Four Secrets to a Great Product

In my ten years in the video games industry I have learnt that there are four key components to making a great game but only lately have I realised that these four tenets can be applied to making a great anything! Let’s take a look at them now:

  1. Identify the Experience

    Mark Backler

    Photo by Sebastian Bularca

First of all you need to figure out what it is you want to make. Define what the essence of it is.

Why do you want to make it? To entertain people? To help them? To educate them? To make money? While money is a good motivator for some people I usually find that it’s best if your main motivation is something else and then when you follow your passion with excellence in mind, money will come as a helpful byproduct of doing so!

Knowing your audience will help you in identifying the experience. Who are you making this for?  Figuring this out will help you when answering some of the design questions that will arise. Accept that you can never please everyone. What is your target demographic? A psychographic is the study of personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles and so sometimes this may be a better way of identifying who might want your product.

Game design - watercolour sketches

Photo by Sidonie Maria Šakālis

In gaming we say that you need ‘hooks’ – things that make your game stand out from all the rest. Does it have a unique setting? A new mix of genres? In general business parlance this is referred to as your Unique Selling Points (USP’s).

  1. Prototype

I don’t think even the best game designer in the world can envision a game, implement it exactly as they first thought of it and have it turn out to be a great game. You need to try things out, see what works and what doesn’t and iterate on that. You need to take out the bits that don’t work and improve and extend the bits that do. It’s also pretty much impossible to design every tiny element before you start building it – some questions only arise during implementation. So this is where prototyping comes in – it lets you make mistakes quickly and cheaply. Entrepreneurs often live by the mantra of “fail fast” and that’s exactly what prototyping allows you to do.

  1. Playtest

This is known as User Testing to most other industries. The importance of it is often undervalued and when people do utilise it, they often leave it too late. If you wait until you feel the product is at a good stage to get user feedback you’ve probably waited too long as the kind of things that good user testing will show you will be so fundamental that you may be unable to change them. You need to test on people as early as you possibly can and then keep doing it frequently as you develop the product. It helps if the team developing it can see people using it too as it may highlight the problems to them so they understand what needs to be changed and why and it may even help inspire them with some innovative solutions.

planning board for The Last Word gaming company

How you go about testing your product is very important. You want avariety of people to try it out but especially those in your target market. Ensure that you don’t just rely on asking them about it as they are likely to tell you what they think you want to hear. Watch them using it – how long do they use it for? What kind of experience do their facial expressions tell you they’re having? Do they know how to use it intuitively without you instructing them? Playtesting is not just about finding issues – the people playtesting the product often have great ideas for additions or improvements and it can also inspire you with new ideas as well.

  1. Polish

The final point is ensuring that you have enough time before launch to polish up all the fine details that take you from a good product to a great one. All too often this doesn’t happen and you get buggy games or faulty products being released. Tom Cargill of Bell Labs once said, “The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time”. I think this applies to more than just software as the important final stages of developing anything often take longer than expected. If you can have some contingency in place for this then you can ensure that your product has the time it needs to be polished to perfection!

That’s it! By identifying the experience you want to make; prototyping it so you know you’re making the right thing; playtesting it so you know it works as well as you want it to; and taking the time to polish it up before release, you can give your product the best possible chance of success.

About the Author
Mark Backler is a game designer and developer based in Ipswich. He has worked on AAA games like Harry Potter as well as mobile titles like Hasbro Arcade. He has now founded his own studio to develop The Last Word, a platform game set inside a diary where players move words to solve different puzzles.

Mark Backler, The Last Word Gaming

Twitter: @LastWordGame



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