I just got an email from someone starting a new game company. I get these questions every now and then, so I figured I would paste one of my responses in the (admittedly dusty) blog so everyone can ready it:
Congratulations on your foray in the the world of game development! Thanks for thinking of me.
Forming and running a successful company… any company… requires a specific set of management skills that includes leader, to parent, to Darth Vader, to friend. Successful management is an interesting balance of leading, leading by example, and cajoling. Having been in the military you probably have a pretty good handle on what it takes to manage top down. That was likely useful experience. But to succeed in games you will have to figure out how to balance this type of direct leadership with inspiration, friendship, and camaraderie. After all, there is no tour of duty in a game company, and no penalty for going AWOL. Balancing your role at the top is probably the most important part of running a company. Great leaders in business, like Steve Jobs, are sometimes loved, sometimes hated, but almost always respected. You will have to figure out how to achieve that balance in your own style. The best game makers master that balance. Failures, even if they were brilliant game designers, often fail in leadership.
Once you have that down you need to make a great game that is profitable. Well put. To do this, you have to focus on both halves of this question. Many developers make the games they want to play. That works if the game you want to play is a game that lots of people also want to play AND is not already out there. If you have obscure tastes, and you'll know this because you will talk about your games as "art" instead of "entertainment," then you will have to get lucky and strike a cord. Most of the time those games fail to be commercial successes. But assuming for a moment that your tastes run somewhere near the pack, the key is to make a game that satisfies without being utterly derivative. I call this "filling a hole".
Lots of beginning game designers simply try to make a "better" version of a game they love. Say… MW3. There are two problems with this. The first is that most beginning game designers don't have a snowballs chance in hell of making a better game than MW3. From talent to budget to knowhow they will simply fall flat. Way flat. Can't see it from the side flat. But equally as important, there is already a MW3 and tens of millions of players want the sequel. You won't even have to match the game (highly unlikely) you will have to somehow convince people to abandon their favorite series (damn near impossible). A better strategy is to say "where isn't there a MW3 where I can make a game like MW3?" That is a hole, and you plan to fill it.
I can give you some examples: There wasn't a fighting game on the early 3DO. Before the big publishers got around to releasing the Mortal Combats of the world, we filled the hole with Way of the Warrior. It may not have been a triumph of game design, but it WAS a hole in the library that people wanted to fill. So we sold a lot of them. That gave us a chance to make a character action game called Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation. We filled another hole. Nintendo had Mario, and Sega had Sonic, but Sony had squat for their new system. We gave them Crash, which wasn't a ripoff, it was a truly good game in its own right. Then the PlayStation became the best selling of those platforms. Bingo.
It doesn't always have to be so blatantly obvious as these examples, but the "fill the hole" principle is a good one to keep in mind. Don't try to do "Angry Pigs" for iPhone. Do something fun, interesting, technically proficient, and unique for some platform. Fill a hole. If you get all those just right you will succeed.
And make sure you know the business model. Know your break-even units and be honest with yourself about your odds of making it. Or if you are free to play then know how many MAU's you need at what conversion rate you need to break even. Not every game gets 100mm MAU's. Know the business BEFORE you launch the game. Unless it is a charity endeavor, of course. By the way: most games don't just rise to the top of the iTunes rankings. They get pushed. Pushed is a nice way of saying that they game the system with cash, targeted buying, piggybacking on an already successful title (hopefully your own), or something else. Make sure you know the game.
As for getting your name out there? Hell, my days in gaming predated Facebook and Twitter and Blogs. You will have to ask someone younger about that. But I do have one piece of advice: Don't oversell your product. It is a common, and truly sad, occurrence for first timers (and even some veterans) to go out and do press about how their game kicks all kinds of hell over the competition well before they even have a playable demo. That makes you look like a fool. Don't sell anything you can't put in someones hands and prove. If you stick to that methodology you will gain their respect. Even if that game doesn't succeeded, they'll believe you when you come around again to tell them what you have the next time. Leave the "change the world" hype to the guys in Silicon Valley raising tens of millions of dollars for a month or two of hacked code.
You make games, son. The proof is in the product.