If we want a long career, we game developers need to stop thinking of our games as standalone art objects. Instead, we need to start thinking of them as franchises.
I've completed 50+ projects as game entrepreneur and consultant and it's clear to me that most of us yearn to make a single, great game, to put everything into it - and then move on to something completely different. This is a terrible idea.
A single, standalone game is simply too risky to make - and both the investors and publishers know it.
Why is it risky to make a standalone game?
A standalone game only has one shot at success. For everybody involved -- investors, employees, publishers, and even players -- the chance of a one-shot game failing is way too high. If you're asking anybody to invest time, money or attention in a standalone, you're not really asking them to invest; you're asking them to gamble.
So, what is the alternative? Make something that allows you to keep building over the long term: something where audience size and loyalty can be built over time - and where your expertise grows over multiple releases. Sure, you can get lucky with a standalone game, but the chances are much better if your world, characters and gameplay are made to grow over multiple games, seasons or episodes.
Instead of your project being 'a single game', it should from the very beginning be a potential franchise - a universe with the potential to span multiple projects and even leap into other media.
As soon as you start thinking like this, your pitch to investors starts to change: instead of saying "this is a shot in the dark," you'll be saying, "this is the first step in a learning process".
What are the benefits?
There are many. Here are some good ones:
Firstly, you get a continuously growing fanbase and awareness. Even if your first launch isn't a smash hit, it will still have established the universe, characters and gameplay in the minds of the initial fanbase - and others will have begun to hear of it. This fanbase and awareness can grow through later instalments. Even a mediocre success is not necessarily a failure: it has established a beachhead that can be expanded through new projects, within the same franchise.
"Once you launch that first game, it's too late to start thinking about franchises"
Secondly, each launch allows you to get better, build experience and gather more knowledge for future launches. The reason why even experienced teams can't guarantee that an original game is a hit is that each new game is a niche in itself - it takes time to master that niche, know what that specific audience wants, and so on. If you're working within an existing franchise (however small), then subsequent launches benefit directly from the lessons learned earlier. Every time you start on a completely new kind game, in a completely new universe, you are throwing all that away. You have set yourself up to master a niche. Your niche.
Thirdly, you get longer staying power in the market. When your franchise finally hits, it will be ready to expand and to keep expanding. Since you've already developed the universe and everything else, you can keep develop more projects within the same universe - or you can choose to outsource it to somebody else, while you start developing your next 'franchise'.
Basically, you're no longer starting from scratch - each time you make a new project within the same franchise, the chances of it becoming a hit will become greater.
What can this result in?
We might as well face it: some players will not like it. They want something completely new, every time. Making games for them is fine - but be aware that they are a small part of the market. Unfortunately, there are a lot of developers in that very small part of the market, which is why it is easy for us to get caught in a 'friends and colleagues' bubble. The mainstream market, which is most of the market, wants a guaranteed return on their investment.
Investors, however, will like it - and they will set your company value higher as a result. You're being a professional, with a long-term strategy. Even better, your potential chance of achieving success has become greater - and the potential size of that potential success has become exponentially greater. Your company might even be worth investing in! This will lead to interest from more investors, media companies and even talented employees: there's a solid plan, here. Not many of those around.
Ultimately, it can also lead to cross-media promotional opportunities, merchandising, movie tie-ins and so on. Yes, this is a long way down the line, but the investors are already thinking ahead - you can be very sure of that.
Of course, having the potential to become a franchise doesn't guarantee that your game is good enough to warrant more projects. You still have to make a great game. You still have to prove there is an audience for it. It still has to keep people's attention and spread itself. But -- and this is the catch -- once you launch that first game, it's too late to start thinking about franchises.
What does it take to make my game into a potential franchise?
It takes a lot of things, but it starts with the IP, and this is quite simple to describe:
- 1. You need characters that are interesting and memorable
- 2. You need a fictional universe big enough for more than one story
- 3. You need a recognisable visual style
- 4. And you need the whole package to be different, but not too different.
Let's tackle them one at a time:
1. Characters that are interesting and memorable
Super Mario, Shovel Knight, that guy with the helmet on Dark Souls posters, Nathan Drake, Spider-Man. They're all characters - recognisable, interesting, memorable. Can you imagine your characters on a T-shirt? Would they look cool, there? If not, back to the drawing board.
2. A fictional universe big enough for more than one story
Sounds complicated but doesn't have to be. Think of your game world as a stage: imagine more games and stories playing out on that stage. Not possible? Back to the drawing board.
3. A recognisable visual style
You need to stand out in the market - otherwise nobody will notice you. Don't make a generic looking medieval knight simulator! Don't make a WWII game that looks like every other WWII game! You need something different - and if you get it right (and if there is a memorable character or two), then it can be protected legally. Then you've got an IP. Does your game look like all the other games? Back to the drawing board.
4. Different, but not too different
But you have to be careful. If you stand out too much, the mainstream audience will think you're weird. Mainstream audiences don't buy weird games. So be interesting - but not weird.
Of course, if your goal in life is to be an artist, then none of this applies. For artists, the foremost goal should be to express themselves -- just don't expect to make a living doing it.
Christian Fonnesbech is an independent consultant and head of IP development at Nordisk Film Games, which is the game investment arm of Egmont. As an independent consultant, he also advises developers, schools and investors in the games and media industries