How to improve your understanding of games with teardowns
Nate Ross on creating good teardowns and the reasons why they're a powerful resource
Teardowns are an essential tool of product managers and decision-makers throughout the games industry. When created with solid data, organization, and attention to detail, teardowns can inform product strategy and one's own understanding of games. The purpose of this article is to introduce teardowns by explaining what they are, how they're used, what they look like, and how you can create them yourself.
What is a teardown, and why do we need them?
I define teardowns as "a comprehensive analysis of a subject performed by evaluating all of the subject's individual parts."
Put another way, teardowns are reports that help us fundamentally answer a question about something. You can think of these as works of investigative journalism. Teardown authors use all data at their disposal to provide depth on a subject by questioning why something works the way it does, and what lessons we can learn from it. Great teardowns introduce the question and context, offer insights backed up by evidence, and end with key takeaways.
"Great teardowns introduce the context, offer insights backed up by evidence and end with key takeaways"
Teardowns take the form of PowerPoint slide decks or articles. Ideally, teardowns should be descriptive and intuitive enough that someone could pass them along to other people without any need for clarification. Teardown decks do not need to be pretty, but they do need to communicate your main points effectively. Graphs, pictures, spreadsheets, timelines -- all vital tools for making points more vivid.
Teardowns are a useful skill to learn and practice if you're looking to enter the games industry, especially if you're interested in product management. Product managers must constantly analyze their titles and those of their competitors, and teardowns are standard for communicating those insights. Many internships and full-time product manager positions require teardowns as part of the interview process.
Additionally, teardowns can be used as portfolio work in your applications, and may even help convince a company to make an opportunity for you (true story). Even when not used as part of the job hunt, teardowns can offer insight into a number of topics that can help you further your understanding of the industry.
What forms can a teardown take?
Teardowns are versatile, and can be used to answer all kinds of questions. One could create a teardown on:
- A game
Teardowns that focus on a single title are the most common in my experience. These generally involve looking at a game holistically, covering essential aspects such as the core game loop, live operations, and monetization strategy.
- A franchise
These are similar to evaluating a single game but are generally higher level, for instance tearing down the Assassin's Creed franchise instead of Odyssey alone. Evaluating an entire franchise requires less individual title analysis and more evaluation of trends.
- Part of a game
These teardowns specifically deal with a single aspect of a game, for example a battle pass. They help product managers better understand key features, monetization methods, and more, from their competitors' titles.
- A genre
These teardowns are mainly for corporate strategy and individual research. They can be used to inform one's opinion on the history, depth, and opportunity in a genre of games.
- A company
These can be useful for showing your depth of understanding in a company you want to work for. These teardowns include elements such as company history, executive management, and portfolio of titles.
- A business model
Though not as common, these can be used to validate the adoption of a new business model for a game, company, or platform.
Advice for creating teardowns
- Answer the question
The biggest mistake first-time teardown authors make is failing to answer the question -- the reason for doing the teardown in the first place. It's easy to get distracted onto peripheral topics, especially when those topics are personally interesting. Fight the urge, stay on target.
This issue is a lot easier to deal with when presented with a specific question from a stakeholder. However, you still need to make sure that the question being asked of you is reasonable to answer with data and sources at your disposal, and that the scope of the question is realistic.
If you are presented with a question that doesn't seem feasible, go back and clarify until it is. This may involve some negotiation about what you can complete and in what time period, but it's far better to be upfront about your abilities and constraints rather than suffer later for providing something other than what's wanted.
If you're doing a teardown for yourself, or if task clarity isn't an option, then define your own scope before beginning. It's easy to constantly trim your teardown's hedges, especially if you're a perfectionist. However, you most likely have deadlines and other responsibilities, and will need to spend an appropriate amount of time on this teardown and then move onto the next. Keep your definition of "done" clearly in mind as you plan out your process.
- Address the audience
Another mistake that first-timers make is failing to consider who they're creating the teardown for. Failing to tune for your audience can sink even the most well-argued teardown. Here are several ways you can address your audience:
- Level of detail: Knowing your audience can help you figure out how general or specific your explanations should be. Knowing the appropriate amount of detail to use takes some institutional knowledge, but it's worth it -- adding the right amount of detail will optimize the size of your teardown.
- Assumptions: As you consider who your audience is -- executives, producers, product managers -- think about how your audience's knowledge overlaps with the teardown's subject matter. Spending too much time on concepts your audience already knows will be wasteful, while spending too little time can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. Ask one of your audience stakeholders if it's okay to assume they know what something is and won't require a lengthy explanation in your teardown.
"Think about how your audience's knowledge overlaps with the teardown's subject matter"
- Consider the objective
This presents an opportunity to shine. It's always worth considering why you're working on a teardown if it's not explicitly communicated to you. Ideally, this should be the next step after confirming the question you'll answer. Doing this will allow you to provide pertinent recommendations, or at the very least further solidify the question you're asked and optimize time spent on the teardown.
- Go in with a plan and iterate
Once you have a good understanding of the question you'll be answering and why you've been asked, it's time to plan out your work. Your first step should be to create an outline for your final product, including the major sections. Once that's done, add your research into the slide notes and begin thinking about what's most important to include.
As you fill out the content of your teardown, consider how much value each slide is contributing, and whether you need more slides. Don't be afraid to incrementally try new things, such as using a type of chart you haven't tried before.
- Pass the "So what?" test
This last piece of advice is for the times when you're deciding on your analytical points and how to present them. The best teardowns never miss an opportunity to pass the "So what?" test. This test is simple:
- Make an argument
- Ask yourself "Okay, so what?"
The "So what?" question is asking what this has to do with the main thesis of your teardown. This is demonstrated in two ways:
"Flowery language gets in the way. If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"
- Importance: Every statement, graph, image, caption, should clearly strengthen your arguments. Clarity is an important factor -- you can't assume that the reader will instinctively reach the same conclusions about the data as you have. Make sure to clearly articulate your opinions and takeaways in your teardowns. Only include pertinent insights that build on your arguments.
- Simplicity: Everything in your teardown must be easily digestible by its audience, and that means using as little language and space as possible to make effective points. Flowery language and overly complicated graphs generally get in the way of understanding. As they say, if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.
Make sure that all of your text, graphs, charts, and slides support your arguments in an easy-to-read way.
How you can get started and improve
The best way to improve this skill is to practice. One fun way to start is to pick a subject that you're passionate about, among the types mentioned above, but don't know much about yet. This is a perfect way to both strengthen your skills and learn about an interesting subject.
Give yourself a defined question to answer, and cap yourself at 20 slides. See how much you can knock out in a couple of days. After it's over, show it to a friend, professor, or industry professional. Have them try to poke holes in it, and see if there's room for improvement both in your logic and in your planning process.
Conduct a post-mortem and think about what you would do differently if you could do it again. Make sure to hold onto those lessons as you do your next teardown. Repeat this cycle as often as you can.
Nate Ross is an associate product manager at Jam City and MBA candidate at USC Marshall School of Business. While at USC, he served as president of the Marshall Interactive Gaming Association (MIGA), and interned at Tic Toc Games and WB Games.