by Alan O'Dea
Problem/Solution Fit doesn't work for Lean Game Startups.
We need a better definition of how game companies match game products to users in the market. This is Platform/Genre Fit.
In the Business Model Canvas, the cornerstone lean startup tool, we identify opportunities in the marketplace by defining problems in the lives of our target customers.The purpose of any startup according to the tenets of lean startup should be to solve these customer problems at scale. We define these customer problems as a set of assumptions recorded in the business model canvas. We then use lean startup techniques and tools to methodically and systematically solve these problems. The major result of this process is to build a minimum viable product that can deliver the optimum solution to your customer problem in an agile, fast and waste free manner. When you have built a product people will use, love and pay for you achieve what is called problem/solution fit.
99 Problems but a Problem ain’t 1
However the problem/solution fit perspective doesn’t work when applied to game products and startups. In essence gamers simply don’t have clearly defined customer problems. Gamers don’t suffer from or describe problems in a useful context such as a painful lack of a cute free to play casual bird tossing physics games (Angry Birds) or a gnawing void in their lives that can only be solved by a freemium competitive synchronous mid-core role playing combat game (Clash of Clans). Subsequently it’s not very helpful defining game customers or their market needs using the problem/solution fit perspective.
This leads to game startups defining customer problems just to fit the business model canvas or more traditional business plans pitched at investors and publishers. This is dangerous ground and leads to sub optimum problem / solution fit assumptions, experiments and results. These mismatched customer problems sit at too high a level in the market to be solved usefully by any one game startup.
A common expression of this mismatch is the now ubiquitous vision statement heard from almost all game startups in publisher and investor pitches.
“The problem is gamers need higher quality core games that work across all platforms”.
Attempting to solve these high level market problems dramatically raises the cost and complexity of your game startup efforts, leads to substantially more complex minimum viable game products and leads to assumptions with multivariate product experiments which are complex, costly, time consuming and difficult to test and validate.
Applying the conventional problem /solution fit perspective is simply not that useful when we are developing games using the lean startup methodology. This is a problem given lean startup methodology is fundamentally driven by this problem /solution fit perspective. However lean startup methodology is a powerful approach for startups and cannot be disregarded simply because game customers and products are not easily defined by the normal problem /solution fit perspective.
Games startups that make games are different from game technology startups. It is important to distinguish game middle-ware or Software as a Service (SaaS) startups that sell into the video game industry such as game analytics, development, infrastructure, marketing or monitisation tools etc. These game technology companies have clearly defined problem/solution fit inputs and outputs.
For a game technology startup it is perfectly reasonable to define their customer problem as “game developers wan’t to make higher quality core games that work across platforms” and iterate around an minimum viable product to solve that problem for other game companies. Their customer is another game company and not individual players of games and should be viewed as being in an entirely different market type.
Many game startups inappropriately define their market type, incorrectly mixing technology, developer, publisher and industry problems together with game customer problems. This leads to a lot of waste, inefficiency and large scale failure in game startups and products and ultimately a lot of misunderstanding between game companies and investors.
This can most usually be seen when a game startup make games and also builds it own technology and tries to licence or sell that technology to other game companies.
steve blank suggests one of the most important tasks for a lean startup is to define exactly what type of market your startup operates in. In fact one of the rules of the customer development manifesto is
“Agree on Market Type. It Changes Everything”.
He offers an outline of the various product/market fit relationships in the excellent book “The Startup Owners Manual”.
- bring a new product into an existing market.
- bring a new product into a new market.
- bring a new product into an existing market and trying to
- re-segment the market as a low-cost entrant or.
- re-segment that market as a niche entrant.
- clone a business model that’s successful in another country.
At a glance these relationships seem to be immediately useful methods to define market and product type for a game startup. However games are not defined via traditional market relationships. Existing markets or new markets are not useful distinctions for a game startup. Games are ultimately defined by the relationships of two fundamental dimensions. Those of platform and genre.
Platforms and Genres
Platforms are the equivalent of market type in the standard lean startup methodology and can simply be defined as all the places where your customers hang out and play games. We have an abundance of game platforms in the market ranging from traditional game consoles such as Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, smartphones such as iPhone and Android, game portals such as Kongregate and even social networks such as Facebook (currently the world’s largest single game platform).
Genres are the equivalent of product type (new, hybrid and existing) in the standard lean startup methodology and can simply be defined as the type of games your players like to play. We have many potential genres to pick as templates for our game products and we can easily experiment with hybrid or cross genre games.
These two dimensions and their relationship offer lean game startups a highly appropriate means to determine firstly where their customers hang out and secondly what types of games those customers like to play.
Lean game startups should always be trying to create optimum platform/genre fit with their game products. In fact the entire purpose of a lean game startup should be to constantly experiment with various genre types on a specific platform attempting to build games that appeal to the maximum number of players on each of these platforms.
Whilst some of our best examples of platform/genre fit (Clash of Clans, Angry Birds, FarmVille, Peggle, Candy Crush Saga, Poker, Bingo, Slots) can actually achieve platform/genre fit across multiple platforms they almost always achieve genre fit on one platform first.
I fully agree with steve blank when he says market type influences everything a company does. However when applied to lean games this rule is more appropriately expressed as
“Platform type influence everything a game company does”.
To understand why this is of so much importance to the efforts of a lean game startup we need to understand the relationship between platforms and genres. The fundamental rule to understanding this relationship between genres and platforms is that platforms change far more frequently than genres.
A games company has a few choices when it comes to achieving platform genre fit they can
- Bring an existing genre onto an existing platform.
- Bring an existing genre onto a new platform.
- Bring an existing genre onto an existing or new platform and trying to
- Re-segment the platform with a new business model entrant (freemium, subscription) or
- re-segment that platform with a niche game targeting a subsection of gamers (casual, mid-core or hard-core, male, female, kids etc.)
- clone an existing genre that’s successful on another platform.