Sunday, January 21, 2007

Project Horseshoe Report: Building Innovative Games that Sell

The 2006 Project Horseshoe reports are out! In the place of my irregularly scheduled essay, I'd like to point you toward the collaborative report that I've been working on with our appropriately named "PlayDough." We dug deeply into the issues around funding innovative games and ended up producing 18 pages of revolutionary white paper goodness.

Click here to read the report. Now for a bit of commentary on the topic of innovation and business.

We are bad at designing profitable games

If you've read this site for some time, you'll notice that I keep returning to the themes of measuring success and rapid feedback cycles so that you can make necessary changes early. Unfortunately, it became very clear that most players in the game industry do not apply these lessons to the business of designing games. It isn't purely a publisher issue, nor is it purely a developer issue, but the overall issues are rather clear:
  • We don't know what makes a successful game.
  • We don't measure our games regularly from the customer perspective to see if we are going down a successful path.
  • We don't act on information that our projects will be market failures.

A Solution
You might expect a good deal of venting at one of these designer retreats, but everyone was far more interested in fixing the problem. The game industry isn't the first to run into these issues and the solutions we found used in other industries are surprising palatable. Our group ended up exploring the adaptation of the Stage Gate new product development process to game develpment.

Stage Gate is a well known options-based portfolio management technique that focuses on improving product launch success rates. It is particular appealing to the game industry because it allows companies to try out lots of different ideas ranging from highly innovative project to product line extensions and then guide the most successful ones toward a market launch. Hundreds of companies in other industries use this model and it has been proven time and time again to dramatically improve success rates, reduce design and execution risk and also reduce time to market. These are all good things. :-)

Low hanging fruit
My basic belief is that innovative products are a highly desirable and profitable component of any publisher's portfolio. However, in order to make this obvious to all the egos involved, you need a process that provides hard data and a way to mitigate risk/fear. The Stage Gate process does this with surprising efficiency.

It is also obvious that a competitive market eventually punishes stupidity. Ignoring new markets while releasing products with a poor chance of success only works until someone figures out that there are better ways.
The first party story has some obvious suspects and I know at least one forward thinking 3rd party publisher has already started rolling a version of the stage gate process out across their teams. It will be fascinating to watch the techniques we talk about in the paper inevitably take hold over the next decade.

If you work in any organization that deals with multiple retail game titles, you are likely to save millions of dollars by taking the lessons of this report to heart.
Perhaps that is a big claim, but one that is well justified by the historical results from other industries. The opportunity to become the savior hero in your organization is immense.

Kudos go out to everyone in the PlayDough group. We had the perspectives of independents, studio presidents, and publishers represented. Everyone is looking for solutions and everyone who worked on the report feels quite hopeful about the future. It is a wonderful thing to be able to point to business best practices that hold the promise of dramatically improving the industry as a whole.

take care