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Do Lean Startup Methods Make For A Better Game Development Model?

Denki has championed the application of scientific method to game development as a route to establishing best practice for over a decade. Eric Ries' new book "The Lean Startup" agrees. Could "Lean" be a suitable blueprint for Indie Developers to follow?

As long time Gamasutra readers may recall, I wrote a blog back in 2009 about the importance of predictable and measurable results in any creative process.

In it I said we had to stop worshiping the creative process and start studying it, and that one of Denki’s aims had always been to demystify the game development process by shining a light on its ‘dark arts’ through the application of scientific method to the creative process.
Fast forward to 2011 and I’m reading a book that my colleague Sean recommended to me:  The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries.  In it I find Eric championing exactly the same thing: the application of scientific method to the creative process.  Finally – we don’t feel quite so isolated up here in Denki Towers!

In Denki’s case it’s applying scientific method to the creative process of Game Development; in Eric’s case it’s the creative process of Starting A New Business; but there are many similarities I recognise instantly, and they are as striking as they are inspiring.
To be clear, Eric’s model is far better thought through than anything we’ve come up with at Denki so far, and his comes complete with practical, referenced examples of the sorts of predictions, experiments and results his process can deliver.  I really would  recommend reading it to everyone working (or wanting to work) in creative businesses, and particularly those of us already in the games industry.  If there’s a book that contains a more considered blueprint for an effective game development model then I’ve yet to hear about it - seriously, if you know of a better one please leave a comment below to tell me about it: I want to know.

By comparison with Eric’s Lean Startup model, Denki has its Dragons’ Denki model: an experiment in applying scientific method to the game development process that we first began back in 2007.  Unfortunately we still don’t have conclusive results from this experiment yet, since the Xbox LIVE Arcade version of our startegy-word game Quarrel (the first product that could make it all the way through the process) is still awaiting a commercial release.  But once it’s out we will finally be able to tell which parts of our process worked, and why, because we documented it in quite some detail.

Initial signs based on the iPhone/iPad version of Quarrel that was released in late August this year are already encouraging.  It’s been receiving very positive reviews from both the industry and customers alike, and has even picked up a few awards already.  That’s despite still not having any multiplayer option.

The thing is, our (somewhat scientific!) player testing identified as far back as 2008 that real-time multiplayer is Quarrel’s killer app.  Single player, while still a lot of fun and a worthwhile experience in its own right, was really only ever designed as a training ground for those unfamiliar with the game; somewhere to learn the ropes and practice tactics before jumping in to online matches with others.  So until there’s a version with that feature in the market-place we really won’t be able to fully judge the results in context.

Even so though, it was clear to me as I was reading The Lean Startup that Dragons’ Denki itself and The Denki Way development process it’s built upon are just specific implementations of the more general principles described by Eric in his book.

It seems that Denki arrived at its own version of The Lean Startup from first principles through our observations and experiences of working in the games industry for so long.  And in Dragons’ Denki and Quarrel we’ve shown that the approach applies just as well to developing creative media, such as games, as it does to building Startups.  Better still, Eric has even provided some incredibly useful new vocabulary for the bits of the process we hadn’t identified yet, such as “validated learning” and “pivot”.

In science, that’s referred to as independent verification and it’s usually a pretty good sign you’re getting closer to some underlying truth.

In that 2009 blog I wrote, “Denki aims to be part of the movement that will eventually drag creativity out of the dark ages it has lived in for far too long.”  On the cusp of 2012 it looks like that movement may have finally found a name: The Lean Startup Movement.

Do take time to read the book over the holiday season if you haven’t already - I’m sure it will inspire your thinking on game development and production for the better.  And, if you happen to be in Scotland at least, join us in Dundee on Monday 30th January to share your Lean Startup thoughts and experiences with us.  We’d love to swap war stories with you!

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