It’s been now more than two month since our debut title “... and then it rained” has seen the light of day on the App Store. And although porting and upgrading the game will surely keep us busy for a much longer time the rain starts to pour down slower and the development of a new game dawns at the horizon.
Inspired by an online discussion I had with other game developers about the best way to choose a new project I want to share some personal thoughts on the matter. But please be aware: This is not a „How To“-Guide (would be a little presumptuous after one half-successful game, wouldn’t it?), just some thoughts on (more or less) independent game development based on the experience we had with our little game.
Let me begin by saying that I always found it easy to come up with new game ideas and I also believe that this is not a very special skill.
Most people working in games (or just spend a lot of time playing them) have a whole catalogue of ideas. But to figure out which of them is actually any good and worth spending month or years of your life on is a completely different and much rarer skill-set.
So here are some thoughts on how I try to figure out if prototyping a game idea or even nurturing it into a full-grown game is worth my time and that of my friends and coworkers.
1) I will aim for something small (it will get bigger anyway)
Like the tiny house movement I believe that when it comes to ideas, smaller is actually better. It not only allows you to fail faster, it also gives you the chance to have more and quicker learning cycles. And let’s face it: Most game developers suck terrible at estimating how long it will take them to finish a game.
When we started “… and then it rained” I roughly aimed to develop the game within two month. At the end it took us more than eight. And it’s not that I feel bad for this delay.
A good idea will inspire you during the whole production and you should give it the room to grow and develop (maybe even into something completely else than you started with). But if we had started with a ”big idea” the first people playing the game would have probably been our yet unborn children.
2) I won’t play with the big guys
There is something very funny about the game industry. It seems that the smaller a studio is the more easily it can make risky decisions. One would think that it’s the other way round as bigger companies have a larger parachute financial wise, allowing them to try new and unproven things without putting their whole existence on the line but this doesn’t seem to be case.
And I believe it’s because of that paradox that indie games have a fighting chance.
So I try to remind myself not to play it safe. To prefer the ideas, which are still new and unproven, so that we don’t have to fight the bigger companies on their own battlegrounds. Because that is a battle we can only lose.
Therefore I believe a good game idea should answer the question: “Would the Rovios/Supercells/Woogas of this world make this game or make it the same way?“ with a screaming “Hell No!”
3) I will be my own target group
Speaking from past experience it’s hard to develop a good game in a genre you actually don’t like to play yourself. If you are a “core” gamer making “casual” games (or the other way around although this seldom seems to happen) you shouldn’t expect the most favorable reviews. If you don’t play MMOs on a regular basis just leave them be. Although there is a shared game design craftsmanship, which holds true to nearly every genre, you will probably make too many wrong decisions on the way.
This is already true for bigger companies but I believe it’s even more important when it comes to self-published games. If you develop a game in unfamiliar or even hostile territory you will always be insecure about your decisions and this will leave an imprint on your design (and like dogs smelling fear, gamers will instantly see this weakness)
4) I won’t play alone
It stands to reason that when you make a game after your own taste you end up being your only customer. I don’t believe that to be true. Although our parents tell us that we’re special there are seven billion people on that planet which means there will always be more than enough people enjoying similar things as we do.
So it’s not so much a question whether these people exist but more of how to reach them. But if you make a game for yourself you’ll probably know best where to find them and you can always start by following your own tracks backwards.
A bonus of being my own target group is that I’m also more secure about other decisions that are not a natural part of my profession as a game designer (sadly it doesn’t mean that they are the best ones though). Whether it’s finding a price point, talking about the game, showing it to the press or players or doing other kinds of business tasks. †
This worked well with our last game and I will again try not to worry about the target group as long as I’m a part of it.
5) I will focus on mechanics instead of content
There are some game ideas, which are so good that they instantly make you long for huge fantastic worlds to explore or epic stories to experience. These are ideas I try to stay away from.
As much as I like to play these games as a player, I think they are shiny but poisonous apples for game developers. A good game idea for small studios like ours should create playtime and variety by either changing the dynamics of its core mechanic, have an emerging gameplay or have at least a very smart idea for user-generated or procedural content. But if you feel that a game idea is only good when it comes with a certain amount of content attached to it than it might be better to skip to the next one
6) I will make something new
When choosing an idea it should have at least one task in it you or your team have never done before, forcing you to learn something new. Whether it’s the first time you tell a story or create an animation but it should pull you out of your normal comfort zone.
This is the part I least worry about it as there is more than enough stuff in every idea we have absolutely no clue about.
7) Based on something old
I recently saw the very impressive documentation “Jiro dreams of Sushi” and one of its core messages is that only constant repetition of a skill leads to mastership. So when deciding for a new project it should be a game that allows us to build upon what we’ve learned with the last one.
So for me personally this means that I will probably use Unity3D again and make another mobile game.
8) I could make it alone
I will try to make a game so small that when all hell breaks loose I could somehow finish or finance it by myself. It might take way longer and be only half as good, but it will always have a chance of seeing the light of days. If instead the game can only be done by getting a certain amount of external funding or by working together with certain people than the idea is too big for me in my current situation.
9) But I will make it with friends
When prototyping a game I try early on to find at least one person (the more the merrier) who likes the game so much that he would voluntarily want to work on it.
And it’s not because it’s more fun or because it only took me ten paragraphs to change my mind on the “be your own target group”-philosophy. It’s because I want to have mental sparring partners early on with whom I can develop the game together as I will always have blind spots for weaknesses in my own design.
So even if I personally like a game idea if I can’t make people I work closely with enthusiastic about it I will probably not follow through with it. One the other hand: If you find that a lot of people want to work on it than this is all the market research you will ever need.
10) I plan to fail
There is probably no market as risky as games. Not only do we work on a constantly changing tech base but also whole new platforms, genres and business models rise and fall within years or even months. Not to mention that it is completely hit-driven and while the number of released games increases constantly the number of games at the top who make most of the revenue gets even smaller. And the companies who have one big success are mostly not able to repeat it; further proof that there is no recipe for success. Put on top the fact that gamers are constantly demanding a higher quality while the average prices for games are hitting an all-time low.
Because of that I think it’s only reasonable to assume that none of my game ideas will be a large financial success although “… and then it rained” did surprisingly well. But thinking positive it also means that a potential profit is not a very important category when selecting the idea, allowing focusing on more personal goals.
11) So it needs to work part-time
As the game probably won’t pay for my rent I need to work at least part time as a freelancer. So the game idea needs to allow for a flexible time management. This means that games, which demand a lot of time for maintenance or community work like sandbox, online or multiplayer games are less preferable than single player games.
12) It should be worth talking about
Whatever game idea is left at that point, it should be something worth talking about. And by that I don’t mean that you can put together bold press statements about it or that the press and your players have something to discuss over lunch on Twitter. I mean that it should be an idea, which you really like to talk about. Whether it is to your co-workers, family or friends. It shouldn’t even matter if the other person is actually interested in games or not because:
13) It should be something personal
Till this moment “… and then it rained” got cloned four times. But to our luck none of those were ever a real thread to us because people instantly saw that it was not the real deal and notified us (even when they took our name or stole our assets). And this may be because we made so many small decisions based on our personal taste during the development that the game ended up with a very unique and personal imprint making it worthwhile to talk to other people about it. If we had strived for a broader target group by having a more casual approach the game would have probably been much generic, easier to copy and very boring as a discussion starter.
This all may sound like a somehow rational approach to choose a next project but for me the actual decision-making process happens fast and unconsciously and most of the time ends in a hard to define gut feeling.
It’s only when I try to think about why I really decided for one idea instead of another and when reflecting about the things that worked well for “… and then it rained” that I can spot some kind of philosophy behind it. †
So, what do you think? Do you choose your projects based on a gut feeling or do you prefer hard data to make rational decisions? What are the categories you apply to your ideas? Hoping for some interesting discussions.
Have fun and good luck with†choosing your projects,