What game design has taught me about running a startup
It’s been more than 2.5 years since I accidentally founded No Crusts Interactive (I accepted a 30-day freelance gig that lasted 18 months), and I’m still finding my way around the school of entrepreneurship, where theories abound on strategic growth, value propositions, and the beloved pivot. (Oh the pivot!) Some days it feels like I’m speaking an entirely different language.
But in the past few weeks I had a most wondrous epiphany about the business of making games.
****Every game is a start up. And every game design document is a business plan.****
Suddenly, the world of minimally viable product and customer acquisition made sense. I realized that it wasn’t that I was speaking a different language, but more like I was hanging out with some Brits. We were basically speaking the same language with a few key differences. You say knackered, I say tired. You say minimally viable product, I say prototype.
In this world of app-driven development, more and more companies are hanging their entire existence on a single game. Their business plan and the game are one in the same. If the game succeeds, the business does as well, and the best practices of growing a startup align with those of making a great game. By way of example, here are four principles.
1. Business plans and game design documents are living, breathing documents. These documents throw a fork in the ground, but they are not the absolute truth of the project. It used to be that the business plan was the ultimate 5-year plan and you were not to meander from its sage wisdom, no matter what. We know now that’s no longer the best practice, unless you’ve perfected fortune-telling, in which case, please give me a call. Otherwise, it’s adapt or die for the rest of us.
2. What you thought you were going to make is not what you’ll end up making. The Lean Startup methodology, which guides entrepreneurs through a series of experiments in the process of starting a business, refers to the shifts in a product’s definition as a pivot. We tend to call it an iteration. In both cases, it’s a universally accepted truth that great ideas are not great on the first or even fifth try. It takes a repeated cycle of time, testing, and lots of prototypes to get to the true innovation (or hits).
3. Putting the product in front of customers is a requirement, not a nice-to-have. Steve Blank, author of The Startup Owner’s Manual, calls it getting out of the office to talk to customers. We call it formative testing of prototypes. In both cases, it means putting things in front of the target audience long before the official launch. It also means **listening** to that audience and addressing their feedback.
4. It’s OK to show the audience an unpolished, raw product. This is the minimally viable product in startup world, or in other words, the smallest kernel of the product that needs to be built in order to test the idea. It’s a prototype and it shouldn’t be something that you’ve spent years slaving over and perfecting. It’s the rough cut. Sometimes it’s sloppy and sometimes it’s a taped-together approximation of the idea. But the goal is to do it quickly and cheaply, yet well-enough to get the appropriate confirmation that you’re on the right path.
Is this blue sky thinking? Probably. Is this process right for every project or every client? Definitely not.
Every project is idiosyncratic, which means not all of the above conditions are met. But in an ideal situation, we’re happiest when we can create an initial game design document, then kick the prototyping and testing cycle into gear until we arrive at a product that makes us happy.
The greatest epiphany of all? It turns out that all of this methodology boils down to the scientific method. Dust off your hypothesis hat because making great games (and companies) is all hypothesis > testing > refine hypothesis > testing > refining hypothesis > testing…
Have a smashing week. I’m off to CineKid in Amsterdam. Give a yell if you want to meet up or to just say hello KidsGotGame@NoCrusts.com or @noCrusts on Twitter.