Adapt Or Disrupt: A Practical Guide To Surviving In A Golden Age Of Games

Oscar Clark   •   January 28, 2019

Lesson 1: ‘Hope is not a strategy’

Professional games development has to be a considered act, with a business plan – assuming we want the chance to make the next game (and the next!).

Doing what other people have done before won’t bring you the success you hope for – there are already a dozen (if not hundreds) of games repeating other people’s concepts. Instead, we need to decide if we are going to adapt or disrupt.

Adapting requires a deep understanding of the market place of games and what the playing audience you are targeting wants (indeed needs).

It also means appreciating the realities of how players will discover and engage with your game and building something which gives you the best chance for success.

You must still want to build that game but you are not the target player; and the game should appeal to where the market is moving – not where the market has been.

Disrupting is about having the confidence and creativity to redefine where the market will go next.

This means bringing something completely new to the way content is developed or enjoyed, but is not necessarily just in terms of the visual/art/narrative of gameplay. Disruption can come in the way we deliver, support and charge for our game.

Taking an established game model and applying it to a new platform, marketing approach or business model requires nearly as much creativity as developing a new form of gameplay.

We still need a deep understanding of the market place – after all you can’t innovate if you don’t understand what is already there.

Lesson 2: Start with a vision

Success is not just having a neat idea for a game. Ideas are important, but not inherently valuable without execution – indeed they can be dangerous for our survival if not managed well.

Instead, we need to define our strategy into a vision. A simple statement that defines what we stand for as a team. This can be grand such as “we are going to redefine the way narrative games are played”, to simple “we make games that players can play on the toilet”.

Vision statements need to describe a direction, not a destination for them to be practically useful. We need to be able to look at any decision we make as a team and ask if they get us closer to the vision or not. If they don’t, we cut that feature.

It helps if your vision focuses attention on player needs. That means thinking about what kind of experience players will get from our gameplay. For example, we could break this down into four types:

  • Control: The player wants to escape their normal routine and have some level of control in their life through play
  • Competence: The player is motivated by comparing their skill with others; or against the game itself.
  • Completion: The player is motivated by the satisfaction of completion and optimisation in the experience, and driven to continue through a sense of unfinished business.
  • Social capital: The player is motivated by the social implications of playing the game/ E.g. Because others are playing or how you are seen if you are a player.

Lesson 3: Team matters

Understand your team’s strengths. Every team needs a balance between the Hipster (Creative); Hacker (Technical) and Hustler (Commercial) aspects of games development. But beyond that you need a common understanding and commitment to the shared vision.

You also want to start with an understanding how to apply those skills to the lowest possible budget that gets you fastest to a releasable experience to test your vision. However, you need to always consider how your team needs to evolve over time.

That means you need to plan how to recruit the right people not just to build the game, but also understanding their role after you go live. Sometimes paying more for a highly experienced freelancer is better than hiring someone internally who won’t realistically have a role during live ops.

The balance of resource always shifts to operations whether or not you choose to go for some form of games-as-a-service.

Unless you are independently wealthy you will also have to find ways to generate the money with a combination of investment and some form of work-for-hire.

This will impact your team’s ability to deliver your game and may affect how you recruit. Work for hire can result in ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as competition pushes down prices and client/projects ever more than was quoted for.

Plan the scope for your first release with this in mind as you will want to be able to continue when your first release fails to be the immediate commercial success you might hope.

Lesson 4: Finding the opportunity

Once you understand the team’s capability and the budget, you need to isolate the right market opportunity that most closely matches the point where your budget and skills move you towards your vision.

It helps to consider the journey from awareness of the game to the install and then to play. This means thinking about the following:

  • Channel: How will players find your game – will it be through social media, traditional games press, ads within other games, app stores or through influencers. How can you adapt or disrupt the way people find you?
  • Platform: What platforms will you focus on and why would you stand out to the audience? Are you using some aspect of the platform’s capacity that others have ignored? Are you moving to a new platform where there is less competition for content?
  • Mode of use: How does the platform choice affect the way people play? A console tends to mean the player is taking over e.g. a living room with control over the TV and playing for several hours; whereas a mobile game is in your pocket and can be tapped into several times a day for a quick experience.
  • Install process: What is the fastest route from awareness of the game to the install? in-game ads are hugely effective because there is almost no friction between the awareness and installing the game. Can you find other ways to reduce friction?

Lesson 5: Rules of the game

At last, we can start looking at the game design itself. There are lots of different approaches that allow you to adapt or disrupt the current game models – here are some examples:

Simplify: Take a game and distil it to its smallest possible elements – it doesn’t have to be just the design that you simplify, the same can be done for the production and marketing process which gave us hyper-casual games – one of the most disruptive genres over the last couple of years.

Repurpose – Cloning is a dirty word but there are plenty of examples of how we can take core mechanics from other games and genuinely repurposing them with new genres, platforms, narratives, etcetera, and crystallising them into a new experience.

Merging: Taking two ideas and smashing them together to make something new is a great way to be creative within frameworks that are familiar to players – but don’t over-rely on this. It can fail at least as often as it succeeds.

Innovate – Take a core element of a game’s design, genre, monetisation or marketing channel and replace it with an approach that is genuinely new. This is more challenging than it may sound as there are very few genuinely ‘new’ ideas and most don’t fit for very good reasons. Innovation can be off-putting if you change too much. Scott Roger’s Triangle of Weirdness talks about how we can break a game up into character, activities and world and suggest we can only change one of those aspects.

Lesson 6: Design is a hypothesis

To really adapt or disrupt we have to consider game design as a hypothesis.

That means it needs testing as early as possible; rather than waiting for a minimum viable product. That means we need to think smaller, earlier and faster. It can help by breaking down the game design into three core elements:

  • Mechanic: What we play in terms of the actions we do to resolve the challenges/dilemmas we face.
  • Context: Why we repeat the mechanic and how the game communicates purpose and progression.
  • Metagame: Why we keep playing in terms of social collaboration, lifecycle fit and cultural context.

Your design should consider all these elements in order to maximise the long-term impact of your game, but different experiences may put more emphasis on different elements.

Get the mechanic right using data from real-world players before looking at the context. If it is not fun, kill it.

Once we find the fun, we need to know we can sustain it, so that means building up the context aspects and how that helps to build up engagement.

Narrative games are almost all about the context, whereas hyper-casual games have no narrative, relying on leaderboards to show simple progression. The key is finding the tipping point where you are still adding to the engagement of the player.

In almost all of the games where I’ve been asked to help, the problem has been down to lack of focus on the context loop.

Once we have confirmed sustainable engagement then we can look at the metagame and start to build lasting spending communities through events and promotions, as well as content and feature updates.

Lesson 7: Launch is just the start

Releasing a game is a transformational act. Not just because this is where you succeed or fail, but because this is where the hard work starts.

Your ability to adapt to the data coming in and lessons of how real-players engage with the game is critical.

Thinking about what happens to your game after release is at least as important as the game design itself. Key elements to consider include:

  • First-time user experience: Getting players to the point where they fully engage with the game (and want to keep playing) is critical. Understanding the flow and looking at a funnel report of each stage where a player makes a decision helps track where the key points where players are dropping out.
  • Second-time user experience: Long-term engagement and monetisation requires us to look beyond the first play and to assess where players make (and don’t make) decisions during regular play. Again a funnel report can help, (but excluding first time users).
  • Player lifecycle: Modelling player behaviour based on the frequency of activity over time; comparing players based on the number of days since install can be incredibly helpful. We can they sensibly target new elements, content, promotions to players based on their actual needs in that stage of play.
  • Live operations: Consider how you will manage events, promotions, content releases, feature updates, problem management and of course community management. The earlier you plan, the more effectively these components can work together to deliver the best possible experience for players (and that they will be more willing to pay for).

In summary

Survival is not just a question of passion and grit; we need to take time to develop a deep understanding of the market and the opportunities that we can make out of that knowledge.

Just doing what other teams have done is not enough. We need to understand why those games worked and the direction that the audience is moving to.

Adaptive or disruptive approaches both still require an end-to-end assessment of the player experience, not just from awareness to discovery to install, but also through the player lifecycle from discovery to engagement and eventually churn.

Taking time to develop that understanding and then testing as fast as possible can save us making the wrong games and spending all of our investment before we have the right game.

Oscar Clark   •   January 28, 2019