Making a Successful Game by Hacking All of the Rules

I made a successful game! You can too: it’s actually not terribly hard, or even risky, as long as you’re willing to make a lot of concessions about your definition of success, and you’re willing to be absolutely shameless about shortcuts you can take to get there.Second Guess Trivia

For the game I made, we have about 6,000 players logging in every month. They play for about 30 minutes each time, on average. 30 minutes for a game played on their phone is fantastic! Those aren’t small numbers: it adds up to about 100 hours a day!

Maybe that doesn’t sound great. What if I told you it was a trivia game? That it’s free, and no one has spent a penny on it? That it runs on a private platform only available in select locations? What if I told you the audience was captive, that the marketing is entirely free, and I was paid to make the game for the company I work for? And what if I told you that I actually control the platform the game runs on, and I don’t allow any competition, so I have 100% of the audience?

You’d tell me that my “success” is both pathetically small, and poorly-earned.

And that’s cool!

My game, in another context, would be a disaster. It’s a highly competitive market in a busy genre with almost no room for a new voice.

But I work for a digital signage company, and our clients are all pubs, restaurants and bars. My company wanted a game that would keep patrons entertained, and give them a reason to go to our client’s location over a competitor. “Butts in seats” is our metric for success – more people in more seats staying longer means more money for our clients. So when 6,000 people play 30 minutes on average every month, that’s a lot of money coming in for our clients! We see money by trickle-down – they don’t cancel our service. That’s it!

We developed it, put it on the TVs, and advertise it constantly. And because we control the platform, we made it the only game to choose from.

We’re a success! But only under a very specific definition of success.

To make a successful game, all I had to do was make a game people have played thousands of times before, release it solely on a platform I have complete control over, advertise it for free to a captive audience, with partners who financially benefit from having us on board.

When I talk about this success, it doesn’t go over well with game developers. They raise a lot of issues:

  • I got paid to make the game
  • I’m not indie, I’m not an artist, I’m a corporate shill
  • I made a trivia game, the lowest form of game imaginable
  • I cheated by not competing in a public marketplace like Steam
  • I cheated by using advertising – a lot of it, and for free
  • I cheated by attaching it to a business product
  • I didn’t play by the rules.

So I had a success, but when I talk about the game being a success with other game developers, they are quick to come back with “well yeah but”.

And that’s okay!

Game development is really hard. When you’re trying to take a piece of a pie, a guy who comes in with his own damn pie that comes free with a beer, that’s infuriating! What a jerk, you worked really hard and that guy cheated the system.

Not everyone gets to operate outside the system. I’m super lucky and very grateful.

I’m okay if you’re upset with me! But please, look for ways to hack the system yourself. And don’t feel guilty for doing so, which is actually really hard. I feel super guilty for having a game like this sometimes. I feel like a hustler! I have to tell myself that it’s okay, that I’m not a monster person who built my game on the backs of way more daring and creative people. I just had a very specific opportunity to leverage, and I nailed it.

So go! Make a successful game! But hack the system – it’s stacked against you! Use anything you can to get an edge. No shame, no guilt.

You’ve got my support.

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