Quick and Dirty Market Research: A Better Way Than Build & Pray

If you want to create a failing indie game development business, you need to create a product or service that no one will care about, and it’s easy to do so. Just follow these steps:

  1. Get inspired to create a game.
  2. Create the game.
  3. Release the game.
  4. Start figuring out how to market the game.
  5. Start again from step 1.

If you follow the above steps, you’ll spend time creating and releasing games that you may or may not find enjoyable with features that you love. By the time these games hit the market, they will probably sell badly. Note that the marketing step doesn’t happen until after you’ve released the game.

Anyone who knows anything about business will tell you that those steps are backwards. If you want to be successful at business, the marketing comes first. Maybe you’ve heard this advice before, but it’s easy to dismiss or misunderstand. How do you market something that doesn’t exist yet?

That first step above says you get inspired to create a game. The problem is that most amateur game developers will do so in a vacuum. They’ll come up with ideas that appeal to their own desires, ignoring what anyone else, specifically customers, might want.

For example, if you love playing games such as Bejeweled, you might want to create your own match-3 game. Naturally, if you love playing a certain type of game, you will probably enjoy making one, so this new project feels like a good fit. Bejeweled is simple, fun, and popular. You could probably make a better game, right?

What you shouldn’t do is start building a game immediately. You may be able to crank out something “just like Bejeweled but with better [insert feature here]”. Maybe your version of the game uses high quality 3D graphics. Or maybe you provided joystick input with force feedback support. Or maybe you simply made the playing field bigger. In any case, you have this feature that makes your game unique. You liked it and wanted it enough to put it in the game.

So here’s a question: when you finally ask someone to part with his/her money in exchange for the game, do you know if that customer even cares about what you are going to offer?

Amateur game developers will work for possibly months to years on a game before releasing it, and then they hope that customers like it enough to pay for it. That’s the Build and Pray model. And while it might provide some success, there’s a better way.

Market Research

Market research should be the first step in your product development plan. It is another term that can be misunderstood and dismissed too easily. A lot of indie game developers might like the idea of market research (or at least the idea of the benefits of market research!), but they have no idea how to do it. What is actually involved?

If you want to see a great example of a company successfully leverages market research to create popular products that customers love, look at Zynga, one of the largest Facebook game developers. While some of their monetization practices have been controversial, there is no getting around how large of an audience their games are receiving. It’s no accident, of course. Zynga doesn’t just put out games and get surprised by success.

See the article How Zynga Uses Minimum Viable Products at Grattisfaction.com for some insight into their quick and dirty market research, or what Zynga CEO Mark Pincus calls “ghetto testing”.

The basics:

  1. Find out if there is interest in the market for what you want to create. You can do so using low-cost ads on high traffic sites. Tim Ferriss did something similar to come up with the title for his book, “The 4 Hour Work Week”.
  2. If you have a decent interest level in your idea, build a simple version of it.
  3. Test and measure to see if what you built is doing what you want. Are people responding favorably? What metrics will tell you the answer?
  4. Iterate. Do more tests. Repeat.

With the amateur Build and Pray approach, you are taking on a lot of risk. You get no feedback from customers until after you’ve expended a lot of energy and spent a lot of money. Once the game is released, you’re scrambling to let people know it even exists, and then hoping they like it enough to make it all worth the effort.

With market research, whether you do “ghetto testing” or something else, you’re minimizing your risks. Throughout development, you feel fairly confident that you’re building something that someone will actually want. You don’t haphazardly work on random features you think of because you’re focused on only those features you need to satisfy your customers. Market research helps you identify what you need to focus on and what you can ignore safely.

There is a lot more to marketing and product development outside the scope of this article, but if you do decide to create a new game, hopefully you can see that there are many benefits to putting your marketing efforts up front instead of waiting until after a game is finished.

Besides the “ghetto testing” method, what market research do you prefer to use to learn what your target market wants to play? Have you found it fairly easy or difficult to identify potential customers before your game has been created?

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/3935419035/ | CC BY-SA 2.0)

7 comments to Quick and Dirty Market Research: A Better Way Than Build & Pray

  • Casey Dunham

    This is very timely as I was just starting to do some research into the XNA market, seeing what is making it into the top lists and what isn’t out there yet.

    Maybe I will look into creating some ads once we get our site up.

  • One great way to get a prototype done AND get some feedback on it is the Ludum Dare 48h competitions. If you can get the right theme, that is. It may not be the exact target audience, but you’ll get many ideas from people about which parts are fun and which are not. The best part is that it’s someone else’s perspective and not yours.

  • Very nicely written.

  • yep yep.

    Like Roger Corman used to do, make the poster first, and if people respond to it, go and make the movie.

  • In open source development, this is referred to as “release early, release often”. By putting your early development versions of something out, if it’s interesting you’ll get people responding with “hey, cool, but what if X?” or “hey, cool, but there’s a bug here, I fixed that for you”.

    The idea is the same: Be open and transparent early, and responsiveness becomes much easier. That’s true whether you’re selling something or just going for market share.

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