I love games. I'm a student of the game industry. I've studied it ever since I was old enough to hold a joystick. I even wrote this MIT Sloan Case Study because I thought it was a sin that modern day b-school students had to read a 20-year-old case study about the NES just to read about the industry. And what I saw, once looking at all these console generations, were patterns, and cyclicality.
So what aspect of history is repeating itself nowadays? The rising cost of game development -- but this time in mobile & social gaming.
Sure, of course production values must rise to meet increasing consumer expectations as platforms and technologies mature. We've seen this many a time. And yes, higher costs will lead to even more consolidation in the space as companies compete to "go bigger" than their rivals. This is a common occurrence across industries.
But my issue is not with the costs themselves, it's with the steadily increasing time to market. That's the b-school way of saying "letting people actually play your game." Dev cycles are increasing, sometimes up to 2 years for mobile titles nowadays! It's taking longer and longer to get player input and feedback because the games aren't "playable" for months and months and months.
But the ability to iterate quickly based on player feedback was a key reason why mobile/social gaming grew so quickly. My friend Fred Markus, a kick-ass game design vet I met at Angel Studios in 1999, always used to talk about iterations (in a French accent) back when we were making PlayStation2 games. "Our games would be so amazing if we could iterate faster!", he would say. Not until years later when I was at Zynga did I understand what he meant. Zynga was releasing multiple builds of their Facebook games IN ONE DAY. It went from 2 year dev cycles on console games to mere hours and days in order to get real feedback from players. And that ability to iterate rapidly was a key reason why Zynga was so successful in their early days.
But that idea of "Let's launch this title in 2 weeks, send it some traffic, and see what happens" is getting further away from game development reality. Launching is taking longer and longer, but I caution game developers about "not getting out of the building" soon enough. Get the basic concepts vetted quickly. Would you rather spend 12 months of cash to get a fully playable version out? Or 2 months of cash to build a prototype, test the concept, and see if you have something sticky? Don't be afraid to show off your baby.
That's why at Flow State, we are keeping things lean, and we are keeping things nimble. Throughout the summer and fall, we've been testing out different features and new user flows for Letter UP on a near weekly basis. And you know what? It's worked great. We've learned a ton about our players and we've made massive increases in retention since the early days of Letter UP. And we'll continue to utilize this "learn fast" philosophy in order to make Letter UP and our other games the best that they can be.
After all, we're game developers. The point is to craft awesome, unique gaming experiences, and fortunately we have a great team committed to do just that.
So keep an eye out for some innovations from us, and for all the product people out there, here's one more reminder to "get out of the building!"