For Game Developers, It’s About the Labor of Love

Goat Simulator

More people are playing video games than ever before—so many that we now have debates over who counts as a “gamer.” Is someone with a smartphone and an addiction to Candy Crush or Angry Birds a gamer, or should that title be reserved for those who play the more immersive and complex games generally available only on PCs and consoles?

The best answer to this question might be, “Who cares?” For most purposes, there’s no need to differentiate between types of video game players. But for developers, the people who create the games we play, the difference between casual and hardcore gamers is worth considerable attention.

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The markets for casual and hardcore games are very different. Casual games are usually free or cost a few dollars, but occasionally earn millions through in-game purchases. They have simple controls and rules, and are often played in short bursts rather than extended sessions. Casual games have existed for decades (at least since Pong) but smartphones, tablets, and Facebook have helped them reach new heights.

Hardcore games often cost $50 or $60 and require specialized hardware such as a game console or souped-up PC. Many have complex rules and take extensive time to master, but offer tens or even hundreds of hours of unique gameplay. Not just anyone would call themselves a hardcore gamer, but the audience is more loyal and willing to spend than casual players.

‘Win Over the Most Dedicated Gamers First, and the Rest Will Follow’

To find out how developers decide just who they’re making games for, we contacted the makers of Goat Simulator, one of the biggest sensations in casual gaming. We also spoke with the founder of Wastelands Interactive, a studio that makes strategy games for serious gamers. In both cases, the developers suggest the best strategy is to make games they’re passionate about.

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“If you start your game design with, ‘Where do I make the most money?’ instead of, ‘What am I best at and what do I really love to do?’ then you’re destined to fail from the start,” said Armin Ibrisagic, game designer & PR manager for Coffee Stain Studios, the Swedish studio that made Goat Simulator. “We never looked at target groups or aimed for a certain crowd. We just made a game that we thought was really, really funny.”

Ibrisagic, a hardcore gamer himself, added that, “Having a healthy mix of hardcore gamers and more casual gamers in a game studio is very important.”

Goat Simulator is an absurd and hilarious open-world game in which players play as a goat (naturally) and cause as much mayhem as possible. It’s available for PCs, phones, and tablets:

Goat Simulator is a small, broken and stupid game,” announces its website. “It was made in a couple of weeks so don’t expect a game in the size and scope of GTA with goats. In fact, you’re better off not expecting anything at all actually. To be completely honest, it would be best if you’d spend your $10 on a hula hoop, a pile of bricks, or maybe a real-life goat.”

Despite Goat Simulator being a casual game, Ibrisagic suggests hardcore gamers are the ones who made it a hit.

“When the first gameplay trailer went viral, we received an avalanche of requests to make it into a real game on Steam, so we did,” he said. “When the game initially gained its popularity, it was through more hardcore gaming places like the gaming subreddit and other gaming forums, and was then picked up by the gaming media, and after that, the mainstream media. I think focusing on these things too much instead of the soul and charm of your game can be detrimental, but if I am to say anything about target groups then I’d say that I think it’s best to reach and win over the most hardcore and dedicated gamers first, and then the rest will follow.”

Goat Simulator took about 10 weeks to create. It sold more copies than the Sanctum games that took Coffee Stain Studios four years to develop. The Sanctum series brings the first-person shooter and tower defense genres together—it’s obviously more complex than Goat Simulator, but Ibrisagic sees nothing wrong with making or playing much simpler games.

“I think it’s okay for developers to make something small and stupid once in a while too,” he said. “Sometimes you really want to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but sometimes you just want to watch 30 minutes of a sitcom, and I think that’s okay… It’s been an incredible success and we’re just really happy that so many people in the world like being a goat.”

Survival of the Fittest

Despite Goat Simulator’s success, Ibrisagic believes “it’s probably harder to reach casual gamers [than hard-core gamers] today. There’s just so much on the app stores and it’s very hard to break through the noise.”

Statistics back him up. A survey of 10,000 mobile application developers by Developer Economics found that “games dominate app store revenues, yet most games developers struggle. Some 33 percent of developers make games, but 57 percent of those games make less than $500 per month.” The report added that: “Revenue distribution is so heavily skewed towards the top that just 1.6 percent of developers make multiples of the other 98.4 percent combined.” Many developers don’t make enough to cover basic costs for a desktop to develop on and mobile devices on which to test apps.

Costs can be huge: “The most successful free app developers have hundreds of employees and tweak every single small detail of their game,” Ibrisagic noted. But even the biggest successes aren’t always sustainable. Farmville creator Zynga has been in a freefall, and Angry Birds maker Rovio recently cut 130 jobs because of falling profits.

Wastelands Interactive in Poland has built a sustainable business making hardcore games. Founder Leszek Lisowski has 15 people working for him as they develop their seventh game, Worlds of Magic, a turn-based 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) strategy title:

worlds of magic

PC gamers expect higher quality and a longer-lasting experience than people who play casual games on phones and tablets, Lisowski said. “I know there are folks who play [our games for] 300 or 500 hours… 50 hours is the minimum time you can spend with the games without playing the same thing [twice].”

Lisowski began developing games when he realized that playing and modding them wasn’t enough. He still chooses which games to create based on “what I love to make,” he said. “Let’s say 90 percent of what I love and 10 percent what I think will allow us to pay the bills.”

Lisowski knows his audience. A strategy game that combines World War II, U.S. troops, and German tanks “will sell for sure,” he said.

One game his studio didn’t make a lot of money on was Fall Weiss, set during the Invasion of Poland during World War II. But Lisowski said, “I believe it was worth it,” because the game “was kind of a tribute for our grandfathers.”

Bringing Hardcore Games to Mobile Devices

Just because Lisowski’s games appeal to hard-core gamers doesn’t mean he’s ignoring mobile devices. Worlds of Magic, which is available on PCs in an early-access form for $40, should hit iPads and Android tablets in mid-2015. But it won’t be for what we usually think of as “casual” gamers.

“We realized that a lot of people who previously played on PC are switching to mobile devices, but they still want titles of similar quality,” Lisowski said.

Turn-based games often translate well from PCs and consoles to touch-based devices because they require good decision-making rather than precision and timing.

“I think for us the mobile revolution is a great thing,” Lisowski said. “We don’t expect to sell a million copies of those games, but we know that war games, strategy games of good quality and with good gameplay can sell 50,000 copies on the iPad for $10 or $20.”

Serious gamers want to play for many hours and “are willing to pay more than the average,” he added. “We are not planning to make games for the crowds because they are not for the crowds. We’re not competing with the free games. That would be a mistake.”

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Images: Coffee Stain Studios, Wastelands Interactive

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