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Profitable or Innovative? Setting Strong Development Goals

Is it better to build a game for money, or to build a game for innovation? Is either wrong? Can they be done together well? Here we analyze the root of this question and proper goal setting in game development.

This post originally came from  Visit for more articles, resources, and intelligent analysis of indie and student game development.

Many of you have their own games that they are working on.  Be they student projects, indie experiments, or just a hobby, everyone wants their game to be successful.  But what does it mean to be successful?  Is a game a success if it’s profitable but completely stale?  How about if it’s innovative but makes no money?

Well, that’s depends on the developer and their goals.  Many developers just start building something, and then after a while they achieve some sort of result.  Maybe they sell their game online.  Maybe they end up in a game competition.  Or maybe they don’t finish the game at all, they just go on to start a new project.  They don’t have clearly defined goals for success.

The ones who are successful are the ones who are smart by setting their own personal goals for their games.  In order to tackle a game project in an intelligent way, developers need to be concrete about their goals and what they are trying to achieve.

Many different studies have shown that goal setting across all fields and disciplines is beneficial in getting results.  But in game development it is particularly useful because the goals for different developers can have such a wide range of dreams.

Two Developers, Two Goals, Two Successes

Let’s look at two very different developers with very different goals in their games.  On one hand is Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, and on the other is indie developer Jonathan Blow.

Pincus’ strong primary goal for each of this games is to make money and be profitable, and this has influenced how the games have been made, their quality and design, their release schedule, their similarity to other games, and everything else about them.  Games from Zynga can be beautiful, innovative, or new and fresh, but if they weren’t making massive amount of money, they were failures and were pulled and cancelled.  Thus, in order to achieve profitability, many of Zynga’s games were in fact modeled after competitor’s games, but still achieved profitability, the primary goal.

Blow’s game development goals are quite different.  Blow’s strong primary goals are far from money, as he has said in a blog post.  As one of the organizers of the experimental gameplay project, the primary goal of his games was to try new concepts that hadn’t been tried in gaming, to push the boundaries, and to make games that are considered works of  art.  Money is not a concern for him.

An important point here: I am of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with either of these goals.  Both developers decided what they wanted to do with their games and focused solely on that, and as a result both of them have been wildly successful.  Other goals may have been achieved (Braid making a fair amount of money, or Frontierville showing some forms of innovation), but to their creators, those secondary goals were not even really necessary.  What mattered was that they achieved their primary goals for their games.

The Many Goals of Game Development

As you can see, defining the goals for your game help a great deal in determining its future and the choices you will make as you are in production.  And by defining your goals, you define if your game was a success or a failure.  So in order to be smart about how we as developers go about making our games, we need to pick out our goals, think about them, and then be sure of them.

Let’s run through some of the common goals that a game can have.  Selecting which of these apply (and just as importantly, which ones don’tapply) will do wonders for your project.

  • The Goal of Having Fun. Many young students start working on a game just as a hobby.  They do it to have fun, to learn about making games, and generally have a good time.  This goal will drive decisions such as implementing what seems to be the most fun to implement, while avoiding making parts of the game that are hard or boring to make.
  • The Goal of Innovation and Art. Many indie developers set the goal of pushing the envelope, of doing something that games have never done before.  This goal will drive decisions such as trying out a new idea wherever possible, requiring theme or allegory be added to the game, and striving to be original and new.
  • The Goal of Fame. Some games are made simply to become famous or known within some crowd.  Some games are made that appeal to the GDC indie crowd, while other games are made to appeal to the mass media and get someone’s name out there.  Games with this goal will want to have attention grabbing themes or ideas and attach the developer’s name all over.
  • The Goal of Learning. Making a game can be very educational too.  If a student wants to learn 3D programming, then one great way to learn is to make a 3D game.  This goal will drive the developer to tackle hard problems, especially those that have not been attempted before, in order to learn and bolster one’s skills.
  • The Goal of Profit. Games are a billion dollar industry, and all large companies have the goal of making money from their games.  But indie and student developers can set a goal of making money off of their games if they want as well, perhaps hoping to one day start their own company or support themselves through their games.  This goal will drive design decisions around what would make the most money.
  • The Goal of Career Development. Many students will want to make games for career development, to be able to say on their resume, “I made this game”.  This goal will drive decisions such as foregoing a cool feature in order to get it finished completely, or working late into the night long after it’s gotten frustrating.

Do Your Game a Favor and Define Your Goals

All of these goals are valid, all of them are available to you, and all of them will cause different decisions to occur during the process of development, resulting in different looking games.  Carefully selecting which goals you have for your project can greatly increase the chances of success, because you’ll know exactly what success means for you.  You’ll be more motivated to work on your game because you’ll have a practical idea of what you are trying to accomplish.

And perhaps more importantly, you’ll know which goals you are not trying to achieve, so you can be free to make the design and development decisions that you want.  So go ahead and answer that age old question: innovation or profitability?  Is one more important?  Or are both important and there must be a balance?  Decide for yourself and go after it!

This post originally came from  Visit for more articles, resources, and intelligent analysis of indie and student game development.

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