Games are the tools of change that are transforming our society. There are many reasons you would want to create your own game, whether it is to push your brand, raise awareness or even incite change within your community. This blog is only a small part of a much larger resource that you can download for FREE today - our eBook on Creating Games that Solve Problems.

Before venturing into game development for your business, let's start with the basics:

What is Game Development?

Game development is a combination of software development, creative production, psychology, business, marketing, and subject matter expertise. There are many different perspectives working together towards a common goal which sometimes conflict, so you need great project managers and communicators on your team. 

Before you even consider taking the leap, here’s some practical advice for anyone considering making a game, or hiring a team to make your game - Everyone should be willing to compromise and understand where expertise lies. Listen, be open-minded, and be keen to collaborate!

The stages of game design and development, as well as the timeline, depend on the scope and intricacies of the project. However, the following fundamental stages run the same across projects of all shapes and sizes:

Although this shows the stages of game development as linear and possibly rigid steps, in reality, the process is iterative with constant changes to the design to refine the player experience.

Now that you can better visualise the process for game development, and have an informed understanding of the the development timeline - it’s time to dive deeper in to each stage. 

Most games go through a three-step process - Design, Deliver and Iterate. I’ll break down what each step looks like from starting with concept and pre-production in the Design stage. 

What really goes into Game Design?

Before starting with a precise project scope (i.e. how much work is involved in building a game), you must first create a game concept and establish the pre-production details.

The most important question you need to ask at this stage - Is my concept or idea achievable with the team and resources I have?

The best way to answer this question is by starting with an objective and defining the problem that you are trying to solve, not the game that you want to build. Once you’ve clearly defined the problem you aim to solve, then you can then look for a style of game that aligns with this objective, instead of the other way around. For example, if you want students to be more interested in astrophysics, then you’d probably want to create a game that has rocket and space simulations.

Just like in the example, the main objective is to create a transformational game that will resonate with your target audience and have gameplay that aligns with the solution. This means you need to understand the core of the experience and how your game will be both fun and effective.

It’s a good idea to look at other games or real-world experiences for inspiration in this phase, so brainstorming is your best tool.  There are so many game styles and genres out there which may be suitable for solving your problem, so spend the time to explore the possibilities.

Tip: Gameplay must have significance when designed to solve a problem and not be included just to make a project ‘fun’.

In addition, here are elements in the design phase that are critical to the success of any project:

  • Target audience - Understanding exactly who you are making this game for is a critical step which can be undervalued. It is better to be specific rather than vague as testing with a small but targeted group will make design iteration easier. Whilst selecting an audience that is too broad will lead to conflicting feedback and ultimately a disjointed end product. 
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) - This step focuses on  real-world metrics that you care about impacting. Being specific from the beginning will help shape the design and let you know when you have achieved your goals.
  • Technical requirements - From the start, you should identify technical requirements and conduct research on how it will impact your project. Does it need to be compatible with various tools? Does it to adhere to to proper security standards? These requirements will shape the overall design of your project, so ensure you identify them as early as possible.
  • Market Validation Plan - How do you plan on validating the actual need for your game in the market? Your project might be based on the best research and assumptions about the audience, but it is important to test those assumptions to ensure that your project will succeed long-term in the real-world.
  • Maintenance and support - It is important to establish ongoing work to support and maintain the game once it has been launched. The timeline post-release needs to be accounted for during early planning to make sure that you can reach your end goal. 

Game development is more than code and numbers!

Now that you’ve come up with an exciting concept and completed pre-production, it's time to move to the Development stage. As mentioned, this entire process is iterative, you should aim to test your ideas with the end user as early as possible to ensure that it is both fun and effective. This may mean throwing out some earlier ideas or changing your design to account for new information. This may seem like wasted work but in the long run this approach forces you to focus on creating a game that is the best fit for your target audience and sets you on the best path to reach success. 

Don’t become too attached to designs from the early stages of the project, you might discover new and better versions later on! This is all part of iterative design.

This can be summarised in an adaptive four-step process of Concept, Prototyping, Playtesting and Evaluation, together known as the iterative process. The stages of this process are focused on who is your intended player base, testing your game with the right players and progressively validating your design with a broader audience at every stage:

Development is broken up into different milestones based on progress and the test group. Pre-alpha is when you are creating a prototype and don’t yet have a playable version of the game. Alpha is when you have a version of the game that you can test internally, either with your team or small groups of testers from your target audience. Beta is when the game is being tested by users outside of a controlled testing environment and is typically a larger group than Alpha. And finally, Gold is the version of the game that you release to the public as the first official launch. 

During each of these stages you will be adding features and content to the game to move towards a more complete experience. In general it is best practice to work in milestones, focusing on a small number of features that will deliver an impactful experience - rather than building all features at the same time. Testing the game with users at the end of each milestone will show you if the features are working as expected, or if they require additional refinement. 

The “Project Scope” is describes all of the features, functionality, and content that is going to be in the final game. While “Out of scope” consists of all the great ideas that you don’t have the resources to implement. It is worth identifying what is within project scope and what is out of scope because there will always more great ideas than time to implement. You and your team must be open to following an iterative process and adapting the project scope to incorporate new ideas whilst dropping redundant ideas. 

Here are tips for managing the scope of your project when working with an external developer:

  • Understand that 25% of the game is not developed in 25% of the time. Think of game development like building a skyscraper. There is a lot of work involved in the design and engineering before work starts. Before  work begins you need to lay the foundations and only then can you start building levels on top of it.
  • This skyscraper analogy also applies to changes in scope as the project progresses. The further along in the building process you go, the harder it is to change the foundations. If you want to change an early feature you may be required to undo a lot of early work to make that one change. 
  • Be honest about what you like and dislike. It is easy to change things early. Don’t hold your feedback until the end of the project because it will be much more work to change the design later. 
  • Always ask your developers about how much work is involved, it isn’t always obvious what is easy and what is hard to implement.
  • Make sure that you are managing risk. A lot of innovative mechanics and systems are great, but these will have unforeseen impact on the scope. If you are working on an innovative project then have flexibility in your budget, or be willing to cut features later down the track.
  • I would suggest doing significant research into what other games already on the market. Look into how they approached similar problems and you can potentially learn from their mistakes

Game development is an iterative process (trust it!)

You’ve finally finished production and launched your game! But the work shouldn't stop here. New features and content updates for your game can be distributed to your players post-release. Launching your game is a massive milestone and with that comes access to a wealth of data on player engagement and performance. Post-release development allows you to refine the game’s efficacy to maximize impact. 

Depending on the type of game, you may also need to perform maintenance to keep the game working as intended. Even an offline game will require minor updates to support new hardware and software standards. This may be a comparatively small cost but should be accounted for if you want your game to have an impact for years to come. 

The three most common forms of maintenance are corrective, adaptive and perfective:

  • Corrective maintenance handles software and hardware updates and minor bugs, this generally happens immediately after release.
  •  Adaptive maintenance is when a developer has to update the game's software core to accommodate an overall system update. For example, if a new iPhone with unique dimensions is released, your game’s software might need to be updated to optimise performance. 
  • Perfective maintenance is the constant updating of a game over time to improve the overall impact. 

In general, perfective maintenance will take up most of your post-release time (an average of 60% of your maintenance budget), followed by corrective maintenance. It is important to collaborate with developers who can work seamlessly to minimise interruptions to your users!

What's the point of making a good game if no one knows it?

Finally, a stage that I did not mention in the beginning but one that is just as important as the actual design and development of the game: Marketing. 

Marketing and promoting your game is often forgotten. Don’t do that!

It is easy to think that people will care about your project because it is a fun and exciting game with a noble purpose. In my experience, this is very rarely the case. If you fail to communicate your game’s purpose and connect with the right audience, you won’t stand out and fall short of reaching your goal to create change.

Depending on your project scope, the audience, and purpose, marketing may require more or less of your time, but it should be considered and planned out.  

Sending an email to your mailing list when the game is launched isn’t enough. Create a marketing plan with the goal of reaching and engaging your potential players. Which marketing activities are you going to focus on? What deadlines should you marketing campaigns meet?

Ideally start the marketing planning early, long before the game is finished and launched. Make sure that you are promoting your game long after its release.

The common trend between all of these marketing activities is that you need to understand your audience, and understand how to best communicate with them. 

Remember, just like game design and development need the right experts, marketing also requires a specialized skill set to execute campaigns effectively.

And that's (pretty much) it!

Practical advice to help you and your team come to the right decisions and schedules in order to make it a reality. But there’s still plenty to know and learn! The rewards for creating games for change or social impact games are well worth the efforts.

Although this process  of designing, developing, iterating and then marketing a game can seem daunting,  Chaos Theory is equipped with the knowledge and expertise to make your life infinitely easier. Or if you just have questions that need answering on what it’s like to make a serious game, you can book time with me and get the direction needed to help you on this journey.