Building a business in the niche
Green Man Gaming's David Clark explains how the company is bringing out games like Stormworks: Build and Rescue using its status as a publisher/retailer to its advantage
Green Man Gaming has been in the publishing game since 2014. And while the retailer has learned a number of lessons in that time, there's one specific lesson that Green Man Gaming managing director of publishing David Clark focuses on in a recent discussion with GamesIndustry.biz.
"Unless you are a publisher with big bucks and deep, deep pockets where you can afford to appeal to a mass audience, you're operating off limited budget," Clark said. "And if you try to take a mainstream product into the market on a limited budget, you're just going to get lost because you cannot compete with the big boys. It's impossible. So the solution in our eyes has been to focus on the niche."
The timely example of that strategy is Stormworks: Build and Rescue. Released into Steam Early Access earlier this year, Stormworks is a sim game that lets players create their own sea-rescue service and vehicles. It's not tough to imagine the appeal for those who like to play in a physics sandbox, while the build-your-own-vehicles conceit and Steam Workshop integration invites plenty of fan projects, like a SHIELD Helicarrier or the Millenium Falcon.
Those qualities made it easy to take on the game, Clark said, as they helped answer the first key question Green Man Gaming now poses of all the games it is pitched: Where does the audience live?
"Show me where that audience lives," Clark said. "If it's a first-person shooter, then forget it. Because that audience is everywhere and there are millions of them. So for me to compete with all the first-person shooters out there and reach those hundreds of millions of people who are interested in first-person shooters, forget it. I can't do it. But like with Stormworks, we quickly identified that there was a whole series of really major YouTube players out there that covered the likes of Kerbal Space Program, Scrap Mechanic, and whatever else. So if I can get those guys to talk about my game, then we're onto something."
It's possible to go to non-gaming audiences as well, and Clark said Green Man Gaming has done that for Stormworks by reaching out to the British and Swedish off-shore search and rescue teams, as well as the military to explore possibilities. However, such audiences can't help but be secondary in his view.
"I can extrapolate how many units a game has sold globally. I know where in the world they've been bought, at what price they've been bought, and when they've been bought. So when I'm looking for a niche title, I can pull on that data"
"It's almost like an onion ring," Clark said. "You've got to start off with, 'Is there a gaming audience?' Because that's your starting point. Ultimately, all my games are on Steam right now. Next year you'll find them on console as well. But you've got to have an account and you've got to know how to use that account. So as you move away from the core gaming audience, you start getting wastage in your communication. Bit by bit, there are fewer people in your audience that are gamers comfortable with buying a Steam key, an Xbox One or a PS4 download.
"We're a gaming industry, and that's where our core lives. If we forget about that, we probably won't have a business."
It also helps that as a retailer, Green Man Gaming understand that core better than most. Clark has access to years worth of data on the company's digital storefront, plus all the information from its own games on Steam, as well as every other storefront and platform through which it publishes games.
"We've got a fairly damn good idea of the ecosystem we operate in," Clark said. "I can extrapolate how many units a game has sold globally. I know where in the world they've been bought, at what price they've been bought, and when they've been bought. So when I'm looking for a niche title, I can pull on that data."
If all goes well, that data helps Green Man Gaming identify games that he can afford to bring to market that would perform well. When the game arrives, a well targeted marketing campaign aimed directly at a proper niche is more efficient, yielding a better conversion rate. And since the demographics of a niche audience can vary from the general gaming market, there are other dynamics at play as well.
"Because [Stormworks] is fairly niche and fairly hardcore, we've appealed to quite an older audience," Clark explained. "And it's an audience that's far more interested in the type of game and quality of the game as opposed to being price sensitive. If you're 18 and still in college, then every penny counts. When you start focusing on the niche, you start focusing on games that audience wants to buy. They're buying that game because they love that type of stuff. They're not taking a punt on it. It's not picking up a game they saw advertised on TV."
"You've got to understand how to communicate to that audience otherwise it can backfire quite spectacularly"
And because a niche audience is likely to have very specific desires from a game, any title that fulfills those desires successfully could see solid retention numbers. Clark said 42% of all Stomworks players have logged at least 10 hours of gameplay. The game's average playtime is 22 hours and 34 minutes. 10% have played for 50 hours or longer, and the median play time is 7 hours.
Of course, it's not especially helpful to successfully identify an underserved niche if the game itself doesn't deliver on what that audience wants.
"You've got to understand how to communicate to that audience otherwise it can backfire quite spectacularly," Clark said. "When something's your passion, your life, your hobby or whatever, you expect people to articulate that particular message in a certain way."
For Clark, that meant letting Stormworks creator Sunfire Software and its CEO Dan Walters take the lead.
"Dan got it," Clark said. "He plays that sort of game, he understands that audience. So when he went out to talk to that audience, he used the right tone of voice and delivered the right features at the right time... He gets his audience, and we take our cues from him and convert that messaging."
That's a significant change from Clark's first jobs in the industry, when he worked at Sega Europe and Eidos in a marketing capacity on considerably larger titles. Needless to say, in those cases the publisher was much more likely to tell the developer which way a project would be going.
"When you're putting a significant sums of money into a) the game and b) to market the game, than you start protecting your investment," Clark said. "You start taking the lead on these things because it's significant amounts of money. And because it's significant amounts of money, you start investing in some seriously hardcore market research. So it's the publisher that ends up understanding the audience, the direction they want to go in, and what the opportunity is."
"When you're operating in a niche where the developer is an expert in terms of the audience, as a publisher you're there to guide [them], and to make sure the developer doesn't inadvertently stray too hardcore"
Clark noted that even though those frameworks are completely flipped, both developer-led and publisher-led games are essentially trying to achieve the same goal.
"It has to be a partnership," Clark stressed. "A publisher is by definition a generalist. Clearly, we've got our opinions and we'll sit down with Dan, argue the toss, and then we'll kiss and make up and the world is happy. But there's no doubting that a developer in that [niche] circumstance knows his audience. What we're here to do is make sure none of the publishing skill sets are dropped."
That means making sure the developer is on point with providing screenshots, promo videos, update notes, and other logistics with time to properly promote them, or telling the developer how the game's audience is skewing and suggesting ways communications to players could be tweaked.
"When you're operating in a niche where the developer is an expert in terms of the audience, as a publisher you're there to guide [them], and to make sure the developer doesn't inadvertently stray too hardcore," Clark said. "Because at the end of the day, we're here to make money. That's got to be the end goal. So you've got to guide the developer to a degree down that route. You've also got to guide them as to development timelines, scheduling, and all the other skill sets a publisher's got."
Stormworks hasn't launched yet, but it appears to be a success story in the making. Green Man Gaming is launching the third major update to the Early Access build today, and is aiming for a full release in the first half of next year. Clark even pointed to it as a model for Green Man Gaming to follow in the future as it pursues niche titles more aggressively.
"You're going to see GMG continue to evolve as a publisher," Clark said. "We're going to evolve that retail bond and leverage it even more efficiently than we've been able to do so far... As we become more sophisticated and the quality of our games become better, the variety of niches we can operate in and reach out to--and the size of those niches--will start to change. So that's what the next 12 to 18 months is looking like for us."