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Why DriveThruRPG? It’s the largest download store for role-playing stuff in existence and you’ll probably end up buying much more than just your copy of Ludotronics. Which would benefit game designers everywhere!
Why not Amazon? For one, illustrated non-fiction isn’t well-suited for the Kindle format. Also, at a €14.99 price point, Amazon’s cut amounts to €9.75. Well, no.
Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix
In this level, you will create a value matrix for your game concept that you sketched in Level Two: Panning for the Core. This value matrix will become your BFG9000-grade weapon for the Preparation phase’s boss fight in Level Six: Capture the USP.
Beat 1. Value Characteristics
A Unique Selling Proposition, or USP, is about differentiation. Before you can decide on your game’s USP, you need to know all the strengths and weaknesses of all the games against which your game will compete. Based on that knowledge, you can then make design decisions for the best possible combination of strengths and weaknesses for your own game.
Every game has a number of properties, benefits, and features perceived as valuable by its target audience, each on its own individual merit and all together as their sum total. These value characteristics, with their different strengths, constitute a game’s value set. If your game concept offers a value set that is identical or very similar to that of a competing game that’s already on the market, people will wonder why they should buy and play your game. And if you pitch to a publisher, they will wonder too and ask why they should invest in your concept, except as a knock-off product that will run on a low development and a high marketing budget and doesn’t need you as its lead. Thus, differentiation! Differentiation means that your game delivers a key value or a combination of values that no other game delivers for your target audience.
Also, if you know your value set and your key values, you know what to hang on to with determination in case worse comes to worst and dwindling resources demand that huge chunks be cut from development. Your key values are a much better compass than your creative vision to navigate such an impasse.
Beat 2. Value Sets
To define a principal value set for your game concept, you need to collect the value characteristics of published games that are similar to your game concept and targeted at a similar audience, and you should do so systematically. But that is easier said than done.
On the one hand, it’s impossible to collect all possible value characteristics for video games in a list and then pick from that list the characteristics that apply to a batch of games that compete with each other. The sheer number of substantially different games and game types and artistic styles and dramatic settings and technologies and so on, not to mention constant innovation, will nip any attempt at compiling such a comprehensive list in the bud.
On the other hand, picking up value characteristics on the fly without a critical framework, simply by looking at a stack of games, can’t be called systematic. It leaves too much to chance observations.
Thus, the most reasonable approach is an underlying framework of categories that structures your investigation. For these categories, you can then identify and collect the most interesting and relevant value characteristics by hand. This approach focuses your attention but also broadens your view. It makes it both easy to see the big picture and easy to spot the details.
Courtesy of the four dimensions of the Ludotronics map, we already have a number of suitable categories! And we will add two more: one category to cover elements like available platforms, extra content, moddability, and such, which we will call the Customer Relationship Management category, or simply CRM, and another category to cover aspects like literary (entertainment) genre, the most likely theme (a topic to be discussed in-depth in the Procedure phase), and the most likely USP, which we will call the Proposal category.
Thus, the complete category system looks like this:
These six categories should cover everything of importance, but further categories can be added any time. What shouldn’t be added, neither as category nor as value characteristic, is video game “genre.” The affirmation that video game genres have more to do with marketing than with actual game content is certainly true. But even for marketing purposes they have fallen way behind their perceived usefulness, as dash-ridden designations like “Action-Roleplaying-Shooter” or “Action-Adventure Stealth-Platformer” can attest to.
Next, analyze the most important games your game concept competes with, category for category. Find and assess their most important value characteristics, for each game and each category, and rate and document each value characteristic according to how strong or how weak it appears.
With the exception of the Proposal category, you can and should also express each characteristic’s quality numerically, from non-existent or very weak to very strong, along an appropriate numerical range. This numerical range should neither be too coarse-grained nor too fine-grained. A simple on/off scale wouldn’t do, and a scale from 1 to 10 would be overkill. According to research, people find it difficult to distribute values to more than seven scale points, and for most value characteristics, e.g., graphics quality or player agency, neighboring values between 3 and 4 or 6 and 7 would be meaningless even there. The most reasonable solution is a five-point scale. It offers neither too many nor too few values, and it is the scale recommended by researchers for the kind of values we’re dealing with. Besides, it should be an odd number of scale points, not an even one, because sometimes things are perfectly average (or painfully mediocre), and you want to be able to express that. Such a five-point scale can cover everything from “poor” to “excellent,” from “casual” to “committed,” from “disposable” to “persistent,” to give a few examples, and it can cover the existence of a characteristic by allocating the minimum and maximum values of 1 and 5 for absence and presence, respectively.
When your research is complete, and you have listed all the relevant value characteristics and assessed their individual values for the most important games that your game would have to compete with in the market place, then you can proceed and build your value matrix.
Beat 3. Value Matrix
To compare and interpret your data, to make it as accessible and as parsable as possible to inform far-reaching design decisions, you need to visualize it in ways that make sense.
Several schemes for the visual representation of numerical values have been employed in the marketing disciplines, among them spider charts or radar charts and strategy canvasses or value curves, the latter devised by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne in Blue Ocean Strategy and championed by Tynan Sylvester in Designing Games. All these have their place. But they are not very intuitive to use. Value curves become overwhelming quickly with a greater range of parameters. Radar charts have perceptual drawbacks which make some value comparisons hard to judge and even impair decision-making for trade-offs, which soundly defeats their purpose.
Luckily, there’s another option, much simpler and without any of these drawbacks: Harvey Balls. Invented by Harvey Poppel in the 1970s, it’s a time-tested, robust visualization tool that renders values from a five-point scale instantly comprehensible and instantly graspable. Harvey Balls are ideograms. They look like this, with the values of 1 through 5 represented by quarter increments from empty to full:
You can easily find and download a free Harvey Balls font from the web. With that font selected in your app, you can type any numerical value from 1 to 5 on your keyboard, and the output will be its corresponding Harvey Ball. Or, more elegantly, you can use the pie chart editor in your spreadsheet or presentation software to create your own set of Harvey Balls, and then use copy & paste to populate your value matrix.
To build your value matrix from scratch, follow these seven steps:
Voilà, there’s your value matrix! On the right side, you can add as many empty columns as you like for your own game concept, to be used later in Level Six: Capture the USP to figure out which combination of value characteristics will or will not give your game an edge over the competition.
Should relevant games enter the market during development, you can easily add columns for these games and re-analyze your whole data set without any confusion at all.
Here’s an example. Imagine it’s early 1999 and your game idea revolves around a first-person shooter. Or, it’s actually now and your game idea revolves around a late 1990s retro first-person shooter! For this game concept, the seven steps to build your value matrix would proceed like this:
The value matrix for this example without the supporting document (that should always exist) looks like this:
Your own value matrix, based on your game concept, its game type, and its most relevant competitors, will look substantially different. Not only will the games be different, naturally. But the value characteristics that are relevant to these games will also differ. As they should!
Now that you have created your value matrix, you can assess the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors at a glance at any time. Later, in Level Six: Capture the USP, you will experiment with possible value combinations and value patterns for your own game concept, and you will be able do so effortlessly and creatively without losing yourself in the data.
One more thing. While you’re at it, also collect every piece of economic data about these games, anything you can wring from your search engine or from your personal contacts. Budget figures, numbers of copies sold, retail price, download numbers, projected and actual development time, projected and actual budget, projected and actual profits, and so on. As discussed in Level Three: Tough Investigations, reliable data is hard to come by. But no matter how flimsy your collected data might be, you have some ballpark figures against which to compare your own estimates later in the Proposition phase. That is much better than nothing. Furthermore, collect all postmortems, presentations, and written material about the development processes of these games. Put together a dossier for each game and store it in your Ludotronics inventory, together with your value matrix and your supporting document!
For an indie game concept, or for innovative game concepts in general, competing games might not yet exist. In some cases, though, you can still create a value matrix by selecting games favored by your target audience that have critical elements in common with your concept. And when your concept really pushes the envelope, just throw out the competitor slots and, yes, create a value matrix! Even if you don’t compete with other games in this context, knowing your own value set is of critical importance.
As soon as you’ve stored your value matrix, your supporting document, and your competitor dossiers in your Ludotronics inventory, you’ve passed this level. Perhaps you still have to beat Level Three or Level Four or both. If you’ve solved these levels too, then your Ludotronics inventory packs the full set of power tools that you need for the Preparation phase’s boss fight in Level Six.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One, Level Two, and Level Six.
Level Three through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.