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Incremental Design Won’t Save You

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a video game design consultant and the creator of leading blog What Games Are. He is currently writing a book called Core Game Design. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Last week I put on my business 101 hat and talked about four typical vectors of competition. (Brief recap: meaningful features, distribution, marketing stories and value) I also mentioned that the preferred vector of most businesses is to compete on distribution. Competing on value destroys margins while competing on features or marketing stories risks total failure. Distribution, on the other hand, is risky but fixable if you have a product amenable to it.

In games (but this applies to all sorts of startups too) most studios follow that “distribution” strategy to a greater or lesser degree. A lot of them are concerned about where to find players, how to hold onto them, how to monetize them efficiently and so on. Talk of funnels and such occupy a great deal of industry chatter, particularly among studios that operate in newfangled platforms like mobile.

We talk about optimization tactics more than anything else possibly because it tends to be the most tangible kind of conversation we can have. But in fairness it’s always kind of the same conversation. From platform to platform a lot of overheated thought goes into reading the runes of audience behaviors and deriving small-gain opportunities from them. At certain times such conversations are appropriate because they can lead to important lessons. However as an industry we do have a pathological habit of falling into the belief that optimization is the only path toward success.

Here’s the problem: follow that logic for long enough and it leads to a dead end. Companies that become all about better distribution tactics, optimization, numbers and more numbers tend to forget that they’re in an entertainment business. They tend to equate the problem of product creation (making new games) with the problem of optimization (tuning economies) and fall into designing games incrementally. Every game becomes a new feature addition to the previous game. I don’t mean within the same brand/franchise (although that happens too). I mean across every game they make, and those of their competitors. This is why every last studio ends up using the same Energy mechanic. for example.

Such copycatting has a very long history but it is currently manifesting most heavily in mobile. The mobile gaming industry continues to grow at a frightening rate. It has easily surpassed every other platform in terms of eyeballs and is on the verge of doing the same in revenue too. It also has no readily apparent new platform ready to take it down. And yet for all that many of the bigger players in the space are showing zero ambition in figuring out what new and exciting things they could be making. Then are instead stuck optimizing over and over. Worse: many startups seeking to emulate the success of the current big kahunas are doing the same thing.

This, to me, does not seem particularly wise even though I understand the logic of it. There’s a lot of confirmation bias to draw on that supports it. There are researchers, metric services and tool providers who beat the same drum on a constant basis to tell developers that they have to be all about optimizing (because they sell tools that purport to help devs do that). There are occasional reports in the tech and games business media that speak of colossal amounts of money being garnered by incumbents and speak to a certain scientism-preference among studios.

As a result many times as a consultant I find that clients harbor a pre-conceived model of the landscape in their minds that largely derives from whatever King or Supercell has been up to. The hardest thing to do is always the same. It’s getting clients to understand one simple lesson: The overall fate of the industry is not the same as the fate of its big studios. It is not the case that as goes Supercell, so goes the mobile nation. Copy its model and you’ll likely fail. Look deeper at the precepts of prior successes, not just the surface. Many genuinely can’t.

Much as the rise and fall of movie studios is a regular part of Hollywood life, gaming studios tend to come and go. When they come they tend to do so on a wave of a game that’s achieved phenomenal success through luck or judgement. When they go it tends to be because they fell into optimization thinking and formula. A movie studio might make a decent living for a while cranking out formula product but it will eventually tap out. The same thing happens – usually faster – in games.

Sometimes it doesn’t though. There are the Nintendos, Blizzards and Valves that all seem to last, for example. What separates them from a Supercell, King or Zynga? Two things.

The first is an attitude of building toward community longevity. Love or hate them, companies of this stripe tend to understand the value of building a fan bulwark because it’s what sustains them through the lean times. No studio is able to be permanently successful but the ones with a legion of diehards have enough stability to make as many strikes as it takes to go big. Thus the one thing they tend to be wary of is compromising the quality of game experiences that they’re known for – because that compromises their true asset.

The second is an attitude toward game design. Blizzard types tend treat game design far more seriously than as just being about optimization and so they give it long enough lead time to happen. By this I mean creative lead time, not just more time to monkey about in Excel crafting an ever denser internal economy. Their attitude is intentional, not incremental. Intentional design is key, but in the prevailing culture of mobile especially it is hard to maintain. It’s also not just something that happens. Zynga recently gave it a shot with Don Mattrick for example, trying its hand at some projects that diverged from the norm. It doesn’t seem to have really worked out though.

For startup studios looking to make a name for themselves the best time to be intentional is at the start, before the institutional logic of incrementalism has time to set in. Getting there is also about priorities: If you see your company as an engine that builds toward exit then in all honesty you’re likely predisposed for optimization and should maybe be thinking about being a technology and tools provider instead. On the other hand if you intend to make games as an end in and of itself then adopting incremental attitudes is signing your own death warrant. It might take a long time to get there, but chances are you’re doomed from the beginning.