In the latest in our exclusive editorials from UK indie developer Introversion, producer Byron Atkinson-Jones discusses how to market a game without a dedicated budget, and the struggle of convincing Microsoft that opening up the game development process is a good idea.
Introversion is always running out of money. This can be tough when you need to do something that requires spending some money. So the first thing you have to do is get creative and find ways of doing what you want without spending money. It’s fun.
The marketing budget for Darwinia+ is a case in point. We sat down one day to brainstorm over what new approach we could take to market Darwinia+ that hadn’t previously been done with Darwinia and Multiwinia when they were released on the PC. We came up with a lot of grand ideas and were finally settling on one when I made the fatal mistake of asking Mark (Morris, director) what our marketing budget was. He looked a bit puzzled for a moment as if I was asking a stupid question and then replied “nothing”.
It’s moments like this I begin to equate working for Introversion as being like in the A-Team. I have visions of Mark standing there with a fat cigar in his mouth and shouting: “Well team, the situation is dire. There’s a thousand of them out there and all we have is this roll of duct tape, a piece of chewing gum and a shoelace”. The doors open one minute later and out we run having created a high velocity weapon that miraculously disables the entire enemy army without killing a single one.
I’m not one to let a mere detail such as no marketing budget stop me from doing anything so I went into extreme-creative mode and began to formulate ways of marketing Darwinia+ using whatever we had available to us. Each person in Introversion is very talented in many ways so I was determined to draw upon that talent and come up with a scheme that would be original and also capture people’s imagination.
I blame it on my child-hood. My mother was determined that I wasn’t going to be the same automaton that she saw coming out the schools and decided that I was going to be a creative person from day one. So I was encouraged at all opportunities to be original and create things. I was taught that there were no limits to what I could do. I am very thankful for this upbringing because in my experience people are mostly taught about what they can’t do rather than what they can do so once they progress beyond childhood they suddenly have all these limitations pressed upon them and the worse thing is – they believe it.
A good example of this was the other night when Introversion was at the Comedy Store in London watching a show. One of my work colleagues asked me during the interval what I thought of it. It was my first time at a live comedy show and it was improvisation night. I was blown away by the comedians’ creativity and immediately had a burning desire to one day do what they were doing. So I responded with “I’m going to do that one day”. He grimaced and said “Never going to happen. Sorry to burst your bubble but they have had years of practice”. Whatever his intentions it shows an internal limitation filter that convinces him that he or anybody else cannot do something he does not feel is achievable so there is no point trying. I’m the opposite. I believe anybody can do anything and if you fail just get up and keep trying. Besides, his comment was like a red-rag to a bull and made me even more determined to achieve that goal one day.
So part of my role as creative on the marketing scheme was to break down the immediate 'can’t do' attitude and move people into a space where anything is possible, you just have to try. So like the A-Team, the marketing-team had nothing but a roll of duct tape, some gum and shoelace to come up with a marketing scheme that would rock the world.
As it happens, on my way home that night an idea forced its way to the front of the queue in my head and screamed for attention. I was quite thankful that it chose that moment to do it because most of the time it happens at 2am at which point I can usually kiss off any hope of getting back to sleep. So all buzzed up with what I was convinced was the best marketing plan ever I continued on my way home when I really wanted to go back to the office and tell everyone about it.
The idea was simple - show everything. For years console development was always shrouded in secrecy with the entire development process bound up in NDA coloured tape. My idea was we break through that tape and expose whatever we could. I wanted to show everything from emails, meeting reports, bug reports, design and even source code from the game.
What was the reaction the next day? Can you guess? Well, to their credit the team were incredibly open to the idea but the rest of the team took convincing. They were convinced that there was nothing of interest in the development of a game. The reality however is that there is an entire community and indeed publishing houses based on the concept of developing games – just go into a mainstream book store to see how many books you can find on game development. I am sitting in front of a bookcase at this moment that has 60-plus books on the subject. People are interested in how games are made and what better way to promote the game than to show them how we do it.
The project got green-lit and went ahead. Again, we have no budget so how do we do this? The most obvious route and also having the added benefit of being cheap was a website. But who would make it? We can’t afford to hire a designer. Thankfully, once again my 'you can do anything' attitude paid off because a year ago I decided to teach myself website design and coding and I jumped in to create the site. The result can be found at here. The biggest potential hurdle to creating the site was Microsoft. I had to get their buy-in before we could go ahead. To their credit they were all for it. They had some rules about what we could and couldn’t show and of course the site went through some teething issues when Microsoft thought we had crossed that line and asked us to redact some content. Their biggest problem is that they are a huge company so somebody is bound to have missed out on an email describing what we are doing and have a seizure when they see what we're revealing. At times it can be frustrating what we can and can’t show but overall the experience is fulfilling and I would do it again in a heartbeat, except I have to be even more original next time.
The point of all this is that all you have to do is look around you. I bet you have lots of people who are really talented and not necessarily exclusively in the subject domain you hired them for. Reach out to that talent and put it to work and I bet your company will be better off for it – not to mention you will have satisfied the creative urges of your employees and therefore make them happy too. If you need help in finding out who the creative ones are then find out if they maintain a blog, for example I keep one about all the creative things I do, including the latest spare-time game I am making called Xiotex. There is bound to be somebody at your workplace who is doing the same thing and those are the people you can count on to get you through sticky situations such as having to achieve goals without a budget.