Adult Contemporary Video Games

One of my favorite Combat Jack podcasts of 2014 is when they interviewed legendary hip hop producer, Marley Marl over the Summer.  Marly Marl invented the modern hip-hop sound most take for granted and created the Juice Crew, one of the most important groups of MCs ever.

The Juice Crew

Before producing hit records, Marley had a career as an on-air DJ, starting on Mr. Magic‘s show on KISS-FM in New York.  In the ’90s he went on to host “Future Flavas” with Pete Rock on Hot 97.  Marley Marl was also still producing hit albums for the likes of LL Cool J and Lords of the Underground.

Times change, and Marley Marl isn’t producing music for 20 year olds anymore.  While many DJs desperately hang on to their fading youth, Marley tried another tactic.  He moved over to WBLS which plays old school hip hop for a mature audience.

it just so happens, rap fans in their fourties and beyond have far more disposable income than those in their teens and twenties.  His WBLS show has gone on to be a great success.  It turns out that despite being a youth-powered movement, there’s plenty of advertising dollars in hip-hop appealing to older rap fans.

This got me thinking about video games.

A lot of veteran developers are debating about the decline of AAA games in the face of the disruptive waves of free2play and mobile.  Many gamers in their demographic agree.  If that’s the case, why not appeal to this older audience?

The challenge to monetizing these gamers is that although they have the same taste in games they may have had over a decade ago, their play styles are vastly different due to lifestyle changes.  If you’ve got kids or a demanding job, perhaps you no longer have 120+ hours to spend playing an RPG. However, you might digest the same style of game in shorter episodic bursts on a tablet or smartphone.

Some developers have caught on to this and produce what I call Adult Contemporary Video Games.  A good example is the 1980s pencil and paper RPG, Shadowrun.  Microsoft’s attempt at AAA shooter based on Shadowrun was an abject failure (although I quite liked it).  Five years later, Harebrained Schemes went from a surge of support on Kickstarter for “Shadowrun Returns” to a series of popular mobile and PC downloadable games based on the franchise.

Shadowrun for iPad

This is a smart strategy–delivering content aimed at an older audience on newer devices.  Those of us who grew up not on just the original RPG, but the SNES and Genesis games were ripe for a new entry in the series.  This model has also seen success with Wasteland 2, and surely the upcoming Bard’s Tale sequel will continue the trend.

It remains to be seen if you can develop a new IP targeted at this audience.  A lot of what you hear on Adult Contemporary radio is old artists making new music.  In games it may be the same. So far, the genre seems to bank on nostalgia by resurrecting classic franchises for an older audience on new devices with updated play styles. Especially if you include teh current wave of retro remakes. While some veteran developers excel at creating games for the new mobile f2p masses, others may be more suited for this viable slice of the market.

Alpha Funding vs. Crowdfunding

This Saturday, my fellow developers’ game, The Long Dark, managed to stride past its Kickstarter goal of $200,000 CDN after a month-long saga of nail-biting suspense. The campaign was executed with a mix of increasingly large announcements and trailer videos. The Hinterland crew managed to get major press in outlets like The Verge and BoingBoing, covering the daily announcements related to the campaign.

The Long Dark

Successful Kickstarters are a lot of work. In addition to having something people actually want to support, your media strategy has to be planned out. Merely Tweeting, “please donate!” looks like spam. If your posts display new features, concept art, trailer videos, and other content then it comes across as newsworthy. You have to prepare enough content to make announcements every other day or so throughout the entire campaign.

Crowdfunding is a major source of game financing due to the collapse of the publishing model. Not only are traditional publishers largely irrelevant due to the business model shift to f2p and games-as-a-service, but raising money from the public is preferable to contract terms that encumber most publisher dollars.

Another funding strategy has emerged as an alternative to crowdfunding: Alpha Funding.

Alpha Funding is when you charge users to access early versions of your game, usually starting at the playable alpha phase (hence the name!). Obviously, Minecraft is the foundation of this business model. A recent example is Klei’s Don’t Starve, a stylized survival game which began life as a paid alpha well before it arrived on Steam as a finished product.

Alpha Funding has a lot of advantages. You don’t have to bribe backers with cumbersome physical goods. Sure, T-shirts and plastic tchotchkes are a new avenue for game monetization. Yet, for a small team this can be a distraction. Alpha Funding allows you to focus on what’s important.

An early paying audience has an investment in your game. It’s a community of enthusiastic fans. Alpha users provide meaningful feedback and become evangelists instead of cranky forum trolls. When you finally launch, they become an important source of positive reviews and press.

Most importantly, getting paying users early is great customer validation. Not to mention an inspiring early source of revenue for your company. This allows you to experiment with pricing tiers for when you release the game in the wild.

There’s also the hybrid approach. The most famous example is Chris Roberts’ Star Citizen. It began as a crowdfunded project but has continued as an alpha funding smash–grossing $21 million and counting. They recently released a preview app which allows players to walk through ships they have already paid for in advance of the game’s release. Perhaps not early access to the game in the strictest sense, but a taste of the final product.

Publishers will continue to take a backseat to the indie revolution as crowdfunding evolves. Alpha funding has become so popular that Steam even has its own category for Early Access. It’s a critical game finance tool regardless of project size.