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Indies overcompensating on marketing

Guacamelee and Parkasaurus designer-marketer Chris McQuinn wants to see small studios prioritize design

Chris McQuinn's LinkedIn page lists a simple set of responsibilities he has had at DrinkBox Studios for the better part of the last decade: "Design & Sell those games."

As a designer and marketer at the studio behind Guacamelee and Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, he has an uncommon combination of first-hand-experience in both the creation and commodification of critically and commercially successful indie games. And when asked which discipline--marketing or design--he considers more crucial in the industry today, he takes a moment to answer.

"A lame answer is 'You have to do both parts right,'" he told, "but I'll give you a more committal, less lame answer--even though I think you do have to do both parts right. You have to get design right, first and foremost. These days, people have gotten really good at marketing their games. Smaller scope teams are really good at marketing their games. Lots of kids out of school are really good about marketing their games.

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"In my opinion, it almost seems as if people are forgetting about the game and getting really good about everything else, like getting up the websites, emailing YouTubers, and this and that... Then at the end of the day, the game comes up a bit short, and people realize that as soon as the game comes out of Early Access or is released, and then there are some troubles there."

That's not to say McQuinn wears the designer hat to make the game and then switches to the marketer hat once it's finished. When he's working on the game, he's always considering the marketing, often taking screenshots of what he finds interesting to either post online immediately or to hold for later when he needs just the right image to highlight just the right aspect of the game.

"In theory, if you make the design good, it should work out on the marketing side with regards to it getting pick-up"

Despite the adage that "No man can serve two masters," McQuinn said his needs as a designer and his needs as a marketer have never really been at odds.

"We just want to make the best experience, and I feel if you're making the best experience design-wise, there's going to be a ton of material that's interesting and marketable," McQuinn said. "And in theory, if you make the design good, it should work out on the marketing side with regards to it getting pick-up."

Of course, it's not enough to just make a good game and assume the marketing will take care of itself. A game needs to have a fundamentally sound marketing strategy, and McQuinn had one key piece of advice for generating that.

"You need to know your schtick," McQuinn said. "It has to be tight. When you approach people, it has to be very tight. Know what your schtick is, and deliver it in a very tight manner. People have very little time, and you're going to get their attention for one or two seconds. You just need to try to slip into that crack."

McQuinn put these ideas to the test at DrinkBox, but he's about to find out how well they translate in a different setting. McQuinn is still lending DrinkBox a hand on Guacamelee 2, but he's no longer a full-time employee. He and fellow DrinkBoxer Mayuran Thurairatnam have formed WashBear, a two-person team working on Parkasaurus, a dinosaur theme park management game.

At first glance, one might think the schtick for Parkasaurus is readily apparent: Jurassic Park meets Theme Park. We suggested as much to McQuinn, but were quickly corrected. While he acknowledged the influence of management sim titles, he name checked Zoo Tycoon and Sim City 2000 rather than Bullfrog's first crack at the genre. As for Jurassic Park...

Chaos theory in action

"I can't speak for Mayuran, but I don't particularly care for Jurassic Park," McQuinn said. "I mean, I was a crazy dino kid when I was younger. I totally wanted to be a paleontologist. But Jurassic Park didn't really resonate a whole lot.

"I didn't like why the dinosaurs were always so antagonistic and were always 'the enemy.' And I know that was just the case with the aggressive ones like the T-rexes and Velociraptors, but when you think of Jurassic Park, you don't think of the loving Brontosaurus or the Steg or whatever. You always think of scary dinosaurs. And for me, I've never had that vision of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are these amazing cool things I want as pets and to be my best friend. That's why we don't want to bring that sort of view of dinosaurs to Parkasaurus."

That said, this is a theme park management sim, "life finds a way," and half the fun of building an intricately balanced web of systems is watching how quickly it can fall into chaos. So naturally, from time to time these dinosaurs will escape their exhibits and wreak havoc, which is when players need to jump into first-person-shooter mode.

"If you look at architectural drawings of zoos these days, they're amazing. They're so cool. They're like a designer's wet dream"

"You're never going to kill your dino," McQuinn emphasized. "You're just going to dart them to sleep and put them back in their exhibit. There's going to be chaos, for sure. But it's more like when your dog gets out in the street. You're like, 'Aw shit, Rosie got outside again' and you have to lovingly go after them. That's the take we have on it."

But when first asked about inspirations for the game, McQuinn didn't turn to previous video games or cinematic blockbusters. He excitedly and enthusiastically talked about zoos.

"Me and Mayuran love zoos," McQuinn said. "Especially new zoos in the last 5-10 years, there has been an architectural renaissance in how the exhibits are designed with regards to exhibit flow. If you look at architectural drawings of zoos these days, they're amazing. They're so cool. They're like a designer's wet dream. And we find that's often lacking in Zoo Tycoon-style or simulation games, that real importance on how you design the exhibit, its shape, and how you flow people through a park. We want to take that and make it into a game."

And for McQuinn, that's the thrust of the marketing strategy.

"The schtick is that it's a dino tycoon game where how you make your exhibit matters," McQuinn said. "We're putting in a lot of interesting aspects on the flow of your park, the biosphere of your park, how it matches your dino, how your changes to it will change how much the dinos like living in it."

He likened it to playing with terrariums as a kid.

"You get some shitty bugs from outside and you put them inside and you'd be like, 'I wonder if my bug would like this stick, angled like this? Of course my bug would!' So that's kind of how we see Parkasaurus," McQuinn said. "Every exhibit is its own biosphere, its own terrarium where everything matters. Where you place stuff matters."

McQuinn will find out how well that schtick works when Parkasaurus debuts in Steam's Early Access program next spring.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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