Crowded Blue Oceans: Swarms of Peer Competition

Oct 31, 2014

Several years ago I wrote Colorful Oceans and Chunky Sauces about two related ideas.

The first of those ideas covered is Red Ocean / Blue Ocean Strategy, the gist of which is that greatest growth potential often happens by spotting uncontested opportunities where the more established companies haven’t yet directed their resources and attention. In other words, rather than trying to compete with a giant like EA or Activision at making a more impressive football game than Madden or more polished war-themed first person shooter than the Call of Duty franchise, focus efforts on weird experimental and minimalist design concepts or emerging platforms that the huge companies don’t yet recognize as an opportunity large enough or predictable enough to warrant their attention. Fighting giants head-on in their turf is likely a recipe for disaster, so instead stay out of their territory. (Nor is this design approach only applicable to indie-scale ventures, as it’s also how in the late 2000’s Nintendo’s Wii opted to succeed by doing something different rather than trying to outdo Microsoft and Sony in the approach they were both taking.)

That idea’s from a 2005 book which was not about videogames specifically.

The other idea has to do with the discovery from the food industry that some people like plain sauce, some people like spicy sauce, and some people like extra chunky sauce – there’s not one optimal chunkiness or spiciness, rather these formulations serve different needs for different people who have different tastes. Though in the modern marketplace this may seem obvious, especially in regard to pasta sauces, it was at the time a breakthrough in recognizing that there could be massive, unrecognized segments of the market who would not be satisfied by better versions of what already exists (in 1989, there was only plain or spicy sauce, the huge unmet preference some people had for extra chunky was the big discovery).

That idea’s from a 2004 Gladwell TED talk telling a story about Moskowitz’s findings in the food industry now 25 years ago in 1989. The TED talk and Moskowitz’s work were also not about videogames specifically.

In both cases of course the utility of these ideas is largely that they are reusable as a metaphor or schema to be considered in many other situations. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t fit, and sometimes they fit only in certain ways though there’s clearly something more or else going on too. Considering the state of videogame design at the time when I wrote Colorful Oceans and Chunky Sauces, I argued for the relevance of these two ideas to what we do. That was squarely in the “sometimes they fit” category. I’m revising my position to the more nuanced “sometimes they fit only in certain ways though there’s clearly something more or else going on too.”

There are three things that have to be kept in mind since that entry about videogame design was prepared a few years ago. First, it was heavily influenced by things that had happened and were happening in the years leading up to then (2008-2011). Second, it could not account for anything that has happened or changed since (2011-2014). Third and last: things can and do change very rapidly about technology, entertainment, and comparatively new types of markets.

It is still true that it’s unwise to aim for directly outdoing in polish and scope the massive companies that throw millions of dollars, hundreds of people, and years of production into the latest iteration of best-selling games in their established franchises. That’s more true than ever, as the quality and quantity of what a videogame can simultaneously process has exploded far beyond the industry’s earlier years when a solo programmer at home could draw as good a low-resolution 4 color race car or plane as anyone, because the technology limited the need for and value of specific art training. Any beep or bloop sound effect on a Commodore 64 sounded about as good as any other. (These are of course high on the list of reasons why a modern commercial indie game like Luftrausers specifically and severely limits its color palette, visual fidelity, and sound quality well below the modern platform’s technical capabilities – it’s pulling back to what can be used as masterfully by a small team as could be done by any larger one.)

It is also still the case that there are likely underserved, unrecognized interests, people either not playing games yet or not enjoying them as much as they maybe someday will, due to there being a lack of something that speaks to their particular tastes. There will always be room for more innovation in serving and growing a different type of audience, in part because audiences are always changing, design is always ingested through a lens of current trends and local culture, new combinations of which come into and go out of existence daily.

Having reaffirmed the fit of those patterns though, there’s the separate point that needs to be made.

Millions of other developers all over the world know those exact same strategic considerations. They are just as vigilant in always watching for, searching for, and responding to exactly the same considerations. Some are more experienced, some are less. Some are more determined, some are less. A lot of them are just like you and I.

Thinking that there’s a great untapped resource because it’s empty and about to open up is like looking through the glass doors at empty aisles in a Walmart prior to a Black Friday Sale and so expecting to have the entire store full of steep discounts and deals to browse on your own. It may appear empty, but there’s a literal human stampede being held back.

When iPhone’s App Store came into existence most companies didn’t know what to make of it. Those that took a chance profited enormously from its success. Early games like Super Monkey Ball and Trism made a ton of money as early games on the platform. Likewise Steam, while a bit more gradual by comparison, caught many by surprise.

Since then, every time there’s a new sales channel or yet-uncontested hardware space opening up, such as for OUYA, Android, Windows Phone, Sifteo cubes, Oculus, Unity or Unreal’s stores, KickStarter, digital distribution shops, new bundles, etc., there are countless competitors also of similarly small-medium size who are already setting their sights on it too, from the moment that there’s any way to do so.

That means nearly instant over-saturation or crowding, limited only by whatever curation process or rejection standard a platform sets in place and enforces, and possibly too by the logistical overhead of properly starting a small business (for those platforms which require it, or those developers prudent enough to do it right). If there’s an idea that’s easy to do on a platform, many people will be trying their own rapid variants of it very early.

While there was never a time when simply being able to make a game at all meant being able to make serious money from it, it’s absolutely the case that when releasing a game on a platform required a more rare combination of very low-level technical skills (like coding everything in assembly and largely making one’s own tools and file formats) and hard-earned professional connections to get a game to market at all (for early consoles, pre-smartphone handsets, etc.) then the odds per each game were better. If you could develop the skills necessary to be among the relative few who could do it, and get yourself into a position to be able to do it as part of a business, there was at least a solid shot at doing it profitably.

As tools improve, learning resources improve, distribution and marketing options improve, and other barriers to entry become simplified or removed, more people than ever can make games and are making games. That’s a good thing, from the perspective that more people are enjoying and experiencing game development. It’s truly an amazing and wonderful time to be a hobbyist. I’m of course an outspoken supporter of there being very real value in doing that. There’s nothing wrong with making games for reasons other than to make money, and in those cases a lot of these issues I’m writing about here fizzle away. I bring this up at all though because I recognize that many people doing it as a hobby now are aiming toward doing it professionally later, and so I think it’s worth drawing some distinctions sometimes about how the concerns involved differ.

The ramifications for developers aiming to do indie videogame development professionally is that the challenges are becoming ever more like trying to make it as a writer or artist. So many people can do it – even do it quite well – that the supply of eager, talented, hard working people severely exceeds the number which could be compensated consistently from the demand coming from paying customers. In all these cases a lion’s share of earnings come from a very tiny fraction of all released works. Many who are making a living doing it long-term, even the ones winning awards and getting high profile press exposure, are still picking up plenty of outside contract work done for non-game projects or bigger companies, though you’re not very likely to hear much about that in festival talks or press interviews because it’s not very exciting or alluring. It’s a very real part of how people make ends meet if they’re going it alone as a writer, an artist, or increasingly, as an indie game developer.

Another effect of all this is that the strategy cannot be to just go where the big companies aren’t, to just do what the big companies aren’t doing, thinking that that alone will be enough. If there’s a great opportunity opening up for smaller developers, you’re not the only one aware of it, watching it, ready to spring. There’ll surely be a line wrapping around the block and through the park and miles across town of other small-medium sized developers or development teams recognizing and mobilizing for the same opportunities. By dodging the huge competitors you’re instead going to be where there are swarms and swarms of competitors much like you.

Being first to market loses its key advantage when the race becomes a day one or launch month tie with countless others. Worry less about trying to be the first to do something on a platform, and use that extra time to instead focus on doing the better job of it, such that after time passes and which came out first gets forgotten your work will more likely stand out as the one remembered.

Even after the game seems otherwise done the work is just beginning. You’ve got to be ready to out shine through more testing, more polish, more marketing, more standing out, and finding more ways to set and meet higher standards every step of the way. Swarms of competitors at your scale are doing that, whether you are or not.

You can’t dodge all competition. You have some choice about who you’re competing against and at what, but no matter what you choose you won’t be the only one in that niche, not by a long shot. You’ve got to be prepared to compete and win.

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