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Advergaming is tough: some simple lessons in how developers and marketers can make games together
Byron Atkinson-Jones is a coder and Director of Xiotex Studios Ltd an indie game company. He has been developing games for over 13 years and coding for over 28 years, having cut his teeth on writing demos for the Commodore 64 and Amiga. You can follow Byron on twitter via @Xiotex and at www.xiotexstudios.com.
This post originally appeared on AltDevBlogADay and is reproduced by kind permission.
When I set out to found Xiotex Studios over 4 years ago I had every intention of doing so to create my own games and nothing but my own games. This was a dream that had been brewing for a long time as I toiled away in the mainstream games industry, pulling crunch on whatever title I was tasked to code. Don’t get me wrong; those formative years were essential to give me the confidence and experience to strike it alone and I don’t regret it, having met and worked with a lot of very good people and studios but my heart was always leading me to work for myself and that was just what I was going to do.
An indie with a plan
I didn’t just work in random places or places that would take me, I had a plan and I targeted places I felt I could learn the most from – in both business skills and technical ability, having said that here were some places that I just wanted to work because they were places I aspired to when I was younger. The companies that had the most effect on me were PomPom, Introversion, EA Canada and Lionhead Studios. I learned a hell of a lot from each of those places and I owe a great deal to my experiences there. They taught me a lot about coding, game design, dealing with others and business in general.
When I finally made the break I spent a month working on my own title and it felt good. Before long word got out that I was free and people began to start calling me to come work on their projects. I held out for a while but it occurred to me that what I was working on was going to take a while before it would generate enough funds to be able to make it a very long-term prospect. I decided to turn down the full time offers but go with the short-term contract. Spending a couple of months working on somebody else’s project would give me enough funds to continue with Xiotex Studios a lot longer. I’ve done this on and off for the last 4 years and it’s working well. There have been a few tempting offers to go full time with some studios or other but I’ve pretty much held on to the Xiotex Studios dream and run with it.
The reason for that little pre-amble is that I wanted to make it clear that I had a plan set out and I was following it because something unexpected turned up that had the potential to change the way I think about game development forever and that is something called “Advergaming”.
The following is my experience in developing a Flash based Facebook game for a major international brand. I pondered for a while if I should write about it because the experience is on-going but after talking it over with my colleagues I decided to go ahead since I know that there are some others out in the development world who are contemplating entering the same field.
Doesn’t advergaming mean that you are just making an advert?
There’s no clear answer to this question because the game is about a brand and you could say it was commissioned to promote it but it’s not a clear ‘advert’ in the purest form, like a television spot or a static print advert. At least it shouldn’t be. Nicholas Lovell, director of GAMESbrief or “a man who helps companies make money from games” has this to say about advergaming:
They are not.
Games are not a mass broadcast medium. They offer individual users a personalised experience. It is this experience that gives users such a high level of engagement and powerful recall. It is a totally different experience to viewing a 30-second television spot.”
It all comes down to what the intention of the game is. Our approach was to take the world of the brand and create a game out of it. We were quite lucky that the identity in our case was quite strong to begin with and a game design flowed straight out of it. It was important however that the world had to make sense in it’s own right and that the product wasn’t forced down the players throat at every possibility – the game had to be able to stand up in it’s own right even if it were not cloaked in the brand. In fact, we had to get permission to use the actual product in the game where it made sense.
The most interesting thing about working on this game is where it came from. In my experience in the mainstream games industry games either came from ideas that studios wanted to pitch or publishers had a game they needed to make. The route this game took was a little different. The brand holder approached an advertising agency, they in turn put the game out to tender to various different developers who had to pitch to win the contract.
This level of indirection is something that would become very important later on. Another consequence of this route is that both the agency and the brand holder didn’t have any previous experience of developing games and all the particular foibles of game development that we all go though. This is something else that would become very important as the development progressed.
Advergames need to reach a wide audience
Even though the game is not an explicit advert for the brand, the holder didn’t commission it just to disappear into obscurity. While the game is not designed to generate revenue directly it has to have enough players in order to justify its existence in the first place, which in turn was based upon projected players on a specific platform. The emphasis these days is on so-called social gaming and community building and this game was intended to be just one more weapon in order to build their online community. They already had campaign plans revolving around Facebook and they wanted the game to run along side that, which meant that the game had to run in a browser. Sticking with the ‘as wide an audience as possible’ theme this meant that we were going to be developing using Flash since it still has the broadest penetration in the browser market. It would have been fun to develop in Unity or HTML 5 but the sad fact is that neither of those has the same kind of coverage of Flash yet.
There are lots of gatekeepers in marketing
The biggest shock to the development of the game came from just how precious the identity of the brand was. This really caught us by surprise and meant that we were at least 1 month late on delivery of the game. The brand is not just their IP it’s also their identity of their product and they will defend it to death. The particular brand we were working with was massive and had a huge legacy of television spots, which meant we couldn’t just go around modifying that identity as we saw fit but what we underestimated was the level of control they would exert over the visuals. Everything had to be perfect and in complete cohesion with whatever went before or at least in tune with the current incarnation of the identity.
This means absolutely everything about the game was going to be scrutinized, judged and changed if just one person feels that it doesn’t match the brand in visuals, feel or any other possible reason. We had lots of images from the television and print adverts to do with the brand and designed the visuals of the game with those as reference; we thought that was what we needed to do to ensure that we kept within the identity. We were wrong.
The agency that was commissioned to produce a game acted as a gatekeeper to the brand and as such retained full control over the visuals down to the smallest detail. The idea was that they protected the brand to a level that they were confident that the brand holder would not reject images that were to appear in the game. The reality sunk in that this meant that we had at least two levels that would have to approve our artwork. In practice there were far more levels than that with each level below acting as a gatekeeper for the higher up levels, in both the advertising agency and the brand holder.
What are scamps, and why do they matter?
We had to change how we approached the design of the visuals, we had to adapt to the way the agency were used to working and that came in the form of ‘scamps’. This was not a term that I had come across before and we never found out a satisfactory definition but what it boiled down to was reams and reams of rough grayscale images depicting every scene in the game.
Once the scamps were approved the artist moved onto the actual production of the images thinking that he was fairly safe to proceed based on the scamp approval. However as it turns out the approval was only stage one and details such as lighting, colour and texture had to be approved as well. Sometimes rejection of any of these factors would push they entire scene back into the scamp phase and the whole cycle would repeat.
In reality this part of the production of the game continued in this cyclical fashion almost up to the release. The problem was one of context. While a static image looks fine, actually seeing it inside the game placed it in context and changed the feel of it, which meant that it was subject to change yet again. We had to take special precaution to make sure that we got written email confirmation of sign-off on all images so that when change was attempted again we could point out the various processes that image had gone through. The constant change was in real danger of making sure that game was never finished.
It might seem from my writing above that I viewed this entire process as being very detrimental. While it was certainly frustrating I can fully understand it and to be honest we were incredibly naïve in not expecting it to happen and build it in as a factor in the timescales that were initially presented. Of course they were going to protect the identity to this degree, we were making a game for them, not us and was based on an already strong brand. We needed to abide by the rules they guarded to make sure that the identity was not subverted by something we did.
This if anything is the most important factor of working in advergaming. Don’t underestimate the impact it will have on your team and the schedule of the game. Be prepared for it and build iteration into your schedule – lots of it.
This isn’t what I paid for…
All of the games I’ve worked on in the past evolved as they were developed. I’ve had game designs but they were mostly guides to give the overall vision of the game and during its development that game would often take a tangent to the actual design. This was natural because as we implemented the design it would become obvious that something doesn’t quite pan out as planned so we had to adapt. We have a tendency to take this for granted and along the way I would discuss any possible changes with the designer to make sure that there weren’t any unforeseen consequences down the line. This comes naturally to us but comes as a shock to the clients.
There were many calls where the client would ask us where feature ‘X’ was and we would announce that we had to change it because of some reason or other and the stark response that came back was “This isn’t what I paid for”. To the client they had signed off on a design and they were pretty sure that’s the design they wanted. This kind of reaction was somewhat fueled by their lack of experience in dealing with game development as much as it was our lack of experience in dealing with agencies and brand holders. In the past with a traditional Television spot advert or print ad the design is very linear experience. You can get a feel for the entire campaign from the design because it runs from A to B whereas games are an interactive medium and the experience one player gets is not necessarily going to be the same as another player. This means that it can be tough to absolutely nail the entire game in a document without some changes happening along the way. So when we suddenly change the design to accommodate some issue it comes as a surprise to the client that we thought we could do that. It never occurred to us that we couldn’t because that’s how we have always worked.
To our clients the design document was exactly what they were getting, what they had signed off on and any deviation from it had to be rigorously defended by us. In some cases we had to come up with alternative ways of building in the feature that the client wanted because they were adamant that they had signed a document that said it was going to be included and that’s exactly what they wanted, even if it didn’t really work in the context of the game. As the game progressed each side became more used to each other’s way of working and a mutual trust emerged where we could explain why some feature wasn’t actually working as envisioned and here was a solution that would make up for it.
“And we want the game in Arabic”
The biggest bombshell that landed on our laps really late on in the project was that the clients wanted to release the game in countries where Arabic was the main language and as such required us to localise the game into Arabic. This came as a total surprise to us because up until that point we were under the impression the game was going to be a European release only and we would only have to support EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish). In fact emails circulated early on in the development backed this up, the game had been commissioned with only these languages in mind.
Somewhere along the way original communications had been lost and while the sudden demand of Arabic came as a shock to us it appeared that the source client had requested it from the beginning, the message just simply hadn’t made it down the chain. These things happen and it’s not how it happened that matters but rather how you deal with it and besides, I love a challenge.
At this point I wasn’t even sure if Flash supported Arabic so I had to take some time out to research it. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue but since the game was already quite close to release it was time we didn’t really have, I needed to be able to complete the rest of the game code. However there were a lot of panic meetings happening to try and resolve this issue so into research mode I went.
The problem was that Arabic is a language that reads from right to left and the game was using dynamic text-fields that only supported left to right languages. A text database was built into the game so that we could use one single SWF file for all the languages and simple switch at run-time to the relevant language. In order to do this all the text-fields in the game had to be dynamic.
How to put Arabic text in a Flash game
The solution turned out to be so simple and elegant and it’s certainly one I will remember for Flash games in the future. In the past you’ve always been able to assign HTML to dynamic text fields and Flash would format it based on the HTML tags. It occurred to me that we could use this feature to use the HTML to load remote images to display in the text-fields. Doing this meant that no code had to change at all and all the Arabic text could go through our existing text database, instead of this:
TEXT_TAG=Text to be displayed
It also meant that we could hand off the entire Arabic localisation to an external team to deal with at some later date, all we needed to do was build the specification for the sizes of each PNG and not worry about it from then on.
So, would you do it all again?
Once the reality of the process we were forced into sunk in we each in turn had our moments of “never doing this again”, but now that it’s coming to the end and the game will soon be out there in the world I can honestly say that I would do it again. The key to surviving it is to not go into it with any assumptions about how it’s all going to work and above all do not make any assumptions about the experience of those you are dealing with. Everything has to be spelled out, if need be you will have to explain how your process works with the client and conversely do your best to understand how their process works.
I mentioned right at the beginning of this article that Advergaming was changing the way I thought about game development and the reason for this is that it is sufficiently different and interesting from mainstream development that I find myself drawn to it. By that I mean they are not a constant stream of me-too games (FPS, racing etc) but rather small-scale fun games not too far removed from Flash games. On top of that they are free which means the barrier to play them is substantially removed and you can reach a wider audience.
I used to think that working on this type of game would similar to selling your soul or “selling out” but that opinion has changed having seen the emphasis from the brand where they want to make a fun game rather than just make a game to make money, in fact the game itself is not a revenue generator. Something I have often felt when working for the larger studios is that they make games to make money rather than to be pure entertainment and sometimes the game suffers because of that. That may be a very harsh view but that’s how it felt to me. Perhaps I am too much of an idealist?
From the meetings I have had with agencies and brand holders there came a feeling that Advergaming is very much akin to the indie spirit in that they are much more open for experimentation. The games are not designed to be revenue generators so they are not concerned with following the market trend and making a game that fits into the genre of the moment. That alone makes me keen to continue working on them. It’s like the best of both worlds, get to make games I like and get paid for it. What can be better than that?
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