10 lessons before global launch
Making mobile games is hard. Let’s face it, the chances of your game idea surviving out in the market are small. A lot of factors are out of your control. So, you have a game idea, what now?
As Product Lead for Wordzee, at MAG, I started with a blank piece of paper and a single developer. Today, with a 12-strong core team, Wordzee is one of the top revenue drivers in the company, and it all happened in a little under 18 months. The headlines read as a success story for MAG, but behind the scenes, lessons were learnt. Which is a polite way of saying we failed a lot. Hopefully, these tips will help you fast track your game development process.
When we are unsuccessful we can easily put it down to being unlucky. It’s easier to blame market forces or competitors if things go south. It wasn’t us, we were just ‘unlucky’. Equally, when we are successful, we don’t typically attribute that success to luck. We would like to think we created that success alone. Luck has its part to play in success and failure. However, if you do your research, testing, refining you can bring some of that control back into your own hands. With the right team and choosing the right opportunity for yourself , you increase your chances of making it work.
The challenge with game development is that there are so many moving parts both internally and externally that make for a successful launch. Tis one of the top revenue drivers in the company, and it all happened in a little under 18 months. The headlines read as a success story for MAG, but behind the scenes, lessons were learnt. Which is a polite way of saying we failed a lot. Hopefully, these tips will help you fast track your game development process
1. Kiss Those Frogs, Fast!
Fail fast and fail early. You’ve heard it before, but do you practice it?
Rarely are first ideas any good, and that’s fine. The important thing is just to start. Get those early concepts out of the way, and clear the pipes so you can get to the good ideas quicker.
Too often we hang on to an idea for longer than we should. Don’t let hours turn into days, days into weeks, and weeks into months. Be prepared to start over again and again, especially in the early stages. A lot of your ideas can and should be killed way before a single line of code is written. Discuss, draw, and design. Paper prototype if you can. Starting the process is the main thing, but don't get too attached to the first ideas as they’re probably frogs.
2. Creative Freedom. Blessing or Curse?
You can choose to create anything, but it doesn’t mean that you should.
Creative freedom is both a blessing and a curse. Your creative choices often come at the expense of other opportunities. Plus there’s the danger of setting yourself and your team on a trajectory you may regret.
Before Wordzee — I pitched a game idea that would have extended the game features into too many new territories if its initial Key Performance Indicator tests had succeeded. A scenario I knew I wasn’t fully prepared to take on. This would have significantly increased the risk versus the reward of the project. Choose something you have the greatest confidence in completing. Be careful not to exercise your creative freedom, just to end up creating a millstone around your own neck. I nearly did. Phew!
3. Simplicity Is Hard
This needs to be said again and again. Keep. It. Simple.
Game development is a complicated process. It’s like an unruly hedge that constantly needs cutting back. It is always more complicated than you think. Always. Game mechanics, features, UI, art style, economy, progression, tutorials, dialogue boxes, transitions, and game flows, etc, can all be challenging enough individually. Together they can get chaotic and noisy.
Keep asking the questions, ‘What can I take away? Where can I trim the fat? What is the minimum to achieve the desired result?’
Keep it simple, limit the unknowns, and increase the chances of success. It is hard to keep it simple. Simplicity is not the same as simplistic.
4. Belief Is Not The Same As Passion
Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to be absolutely passionate about the game you are making — you’re lucky if you are. But you do absolutely need to believe in it. There are games I play that I’m passionate about, and that I also know would be a terrible idea to undertake as my own projects. Tread carefully with passion-driven ideas. Your passionate idea could be motivating for you but be totally incompatible with the team and company capability.
5. Is This The Right Team/Company To Create The Game?
Even if you believe in your game you will need others to help you make it. What past experience does the team and company have? Do we have the resources? Does the culture of the company fit the game? Successful mobile games are difficult to make alone and require resources. Having a personal belief and passion about the game idea matters - but in the end, without the team to make the game, none of that matters.
6. Understanding The Fun.
Eventually, you’re designing the actual game. Get the big rocks in place first. This is the bedrock of the players’ gaming experience. I enjoy word games. Even before designing Wordzee, I played word games for fun. I know the highs and lows. The frustration, the progression, and the ‘aha’ moments. I know my levels of commitment and when I churn. I feel emotionally when it works and when it doesn’t for word games. That, however, is only a starting point.
The appeal of the game isn’t always where you expect for your players. Nor is it singular. Talk to your audience. Do you know what your players will be getting out of your game from moment to moment? Run some playtesting. Interview focus groups. Find out what makes your game fun for your players. This isn’t just a question you ask in the beginning. It is a question to ask throughout the development process as your game evolves. This is the question your audience will ask, and will continue to ask.
7. Keep Your Innovations Focused
You don’t need to innovate everything to get noticed. Your audience won’t thank you for it either. We tried to strike a balance between familiar and different enough. Try to be too radical and you run the risk of alienating your audience.
To fast track the Wordzee development process we had other games as reference points. We chose just to focus on one aspect to innovate — the core game mechanic.
We knew the metagame, the art direction, the progression model, the game economy would all work because of the research we did into other games — they had already proven it. What we didn’t know would work was the core game loop. That was the focus for innovation and nothing else.
8. Be Ruthless With Your Targets
You have your game idea, you have your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) in some shape. This is the minimum product that you think will demonstrate the viability of the game without over-engineering your game. Now is the time to test your game’s viability and potential.
Decide what your timelines are. Decide what your KPIs are going to be before you start testing. This is ultimately a numbers game so having your targets will give you the focus you need to make the decision for a go or no-go decision for your game.
Be ruthless — if your KPIs don’t meet the required targets be prepared to start all over again from scratch. If the numbers aren’t there in the beginning, you could be throwing good money after bad in the vain hope that a new feature, a new art style, a different UI, or a new tutorial will bring you the big changes in KPIs you hope for. In our experience, they rarely do.
9. Good But Not Great
The problem with working on the ‘good idea’ is that it won’t allow you to do the ‘great idea’. Good is tempting, it’s better than average, but it won’t sustain you in the long run.
Do you stay with ‘good’ and try to make it ‘great’? Or do you start with ‘great’ and make it ‘awesome’? You might find yourself hoping and praying that with each month of development they’ll transform into great metrics. Here we step into the realms of the sunk cost fallacy. It’s a delicate balance of knowing when to stop and when to keep going.
10. Timing Is A Factor
Timing and luck have their part to play in the success of a game. Sometimes more than we would like to think. When we are unsuccessful we can easily put it down to being unlucky. It’s easier to blame market forces or competitors if things go south. It wasn’t us, we were just ‘unlucky’. Equally, when we are successful, we don’t typically attribute that success to luck. We would like to think we created that success alone.
Luck has its part to play in success and failure. However, if you do your research, testing, refining you can bring some of that control back into your own hands. With the right team and choosing the right opportunity for yourself , you increase your chances of making it work.
The challenge with game development is that there are so many moving parts both internally and externally that make for a successful launch. The planets almost need to align. Being mindful of the lessons above is no guarantee for success of course, but hopefully if you pick your battles, keep it simple, and find the fun you can stack the odds for success in the fastest time possible.