How to deal with the future before your next game project

Strategic Foresight for Game Entrepreneurs

My career has been a mix of commercial and academic pursuits in the field of games. After the latest, 6-year stint on the commercial side of things, developing social and mobile games, I have decided to embark on another spell in the academia. One of my motivations for the shift has been a renewed interest in research, with a specific focus: I want to produce actionable tools to tackle the age-old question that my peers in game studios frequently face: what kind of game should we start developing next?

Creative game practitioners face this every few years, or months, depending on what kind of platform they are developing their games for. Those running their games as services, as increasingly many do, face the same dilemma in a smaller scope: which feature to pick from the backlog to improve the game? In such context nowadays, in most cases, there is data available to support decision-making. In many ways, the game is a known entity, and specific analytics methods can be used to predict how player cohorts would engage with the feature.

However, when a studio faces the exciting prospect of kickstarting the next game project, the scope is obviously greater, the set of open questions more complex, and there is more at stake. When choices for feature sets, themes, platforms etc. are made, many others are simultaneously ruled out. Many choices hinge on assumptions on how, where, and why people are playing games — but will those assumptions hold adequately well in, e.g., two years’ time? What other opportunities might have emerged by then?

Later, looking back at the decisions made, making sense of them can often appear nearly impossible, or at best, a set of vague recollections. Someone had an idea, there was an old prototype, it made sense to proceed with a sequel, there was a new platform coming out — the stories are many, but the justification of choices, and those left on the table, can be quite muddled. This also means it will be harder to learn from the past, both as individuals and as a collective.

Finding ways to improve and quantify this thought process is on my agenda. In my last job, I had the opportunity to spend some valuable time on familiarizing myself with the methods of strategic foresight. I took this path in order to help the studio make the most informed decision on which direction to go with the next game, i.e. where to invest precious development time. Let’s have a look the concepts and principles I was using.

Fuzzy future is fuzzy but the practices of predicting future alternatives do not need to be fuzzy.

Strategic foresight has been defined as

‘creating and sustaining a variety of high quality forward-looking views’,

with a strong emphasis on bringing those views into practice in useful ways. A tangible way to execute this is to create a number of alternative scenarios of the target market, which then will be used as discussion starters for product strategy, and consequently translating the factors, themes and trends baked into the scenarios into design drivers for new concepts.

When discussing foresight, it is important to understand the time frame and context: foresight practices go beyond market research i.e. what is out there now, what sells, and how the market has transformed. The goal of the activity I am describing here is to gain the first comer advantage, to be there when a consumer habit or preference starts to emerge, to think big and possibly disrupt the current status quo, instead of optimizing existing revenues. Minecraft is a great example in how the wonderfully robust creative playground it created tapped into a number of emerging phenomena: online video sharing, a ‘digital native’ generation becoming PC users, and the maker movement, while executing very well on the age-old playground/sandbox motivations both people young and old have.

Strategic foresight is a broad set of tools that is employed, e.g., in addressing incredibly complex geopolitical issues. Therefore, applying such measures into thinking about the next potential hit game or entertainment product might seem overkill. Yet, anyone who has worked in these fields knows how tough their developments are to predict, and how fast things can change.

Having fun might not be complicated, but creating it can be.

Furthermore, selling fun takes place in a marketplace that has a multitude of intricacies that you need to get right. Making sense of this complexity, and the seemingly fuzzy factors that shape it requires specific methodology. According to screenwriter William Goldman’s famous thought:

Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.

I have definitely had similar sentiments across the years while working in games. Those familiar to this feeling might also be the first ones to dismiss any structured approaches to inform the creative process. Yet, I would argue that when a studio is able to articulate (internally at least) the origins of both successful and popular products, it is a concrete sign of professional integrity and striving for excellence. It is to say that even the greatest successes are not lucky coincidences or shrouded in self-declared, supposedly ‘visionary’ brilliance of their makers.

Instead, adopting forecasting reflects a firm belief that in great products smart strategic thinking comes together with state-of-the-art execution.

So whereas in geopolitics, based on intelligence, operatives can create a number of alternative scenarios on how an armed conflict on a troubled area might develop, in game development, or in related entertainment fields, a strategist can create a number of product scenarios which help a studio to prepare for the future. This preparation can, for instance, help in evaluating whether the studio staff has the necessary DNA to develop for a platform that is expected to rise to mainstream adoption in the next few years. Or is there an alternative, equally plausible scenario resulting from this work that plays better to the skill set the people in the studio have?

Strategic thinking in this context aims to provide the stakeholders alternatives which are based on careful analysis of emerging trends and market factors, and how they feed into alternative outcomes. Scenarios are an accessible way to approach this complexity; they bring a selection of strategic factors together, at best in engaging forms. A thought-provoking scenario spices the different trends and insights with imagination and storytelling; a sum that is more than its parts.

This is where the ingenuity and intuition of the foresight practitioners come into play. Scenario creation needs to be collaborative and iterative. It needs to produce inspiring results which spur passionate discussion and action. While scenario creation is best conducted through teamwork, one should avoid ‘group think’ and converge too readily into a future scenario which, in the first meeting, seems intuitively attractive and easy to take action with — the downside can be that the more nuanced factors are left undiscussed, and the thinking gets stuck in the participants’ comfort zone.

Forecasting needs to have the luxury of reflection and contemplation, something that smaller game studios seldom have but should strive towards.
Scenarios should be written into an engaging form that sparks discussion.

Scenarios will always include assumptions, and they might turn out wrong. What is important is to be aware of the assumptions and their potential consequences: If we assume that there is no end to rising user acquisition costs on mobile, what does it mean for us? This not only helps in identifying needs for change but also gives grounds to evaluate the decisions later on. After a project that has fed off of the foresight has begun, the hard part is to keep tracking the factors that influence the assumptions and try to correct course.

This is the ‘sustain’ part of the forward-looking views the definition above refers to. Furthermore, the role of the forecasting expert is essentially scientific in nature: every scenario is a hypothesis which should be approached with a hint of caution.

All this is not to count out intuition, which can be very important in choosing the way to go, but to give intuition a well thought-out platform on which to operate on. As previously mentioned, intuition and imagination have also a role in scenario creation.

The drive and spark intuition can provide does not stop there: A product vision, for instance, can — and should — leverage the factors that contribute to a scenario and translate them into design drivers: e.g. if rising user acquisition costs are a trend, what does that mean for the distribution of the game, and how do those requirements translate into features that address the trend, such as ones having to do with virality?

I return to the Minecraft example: I doubt all the trends I mentioned earlier were in Notch’s mind when he embarked on the project. There might have been echoes that game consumption is changing out there, but in the end, it is is hard to quantify the ways in which his vision was in tune with what was about to happen. Trying to reverse engineer Minecraft also leads to a chicken and an egg dilemma: did Minecraft tap into these developments, or was it a strong factor in creating them? Minecraft is also a typical disruptive product in that, in all honesty, nor Notch or Mojang has not managed to reproduce similar success, at least yet.

My point here is that as much as I believe in the usefulness of forecasting, I will be the first to claim that it can not cover all bases and solve the age-old question of how to channel creativity into exceptional products and ultimately, revenues.

Because, the worst thing foresight practice can do is to discount execution. Games only take form via play, and often even the simplest and most accessible games hide complexity and detail that is greater than with most mobile applications, for example. In game design and development, being able to execute in ways that surpass the competition can be matters of milliseconds, e.g. nailing a flow or sequence of interactions to its utmost, optimally pleasurable yet challenging form. The glass-half-full approach here is, however, that the results of foresight can give brilliant execution the best chance to succeed in a competitive marketplace that is constantly shifting.

Forecasting can set the scene for the attention to detail that the highest quality game design and development requires.

With these goals, I am in the process of launching Game Futures: a consultancy, a research project, and a blog where my aim is to build robust tools to forecast future of fun, and help game studios and entertainment entrepreneurs in their forward-looking thinking.

Strategic foresight research for games and entertainment: launching soon!

If you’re working with games or generally fascinated by where games are heading, please give Game Futures a follow!