Develop 2011 takeaway: 12 essential lessons for every new game developer

Develop Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson of EA Sports delivers the first Keynote of the Develop Evolve conference.

Develop Brighton is always a good place to pick up on the state of the UK games industry. With its mix of major publishers, small developers, industry veterans and hungry students, it’s a melting pot of theories, concerns and unprintable insider anecdotes.

Now it’s over, here are 12 issues that I think symbolised the content of many conference (and after-hours drinking) sessions…

1. Don’t keep up with trends, keep ahead of them
In his opening keynote for the Evolve day of the conference, Andrew Wilson, the worldwide head of development at EA Sports, quoted influential economist Joseph Schumpeter who theorised that any new business model will quickly be subverted and destroyed by consumers. The companies that do well, posited Wilson, are the ones that stay ahead of this creative destruction. So don’t jump on the bandwagon, run ahead of it and build your own.

2. First or best
According to Phil Harrison, ex-head of worldwide development at Sony, the philosophy of the company during his tenure was ‘first or best’ – each release should either invent a new genre or be the best in an established one. While interviewing Media Molecule for Wednesday morning’s keynote he said that, out of the thousands of game pitches he’d seen, the extravagantly offbeat LittleBigPlanet was easily the most memorable and exciting. In his own talk on game innovation, Mark D Green of Sony’s Creative Development Group said, if you’re going to occupy a crowded market at least change the theme – Dead Space is Resident Evil in space, Red Dead Redemption is GTA with cowboys. Original ideas can sometimes come from simply combining two old ones, or removing a basic tenet from an established genre.

3. Games are not products anymore, they are ubiquitous services
Remember when a publisher would release a title on a couple of platforms and then forget about it? Right, those days are over. From console DLC to endlessly iterated Facebook games, everything a developer releases these days must have a lifespan beyond the initial launch. And forget about supporting one or two devices; people expect to be able to access their favourite ‘entertainment brands’ on everything from their PlayStations to their Kindles, tablets and smartphones – and tomorrow it’ll be their connected TVs or smart set-top boxes. If games aren’t everywhere, they are nowhere. Angry Birds has seen multiple updates and is on 12 platforms. It has been downloaded 120m times.

4. Social is everything
Come on, this is obvious. Facebook has 750m users, 200m of whom play Zynga games. But developers must not make the mistake of thinking that social functionality begins and ends with highscore tables and online multiplayer; social means allowing players to form communities, chat with friends and share experiences. If in doubt, connect to Facebook – in his session ‘Bringing innovation to multi-platform development’, Ideaworks3D CTO Tim Closs talked about how social networks are viral discovery platforms that have brought about the democratisation of content. Developers need to invite their fans into the marketing process. In the modern games industry, chatting is selling – you want chatty gamers.

5. Persistence not resistance
It might not even be bought to be on multiple platforms: the future is likely to be about persistent, connected entertainment. Closs refered to the rise of ‘companion apps’ like World of Warcraft’s Mobile Armory, which allows fans of the PC title to access the game’s auction house, manage stats and chat with friends, while on the move. He also talked about genuinely cross-platform titles like EA Scrabble which allow PC, smartphone and Facebook gamers to compete against each other. Eventually, game data may well migrate entirely onto the cloud, so that platforms become dumb terminals and games are omnipotent.

6. The audience is everyone
For years, publishers like EA and Activision have chased after, and fought over, the same 20 million players – the ‘core’ audience. The fanboy. But now there are an estimated 1.5 billion gamers, and most of them don’t think about games in the way that the ‘core’ audience does. Developers who look at Farmville and scoff ‘it’s not even a game!’ are massively missing the point. You don’t get to make that call. Paulina Bozek, once one of the key members of the Singstar team has now founded a new studio, INENSU, working on two socially connected online applications: Closest Swap, which encourages users to upload images of their clothes and share items with friends, and Super Fan, a network for music and movie fanatics. Bozek didn’t worry about whether Closest Swap was a game or not – she recognised that the act of dressing up and swapping clothes is inherently playful (she proved it with a cute video), and that a game layer is pretty easy to add. Her advice? Identify existing behaviours and apply technology. If people do it, enjoy it, and can talk about it with their friends, it’s a game, okay?

7. Consider freedom
The idea of charging upfront for digital content could well be history. During his session, Tim Closs referred to figures compiled by mobile analytics company Flurry, which revealed that 65% of revenue generated by the 100 top titles on the US App Store came from free-to-play models. In a densely crowded marketplace of ostensibly similar titles, freemium could be the only way to compete effectively. On Tuesday afternoon, Michael Acton Smith, founder of Mind Candy, told a packed audience that Moshi Monsters only really took off when he adopted the subscription model. But he stressed the importance of balancing free and paid content effectively. Moshi Monsters gives non-paying customers limited access to premium features such as Super Moshi missions and Moshling pets rather than sealing them off entirely. Every paywall needs a peephole.

8. Communicate carefully
Mark D Green quoted US TV Producer Steven J Cannel: “A good idea told badly sounds like a bad idea”. When pitching a game design to a publisher or investor, developers must plan it carefully, keep it short and make it as visual as possible (50% of hte human brain is dedicated to visual processing). Present a high concept, a few storyboards of key gameplay moments and, if possible, create a demo. Green (who has seen his share of pitches over the years) said don’t ramble, it’s boring – don’t make the mistake of thinking the more you explain, the more interesting the idea is – the reverse is often true.

9. Self-publishing might not be the answer

“Not all publishers are dicks,” said Ed Fear of Curve Studios during an indie session I chaired on Thursday (you can watch it here). For small developers working on digitally distributed games it may seem like publishers are an unnecessary incumberance, a meddling corporate presence that just wants to suck the karma out of the studio. But indie-friendly publishers like Chillingo and relative newcomer RebelPlay, as well as giants like EA and Sony, can also provide structure, support and – vitally – marketing.

10. Encourage and reward gamer creativity
The ‘create and share’ aspects of LittleBigPlanet were not present in the original game concept, but Phil Harrison pushed for their inclusion and they came to symbolise Media Molecule’s wonderful title. Once implemented, the developer expected perhaps one or two per cent of players to create and upload levels – there are now over four million user-generated creations online. People like to express themselves, so developers need to give them the chance, whether that means customisable in-game content or level design tools. And crucially, this content needs to be easily sharable – see point three. Showing off is viral distribution.

11. Look outside of the games industry

Game developers can be too insular, drawing inspiration from each other, from the same films and books and from the same industry legends. Studios need to look beyond Avatar and Game of Thrones. That doesn;t just go for game designs it goes for the whole approach to business and creativity. Andrew Wilson and his boss Peter Moore draw heavily from Schumpeter, Amazon and Netflix, while Mark D Green namechecked Edward de Bono, Tom Kelley and Noriaki Kano.

12. Never give up
Michael Acton Smith had already blown £9m of VC funding on his ambitious but failed alternative reality project Perplex City when he came up with the idea of Moshi Monsters. He used his last million to build and launch his crazy ‘Tamagotchi-meets-Facebook’ project, then spent months iterating it and refining the experience – to the collective indifference of the marketplace. Moshi Monsters now has 50 million subscribers. Most developers don’t have a million to start up with, of course, but the message is, failure happens – just learn from it and move on. Fast. “One of the best things about being tiny is that you can develop an idea quite fast,” said Kareem Ettouney of Media Molecule during his keynote. “If you have a bad week, you can turn it around quickly, you can iterate immediately.”

At the IndieCity workshop on Wednesday, Adam Sawkins of ProjectorGames was telling potential indie developers that he completed ten games before his first big hit, the Xbox Indie Game, FortressCraft, which was recently the first XBIG title to make over a million dollars in revenue. Alongside perserverance, his advice is, work hard: “Any time I have a spare moment, I’ll be programming; I used to have a little PDA and when I was on the train I’d sit and code. A lot of developers don’t realise that they’ll have to put in hundreds and hundreds of hours of effort to create a good game…”


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