Game Balancing: Data-driven Approach
Development steps of a game for mobile platforms
Sergey Anankin, producer
I’m here to tell you about the step-by-step approach to the games production we use in our company. First of all this concerns the games for mobile platforms and the main focus will be on the so-called free2play games (free of charge games that leave a chance of micropayments to make the gameplay easier).
I’m going to write a series of articles on this subject. Each article is supposed to highlight a certain development step in the context of its most important aspects, key problems and ways to solve these problems.
The given article is an introductory one and contains a general description of development steps used when building a game.
1. Development steps of a project
The scheme below represents the development steps of a project with their terms and team sizes and the events separating these steps.
When developing a full-scale project one can distinguish the following steps:
- «Alpha» step. The project producer receives a task from the direction (sometimes takes part in the task creation), builds up a concept (i.e. initial description) of the new project and puts together a basic (alpha-) team for the project execution.
- «Preproduction» step. The alpha-team identifies the potential risks and either eliminates them or displays the facilities to eliminate them in future. The producer draws up a project execution plan, builds a complete development team. The project documentation is drawn up. A project prototype is designed.
- «Soft launch» step. The development team extends the prototype to a full version according to the drawn up plan and the project documentation. At the end of this step an open beta version is launched for a selected market. Generally such version contains 30-50% of the full game content and is characterized by a great stability and low error frequency as opposed to the previous technical versions.
- «Hard launch» step. The open beta version statistics is collected, with due consideration of this statistics the game is developed into a final version, which is launched on all the selected markets. A marketing strategy is chosen, a following game improvement plan is drawn up.
- «Support» step. For the rolling upgrades with account for the statistics a support team is put together (as a rule this team is a part of the development team). The producer continues working on the project as a consultant, passing on the main tasks to the game-designers of the support team.
2. «Alpha» step
- Start of the step. The producer receives from the direction (or helps to form) a primary task – a number of conditions for the project start-up and a list of requirements for the project. Generally the conditions are the following: desirable scale of the project (for instance, a small one, or on the contrary a large scale long term project), required development terms (e.g. not more than 6 months), financing terms (e.g. not more than $300 thous. for everything), preselected team’s technologies and skills (for instance, the company want to develop their project with the Unity engine because they have their own engine adaptations and skilled programmers working in Unity). Requirements are the project key figures in such questions as maintenance, attraction and monetization of the incoming traffic (e.g. the game is to ensure that on the 7th day of playing 50% of the players come back to the game, the game is to make at least $100 thous. a day).
However there are cases when a project starts not with an explicit task, but with the producer’s proposition. Thus, when starting developing one of our projects – Renaissance game – we shaped the idea with a few words: tactical mid-core shooter-survival in the post apocalyptic setting. At the alpha step the direction helped us to build up the project concept taking into consideration the company’s wishes.
- Goal of the step. The producer is to receive the project concept and the alpha team list from the direction and to get them confirmed.
- Course of the step. The producer builds up the project concept – i.e. any description showing how under the given conditions the project is going to meet the requirements. The concept usually includes the description of the core audience, game setting and genre, the key (perhaps even unique) gameplay peculiarities, software technologies, tools, technological solutions, market outlets, supported platforms, terms and sales cost, requirements for the development team. One of the key success factors at this step is the current market situation analysis – tracking the existing trends, surveying the most successful projects, mastering the new development tools and etc.
The concept approval is nearly always an iteration process. To adopt the Renaissance game concept (the project was supposed to be a large scaled one) we needed a dozen of meetings with the many company producers not only from the mobile department. Each meeting resulted in the concept changes, sometimes rather significant ones.
- End of the step. As soon as the concept is approved, it is time to build up the alpha-team – i.e. a team of key people who will be the core of the future development team. Generally these people are the producer, an art director, a technical director, a lead game designer. The producer and the alpha-team move on to the next step.
To my mind it’s great if the alpha-team has been working together for some time at this step already. The key players can take part in the concept development alongside with the producer. For the Caribbia project by the final concept presentation we had prepared not only the primary project design, but some art samples as well. We had also settled several technical issues with the help of the future technical director.
- Duration of the step. As a rule the first variant of the concept is developed within one or two weeks. In case the concept doesn’t meet the direction requirements the iterative concept improvement is possible. Each following iteration takes a week and the total number of these iterations (including the first one) is 3-4. So, the “Alpha” step takes from two to five weeks.
When setting the terms for this step, I believe one should consider scale and complexity (in every sense) of the proposed project. Such things as a brand new genre the project is to be carried out in or some unique gameplay are sure to affect the time of the concept development and approval. Thus, the Renaissance concept approval took two months while the Lost in Baliboo project was approved within less than a week.
3. «Preproduction» step
- Start of the step. The producer and the alpha-team identify the most substantial risks for the project. These risks can be produced by the game itself (is the gameplay interesting? do the graphics suit the core audience? will the game run on the chosen device?), by the management (will we manage to make the game within the given period of time? how much money are we going to spend?) or by the team (will the team meet the deadline? can the team eliminate all the risks?).
The range of risks depends on the project. For example, in our current project Lost in Baliboo the main risk for minimization was the graphics quality, as the project had got the mechanics and all the technical solutions from its predecessor Robinson Island.
- Goal of the step: minimization of the identified risks by means of designing the game prototype, implementation and specification of the project documentation, drawing up a plan of development for the following steps.
- Course of the step. The risks caused by the game can be minimized by means of designing a prototype (open beta version, containing samples of functionality, graphics and other risk aspects). The management risks can be minimized by means of drawing up a producer’s plan (i.e. description of a time-referenced development process) and requirements for the development team (team size, structure and skills). The team risks can be minimized by choosing the well-known technologies as well as the people who have some experience in launching similar projects or in using these technologies.
The prototype development can also be an iterative process, if required by the project. The Lost in Baliboo prototype (minor risk project) was displayed and approved only at the end of the step, while the gameplay and controlling of the Walking War Robots project, which is being launched at the moment, were displayed to the whole team every week to make sure the design decisions were successful.
- End of the step. After the prototype is shown to the direction and approved as the one solving the problem of risks minimization, after the producer’s plan is enacted, a development team is built and the following step is taken.
- Duration of the step depends on the identified risks amount. As a rule the preproduction step takes about one sixth of the total term of the project development. For example, if the worldwide release date is set for the end of the sixth month of the development the preproduction step will take one month.
For instance, the Robinson Island had a two-week preproduction step and its prototype displayed the team’s ability to port the existing social version to the mobile platforms. This term was exactly the sixth part of the project which had been planned to be launched on the market within three months.
4. «Soft launch» step
- Start of the step. The producer and the development team settle the remaining issues concerning software technologies, workflow, tools and so on. After that begins the development process according to the approved producer’s plan.
Speaking about the development under the producer’s plan one can distinguish one approach called Global Oriented Roadmap which is growing popular in the west and which we use in our under development projects such as Renaissance and Caribbia. According to this plan the development steps (soft launch and hard launch) can be divided into substeps. For each of these substeps a demonstration date, key features being implemented at this step and the goal of the step conceived in one sentence, are set. Such roadmap allows to keep the development process flexible in detail, to have a local goal for the team and it also makes it easy for the company management to control the process.
- Goal of the step is to develop the first major version which will be released for a small audience to collect statistics and to see the project potential.
The counter-example can be the Robinson project, which skipped the soft launch step and was released at once for a wide audience with a wide ranging ad campaign (see hard launch). This had been decided upon earlier by the marketing department due to such factors as low cost and tight schedule of the project development.
- Course of the step. The team works on the so-called soft launch version – the first version which will be available for many players (as a rule, this quantity is a certain section of a certain market). Generally there is a list of company’s requirements for such a version. These requirements are certain statistical measures that the game is bound to achieve within the time limits set after it’s released: retention (the game capability to retain a player for 1, 2 or more days), conversion (percent of the players delivering micropayments), average cheque (average payment amount) and average payment frequency. All these are key factors when calculating the so-called life time value – average income from one player over a period of his or her stay in the game.
- End of the step. When the statistical picture of the project is clear the direction decides the project fate. At the worst the project is shut down as having no potential, at the best it moves on to the next step.
The game launch on the market is the soft launch step border line, but not the formal termination. The project may undergo several iterative improvements before the decision on its development (i.e. moving on to the next step) can be made. The Soccer Tactics project had undergone a number of changes (summarily, for two months) after the open beta version before it was released for the wide audience.
- Duration of the step: depending on the requirements for the open beta this step can take from 40 to 80% of the time left between the preproduction step end and the worldwide release. For instance, if a project is designed for 6 months in total, the soft launch step may take from 2 to 4 months out of the 5 months left after the preproduction step. If the company wants to launch an open beta version to start collecting statistics as soon as possible – this is the case with two months, if the company plans to collect statistics at the finished game stage – this is the case with 4 months.
There are always options. As it has already been mentioned above, the Robinson project didn’t have this step at all. Income from the first ad campaigns showed it was necessary to increase advertising without changing the project somehow.
5. «Hard launch» step
- Start of the step. When the statistical picture of the soft launch version meets all the requirements the development team starts making a full version to launch on all the possible markets. The works that had been planned before and those the statistics showed as necessary make up the final list of enhancements and changes.
For example, the primary statistics of the Soccer Tactics soft launch version showed such problems that hadn’t been even expected by the team at all. Because of that after the soft launch the list of the project supposed changes was sufficiently amended by the hard launch step.
- Goal of the step: is to get the game version ready for the worldwide release, i.e. for launching it on all the planned markets and for all the planned audiences.
- Course of the step. All the changes are introduced in the game gradually while the game is still downloadable for the soft launch audience. Each such change modifies the project statistics and may affect the task list.
The Soccer Tactics project was developed with due consideration of the soft launch version statistics. Thus, due to the great loss of players at the early stages (that was clear from the so called funnels that show when players leave the game) the team had to put aside all the work and to focus on the first game session, tutorial and primary user flow improvements.
- End of the step: if the statistical picture of the current game version is satisfying, it is time to start the hard launch – the launch of the final game version on all the planned markets. The gathered statistics after this launch will decide the project fate. As a rule, the “hard launch” step undergoes several identical cycles, each cycle statistics settle the scope of work for the development team and affect the choice of a marketing strategy.
Here it is important to realize that soft launch and hard launch are no opposites. An advertising budget size is defined (among other things) by the current game performances and in no way ought to be minimal or maximal. The Robinson Island was released with a small advertising budget, but its returns were so great that the budget size increased many times (that’s why we can speak only about the hard launch of this project actually).
- Duration of the step: all the remaining time till the worldwide release. That means 60% of the time between the preproduction step end and the worldwide release in case of an early soft launch, and only 20% in case of a late one.
Percentage of these soft and hard launches duration is settled by the project and by the team and company’s experience. Due to its minimal risks and small scale the Lost in Baliboo project was released after three months of development while the soft launch of the Dwarves Tale project started only after nine months. Moreover, Baliboo had minimal functionality and Dwarves (despite the soft launch version failure) had a great part of game mechanics and contents.
6. «Support» step
- Start of the step. If the project statistics are stably satisfying and the project doesn’t need any more significant enhancements and improvements, it is passed over to the support step. This is the time to build a support team which is very often a part of the development team.
When developing the Dwarves Tale project its support cost was the key factor that determined the project fate. The project life cycle was rather short due to the big size of the support team. However the Baliboo support is quite cheap as it is provided by a small team.
- Goal of the step: to support the reasonable income level at minimum costs until the moment this level becomes fairly inaccessible.
- Course of the step. The support team repeatedly improves the game with the help of small updates (extended contents, bug fixing or functional innovations). Such iterative improvements are made as long as the game support is justified from the direction’s point of view.
As a rule, at the support step we release content updates. For such projects as Baliboo and Robinson these are first of all quest-packs – new islands to discover, new characters and so on. New mechanics are introduced quite seldom and only in order to solve some project problems revealed by the statistics.
- End of the step. In case the further support of the project becomes unjustified for some reason the project is regarded as abandoned. At the same time it can remain available for the end user if it is reasonable and if it doesn’t demand the support team’s participation.
- Duration of the step depends largely on the project characteristics. Acceptable term of reasonable support is considered to be one year, two or three years can be regarded as a very good result.
The company income from a project depends entirely on the duration of the support step. Thus, the Robinson project has been existing for more than two years already, as its support is rather cheap and the income defrays the expenses by far.
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