Much Needed Break

November 05, 2014 | Filed under: Uncategorized

So…I’m about to head off on a much needed holiday somewhere nice. Right now it’s raining outside here. Haha, I shall think about the British rain while I’m here…


This will be the last time I actually have a real holiday before I release Gratuitous Space Battles 2. A small army of highly skilled assistants are working away on various cool art things while I’m not here. Unlike most geeks, I’m very into the whole ‘unplugging’ thing. I’m not taking a laptop. I have a ‘smart’ phone I guess, but I never use it for the internet. I’m taking it just for emergencies. I think it’s good to break away from the world of computers and games and get some fresh input into my mind. Maybe it will inspire me to make a different game, or who knows what. I’m away for almost three weeks, the longest holiday I have ever had, as I recall. I wonder if the cats will recognize me when I return.

I have a growing fear that the games industry, specifically the way indies are handled, treated, and reported, may be leaving a group of people behind. There are more indie devs now than ever before. I personally think we have an indie game crash coming. I see a lot of indie games that are unmarketable, unsellable, not viable as a commercial endeavor that supports a family. Yup, its great to be 20 years old and young and hip and hanging out in coffee shops with a laptop, and only needing money for coffee and wifi, but thats not a career, thats a hobby..

But regardless of inevitable indie crashes, I’m more concerned that game development, or rather indie-game development has become incredibly narrowly focused. If I was paid to enforce stereotypes for a tabloid newspaper, I’d probably say that all indie game developers are white, late-teens to twenties, english-speaking, liberal hipsters with iphones, who love breaking bad and game of thrones, who wear ‘ironic’ glasses, and spend a lot of time on social networking sites. They spend 25% of their time tweeting about cool game developers they have met and the other 75% of the time re-tweeting political/activist rants and memes.


They are developing a mobile game, or an ipad game, and its a platformer, or a puzzle game, or a walking simulator. Their marketing budget is of course zero, because they are *that* anti-establishment. They wouldn’t dream of charging > $5 for their game, and they are sure that somehow they will become a millionaire by age 25. They have spent a lot more time hanging out with other indies or going to conferences than they have, or ever will do programming. Obviously they code in Java or C# or something even higher level, and obviously they use unity. Their business plan on PC is ‘steam’.

Now obviously that isn’t *that* true, it’s a stereotype, but it’s a bit more-true than is comfortable. And the reason this matters at all (I have nothing against platform games, twitter, unity, or anything in that list), is that any group that can be described like this immediately becomes a group that repels outsiders.

Oleg is a 52 year old divorced ex-welder from Minsk. He taught himself C++ from books, and does not know anyone else who is a programmer. He lives alone, in Minsk. He does not speak English. He is very hard working, and very good at business decisions. He is an exceptional programmer, and has a fantastic eye for game design. He has never been to the USA. His project is a highly innovative strategy game that is better than anything else currently available.


The problem is Oleg doesn’t stand much of a chance at indie parties, and more worryingly, I suspect doesn’t stand a chance in the indie press. The indie press have decided what indies are like, and Oleg isn’t one, or at least not one that they will write about, and they sure as fuck aren’t going to fly to misnk to meet the guy, nor are they likely to ever hear about him, and more importantly his amazing strategy game.

Because Soooooo much press coverage comes from game shows, where indie devs show and ‘pitch’ their games to the press. That relies on them being Charismatic, friendly, extrovert, confident English speakers. That is A TINY TINY TINY subset of humanity. (Also it doesn’t help that Oleg is fictional…). I figure your chances of getting attention for an indie game if you are a white liberal english-speaking 21 year old guy in san francisco are 100x that of oleg. Am I wrong?

Journalists, prove to me I am totally wrong. Show me all those big articles on amazing indie games by people who don’t speak English. I bet there are some fucking amazing games out there we aren’t hearing about.


So what is the michelin guide? well wikipedia tells us that it is…

“a series of annual guide books published by the French company Michelin for more than one hundred years. The term normally refers to the Michelin Red Guide, the oldest European hotel and restaurant reference guide, which awards Michelin stars for excellence to a select few establishments. The acquisition or loss of a star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant.”

Basically it’s the go-to book for foodies. A michelin star restaurant is pretty pricey. A restaurant with two stars is VERY pricey. A restaurant with more than 2 stars is stupidly pricey. With the price, hopefully comes quality. It is basically THE goal for a chef to get his or her restaurant in the guide. In short, it’s a guidebook for very expensive high quality restaurants. And what does that have to do with marketing and selling your games, indie or otherwise?

Fuck all.

But…it is very applicable when you look at the motivation. Michelin make tires. You can’t eat tires, they don’t go well with food, there is no obvious synergy there. You don’t order a confit of duck and a side order of all-weather snow tires. There is apparently no clear link… But there is. There are two of them, neither of which is apparent.


Link one: The indirect market. When the guide was introduced people had cars, but there was frankly not much motivation to use them. The train was the preferred method for long distance travel. Michelin made tyres, so they wanted people to buy more cars, and also…use them more. That means they needed a way to persuade people to travel more. A travel guidebook is one thing, but the michelin guide is much cleverer because it introduced a ranking system. Restaurants were no longer ‘good’ or ‘not bad’, but ranked in a very specific system that was based on the top-end. The chances of your local pub or restaurant having a michelin star were practically zero,m but LOOK! here is a list of all the ones that are great, some distance from you, and here is a scientific sounding accurate ranking that persuades you that they are so good, it isn’t worth traveling to! get in the car! Don’t forget to check your tyres!


It’s genius marketing, because it is so indirect, and so subtle. On the face of it, that nice michelin company are giving away (they later charged for them) a free guide to restaurants! whats not to like! clearly they just love food and want to give something away! In those days, the technology was pretty simple, but a cynical 2014 version of the guide would probably use cookies to encourage you to go to the furthest restaurant from your house :D

So what is link two? Well if you read any of those neurosciency advertising books I like you already know, but it’s this: Association with quality. In the world of food the word michelin == quality. People struggle for years to be awarded the honor of putting ‘michelin’ next to their name, because michelin means quality…michelin means quality…. ooooh do you need new tyres? what brand are you interested in sir?

So bringing this back to indie gaming, how does it help? Well firstly it explains a bit how clever some ads are, and secondly, it shows how subtle and long term and in what roundabout ways clever marketing people think. Most indie devs will not even consider advertising, or sponsoring something, or doing *anything* that doesn’t lead to a click and a sale *right here* *right now*, but thats not how marketing works. The michelin company were prepared to start a whole sideline in promoting good food to hopefully build up a motoring culture that would indirectly boost their business. Thats really clever thinking, thats really long term.

We should be more like that when planning strategy.