Recently, many games studios have thrown out old ways of making and marketing their games, and have embraced a bold, disruptive new approach: open production. But what is it? And is it right for you?
What is open production?
Traditionally, video games are made behind closed doors. Teams of designers and developers work away in secret, with information drip-fed to the public by PR and marketing teams, often building up to big reveals and impactful campaigns as the game heads towards launch.
Open production rejects this approach. Instead, it advocates an open-door policy, a fly-on-the-wall approach to developing your game, in order to make potential players more invested in the project. The idea is that honesty engenders trust — so showing your working as you build your game gives people a belief in your team and a sense of connection with you as developers.
Does it work?
In short: yes. Increasingly, indie developers who choose to show their players beneath the hood are seeing tangible benefits to both the quality of their games, and the visibility.
Weather Factory co-founder Lottie Bevan (whom — disclosure — I used to work with) delivered an excellent talk at this year’s Develop Conference, detailing how she utilised an open production methodology for the studio’s debut title, Cultist Simulator. Bevan explained how involving their potential audience right from the start — going so far as to show very early prototypes with placeholder art assets, and asking the community for feedback on particular design decisions — forced the studio to constantly refine their vision and improve the game in a tangible way, while encouraging players to become evangelists of the project and spearhead their own word-of-mouth marketing.
Weather Factory were hoping to sell at least 10,000 copies of Cultist Simulator within a year. In fact, it sold four times that within just two weeks of its launch.
How indies can utilise it
So, open production works. How can indies practise it?
The simplest answer is: just start talking about and showing your game as early as possible. Don’t wait until you have the perfect trailer or the most polished art assets. Start a Twitter account, post work-in-progress content, and ask around for feedback. Congratulations, you’ve started doing open production!
A more complex approach, however, involves careful planning — and an acceptance that when that plan goes wrong, people will know about it!
Two-way communication is vital to open production. Develop a plan for how you will identify and communicate with your potential audience members on an ongoing basis. Tell them what you’re making, how you’re approaching it, and how they can follow behind the scenes. This might be on a development blog, or via a newsletter. The first ten people who sign up? They are your superfans. Treat them like VIPs.
Establish a reliable system of communication, and make it comprehensive. It’s no good posting the occasional development blog and screenshot, then squirrelling away in silence for a month. Establish a clear roadmap with your audience, and stick to it. Tell them what you’re working on now, and what you’ll be working on next week, and when your production milestones are. Show your progress on these, and allow your fans to follow along. And strive for consistency. Update your blog on the same day every week. Decide what time you’ll post new images to #screenshotsaturday each week, and stick to it. It’s a slow burn, but over time this consistency is what will get people following along for the journey, rather than simply taking a one-off half-interested glance.
Finally, involve your audience in a meaningful way. Showing your working is good, but even better is getting your fans involved in the creation of the game itself. Supply work-in-progress builds to your most eager followers, ask them for feedback, then tell them how you’re planning to address their advice. This doesn’t mean you need to allow your players to be armchair directors and follow every request they make — but respecting and valuing their opinion, and showing that you are genuinely considering it, is crucial.
A word of warning
Open production is highly effective. It’s also highly demanding. And once you decide that this is what you’re doing, there’s no going back.
You can expect the amount of time spent on marketing-related stuff — asset creation, community management, and all the rest — to increase, permanently. The expectations of consistency will win you fans, but they’re unmovable expectations. If you say you’ll release new media every Friday, that means you can’t take a Friday off until the project is complete.
You also need to be prepared to make public mistakes. Every developer in the world fucks something up when making their game, but usually that mistake can be contained, kept a secret. Open production embraces the public fuck-up. When things don’t work out in the way you hope — when you miss a milestone, for example, or hit a financial struggle — you have to be honest about that, and show your community what you’re doing to move forward.
Emotionally, too, open production can be hard. Expect criticism. Expect pressure. Your superfans are going to do you a whole load of good when you release your game, but they’re also going to be the toughest boss you’ve ever worked for.
Open production isn’t easy, by any means, and it’s a hell of a commitment. But increasingly, developers are finding that a candid and public approach to game development is fostering meaningful communities, at a time when meaningful community is the holy grail of indie game marketing. If you’re up for the challenge, I urge you to give it a shot.