The Game Plan: Minimum Viable Product

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In the previous posts we talked about how to create a budget for your game, some helpful tips if you’re not a programmer and finally we went over the best ways to help you in getting started. Now it’s time to talk about actually making something you can actually call the game.

What is a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)?

The idea of a MVP is to take the core mechanics of your game without any thrills or bells and whistles and put them to the test. This helps you get a working product and make iterations on it if you notice something doesn’t work the way you intended or just isn’t fun to play. This is also a huge way to save time and energy if say, that feature you spent months making graphics and 3D models and sounds for isn’t actually all that fun and you end up just tossing it out later.

How do I decide what is MVP?

First let’s take time to look at the features you wrote down when you were getting started. Now go through your list and take everything out that isn’t 100% essential to a base line working game. This usually includes things like, energy booster packs or power ups or multiple levels, or more advanced variations on a more basic feature. This also includes most graphics and 3D models and sounds and sound effects. While those are nice to have most times they are not actually essential to a working, playable game. Take pong for instance, you can play the core mechanics of the game with square pixel art just as well as you can with a 3D soccer ball with trail effects and a flashy background of a soccer field with soccer goals and kicking sounds every type you hit the ball. The core mechanics of the game remain the same despite the addition of the graphics and sounds and sound effects.

Prioritize speed and working game mechanics over quality

Since your MVP is essentially your playground to test out your game ideas we don’t want to spend thousands of hours perfecting something before we can even figure out if it’s going to work well enough or not. That means your super special spin kick with high quality physics computations isn’t all that important when you realize enemies are too hard to kill or the level isn’t playable or your character can die too easily.

Instead use this time to make something ugly, crappy, and even glitchy as long as the core game mechanics are in place and working. This will start to give you a feel for how what you’re making will actually play. It will tell you right away if something is too hard, or a level is too short, or your character is jumping too high or not high enough, or that your quest system is impossible to complete.

For a lot of people this kind of thing makes them feel “icky” and instead they strive right away for the “perfect, glitch free” game right from the start. This will lead you down the rabbit hole of not good enoughs. The character’s movement isn’t good enough, or the colors aren’t good enough, or the music, etc, etc. Striving for perfection at this stage is a totally moot point when you don’t even know if your base line is even worth putting the time and effort into it.

MVP done? Now it’s time for feedback!

Once you have some semblance of an MVP it’s time for you to get feedback. I like to get feedback as soon as possible that what it’s easier to change things that I may have missed earlier in the process when there are fewer things to take into account in the big picture of the gameplay.

Feedback is also a great way to find issues you hadn’t considered such as the speed of this level gives me a headache or I can’t tell the difference between an ally or enemy. It will also help you figure out what other people think about the game and if they find it fun to play or not. After all, no one wants to spend time playing a game if they don’t think it’s fun, or it’s too hard to learn, or it’s too slow/fast to keep their attention. That

Word of Advice on MVP Feedback

Don’t ignore constructive criticism even if it’s not what you want to hear. That doesn’t mean you have to change or add anything anyone has ever asks you for — it means you need to take those things into consideration going forward. Ignore the feedback that focus on your aesthetics — at least initially — because you can always change and fix those later and an MVP really shouldn’t focus on graphics at this point. Core mechanics and gameplay are much harder to tackle and fix once you’ve invested lots of time and energy into them.

How Do I Get Started Making An Online Game?

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This is something I’ve been asked fairly often. If you’re interested in starting your own online game here’s a few things to get you moving in the right direction.

What game are you going to make?

Let’s not put the cart before the horse. Before you can even consider making an online game you need to decide what kind of game you’re going to make. I don’t care if it’s as simple as tic-tac-toe or hangman or as complex as world of warcraft, you’ll need to sit down and put some serious thought into what you want to accomplish before you set yourself to the task. Take some time to write out all of the things you want your game to do (or not do) and create a design document with an easy to follow checklist — this will allow you to check off all the things features and functionality in your game as you work on it.

What programming language are you going to use?

Take a day or two to look at several different programming languages. Which one will make it easiest for you to accomplish all of the goals and tasks you set down in your design document? Choosing the language you’re most familiar with won’t always be the best choice in the grand scheme of things. If you’re not sure which programming language your game is best suited for then try joining a programming forum and getting some honest feedback from senior programmers and developers who can help steer you in the right direction.

Can you afford an online game?

Now that you have a design document and you know what programming language you’re going to use it’s time to get down to facts and figures. How many servers will you need to get your game up and running and what will that cost you? How will you pay for your domain name or any specific software or artwork you’ll need to get your game where you want it to be? Pull up some kind of spreadsheet software and track down the prices for everything you need and add it all up. What will it cost you monthly and yearly? If you’re short on cash you can try to develop via a local machine however this won’t always give you the same experience, environment and the same range of problems as a live setup will. In addition, some programming languages/games require multiple servers in order to work properly so developing locally isn’t always an option.

How long will it take you to develop your online game?

Once you’ve figure out prices it’s time to consider how long it will take you to create your game. This will help you understand what your development costs are before your game is even up and running. There’s no easy way to figure out how long it will take you to make your game, however, you can break up your game design document with estimates (and DEADLINES!!!) on how much time you want to spend on each feature. Try to stick to those and you’ll be more successful in getting your game up and running on a timeline you can afford.

Do you have enough time and money available to dedicate to an online game?

Now you know what it will cost you and you have an idea of how long it will take you to complete your game. This is the make it or break it point. Can you afford the financial burden of getting your game developed and open to the public? What happens if it doesn’t bring in any money? Can you afford sustaining your game (or sadly closing it) if it doesn’t live up to it’s expectations? What happens if you go past your deadline and your game isn’t done yet? What will you do? Do you have enough time to set aside for the development of your game and stick to your deadlines? Will you have time to devote to your game after it’s done to answer emails, manage content, fix bugs and add new features? If the answer to any of these questions is no then you’re not ready to make this game. Shove it in a file — please don’t throw it away and waste your hard work or time — and come back to it again in the future. Go back to the first step and start over again. You can design a new game or the same game over and over again until you can answer every single one of these question with a yes. That means you’re ready to start.

Get setup and start, don’t procrastinate.

When I say you’re ready to start I mean it. Don’t put it aside another second, pull out your wallet to rent some server space or build your local development environment and get started. No excuses. The longer you wait and the more you put it off again and again the less of a chance there is of anything ever getting done. It might be hard and it may take a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears but your efforts will be rewarded with a finished product — whatever that may be.

Start small and simple.

There’s nothing wrong with starting small and keeping things simple. Most working, successful ideas and concepts start out that way. Over time you can refine and re-work the idea until it becomes larger and more complex. Let your game follow the same example. Start with anything on your list that’s simple and you can finish quickly. As you finish these small, simple tasks and features of the game you’ll get a greater feeling of accomplishment and it will encourage you continue to working towards the larger and more complex parts of your game. It will also help you stay focused and stick to your deadlines.

Push through the pain!

When all hope seems lost keep going, don’t stop. Even if your code is horrible or your have hundreds of bugs that you can’t fix don’t let it prevent you from completing your game. Nothing is or ever will be perfect. Instead strive to do a little bit better next time, and a little bit better the time after that. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your game or your programming skills.

If at first you don’t succeed… don’t be afraid to close the game and try again.

So at this point your game should be finished and open to the public. Even if you advertise the heck out of it not every game will be a success or work out quite the way you wanted it to. Some people may laugh at it, criticize the graphics, or even tell you it’s repetitive, boring or it’s all been done before. Don’t let anything stop you from taking everything you’ve learned so far from going back to step one to try, try, try again. Whether you close your game or go through a few more iterations to add new features, fix problems and make it better, it will be GUARANTEED to fail in some way, shape or form. Nothing in life is set in stone — if something doesn’t work change it over and over again until it gets the job done and then exceeds your expectations. Every time you make a game or improve upon an existing one you’ll learn more, become a better programmer and game designer, and take another further step down the path of having the next big hit game on the Internet.

Addictive Social Gaming

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My largest game, White Oak Stables (WOS), has a newspaper that’s run and managed entirely by the members. Today someone posted a contest where you fill in the remainder of the sentence. The topic was “You know you’re addicted to White Oak Stables when…” Needless to say some of the responses are quite shocking:

  • You know your addicted when you log in 3 times plus a day spending and hour min each time and.. When you put time into knowing your horses as well as putting time into making custom pics :p
  • You know your addicted when you play on it for four hours and not clean the house up at all! 🙂 Went there, done that!
  • You know you’re addicted when you take care of your WOS horses before your real ones!
  • You know when your addicted when you breed a foal and can’t wait for a week later to see it.
  • You know you’re addicted when you call your real horse by your virtual horse’s name.
  • You know your addicted when you get up at 5 am on a horse show morning to make sure that your virtual horse is taken care of before his 6 am race.
  • You know you’re addicted when the color red reminds you to check on your horses. (White Oak Stables racing has a red game background).
  • You know you’re addicted when you read a label and know that that would be the perfect horse name [on WOS].
  • You know you’re addicted when you run out of names for foals and listen to different songs hoping to find a good name!
  • You know you’re addicted when start naming horses in real life after your champion racehorse on WOS.
  • You know you’re addicted when you can’t leave for the day until you’ve checked your WOS horses.
  • You know you’re addicted when almost anything you see or read gives you an idea [for a name of a horse on WOS].
  • You know you’re addicted when you get on half an hour before each horse’s race to make sure that they are ready.

As a game owner and developer I’m always looking for ways to get the kids to play. Play time equates to profits in advertising and sales of game products and services. But when do you cross the line? When do you have to stop and say, my game is causing more harm than good and I need to do something about it?

Case in point, reports of sweatshops in third world countries to level up characters on World of Warcraft (WOW) and more recently a baby being starved to death while parents attend to their virtual one. How does WOW justify people living on substandard wages so someone in another country can level up high enough to beat the “unbeatable” quest or kill the “invincible” dragon? How will any virtual child in Prius Online compensate for the three month old little girl who lost her life?

I’m always thinking about finances — I have to in order to stay up and running on a daily basis. I understand the need to keep members active and playing, to constantly present them with new and different experiences in an effort to increase sales or boost advertisers. Yet where does  social responsibility draw the line and say “hey, it’s time you looked at the big picture.” Sure, a starving baby and a sweatshop aren’t the norm but are an indirect result of your marketing and business strategies.

Are horses around the world going starving or being neglected because of the virtual ones White Oak Stables? I work hard to promote rescue and rehabilitation of neglected equines and I donate yearly to a local horse rescue group — I would be heartbroken to find my edutainment based games were in fact having the opposite effect — and if they were, what (if anything) could be done to rectify the situation?

Active Members – How Do You Keep Them?

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White Oak Stables - 91 Members OnlineIf there’s one thing I’ve learned in the almost 10 years I’ve been running, creating and programming online games for girls it’s that keeping members active is a catch-22.

Change is Good

In order to keep members interested things have to constantly change. Contests, parties, special items, no matter what game it is (from WOW to Cartoon Networks FusionFall) things cannot stay static. Your members need to be constantly entertained and stimulated in order to keep their interest and to give them a reason to keep coming back day after day.

Change is Bad

I mentioned a catch-22 didn’t I? Some changes can have an extremely negative impact even when the change initially had positive feedback. Other changes will have a “trickle down” effect and as a result produce positive gameplay in the future. Then you have the “complainers,” members who object to change and try to ruin it for others. My target audience are girls, girls and more girls. They seem to form highly complex social bonds. If one member leaves it’s not unheard of for five or six of their friends to go with them.

Change is Finding A Middle Ground

So how do you keep members coming back? If I had a 100% definitive answer to this I’d be a retired billionaire already. The answer is there is no real answer. Sure compromise works to some extent  — and is usually your best bet if you had to pick either extreme — but what makes one person happy will make someone else just as unhappy. So there you have it, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

How to Make a Game Fun

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Sooo, we know we want to make a game. But if the game isn’t any fun to play, or its too hard/easy to play, or to hard to learn then we find ourselves back at square one. How do we balance out what we want to accomplish in a way that’s entertaining and holds our interest?

The secret is that any game can be fun. How many times have you played a game that had a lot of potential but it lacked story line, or character development, or it had too much fighting, too much blood and guts (or not enough!) or was too hard to control…. This is the reason people stop playing a game, this is the reason we don’t think its fun.

The best way to make a fun game is to think about all the games you’ve ever played. Especially the ones you didn’t like. Why didn’t you like them? The answer to this question will be different for everyone, but that leaves a happy medium somewhere out there. If you thought a game was too cutesy, then it needs different graphics. If the game had too much fighting in it maybe it would benefit from a story line, or smaller missions and objectives, or little puzzle games. If you think about it, all the games that you LIKE are fun. They’re fun because they have a good balance of everything you like in a game. You may like being able to play an entire game in only a few minutes, or spending weeks getting to the big boss that’s terrorizing the town.

So the secret is to make a game fun is that has similar features and concepts of games you LIKE to play and none of the features or concepts you DON’T LIKE in games you DON’T play — but doesn’t copy those game. This is a lot harder then it sounds but originality is one of the biggest selling points in a new game, a game that sets new trends for the gaming industry. To make a fun game, take what you like, and leave out what you don’t like, and make it original; this will put you on a path to success.

Conceptual Reality

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Although most of the games I’ve made are online text based games, they’ve taught me a lot of valuable knowledge. How do you make a game that keeps people addicted? Some developers spend years on a single game only to have their million dollar budgets blown when they can’t get it off the shelves and into people’s houses. Some places over-price their products, like the PS3 and the iphone whose prices have dropped dramatically from their initial 8 and 900 dollars.

So the secret really is balance. If you make something too graphical, then sometimes the story line is lost in the process. If its too hard to level up, or learn a fighting system, or beat a boss, or even get the hang of camera usage or movement then you’ll find the game left in the dust after hours of hard work for something you thought was the next best thing to come to video games.

How do you balance something out? How do you make something fun thats easy enough to play and hard enough to work at without loosing player’s interest? How do you take advantage of your target audience, or how do you make your game appeal to a larger audience? In my most successful online game I did something that no other online horse games had tried before my game came around (and yes there are a lot of copycats now, and my biggest competitors have changed their games to reflect my strategy) — I made it realistic. This simple concept keeps my game challenging, yet interesting at the same time. The game reflects real challenges, hardships, and the REWARDS you would find in real life. Not only does this give my game a huge advantage over competitors, it appeals to people of all ages and genders. I’ve talked to 70 year old men and women, 6 year old boys and girls, and teen boys and girls of all ages. The online connectivity means that people from Australia who share a passion for horses can talk to someone from the United Kingdom and Asia and South America. I get hits from places all over the world from people of all ages and genders because I took one single concept and put it into action.

Did I think about my target audience? Of course I did! I try to use colors and pictures and wording that is easy for children and teens to understand. But at the same time there are several different levels of complexity within the game. Younger children grow ecstatic when they buy their own virtual horse and learn how to feed it and care for it and breed it. Then they scream and shout when they come online one day and there is a little baby foal waiting for them. Teenagers show and race their horses like they would in real world. They learn how to barter and sell, and train their horses to beat out the top competition. Adults and older teens learn the real mechanics of the game as they figure out how EVERYTHING they do in the game effects their horse’s performance and potential. Using this model kids are drawn back to the game again and again as they learn first the mechanics of play when they are younger, the competition as they grow older, and finally the challenge of figuring out how everything is connected. This game follows them from one stage of life to the other and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

What about profit?! It seems like in today’s society everyone is worried about making a profit. If you put millions of dollars into a game you want to see the return — twofold. I think we’re forgetting something simple. If you can make a game that is fun, and enjoyable, and addicting, the profit is already there. Focusing on the profit of the game seems to take away from what we really should be looking at. Can we play this? Do we want to play it again? Is it too challenging, too easy, does it take so long to reach the next level that we loose interest? Is this FUN? Really, that is one of the biggest things game developers should be asking. If the game isn’t fun to play, then who is going to want to play it? If video games are like doing math homework — repetitive and boring —  there’s no point playing the game when we really should be doing our math homework.

So where does this leave us? Video games are becoming repetitive and predictable. Yes, we all still run out to the store to get the newest Final Fantasy or Resident Evil, and so forth and so on. But we’re getting tired of having the same thing again and again. We need to take chances, stop focusing on the profit, and we’ll find the new game that steps outside of the box can take us much farther then video game remakes ever have.