Last month, game designer and programmer Daniel West wrote a post-mortem on Gamasutra, reflecting on the commercial flop of his four-man team’s game, despite having made what he considered a ‘good game’ and having invested a large amount of time and money into their marketing campaign. In the post, titled ‘Good’ isn’t good enough — releasing an indie game in 2015, Daniel essentially attributes the failure of Airscape: The Fall of Gravity to the current landscape of the gaming industry. An over-competitive market, too many games available, yadda yadda yadda — we’ve all heard it before. But I think this conclusion lacks personal accountability on their part. It merely pushes the blame externally, when Daniel and his team could’ve done something to soften the blow earlier on.
I understand that ‘good’ can be quite subjective, so to clarify: in the context of this post, I believe at its most basic level a ‘good’ game should…
- Be able to gain the interest of its target audience; and
- Be sellable to the point that the company can break even for the costs incurred.
Big company or small company, when it all comes down to it, this is what everyone is striving for when they create their games. Everyone wants to survive for the long-term after all and continue to do what they want to do, while at the same time getting recognized for their hard work and creativity.
Daniel is under the impression that both the game and its marketing were ‘good’ because they:
- Regularly contacted various press agencies to update them on news related to the game whenever necessary;
- Attended exhibitions and events to let more people know about their game;
- Created a website and a press kit for people to access and use;
- Received positive feedback in the form of awards, a 73% rating on Metacritic and some Steam reviews;
- Were active on social media and community forums; and
- Hired a PR firm that helped get popular Let’s Player jacksepticeye to cover the game.
Let’s make one thing clear: Even when marketing can reach a broad audience, it can only work effectively if people are interested in what you have to offer.
Essentially, Daniel doesn’t understand that marketing heavily relies on good product development. And successful product development is not just about making a game that works or adding unique features. It’s about understanding what people want. You don’t have to appeal to the mass market, but at the very least you need to try and appeal to a specific group — a target.
And it’s not like the game didn’t have a target at all. The team released the game on Steam hoping to attract gamers who were into challenging titles like Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami and Nuclear Throne — all of which have achieved great success in the past few years. They had a market right there but they failed to reach it. On their Steam page, Airscape: The Fall of Gravity is described as “a fast-paced, gravity-shifting action platformer about a deep-sea octopus who has been kidnapped by a mechanical alien race. Jump, dodge, and swim through a skybound environment full of floating islands, water formations, and robotic terrors.”
This gives me more questions than answers:
- Why is this game called Airscape when its protagonist is a deep-sea octopus?
- After creating this element of nature, what are the reasons for robots being in this world? Why weren’t they incorporated into the title?
- What does The Fall of Gravity have to do with the narrative? Yes, it’s a mechanic in the game but what’s the reason for the weird gravity in this world.
- Why has the octopus been kidnapped and why does it want to escape?
- How is an octopus able to jump and how do you “swim through a skybound environment”?
I’m sure these questions are answered while you’re playing the game but the point of a product description is to sell your product from the very first time people interact with it. People can say that consumers nowadays have a limited amount of time to be sold on a product and use that as an excuse for the lack of sales. But I’ve spent at least an hour looking through the extended description on Steam, the Press Kit and their website. I watched the Let’s Play video from jacksepticeye. I’m still not sold.
The elements of the game just don’t seem to make any sense with each other and I still can’t bring myself to empathize with the octopus character. I’m assuming these are sentiments that others who viewed the page share, considering Airscape’s low sales and the refusal of many media agencies to cover the game. There’s simply too much of dissonance between Airscape’s title, their narrative and the game’s mechanics. Devs need to understand that while you can put whatever fancy new feature into the game, the premise for it and the characters still need to believable in some aspects.
Daniel was at least aware of one dissonance but again, I feel like he was barking up the wrong tree. He pointed out that the cute graphic style of the game may have pushed their audiences away and while I do believe that’s true to a certain extent, it’s nothing proper descriptions, marketing-speak and a good product could have saved. If you look at the history of games, I’m sure you’re bound to find more than one that’s been popular despite having horrible graphics or a style not fitting the norms of the genre. The MMO dancing game AuditionSEA (which I played religiously for 2 years or so in my teenage years) attracted all sorts of hardcore gamers and created new ones too despite having cute graphics. Dead Pixels received criticism from TotalBiscuit for having a graphic style that “doesn’t fit well”, yet it still received largely positive reviews from players on Steam due to a number of other features that appealed to them. That said, I don’t believe the graphic style made that big of an impact on Airscape‘s lack of sales.
The problem was, as Daniel said it himself, they “made a game no one wanted to buy.” However, judging from the title of his post, he’s making it seem as if the problem is confined to 2015. It’s not. If we look at the very first arcade machine Computer Space (1971), it suffered from a similar problem. The game’s complex controls and out-of-this-world concept (“A TV game in a bar? You can’t be serious!”) and design (“What are all these buttons for and why is this so hard to understand?”) was too much for the bar scene. Contrast this with surprise hit Pong, which skyrocketed Atari into the history books as the company that popularized arcade games. The game was simple enough to play and was accessible to anyone regardless of age, education level and soberness. It was perfect for the bar scene, people loved it and stories of the game spread like wildfire. Before this, no one knew they wanted this new product until they saw it, heard about it and/or played it themselves. Convincing people is about catering to their desires and abilities — this is a universal truth for any time period and market condition.
When media outlets refused to cover their game, Daniel’s team should’ve already started asking what was wrong and consulted with at least a few people of their target audience. Everything from their game, their website, their use of language, and approach to marketing indicates that they were completely out of touch with the people they were making the game for. Some Steam reviews also commented on how unreasonably frustrating the game can get in the later levels and its lack of depth. Yes, the Steam market is saturated but there’s enough consumers out there to prevent the game from being an utter flop.
Airscape: The Fall of Gravity is not a bad game, given how its won multiple awards and has achieved a decent amount of good reviews. Though I personally applaud the game’s attempt at innovation as well as its adorable art style and the effort the devs put into it, I can’t say Airscape is a good game either.