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The Lean Startup is a Bible for entrepreneurs - as a game dev, how can you apply it?

The Lean Startup offers smart advice, but it doesn't always apply directly to game development. That said, there are ways you can apply the idea of building a simple product for release. Here’s how to do it in the gaming world.

Mark Rosner, Blogger

September 26, 2016

5 Min Read

The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Entrepreneur have all lauded the entrepreneurial strategies found in The Lean Startup, a book and movement that shows entrepreneurs how to be less wasteful while still making big things happen.

There’s smart advice to be found in the book, but it relies a great deal on shipping a minimum viable product (MVP) as soon as possible, even if it’s not perfect. Famous venture capitalists like Greylock’s Reid Hoffman (and LinkedIn’s co-founder) have said, “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product, you launched too late.”

That doesn’t fly for games -- if you release an embarrassing, unplayable game, you’ve already lost. Unlike other startups, which are trying to fill a market need and might have users who can be patient with a few bugs if the startup ultimately fills that need, game developers are providing entertainment for their end user, and in entertainment, there’s no margin for error: it entertains or it doesn’t. (Put another way, ‘viable’ means something very different within the context of gaming.) If you haven’t succeeded in entertaining in the first version, there’s no point in iterating, because you’ve already lost the engagement of your user base.

That said, there are ways you can apply the idea of building a simple product for release. Here’s how to do it in game development: 

Focus on creating a great core, simple experience that will keep players coming back.

Gaming always relies on core mechanics. You can add layers of complexity over time, but you need to make sure the very core mechanic of your game is sticky and entertaining. Start simple -- you don’t need a huge cast of characters in the v1. You can include additional elements like storylines, levels, and in-app purchases in future versions. This can actually be a positive strategy (not just the easiest), in that it can give you levers to pull for popping your retention down the road. (Keep in mind that retention is one of the most important metrics in growing your app, and if your app doesn’t have good organic retention from day one, it’s going to be an uphill battle to build your title).

Beta test your first version with a small group of friends, colleagues, and friends of friends (who might pass along more honest feedback than those close to you). Many kinks can be worked out later, but you want to make sure that the game is playable and keeps players coming back.

After you ship v1, respond to player feedback for new features, characters, and functions.

Once you get v1 of your game out the door, start listening to your community. That’s what Rob Topola did with Geometry Dash, which has been one of the top paid apps in the App Store for more than two years. Indeed, iterations of the game have gone lockstep with the evolution of its community, he writes, “What stands out to me most about Geometry Dash’s success is the community that it’s attracted. Ever since its initial release, the game has been iterated upon constantly as the community expanded and evolved.”

Rob has listened to his community to the point where he lets players create their own levels, which gives him still more information to iterate upon: “I create the tools so that users are empowered to do whatever they want with them. This meant I was constantly getting amazing feedback from the people playing my game; it’s honestly as much their game as it is mine.“

By listening to your community, you can start to add in those layers of complexity on top of the simple, winning core. This is where you can draw inspiration for new characters, levels, functions and more.

Use data to test

No matter what kind of game you’re building, testing is the smartest and leanest way to move it forward. Use cohort analysis to test new features and characters before rolling them out to your entire base of players. Pay attention to data showing you where players are getting stuck in the user experience. Is there a particular level where players lose interest? Is there a specific function that’s not getting used like you expected it would be? You can only know by paying close attention to user experience data.

Test different spots to run ads as well. You want the ads to happen in a natural break in gameplay. You might think you know where the natural breaks are, but pay attention and make sure your ads are in places that make the most sense for your players. Generally this means in between levels or right before the game starts. You might also consider rewarded video so players can earn currency for in-app purchases. Rewarded video is opt-in for the player, and a great native advertising solution in that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game.

When you’re an indie game developer, you’re an entrepreneur. However, much of the entrepreneurial advice out there doesn’t apply to the gaming world. You’re providing an escape for your players, which means the bar for quality is higher on your product. That said, there are still smart, lean and innovative ways you can build and grow your game, and you can borrow a trick or two from methods like those offered by The Lean Startup. By focusing on a simple but sticky core experience, listening to your userbase, and testing and monitoring data, you can develop a gaming app built to last on the charts.

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