Video Game Design By the Numbers, Part I

Inspiration is tough to pin down and when the Muse visits, she does not appreciate you demanding her exact height, weight and brassiere size.

Video game design and development is a frequently a profession of gut instincts and hunches. Artistry and creativity come from a deep and mysterious place that's maddeningly hard to quantify much less predict. When your business is "fun", some of your standards are rather subjective. Various people will describe running 26.2 miles, wading hip deep in a bog or grinding Molten Core for the ten-thousandth time as "fun".

Clearly, standards of fun differ.

But one of the biggest failures of many game designers is not fortifying their personal instincts and opinions with a few cold, hard numbers.

Let's boil it down to brass tacks. Video game design and development is a commercial art. All of our grand theories about the nature of fun and flow and optimal experience and blah blah blah must be in the end be sullied by talk of the almighty dollar. Eventually, we all must descend from the Ivory Tower and roll around in the mud with the dirty old swine of Commerce.

In other words, as a video game developer, your career prospects will be greatly enhanced if your game sells.

It's is all fine and well to be driven by your artistic and creative impulses and the quest for fun and The Awesome when you create a game. In fact, that's a prerequisite for being any good as a game designer. But you also need to temper your enthusiasm with a bit of objective reality.

Asking a junior designer "what did you think of [FILL IN THE BLANK]?" and you'll hear about how they lost the entire weekend to playing [FILL IN THE BLANK]. And that's exactly the kind of passion you want in a young game designer.

The thing to add is an understanding of what other people thought of the game. Their opinion matters too.

Really, there are two key questions to ask about a game (in addition to your own opinion).

What's the meta-critic rating?
There is more than one aggregator of game reviews out there and none are perfect. First, there's a lot of subjective evaluation in game reviews. And to say the state of game journalism it uneven at best is an understatement. Even if you assume the reviews are honest and genuine, there's a subjective evaluation in translating a review into a score. But it's really the best tool we have for evaluating the quality of a game. Look at the top meta-critic games and you'll see what most people would call "good games". More and more, publishers and game developers use meta-critic scores as a means of arguing quality even if sales are not overwhelming. "Maybe we only sold a million units - but our meta-critic was through the roof".

The other trick with meta-critic is evaluating the meaning of the score. There isn't much difference between a game in the low 70's and the high 70's - but an 82 metacritic score is a lot different than an 89. Getting a feeling for the plateaus of the scores is crucial to using metacritic (and yes, it's awfully subjective too).

But the other big question to ask is pretty obvious:

What are the unit sales?
Rather than relying on gut feelings about whether something 'did well', you need to get some real numbers. It's vital to understand how the marketplace responded to a product. NPD tracks game sales and you should be following the monthly charts religiously. You should understand what moving 250,000 units in a week means given whether that was the launch week, what were the pre-sales, what is the install base of the platform and how big of a marketing effort there was.  There is a huge difference in sales between an modest title developed by a new studio on a modest platform compared to a license tie-in backed by a powerhouse publisher with a gazillion marketing dollars.

Does this mean game design should be driven by purely mechanical evaluation of sales potential? Absolutely not. You'll never see a breakout hit unless you truly have a product with a soul. Innovation and true creativity drive new markets in the game industry. But you also need to understand the temperament of the market. Before you pitch your Japanese Cowboy Mech game, you might want to have a sense of how previous titles have fared.

But how do you actually judge is a title is a "hit"? What is it that separates a title that turns a tidy profit from a title that puts a studio out of business? That's a question that can only be answered by examining the economics of game production, which will be Part II of this series.

- Sean Dugan's number is up with this entry. 

Image by Ira R Gerich used via Creative Commons License

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