The recent exit of Tale of Tales from video games got me thinking about the intersection of art and games and how that affects marketing.

According to what they’ve written about their departure from games, the studio believed they were appealing to the video game masses with their latests game Sunset. The studio creates art with games as their medium. Their previous games had limited appeal, but this was supposed to be their big coming out party to the mainstream. At this point, that hasn’t paid off for them. Does this mean art can never be successful in the mainstream, or is there an explanation short of that which allows for artistic, commercially successful games?

Selling Out

Art and commerce are thought of as opposing forces. If you’re making art with the idea of making money, some will argue it isn’t really art or, at least, that it isn’t as pure. As an artist (or creator or developer if that term bothers you), if you buy into this, it can cause you to make decisions that will undermine the commercial success of your game.

Before you start building, you need to decide your primary goal. Do you have an idea that needs to exist in the world fully formed as it is in your head come hell or high water? If so, you’re making art. Are you hoping to feed yourself or family and fund future games? If so, you’re making a commercial product.

Commercial Art

Despite what I suggested in that previous sentence, the two ideas aren’t entirely separate. Your art could find commercial success. Your commercial game could have incredible artistic elements and be culturally significant. The greatest indie game successes are rarely on one side or the other. The point is that knowing your goal in the beginning will help you guide the decisions you make along the way.

If your primary goal is to make art, you must realize that no one owes you any level of success. If you can get grants and support from other sources, great. Go do that and make your art, but don’t expect that all gamers need to buy your game because you believe it deserves to exist and succeed. Your “payment” was in not having to compromise your vision to meet the expectations of the market you wanted to reach.

Building for an Audience

We hear about the evils of focus testing and how they’re ruining games. That’s probably true in many cases, but it’s not the focus tests that ruin the games. The problem is the way developers are using the feedback they receive. More on that later.

Don’t try to organize focus tests for your little indie games. That’s expensive in terms of both time and money, but do make damn sure that people are playing your game and giving you feedback. It doesn’t mean you implement every change they request, but, if you don’t even know how others perceive your game, you’re building it for yourself.

Getting Real Feedback

As you’re having others play your games, you have some tools at your disposal to help make sure you’re getting good feedback. First, don’t just show your games to friends and family. They may offer a small critique here and there, but you won’t ever know what they really think of it.

Second, find some way to allow players to speak their minds. Maybe it’s as simple as telling them, “Listen, I really want you to tear this thing apart. I’m trying to make it better, and I’d rather you tell me what you really think now than release it and have that feedback come in the form of negative reviews.” Some players will be receptive to that.

Other times, lying might be a good tool. Maybe you find playtesters on Craigslist and, rather than telling them, “I made this cool game, and don’t you just love it?” tell them you work for a company that gathers feedback on games in development. This way, they don’t feel their critique will be taken personally. People — even strangers — will lie to you to preserve your feelings. If they think they are doing the right thing by giving you the input you need and that you won’t take it personally, the ends justify the means. You get the feedback you need, they get a better game in the end.

If you’re not comfortable with that (If I’m being honest, I’m not sure that I would be even though I suggested it. ;-), you could actually ask a friend to help you by testing with players or hire someone to collect the feedback for you.

Whatever you do, find a way to break through people’s kindness and get to the nuggets of truth underneath. Check out the book The Mom Test for some more tips on how you can ask for and receive real feedback.

Using Feedback

This is where feedback gets a bad rap. Some game comes out — usually a big-budget AAA game — and it’s a mess of features and mechanics all thrown together. Someone at the studio says they did focus testing, and this game was the result of that.

If you want to build a game as a piece of commercial art, here’s the part of the feedback loop where you can use your artistic sensibilities: use your overarching vision as the rails for the way you incorporate feedback. Keep that vision in mind and use the feedback that gets you closer to that goal.

Example: Your game is a point-and-click adventure game that tells a personal story about you. Someone plays it and tells you it would be way better if the main character were a hulking space barbarian and if it took place on Jupiter. That’s great, but it doesn’t get you closer to building your vision. Throw this feedback out.

Now, someone plays and tells you the action menu that pops up when they click on an interactive object is confusing. It uses icons which don’t immediately convey what the actions are. Confusing people isn’t part of your vision. Making changes based on this feedback will make it less frustrating for people to play your game. More people playing and enjoying gets you closer to your vision.

Some of the feedback you’ll receive won’t be as clear as those examples. Someone tells you they wish they could shoot people in your game. Well, that’s not part of your vision at all. You probably don’t want to do that, but maybe you need to ask why the player feels the need for that.

Maybe it’s because your game isn’t interactive enough for some players. They want something else they can do besides click on objects and “Look” or “Use.” Perhaps there’s a mechanic besides shooting that makes sense and would give players a more mechanically satisfying experience.

On the other hand, maybe you decide that’s just not what this particular game is and you’re willing to lose or disappoint the kinds of players who need that in a game. Neither response is incorrect. The only way to do it wrong is to never collect this feedback in the first place.

Budget Accordingly

Most games can find some kind of audience. Given this, you can make almost any game you want and make it commercially viable. The trick is to learn about the audience first and set your budget based on that learning.

How much your game will make is a function of how many players are receptive to the type of game and the content of the game, how effectively you can reach those people, and how much they are willing to pay for a game in that style. You’re never going to get to exact numbers, but you can get some idea before you even start developing.

When you have a basic understanding of the size of your audience and how much you can charge them, once again, you’ll get to employ the art of deciding how to use that information. You can hope your game will smash through that barrier if you just invest $X more into development, or you can set your budget well under what you expect to make based on the numbers.

If you chose the former, you might hit big and make tons of cash, but you’re more likely to lose money. If you choose the latter, you’ll probably make a modest sum based on the work you did setting the conservative budget. How much risk you can tolerate is a question only you can answer.

Art Can Succeed

You can realize your vision and still be successful if you’re also willing to scope and prioritize your vision. If you have the belief that you understand every aspect of how your game should be, and that your vision encompasses all of that, it’s a hard road to find success with people outside yourself.

You can limit the scope of your vision without limiting it’s impact. To continue the previous example, your vision is to tell a personal story about something you experienced. That gives you tons of room to make your game better for players without compromising your vision.

Art is meant to be appreciated. If you build your art with so few compromises that no one besides you can appreciate it, is it really art at all?