, whatever. If you do not, else one does. This is the creed. Of course, in the middle of it all, place your game.

The way you sell is up to you. You can use it as a presentation card when getting in touch with a company or you can build up a pay per download system, whatever. Remember The Blair Witch Project—with a couple of thousand bucks, not even enough to buy a good secondhand car, those guys have made a film, constructed one of the most successful web pages ever, and earned loads. Old good marketing works on the basis on how to get a couple of good customers; for e-marketing, the magic number may be 10,000!

How has marketing gone wrong with text adventures?

Back during the 1980s, Text Adventures (TA) have been a really enjoyable option for Spectrum, Amstrad, MSX, and other platform developers and users. Indeed, they have been the root of all Interactive Fiction (IF) and graphic adventures we enjoy nowadays. Somehow, they have faded away. What have gone wrong?

TA structure (developer's point of view)

Developers have always sought TA as simple to program, and they are because developers have sought them that way. None of them have been successful enough to survive the years when the playability of some of them is explicitly higher than the average "typical" (non-TA) game. There are some features that have seriously handicapped them to survive:

  1. TA is deified as a kind of "intellectual" toy for really smart guys. Puzzles become harder and harder and the average player is just that—a player looking for some virtual fun.
  2. The graphical option is left aside. The human being is a visual animal, and people get bored of looking at postcards instead of animated graphics. You can never substitute a forest with flying birds crossing your screen and the noise of a river flowing somewhere with a Tolkien description of it.
  3. The random factor is forgotten. Players cross rooms with description such as "You are in the blue room. There is an exit northwards.". Players then go north, back south, and the description is the same. They go far away, back again, and the description remains unchanged. Developers become lazy; they simply expand the map of the action rather than implementing a couple of added lines to make the game more "interactive". For example, suppose the player now goes back to the blue room and the description changes to "The blue room again. This color does not seem to suit the furniture.". Suppose the player comes in for the second time, the description then becomes "The blue color of the room relaxes you.".
  4. If the player is patient, cools down, and goes 10,000 times across the same blue room, the same boring text is going to appear and into a stupid arcade scenario which is complete nonsense. Never solve the incapability with more; and that is what programmers do—when they do not find a way out for the cul-de-sac they are in, they think, "Well, we are not going to improve TA, but we are going to make them bigger, heavier." and there they go with nonsensical arcade patches that have nothing to do with the script, starship (unreal) simulators, useless animations that take up half of the memory.
  5. TA is taken as a cheap option. Wrong. This is the DIY/homemade philosophy again. Developers do not look forward for any kind of investors; they think they themselves are capable enough to develop a good cheap product.

TA structure (user's point of view)

Of course, the market is sensible to these attitudes, and players' view of TA games is that these games are a minor option for them because of the following:

  1. For them, the development of the format of TA games does not parallel the evolution of the computer technology. How can it be that TA games for a 48k Spectrum are as complex and visual as those which are programmed for an Atari 520 ST?
  2. TA players, along with developers, tend to gather in clubs of adventure users which deepen the "ghetto" state of the situation.
  3. When graphic adventures first appear, players have taken them as an "evolution" of TA, which then becomes a kind of relic or fossil of the formers.


We can conclude this brief analysis of IF marketing with a couple of advices for those trying to reach an audience and a commercial market for their games:

  1. IF games are as complex as an average game, and if they are not, make the development as complex as possible, widen your team, insist on innovation and (why not?) even on R&D.
  2. Study your audience. The market decides whether that character you like so much is good or not; in marketing terms, your opinion does not count much if it is not tuned with public demand.
  3. Be ambitious. Nowadays, the gaming market is a very competitive and good ideas are welcomed among investors and companies.
  4. Bet on technology. You are not going to go too far if you are still fond of parsers. "Doom" has been such a success because the developer has exploited the available technology to its maximum in their field and they have won both the originality and a state-of-the-art sense around the game.
  5. Do not think originality is just a question of doing new things. It also implies improving the past.

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