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Why devs need to fail fast, and how to do so | GI Sprint

Industry pros share tips on failing with grace, iterating faster, and how to know when a project should be abandoned in favour of your next idea

Image credit: From left to right: Ant Workshop's Tony Gowland, Free Lives' Dominique Gawlowski, and indie game developer and consultant Rami Ismail

If your game isn't fun or feasible, kill it.

That's the advice of Free Lives' Dominique Gawlowski, Ant Workshop's Tony Gowland, and indie game developer and consultant Rami Ismail, who have banded together to share their experience on lowering game development costs for our new GI Sprint series of videos, podcasts, and articles about making games cheaper, faster, and better.

In this candid discussion about bringing game ideas to life (and knowing when it's time to kill them off), our panel emphasised that despite lower barriers to entry, increased costs, competition, and challenges mean game-making is harder than ever before.

With unprecedented job losses and studio closures, it's more crucial than ever to ensure your team doesn't waste time or money chasing projects that won't generate a return. Here's everything you need to know about failing fast and learning from every defeat.

You can watch the full podcast below, download it here, or find it on the podcasting platform of your choice.

Watch on YouTube

If it's not working, stop working – sooner rather than later

When's the best time to abandon a game? Gawlowski's advice is succinct: "As soon as possible."

While it may be difficult to trust your gut when you're starting out, the panel universally agreed that you need to give yourself a hard and fast deadline – say, a month of prototyping time – after which you decide whether to commit to a project or move on.

"If it isn't fun to play for five minutes, then we're done. We move on to the next one. And that's still what I teach," Ismail says.

"That's still what I do when I make my own games. If we can't make it fun in a week, two weeks, then we're not sure there's something at the core, and it's time to move on."

Gowland agrees: "You need to have that hard and fast kind of cut-off. No, you can't just keep iterating on that. And you can't just keep throwing new things at it.

"Very much from the outset, we've set out with: 'This has to be something that we can make'. If no publishers are interested in it, we don't want to be in a situation where we've spent six months of our time and money building something. If we can't get extra money in, it has to stop."

Is it fun to play and to make?

As for how you know when a game is working or not? Well, everyone – and every game – is a little different, but Ismail thinks it all comes down to one thing: fun.

"There's two things I look for," he says. "The first part is: do people have fun interacting with it? If they get excited about what the game could be, those are indicators that we look for. It's not a science, it's very much a feeling thing.

"The other part that we look for is this – is it fun to make? It's a really big part of the equation.

"Assuming a game takes two to three years, if you calculate the amount of time I have left before I'm 65… I don't have that many," he continues. "So I also want to make sure that at that point, it's fun to work on it – and that takes a little bit longer."

Don't waste time on the nice-to-haves while you ignore the must-haves…

Ismail also advises to focus in priority on the core aspects of your game, things you can't do without, without getting lost in details that could be figured out later down the line.

"When people are coming into the games industry, they very often are married to this thing, such as fighting a dragon with a sword," Ismail says. "So what they'll do is they'll stretch out the part of getting there, and they'll focus on all the wrong things, like making it very beautiful or writing out the lore book for the entire story…

"And then when they get to the point where they actually have to programme they realise, 'Oh, actually, this doesn't work'. They're six months or a year in, and they're chasing this North Star of a thing that, frankly, they could have tested in two days."

Instead, he suggests you focus on the fun and how your game can get there.

"Can I make it fun to hit the rectangle on a big square? If yes, then we can probably do the dragon thing. If no, then we probably can't do the dragon thing, and we should figure out what to do with it."

…or time-sink features that just aren't working for you or your game

An effective way of ascertaining what does and doesn't work is to prototype your ideas. Not only will it help you identify what is and isn't within your team's skillset and comfort, but it can also help you iterate and develop early concepts.

"Prototyping doesn't have to be a whole game at once, or a whole game idea at once," Gowland says. "It's like prototyping features. And if that feature doesn't work, either get rid of it or think of a different approach that has a similar kind of result as what you're after, and then see whether that version works better."

Ismail agrees, emphasising the need for features to always have a purpose.

"The further into development you go, the more expensive it becomes to fix things because we're building houses of cards. So the 'one-way doors' [the idea that if you commit to an idea or feature, you may not be able to come back] are super important when it comes to features.

"Sure, sometimes things change very last minute. It's game development – we're not going to pretend there's a perfect way of doing this. But at that point, triage becomes a really big thing… but I think that's an entirely separate Sprint episode!"

Check and check again that your idea is worth investing your time and money in

But even if you ensure your idea is fun to make and full of purposeful features your players will adore, ultimately, there's no point chasing projects that aren't worth your time and cash investment.

"It takes two to three years to make a game," Gawlowski says, admitting Free Lives has abandoned early prototypes with 20,000 external downloads because they were either not affordable or time-effective enough to take into full development. "So you better be extremely sure that this is something you want to spend your life on.

"The top 10% of games on Steam are pretty much the ones making all the money on Steam. The rest of that 90% aren't making any money, and are from studios that are either closing or have lost a considerable amount of money, or probably never will make games again. This is why you have to be damn sure your ideas are good, because what you're aiming for is to be in that top 10%. You have to be in [there] if you want to continue to make games. There's no time to be wasted, you know, sitting on an idea and refusing to surrender that this idea is possibly not a top 10% idea.

"And you'd be amazed at how impossible it is for some people. To their own detriment, they will hang a noose around their neck with this terrible idea before sitting down and actually going, okay, maybe I should move on. People are just so married to their concepts."

Gawlowski likens video game development to the music industry – where she started her career – especially as "more kids use software that makes it absolutely doable for them to make a playable game," encouraging a "fierce competitiveness."

"There's still room for beautiful games to come in and do well," she adds. "They're not making the multi – multi – hundreds of millions of dollars that may be a game like Call of Duty is making, but there's still that gentle curve of doing well enough to possibly fund your own next project, where you can become self-sustaining, manage your business with a level of certainty that you have a future release for the next couple of years, and make more beautiful games."

"You'd be amazed at how impossible it is for some people to surrender an idea. People are just so married to their concepts"Dominique Gawlowski

Gowland adds: "Making more smaller bets rather than putting all of your eggs into one big, expensive basket is a much better approach to things."

He points to Zeekerss' Lethal Company, which managed to find great success despite everything that is going on in the industry.

"It's successful because it has done something a bit different and given people something new," he continues. "But it didn't have [or] need the same budget as Call of Duty or as an Assassin's Creed, or any of that kind of thing.

"Giving people something new and doing something that's cool and appeals to a bunch of people doesn't necessarily need a two million dollar budget... For me personally, I think that's where a lot of developers should be heading. Let's try more smaller things and see what hits.

"Our last game, Dungeon Golf? We spent a couple of years making that and, I'll be honest, it completely tanked when it came out. And it's like, 'Okay, well, we can't do that again'. That approach? It's just not sustainable."

Make smaller games and know your niche

Setting realistic expectations is crucial to failing fast, especially if you promise too much.

Ismail reflects on the fact even industry veterans aren't immune to failure, for instance senior developers who broke away from their AAA studios to go it alone, only to stumble at the first hurdle.

"They all fail – but making small things is absolutely the right answer right now… And we don't mean small games in that they're short to play," he clarifies. "We mean games that are easier to compartmentalise, to develop in a way that is fast and allows you to test quickly.

"If you look at a lot of the hits right now, you'll see small, elegant systems. At the heart of it is something that you can prototype fairly quickly. And then when it works, they start spending time on it until it builds to something really good, or something really interesting.

"If you want to do something really complicated, and you have the space to be self-funded, or you can get a publisher to do it? Go for it. There's not that much competition in that space, because it's a hard space. But for the average indie developer now? I think that's the right answer. And then you can always figure out what you're doing, you know, like early access, or live development. I love the strategy of just putting it on If people respond to it, you immediately have feedback – you immediately have a direction."

"Every right decision you're making is not buying you success, it's buying you a coin flip. And then at the end, you flip it"Rami Ismail

Gowland stresses the importance of knowing your niche: "I think that's why the survival stuff really exploded recently. Get that core bit of gameplay, and then after that, it's extra content in terms of monsters, passives, and your abilities and stuff like that. But it's so systemic to build on top of that. And very quickly, you can end up with a game you can spend 200 hours of your time on.

"I think if you're making smaller things, or the development costs are lower, you don't have to appeal to the same size of audience that Call of Duty has to appeal to in order to recoup [development expenses].

"If your version of survival is you're on a farm, and you're a weird frog… maybe you only need 20,000 people to be into that, and, well, that's way more achievable than however many copies of COD Microsoft needs to sell this winter."

Even when you do everything right, things may still go wrong

But even if you choose to follow every last bit of the advice given here today, be mindful that nothing can guarantee success.

In fact, the only guarantee you have is eventual failure. How you take that failure and learn from it, though? That's the part that matters.

"I think you can see from having listened to everyone speak that failing fast is not only a good idea, it's the only idea you should be sticking with when running a small studio," Gawlowski says.

But even if you do everything right, success is never guaranteed.

"We're never buying certainty. We are entrepreneurs, which means we're taking risks," Ismail concludes.

"Even with everything aligned – with the best processes, making sure you test your game on, get a publisher, build the game efficiently, quickly, prototype... you know, break eggs, make omelettes, develop the game carefully, make it well, make it expandable, modular; whatever way you do it. I tell my team, you're buying points. You're buying coins. At the end of the whole journey, you get to flip the coins. And if more than ten, 15, 20 of the coins land on heads, you might make enough money. So every right decision you're making is not buying you success, it's buying you a coin flip. And then at the end, you flip it."

Vikki Blake avatar
Vikki Blake: When​ ​her friends​ ​were falling in love with soap stars, Vikki was falling in love with​ ​video games. She's a survival horror survivalist​ ​with a penchant for​ ​Yorkshire Tea, men dressed up as doctors and sweary words. She struggles to juggle a fair-to-middling Destiny/Halo addiction​ ​and her kill/death ratio is terrible.
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