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Guidelines for Developing Successful Games

Part 1 of 3

Part 1 |Part 2 |Part 3



The title for this presentation includes two words that need defining at the start. I use the word "guidelines" in the sense of suggestions or check boxes, but not as a recipe. In addition, I use "successful" here to mean the commercial success of a game: sales and profits.

The goal of this article is to suggest policies, methods, and features that can lead to commercial success. The more guidelines you follow or incorporate into your development, the greater the probability of success from the resulting game.

There are some sources to these guidelines, but mainly they are derived from practical experience. That includes my 20 years of making and playing games of one sort or another, lengthy discussions with colleagues at Ensemble Studios, discussions with friends in the industry, and discussions with other colleagues in the past, most notably Sid Meier (many of the thoughts presented here, I first heard spelled out in one form or another from Sid).

Before moving on, I have two caveats. First, the guidelines I present today are applicable mainly to empty map games and strategy games. The emphasis is different for story-based, linear games. Second, this presentation was made with PC games in mind, although many of the guidelines can be appropriate for console games as well.

Reach for a Broad Audience

When you set out to develop a PC game, your potential market is basically everyone on Earth who owns a PC. Once you begin making decisions about your game (gory, sci-fi, RTS, shooter), you begin losing potential customers who are not interested in your topic, genre, or style. Commercially successful games hold on to a significant share of the market because they choose a topic, genre, and style that connect with a broad audience base. The acceptance of the PC by more world communities, different age groups, and women requires that games not be targeted solely to the traditional gaming audience of young males.

Games that have been traditionally strong with the hardcore gamers (young males), must remain attractive to that group, however increasing the appeal of the game can attract the much larger casual gamers. In these instances, we need the approval of hardcore gamers and rely on them to spread the word of their approval of the game to the market. This increases awareness within the casual market where the bulk of sales resides.

Achieving broad appeal requires that some aspects of the game is engaging to the hardcore gamers, while other features appeal to the casual gamer. Find out how the game will appeal to the different market segments, and why each will like it. This differentiation often requires both single and multi-player game options.

Strive to be the best game in your genre and your choice of the topic. The best games make the bulk of the profits, while the mediocre games suffer.

The rest of the article deals with what to do or include in a game, in order to entertain a large audience. This usually means creating something that is commercial art, not fine art. The best games entertain by engaging the player's mind, not by providing titillation (that wears off quickly).

Differentiate and Innovate, Don't Imitate

The majority of gameplay ideas in any game originate from other games. It is natural to be inspired by successful games, and practical to borrow from them when creating games of your own. To be successful, however, new games must be clearly differentiated from the competition and innovative as well. Games that imitate without differentiation and innovation are considered clones. Clones are usually commercial failures.

A new game will have competition from any game that is similar to it in topic, style, or genre. To succeed, the new game must match or exceed the competition in those areas where their game excels. The new game must also exceed the competition where it is weak. Identify important features and components that the competition is executing poorly or not at all. These are your opportunities. They are the principal ways that your game can be differentiated and distinguished in the market place from the competition. When Age of Empires was being developed, there were a number of opportunities available for improvement where the competition was completely lacking. These elements included historical theme, organic units, random maps, non-cheating AI, levels of difficulty, multiple victory conditions, historical notes, and stunning animations. Age of Empires was unique in all of these areas. Executing these elements helped establish the reputation of Ensemble Studios as masters of the real-time strategy genre. Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of potential competitors in other genres, will reveal where the competition is strong, where it is weak, and where your opportunities are.

Age of Empires screenshot
When Age of Empires was being developed, there were a number of opportunities available for improvement where the competition was completely lacking.

Prototype Early

Prototype all-important systems and technologies to proof the concept as early as possible. Prototyping is not only useful from a technology standpoint, but is also critical for testing gameplay. Designers are usually left guessing until their games can be played. There are always surprises when a game is first played, some good and some bad. Prototyping for gameplay testing is especially useful for strategy and other empty map games that do not depend on pre-planned or linear story lines.

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