Dave Bisceglia, Co-Founder & CEO, The Tap Lab
Boston Games Forum | July 17, 2014
Here are some ‘Universal’ Design Lessons that I’ve learned during my career in the games industry.
Our first lesson is that there are no universal design lessons. It really depends on the game you’re making! That said, all of these principles are good to know and
may prove to be useful to you. One last disclaimer... I make mobile games. A lot of the examples in this talk will be from mobile games, but that doesn’t mean they
can’t be applied to all sorts of games from online and console to board games etc.
IDEATE PROTO BUILD TEST POLISH GROW
We’ll cover how certain design lessons can be applied throughout the development process. Starting off with Ideation, Prototyping, Building, Testing (Alpha &
Beta), Polish, then, if all goes well, you’ll eventually Launch your game, after which you enter the Growth stage.
Focus on divergent thinking during ideation to generate better ideas.
Start by encouraging your team to come up with ideas individually, then bring those ideas together. Starting with a group brainstorm can lead to group think and
prevent certain folks from sharing valuable ideas. Encourage people to think in settings that are inspiring for them... Go on a walk, play games together, etc. This
process should fun and natural. I personally keep a games journal... It’s a refrigerator in which I store all of the game concepts I come up with to keep them fresh
for use later on. I suggest you do the same.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Design a simple version of the game to be prototyped. Control scope and avoid feature creep. Start by designing the core game loop. Define the core mechanic
and how the player interacts with it. Come up with a couple variations on that core mechanic. Focus on refining those concepts for the prototyping phase.
I LOVE YOUR BITS
Love your game. Passion is required to endure the trials and tribulations of game development. Draw a circle around what you like to play, the draw another circle
around what you the market will love. Focus on the overlap. That’s where you’ll find the most success!
Once you’ve ironed out your game concept and defined some of the mechanics you’d like to test, you move on to prototyping phase.
FIND THE FUN
Before you commit to a game mechanic you need to prototype multiple variations. Scrap the un-fun concepts early and focus on finding fun. Here are screenshots
from some prototypes our buddies at Owlchemy Labs did for their game Jack Lumber. They tried a bunch of different mechanics until they found the “swipe to cut
logs” mechanic which proved to be the most fun of the bunch.
USE PLACEHOLDER ART
Here is some concept artwork from our new game, Bigfoot Hunter. Be sure to use placeholder art until you've proven out the mechanic or feature. You can use
sketches, clipart, even Google images. We made that mistake in the past... Spending whole cycles of development creating assets that we later trashed because
the feature didn’t make the final cut. You’ll be doing yourself and your artists a big favor.
GET FEEDBACK ASAP
Get outside feedback as soon as possible. You have nothing to hide and only things to learn. A lot of developers are even sharing their development process as a
means of building community and getting instant feedback from players. Set up playtests with friends and strangers as soon as possible. Blind playtesting is key.
Don’t give testers any details, ask them to speak out loud, don’t answer their questions, be extremely observant (watch their facial expressions). Tips for finding
playtesters... Go to Starbucks (offer to buy their drink), Craigslist (free pizza and beer), or demo at local schools and events.
Once you’ve defined your core mechanic and proven that it’s really fun, it’s time to starting building the complete game.
GIVE THEM THE FINGER
Whenever possible – show, don’t tell. Use clear iconography. Especially during your tutorial. Don't be afraid to give your players "the finger.” The tutorial from Tiny
Wings is a great example of show, don’t tell. They teach the core mechanic with a simple visual that is intuitive and fun to interact with.
GIVE CONSTANT FEEDBACK
Guided gameplay continues beyond the tutorial. Give constant feedback to drive home core mechanics and keep players engaged. Guitar Hero 3: Legends of
Rock is a great example. You’ve got the ROCK meter showing you how well you’re doing and the notes are exploding as you progress through the song.
GIVE SHORT TERM GOALS
Don’t underestimate the value of short-term goals. Give your players small but meaningful accomplishments for each session. Jetpack Joyride is a great example
of a game that does this extremely well.
It’s important to gradually introduce new mechanics and resources throughout the progression. Otherwise you run the risk of overwhelming your players with too
much to manage early on. The HUD from Clash of Clans is a great example of emergent mechanics. During the tutorial you have three resources on the screen.
As you progress you unlock more features and resources.
SHOW VISIBLE PROGRESS
Showing visible progress is a great way to reward your players. Visible progress comes in many forms... Upgrading your character in WOW (larger shoulder
pads), expanding your city in SimCity or making some crazy creation in MineCraft. It’s important to let your players express themselves. It’s something that players
can be proud of, something they can show off, gives them a sense of ownership in the game that keeps them coming back.
Clash of Clans does a great job of letting new players see what more advanced players have accomplished so they have something to aspire too.
So, you’ve been showing off your game and running playtests during prototyping and building. Now that you’ve built your game, it’s time to test it out with larger
groups of people in your Alpha and Beta tests.
Use analytics services like Localytics or Mixpanel to see how your game is performing. Know the industry benchmarks. Be attentive, set objectives. The key
metrics you should focus on are Engagement, Retention, Monetization and Virality. Engagement should be your first focus. Session frequency and session
duration are extremely important and often overlooked. How long players are playing your game and how often they come back is a great indicator of how fun
your game is and how successful it will be. For retention we look at D1, D7 and D30 retention. That’s how many of your players come back on the next day, a
week later and a month later. For monetization you’re looking at percent paying and ARPU (average revenue per user). For Virality, we look at k-factor which is a
measurement of how many players each new player brings into the game through sharing. The industry benchmarks for these metrics vary greatly across different
genres. Once you have this data your can tweak your game design to push the needle on these metrics and improve your game.
FOCUS ON FTUE
You’ll quickly find that the first time user experience is the most important part of your game. If players aren’t impressed by your tutorial, they won’t come back.
This is the tutorial from Cut The Rope. It’s extremely simple, gets straight to the fun and uses intuitive iconography. Some pro tips... Get straight into the fun. No
forced registration or menus to dig through. Also, players should feel like they are playing a game rather than being taught how to play a game. Remember...
Whenever possible – show, don’t tell. And don’t try to fit too much in the tutorial. The rest of the mechanics can be taught with guided gameplay as they are
You need to put a lot of thought into how you monetize your game. For free to play games, it’s important to make In App Purchases as effortless as possible.
Show them what to buy during gameplay, when they need it. Don't hide purchases in your shop. Temple Run 2 does a great job at this... When you fail, you get a
chance to save yourself for gems. If you don’t have enough gems you can buy more. Two tips here... First, always start high with pricing. For obvious reasons, it’s
easy to come down, but it’s very difficult to go up. Second, you should offer bulk discounts to incentivize players to purchase larger quantities. 3000 gems for $1 or
7000 gems for $2. Also, many games add a ‘best value badge’ on the most expensive package. Allowing players to earn premium currency for free by watching
videos or performing social actions can be very effective if done well. Nimble Bit, the creators of Tiny Tower and Disco Zoo, shared some data on this... more than
60% of their revenue on those games comes from players watching videos for free currency. Lastly, you should try to exceed expectations whenever possible. If a
player spends money in your game they should be delighted with the result.
DON’T ACT ON SINGLE DATA POINTS
Don’t act on individual data points. This is a very easy mistake to make. You hear one person bring up a concern about your game and you immediately think that
everyone else will feel the same way. That is rarely true. Look for trends in feedback. When conducting playtests be sure to mark down all player feedback and
organize it categorically. You can do this manually with excel for playtest feedback and use services like HelpShift or HelpScout for categorizing and prioritizing in-
game feedback. When you see the same concern or feature request over and over again... That’s when you should take it to heart and act on it.
Once you’ve completed your Alpha, Beta and tested your feature complete game – you enter the polish phase.
GEO-TARGETED SOFT LAUNCH
This is often when developers do a geo-targeted soft launch to test the game at scale and make the finishing touches. That means you launch in one or a few
select countries in the App Store. These are usually other english speaking countries... Canada, Australia, UK, etc. This allows you to work out all of the kinks
before your official launch. Remember, you only get one chance to launch a game, that’s when you’ll get featured, when you’ll get the most press, and most likely
when you’ll get the highest volume of installs, so you have to maximize that opportunity and make sure you’ve crushed any major bugs and polished the game.
MAKE IT JUICY
Don’t underestimate the power of juice. It’s time let your artists go nuts. Refine the UI, add sound effects and particle effects (explosions, splatters and stuff like
that). This is your chance to turn your fun game into a ridiculously fun game. If you’ve ever played Fruit Ninja you know what I’m talking about. Candy Crush does
a great job with this as well.
SURPRISE YOUR PLAYERS
Be sure to surprise your players whenever possible. Leverage the motivational power of curiosity. You can surprise players with a twist on the core mechanic. In
Monument Valley, they continually introduce new puzzles that you wouldn’t have expected. You can also achieve surprise with twists in the narrative and secret
Before you launch your game you must balance everything. Your economy, your progression, the difficulty level, etc. Add caps to all of your resources and make
sure you have the tools ready to balance the game post launch. You should have a balance spreadsheet where you define your constants and the levers you have
at your disposal for balancing the game. These are screenshots from my first game... It was called Duality and it was terribly balanced. The game was basically
Risk in the real world. We used google maps as the gameboard and real people and places as the pieces of the game. We launched it at Boston University and
the campus turned into a war zone over night. We learned the hard way that a poorly balanced game allows a few players to rise to the top and often ruins the
game for the newbs.
Then... If everything goes according to plan... You’ll finally launch your game.
If the launch goes well... You’ll transition into growth mode.
GIVE THEM A STORY TO TELL
It’s important to give players a story to tell whenever possible. Make it easy for them to do so. One of our advisors, Jesse Schell, says that games should be “story
telling machines.” Flappy Bird is a great example of this. Everybody felt compelled to share their score and the designer made it extremely easy to do so. Also,
with ever increasing user acquisition cost, it’s more important than ever to design a game that sells itself.
CONTENT IS KING
You should have a backlog of content and a plan for content release ready before you launch so you can focus on fixing bugs and scaling your user base. Keep a
steady content cadence to keep players engaged. CSR Racing does a great job with their content updates. They introduce new cars and races on a regular basis
to keep players coming back for more.
METRICS ARE PEOPLE TOO
As you grow your user base you’ll get a ton of data to work with. Remember that metrics are people too. This is something Nabeel Hyatt from Spark Capital taught
me a while back. Don't be blinded by metrics. Remember to incorporate player feedback into your decision making process. Don't over optimize on a number
without understanding what the number means in terms of behavior. Example: You can run a series of sales that increase your percent paying, but will teach
players to wait for sales rather than spending regularly. Analytics can be a very powerful tool. But, use them wisely.
If your game does really well, you may want to expand globally. Keep localization in mind. Whenever possible, don’t bake text into assets. It will make it easier to
localize your game later on. Try to use intuitive iconography as much as possible. Understand that design paradigms are different all around the world and you
may have to work with a local publisher to successfully enter new markets. Which is a nice segue into my final point...
Dave Bisceglia, Co-Founder & CEO, The Tap Lab
Boston Games Forum | July 17, 2014
There are no universal design lessons. But, hopefully some of these will prove to be useful for you moving forward. Thanks!
Dave Bisceglia | Twitter: @TapDave
firstname.lastname@example.org | www.thetaplab.com
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