One of the biggest hits in the gaming space this year has been Overwatch from Blizzard and there are several lessons game companies can learn from it. An article in Rolling Stone, Blizzard Reveals How to Make a Hit Game in 9 Easy Steps, highlights these lessons, though grossly underestimating the difficult in making a hit. I have been in the game industry since 1993 and have seen many companies do everything right but still fail. Actually, that is still the likely outcome with more than 80 percent of games failing but the expected value of a hit still makes it a (sometimes) profitable business.
By looking into the success of Overwatch, you can improve the odds of creating a successful game. Some of the keys that Blizzard’s team pointed to and that I agree with, with my prioritization:
- Ditch everything that gets in the way of players. According to Blizzard VP Jeffrey Kaplan, “Blizzard doesn’t focus on reducing game difficulty across the board. Instead, it preserves a game’s ‘core fantasy’ and gets rid of friction points: needlessly complex aspects where ‘normal’ human beings will step away from the computer in a moment of frustration, but the more-hardcore will stick around.”
Blizzard looked at all the conventional norms of the industry and then asked the question of each, can they be reduced to make a simpler but still great experience. The key here, and one of the keys to great game (and product) design, is the more you eliminate, the better the product. This runs counter to conventional wisdom about always adding features.
- Appeal to new players with a subtle learning curve. Blizzard’s games take a long time to master, and any product that appeals to core players will need to so they can satisfy those hardcore players. These days, however, even the most hardcore gamers will not put up with a tutorial that lasts in the days or hours (and probably even minutes). The game industry has to face the same reality as electronics or car makers, the manual (or in this case tutorial) will not be opened or at most not read carefully.
Rather than a long boring tutorial, Blizzard on boards players by controlling the early experience. “In most of its games, players start with a [short] tutorial, then play against the A.I. Finally, they start to battle other players, but in a very shallow pool amongst other beginners. They join the main group only after they figure out what’s going on. Even then, the learning process continues. In Overwatch, the “Kill Cam” and “Play of the Game” features showcase short videos that might prove instructive to beginners.”
The key is for players to get immersed in the game quickly by controlling the competition, not by teaching. Thus they are already enjoying the game when they decide whether to come back (or monetize).
- Blow up your games and start over. A lot of your development efforts will fail, even if you are Blizzard or Supercell. Supercell “pops champagne” when a game fails. Blizzard has cancelled as many games as it has shipped. By canceling the games that were once promising but no longer have the magic they need to succeed, it allows your company to focus on the product most likely to succeed.
- Polish and prune as you go. One thing that I have not heard from other companies but makes ultimate sense is to polish and tweak your game throughout the development process, rather than at the end. I have seen many times how the last 20 percent is the difference between a hit and a failure. This reality is most obvious in the shooter space, where so many developers have great technology it is not a competitive advantage. It is the little features that generate hits, first shown by Duke Nukem’s unexpected rise in the market in 1996. At Blizzard, “instead of blocking out the larger elements and leaving the fine tweaks for the last stages, they pour effort into polishing each step as they go.” This is a great way to ensure you have a polished product that delights players even for your soft launch.
- Pick your genre. Blizzard has done a great job of focusing on a genre, allowing it to create product expertise, customer insight and brand equity. It’s titles, starting with World of Warcraft (or Diablo) and going to Overwatch, have all been markets targeting hardcore gamers. They know what these gamers want and have been able to create appealing products. This focus on a genre has allowed them to not only weather, but also thrive, during platform shifts (Hearthstone quickly established them as a leader on mobile).
Conversely, Zynga shows what happens when you do not follow this strategy. After building a great business and deep customer knowledge of the casual female player with titles like Farmville and Fishville (and anything else ville they could think of), they tried to dominate the mid-core mobile space. Three CEOs later, they are still trying to gain a leadership position on mobile (where, not coincidentally, they are seeing their biggest success in social casino, which unsurprisingly targets an older female demographic).
Give yourself a fighting chance
I would summarize the key to great game development as eliminate, eliminate, eliminate and tweak, tweak, tweak. As I mentioned earlier, at least 80 percent of game launches fail (and I’m not talking Indie, look at King or Kabam or anyone not located in Finland). By creating a game that immerses players quickly and is not unduly complicated; and by focusing on a genre where you have expertise, you will have a chance to succeed where others fail. And, as Blizzard does, do not be afraid to kill projects and start tweaking from day one.
- The most important key to creating a successful game is eliminating elements and mechanics that are not really necessary. Less is more and good design is not adding more features.
- You need to plan the early user journey so the player gets immersed and learns the game naturally, while having fun, rather than using a long tutorial as a crutch.
- Be willing to kill projects quickly so you can focus on the games with the best chance of success.