How game studios can iterate better, faster, stronger

I stole the title for this post from Andrew Chen’s “How mobile startups can iterate better, faster, stronger“. Andrew’s advice for how lean startups can innovate faster reminded me just how far the games industry still needs to go. As an industry we talk big about innovation but it pales in comparison to what’s going on at lean startups.

The minimum viable product

Andrew kicks off his post with advice on how to pick the right minimum product. I would bet most in the games industry are unfamiliar with the concept of a Minimum Viable Product.

A Minimum Viable Product has just those features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more.

The idea is to get something up as quickly as possible so you can begin learning. Everything else is just guessing, even if you’re doing play tests. What quantifies as an MVP is hotly debated in lean startups across Silicon Valley, however I have yet to hear a similar discussion in the games industry. That isn’t to say that we in the games industry are throwing every little thing we can think of into a build, just the debate is never framed in the same way as an MVP.

Though aren’t games works of art?

Warhol Campbell SoupMost likely we in the games industry don’t discuss MVPs because we don’t think of games as products. Games start with vision and are works of art. Where as a lean startup begins with a vision they will ruthlessly search for the MVP to test that vision. They treat their vision for what it is, a wild guess. Believing games are a works of art we easily fall into the trap build it quickly. Once a concept is pieced together it becomes a matter of execution. We launch and then hope it all works. For lean startups it’s not about execution but how quickly they can test their vision, how quickly they can start learning.

We should think of games less as art and more as products

To truly innovate we need to adopt a similar methodology as lean startups and put the emphasis on learning. It that means looking at games as less an art form and more of a product, so bid. But wouldn’t that be paramount to a movie director professing to love a script one minute, only to turn around to see how they could cut it down to test the MVP on audiences? Sounds crazy but I think that’s exactly the type of leap we need to make in the games industry.

Let’s return to Andrew’s advice for trying to picking the right minimum product:

The best way to have good+quick is to create a polished app with limited featureset.

Translated into movie speak that be equal to cutting out the big chase scene or cutting characters out of a script. To keep movies within budget and on schedule producers have always made such decisions. It’s much the same for game producers, but as with movie producers the decisions are in the interest of budgets, not of learning.

Would you play a minimum viable game?

If you’re having trouble seeing a movie as a minimum viable product, I think you would have the same with a minimum viable game. Would you play a work in progress? Even more important, how many of us would stay with a game as it is iterated into a hit? But this brings me back to trying to adopt a lean startup approach to games, to debate what constitutes an MVP is a healthy debate for a startup.

Temple Run is a minimum viable game

Roger Corman is one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood and famous for cutting corners in his movies in the name of budget. He most closely epitomized the ideal of reaching a MVP but even he didn’t continue to iterate on a movie after release. He did however mine formulas if they proved succesful. When “Pit and the Pendulum” became a hit he followed it up with more based on Edgar Allen Poe and staring Vincent Price. When motorcycle gang films found an audience, he stamped out a few more. Where as lean startups iterate on the same product Roger Corman iterated on formulas.

Temple RunWhat Roger Corman did in movies I think Imangi Studios has done with Temple Run. Like many early mobile hits it more closely resembles an MVP than a polished high production game. Though as an MVP its power to hook you was obvious and they have iterated but it’s most drastic changes have come in the form of a follow on game – Temple Run Brave.

We need to iterate better, faster…

Temple Run BraveWe in the games industry talk a lot of innovation but have yet to really adopt the same techniques lean startups are pioneering in Silicon Valley. We need to adopt the concept of “Minimum Viable Games” in the pursuit of learning. Granted we can’t just hope to iterate a game into a success we can iterate from game to game to something.


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