Developers attend conferences for many reasons, but perhaps the most important is to improve their chances of survival and growth by learning from their peers. On most matters, there is something approaching consensus around best practice - but not always.
On a panel at the Reboot Develop conference yesterday, three experienced developers outlined various methods for making a product stand out in the ever more crowded world of independent games. Rockfish Games CEO Michael Schade, Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail and 11 bit Studios marketing director Patryk Grzeszczuk found common ground on every subject, save one: cutting a game's price through regular sales.
"That's an easy one: you definitely do sales," Schade said in response to a question from the audience. "You do a sale every two months, because that's what Steam allows you to do, and you put your release in a way that lets you participate in the bigger sales. It's not a good idea to launch two weeks before a potential summer sale, because then you'll miss it. You'd rather [launch] two months [before], so that your earlier buyers are not offended."
Two months is enough time for early adopters to not feel cheated when the price drop arrives, as long as the cut isn't too deep - 20 per cent off, two months after launch, will mean, "no backlash from the community." In the first Steam sale following the launch of Everspace, in which it was featured by Valve, the company earned as much revenue in one week as it had in the whole of the first month. Since then, Rockfish has cut the game's price on Steam every two months, without fail.
"The value of our game at exactly the price that we launch it is part of what Vlambeer is"
"There are people out there for whom buying a game for $20 is like buying a coffee for $2 - 'I don't wait for the coffee to come down to $1.80'," he said. "But others do wait; they have their wish-list and they wait for the price to be right for them and they buy it.
"So we do sales. Of course. Yes."
The certainty in Schade's voice was perfectly matched by the subsequent admission from Vlambeer's Rami Ismail.
"So - we don't," he added, the reluctance in his tone greeted by a chorus of laughter. "I don't disagree, though. From a numbers perspective that's definitely the right choice. In terms of income, revenue, even users, that's the right choice. But we're stubborn. For us, the value of our game at exactly the price that we launch it is part of what Vlambeer is. We say the product is exactly this price, and it is that price - it never changes."
While Vlambeer has created a string of commercially successful games, by Schade's reasoning it could have sold more units and earned more revenue with a little price cutting. However, Ridiculous Fishing has always been sold at the same price on the App Store, and the only time that Nuclear Throne has been available for less was through a bundle that raised money for charity. Indeed, Vlambeer has turned that rigid approach to pricing to its advantage.
"It's just part of the statement of what my studio is," Ismail continued. "If you're not going to do sales, the most effective sales tool we have is, when a big Steam sale happens, we post on Twitter that our game is not going to be on sale. And that sells an incredible amount of copies.
"I think the most important thing we've found is that, whatever you do and whatever choice you make, communicate it very, very clearly to your users - what your intent is, and how that's going to evolve."
Clarity of communication was essential to one aspect of selling games that all three panellists agreed upon: the store page itself. 11 bit's Patryk Grzeszczuk said that every aspect of the store-page being coherent is "universally important", whether you're using screenshots or gifs, whether the copy is evocative prose or a list of bullet points. With the copy, he said, a potential customer should understand all of the most important aspects of the game within the first few lines.
"And do not choose screenshots that you consider nice or good looking," he added. "Think about the story behind that particular screen. What does it say about your game? If someone was to describe your game with that one screenshot only, what would they think the game is about? Is that the game you're actually selling, or not? And you have to do that with all the other pieces of content that you're putting on your page."
"Weeks, if not months, of work were put into the store page"
According to Ismail, Vlambeer uses a tool that takes screenshots constantly while they play the game, and they note down the moments that best encapsulate its strengths. "It can take months to find the five or six screenshots that we need," he said. "Our rule is, if we put a screenshot on the page, we have to be happy with it being the header image on a big press site. And the first lines of our store page have to work as the opening of a major article on our game. If we don't have that, it has to be rewritten."
"We have thousands of screenshots," Schade added, "and we pick the eight or so that are on the store for a reason. We debate whether they communicate the pillars of the game. The potential consumer is on that store page for seconds, and they make a purchase decision - or not."
When we spoke to Schade last year, he laid out the detailed marketing and promotion that has allowed Everspace to grow and thrive. Speaking to the crowd at Reboot Develop, he advised that "everybody can do marketing", but store pages are an example of a vital marketing tool that many do not take the time to get right.
"We worked so hard on our store page for Everspace," he said. "Weeks, if not months, of work were put into the store page."
Effective messaging can be the difference between making or losing a sale, particularly when gamers often leap to conclusions based on their experiences with other products. "'This is another Elite Dangerous', 'This is EVE Online for poor [people]' - we get this," he said, referring to some of the misconceptions about Everspace he has encountered. "'Is this the No Man's Sky that we've been waiting for?' We're like, 'No, no, no, don't get us wrong here. You can't land on planets. It's not gonna happen.' You really need to make sure that the message sits right.
And regardless of whether the price has been cut or not, the frontline for that message is the store page "I would say it's your most important marketing material," Schade said. "Because driving traffic to your store is a matter of a good screenshot, a good one- or two-liner, and then put some money behind it [on Facebook]. But the purchase decision is made because of your store page. It's your most important marketing tool."