Every successful games studio has a stable of bets with varying degrees of risk.
There's the truly innovative, high risk projects that if they break out will change the industry forever and fund the company for years to come; the innovations. And then there's the low risk bets that extend a concept for which there is a proven market and which stand a much better chance of paying the bills or funding the riskier bets; the evolutions.
But do you innovate or evolve? As a start-up you can’t do both out of the gate. Making the wrong product call is still better than splitting focus, so be honest with yourself, your employees and investors what type of opportunity you are going after, and go all in.
For example, our first game Call It: Football was a real-time predictive sports game. Our hypothesis was that this was an idea whose time had come, it was truly innovative. But we scrapped it in January after spending four months and a big chunk of our Series A money on it.
Conversely, our second game Samurai Siege is evolutionary. We took a real-time combat strategy genre that was well proven on both Facebook and iOS, introduced some new layers of gameplay, made it better than anything else in the market, upped the production values and built it in a way that was easy to take cross platform.
Glancing at the top grossing charts on mobile/tablet, it is clear what type of game the market rewards. “Innovation” appears to be limited to adapting a proven concept to a new platform (for exampe, bring farming games from Facebook to tablet), or by adding mechanics within an established format (e.g. add a map and social hooks to a switcher game).
The best game studios need a mix of both innovation and evolution to be sustainable in the long run but you can go either way for your first game.
If you go down the “innovation” route, here are some tips:
- Raise lots of money, as much as you can afford to dilute. The only thing worse than running out of money before you have a chance to prove your awesome ground-breaking idea’s potential, is actually proving your awesome ground-breaking idea’s potential and then not having the money to follow through and raising in distress.
- Do the Lean Start-up stuff. Read the book by Eric Reiss, and the work of Steve Blank. Actually read them and follow the formula. Focus 100 per cent of your energy on validating whether there is a market for your idea. Take customer discovery seriously. Make sure everyone in the company is on the same page and your milestones for each stage are clear.
- Understand why others failed. People have probably tried your idea before. Was it the wrong platform? Poorly executed? Is this truly an idea whose time has come or are you destined to repeat the mistakes of others? For Call It, we found over 20 attempts at this genre that failed. We played all the ones we could, and spoke with employees past and present. Ultimately it was the pattern recognition from these conversations that helped us make the decision to kill it, even though it was showing promise.
- Watch your back. If it is a good idea, others are probably working on it. It’s tough to take customer discovery seriously, raise money, recruit staff and maintain secrecy at the same time. NDA’s aren’t worth the paper they’re written on so you need to trust your gut.
- Fail fast. The best advice we got when we were considering the future of our first game was “no-one ever regretted pivoting too soon”. In our case, I wish we did it a month earlier with hindsight, but at the time it seemed crazy. We hadn’t given the game a proper shot. We were writing it off. Quitting. We’d all just worked our asses off through Christmas, and we’re killing the project? Won’t everyone walk out? Fast forward seven months and we have a Top 20 game just one week after launch. No regrets about pivoting too soon!
Alternatively, if you go down the “Evolution” route, then remember:
- Production values matter. Just because the No.1 game in the genre launched with 20 per cent of it’s current feature set and spent a year iterating and improvement doesn’t mean you can get away with that. Your game needs to shine. Your marketing execution needs to be flawless. It needs to feel different. It needs to be an improvement, an evolution, not a copy.
- Customer Discovery is still important. Talk to customers. Find out what they like and dislike with existing games. Meet their needs. You might think you understand a genre from your own gameplay and reading forums but there is no substitute to watching people play. For Samurai Siege, we literally spoke with hundreds of players of the successful and unsuccessful games in the genre on every platform. Twice per week we’d watch people play games, and bounce ideas of them. When we had the most ghetto prototype we’d watch people struggle with it. It was a tough grind but every time we learnt something that made it into the next build.
All this month, Develop is publishing its Start Your Own Studio guide online. You can find all of our start-up articles at www.develop-online.net/startupspecial, plus a full schedule of the articles still to come by clicking here.