James Haresign decides to see what life is like on the other side of the glass with Game Dev Tycoon. Can he use his insight of the games industry to rise to the top?
I’m the odd one out of my friends. We all went to university to study computing in one form or another and most ended up in some sort of game development. I didn’t. If Game Dev Tycoon is anything to go by though, we got it wrong, because I’d be running a company that could not only rival Valve, but Microsoft and Sony too.
It would also mean I’d need to start back in the ’80s in a garage, as Game Dev Tycoon lets you play the experience as if you got in at the ground level. Making a game is pretty simple too. You pick your topic, from the likes of sci-fi, fantasy, sports or military. Then the genre: action, adventure, etc. Decide which platform to release the game on and finally choose your game engine, which you can develop yourself. Then the hard work of making the game starts.
Each project has a set number of goals to reach in Design and Technology, but bugs creep in the software as it develops. At the same time your programmers earn Research points, which come in later as a major resource. In reality this process is really just a timer. Each member of your company sits at their computer and produces little bubbles that add towards the game’s development, yet Greenheart Games have managed to make watching those bubbles rack up incredibly satisfying, each bubble making a cute little popping noise as they contribute to your game’s overall quality. When you start making bigger games you also have to chose which member of staff codes which part of the game and how to apply their specialities to various aspects of development. All of which factors towards you developing a hit game or not.
Once the game is complete, you can release it straight away or wait for your team of developers to get bug squashing. The idea here being that if you need money you can risk shipping buggy game, though I was never so pressed for cash that I needed to do that. In what is a nice touch, during this time you can also keep developing more Design and Technology points – albeit at a very slow rate – to improve the game further, but you also risk developing more bugs. You might review better, but is it really worth holding back the release?
Played it for days… Informed Gamer
As yes, reviewers. Damn them and their fickle ways. Who made them the gatekeepers of all games? Er, never mind. Whether your game is received well or not is down to four individuals who give it a score out of ten. Then the general public buy it based on what they think. Other than teaching me exactly what effect me and my lot are having here, this is probably Game Dev Tycoon really falls over.
The reviewers have small stock phrases and only a few of them hint at what you did right or wrong with the game. You get the option to run a post-game report, which will give you a little insight into how it was received, but you’re still scrabbling in the dark somewhat. And really there’s no market for you to worry about and base your design decisions on – or if there is it’s so hidden you have no idea it’s there. Every now and again some topic or genre will become the Next Big Thing, but it’s pretty rare. There’s no real sense of market trends.
The order you unlock the topics can be a bit weird too, and frustrating, though on your second playthrough it becomes obvious it’s totally randomised. Sometimes space doesn’t come long after sci-fi, but Sport is way after that. I don’t need two genres like fantasy and dungeon when I can’t even make a football game.
This makes clear how reductive the genres are too. Relatively early on in the game you do unlock the ability to make multi-genre games, but they only expand to include casual games, taking it up to a grand total of six. There’s no distinction of making a platformer, FPS, RTS or any of the multitude of genres that now fill out the gaming world. And this is is the sort of problem that filters throughout the whole of Game Dev Tycoon.
Unlocking these extra areas, and more technology, is all done with those research points you earn during game production. They can be spent in two separate ways. Either new tech or topics, or training your staff. This makes them one of the most important resources in the game, and boy is it rare. I had to really forsake the development of my staff to concentrate on improving the technology underneath my games. This then meant I never really dipped my toe into AAA games, because for that you need specialists and that takes a lot of training. The later addition of a R&D lab helps with this, but that is relatively late in the game.
Not Bad, Not Good… All Games
You can open up an online store, Grid (aka Steam), but once it’s open that’s it. You get some free money every month but no real way of developing it further or turning it into the gold mine Valve have. There’s the ability to license out your engine too, but it comes so late in the game you can never become an id or Epic who games are just a bonus for their income. The reverse isn’t true either, meaning you can’t buy in an engine, bypassing researching technology to concentrate on your people, or anything so direction changing like that.
The one area outside of game development that is fully functional is console development. However, that not only requires a ton of money, but feeds off the same research tree as your software development. You also need even more money set aside for tech support if you suffer hardware problems like the Xbox 360 did.
Sorry, mBox 360. Game Dev Tycoon isn’t exactly subtle with its references, or particularly clever it has to be said. The PlayStation is renamed Playsystem, while Microsoft becomes Micronoft. The design of the consoles is replicated so precisely too, I’m surprised someone’s lawyers haven’t wanted a word with Greenheart. This design also plays true with the history of the games industry. It follows the real world goings on slavishly, with only the Amiga missed out from the big names. When you hit modern day things get a little odd, with the 360 and PS3 disappearing off shelves before their replacements are even announced. The current trends of Kickstarter and DLC are out and out ignored. Though, if you need Kickstarter in a game like this you might be doing something wrong.
However, these are things you only realise when you stop playing. That’s because Game Dev Tycoon is fun. Incredibly fun. The first time I played it I looked up to discover five hours had passed. While you’re playing it, you only notice minor niggles, such as the rudimentary UI. When you stop, you soon start to realise all the missed opportunities. If this was an early build that was yet to be iterated on, like Minecraft or Prison Architect, then this could be something very special. As it is, the developers have said this is the final version. And while it is good, for a game using the Tycoon name, it is rather shallow.
Game Dev Tycoon, by Greenheart Games, is out now for PC (reviewed), Mac and Linux.