One of my favourite things is to spend time acting as a judge for game competitions.
So with Pocket Gamer's Big Indie Pitch happening at Apps World in London on 13 November - not to mention the Big Indie Pitch in Helsinki at Slush 2014 on 17 November - it felt like a good time to reveal the workings of the mind of a judge; well, this one, at least.
All about taking part
First thing we should talk about is the elephant in the room - winning competitions doesn't mean you have a successful game. All too often it's a curse.
I think the main reason is that competition judges are often looking for different things than the average consumer.
Every judge is different and has different biases, but usually we have good instincts for the general market. However, we get to see the game in action before making our decision and often we also get to meet the developers; all of which inevitably affects our thinking.
The value of such competitions is more complex than winning or losing.Oscar Clark
We also are expected to pick one of the games available, and, of course, real players are both presented with vastly more games and can decide to pick no game at all.
Finally, the context of the competition means we are affected by only our impression of the game, we are not being asked to part with our own personal money/time to play.
This doesn't mean I think these competitions are pointless, far from it, but I think their value is more complex than winning or losing.
Firstly, a competition entry forces a developer to have a product they can show off. That is a deadline which can't slip.
In order to have a chance of winning, you have to have something in place which won't just fall over. It doesn't always have to be feature complete; as long as the experience is enough to convey the value of your game in the first 1-3 minutes - that's really all the time you will have.
If it takes longer than that to demo, you probably have a bigger problem on your hands than the competition; how are your players going to understand your game? They won't give you that long; especially on mobile where you have only around 6 seconds to get them playing and a minute to feel good about that decision.
Looking at other games will give you a sense of the upcoming market.Oscar Clark
Secondly, you get to see your game in context with others. The value of this is commonly greatly underestimated, but knowing your competition is vital. Okay, games (mostly) aren't as directly competitive as say, cola-flavoured beverages - except perhaps if you are Threes or 2048.
Nevertheless, looking at other games in development will give you a sense of the upcoming market. What genres are being developed and does your game stand out from the crowd? These events are just snapshots but they are often reasonable indicators of what other developers are working on.
Standing out is vital. If you can't stand out within a competition, given there are something like 1,000 apps launched each week (if I remember the stats correctly), how are you going to stand out on the market?
In the flesh
Finally, I think the biggest advantage of entering a competition is in meeting people. The ability to get an external opinion from someone who is not emotionally engaged with you or your game is invaluable.
The chance to share and compare experiences with other developers is also priceless. You learn faster, you make useful connections and get to compare inspirations.
You also get to meet the judges, people who like me have seen a lot of (hopefully) useful things and whose advice would usually cost you an arm and a leg.
Impress them and you may just find yourself a well-known industry champion as well.
Tricks of the trade
Winning these competitions is great, especially for your PR and when talking to platform holders. However, taking part is still hugely valuable. But what are judges looking for. I can't speak for others but I'm usually looking for three things.
- Is the concept Immediate? - Does the game stand out and communicate its objectives and controls clearly ideally without the need for a tutorial? This communication also has to convey the future values of the game with a foreshadow of why I would play it a second time, and potentially for days and weeks to come.
- Is the game Relevant? - Does the game offer me something I want and in a way which is consistent with its brand? Look up Lord Of The Rings Bowling if you want to see how bad things can be in terms of relevance - yes, it was a thing. Games need to add something to the familiar and make it their own. We don't want a clone, but we need at least a foundation if we are to accept new concepts. Relevance to me also extends to understanding the real-world context of playing the game. Too many games are spoilt by not understanding the impact of a swipe on a touchscreen or it failing to handle an incoming call.
- Is it Gorgeous? - You need to engage me with all my senses from art, to music, to movement, to narrative, to the mechanics; the greater the attention to detail the more I'll notice. It's hard to define what is gorgeous but this, as well as the other two parameters, isn't as arbitrary as you might think.
There may be a subjective element, but when you have to rank games in order of their ability to satisfy the criteria, a clear winner usually stands out.
It's all very well having a system like this to help judge, but it just makes it easier to decide your own favourites.
In a shortlist of 30 games, typically I can discount all but five quickly. However, I have had to be able to pick out games with commercial potential professionally for a very long time.
If you have a game you want to show, make the effort to pull a build together.Oscar Clark
Also don't let me give the impression that I discount the other games. Many of them were arguably too early/amateur to be in with a chance of winning - but hopefully the developers will have learned a lot. Still, picking a winner from these last five is a very tricky thing to do and often quite emotional.
The other snag is that when you meet up with the other judges, they usually have a completely different five possible winners. You might almost think they saw different games, but of course that's just everyone's personal bias. There might be one or two overlaps and then the arguments for the top three will ensue.
That's often the most frustrating yet enjoyable task for me when judging, but whether my options carry the day or not, the benefit of seeing the winner and understanding why is fabulous. All too often my favourite game doesn't even get a runners up slot!
Even if my favoured games don't win, I don't let this get me down (at least, I try not to). I just have to remember that as a judge, I get an inside track of what's up and coming and how tastes are changing as well as to expand my awareness of a wide range of developers.
Just do it
So, if you have a game you want to show, make the effort to pull a build together and share it at a competition event. Heck, use it as motivation to complete a few more milestones.
It's a great 'trial by fire' to allow you to prove the hypothesis that your game has a market without the costs or risks of going live.
You can get great inspiration and support from your fellow developers as well as the judges and get to meet a network of people who might just become your advocates. However, doing this means being willing to take on advice and to stand up to potential knockbacks.
Not winning doesn't mean your game will fail. But at the same time you need to careful, consider the advice you've given, even if in the end you choose your own path.
Your ability to understand the different perspectives and whether they really apply to your objectives and then act on them will make the difference between success and failure.
Because, don't forget, at the end of the day, it's the paying player who is your final judge - and their reaction really does matter.
Oscar Clark is a consultant and evangelist for Everyplay, the free SDK that records and shares your favourite moments of play. Everyplay was acquired by Unity Technologies in March 2014.
Find out more at developer.everyplay.com
He is also author of "Games As A Service: How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games" published by Focal Press is now available on Amazon as well as Kindle, iBooks and Kobo.
To follow Oscar on Twitter, check out @Athanateus