De-risking game development through research

Matthew Warneford

For every Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters and Where’s My Water there are plenty of games that will never make it, residing at the bottom of the iTunes chart and buried at the back of the internet. So what can be done to ensure you have a hit on your hand? The answer is counterintuitive, but really quite obvious – don’t build the game until you know kids enjoy playing it!

How can you know if kids want to play your game without building it? You could ask them. But don’t believe what they tell you, kids aren’t game designers and they don’t know how to evaluate the concept. The only way to find out if they like it is to watch them play it. The good news, most games, gameplay loops and characters can be created offline first – be that paper prototypes, short stories, and comics.

If done right, theses analogue prototypes mean that kids can play the game and experience the universe long before any code is written. And of course, it’s much cheaper to change a prototype made from cardboard, monopoly figures, and a roulette wheel, than change 10,000 lines of code.

In this post we’ll begin by looking at paper prototyping before looking at ways to test the brand universe and your market.

Testing the Game – Paper Prototyping

A good game has an engaging narrative, great characters, and most importantly, a fun gameplay loop. You can have the coolest technology and slickest graphics but if the child doesn’t enjoy it you may as well have designed a cutting-edge screensaver.

Paper prototyping is a low cost method of testing the gameplay loop by using everyday materials, such as cardboard, plasticine or old board games. The goal is to prove the gameplay loop is fun, that kids understand it, and they enjoy playing it. If you can make a fun gameplay loop without fancy graphics or cool characters, you’re 80 percent of the way there! The graphics are the icing on the cake.

But don’t just think paper, scissors and glue. Use your imagination, and have fun! For example, when we designed a financial literacy game we transformed a customer’s boardroom into a candy shop and their whole office into a farm. Through running the candy shop children would be exposed to a variety of financial concepts. Before building the game we invited a dozen children to take turns running the candy store, while the other children bought the candies on their shopping lists. The children running the store had ten seconds to collect ingredients hidden around the office that would be later turned into the ‘candies’ sold in their shop. Profit from the candy sales could be invested into new recipes, upgrades for their store, or saved for the future. Using these simple mechanics children had five minutes of play to build up their candy store empire before switching roles.

The children never knew that the game had been designed to teach basic financial skills – they just thought it was fun to run a candy store. At the end of the game we gave the children a short test. Those children who ran the store performed better than the control group – the game worked.

Through prototyping we were able to prove that not only was the game fun, but that the game design would teach the necessary financial literacy skills before committing to six months of programming and development. Plus, the children had fun too.

Testing the Brand Universe – Short Stories

A good brand can’t save a bad game, but a good brand can make a great game even better! And it works both ways; a great game design can create new and powerful brands. If you build your new game-led brand well not only will you have a hit game on your hands but who knows, maybe even lucrative licensing deals too!

When designing a new game brand we advise starting by creating a short story. The story is used to test how children react to the brand, and how well they understand the characters. However, while the short story will unveil the game’s characters and their universe it does not need to replicate the game’s narrative – a game narrative is not necessarily a good short story. Instead, create a short story that represents the characters and the universe in the best light; don’t worry about the game narrative yet.

One word of caution, a written story relies on the child being able to read, and not all children can. We recommend taking the reader out of the equation, have the story read by a practiced narrator – find someone who can bring the words to life.

There are many ways to gauge the children’s reaction. One of our favourites is flash cards (word association cards) that help the children articulate what they think. Each card carries a different word such as ‘strong’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘dynamic’. We ask the children to match the cards to the characters in your story, the universe, your concept art, and even themselves. It could turn out that the strong leader you saw as your hero is seen by the children to be a bit of bully. Do the children’s descriptions of themselves match any of the heroes in your story? Can they empathise? Does your concept art match the heroes in your book?

Testing the Market – Ghetto Testing

Of course, testing concepts through paper prototyping is great but it lacks scale, and scale is what you need if you want to test the available market for your game’s core concept. The ten kids who played the prototype may have loved your crime solving rabbit game but ten kids is not a statistically significant sample. That’s where ghetto testing comes in. Ghetto Testing is so cheap you don’t even build a prototype, just a few homepages, and a homepage is all you need to prove there’s a market without even having a game.

Let’s say you you’ve found out that a tower defence mechanic works with the children in your paper prototyping groups but you don’t know whether this game should be set in space, with ninjas, or dinosaurs. You can test each of these concepts with a small marketing campaign and a matching homepage.

You begin by using Google AdWords and Facebook advertising to promote the three tower defence game homepages. From the homepage the children can hit the ‘register now’ button to begin the registration process. Of course, the game doesn’t exist yet, and there is no game at the end of the registration. Sure, it’s a little bit naughty, but it’s the only way to know if children really will play the game – that little bit of registration friction is enough to discourage the kids who wouldn’t really want to play the game. You’re left with those who are truly interested.

So the potential customers don’t feel hard done by, let them know that registering their data will get them on to the beta testing list – kids love to be first!

The click-data represents relative demand, and when employed through a system, such as Facebook, you can see which concepts resonate with different age groups, genders or children from certain countries. Match those clicks to completed registrations to see which kids like the concept, and if there is enough demand.

As a rule we would expect at least 40 percent of kids clicking the adverts to register – any less than this and the concept won’t scale and the cost of player acquisition will be too high.

Of course, this is just the start of the process. Following these steps there’s prototype stages and further opportunity to testing your game with its audience. Post-release, there’s a many different ways to tweak your game to ensure it is keeping players engaged, but if you’ve got the core game mechanic and game universe right from the start you’ve saved yourself a lot of work and a lot of money.

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