I've nearly come to the end of the initial six-week run of my GameSpot show Secret Code. The show I decided to do after we wrapped the second season of Escape From Mount Stupid and I felt like talking about the reason I dumped a popular show to focus on games not many people know or care about.
I've always had a massive love and respect for the independent games development scene. For one I used to be a programmer. Mostly web-interface stuff but I tried my hand at games development on Actionscript and C# in various college projects. Secondly, I love the idea of small start-up companies. Before coming to GameSpot I ran a gaming website with a group of people across the world, and before that I was always working on small projects with friends. I love the camaraderie that comes from collaboration, and the fruits of passionate group projects are usually pretty damn tasty.
I did some counting last week and realised that Escape From Mount Stupid has been watched 1.6 million times. That's a lot of people. I try not to get focused on numbers too much, but the fact is they're an important part of gauging interest in videos you make. Sometimes other factors come into play. Specifically with my shows it's usually down to how much time they get on the homepage (exposure), the quality of games in the title (AAA get more clicks) and the length of the video (traditionally long videos don't get played).
So when EFMS did quite well, and I knew I wanted to do something else I decided to cash-in any and all goodwill I had with the community and my peers and do a show that broke the second rule.
So how do you get people to watch an indie show? Nobody had ever cracked the formula so I decided to ask as many people as possible. When I had the opportunity to visit PAX East earlier this year I spent a lot of time talking to indie developers of all shapes and sizes. Capy's Nathan Vella told me short-form, entertaining videos were the best way to show off a game without boring people. Interviews and features are fun, he explained, but most gamers don't care about the industry or the developers. I used a lot of this advice in the first few episodes of the series.
Another issue on my mind was how to get to expand the gaming palette of visitors to GameSpot who are only interested in AAA games. I had a great chat with everyones favourite ex GameSpot editor turned developer Greg Kasavin who interestingly told me he didn't care about trying to sell his games to that audience. He told me there are enough people who love the games that Supergiant want to make already. I was glad for his insight but I wasn't sure how to take it. Did that mean an indie show would do okay because fans of indie games would watch it? Or did it mean that trying to appeal to a wider audience was futile? I'd find out soon enough, it was three weeks to episode one.
In the end I decided on a formula that would attempt to appeal to both crowds. To create a show that championed indie games, but put a weird game front-and-center as a piece of bait on the GameSpot homepage. The first episode showed off The Splatters and Lone Survivor, but the image on the homepage carousel and the first item on the intro focused on the controversial simulation game JFK Reloaded.
The indie features were short-form, punchy and focused on entertainment and delivering core information about the game. In terms of style they were basically trailers. Over the course of the season I tried different lengths and combinations of episodes. Three games - five games - two games and a quick-fire round - one game and an indie everytime we kill fifteen people.
I still wasn't sure if people were watching because of the indie games or the weird games, so on episode five I decided to take a punt and focus on one single game. To my surprise and delight our Monaco episode is looking to be the second most popular episode we made. I still don't have any decisive answers, but the massive drop-off in views I had nightmares about didn't happen. So at the very least I know that the indie games aren't the weak link.
We haven't nailed the formula, but I feel a lot more clear about the desires of the audience. We've one more episode left in this six week run, but I'm looking to continue Secret Code in a less structured style.
It's not all about the numbers, but we've done 113,000 views on YouTube in five episodes, and that makes my job of justifying the show a lot, lot easier!
Special Thanks to all the indie developers who helped me out so much during the course of this show's initial run. We've got some amazing games like Thomas Was Alone, Natural selection 2 and Retro City Rampage coming on future episodes.