Colorful Oceans and Chunky Sauces

Nov 30, 2011

The 2005 book Blue Ocean Strategy popularized the distinction between Red Ocean and Blue Ocean. Red Ocean refers to competition with the existing market leaders at what they do best. Blue Ocean refers to making something characteristically different than what market leaders are doing.

The arms race taking place between Medal of Honor, Battlefield, and Call of Duty franchises is an obvious example of Red Ocean strategy. They compete over a huge audience of known buyers by trying to have more realistic graphics and sound, more single player content, better voice acting, more persuasive ads, etc.

Minecraft or Wii Sports (at the time of its release in 2006), on the other hand, are Blue Ocean. They were not trying to out-Call-of-Duty the real Call of Duty, they were producing something vastly different for a difference audience, a sizable portion of which probably doesn’t care about Call of Duty at all. They didn’t win for having the most impressive graphics and sound, they won by each doing really well at things that games like Call of Duty never even attempted to do.

Nor does it make any sense to say that were a warfare game to simply integrate more aspects of Minecraft and Wii Sports, a company could then acquire the combined audiences. Many of these preferences are mutually exclusive – those of us that like Minecraft enjoy it as much for what it isn’t as we enjoy what it is. Likewise, giving Wii Sports a Michael Bay treatment of huge explosions and machinegun fire would very likely turn off a massive chunk of the audience that enjoys that game.

Apples and oranges.

Of course, now that Wii Sports has been out for 5 years, releasing games like it is much more of a Red Ocean than it used to be. When Sony’s PS Move and Microsoft’s Kinect eventually attempted similar games on other consoles in the current generation, they were grasping for whichever players haven’t already experienced enough of the original on its cheaper platform, or they were hoping to win over those same customers on claims of improving upon the formula (a clear sign of Red Ocean).

Chunky Tastes

We’re going to hard switch now from Red/Blue Oceans over to spaghetti sauce. It’s a similar, though subtly different point, that has to do with finding and appreciating Blue Oceans.

In case you haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk on spaghetti sauce, it’s well worth the 17 minutes:

The craziness that happens when fans argue about whether Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3 is “better” is that they are arguing between whether plain or spicy spaghetti sauce is better. Despite surface similarities, the games are different in their pacing and appeals, and resonate differently with everyone based on whatever styles they happen to prefer.

A few snippets that are especially relevant to hobby and indie videogame development:

Now, did he look for the most popular brand variety of spaghetti sauce? No! Howard doesn’t believe that there is such a thing… And sure enough, if you sit down, and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain; there are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy; and there are people who like it extra chunky.

And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, “You telling me that one third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce and yet no one is servicing their needs?” And he said yes!

And Prego then went back, and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce, and came out with a line of extra chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti sauce business in this country. And over the next 10 years, they made 600 million dollars off their line of extra-chunky sauces.

Gladwell also touches on the importance of recognizing that people don’t know what they want. You can’t just ask them. People can’t even properly say what they want when they have had it many times before, and given that, they are even less likely to be able to articulate what they want but have never had.

Assumption number one in the food industry used to be that the way to find out what people want to eat — what will make people happy — is to ask them. And for years and years and years and years, Ragu and Prego would have focus groups, and they would sit all you people down, and they would say, “What do you want in a spaghetti sauce? Tell us what you want in a spaghetti sauce.” And for all those years — 20, 30 years — through all those focus group sessions, no one ever said they wanted extra-chunky. Even though at least a third of them, deep in their hearts, actually did.

People don’t know what they want! Right? As Howard loves to say, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants.” It’s a mystery! And a critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down. If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee, you know what you’d say? Every one of you would say, “I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.” It’s what people always say when you ask them what they want in a coffee. What do you like? Dark, rich, hearty roast! What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard, somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee. But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that “I want a milky, weak coffee.”

That speaks to the importance of prototyping, and early testing (with direct player observation of their responses, rather than simply trusting what they say afterward). People won’t know if they’ll want it before it’s made, even if the game could be perfectly and completely described in advance. Our behavior is far more telling than our verbal guesswork when it comes to knowing what we want, and that means getting the idea working and in front of people. Howard’s tests weren’t surveys about how chunky people wanted their sauces – they were rigorous taste tests with more than 40 variations of fully prepared ready-to-eat sauce. (I used a similar process when responses to my 219 daily prototypes led to my iOS apps Tumult, feelforit, Burnit, and iZombie Death March.)

Returning to the main point, but stated another way:

Mustard does not exist on a hierarchy. Mustard exists, just like tomato sauce, on a horizontal plane. There is no good mustard or bad mustard. There is no perfect mustard or imperfect mustard. There are only different kinds of mustards that suit different kinds of people.

At the end of the day, at least in terms of design decisions (as opposed to technical quality, such as not crashing), games don’t exist on a quality hierarchy.

It doesn’t matter whether the people that like some other type of massively popular game also like your game. Audiences looking for the types of experiences that huge companies can deliver to a high level of polish already are quite satisfied with what they are getting (except to the extent that they occasionally feel angry over other people having different tastes). The preferences and interests of smaller groups – groups perhaps too small to be of interest to major companies – are equally legitimate and important.

Maybe the outcome of a particular project will turn out to be chunky, a huge category that previous developers didn’t even realize existed, as has been the case for Minecraft or Wii Sports (the latter example which I love, in part, because it’s solid evidence that Blue Ocean isn’t just for indie developers).

Or maybe it will simply be a smaller audience, like finding one of the other 36 spaghetti sauce styles on the shelves. Such an audience may even appreciate it more because they have such a hard time finding anything that suits their niche tastes.

Vision by Proxy: Second Edition has been played 6.9 million times, whereas Transcend has been played fewer than 10,000 times. However I have had people go out of their way to contact me about how much they enjoyed Transcend, eager to talk more about the game, whereas the same has simply not been true about Vision by Proxy: Second Edition. I suspect that difference is partly because VbP:SE is more recognizable as a videogame, and fills a more commonly understood niche, as compared to the much smaller number of people that found Transcend suited to their preferences – who understandably might have trouble finding many videogames that scratch that type of itch. I don’t regard either project as better than the other, a luxury that comes with neither being a commercial undertaking (I invested no money in the development of either, and the excellent work done by teammates on VbP:SE was likewise part of a group volunteer effort). They are simply “different kinds… that suit different kinds of people.”

As a hobbyist, I think that’s a healthy attitude to maintain, and I think it’s also a useful lens to put the work of other developers, both large and small, in context.

[Credit where it’s due: I would like to thank thatgamecompany’s Robin Hunicke for introducing me to the idea of applying Red/Blue Ocean thinking to independent games. I first heard about it briefly in an exchange during our one day of overlap on the Boom Blox team back in 2007, but it’s a way of thinking that has stayed with me and affected much of my work since.]

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