There are a plethora of “Tycoon” games on the market. The smartphone market is flooded with them, Steam has a ton, and there are new ones hitting the cheap deals stands at Walmart on a near constant basis. Lemonade Stand Tycoon, Airline Tycoon I and II, Chocolate Tycoon, Zombie Tycoon, DinerTown Tycoon, Offshore Tycoon, Hotel Giant, four Prison Tycoon titles, and Zoo Tycoon doesn’t even begin to cover 1% of the Tycoon marketplace. When Game Dev Tycoon hit the market, you can imagine that it didn’t even make it onto my radar because that genre is so saturated. You can imagine my surprise when some of my friends simply couldn’t stop talking about it. After more than a decade on this side of the fence, it was time to see how the other half lives – it was time to become a Game Developer. Much to my surprise, it was time to review a Tycoon title.
Starting off in a small garage all by yourself, Game Dev Tycoon casts you an aspiring game developer. You’ll kick of your career like most indie devs – mere feet from boxes and your tarp-covered car. Picking a name for your game, a topic, a genre, a platform, and an engine to power it are the building blocks for pushing a title out the door, at least in the beginning. With humble beginnings you’ll only have a few topics to pick from – sports, medieval, military, and space, but a great many more are just waiting to be unlocked. Similarly, genres are fairly limited in the beginning, giving you action, RPG, simulation, and strategy to start. Much like the real thing, in the beginning there is only PC as a selectable platform because consoles and handhelds haven’t been ‘invented’ yet. It’s nothing if not simple in the beginning.
After nailing down the elements of your game you’ll work through the development process. There are three phases to releasing a game. In the first phase you’ll chose how to divide your time and resources between story, gameplay, and the engine. The sliders for all three can be drug all the way to the top, but this does extend the development time of your game dramatically. When you are a one-man shop with very limited funds, this is a dangerous gamble. The second stage of development asks you for the same decision on dialogues, level design, and AI, then stage three gives you the same thing for world design, graphics, and sound. As your fingers dance away at the keyboard, your development bubbles up game points towards technology, research, and design. It also bubbles up bugs – bugs that will cost additional time and money to fix…that is unless you turn a blind eye to them and hope your fans do the same.
During development you can also add additional features. The pool is pretty shallow to start, but like genres and topics, you can use research later to unlock many more. These can be mono sound, 3D graphics, joystick or steering wheel support, and other bullets you might see on the back of a real-world game box. When the game is finished and all the features are locked you can release it immediately, but you might want to think about fixing those bugs first. The longer your game dev goes, the more points will bubble up towards all of the development areas. When it’s said and done you’ll earn experience in all of the areas where you’ve focused, as well as personal experience for you as a developer. Publishing the game brings the moment that all developers absolutely love, anticipate, and dread – reviews. Shortly after completion you’ll get a stack of four reviews from a random slice of fake game reviewers. They all come with a short blurb and a score from 1 to 10. These scores have a direct impact on the sales that follow, so putting out a well-reviewed product becomes important quickly. You’ll earn more fans with a great game, and build your fanbase with great releases.
As you develop you’ll also earn research points that you can spend on learning new topics and genres as well as new features for your basic engine. New topics, multiplayer, online support, and much more can be attached to the engine, eventually transitioning it to a fully-3D system. The best dev houses out there build their own engines though, and you’ve got an opportunity to do exactly that. Building an engine is a costly proposition, both in terms of development time as well as researching and building features. Adding stereo sound to your custom engine instead of just mono might not be all that expensive, but moving to a full orchestral soundtrack is a colossal undertaking. Your engine won’t take you forward year after year though, so you’ll end up making several over the course of the game. You can’t switch engines mid-development (Prey, Duke Nukem Forever, Anachronox, Too Human, etc – pay attention) so selecting the right features and sticking with it is your only choice.
Sitting around cashing the dwindling paychecks from your freshly-released game might be great, but when it dries up you’re gonna have a bad time. Your game will only stay on the market a limited time, and audiences get awful upset when you release a sequel immediately (e.g. Left 4 Dead 2), so branching out gives you a slight bonus to your experience as well as a better reception with fans. Spending research points means not spending time developing games, so you might find your cash beginning to dwindle. To help keep your shop afloat you can also take on contract work. The contracts ask you to generate a certain amount of design and tech points in a specific timeframe. Failure to hit your contract goals forces you to pay a penalty, so biting off only what you can chew is critical. Given that new contracts only pop up every 6 months, you’ll have to use them wisely.
Gaming Trend Ltd.
People don’t want to work in your stinky, greasy garage. To begin your development in earnest you’ll need to build a team – you can’t do everything yourself for long. Once you move into a small office you can begin to hire staff and develop their skills as well. At this stage you’ll have access to books and classes that help build up your design, speed, tech, or research skills, as will your staff. Just like time developing an engine, it’s not being spent on building games, so balance is key.
Hiring talent isn’t cheap or easy, so advertising the job will cost you somewhere between 20k to 2 million. Getting a good mix of specialists and generalists will help you create a team of world-class game developers, but balancing budgets and payroll against income starts to affect the types of games you make as well as development time. Strategy really begins to kick in here. Getting a good mix of specialists, generalists, and creating a team of world-class developers takes a bit of mixing and matching as well as lots of training. When you get to the point where you can start making Engine specialists, Level Design specialists, and other disciplines you’ll have to carefully plan to not tip the scales too far in any one direction.
The videogame industry is in a constant state of flux, and platform leaders have a chance of changing with the introduction of new devices. Snarky plays on the real world give you things like the “Play System”, “Ninvento TES”, “G64”, and many more that I don’t want to spoil for you. Developing on these platforms means paying a huge lump sum to the parent company before you can even start, so building a game on a new platform could be costly. That said, if that’s where the market is, you’ll have to join the fight where it lies.
The final stage of the game lets you really take the game to the next level, letting you spin up your own conferences, build an R&D lab, and more. For example, you can spin up a Steam-like project called “Grid” that lets you self-distribute over the Internet. These projects costs millions of dollars so this is fairly strictly reserved for the big dogs.
Throughout the game you’ll be given decisions. It’s not just what genre and platform you’ll choose, but also how you react to the industry and fans. Maybe a fan loves your previous game and is using a ton of its assets to make a tribute. Your lawyer asks you to sue them, but the choice is yours. Do you grant interviews with the press? How do you approach things like “G3” – the E3 knockoff for this title. Do you chase trends like popular genres, or stick to where your experience lies? How much money do you sink into marketing your titles and when? Too early and folks forget, too late and people won’t get onboard soon enough. An overly-expensive marketing campaign can soak up every bit of profits you might have made, so you’ll have to be careful with it.
There are a few hiccups in Game Dev Tycoon. I had a game that I didn’t develop suddenly pop up with a stack of reviews (straight 1s across the board) that cost me a bunch of fans. Additionally I had a new-hire developer that showed “NaN%” for his skillset – obviously I didn’t hire him. The biggest hiccup is actually not a bug though but a design choice. Once the console market begins the whole process proceeds as it did in history. For success you simply have to avoid the platforms that didn’t perform up to par and balance your budget wisely. Also, once you get the train moving forward, there is little reason to adjust the sliders from the maximum until you hit Large and AAA games. It does take a little longer to develop a game, but it’s the only way you’ll recoup the cost of throwing literally every feature at your engine. Put simply, it’s hard to lose.
The pacing works well and gives you roughly 6-8 hours of play time for the “30 years” you get to play. Once you reach the end the game does allow you to keep going, but no more story elements unfold (nothing beyond the PS4 and next Xbox). It would be cool to see the team predict their way into the future.
I beat it. Time to play it again
When I finish some games I smile, nod, and then shelve them forever. Once I completed Game Dev Tycoon I immediately fired it up for round 2. I know that there is more to discover in the game (I think I missed an entire building wing!) and I know that I can drive my game reviews up to 10/10 for that Perfect Score achievement. While it’d be nice to see some more graphing and other “sim” aspects, this game is filled with nods to the industry that make it fun to play. Snarky and humorous trivia, specialty hires like Peter Polynox, and strategy around every corner extends the game far further than I would have anticipated. For the price of a cup of coffee you can pick this game up – don’t be one of the 97% that pirated it. Game Dev Tycoon is the one Tycoon title worth buying now that it’s on Steam.