Reviews

Game Dev Tycoon – Review

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Greenheart Games
Publisher: Greenheart Games
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Let’s face it, like almost every gamer out there you’ve probably been playing a game and come to the shocking but inevitable conclusion that you could do this nonsense far better than the developers. And then like almost everybody else you’ll simply not follow up on that idea, because creating games requires a lot of hard work, and if you were doing all that work then when would you find the time to play games? But now we can live out our game creating fantasies thanks to Greenheart Games and their first ever release, Game Dev Tycoon.

The game kicks off with you and your little virtual avatar guy or girl locked in  a garage with a small amount of cash, dilligently plonking away at a keyboard in an attempt to make a game. Your goal is simple at first: make a game that sells enough so that you can turn this into a business proper, with an office and minions and a coffee machine. You know, the important stuff. The ultimate goal over the course of 30-years is to go from little indie developer (who seemingly does not need to eat, sleep or poop) to massive games company that develops Triple-A games, has its own brand of console and makes gamers everywhere faint in delight at the merest mention of a possible new release.

Behold, the garage.

Behold, the garage of dreams.

Stage 1, then, is naturally to develop and release your first game, and doing just that is dead easy. Just click on the screen to bring up the menu and select the option to develop a new game. After that there’s some basic options you need to go through: first you need to name your game, then you need to pick the topic/theme of your game and the genre it will fall under, and then finally you need to pick which platform you want to develop your game for. Once that’s all done it’s on to the actual development of your game, which is done by using a total of 9 different sliders, each of which corresponds to a different aspect of the game (Story/Quests, engine, gameplay, dialogues, graphics, sound, world design, level design, AI), to balance how much of the total development time is spent on each one. For example, if you wanted to a graphically impressive game then you’d need to sacrifice some world design and sound in order to do that – simply putting all the sliders up as high as they go does nothing more than ensuring equal time is spent on each aspect of the game.  The idea is that you need to match the various design components to the genre and topic of your game, so if you were creating an RPG you’d more focus on story, dialogue and world design, whereas an action game needs heavy focus on graphics, sound and gameplay. Just like in the real world certain combinations of genre and topic are viewed as good, while others are looked upon less favorably and are thus far less likely to do well, so ensuring you correctly pair them with the correct balance of development choices is essential to success.

If nothing else this is an interesting glimpse into how real life development of games works, one that might hopefully give players a better idea of the choices companies face. There’s only so much time that you can give each part of the game and so eventually you’ll need to choose what to focus on more.

Once you’ve finished your game and ironed out any bugs that happen to be in the coding, all that is left for you to do is hit the finish button and wait for the reviews to roll in. Yes, just like in real life reviews play a massive part in your game’s success or failure, though they’re certainly not the final word on whether you’ll get big sales or not as there’s many other factors to consider, such as how certain genres do better on certain platforms, or how you perhaps managed to release your latest detective adventure game just as there was a market trend for that sort of thing. There’s a total of four website/magazines that review every single game you release, and watching the scores come in  is a surprisingly nail-biting experience as you hope above all hope for those lovely high scores to flash up and grin in delight as they do, or curse those pesky critic bastards when the numbers are low. More than once did I find myself shouting at the screen when a game I had released nearly scored perfect tens across the board, only to be foiled by that pratt at Informed Games who gave it a nine. Again, it’s a strange glimpse into how it must be for real developers eagerly awaiting the reviews for the latest title to come through.

I have no idea what I'm doing.

I have no idea what I’m doing.

However, as tense as reviews are they do highlight a couple of big problems Game Dev Tycoon has, namely a lack of feedback and true control over your games. No matter what you do you’re never  exactly sure why your latest game succeeded or failed, what made it work or not work in the eyes of the reviewers. Reviews come with just a few quick words from the site or magazine that are vague at best and rarely ever help you ascertain why your latest game flopped, leaving you in the dark as to what you might need to think about fixing for your next release, and that can be frustrating, especially if your company is on the verge of going bust and you really need to make your next game sell but have no idea where to start – does it need to be a fraction more story-based, or perhaps you need to adjust the balance of graphics and sound. Likewise the satisfaction of creating a hit that sells millions upon millions of copies is somewhat short-lived when you realise that you weren’t really involved all that much in its making and aren’t even sure exactly why it worked so well. Since you’re creating your game using sliders there’s absolutely no way of knowing whether or not the title you’re working on is looking good or if it needs to be canned straight away and started from scratch. There’s an option at the end of development to put your game in the trash can but it’s relatively pointless because there’s just no way of knowing whether you’ve created a quality title or not. Green Heart Games missed a beat here by not letting you do something like hire focus groups during creation of your game to give you an indication of whether it’s worth continuing to sink money and time into it. Or perhaps they could have even included an option to send media outlets preview code so that you could gauge the reaction and the publics interest.

Once you’ve created enough games in your garage you’ll have earned enough research points to embark on your first truly exciting project, the creation of your very own engine to power your games, a necessity for developing producing better titles and your first true hit. Balancing development of new engines is arguably one of the toughest aspects of Game Dev Tycoon, and perhaps the single most important thing you need to get right. As you play through the game you’ll be able to unlock more and more features for your engine to reasearch, from better graphics to online play support to self-learning AIs and dynamic weather systems, but actually developing a new engine to make use of these new features, many of which can  be selected during the development cycle at extra cost, is both time-consuming and very expensive. The rate at which new  platforms are released on to the market is surprisingly quick, and so it’s tempting to build an entire new engine just to make use of the latest cool feature you’ve researched, yet doing so will likely bankrupt you quicker than you can sneeze.

Your initial time spent in the garage churning out games is pretty mundane stuff, until finally the games occasionally baffling algorithms determine that you’ve managed to create a surprise hit and the money comes flooding in, allowing you to move out of the garage into some nice new office digs. It’s here that Game Dev Tycoon shows a surprising vicious streak that will likely end many a hopeful career early, and I’m honestly unsure whether it’s due to a bit of poor balancing or if it’s a very deliberate choice made by the developers to reflect real game development where moving from small indie company in a basement to an actual office is the real make or break moment. You see once you leave the confines of the garage you upon up the option to hire staff and start creating medium-sized games, but managing your business at this point becomes far harder and both the critics and gamers alike also become far tougher to please, leaving you to flounder. Again, the trial and error nature of developing games and the small amount of feedback can become a frustration here.

4_offices

Still, once you’re in your office things start to get far more interesting. You can now bring aboard staff members and train them up, increasing their different stats. Developement of medium-sized games requires you to assign members of staff to each aspect of game, and so you need to ensure that the persons technical or design skills match up with the area that they’ve been given to work on for maximum effect, as well as ensure that you don’t pile too much on their soldiers otherwise their performance will drop. Again, balancing your staff count and their skills is fundamental, as is training them which also uses valuable research points. Train staff members enough, though, and they’ll be able to become specialists in certain areas of game design which will improve your games massively and is also critical for later creation of Triple-A games and even your own hardware.

Another interesting option that unlocks when you reach your first office is the ability sign a publishing contract in which you agree to make a game for whichever publisher that meets certain criteria. In return they’ll provide some up-front cash to help with development of the game and also provide their massive marketing abilities, though you’ll only get a percentage of the sales for your work, obviously. A contract with a publisher, though, requires your created game scores a certain minimum average score from reviewers, otherwise a penalty is incurred in the form of a chunk of money being taken out of your bank account. It’s a brutal yet entirely accurate portrayal of the modern gaming industry in which Metacritic scores hold so much sway over developers. Yet in the early stages of medium-sized game creation publishing contracts are vital, as you’ll need to build up your own loyal fanbase to make self-publishing your work truly viable.

Okay, now I REALLY don't know what I'm doing.

Okay, now I REALLY don’t know what I’m doing.

As you progress through the game there’s a myriad of options that open up. You’ll be able to spend money on marketing campaigns for your games during development to increase hype, have your own booth at a gaming convention, create games with two genre types and more. There are some big goals to aim for, though. Amass enough cash and you’ll be able to move up to the final office and hire even more staff in preparation for the creation of large and then Triple-A games, which again require even more money to produce and good management of staff. Triple-A games are a pain in the arse to make and require numerous specialists, but they’re worth the time and investment should you pull them off. Once your staff are up to scratch you’ll be able to open up your own R&D department which can look into creating some cool stuff for your business, including your own personal digital distribution system, the final tier of 3D graphics and MMO support for your game engines so that you can create your very own World of Warcraft rip-off and then make your fortune releasing nothing but expansion packs. Arguably the biggest goal, though, is to develop and release your own console, and then create games solely for it, ensuring that anyone who wants the best titles on the market will need to own your brand of hardware.

For all of the various options at your disposal, though, Game Dev Tycoon isn’t a very deep game. Once you’ve mastered the art of using sliders and understand when you should launch a marketing campaign there’s not much strategy involved in running your business. After the slightly harsh transition to your first office  the difficulty also begins to let up once you’ve released a major hit with the gamers and progressed to the final office. Suddenly it seems like you can do no wrong and practically everything you release either nets you a profit or at least breaks even unless you really do cock things up by doing something like creating a Triple-A racer with all of the focus on story and absolutely zero focus on anything else. However, this lack of depth doesn’t affect the game as much as you might think. In a strange way it helps it because Game Dev Tycoon is an oddly relaxing and enjoyable game to play (minus the swearing when you go bankrupt for the X time when trying to breaking into the medium-sized game market). You can easily sit down to play Game Dev Tycoon and stand back only to find that many hours have gone past and that you forgot to feed the kids/wife/husband/pet. Even though some gamers seem to view the word as a bit taboo I’d describe Game Dev Tycoon as a casual game, easy to simply play and relax without ever taxing the old noggin.

Eat your heart out Valve, GRID is going to kick Steams ass!

Eat your heart out Valve, GRID is going to kick Steams ass!

From a graphical and audio standpoint there’s not too much to talk about here. The game boasts a simple visual look that reminds me of playing the old Theme Hospital games and the like. It’s basic but works well for the style of game, though I’d have liked to have seen a little more animation at work, just to help bring your office to life. Meanwhile on the sound front the game has a cheery soundtrack which again suits it very well, even if it does get repetitive pretty quickly

The biggest strength of the game of the game is easily the stories that come of playing it. Your success, failures, triumphs and disasters all form the plot of your very own career. Mine was one of modest success. My first hit was the cunningly titled Space Babes released for a the Gameling hand-held (there’s plenty of fun poked at various companies in how things are named), the first foray into creating an RPG, the genre  my company, Mad Wolf Games, would become most known for in the future. I struggled when I moved to the office but thanks to my employees having high design talents I was able to release a few successful RPGs and stay afloat. Things looked bleak, though, as I let my engine get too old and I suffered. I ended up having to accept a bank loan which provided enough cash for me to create and  release NoiR, a risky mature detective/adventure game. Thankfully the older tech in my engine didn’t affect it much and NoiR was praised for its story and world, garnering enough sales for me to develop a new engine and go on to release Massively Effected 3, an epic Sci-Fi/RPG. It’s predecessors had sold well enough, but with the new engine tech powering it Massively Effected 3 sold obscene amounts, raking in around 30-million, allowing me to start sinking a lot of cash into staff training, licenses for developing games on different platforms and new engine technology. From there it was a success story of massive proportions. I trained specialists in dialogue, story and world design, allowing me to create the best adventure and RPG games I could, including a further 3 Massively Effected games (sequels need to have time between developments and should only be created using upgraded engines, or reviewers will not be impressed) and sequels to Oblivion, NoiR, Great Scott ( a comedy/adventure) and more. Eventually I managed to get my own console launched, create a huge MMO called Divine Crafting and even hosted my own convention.   I was also surprised by how I actually found myself thinking of my little employees as real guys and gals working hard to create great titles, getting attached to them in the process, almost like I did with my troops in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

And of course playing Game Dev Tycoon offers gamers a brief, simple glance into the world of game development, one which will hopefully help them understand how everything has to be balanced out and the effort that must go into running a company and producing good games. It’s easy for us to sit in our chairs and rip apart games and declare how this element or that element should have been so much better, but play Game Dev Tycoon and you’ll soon realise that even with its simple mechanics it’s not easy to produce titles and keep your company afloat. Inevitably you must choose what to focus on when crafting your masterpiece, and thus other aspects of the game will falter because of that.

Finally, we need to talk about money. As always the price of a game or product isn’t something that affects my final score, but in some cases it’s still more than worth talking about during a review. Do me a favor and take a gander at the score below, I’ll wait. Good score, right? Now, Game Dev Tycoon costs just £5 to buy. So, in my eyes at that price you can pretty much add an entire point to that score.

At the end of the day Game Dev Tycoon’s casual nature is both its own worst enemy and its main draw. The trial and error nature of actually developing games can sometimes provide frustrating as you desperately try to determine where things are going wrong, often making success feel a bit hollow, and yet there’s still plenty of satisfaction to be had from building your company from the ground up. It’s not a deep game, but it’s easy to just put on and while away the hours. For Greenheart Games first release this is mighty impressive, and I look forward to seeing what else they can come up with in the future. Hopefully, like my own story in the game, their path will be one of success.

The Good:
+ Plenty of options.
+ Easy to play for hours on end.
+ Creating your own story of success or failure.

The Bad:
– Trial and error game development.
– Vicious difficulty spike could leave some angry.
– Fairly shallow.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 – Good, bordering on great.
Game Dev Tycoon is one of those titles that it just easy to enjoy. Going from fledgling indie developer to massive company producing high-quality games is a great feeling, and one that may even hopefully provide a basic but helpful glimpse into how the industry works for those playing it.

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