Overcooked and Overwatch are two multiplayer-focused games, both released within months of each other last year. Beyond the obvious similarity in names, the two games are both fast-paced, frantic, and a hell of a lot of fun to play with your friends. Both have been big successes critically and both were nominated for ‘Best Multiplayer Game’ at the 2016 Game Awards.
Of course, they are very different games too, in terms of genre, scope, budget, audience and design. But one major difference is of particular note, particularly considering their award nomination in the same category. One, Overwatch, is an exclusively always-online multiplayer experience, and the other, Overcooked, is a local couch co-op game only.
In the final reckoning, it was Overwatch that took home the award for ‘Best Multiplayer Game’ at the end of last year, not to mention ‘Game of the Year’ itself’, and while we are at it: ‘Best Studio’ for the developers Blizzard too.
But when Oli De-Vine and Phil Duncan, the two-man team behind Overcooked, set out in early 2015 to create their game, it’s very unlikely the duo ever saw themselves competing with Blizzard, or a title like Overwatch, for best multiplayer game of the year.
In an era of online-only games, and online platforms like Twitch, and Youtube, not many would have thought a game without any online multiplayer component whatsoever, would have any chance of competing for such an accolade.
So how did Overcooked do it? When the majority of the industry was bombing its way down the motorway towards online experiences, how did this two-man development team manage to weave its way in completely the opposite direction, and find a pathway to success?
What is Overcooked?
For those unfamiliar with Overcooked the game itself, allow me to briefly butcher a summary of the game:
Overcooked is a co-op cooking game that challenges players to prepare and serve as many orders as they can in a limited amount of time. Players are forced to work together, collecting, chopping, and cooking ingredients, in a variety of ever-more complex kitchens.
Those tasks can be a bit of a chore in the real world, but when you’re channelling your inner Gordon Ramsey and screeching at your friends and family to pass you the “god-damn lettuce!” like there is 3rd michelin star on the line, it really is a tasty treat of a game.
The game is the brain-child of two former Frontier Games employees, Duncan and De-Vine. The Cambridge based duo share a passion for local co-operative games, borne out of childhood play sessions with older brothers, and bombastic lunch breaks at Frontier Games with colleagues. Together, at the back end of 2014 and start of 2015, they founded Ghost Town Games.
Getting priorities straight
That love of co-op multiplayer experiences is there for all to see in Overcooked. It unashamedly puts the local co-op experience at its heart. It’s not that Duncan or De-Vine are against online multiplayer. If they had the resources, budget and time, I’m 100 per cent sure they would have included it – in fact, we know they would have, they’ve said so many times:
With a bigger budget and more resource, Ghost Town Games would have included online functionality, but when push came to shove, it chose to prioritise local co-op. Duncan, in one forum post, for example said:
“We’re hoping there are lots of people out there like us who want to play co-op game with their friends, [It] seems to be a little thin on the ground at the moment!”
The online multiplayer question was, and remains, the request that the developers have received most of all on their social media channels, store pages and forums. They know leaving it out is the equivalent of leaving money on the table.
Nevertheless, at the time of writing, no online functionality has been announced. Its continued absence inherently points to it not being a priority. But it doesn’t seem to have hindered the game – it has been an undoubted success without any online component.
The interesting question is whether that success is despite the missing ‘link’ or because of it. Did prioritising the creation of a game that is incredibly fun to play locally with family and friends, gaming novices and veterans, and even strangers at a party, carve out a niche for Overcooked that bought it sales, praise and awards?
How did local co-op effect Overcooked’s design?
There are a couple of ways the local multiplayer gameplay is designed in Overcooked that is very clever.
First of all, the game is incredibly simple to play. Three button inputs are all you need to use: move, pick up/put down, and chop. On the PS4 for example, that’s just one analog stick, X and Square. If you’ve ever tried to introduce gaming to a loved one or friend, you know the importance of that simplicity. Not everyone has grown up with a controller in hand all their life; complicated or janky controls can be a major put off.
An easy control scheme makes the game accessible to all levels of play and all age groups. It ensures you minimise the chance of a gaming novice being put-off by a frustrating wrestle with the controller, rather than being enticed by the intriguing challenge and fun of the game.
Better yet, because the controls are so simple, the game allows you to split the controller in half and share it with a second player, with one hand each on the same pad. Even if you have one controller, the game can be played by two, and naturally, only two controllers are then needed for a group or family of four.
Secondly, the subject matter of the game is perfect for creating an accessible game focused on co-op. Everyone knows what happens in a kitchen: meals are prepared and served. The subject matter of cooking let’s you bypass any awkward explanation of what’s going on, or what the goal of the game is. Everyone’s on the same page quickly, we’re cooking, so little explanation is needed.
Those two things, simplicity in controls and simplicity in task, are incredibly important for the marketing of a co-op game if it’s going to succeed without an online element. It opens the door to a far greater target audience. Gamers don’t need to live in a house with other gamers – they can convince their boyfriends, girlfriends, and friends to give it a go. Or young budding gamers can get to grips with it easily with sibling and parents.
Online it’s easy to find other players, well versed in games, ready to take down the latest Destiny boss. In the real world, in your house, that’s not quite the case – but the simplicity of the game allows players a real chance to get those non-traditional gamers to give it a go, and a lot of the time, subsequently enjoy it.
There’s one last aspect to the design that is key to making Overcooked work as a local-only multiplayer game. Those first two aspects help you get players into the kitchen, but what keep them there is a design mantra Duncan and DeVine always referred to in the development of their game: Avoid ‘first to fun’.
‘First to fun’ is a co-op experience many of us would have experienced, particularly when playing games with a more skilled and experienced player. The better player will get to the cool stuff first. They get more kills, more points, better power-ups and simply more out of the experience. It’s not always a bad thing, for the right kind of co-op game, an added edge of competition for a high-score between the players is perfect. But sometimes that competitive edge works against the co-operative spirit of the game.
For a game like Overcooked, a ‘first to fun’ experience would be poison. Instead, Overcooked’s design rewards and encourages true co-operation. It’s a game that’s easy to play, but hard to master, like so many claim to be. But the only way to master this game, is by working together like, well…. like an organised and productive restaurant kitchen.
The simplicity of the game lets newcomers quickly feel part of that team, instead of feeling lost or a liability.
There’s two parts to marketing. First, there’s the creation and position of your product in the market against competitors. Ghost Town Games was succeeding at this arguably harder part. It just needed to execute on the second challenge of marketing: Getting your game out there, in front of the right people, at the right time, in a sea of competition.
For a two-man team – doing this job at the same time as developing the game itself, is beyond challenging. In one post on developer forum TigSource, Duncan was brutally honest. He said:
“Definitely the hardest part about indie dev so far has been balancing making the game and remembering to actually tell people about it!”
Ghost Town Games soldiered on marketing the game itself for a long time. And I think it did a solid and commendable job on its own. It had a developer blog on its website, it posted regularly on developer forum site TigSource, and its twitter account was firing out good content at a steady pace. The tone was spot on: informative, humorous, and it had plenty of engagement and interaction.
Ghost Town Games got itself out there at some of the smaller events in the UK from an early stage too – like the Norwich Game Festival. Some games you see at a convention and they don’t really hit – they’re not designed to be played in a five-minute window in a noisy hall.
Overcooked on the other hand, is a game that lends itself to being shown off at convention or festival. With the controls being so simple, the developers had great success getting strangers to play together and immediately have a fun time.
Ghost Town Games succeeded at getting some good targeted publicity for the game on its own as well. There was an interview with the website Co-optimus for example, which – as I’m sure you can tell by the name of site – was a perfect audience to reach. And also some minor coverage was achieved on some of the bigger and broader sites, such as Rock Paper Shotgun and EuroGamer. The-two-man team at Ghost Town Games were stewing along nicely – but were they doing enough to make a really big splash on opening night?
Taking the plunge
For two developers who have just got out of the world of big publishers and become independent, signing back into that world could not have been an easy decision. The offer had to be right. Back in September of 2015, Duncan said on the subject of partnering with a publisher:
“We’ve been keeping our options open by speaking to as many people as we can about the game. Some rejections, some offers, some really interesting opportunities which I hope we can talk about one day. We’re still pursuing a few avenues for this but we would only really consider going down this route if we think we’re aligned on the future of the project.”
It wasn’t till more than six months later that Ghost Town Games announced its partnership with the UK-based Team 17. It clearly took its time and did not rush hastily into any decision. But boy was it worth it. If there’s one thing that Team 17 knows, it’s couch co-op. I’m sure I’m not the only one who spent many happy days on the sofa blasting friends off the screen with banana bombs and holy hand grenades, in one version or another of Worms.
Team 17 is a development studio which has found success in developing its own games and publishing similar-sized ones like Overcooked. And the boost that experience and know-how gave to the marketing of Overcooked was undoubtedly essential for the exposure and success of the title. Duncan said this at the announcement of the partnership:
“We signed up with Team 17 to help us market the game, not to mention help us with the final stretch of QA as we attempt our fairly ambitious task of releasing simultaneously on 3 platforms. It was a big decision for us but so far it’s been really invaluable (especially as a two-person team).”
Just from an exposure point of view, Overcooked was now in front of so many more people. Overcooked’s twitter account at the time of writing has just over 8000 followers. Team 17 has nearly four times as many followers: 30.7k.
Suddenly, Overcooked had the budget to go to E3. And like that, its presence at conventions went from looking like this:
To looking like this:
First off, Team 17 was able to build on the more targeted marketing that had been going on previously – a Youtube interview with FamilyGamerTV is a good example of that. But Team 17 could also deliver opportunities for exposure that were previously unattainable. A trip to E3 in the States, and an IGN beta for prime members would be examples of the doors and opportunities opened up by the partnership.
The two-man development team had managed to Greenlight Overcooked on Steam, but now a team of community managers could take over that page and keep it updated and customers informed. Likewise with Twitter.
And lastly, Overcooked had a new home on the internet on a dedicated page on Team 17’s website. Before, the only website page for the game was on Ghost Town Games website. The fact that developer website is still using an old version of the logo, with a certain body part exposed of one of the chefs, not seen on later version of marketing material, should tell you how valuable that page was considered for the game’s marketing.
So, Team 17 gave a real visible boost to the game’s presence and visibility pre-launch. And it allowed Ghost Town Games to focus and commit full time on finishing the game itself. But arguably, the real work for Team 17 would start from the launch of the game itself. That happened, on August 3 last year, with day one worldwide availability for download on Steam, Xbox One and PS4. It’s a commendable achievement for an indie developer’s debut game to hit all the major market places at once.
Just to further ironically illustrate the commitment to local co-op play, Overcooked was a game released only on digital online services. You had to be connected online to get the game in the first place – yet it still had no online functionality.
An obvious thing that needs a mention is Overcooked’s launch Price. Overcooked’s design and structure takes it cues from the mobile market in some ways – like its level selector and 3 star level system – but thankfully the comparisons stop there. It’s not a free-to-play game that’s full of microtransactions. Overcooked On launch retailed for £12.99. For 30 levels, each lasting between 2 and 5 minutes, and with a ton of replayability, I think that’s a fair and enticing price for the average gaming consumer.
Overcooked is a fantastic example of how marketing is not something you simply do when you’re first making and developing a game. Nor does a good marketing campaign stop a month after release. Team 17 have done a great job of keeping the machine rolling months after launch and it’s paid massive dividends.
Its post-launch marketing success really begins with the start of the game itself. This is the second screen that gamers are met with when they boot up Overcooked:
“Please feel free to use any video footage or screen captures of the game in whatever way you like.”
Overcooked is a game that might have shunned any online multiplayer component to its game. But that doesn’t mean the developers or marketing team didn’t understand how important online content would be for the success of the game post launch.
They made a game that would be perfect for the growing number of ‘let’s play’ youtube channels. If your game is a big hit with such online communities, you have a great chance of increasing your sales.
And Overcooked got some of the biggest Youtube channels out there to play its game and make videos. RoosterTeeth with its ‘LetsPlay’ and ‘Achievement Hunter’ channels have produced a number of videos for example, but the list goes on and on. ‘The Yogcast’ and ‘iHasCupquake’ have done let’s plays, ‘Kinda Funny’ too, and even the biggest of the lot, ‘PewDiePie’. The Youtube sensation’s Overcooked video has over 6 million views.
Every time a big channel makes a video, the Overcooked marketing team doesn’t miss a chance to capitalize and get involved. It has even taken time to create chef versions of the respective participants on a number of occasions. Here’s the Achievement Hunter guys using such assets to promote Overcooked themed videos for example:
It’s a game that lends itself to entertaining Let’sPlay content. It’s actually fun to watch a group of friends play through the game, and it’s easy for the audience/potential customers to see themselves replicating the experience with family and friends. Overcooked, from launch day one, has been ready to capitalize on this free marketing, fully aware the couch-based co-op game would make for great online content.
The post launch marketing of Overcooked was, and remains, an undoubted success. Overcooked achieved something rare, it got a review from Gamespot months after release. It is a testament to the quality of the game itself and the marketing effort, that such a site would realize the error and go back. One of the things that sparked that late review was also Overcooked’s nomination for numerous gaming awards, from the Tiga awards, all the way up to the new and improved Game Awards mentioned at the top.
Overcooked just hasn’t slowed down its efforts since launch. It did so well in fact, that Team 17 felt confident enough to take a punt on a disc-based version of the game after the successful digital release. It seems only right that a game that has succeeded based on its online-free approach, should give customers a way to access the title offline as well.
The game has also had two DLC packs released, a version for the Nintendo Switch announced, and just to tie things nicely in a knot, has been nominated again for an award, this time at the Baftas.
Brand development – too many cooks
It’s quite clear I think that Overcooked has been a giant success story, from beginning to end. But like everything, I also think there is room for improvement.
First off, in terms of brand development – I think Ghost Town Games have missed a bit of a trick. There is a Ghost Town Games website, but no Overcooked dedicated website. And at the same time, there is an active Overcooked Twitter account, but no active Ghost Town Games account. It’s twitter account simply directs to the Overcooked account. The result is that it lacks consistency in its online presence.
The brand of Overcooked has been supported well overall, largely thanks to Team 17, but at times that has been at the cost of development to the Ghost Town Games brand. As mentioned before, the website is infrequently updated and lacks promotion.
This critique could be way off the mark of course. Maybe Ghost Town Games has no intention of developing its developer brand, and is looking to continue to work with Team 17 and let that established brand be the voice for its games. But I believe Ghost Town Games had a great game with a great USP, and thus, a great opportunity to market itself as the king of co-op games that actually are co-operative and which ‘avoid first to fun’.
An indie developer like Super Giant Games is a great example I think. Its had two successful releases, Bastion and Transistor, and Pyre is on the way. Its games are all beautifully crafted and share an amazing art style.
Not one of those games has its own twitter account. Instead it all comes from Super Giant Games account. I think that’s a really forward thinking approach to the development of an indie developer’s brand. It allows the brand to switch from game to game, avoiding stagnating sequels, but maintain the same audience. Ghost Town Games is not in a strong position to utilise the success of Overcooked for its next project should it choose not to move out from under the Team 17 umbrella.
Another small quibble, or what I see more as wasted opportunity, was not doubling down on accessibility. Overcooked provides a control scheme accessible to one handed players: It’s an option in the controller setting and presumably made possible because of the decision to let players share one controller for two players.
But why not make the whole control scheme fully customisable. Especially for a game with so few button inputs – it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to provide players with button remapping option. Maybe economically, the benefits wouldn’t have outweighed the cost in time and money, with potentially only a relatively small number of players challenged by the controls because of a disability issue. But the move towards accessibility options for disabled players is one that gained some good traction in 2016 and I hope we’ll see it grow massively in 2017.
All the trimmings?
My last and final grievance with the game from a marketing perspective is the lack of a platinum trophy on the PS4 version. This is a bit of a bug bear of mine. For the wider audience of more casual players, the platinum trophy means nothing, but there is a hardcore trophy hunting audience that are far more likely to take a punt on a game if it has a platinum trophy.
Just look at games like ‘My Name is Mayo’. It’s a piece of garbage 99p game – it’s not a game, and instead, it’s just half an hour of shaking a virtual mayonnaise jar. Thousands downloaded that game simply because it was easy to platinum in less than half an hour.
There’s clearly an audience out there who like to hunt platinums obsessively. But also an audience which is much more likely to see a game through to the end, if there is an attainable platinum waiting. Trophies and achievements, done with care, can really add an extra layer of fun to a game, and also add the motivation to play to the end. Getting players to play your game for longer is surely not a bad thing for the long-term profits of your business.
However, the rules about which games get a platinum and which don’t, often seem very confusing at Sony. Seemingly smaller title are generally not given one, but then larger titles sometimes miss out. It seems like it’s a complex, rather esoteric system that Sony has chosen for deciding which game gets a platinum and which doesn’t. But actually, it also seems it can be very simple: If the developer pushes hard for one – it gets one. If ‘My Name is Mayo’ can get one, Overcooked should have one. Why every developer doesn’t fight for one is beyond me. It strikes me as an easy win.
Pinch of co-op, dash of charm and a sprinkle of chaos
Okay, time to get out of here before I definitely Overstay (get it?) my welcome. Overcooked is a great game, and a great example of how to target and market your game successfully at a niche audience.
At a time when so many games are going in the opposite direction, towards an exclusively online experience, Overcooked forged out its own place in the market, serving those who still love to play at home on the couch with their buddies, loved ones, or heck, even their frenemies. From inception to the present day, its marketing has been on the money. And of course, it doesn’t hurt either that the game itself is a charming, chaotic, culinary co-op-concoction.
I hope to see more on the menu from Ghost Town Games soon.