Lean game development

Lean game development

30 January, 2021

Years ago, I was working on becoming an indie game developer. With the engineering skills I have, I was sure I would be successful. Things didn’t work out well, which I think was the main reason I dig deep into lean startup principles. Today, I can clearly see the lean principles behind the success of many indie game development companies. I compiled my findings into a framework. In this post, I will be talking about lean methodology in the game industry. I will also share the idea behind the game development framework.

The video game industry is a highly competitive market. The advantage is the gamers do not stay with just one game creating a constant demand for new products. However, the life span of a game is generally shorter due to the same reason. Furthermore, video game development requires a more divergent skilled team (game design, user interface, coding, sound, art, story). A strategic approach to the product life cycle allows overcoming the difficulties and taking advantage of the vast market.

Lean product development is a process for building products faster with less waste. The main idea is continuous improvement while keeping the users in the loop. Each product category requires a different interpretation. As entertainment products, video games have their own challenges. I combined my years of experience building lean products with my observations in the gaming industry into an actionable framework. The goal of the framework is to minimize the effort to release a successful and profitable game.

Lean game development pyramid

The pyramid provides a visual overview of the product life cycle. Dan Olsen’s product-market fit pyramid was a huge inspiration. Let’s go over each step in more detail.

Lean Game Development Pyramid

  1. Prototype: The prototype stage is for determining the art direction and core game mechanics. Game jams and online gaming platforms like itch.io are great opportunities to experiment. In this stage, quantity is more important than quality. Mix and match your ideas into small games that players can play online. Combine game analytics with user feedback to measure the impact.
  2. Demo: After experimenting with different ideas during prototyping, you will end up with a hypothesis. The demo stage is for validating that hypothesis. While keeping the details minimum, you should build a demo that lets the user try out the experience. The demo will decide if there is enough interest to develop the game.
  3. Early Access: After a successful demo, it is time to build the actual game. Early access games generally attract the early adapters. In this stage, you should improve the game mechanics, add more features and balance the game. The user feedback and the in-game analytics will lead the way.
  4. The first release: There is no clear description of when you should finish the early access stage. How I see it is the point where the game is ready for a larger audience. Famous AAA game releases like No Man’s Sky and Cyberpunk 2077 failed since there were issues that only an early adopter can tolerate. In this stage, you have a product that makes a profit enough for you.
  5. Scale: When you have a successful game, it is crucial to increase its life span. Some games cash out the more with DLC packages, some with more divergence to attract more players. Briefly, this is the stage that you increase your profit.

Tips to develop games in a lean way

While the concept is simple to understand, execution is challenging. However, the core idea of lean methodology is making mistakes. Fail early and learn from your mistakes. Here are a few tips coming from my own mistakes and experiences.

  • Pursue realistic goals: This is the most important tip that I can give you. Games require multidisciplinary teams to provide a great experience to the user. Consider your budget, skill set, and team to align your goals for what is achievable with those.
  • Experiment, measure, and iterate: The prototyping stage is the most crucial step for a successful product in lean game development. Never start building a demo without collected data from the potential players. Put the ideas online, set up game analytics to track how users are consuming the experience. Use all the information you gather to iterate and shape your first demo.
  • Make the experiments playable in the browser: Especially in the prototyping stage, games should be browser games. Letting the player trying out the idea without any download will help you reach a larger audience.
  • Always listen to your target audience: Communication is key to success. Social media is a great way to understand and communicate with your potential players. Be active, listen to what people are talking about your game and your competition.

The lean development subject is vast. I will be writing more about it especially, about game analytics and prototyping ideas, in the future. Follow me on Twitter for the future updates.

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