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Full indie 2016 : Learning from Brigador’s mistakes

Stellar Jockeys made a unique game with a lot of hooks to get players on board. It had unique art, a fully destructible environment and a cool soundtrack. Game engines are like wood, no matter what you’re carving into it you’ll end up following  the natural flow of it.

Brigador was made on a custom engine to really work in destructible environments from the core of the game. It had great reviews on metacritic and on steam. If you take in account the issues that were fixed since they were reviewed, Brigador would have 97% positive reviews. Yet is sold less than 10k units. Why is that ?

Hugh Monahan had the courage to share his story with us, and we thank him for that.

Controls are extremely important

Brigador was built around tank controls right from the start. The ‘W’ key moves the player forward rather than up.

During playtests, participants would sometimes take 30 minutes to get on with the controls, but afterwards, they thought it was great.

One mistake made here is they never tested the controls against other options. Alternative controls were available as an option in early versions, but that option was even removed just before launch.

The data was there, it just didn’t lead to the right actions. In my opinion, this happened because it’s hard to be objective about your own work.

The idea behind that was that the best experience of the game would be achieved by going through this longethy learning process. Players for their game would be the kind that give a game a couple of hours before they decide wether they like it. The sad truth is once more confirmed : players got the game, were given these unfamiliar controls and just quit.

The take away from this is that someone who’s playing the game how they enjoy it is better than pushing players into the way you want them to play.

How players enjoy your game shouldn’t matter, as long as they enjoy it, and paid for it, then it pays the bills.

Players may or may not have prior knowledge of other genres and legacy knowledge from other games. Always question wether this legacy knowledge will work in your favor or will it work against you ?

Onboarding matters

I’ve written multiple times about how important it is to get your players engaged with the game quickly and that the first 5 seconds, 5 minutes and 30 minutes of the game make a big difference in success. Brigador’s example illustrates this once again.

Though it’s not the actual Brigador numbers, 17% drop out before reaching the first level and 92% of players never finishing the first level is common for mechanical games.

The developper expected middle of the road players to give a game between 3 to 5 hours to try out the game. In Brigador, there’s so much novelty and unique selling points that the first hour of the game ended up being a tutorial, and a wall of text at that. Fast tracking players through the tutorial to get them up to speed wasn’t the right solution for a game this feature-rich.

What about dark souls you’d ask? It’s also unique, and has an equally steep learning curve ?

Though I think other factors played an equally important role in Dark Soul’s success (like its extremely good usability), Hugh’s take is that From Software built a history and an audience for their kind of games over the years. Ever since their first title, they managed the expectations of their target audience to match what their game would actually be. They laid a groundwork long before releasing their games, to get players up to speed.

Which wasn’t the case for Brigador as Hugh discussed earlier in the talk when he reviewed the game’s trailer.

The trailer didn’t reflect the key selling points of the game

Seeing the trailer, I found the music repetitive and the static red font kind of amateur. But the main issue with the traileris that it didn’t reflect at all how the game feels.

The game looks like a fast paced dual stick shooter but the subjective experience of the game couldn’t be further away from it, offering a much slower, intensive, tank-like experience.

Twin stick players would get the game and be very disappointed by the slow experience. PMech warrior tech gamers who might have enjoyed the game didn’t feel they were the target and didn’t pick it up. The trailer didn’t give a clear understanding of what the game would be like.

It’s the opposite of Duskers, which clearly conves from the trailer on that this game isn’t just about exploring space with drones, but also doing so using command prompt to control those drones.

Visibility is king

A very painful fact for Hugh was the slaughtering grounds sales. Despite poor reviews, Slaughtering grounds sold 240k copies. Why ?

Well the simplest explanation is that if players aren’t aware your game exists, they’re not going to pick it up.

If your adoption rate is 1%, it means 1 out of every 100 persons you show your game to will be interested. If you only show your game to 100 persons, well… you’re screwed.

Ideas emerging from this talk

Get professional help for trailers

Getting your game out there, making it visible any way you can is mandatory if you want it to be a commerical success. If your trailers and communication is attracting the wrong audience, it wont d you any good though.

Hugh highly recommends having professionals make your trailers. The cost is worth the effort, though a couple of indies I talked with after the summit also mentioned they were unsure about the quality they’d get from whoever was doing their marketing. On top of Hugh’s advice, I’d recommend to make sure you test your trailer, wether you go through an agency, a contractor or do the trailers yourself.

Test your trailers

Playtesting a game to improve its quality is a common practice, why not extend it to your marketing content? Other industries have been testing advertisements, banners, commercial sites and TV adds for a long time already. Why not apply this to games marketing as well ? Guerilla testing will do if you’re on a budget, but it’s common to test ads with eyetracking to preciely know what is picked up by the player and what lacks visibility.

Testing your trailers will let you know if the message you get accross is the one you wanted to before releasing it. If you make early trailers, it’ll also help you find out what your player’s expectations are and wether you can and want to meet them. It’d also allow you to add features or clarify the game’s scope to avoid the backlash of mismatched expectations – thinking about no man’s sky here for example.

Getting more out of playtests

Testing one idea iteratively with real users and improving it iteratively will lead it to the best possible implementation. It is even better to start with multiple ideas and iterate on them to identify the best one. The best implementation of a good idea will always remain worse than the best implementation of a great idea. you’ll get more out of your playtests if you conduct experiments and compare ideas to build on the best right from the start of the project. Testing alternative controls or onboarding flows highlights opportunities and helps deal with risks.

In Brigador’s case, the observations were there, but it didn’t lead to corrective actions. The developers has asumptions about players which turned out not to be true. It is really hard to notice those oneself, and the team has many tasks on hand.

It’s a good idea to ask external consultants for feedback. User research specialists have seen many players interacting with many games. They can help getting a fresh perspective, and point out things the team might be blind to. It is hard to unlearn a project you’re passionate about and work on every day. Hire a  researcher for two weeks or even a single day and they’ll ask the questions you didn’t know you were looking to answer. They’ll show you the arrow you always failed to see in the Fedex logo because you were so familiar with it.

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