Hi all! I just gave the keynote speech at Gameacon, and here’s the full text of the speech.
With development tools and game engines becoming cheaper and freer and the rise of engine-specific content marketplaces, an entirely new type of career is emerging: a self-sustaining, independent content developer that creates standalone products for sale to developers across the world for use in their projects. Whether it’s art, audio, code, scripting, or some combination thereof, Jon shares his tips, tricks, and insights as the Content Curator of the Unreal Engine Marketplace to help you know how to decide what to create, what product design means in this context, various techniques for marketing your products, how to be a developer’s developer, and tips on how you can turn this into a self-sustaining career.
Over the last few years, online marketplaces for content created by developers for developers have emerged as an increasingly viable option for independent game developers to prototype and develop their projects. This saves them thousands of dollars commissioning work from other developers, and thousands of hours learning new peripheral skills simply to execute on their ideas. Inspiration strikes quickly and ultimately it’s about the end product, and having a reasonably-priced solution to a problem that’s well-documented and well-supported can be a lifesaver when you’re fleshing out your ideas.
From sellsword to selling swords
Over the last few years, many developers have started selling content that they develop for fun and turned it into a lucrative sideline. It’s a dramatic shift away from making money as either a full-time employee or a work-for-hire contractor. Selling components of a game as a product instead of a service is a very exciting and different way to develop games. Many of them have actually become so successful at it that they’ve been able to leave their fulltime jobs and live on the income they generate.
What do I want to sell?
What’s your skillset? Artist, designer, scripter, coder, musician, or some blend thereof? Let’s start there.
Your junk drawer isn’t hot product
First, toss aside any idea that you can take old content you have laying around and can quickly flip it for cash. That’s the wrong mindset. Rummaging through your junk drawer to make a quick buck only fulfills your needs. And don’t think you can just crank out something simple in a single weekend and sell that. Your best chance for succeeding in this is developing content that fulfills the needs of other game developers. Being a developer yourself will give you some valuable insights into that, but you’re developing products for a large-scale audience, and that must always be kept in mind.
Focus on your strengths
Start from a position of strength. Learning a completely new skillset in order to enter a market where people have drastically more experience than you is going to be a frustrating uphill battle. To keep yourself motivated and encouraged enough to see this through, focus on creating something using your strongest skillset, with the creative challenge being “how do I design this to save time for a large audience?”
Is there a market for this?
People purchase content based on their passions and ambitions and the things that inspire and influence them. When they shop for content, they think of the pieces they need to assemble into the type of product they want. By and large, the most popular type of product I’ve seen overall are specially-designed prototype kits to fit game types, like RTS, RPG, FPS, tower defense, endless runner, etc. People tend to think of the type of game they want to develop first, so this is the first thing they look for to help them get started. After that is typically when they look for art and audio. With regards to the size of these markets, you would be surprised at how large they are and how lucrative it can be for an independent content developer that’s very good at what they do.
Popular themes and trends
Earlier this year there was a big spike in Minecraft-style crafting and construction games, survival games, horror, and zombies all tied into the hot property of the moment, offset by 2 – 8 weeks or however long it took to complete the content once the content creators were inspired. People would create things like a series of props likely to be used in survival games, a Blueprint-based crafting system that could be used for either Minecraft or survival games, horror-themed audio packs, modular zombies, etc. They’d analyze the games, reduce them to modular components, then design them to be easily dropped in and fit together to mix and match.
Pick a niche
Pick your genre, theme, style, and platform. You can’t be all things to all people. If you’re not sure where to start, look at what the top selling games are in the last year, and what the biggest upcoming games are going to be based on the amount of press coverage they get. Here’s a sampling of games:
- Fallout 4. First-person RPG, realistic post-apocalyptic, next-gen platforms.
- Madden NFL 16. Sports, realistic, next-gen platforms.
- Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. First person shooter, realistic war game, next-gen platforms.
- Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Third person RPG, stylized\cartoony fantasy, Nintendo console.
- Halo 5: Guardians. First person shooter, realistic sci-fi, next-gen platform.
- Gran Turismo. Third person racing game, realistic, next-gen platform.
- Super Smash Brothers Brawl. 3D fighting game\brawler, cartoony, Nintendo console.
- World of Warcraft. Third-person RPG, cartoony fantasy, PC.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Third-person RPG, semi-realistic fantasy, next-gen consoles.
- Minecraft. First person world-builder, cartoony retro, current-gen consoles and PC.
Select your audience
This is a reasonable spread of the art styles and types of games that move a lot of units. These are the kinds of games that get the most attention from people at a broad level. These games set broad trends that people are likely to emulate on their own projects. However, most of these are gigantic AAA productions, and the type of developers that are going to purchase content are going to be smaller teams without AAA budgets. It’s important to factor that in, and stay in touch with what’s going on in the indie game dev community. Keep an eye on those trends, ebbs, and flows.
Keep an eye on geek culture
It’s also well worthwhile to tune into other forms of media and geeky culture. Is there a major movie, TV, or comic book release coming in the next few months? Something big, like an Aliens sequel, a new Avengers movie, the new season of Daredevil, the TV adaptation of Preacher, or really any other influential, beloved property that’s going to land in the coming months. Even science can be exciting and drive sales. When I was running the Unreal Engine Marketplace, I saw a massive spike in space-themed content of all types after NASA started showing off the high-res closeup photographs of Pluto. Tying in your product to something reminiscent of that need or that ties into it meaningfully could be a good way to drive interest and sales. Follow indie game dev websites, see what’s popular, see what people are building, and analyze your competition to see how well that need is being filled.
Where do I sell it?
It depends on the market you’re targeting and the game engine you’re building. Here are a few of the markets:
They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Naturally, I recommend the Unreal Engine Marketplace because I helped build it, but you may prefer asset stores with a larger content base or that specialize with different engines or types of art, such as architectural visualization. Shop around, see what appeals to you, check in with their communities to see how they are, and familiarize yourself.
How do I build it?
After you’ve picked a market and a niche to fill, spend time thinking about not only how end users are going to ultimately use your content to build their games, but also how it can fit together with other pieces of content. Something I spent some time on at Epic was pairing certain packs together that complemented each other and could be pulled together into a full game. For example, this is a set of content that can be had for less than $1000 to help you build a fully functional first person multiplayer shooter:
- A first-person multiplayer shooter Blueprint to flesh out core systems
- A level prototyping kit for laying out full levels and gameplay
- A cool sci-fi character rigged to the default Unreal skeleton
- A series of animation packs to get one-handed weapon and two-handed weapon animation sets onto those characters
- A procedural set of randomizable combat rifles and pistols for them to carry
- A modular warehouse full of industrial props to fill the level with
- VFX packs to add explosions, muzzle flashes, bullet ricochets, and blood splatter VFX
- Then to polish it off, packs of realistic weapon sounds, military character barks and deaths, and a dramatic score.
- To tie it all together, add a modular UI system and frontend.
How do I price it?
Here’s the tricky question! Selling content on an online marketplace is dramatically different than pricing it out with an outsourcing studio. When you’re selling your content in a market to attempt to become profitable through volume, there are a wide variety of factors in how you set the price. Most people purchasing the content haven’t been in a position to commission content from an art outsourcing studio or independent artist, so they have to fall back on the simplest way they have to quantify value: How many and at what price?
100 props for $20 comes out to $0.20 per prop. Not bad! But 10 high-quality PBR rocks for $80 is $8 per rock, and that’s a lot more. What about a set of 3 background mountains for $125? Geez, that’s $41.66 per mountain, that’s getting pricy!
Granted, there are massive variables there, including quality, texture resolution, polygon count, modularity, are they part of a cohesive set, and so on. The biggest factor that’s difficult to quantify is functionality. How meaningful is it if you have 5 pieces of content and 20 knobs to control them? How do you convey that meaningfully?
How do I convey quality?
The best answer I’ve found is to illustrate the value by showing how you can save time by compounding effort. “With this set of 50 modular cave pieces with randomized materials, you can create thousands of possible cave configurations in minutes. Just click to draw, and flip these switches and see what you get!” People love modularity, randomization, sliders, swappable parts, and procedural generation. The sales pitch there is giving someone the tools to create almost anything they can imagine for the game of their genre. That’s harder to quantify and harder to put a price on, so if you can start out with a basic number of modular parts or bullet points that they’ll do the basic “how many and at what price” math on, you can increase the price even more beyond that by adding the procedural and customization options, as well as making it *really* easy to use. Adding tutorials, documentation, and demo levels is also a confidence booster if your content is expensive.
“I want to make caves with dungeons — oh wow, this pack is $85, but I could make thousands of them with this. It comes with 40 walls, 16 kinds of stalactites and stalagmites, and includes a demo level showing how it all fits together. I’m sold!”
Really, how much should it cost?
As for actual dollar amounts, impulse purchases are almost anything $30 and under. If you’re pricing anything above $50, it’s important to have a well-produced video to demonstrate the content. Tutorials and documentation are a bonus, but you basically need to make a short commercial to get people to open their wallets for anything above $50. Don’t forget that anything you sell in European countries is going to have a 23% VAT charge on top of it, so bear that in mind when setting your prices. Depending on how strong the presentation materials are, the quality of the product, and the level of customer engagement and the buyers’ confidence that ensues from that, I’ve seen content above the $100 sell extraordinarily well. If all else fails, ask your audience!
What makes a good video?
An effective approach to creating a video that I recommend is keeping it between 90 and 120 seconds long. Begin with examples of the finished product, then show your content in the editor. Show the controls you provide, and look at some of the most interesting and visually meaningful configuration options your product offers. Although long tutorial videos are helpful and they’re great to have if your content is complex, creating a shorter “commercial” video for potential buyers is a smart move. Ease of use and the end product are what is most important, so if you can dazzle them with video of how it could work, then show them what knobs they can turn to use it, and try to keep it under two minutes, you’ll be in a very solid competitive position. The easier it is for the buyer to visualize “what is it? Now how can I do it?” the faster you’ll get them interested.
How do I build a loyal user base?
Get involved with other creators in your community and surround yourself with them. I strongly believe you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and keeping smart people that work toward the same goals you have is a great way to stay motivated, interested, and connected to opportunities as they arise.
- Join forums
- Get invites to Slack and Skype chats
- Find or create a Twitter list for interesting or influential people and interact with them there
- Join Facebook groups
Embed yourself and publicize
Embedding yourself with other content creators is a great way to find potential partners to collaborate with on your own projects, and to do more comarketing. Go where they go, and emulate them. Keeping ongoing development threads of your content is a great way to build publicity in advance of your content releases, as well as getting valuable input and feedback from other creators and potential customers. Engagement is incredibly important and a strong differentiator, both before the release and after.
Analyze other creators’ work
Analyze your competition closely, and look for people with complementary content that you could team up with in the future to help promote each others’ work. It’s important to separate how you feel as a content creator about your competition’s products, and how the end users ultimately feel about it in their review and forum feedback. It’s possible that content that may seem substandard on the surface is actually excellent and widely loved, while content you think is amazing is actually very difficult to work with. Another factor and strong differentiator is the quality of support the developer provides, if any. Do they consistently update their content with bug fixes and respond to their community, or do they see content development as a one-off dumping ground? I’ve seen enterprising people torpedo their competition by offering better support and responsiveness. People generally feel more comfortable purchasing content from people they like that they feel will support them, even if it’s only $30.
Set up a support infrastructure
I also recommend setting up a basic ticket support system and a separate email address for all support requests. From least to most expensive:
These are all viable options for tracking your support requests. Really, stay on top of this because it’s incredibly important to build a good reputation. Word of mouth is everything, and these are simple and cheap ways to stay organized. This is something I hammered on Marketplace sellers to maintain, and I’ve even removed content from the Marketplace for people that wouldn’t support their content. It’s very important, and has a direct effect on sales, loyalty, and repeat customers.
Tips and tricks for success
- If you’re in the US, form a limited liability company.
- Absolutely the most important thing you can do in a position of supporting your customers is acknowledging them quickly, even if you don’t have an immediate or even satisfactory answer for their concern.
- When doing work-for-hire content for your clients, identify which of your assignments could be turned into a sellable product, and negotiate a lower rate if they accept non-exclusivity. You can open yourself up to a larger client base, make work-for-hire money, and generate a recurring revenue stream and a library as you do it.
- Having a library of content and getting on a regular release schedule is important for marketing beats and re-promoting your earlier work. Ship something every month. It’ll keep your motivation high.
- If you’re working on a game, consider selling some of the content you develop for it on an online marketplace as a means of promoting your game,attracting talent and interest, and monetizing early.
- Selling your content can be an excellent marketing vehicle to drive interest toward your service-based offerings.
Good luck out there!