The Challenger Introversion

April 7, 2009 | 13:41

Tags: #behind-the-scenes #darwinia #developer-column #multiwinia #subversion

Companies: #defcon #indie #introversion

Despite a much-welcomed revival of indie gaming talent recently, and the increasing prominence of events like the IGF awards at GDC, the games industry has not always been a friendly place for independents. Introversion was founded in 2001, a particularly difficult time, when publishing giants and their game franchises battled it out for limited retail space and front-page magazine adverts. This was just before the age of digital distribution really got underway, and the top 10 charts were constant reworkings of IP dug up from yesteryear. As a result people are often surprised to learn that Introversion will be celebrating its 8th birthday this year.

Despite these unfavourable climates and some admittedly rocky times, Introversion has steadily grown and evolved, and we’re often asked at trade events to shed a little light on how we did it. We’re asked to advice on subjects as diverse as which publishers to work with, how to finding a good lawyer and how to plan game launches. From a personal point of view I used to get pretty worried when advice was sought about our marketing strategy – it rather implied that we had things sussed; that marketing for us was an exact science, with a goal, strategy and a measurable outcome. In reality, it felt that more often than not, we owed our successes to haphazard experimentation, chance encounters and one-off pot luck, than any formal marketing strategies, or colour-coded launch plans.
My view started to change a year or so ago when I read about the concept of Challenger Brands, a term coined by Adam Morgan in his illuminating book Eating the Big Fish, used to describe those companies that are behind the industry leaders in terms of revenue, profit share and brand awareness, but are nevertheless making waves and becoming successful in their own right. There was a lot about these Challenger companies’ best practises which reminded me of Introversion and other indie games companies I was learning about at the time. Without really understanding how, I realised that we had instinctively adopted the Challenger mindset and that it was that which was bringing us success.

The Challenger Introversion

Morgan spent an entire book talking about the particular traits and nuances of the Challenger mindset, and I can sincerely recommend his book for anyone interested in exploring the topic in more detail, but there’s one particular area I want to explore here that crops up on countless occasions in Morgan’s book. This essential principle of Challenger mindset lies, I believe, at the heart of all successful indies and colours everything they do, from the games they create, to the marketing strategies they employ. It can be explained in one word. Passion.

When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense as even the word independent exudes an aura of passion. Driven by a combination of self-belief and perseverance the independent is someone who shuns the mainstream and decides to go it alone. Indie games companies must be bonkers to enter such a highly competitive, saturated market and yet they do, all the time. They do it quite simply because they love making games, they are deeply driven to create and innovate, and they do all this knowing that the likelihood of making any serious money from the endeavour is a lottery where the stakes are quite firmly in favour of the big boys. That’s not to say that they’re all romantic idealists (although I suspect many are), but that for many, making money is not the end goal here.

Passion is also the indies biggest and most powerful weapon in his marketing armoury. At its most fundamental, marketing is about creating awareness, and the Challenger indie is adept at spreading awareness without spending any money, using their passion as the driving force. For a start, Challenger indies are often notoriously bad at keeping secrets. They spill the beans on their websites and blogs, they make mistakes and then tell everyone about them, they talk endlessly and vociferously about their projects to anyone who will listen, and they have opinions about their beloved industry, which they’re happy to voice openly and often controversially to all and sundry. Ill-timed and indiscrete, this sort of activity can spell disaster, but if heartfelt and well-judged in timing and tone, it can reap great rewards. Think of an industry figure-head such as Peter Molyneux; candid, passionate and engagingly honest, Molyneux is notorious for talking about things he perhaps shouldn’t have. But whether you like him or not, the fact of the matter is, he gets column inches of PR that make most marketing departments weep with envy.

The Challenger Introversion

There are a number of reasons why having passion and airing it frequently is so good for indies keen on increasing and spreading their profile. First, passion is infectious – it spreads like a virus, which is also why I suspect many Challenger indies, including Introversion, have been able to survive on so little marketing spend. Passion is also impossible to fake and very easy to spot as disingenuous when it is, which is why it’s often better utilised by small independents and rarely replicated effectively by larger corporations, who prefer (perhaps wisely) to stick to safer advertising routes. But most importantly it is the often unsophisticated, haphazard nature of Challenger indies marketing methods that can make them so mysteriously effective. Genuinely passionate self-promotion provides the perfect antidote to an advertising age obsessed with bombarding us with increasingly cynical and invasive means to get our attention. Morgan also points out that whilst most conventional marketing efforts hone in on our desire for logical and rational solutions to life’s problems, challengers are operating on a whole new level by appealing to our emotional needs, desires and impulses.

In reflection, many of Introversion’s most passionate outbursts have unwittingly been aimed at igniting people’s emotional reactions. Whilst this has worked both for and against us, sparking some very mixed reception, it has undoubtedly driven up Introversion’s profile along the way. Mark’s impassioned put-down of publishers at the IGF awards in 2006, was met with a standing ovation in the 5000 strong auditorium - what had started as an unplanned, frustrated (and possibly drunken) outburst would make waves across the industry for years to come. At the same time, this approach has led to less flattering, if no less attention-grabbing, exposure. Chris’s blog, entitled “Save Multiwinia”, was a plea asking people to try Multiwinia’s demo after a disappointing launch. The blog rapidly spread around the internet like wildfire, adding fuel to rumours that Introversion was going under, but was also heavily criticised by some as further evidence that Introversion were behaving like whiny, spoilt brats.

You win some, you lose some. But I guess the point here is that as Morgan attests, Challengers do not need to concern themselves with being universally liked. What they require is an emotional attachment to a loyal and vocal community of likeminded individuals, who will personally do anything they can to help see the company through. With the rapid growth of online communities such as Facebook, and the democratisation of content on sites such as DiggIt and StumbleUpon, it’s no wonder that challengers are gaining more awareness and market presence than ever before, just through the bonds they’ve formed with their own communities.

The Challenger Introversion

Of course there’re some caveats; passion, although clearly an essential ingredient for any indie marketing strategy, will not always reap rewards alone. In fact too much of a good thing can wreak havoc. At Introversion we’ve always been mindful of the need to temper the wilder sides of creative vision with good, common, business sense. Passion and drive should never get in the way of helping you to run your company like a business. The other important thing to note is that good timing is of the essence, and this has no doubt been fundamental to Introversion’s and other Challenger indies successes. Born on the cusp of a gigantic land shift in the age of indie gaming with the launch of digital distribution, Introversion was the second non-Valve game released on Steam. Suddenly people were willing and able to download and pay for games online and sales of our games shot through the roof seemingly overnight. To this day Introversion makes at least 70 percent of its income from online sales.

Thankfully today, the industry is much better equipped to welcome in the indies and as a result the indie games scene is burgeoning. No doubt as a result we will see an increasingly competitive and cut-throat independent gaming industry, where indies will need to find more ways to distinguish themselves from the competition. One thing’s for sure, there will be no room for the half-hearted or ambivalent; only the passionate voices of the true Challenger indie will be heard above the rest and I guarantee that it will be those companies who whole-heartedly embrace their inner Challenger voice who we will remember in years to come.

In the mean time, here’s some Challenger idies we think are worth keeping an eye on; Eskil Steenberg, Jonathan Blow, 2D Boy, Bit Blot, Metanet and, of course, Introversion.

Victoria Arundel
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