It’s always a heady time when I’m struck with an exciting, new game idea. Oftentimes all I want to do is crack open an editor and start banging out code so I can see the idea take shape. But the euphoria of fresh code can’t sustain a project forever and eventually a niggle nags its way into focus:
If I spend my time and money on this game, will it be worthwhile?
One sure-fire way to answer this question is to put my head down, build, and ship the game. The problem is that doing so is very expensive and time-consuming. On top of that there’s the opportunity cost. If the game doesn’t pan out all that time could have been better spent on another project with better prospects. What I really need is a way to ascertain whether an idea is worth pursuing without having to commit all my resources.
To this end, I’d like to share a set of questions I’ve developed. I don’t believe it’s possible to affirmatively answer the question I posed above, so the goal of these questions is to tease out whether a game idea is not set up for success. Having good answers for each question doesn’t mean the game will succeed, but each bad answer poses a problem for the game. Ideally, I want to work on games with very few problems. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, I’m not sure how to solve hard problems, so it’s best to avoid them altogether!1
1. Can the game be described well in one or two sentences?
There are many situations that demand a brief and compelling explanation of a game. On Twitter, talking to players at conferences, or in the Steam storefront to name just a few. If the game can’t be adequately sold in the space of a tweet then it will have a hard time grabbing customers’ attention in the crowded market.
2. Do players have a mental model for games like this one? If so, does the game fit the model?
Imagine you are developing a FPS, players expect the game should feature guns, blood, and a realistic art style. Straying too far away from the mold is a risk. Convincing FPS players that a kiss-blowing teddy bear “shooter” is the game for them is a problem best avoided.
3. What marketing position does the game occupy?
In “22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” the concept of a market position is defined. In our era a good example of the idea in action is Apple’s “Mac versus PC” ads wherein Apple claims a number of positions for itself such as “cool computing”, “safe computing”, and “easy to use computing”. To this day Microsoft is still working against these positions.
Ideally, the game occupies a real, meaningful, and unoccupied position. If not then there may be no clear “problem” the game is solving, or, alternatively, the problem may be real but adequately addressed by the competition.
4. Does the game look great as a screenshot?
This doesn’t require much explanation. People judge games by their screenshots, so the game better look great!
5. Does it look great as a GIF?
GIFs are increasingly the currency people trade with online, so the game best work well in this format.
6. Is it fun to watch others play?
Today many players learn about new games from Twitch and YouTube. Ideally the game will be well suited to those mediums. If not that’s a sign it will have a harder time finding eyeballs.
7. Is the game highly replayable?
Being fun to watch isn’t enough. Streamers want to play a popular game for many, many hours. And developers want continued exposure for their work. High replayability is one way to satisfy both counts.
8. Are there other competitors in the space?
Game development is a very competitive field, so when you find a “blue ocean” are you a genius coasting through an untapped sea or are you cruising obliviously over a vast graveyard? The absence of credible competitors is a sign that there may not be enough demand for the game.
9. Is the game sufficiently different from what already exists?
Building on the last question, competition may be good but if the game isn’t sufficiently different and compelling players will keep choosing the competition. The game should fill a gap in the market.
10. What are the game’s hooks?
To better understand what a hook is and why it’s important I refer to Ryan Clark’s excellent explanation: What Makes an Indie Hit?
11. Can the game work well on consoles, desktop, and touch?
If the game does well there will be an opportunity to bring it to more platforms. Doing well is a minor miracle in its own right, so don’t foreclose the opportunity prematurely.
12. Who is the game’s audience?
Define who the first 1,000 customers to purchase the game will be. “Puzzle gamers” or “casual players” is not specific enough. Failure to be clear on this means it will be very difficult to market the game down the road.
13. How will people find the game?
Building on the last question, understand where the game’s customers congregate. This will be where to focus marketing efforts. Inability to answer this question casts doubt on the ability to effectively market the game.
14. How will the game make money?
Perhaps not a difficult question, but worth being clear on. As a corollary, does the monetization scheme make sense given the genre, market, and competition?
15. Is the game’s estimated market big enough to justify development?
Break out a spreadsheet and estimate how much it will cost to create and market the game. Analyze the market potential using whatever tools are available. Under conservative estimates, is it plausible for the game to make back its money? If the game requires much more success than its competitors experienced is that really plausible?
My goal with the above questions isn’t to find a formula that guarantees success. The goal is to find a series of questions which when answered in the negative points to fundamental problems with the game. Too many inadequate answers means it’s not plausible the game will succeed. When this happens I keep iterating on the idea to see if it can be fixed, or abandon it once I’m convinced it’s fundamentally flawed.
Of course, it’s OK to make a game which can’t plausibly succeed. And history is filled with stories of games beating the odds. But game development is extremely risky. There are so many unknown factors which affect a game’s chances. I want to do everything I can to make sure the known factors are working in my favor. Borrowing from Buffett once again: it’s easier to succeed when tailwinds prevail.5