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Game Development

Core Talks Berlin: From Scratch to Scale

Panel discussion in a room full of people
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Passionate business of creating new games from scratch

At Metacore, we’re currently putting the lessons learned from building Merge Mansion to great use in developing a pipeline of new games – our goal is to create a portfolio of games with mass-market appeal. Regardless of the game, our ethos remains the same: we create games for our players, not for ourselves. Understanding our audience and what they are entertained by is our top benchmark.

Building games is hard, but perhaps how-to lessons learned from some of the key games industry players can help.

We’ve put together a list of tangible learnings about development philosophies and building new games from scratch, gathered from our Core Talks event with Annelie Biernat from Trailmix, Carolina Koplimets from PlaytestCloud, Ahmed Sallam from King, and our CEO, Mika Tammenkoski.

Getting the core right from the beginning

How do you know you’re ready for the first testing and prototyping of your initial game concept? 

While there's no one-size-fits-all approach, one effective strategy is to focus on creating a minimum viable product (MVP) for your game. This means developing a core element that is both delightful and clear in the very first version of the game. The essential fun and purpose of the game—its raison d'être—should be present from the very beginning when the game is released to the world and its first players.

A good way to approach building a new game is to develop the core game vision to the prototype stage and iterate until you can start focusing on other aspects, such as animations and exciting effects.

Your MVP can be, for example, a complete core loop: the core gameplay that is entertaining and makes your players want to come back, again and again. The sooner the game experience feels complete, the sooner you have a game that has the potential for growing a dedicated fanbase.

Besides creating the core for the game, your development philosophy of course depends on your company size. For a smaller games studio, this can be a bit of a see-saw challenge at times: you need to deliver something high-quality – something delightful – but it can’t take ages, especially if you’re on a budget.

Test, test, test – early and often

Test early and test often, even before a single line of code or any key art is in place. It’s never too early to test, nor too early to iterate after receiving initial player feedback. Testing and iterating on a quick loop gives you a better chance to find out what your players enjoy as quickly as possible. In general, there are three crucial moments when testing is a must.

First, when you validate the initial concept with your target audience. Second, when you focus on the usability of the game to make sure it flows nicely. And finally, when you’re at the later stages working on the engagement and retention. But of course, testing often and iteratively makes the whole process less risky: you don’t spend massive amounts of time developing something that ends up not working.

What’s an appropriate amount of players to test with? Ask yourself – what is it that I want to find out? You can have 5–10 testers for usability, as you don’t need a lot of people for that. You can analyze a small group of testers in more detail and a wider group based on their survey responses. When it comes to testing live games, test churn will naturally require thousands of testers, but early on, you should be smart about the numbers. You don’t need to spend a fortune or too much time on it initially – if you’re testing the right things, that is.

Test the right things – with the right method for testing

Yes, the next question is… but how do you actually know that your results are valid?

One of the big issues in testing is the subjective nature of quality. Your audience is, of course, looking for quality, but it depends on what they like. Why are they playing? What entertains them? Are you fixated on your own idea of a high-quality game: excellent eye-candy graphics and flashy fireworks? Maybe your players don’t care about any of that. The game needs to serve the players’ needs and wishes – even if the feedback you get from them goes against everything you thought was important, you know whose feelings should matter the most.

It’s also important to ensure that you have the right method for testing the question you’re asking – otherwise, the results will be random. If you have a specific question in mind, you must validate it through several stages. For example, if you want to verify that you’ve reached the right audience, you might use a post-click survey.

If all the tests you conduct yield different results and point in different directions, the results are random and not to be trusted. However, if multiple tests and channels consistently validate your question, you can build confidence and know which direction to pursue.

Don’t panic if the feedback is not what you’d wished for

As passionate as we are about game development, it's also a business. If you see that something is not working, you need to address it both from the business side and from the passion side. And the sad truth is that games fail. And they fail often. We all want to prevent that from happening by testing rigorously. But while early testing helps predict the game’s success, sometimes that early feedback can also be pretty brutal.

In the very early stages, the game can look pretty basic and bland, and some players can be quite apprehensive about it. Don’t fret and be discouraged, but ask yourself – is this feedback based on just the looks of the game? Besides that, are they enjoying the game? Or does the game have a deeper concept-level problem? Even if the feedback is harsh, it’s most likely still very useful. Giving up early is not always a good idea. Sometimes you just need to take the feedback with that infamous pinch of salt and head towards the next iteration round with this newfound knowledge of your game’s pitfalls.

Not everything that works can be repeated with other games – sometimes the secret sauce only works once. With match-3 games, for example, almost any game developer you talk to will think they can do the same when looking at a game on a surface level. But what they’re not getting is a deeper understanding of what players actually see in the game they play. Many of us have played a lot of games and have acquired a pretty strong intuition when it comes to knowing what works and what doesn’t. But sometimes, you need to not trust your gut and actually go out there and discuss with others – players and industry people alike.

Let high-intent players guide your way

When you ship a game, expectations are sky-high, but the numbers might not be there. In the best-case scenario, the numbers are really great; in the worst case, the numbers are, well, terrible.

One of the a-ha moments and key learnings from developing Merge Mansion relates to player intent: layer intent refers to the motivations and goals that drive a player's actions in the game.Instead of focusing on low-intent players that easily turn away from the game when friction increases, we should focus on high-intent players that ultimately define the game's success. Who are they, what do they want, and how do we know this? Player intent is built before opening the game, and it can be triggered / created by many things: it might be the game's central storyline or theme, or the game becoming a viral meme or full-blown pop culture phenomenon.

One of the defining questions becomes how do you know who your future high-intent players are? Do you really know who are you creating the game for, and what are their motivations to play? What other games do they play? Even if they aren't from the same genre, knowing this might help you understand what kind of experiences and game flows your players enjoy. Know your high-intent players better than they know themselves.

Don’t stop believing

Yes, game development is hard and you can never fully predict how it's going to turn out. The best you can do is collect as much data as you can to understand the full picture and make decisions based on that.

And don't get deterred by feedback or fall into the trap of thinking that this is all a disaster – remember that sometimes even the smallest changes can bring players an entirely new perspective. And who knows, just like that, a new hit game might be born!