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"It's the software that matters, that's it"

Fireproof Games' Barry Meade on how a focus on business and marketing can be detrimental to a game developer

Fireproof Games' Barry Meade took the stage at Game Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP) to discount the importance of business in game development. The makers of the hit iOS puzzle series The Room have sold over 10 million copies across two games, but they only ever worried about making a good game.

"To this day we've never spent a single cent on PR or marketing," Meade said. He credits their financial success to Apple, which featured The Room upon release and awarded it game of the year, and to word of mouth. Indeed, the bulk of the game's sales came during or shortly after Apple's App Store displays, and the game of the year feature came as a total surprise.

As did any sales at all. The Room was intended as something of a portfolio piece to impress publishers who until then had been unwilling to take a punt on the former Criterion artists with anything other than contract work on other people's games. The six of them had managed to save £100,000 over four years as a specialist house in outsourced design and research and development work, and their plan was to have one of them work full time with a programmer for a year on mobile games while the rest continued doing contract gigs.

The Room came out of their second mobile prototype, which was based on a Chinese puzzle box. After six weeks of development, Meade took it to Apple for a demo. He'd heard of other developers receiving harsh feedback, but the Apple representatives simply told him to keep going. It was good.

That knowledge and confidence in hand, Fireproof remained skeptical that The Room would break even. Meade described that as a "sort of stretch goal." They'd seen too many talented teams with similar levels of experience to them struggle to sell apps; "We had no reason to believe any different," Meade said. "And we had been told over and over that the mobile market is this way."

"I can't tell you how many [game] conferences I've been to where the focus is just on business. These guys are not necessarily doing well. They're giving themselves heart attacks, and they're failing"

But the fact that it did break out and find a big audience he pins down to their approach and their ignorance about mobile development. "We didn't really know what we were doing," he said. "We had to learn how to make a mobile game at the same time we were doing it." But more importantly, The Room was something they cared about. They're proud of it. "It was very important to us to make the game that we thought mobile games could be," he explained.

"We thought people just weren't trying very hard, frankly. They were giving in to the mountains of data that hammered down what a mobile game should be." As self-described hardcore gamers, they wanted The Room to be a mobile-tailored experience that would speak to people like them, and they believed that marketing would be pointless to these ends because they don't look at ads and they aren't influenced by anything other than word of mouth.

"We kept hearing all this stuff about what it takes to be a developer these days," Meade continued. "You have to be brilliant at PR and great at marketing and awesome at interviews and you have to go to all the shows and be doctor awesome at everything. But we never recognized that as being important to us because it's the software that matters. That's it. There's nothing else that's going to convince you to play other than how good it is."

Meade appreciates that marketing can and does work for more casual-oriented games, but he suggested it's irrelevant to games like The Room. Instead of worrying about business, he argued developers - especially those with small teams and limited resources - should focus on making good games. "I can't tell you how many [game] conferences I've been to where the focus is just on business," Meade said. "These guys are not necessarily doing well. They're giving themselves heart attacks, and they're failing."

The Room succeeded in spite of its lack of marketing and unspectacular press reception because it stood out as different and was the best game that they could make. "If we'd tried to be like other people," Meade argued, "[or] if we'd tried to play to a perceived audience, which the data says exists, it wouldn't have happened for us."

Find what you're good at and create your own niche, Meade said, because if you're indie you can't compete with the big guns like Clash of Clans or Candy Crush: "If you line yourselves up with those people, you are in for a hiding."

"If you try to copy what other people are doing, there are a million people in the queue ahead of you, and they [probably] have more money and they care less than you," he concluded.

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Latest comments (17)

Tiego François-Brosseau Programmer / Developer 6 years ago
I'm sort of uncertain on what to think about this interview.
This article just feels like "Hey, we got lucky with no marketing, therefore you shouldn't worry too much about marketing"

On one hand, I want to agree with him, because its seems that, as developers, we should only strive to make good games and then Great Things Will Happen.

On the other, most of the indie community will say that without any kind of marketing, your project is unlikely to succeed unless you also work on your marketing (regardless of its form: dev blog, twitter, etc.).

It just feels like the speech may have been different if the game had been a PC only release.
Maybe what Mr Meade says is applicable to the mobile space because of the predominance of F2P.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development6 years ago
I have a couple of problems with this. Here's the first one:
Fireproof Games' Barry Meade took the stage at Game Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP) to discount the importance of business in game development
Appearing, and definitely speaking, at conferences is very much the exact PR activity he's claiming shouldn't be needed. I don't do it because although I know it's useful, I just can't be arsed - it's a big, expensive, time consuming distraction when you have code to write. He's giving a very definite "you don't need to do this" and then doing it anyway.

My second issue is that whilst The Room was an excellent game, it's easy to get swept up in your own press when things go well, and I think the importance of what happened there has been missed by him. It's like people saying that sex isn't important in a relationship. That attitude changes big time when they're suddenly not getting any.

I know he's a regular here so am hoping to hear from the horses mouth.

edited for grammer, innit.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 29th October 2014 11:03pm

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Torgeir Hagland Sr Programmer, Gaikai Inc.6 years ago
And this PR move resulted in a direct Sale... thanks Barry, I didn't know about this game:

You have purchased:
The Room (Kindle Tablet Edition)
by Fireproof Games
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Show all comments (17)
Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie6 years ago
Most important words of this entire article are: "took it to Apple for a demo" :-)
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Adam Jordan Community Management/Moderation 6 years ago
Yes and no is my answer to this article.
"We kept hearing all this stuff about what it takes to be a developer these days," Meade continued. "You have to be brilliant at PR and great at marketing and awesome at interviews and you have to go to all the shows and be doctor awesome at everything. But we never recognized that as being important to us because it's the software that matters. That's it. There's nothing else that's going to convince you to play other than how good it is."
This gives me the 50/50 vibe. In full context, he is right. You do hear about "you have to be this and that" when really you don't because naturally you would have separate teams blending into one team.

The "It's the software that matters" bit can be interpreted in two ways. The first way is the way I quickly read it and how the headline perceives it, which is that he is saying "It's only the software that matters, nothing else". The second way is how I actually read it after reading through it a few times, which is essentially, you let your product AND your customers do the marketing for you.

In other words, you don't always have to splash out to make yourself known. You don't have to plaster the world in adverts but at the same time and this might just be me but I see it differently when it comes to mobile games/apps than to AAA/Indie games (More so PC and Consoles).

What I can say though that he is correct upon is that a lot of people these days do heavily rely on word of mouth. If someone or a number of people say something is bad, they will stay away. If someone or a number of people say it's good, they will jump in or check it out. I know myself that if a couple of my friends that know what they are talking about, recommend me a game, I will check it out in a heartbeat.

However, marketing is still needed, regardless of how you go about it, only difference is, if you have a good solid product that people will like, you don't have to push heavy with the marketing, just let it and your growing fanbase do the talking for you.
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Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie6 years ago
To clarify my comment... taking it to Apple = marketing. Marketing to a private (but very powerful) audience.
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Hi Paul,

(note it was an hour long talk and a lot of context - and caveats - gets left on the table when reading a digest about it)

On your first point, well, p'raps appearing at a conference is a form of marketing, but I was talking about the form of marketing that comes with promises and backslaps and costs developers serious - horrendous - amounts of money. I don't discount that type of marketing, I de-emphasise it. As we were expecting to attract enthusiast gamers before casual players we felt word of mouth was what we could rely on - it's what we rely on ourselves as gamers and people like us don't care about ads. (We had no choice anyway as we had no cash to do anything else). The best games speak for themselves, so to make word of mouth work means making something genuinely fresh or *somehow* interesting. It kept us on our toes creatively to think this way, focused us on the game. So If we released and nobody had anything to say about what we did, our view was that *we* would have failed, not word of mouth as a strategy.

Your second issue Im not sure I understand but I think you mean I ignore our push from Apple? In my talk, I don't ignore it, if you ask me, I don't ignore it, in fact even in this article, I don't ignore it. If you could explain more what you meant I'd be happy to answer.

(Edit: just realised you may have meant that doing lots of conferences/shows is strong marketing? I go to about 4/5 shows a year, and have never once pitched to talk or appear at any. I only do talks when asked directly by organisers so I actually go the other way to most devs who seem to appear everywhere and talk non stop).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Barry Meade on 30th October 2014 10:40pm

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@Lee Showing people something is a form of communication sure, but it's not marketing. We're in a very silly place if that means the same thing as buying airtime, banners or page space.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Barry Meade on 30th October 2014 10:35pm

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@Torgeir Hey man hope you are well, long time no see :)
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship6 years ago
We know what you're doing, Barry! You're going for that anti-marketing dollar. Verrrrry clever.

Bill Hicks On Marketing

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nick McCrea on 30th October 2014 10:50pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development6 years ago
@Barry, the first part was just a dig, I guess I should've added a smiley :) Even us talking in here is marketing, even if not done deliberately for that end. And I know you know that.

My second point though is that you had more press than it seems you think you did. I've seen more articles about The Room that you were playing down than my personal best ever "media storm". It helps to have a good game to get that started, I agree on that, but once started the self-sustaining part comes mainly from regular press attention.

It helps (a lot) to have a good game, yes, but that isn't all of it by any means. Because you got plenty, it's easy to overlook the benefit the press and other marketing channels probably brought you, and I suspect it's more than you suspect.

And as a final thing, does anyone here think Flappy Bird was actually a good game?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 30th October 2014 11:12pm

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@Nick there is nothing you or anyone could teach me about enjoying Bill Hicks :)
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@Paul I accept that it's easier for a successful game to overlook elements of that success. we had a decent dose of press at the start due to being featured tho I think nothing wildly out of the ordinary, and our review scores were typical for a yet another 'good' mobile game, 8/10. Most of our press attention came after the fact, after it had sold, after we won GOTY. We learned that outside of enthusiasts, nobody cares about you until you make money. Press and PR like to think they are priming consumers but in our experience of the digital market, consumers in fact dictate to the pace to them. A shit ton of games that get featured in app stores fail to break even. If our game hadn't sold after that initial week of featuring we would have been forgotten. We're very aware of this.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship6 years ago
A deep and abiding love of Bill Hicks could well be the greatest statistical predictor of a successful game studio.

Getting serious for one second (and slightly sycophantic, forgive me), great games, deserve their success!
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Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie6 years ago
@Barry It was a very smart, and very cheap form of "buying airtime" in my opinion, and possibly your smartest move during development, besides the obvious act of concentrating on making one awesome game! Basically I agree with you, but... you did one VERY smart piece of direct promotion.

Also, I think that direct promotion came naturally to you, it wasn't forced or planned (much?). It's part of your (excellent) character. I think it's just a fascinating little nugget of information about your success story.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Lee Walton on 4th November 2014 8:08pm

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Mike Tuori VP of Strategy, Touchten Games6 years ago
"As self-described hardcore gamers, they wanted The Room to be a mobile-tailored experience that would speak to people like them, and they believed that marketing would be pointless to these ends because they don't look at ads and they aren't influenced by anything other than word of mouth."

This strategy works because the developer understood who their target user was. They were not targeting the fickle mass market user who will click ads and jump around and try a bunch of games and then (hopefully) stick (and spend) in the ones they like for a little while. If the game was targeted towards a different user segment this strategy likely wouldn't have worked.

Second, we should note that this is a premium game, so the facebook ads and CPI interstitial type marketing campaigns wouldn't have done them any good anyways. Premium requires a different type of marketing, one that communicates to the user the value of the game before they purchase it. Premium requires lots of reviews, word of mouth, and little stars next to the name that says "game of the year".

Marketing for a premium game needs to show why the game is worth buying before the user has played it -- free-to-play just requires showing that the game is worth trying. For free to play it's more about discovery: hope that a lot of people see your ad, click it, and try your game. Then, once millions of people have done that, you hope that a couple of them will spend a dollar (that's the challenging part).

TL;DR - Follow his advice if you intend to make a premium game for hardcore gamers (but still promote your game through forums, reviews, awards, etc). If you want to make free-to-play or casual games, learn some marketing and business skills (or hire someone that has them)
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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ6 years ago
I really enjoyed the talk at GCAP Barry!

It's true that maybe Fireproof "got lucky" with the room, being featured by Apple, and winning iOS Game of the Year, and therefore didn't need money spent on traditional marketing. By "got lucky", I guess that really means, "Fireproof used their experience and intelligence to design a game that played to their strengths, and appealed to Apple's and consumers' sense of taste and curiosity, and pulled it off with the sort of polish and finesse that made The Room shine, rather than disappear in the tangle of apps out there." :)

Overall, I just enjoyed the general sentiment that people should focus on their game. Make the game great, make it play to your strengths, be critical of it. Come up with something you know you can do well. And make it.

But yes, there are many other magical ingredients that need to fall into place before you have a hit game. You could easily follow the general formula of Fireproof and "The Game", and have a game that no-one notices. It stood out in the talk, that Fireproof were also good at making contacts, chatting to Apple, showing Apple previews of their game, etc, which all counted a lot towards the success of the game. And that all falls under "business sense", rather than just "make a cool game".
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