Startups are the darlings of the investment community - and while there are a lot of buzzwords and an occasional lack of vision associated with these companies, they do sometimes perform fast, and use different methodologies from traditional game developers.
Speaking at GDC China this weekend, Katherine de Leon, executive producer of GSN, says that lean software development tactics, and launching a minimum viable product, is actually incredibly viable for game developers, especially in the social space.
"I think we've adopted lean startup tactics to the game industry in a specific way," she says. "While this has been going on in Silicon Valley for a while, the game industry has been fairly reticent to adopt this model of development. But slowly but surely game companies are coming around, because of the results."
De Leon outlined five steps for bringing games to market, using lean development methodology.
Step 1: Put together an elevator pitch for every single game
You need to determine how many games are in this market, how many similar products there are, and what the market opportunity is. (That is to say, the dollar number or currency value - the money that could offer you.)
"Let's say I was going to make a knitting game," she posed. "First I'd size the market, and say okay, some million of people - let's say 15 million women in the USA knit. And on average every day they teach two women to knit. The lifetime value of one of those people is $2, so my market opportunity is whatever that ends up being depending on how far you project into the future. You can build that based on historical data."
You also need to determine your competitive differentiator - why is your product unique?
"Sometimes it might not be about your product being better, sometimes it's about being the only one in that space," she says. "But usually in the game industry you'll have a particular differentiator, and that's where you want to focus your efforts."
Anyone in their company can pitch a game, from the top on down, but 25 percent of pitches will fail, says de Leon.
Step 2: Prototype phase
"Typically we'll see about a 50 percent failure rate," she says. "That's standard - I know it sounds high, but what you want is a wide top of the funnel, so you can pick all your concepts and choose what you want to get to the next stage."
Some of GSN's prototypes come from directly planned products, but they also hold a hackathon every quarter - three days where anyone in the office makes any kind of game they want. "We source about 50 percent of our products from games from those three days," she says. "Most of those games can be brought to market with just one extra week of polish."
She gave a few examples of prototypes, and how players reacted to them. Often she found that players didn't care too much about art, it was the gameplay loop and the theme that really engaged them. She hammered home the idea that games should be shown to a beta community as quickly as possible. "If you're proud of your prototype you're way too late," she says. "You should show something you're more embarrassed of."
Step 3: Make the minimum viable game.
This should take around one or two weeks, she says, but sometimes it can take up to six months, which she finds way too long. "75 percent of those will fail, but that's how you find out what's right for your business," she says.
If you're trying to figure out what your minimum viable product should be, take what you think is the minimum for yourself, and cut it in half, especially if you're not the target demographic. GSN's demographic, for example, is middle-aged women from the Midwest, and much of the team does not fit that demo. Do this as quickly as possible. As de Leon cautions, "If you take more than six months to get to market, that market will have completely changed."
Step 4: Optimize
Just iterate on it, as much as you can. "As soon as you see qualitative and quantitative information coming from your players, hopefully you have the metrics and can do A/B testing to figure out what your players really want," she says.
Step 5: Expand
Make the experience richer, maybe improve the visuals. "Do whatever you think will expand the experience and make your game more fun," says de Leon.