I talk a lot about how users are very precise in their genres and have expectations. Watch this if you haven’t see me rant about it.

Read this negative review that I pulled from a game that has had a rocky launch:

I walked in thinking a fun, open world, farm simulator was what I would be getting, but really it is just a really simple survival game. Much like the other reviews, this game has no point. For 4 hours I spent going around finding people, but for what reason? So I can do more stuff? But even then what is the point of it? There is no money system, nothing to really work towards that equals more fun, it is just kind of all there from the get go. It is EXTREMELY simple.

– Steam reviewer

Here is another review, same game:

Calling this game a mashup of Zelda and Stardew/Harvest Moon is incorrect. There’s a framework for an exploration game, but instead of trying to immerse the player, it tries to give them busywork and makes them backtrack a lot

– Another steam reviewer

Many of the other reviews followed this complaint: What they thought they were getting was not what they played.

I often think about this quote from business smart guy Warren Buffett:

You can hold a rock concert and that’s OK. You can hold a ballet and that’s OK. But don’t hold a rock concert and advertise it as a ballet.

Warren Buffett

When it comes to marketing your game you have to be absolutely sure of what your game is and what your game is not because it can cause your audience to feel tricked by your marketing. 

This feeling of “tricked” is nobody’s fault. It happens because artists doesn’t understand what they are making. They just make. If you are a 1 or 2 person-team who is making a game and trying to market it, it is very very hard to have that outside perspective.

So for this week, I am giving you a 3 step process for describing your game. (Even if you are just 1 person who has spent so much time with your game you are not quite sure what you made)

Step 1: Find out what fans of your genre say

I keep rereading this part of this quote from the negative review:

I walked in thinking a fun, open world, farm simulator was what I would be getting, but really it is just a really simple survival game

– that one review

I am an outsider to that game’s genre. Looking in from the outside I kinda thought farm simulator and survival game were basically the same.  If I am going to survive I better make a farm right?. I thought both were open world too. But to this reviewer and fans of the genre, there is a very stark difference between them.

If you as the marketer don’t understand the differences you are going to accidentally say the wrong thing and not be as clear as you should be. You need to understand these fault lines. You need to be clear about what type of game you have.

Here is how to fix that:

If you are honest with yourself, your game has been inspired by a couple of key games. At one point you probably said “I wanted to take the setting of <game x> and bring in the crafting mechanics of <game y>” or “Nobody has made a game quite like <game z> in many years. I think this genre is ready for a comeback.”

Now go to your target game. Go look at the forums and reviews of that game and see what factors people keep calling out.

Let’s pretend we are making a grand strategy game and our target game is Europa Universalis IV.

Now as an example, I just went through and pulled some key points I see fans keep writing about over and over:

The first is AI. Look at these

Biggest thing why i love this is unlike civ 5, this game doesn’t cheat on you. Aside from stuff that ai can’t take naval attrition

– steam quote

If you don’t have any alliances they are going to attack you, that’s why there’s that certain point of risk of alliances with the AI, which can make your AI ally to an enemy faster than you might think. Just never trust them too much.

– another steam quote

The next thing I kept seeing people mention was the real-life history entwined in the game:

You don’t really know how much you learn about history from this game until you take a college history class and know what the professor is talking about without having to read anything.

– History buff

You’ll find yourself answering questions about geography and history with ease.

– A history guy

Just browsing the reviews for a few minutes I have already picked out a couple of important factors that fans love about the genre: the AI and very accurate history.

Now if I were going to be making and marketing my own grand strategy game you better believe I am going to mention how my game stacks up on these fronts. I can even use the words the fans say and turn them into marketing points.

Using the words fans say is the easiest way to improve your marketing. Here is how I would use it in my Steam short description:

A game so historically accurate you could pass a high school history class after beating it.

Browsing fan reviews are just the first step. For a real in-depth understanding of your genre I would recommend you interview fans of the genre. With your voice. Here is a whole article I wrote about how to do that.

But basically you find folks from subreddits, discords, or forums dedicated to the genre. Ask them what games in the genre they liked and which games in the genre they hated and why. This will help you identify those fault lines and what words to use

Step 2: Let your audience play it

Once your game is playable, give it to fans of your genre. Gamedevs have come around to playtesting but that usually takes the form of running it during shows like PAX or E3. The problem with that is your audience is random. They could be fans of the genre or just visiting every booth. Here is a blog I wrote on how to get player feedback. And here is another one.

A lot of designers also ask fellow designers to playlets their games. This can be helpful but also risky. I find we game designers play a lot of games from lots of different genres. We are more omnivorous than the average player but on the other hand, don’t play as long and as deeply as they do. So unless the designer you are getting feedback from is very well versed in your genre, be careful with their feedback. They are probably naive to the genre conventions.

Instead, use those genre super fans to playlets your game. Let some fans play your game naive without much context of how you are pitching the game. But for others, showing them your game’s description and screenshots before they play test it.

After they play it, give them a survey or interview them. You want to learn these key bits of information:

  • What game does this remind you of?
  • How would you describe this game to a friend?
  • What are the key features of the game?
  • (For those people you showed marketing) Does the game you played match the game you had in your mind when I showed you the description and screenshots? 

Compare their responses to what you think the key marketing points are.

See if this matches your expectations. I have worked with clients who thought they were making one type of game but their audience was telling them that it was actually more similar to one in a completely different sub-genre.

Step 3: Test out your messaging

After you complete steps 1 and 2, go back and write up 3 variations of a short description. In each one lean on a different genre convention that your audience pointed out. For our theoretical strategy game you might write a description about the historical aspect, another on the crafty ai, and a third on the resources you collect. 

Ask people which description most accurately describes the game they just played.

I have done this quite a few times and have been surprised how often audiences congeal around one of your descriptions by a wide margin (even though they all sound equally good to you).

Final

Over and over it is important to remember that you are not your target audience and that you are too close to your game making it really hard to understand what makes your game compelling.

That sounds terribly difficult and scary, right? 

It doesn’t have to be. You can get really far just by copying (sometimes word-for-word) what your audience says to each other in forums, discords, and user reviews.

We just need to listen to them.

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