For me, the so-called casual genre of games has never held much allure – though I’ll begrudgingly partake in a game or two of Wii tennis, I cringe at the sight of what have become mobile (i.e., iOS and Android) staples: apps laden with micro-transactions, uninspired graphics, and generic level design. I recently made an exception, however, for a game on the Windows 8 Marketplace: Game Dev Tycoon. Though it promised gameplay elements typical of “jump-in, jump-out” –style, minimal commitment mobile titles such as Temple Run, it also populated a category of game I most love: simulation. See, I’m a bit of a tycoon aficionado, having invested hundreds of hours in Rollercoaster Tycoon, Ski Tycoon, Hotel Tycoon, and SimCity sandbox modes. I’ll happily spend hours tweaking theme park foliage, ski run, concierge service, and city block minutiae. So, I thought, why not try my hand at a video game studio?
The Game Dev Tycoon campaign takes place over 25 virtual years (roughly 6-7 hours, in my experience). You assume the role of an enterprising, inexperienced young game developer intent on growing a humble little game development hobby into a propitious corporation. This is easier said than done; rest assured, you’ll be designing video games out of your bedroom for quite a few in-game years.
Game-making is, in the beginning stages, a fairly straightforward affair: after you decide a game title, genre, and platform, you’re presented a series of sliders to determine the development focus of your game. Do you wish to spend more time on game engine, or graphics? Which would you rather emphasize: sound, or world design? It’s at these screens you also select specific features you wish to include in your game, such as “Advanced cutscenes,” or “Full motion video.” The better the slider combinations and greater the features, the better your game will perform critically and commercially.
As the campaign progresses, you’ll note upwardly climbing numbers in four large HUD “bubble categories.” The bubbles – Bugs, Design, Technology, and Research – increase in value proportionally to your game-making decisions. Focus on design elements during game production – story and gameplay, for example – will result in the addition of points to the Design bubble, and so on. Bugs and Research behave a little differently: Bugs are generated randomly, and must either be removed through “debugging” (which takes valuable time), or fixed with a post-release patch (which costs valuable capital). Research increases when you try new, unique configurations of technology, design, genres, and features during game-making.
The bubbles aren’t just for show. Research – an important aspect of the game-making process that allows for use of new game features and genres – costs, depending on the level of sophistication, an increasing number of Research points (in addition to money on-hand). And, as a general rule, the greater Design and Technology values achieved during game-making, the better reviews the game receives and more copies the game sells.
Game Dev Tycoon’s mechanics are clever in this way. Though the style of play is not entirely unfamiliar – it bears more than a striking resemblance to the iOS and Android title Game Dev Story – the gameplay is varied enough to hold interest for long stretches at a time. It’s certainly not an easy game; as rent comes due, console manufacturers demand licensing fees, and publishers mandate a cut of profits, Game Dev Tycoon can become a micromanager’s nightmare. In fact, early game-making is so challenging that the first couple of in-game years require a sort of ‘grinding’ approach; constant, ceaseless game-making on low-cost platforms without regard for critical opinion is almost necessary to advance beyond initial stages. It’s a monotonous process that can be dull, but is a tactic fans of the simulation genre are probably accustomed to.
From there, it’s a continuous uphill climb. When you finally do generate enough funds to research, to purchase licenses, and to pay taxes owed, you’ll be given the opportunity to move into a larger building – a real studio. And developers become available for hire. And larger-scale game-making becomes possible. But someone has to pay for it all. Rent increases substantially. Search campaigns for job candidates can cost a large amount of money. And the development cost of AAA titles is nearly quadruple what cash simpler games required. Several times (three, in fact), I failed at this stage: somewhere between year 6 and 7, with one or two additional employees, I made an expensive game that flopped, and went into bankruptcy. It’s frustrating.
Brutish gameplay, however, is part of the simulation genre’s appeal. There’s little, if any, instant gratification to be found here. Everything requires careful strategy, hard work, and the steadiest managing hand. Game Dev Tycoon’s formula is an oft times torturous, cyclical process that requires careful monitoring and planning at each stage: so capital must be saved for research, which improves the quality of games produced, which leads to good critical response, which translates to great market performance, which provides more capital. It’s the sort of mechanic I personally love. Concededly, though, it sometimes feels more like work than play.
My biggest criticism of Game Dev Tycoon is the shortness of its campaign. The difficulty can be, as with any learning curve, adjusted to gradually. Hard-coded time limits cannot. It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t aspects of the game that almost never come into play during the campaign, because there aren’t enough years to unlock them. The game allows you to continue playing past the hard limit of 30 years, which is how I discovered little gems like the Research Lab, which allows you to build your own Steam-like service, and the Hardware Lab, which can produce consoles for your development studio. While playing without objectives or goals is fun for a while, it gets old. It’d be nice to have longer story, as some of the best parts of Game Dev Tycoon aren’t made available until the end.
Other than a story too short and gameplay too challenging (for some), Game Dev Tycoon is a wonderful little title that shows a lot of promise. It’s fun, engaging, and a game I continue to play to this day. It isn’t the cheapest title on the market – it retails for $7.99 in the Windows 8 Marketplace – but, as the developers are independent and Windows 8 is a barren gaming wasteland, I was happy to pay full price. I, from Game Dev Tycoon’s campaign, know how hard it can be to make games from your bedroom computer.