Making hit new games: The concept big studios are missing

Joseph Kim
Jan 19, 2020 · 6 min read

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“Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to N, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.” — Peter Thiel

Looking at some of the biggest mobile game publishers today demonstrates just how hard it is to create a new hit game — the likes of Zynga, Glu, and Playtika are opting to purchase smaller studios instead of developing hits internally. Sometimes, the financial strain goes deeper than this upfront cost: take Glu for example, whose stock price fell by roughly $1 billion in the last 6 months. There are several reasons for this, but certainly one of them has been their inability to launch additional hit titles internally.

Large gaming companies should fundamentally alter their approach if they want to achieve success developing new games internally. This starts with an understanding of a core problem typically found at large game studios: the failure to master renowned venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s concept of “zero-to-one.” Applying this concept to game development, 0 to 1 is about finding a big new opportunity around a new global maxima or new game development, whereas 1 to N is about scaling, optimizing, or re-skinning existing game product models or live operations.

How to optimize new game development

So how can large game companies, or any game studio for that matter, maximize the potential for success in creating hit new games? I recommend the application of four key concepts:

#1. Required skills

First, we must recognize that new game development requires a different set of skills compared to live operations. Hence, executives must make sure that the people in charge of new games have the right skills.

A comparison of the skills required for each discipline is laid out below:

Some of the mistakes made by many large game studios, for example, is to put successful live ops managers or leads in charge of new games. Too many game executives conflate the two disciplines thinking: “Bob did great running live operations for game X, so let’s put him in charge of our new game Y.”

Further, many large game studio executives don’t understand how to test for the skills required to make new games (note: re-skinning is more aligned with live ops). Often, game team leads also don’t share the same language with executives. Unfortunately, if game team leads can’t speak the language of business plans, P&Ls, and revenue targets, then they are often ignored when assigning roles.

#2 Good pre-production

In my experience, numerous expensive mistakes could have been avoided with proper pre-production practices. It’s important to remember that the objective of pre-production is not only to solidify the design and product vision, but also to mitigate key risks for the game’s success. There are three common mistakes I see in the pre-production process of gaming companies:

  1. In order to hit revenue targets as fast as possible, shortcuts are taken and pre-production is often bypassed.
  2. Pre-production teams tend to be overstaffed, causing communication issues and delaying decisions. To avoid this, companies should aim for a small pre-production team generally comprising of 2 to 4 people.
  3. A lack of clearly defined objectives. Instead of using pre-production as a way to get a rough idea of a new game, it should be treated much more thoroughly and seek to answer important objectives.

Identifying the following during pre-production can set the foundations for creating a hit game:

  • The key risks of the new product, using a key risks table. Doing so will allow you to thoroughly evaluate the viability and marketability of a new game, helping to inform you whether to scrap the idea or pursue it.
  • A clear product vision, using key screens (wireframes), flows, and playables if necessary. This will help with evaluating a concept’s viability, in terms of its artistic fit for the target audience and its marketability: if the flows can’t be adapted to playable ads, then you’ll know to focus your marketing efforts through other formats. It will also ensure a unified team all on the same page, minimizing the likelihood of new game production losing its way.
  • The game’s viability as a business, using a monetization table factoring in ARPDAU contribution, and a profit and loss forecast. Doing so will help guide your game design and economy, and inform you where to allocate your resources. You may have a great product vision, but if you estimate poor ARPDAU, then it might be time to change or scrap the game before entering full production.

#3 Know your artist type: Iterators vs Planners

David Galenson, in his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses, argues there are two fundamental types of artists: experimental innovators and conceptual innovators. The former are iterators, who work with imprecise goals, improving their work through experimentation and trial and error; the latter are planners who have precise goals before production and want to communicate specific ideas or emotions. I’ve found that game design should be viewed through a similar lens, with gameplay design requiring iteration, and systems and social design being planned.

That’s because different aspects of game design align better with specific artistic approaches. Systems and social design are often better off being planned based on pre-existing models, whereas gameplay is something new and creative that comes in part from instinct and trial and error.

Leaders should remember that every process needs to keep the people and the situational context in mind. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says: “do we own the process or does the process own us?” Game studios need to adapt their processes to the situational context including the type of people they have working on their new games.

#4 Know a Secret

“Every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside.” Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Applying the above quote to game production, ‘secret’ is more ‘new innovation’ or ‘novel approach’. Fortnite is a great example of this: at a time when cosmetic based F2P games were failing to monetize in western markets, the game released its cosmetics-driven Battle Royale mode and made unprecedented revenues.

So why do many companies simply not look for secrets in F2P game development? Finding secrets is difficult and can be extremely time and resource intensive. Hence, many game companies don’t have the resources to survive long enough to find a secret. For example, Fortnite was in development for six years before Epic was able to pivot gameplay to a battle royale gameplay mode and to discover a cosmetics-based battle pass monetization system.

Most corporate executives at large companies approach new game development like a highly structured business process that can be precisely planned and executed; investing time and money into finding secrets is counterintuitive to this. On the other side of the spectrum, from an investment standpoint, many small game companies are not funded to find secrets, but rather to work efficiently on a single game.

Be aware of what’s standing in your way of finding new innovations.

Thielogy

The first step to success with new game development is to understand how the Zero to One concept applies to game development. Please consider some of my thoughts and processes to help you increase your potential for new game success! Hopefully, the concepts and suggestions presented can set you on the right path.

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