When the original Super Granny launched in 2004, we were concerned that the Lode Runner inspired game dynamic would be too hardcore for our target audience. No keyboard action/platform game had ever been successful in the casual games market. So how were we going to make a hit? After recently launching Super Granny 4 and observing record-breaking downloads from our site, let me reflect on why the audience for this franchise continues to grow.
Granny and the Gems
2004 was the era of three-matching super hits, such as Bejeweled. A few game developers experimented with new types of game play, but the market had not grown much past the gem-matching phase. The decision to build a platformer-based game in the era of jewel-matching goes to the heart of what makes Sandlot Games a unique studio.
Early on in the evolution of Sandlot Games, we had made a decision not to make any assumptions about the casual gamer. We truly believe that the only reason a game genre has not been successful is because no one had created a good enough game in that genre for the casual game audience. This has been proven time and time again in our industry. For example, Virtual Villagers was the first ultra-successful life-simulation game in our market. Of course, for every success, we do have a laundry list of experiments that did not pan out – games that for whatever reason never made it out the door because focus testing revealed that no amount of polish would make this particular game mechanic a success.
And so in 2004, we launched into the development of a keyboard-driven platformer. Once we reach beta (the last stage of a video game’s development), we focus test our titles for usability. When we focus tested Super Granny 1, we saw that there was obvious confusion around the control system – the game requires keyboard control to move the main character, and spacebar to perform actions such as dig and use certain power-ups.
Initially, the voiceover that we recorded for the game was meant to address that. We figured that if people hear Super Granny speak the tutorial, i.e. "use the arrow keys to move me around, dear," it would help casual gamers get the right hand off of the mouse and onto the keyboard. The result was that roughly half of our users started using their keyboard. Unfortunately, the other half were still confused. So instead of radically changing the control mechanism (which would require a complete redesign of the game), we displayed a graphic with the proper positioning of hands on the keyboard. So at this point, users had 3 cues – a voice cue, text to read, and a graphic, to learn how to play the game.
Furthermore, the voiceover did more than address the new control mechanism. Since we already had the voiceover actress in the studio, we decided it would be fun to have Super Granny say funny lines throughout the game, like "Who let the dogs out" when she would see enemy dogs, or "I’ve fallen and I can’t get up" or "I’ll be back" when she dies in the game.
This decision to pepper the game with funny voice cues came from my experience at Monolith, working on such hardcore game titles as Blood and Shogo when I used funny voiceover cues to bring characters like Caleb to life. Obviously, Caleb’s cues were a lot darker, but the principle is the same. We all remember what our favorite characters say in movies and that effect transcends to gaming.
When Granny met Buffy
When a co-worker lent me DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2005 (which I had never watched before), I finally started to understand the reason behind Super Granny‘s success. For anyone that has not seen this TV series, Buffy is a teenage girl who is also an ultra-powerful vampire slayer living in an alternate universe of vampires, demons, and other baddies. I asked myself, how could the ultra-geeky topic of alternate universes, with demons and vampires, have shepherded such a massive broad-based following? The answer lies in the characters in the show – and specifically – Buffy.
The thought of a teenage girl who is also a superhero is inspiring to women of all ages. The fact that she struggles with day-to-day issues that every teenage girl goes through, such as self-identity, school, love and sex, makes her real. Her struggle with "the otherworldly" only has dramatic context when it is juxtaposed with her own internal struggle for self-actualization.
When I found out that Super Granny was being played almost exclusively by a female (and older) audience, at first I was perplexed. The game mechanic is much more hardcore than other games that attract this demographic. The answer was… Granny. Our audience was willing to make the difficult jump into a whole new control mechanism for Granny. They fell in love with the character. Granny was an 80-year old superhero, capable of traversing great distances to find her lost kitties while knocking baddies out with her purse or frying pan. She was an inspiring icon, someone you enjoy watching and participating in her trials and tribulations. Even though visually she’s only 30 pixels tall, Granny’s voice clips provide a great deal of humor and personality, as she is somewhat clueless of the dangers that she is facing.
We took great care in presenting Granny as a cultural icon, not as a parody of senior citizens. She is quaint without being stereotypical. This nuance was extremely important, in both character development and story arc. We have had multiple writers take multiple stabs at what you would think are the simplest one-liners, as one false move in this aspect would make Granny less interesting, less believable, and less loveable.
Granny takes the long road
Super Granny 1 was moderately successful. It was not even close to an AAA hit for Sandlot Games, nor did we expect it to be. However, we have always believed in the strength of a franchise through the evolution of the casual games market. There was enough interest in Super Granny to build a second version. To our surprise, the second version doubled the sales volume of the first. Super Granny 3 continued the sales trend upward and Super Granny 4 has just been released with critical and commercial success.
One of the main factors for the success of Super Granny 2, 3, and 4 is the bundling of a level editor in the game. Our users relished the fact that they can create their own Granny levels, share them with each other, and then download user-submitted ones from our web site. This feature allows each Granny game to have an infinite shelf life, and maintain consumer interest while waiting for the next installment.
We as developers are often perplexed and puzzled as to what does well in our market. Taking the safe road for a product by mimicking another game in that same genre is one approach. Making another hidden object or time management game that is undifferentiated from its peers may bring commercial success in the short term. However, a strong franchise takes years and years to get absorbed into the collective psyche of the public.
Therefore, I encourage developers to stick to their guns, but also be smart about the audience they’re targeting. Realize that a strong franchise is built on the ability of the audience to directly relate to the game world. Understand that the more a gamer can get involved with the game between installments, through the availability of community features such as level editing and sharing, the longer tail the franchise will have. Finally, don’t succumb to design by marketing or by market. The strength of a brand depends not only on the customer’s perception of it, but even more importantly on the game developer’s ability to believe in his or her creation.
Daniel Bernstein established Sandlot Games and has served as founder & CEO since its inception in 2002 as a premier developer and publisher of casual and family-friendly games across a variety of platforms. Daniel is a veteran of the gaming industry and has over twelve years of content strategy, game development, publishing and production-related experience having successfully launched over 20 game titles with Kesmai Studios, Monolith Productions and WildTangent. Prior to starting Sandlot Games, Daniel held the position of director of product strategy at WildTangent, where he devised and executed a successful online fee-based games business. An accomplished composer, Daniel also writes music for most of the games developed and published by Sandlot Games. Daniel holds a BS in Computer Science and an MA in Music Composition from the University of Virginia.