The Subway Sandwich Conundrum

Over on GameProducer.net, Juuso recently talked about the complexity of ordering a sandwich from Subway. When he went into Subway and said, “I’d like a sandwich, please,” he was overwhelmed by the number of choices he was asked to make. In the end, he would have preferred that his initial request, “give me a sandwich,” would have resulted in a sandwich without any further questions.

There’s probably a cultural divide here; the Subway shops over there in Finland may be better off doing things differently than they do them over here in the US. But in the US, at least, Subway is right on target for their niche.

Subway’s niche is making sandwiches, and in the US, this is a very well-defined niche. All niches become more complex over time. Seventy years ago, a sandwich shop would have been well-served by the advice to keep it really simple. But as time progressed, sandwich eaters required more and more features. Now, I can’t think of a single sandwich place in town that doesn’t offer the same barrage of questions Subway asks. If Subway simplified things so that, for instance, I could no longer get extra lettuce and no mayonaise, I’d stop going there. They wouldn’t have the feature set I require.

Game niches are very much the same way. When you sit someone down for the first time to play, say Battlefield 2, it’s an incredibly overwhelming experience. You don’t just move and shoot. In a modern FPS, you are expected to understand how to:

    • Move, strafe, and jump at high speeds
    • Look 360 degrees with the mouse, and zoom in with binoculars
    • Shoot with pinpoint accuracy
    • Switch weapons via keyboard keys
    • Use the map to figure out where you are and where you need to go
    • Follow instructions and keep up with the plan proposed by your teammates
    • Understand how to achieve objectives like holding points and capturing flags

And on and on. I can tell you from experience, it’s an overwhelming and humiliating thing to try to jump into your first FPS game. That’s because the FPS niche is extremely well developed. Back in the Doom 1 era, it was much easier for people to get started.

Battlefield 2 would definitely not be wise to “keep it simple” and strip out the complexity. They have to compete with other modern games in their niche, and their target audience gets more sophisticated with every FPS game that’s released.

As a niche becomes more sophisticated, the target demographic for that niche usually gets smaller. That’s because fewer new people are getting into the niche. In games, niches eventually either die out almost completely (like, say, adventure games), or they revolutionize themselves into a new genre (like RTS games that blossomed from turn-based strategy games).

As casual game developers, we try to go for undeveloped niches, because then we�don’t need to add the slew of features that a well-developed niche does. We don’t try to compete with FPSes because we couldn’t make one that has all the features people expect from an FPS. But when we set out in new territory, we can (and SHOULD) make it simple, approachable, easy.

Just because we develop “casual” games, though, doesn’t mean we’re niche-free. For the match-3 genre, a game as simple as Bejeweled doesn’t cut it anymore. Now a top-notch match-3 game needs:

    • Matching mechanics that are similar to everything else, yet different
    • Strongly directed gameplay
    • Power-ups
    • Beautiful changing backgrounds
    • Unlockable secrets

It’s getting harder to compete here, and it’s also getting harder for newbies to jump into their first match-3 game. Some day, if match-3 games keep evolving, we may even see a backlash — a return to simpler matching puzzles.

Genre revolutions, however, are pretty slow. Subway doesn’t need to worry that their niche is too complex just yet. Now if they start asking you what exact temperature and consistency you want your bread, and which of 14 lettuces you want, maybe they’ll have a problem…

A quick casual game clone earns you $30k to $40k?

Gamezebo points to an interesting article on casual game clones. One of the most interesting things in it, to me, is an off-hand comment made by someone in the article:

“You feel a little bit dirty, but you know that if you can make some money — maybe $30,000 to $40,000 on a clone, which is actually a pretty decent return on your small investment of maybe $5,000 to 6,000 — you can then go out and build the game you really care about.”

Really? $30k to $40k for a straight clone? That’s awesome. One of the most frustrating things about the casual game market is that if you’re a new company publishing with a big portal site, there’s no way to know how much money to expect. Nobody will tell you. And the thing is, they can’t. Their contracts disallow it. So even when I find out how much my game makes, I won’t be able to tell you. That’s why I am always on the lookout for numbers that give any sort of clue about what a high-end, professional casual game might make.

The article has other tidbits — read it here:

In casual games, imitation is no flattery

Hello world!

Hi! I’m Eric Heimburg and I’ve been creating video games for the casual audience for about a year, give or take. Before that, I was a developer of larger video games. During my time in the games industry, I’ve been an engineer, a producer, and a systems designer, so I found I had a lot of ideas about how to make casual games. When I had the opportunity to try my hand at it, I took it!

As of this writing, I do not have a game published. My first game is finished, and the publishing contract is signed, but it is in limbo awaiting QA. My fingers are crossed that I’ll soon have a million bazillion dollars. Actually, I don’t even bother to hope that. I just hope I make enough money that I can afford to make a second game!

If not, it’s back to the massive game teams for me. No more waking up at 11pm and working until 2am… well, okay, I guess I did that a lot on actual game teams. But it’s different now! Trust me. We’ll explore all about how it’s different, and why, in this blog. But more importantly, we’ll explore how to make casual games, and we’ll examine casual games and see what makes them tick.

I’m a big fan of learning by example, and there are plenty of example games to study! Every week I’ll put up an analysis of a different casual game. But these reviews have a special target: they’re aimed squarely at other casual game developers. They will use lots of screen shots and technical details to help give you a solid picture of the game’s innards. Let’s get started, shall we? Time for the first game analysis!