Opinion: Successful devs may have wisdom to offer, but let's learn from failure too

Let's get failed games on conference agendas

Opinion: Successful devs may have wisdom to offer, but let's learn from failure too
This week, PocketGamer.biz has played host to some spirited debate among members of the British games industry over developer meet-ups.

According to  Game Dev Midlands organiser Ash Morgan, the problem is simple. "No-one talks."

Even areas that are densely populated with development talent struggle to form effective community meet-ups, says Morgan, and the abundance of London-based events are of little benefit to developers based hundreds of miles away.

TIGA CEO Dr Richard Wilson gave his take on the issue too, adding "I totally agree that developers need to network more." Wilson went on to outline some of the steps his trade association are taking to order to give developers around the country easier access to such events.

Making it easier for developers to gain access to the networking and knowledge-sharing opportunities that these events provide is undoubtedly a good thing, but the content of industry events is just as important as their prevalence.

And in that regard, I'd suggest there's a problem.

The industry venerates success, and all too often brushes aside opportunities to learn from failure. Successful games are dissected from every angle, whereas quality flops all-too-often sink without a trace.

A room with a view

At the latest TIGA Mobile & Tablet Games event, for example, three representatives from Fireproof Games took to the stage and explained how The Room came to be an App Store hit.

An audience comprised of interested UK developers and indie talent listened closely for takeaway advice, practical guidance and nuggets of useful information.

The studio's always-entertaining commercial director Barry Meade explained that Fireproof Games didn't spend a penny on marketing or PR for The Room, and that "getting featured [by Apple] was our only strategy."

"We have no interest in doing what everyone else is doing – no interest in advertising, in-app purchasing, freemium, premium," Meade continued. "People try way too hard to do far too much. We think, if you have a great user experience, you're going to get great word of mouth."

A reasonable observer could come away from that talk with the impression that marketing and PR is fundamentally unnecessary, that premium-pricing is no barrier to success and that quality will always find an audience.

I'd argue that none of those things are consistently true, and that hearing from a developer who'd learned these lessons the hard way might make for a more informative – albeit, perhaps, a less high-spirited and enjoyable – talk.

The plural of anecdote isn't data

The problem with calling on successful developers to share their stories is that this creates a biased sample.

Attendees gain an insight into the strategies employed by the most successful studios, but these techniques and that success are not necessarily linked.

After all, correlation does not imply causation.

In other words, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what causes a mega-success, even if a company is willing to share its 'secret sauce' completely candidly.

What's more, that very fact that these super-hits make up such a small proportion of games available for any given platform makes them inherently atypical examples to learn from.

As such, we might get a fuller and more accurate insight by listening to the stories of developers at both ends of the spectrum – those who've made big bucks and those who've made buck all.

It's an issue that Tag Games MD Paul Farley has pondered on these very pages – that the industry is keen to examine successes, but resistant to analysing failure. What's more, Farley argued, the lessons of success are inevitably more short-lived than the lessons of failure.

"In mobile gaming technology, platforms and audience trends move at break neck speed. Even if you did happen upon the formula for success now, you can guarantee a few weeks later that formula would be irrelevant."

Case studies

And even those games that do manage to find an audience don't necessarily find financial success too.

Take Punch Quest, for instance. RocketCat and Madgarden's endless runner launched to positive reviews and healthy download numbers, but poorly-tuned monetisation mechanics left its developers out of pocket.

To their credit, RocketCat and Madgarden have been admirably open about the game's difficulties, and the Punch Quest story can serve as a useful case study for free-to-play developers.

That's what industry events need more of – talented developers who are willing to talk about their failures. Smaller meet-ups in particular – where one-man developers and tiny indie studios arrive seeking wisdom – would benefit from some cautionary tales alongside the aspirational stories.

Success stories are undoubtedly worth listening to, and taken together, they contain lessons to be learned. But let's face it, we humans have a tendency to dwell endlessly on failure while complacently accepting success as an inevitable consequence of our limitless genius.

So we might as well turn that self-recrimination into something useful – and help the industry in the process.
Staff Writer

PocketGamer.biz's news editor 2012-2013