What Can Professional Wrestling Teach Indie Developers?

A man descends from the back of a unlit stadium, the audience hushed and holding up a few scattered lights, giving the air of fireflies in a darkened field. He’s holding a lantern, wearing a vest and a fedora. He walks with an air of importance, but there is a clear mark of melodrama to him. He walks to the center of a raised square before putting out the light. For the next five minutes, the spotlight is on him as he calls down fire on the audience and his supposed foe — the Undertaker.

“Why, oh why, do people hide from the truth” — Bray Wyatt is his ongoing feud with the Undertaker

This is professional wrestling, the lead up for WWE Wrestlemania, one of the largest pro wrestling events in the country if not the world. They, much like League of Legends, easily sell out the Staples Center. Defined by melodrama, heavily muscled men and cage steel matches, it’s about as far removed from the warm, fuzzy world of cute pixel characters that often define independent games as you can get.

But there’s a lot that independent developers can learn from the world of professional wrestling.

Self Promotion is King

The Dashing Cody Rhodes

Self promotion in any industry is difficult. You have to convince not only everyone around you that you are the best, but also yourself. When it comes to shameless-bordering-on-extreme vanity promotion, no one does it better than professional wrestlers. Take the Dashing Cody Rhodes as Example 1. Cody Runnels, the face behind Cody Rhodes, has been through a lot of incarnations (more on that later) but this is one of his more fascinating. In June of 2010. Rhodes started his narcissistic gimmick : he claimed that he was voted most handsome in the WWE in a Diva’s poll and demanded that he be referred to as “the Dashing” Cody Rhodes.

Here’s the thing about the Dashing Cody Rhodes. He’s a good looking guy, but the WWE is full of attractive people (depending on your personal feelings — they have everything from anarchic serial killer chic to Puerto Rican Diva to muscle bound meatheads). It is the entertainment industry. What separates Dashing Cody Rhodes from his competitors is that he declared himself the most attractive.

And then he wouldn't shut up about it.

There are very few jobs where this level of professional vanity is not just warranted but desired. And if you want someone to care about your game, you might want to start thinking in terms of Dashing Cody Rhodes. No one is going to call your game the best until you do.

Take Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball Creator Erik Asmussen. No one has sung the praises for that game higher that Asmussen himself, who has been tireless in promoting the game especially on Twitter. I knew about Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball months before I got the first PR email, because Erik has been selling this game that hard and that well. It currently has over 1000 reviews on Steam and a 98% approval rating. This is in spite of having only two Metacritic reviews. That is the kind of viral explosion that marketing majors have wet dreams of.

Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball

Part of that is, for sure, quality content. But it also is self-promotion. Erik knew he had a great product, that his game was worth the time, and he made sure that everyone else knew it as well. He made a little independent game with a frankly confusing name and got people to play it.

Because the best person to talk about how great your game is, is you. There is an infinitesimal chance that Gamespot will stumble on your game and review it. But it’s more likely that your game is going to end up on the bottom of someone’s Trash folder. Unless you’ve done the ground work, unless you’ve pulled a Dashing Cody Rhodes and told the world that your game is the prettiest (or the best).

If You Can’t Promote, Get Yourself a Hype Man

Brock Lesnar

“He is big, he is strong, he is a super athlete.” This is what John Cena had to say about his 2014 Summerslam Opponent Brock Lesnar. Brock Lesnar is a long time WWE Champion. He’s also a former MMA fighter, the highest paid UFC fighter in 2010 and one of ESPN’s highest paid athletes that year. His product (as with all wrestlers, that is himself) is of a high quality.

But unfortunately, Brock Lesnar isn’t the most exciting personality on WWE. He comes off as a kind of meat head jock — and being likeable is fundamental to being a champion in an entertainment sport. In this context, likeable doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a sweetheart, but more that you’re marketable and important — you’re a name that people want to hear more.

What Brock Lesnar needed, and what he got, was Paul Heyman.

“Because if Brock Lesnar wants to spend his summer unifying the WWE and UFC title, that’s what he’s going to do.” Paul Heyman, hype man

Paul Heyman looks like a used car salesman and a ambulance chaser made sweet sweet love. He’s not a powerhouse wrestler. But what he has is great charisma and personality.

The above video is Paul Heyman selling Brock Lesnar for five minutes. In the course of those five minutes, Lesnar does nothing but stare grouchily into the audience. But you’re not looking at Brock. You’re looking at Paul, who is telling you like a sideshow caller that this is the greatest show on Earth and Brock Lesnar is the star. At the end, one of the commentators says “Who’s going to argue?”

Not everyone can be their own hype man. Maybe you’re planning on selling your game in a foreign market. Maybe you’re painfully shy. Maybe you are not great with people. You need to find yourself a hype man.

There are a couple of options for this:

  • Have a trusted friend do this part for you
  • Hire out the service to someone respected in the industry, like Evolve PR. (Seriously Tom and the other folks at Evolve are fantastic.)

Adapt to Change

This is the Connecticut Blueblood, Hunter Hearst Helmsley.

Refined and polished, above his fans

He’s a snobbish, rich character who looks like he walked straight out of a period film. He enters the ring to harpsichord music in his debut match in 1995. He’s an aristrocrat who promises to bring “civility” to the industry.

By 1998, this is his entrance as a part of what is known as D-Generation X:

“Suck it”

Within three years, aristocrat and bluebood Hunter Hearst Helmsley has been completely rebranded into Triple H, as a member of a rough and tumble gang whose catchphrase is “suck it.” Their bad boy antics are as painfully 90's as John Connor in Terminator 2, but this is an incredibly effective rebranding.

By 1999 he was a bad boy of professional wrestling and had a storyline marriage to Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon as a way to “get back” at the promoter. (The two legitimately wed in 2003 and have three children). Three years prior he had vignettes of him offering etiquette tips and by the late 90's he was juvenile and crass.

But why the personality change?

Because Triple H (and the management at WWE) figured out that the pretentious aristocrat act was gaining him no following. If he was going to survive in the industry, he had to be remade.

Reinventing wrestlers into wholly new competitors is nothing new for the WWE (check out this list of wrestler “personality changes” from the WWE site, and the aforementioned Cody Rhodes did so when his nose was broken in the ring) because the purveyors of glitzy smack know that first and foremost they are a business. They celebrate how much of a business they are with contract signings on stage and business deals loudly worked out in back rooms. But beyond the spectacle they really are a business — they have $542.6 million in revenue. And changing Triple H into a character a 13 year old would love was smart business.

What’s the lesson here for indie developers? Don’t be afraid to reinvent your brand. Don’t be afraid to reskin your game. Sometimes the only way to save your career is to start again.

Be a Spectacle, Be Innovative

These are the Lucha Dragons: acrobatic Mexican American professional tag-team wrestlers made up of Sin Cara and Kalisto. They’re talented, well liked, they have an impressively easy chant (it’s just “Lucha, Lucha”) and above all they’re fun.

Lucha Lucha

All of wrestling is a spectacle, from Hollywood Hulk Hogan to the 21–1 streak of the Undertaker. Every match is chock full of impressive pins, clotheslines and leaps off the top bar.

But the Lucha Dragons stand out in the crowd.

Part of this is their lucha libre look, distinctive in the world of American wrestling. But it’s also in their style. Kalisto will jump up, hit the ropes on the side of the ring and corkscrew into his opponent. He’ll tap in Sin Cara, who will jump off the top bar, flip and land on their opponent.

It’s a highly aerial, circus act and you want to watch every minute.

If you want to succeed in indie marketing, you’re going to have to be a bit of a spectacle. Go out of your way to bring something new to the table. There is plenty of room in the world for another side scrolling indie platformer with a large headed protagonist in a scary world, but only if you’re ready to further innovate on that concept.

The folks at Cards Against Humanity are kind of genius at this. Early on, when they brought their game to PAX they came with comedic, potentially inappropriate fortune cookies that they handed out.

They named their full set the “Bigger Blacker Box.” Last year they marketed actual bull-shit for Black Friday and sold out. To 30,000 people. And this is for a game that you can still download for free.

How? By being innovative, unique and making rather a spectacle of themselves. If you want to stand out in a sea of imitators you have to make sure that you’re the shiniest pony in the show.

Don’t Be Afraid to Charge for Premium Service

The WWE has never been scared of charging their customers a little bit extra to watch.

While you can watch WWE Raw on Cable (that’s their Monday night event), if you want to watch their Extreme Rules event on April 26th, you’re going to have to shell out a little cash to watch it live.

Paige, one of the Diva’s

The WWE, and professional wrestling in general, is a master at building up hype and making sure their big fights are during these pay-per-view events. AJ Lee’s final match before retiring? Brock Lesnar vs. Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins? John Cena vs. Rusev (it’s basically America vs. Russia)? That’s Wrestlemania 31, and that’s paid content.

The next event is WWE Extreme Rules and to watch it live from Comcast you’ll have to shell out $44.99. Here’s the thing: people do.

This isn't a suggestion to price-gouge your customers, just a note to actually price your customers. Do you have premium content? Don’t give it away for free.

There is something to be said for having a game out there, sitting in the marketplace waiting for someone to pick it up and play it. By refusing to price your game, you’re devaluing your product. You’re telling the person that you don’t even think they should pay for your game. Pricing is hard, but at least get there and stand in the ring.

Stick Around

There’s a certain resilience to professional wrestlers. In a chaotic, punishing storyline environment they’re still willing to come back. Despite the staged nature of the pro circuit, there are still injuries. Chairs are broken over backs. People are thrown through ladders. Wives are broken up with dramatically at the altar in the middle of the ring. Bodies are broken and relationships sour.

But they persist.

This years Wrestlemania featured Hulk Hogan, Sting and the Undertaker — all legends in their field. Bray Wyatt, the fedora wearing man in the field of fireflies that opened up this story, was defeated by the Undertaker at this years event. They’re still wrestling, they’re still performing, they’re still here.

None of them were overnight successes — they came up through the ranks. They fought their way through changing characters, through younger opponents, through flashier and more dangerous performances.

If there’s one lesson you get from professional wrestling, let it be this: stick around.