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Level Six: Capture the USP
Now that you did your research, defined your audience, and created your value matrix, the Preparation phase’s moment of truth is here. Will you be able to capture your prize, a Unique Selling Proposition? To find out, consult your value matrix and proceed like this.
Enter your game concept, perhaps with a provisional title, into as many empty columns on the right as you like. For each column, take your Harvey Balls and try out a different value combination that looks interesting, promising, and reasonable. Experiment, analyze, compare, improve.
Then, add an empty row to each category, with the exception of Proposal. Could you think of a relevant value characteristic that so far none of your competitors possessed? This is tricky, so be careful. It’s terribly easy to add clutter to your game with something that looks cool but doesn’t add anything of value to the playing experience. The smartest way to go about it is to revisit your game concept’s core element. Is there a value characteristic that naturally and seamlessly springs from this core element? If you want to add a new value characteristic, that’s the path to take.
Again, it’s about creating a value combination that delivers a distinct experience for your target audience. Be considerate. Opportunities will vie for your attention whose drawbacks and trade-offs are not immediately obvious. Let’s go through some of them.
Beat 1. Presumptions
The first rule is, you can’t just copy a value combination that already exists and crank up its values. Think combinatorial, not additive. Focus, don’t spread. Compete on detail quality, not feature quantity. Create, don’t clone, and specifically don’t try and clone successful AAA games. When it comes to competing with genius ideas or monster budgets, your mantra should always be: Not Better Is Better, Different Is Better.
But still, maybe at some point you mutter to yourself, “now wait, this concept I have in mind is so great and so awesomely awesome, why not just raise shed-loads of money, throw in and max out every possible feature, and make a game that can’t possibly fail?” Well, first of all, it can and will implode from its own weight and fail spectacularly during development, owing to dynamics like ever diminishing returns for ever-increasing resources and other assorted obstacles. But even if that weren’t the case, it will invariably fail in terms of quality. The more features you have, the harder it gets to turn them into benefits, and they merely add expensive clutter. The greatness of a game has nothing to do with the number of its features, regardless of their strengths. The greatness of a game has everything to do with a particular choice of value characteristics that will translate into a holistic, enjoyable playing experience.
Design is about choices and trade-offs, and great design is about excellent choices and punishing trade-offs. It’s not the player who should be burdened with choosing from an oversupply of features reminiscent of bloated word processors. That’s not what “player agency” means at all. What’s more, design choices are about intent—without which there can be no meaningful experience, no continuity, no flow.
In more practical terms, design choices interconnect with several layers of constraints all the time. Your design choices have to face basic constraints related to availabilities, schedules, and technologies. While the Ludotronics paradigm doesn’t cover development, one constraint you want to make yourself familiar with is the “Pick Two!” principle of the famous Money–Time–Quality (or Cost–Time–Scope) production triangle. On top of that, there will be an indeterminate number of contextual constraints like adaptability for various regions, desired ratings, sneak peek and review opportunities, release schedules based on your marketing strategy, or preparations to protect your game mechanics and artwork against shameless copycats who might already offer rip-offs while you’re still in public beta. And you will face even more constraints by the development process itself!
All this should be kept in mind when you choose your set of value characteristics.
Beat 2. Pitfalls
Among the immediately attractive options is to add a new value characteristic that so far hasn’t been served by that particular game type to your target audience at all. But even if it’s intimately connected with your game concept’s core element, as advised in Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix, there’s a caveat.
A new value characteristic can turn out to be hugely profitable, but it contains a substantial risk. To start with, there might be non-obvious reasons why this particular target audience has never been served with this particular value characteristic by this particular game type. Always keep in mind that you, in all likelihood, might not be the first human on Earth to have thought of it. Furthermore, if you look at unique and original value propositions from a marketing perspective, not everything is bright and shiny. There are no metrics to work with to sketch out a profit investment ratio. Chances are that marketing costs will increase as new value propositions need to be explained, often a lot. The gist is, a brand-new value proposition poses a risk, and potential publishers or investors will be wary. Sticking with the tried and true is considered good business, after all, and taking risks is, well, fraught with risks, and that’s the reason why every reasonably selling Intellectual Property, or simply IP, is squeezed for every last ounce of its worth. Still, that shouldn’t deter you. If you really think it’s a killer value, and you think that your target audience just hasn’t realized yet that it can’t live without it, and you have some respectable research data and smart reasoning to back that up, go with it. It might be worth the experience and, if it works out, make you rich, famous, and overconfident.
A less glamorous but still attractive option is to look for a value characteristic that is served to your target audience but never lives up to expectations, either because its implementations are crummy or it is integrated so badly as to be virtually useless. This is much safer, but don’t let your guard down just yet. There might be a reason for this value’s endemic feebleness that will become apparent during development with a vengeance. From the marketing perspective, there are metrics to work with, and there’s less risk involved overall. But it’s really, really hard to explain credibly and succinctly why your game delivers this specific value for your target audience better than all the other games that already tried their hand at it. “We’re not like the others, man, really!” can easily translate into promotional messages so full of braggadocio that they’re liable to trigger a hypercritical response.
There is a third option, again a little less glamorous. This option has already been mentioned several times. Instead of looking for a single value characteristic that differentiates your game from similar games aimed at your target audience, you should create a set that consists of a new and exciting combination of those value characteristics that your target audience reliably prefers and is familiar with. This combines advantages from the other two approaches without their drawbacks. Metrics and data are available, there is much less risk involved, and you can still promise and promote a new and exciting playing experience.
But whatever option catches your interest, always follow Jean Piaget’s Moderate Novelty principle, a good introduction to which you can find in Herbert Ginsburg and Sylvia Opper’s Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development. Following this principle makes sure that your game appears sufficiently familiar so people aren’t scared to engage with it, but also sufficiently different as to promise challenge and occasion rethinking. As an extension to this, you should also follow Raymond Loewy’s MAYA principle, Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, for successful product design.
What does all this mean in practice? How do you follow principles like Moderate Novelty or MAYA? There’s an old hat in every industry, not just the video game industry, that you should introduce one innovative element and leave everything else alone. That’s not quite what Piaget or Loewy had in mind, but it’s a start. And with the six categories of your value matrix, you can do that in ways that are interesting, but also systematic.
Pick one of the four dimensions Game Mechanics, Ludology, Cinematology, or Narratology, or one of the other two categories, CRM or Proposal. (Feel free to choose whatever you like—this isn’t and shouldn’t be constrained by your core element or the dimension it belongs to.) Innovate the crap out of this one category with a new, exciting set of value characteristics. For the other five categories, create familiar value sets that your target audience will feel at home with right away. This will allow you to innovate in ways that conform to tried and true design and marketing principles, and it allows you to define and predict innovation risks very precisely. With all this in mind, you can find an ideal balance of novelty and typicality for your game. Later, you will be able to craft a golden ratio message that pitches familiarity and trust on the one hand, and a unique and innovative gaming experience on the other.
At this point, it’s time to extend our original creativity creed from the Preliminary phase. If everybody followed all these rules all the time, we probably wouldn’t have Gone Home and many other games, and we all would be a lot poorer for it. So here are three things to remember. For one, some publishers have departments where you can pitch very innovative game concepts. Next, you can earn money with games that are commercially more viable and then invest some of your returns into games that really push the envelope. Also, no game idea is so innovative that none of the rules apply. Mozart cranked out a lot of stuff to earn money; his celebrated operas pushed the envelope and still followed most of the rules; and all that gave him the means to write pieces that went right over his audience’s heads at the time, including some of his most brilliant operas. And, most importantly, he didn’t begin with the latter but honed his skills and worked his way up.
Beat 3. Practice
After you developed a value strategy to differentiate your game from similar games marketed to your target audience, the area you picked for innovation will most likely become your USP in one form or another. Let’s illustrate the process with two historical examples. They’re both AAA games, they’re quite extreme examples, and they were both highly successful. You probably can’t and even don’t want to emulate them. But they provide you a glimpse into the process and might give you ideas.
When Thief: The Dark Project came out in 1998, first-person shooters, or FPS, had been hugely popular since 1993’s Doom release (although first-person view as such had been around much longer). Games with stealth elements, in comparison, were fairly new, but had begun to rise in popularity on the console through games like Metal Gear Solid or Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. Both FPS and stealth are elements from the Game Mechanics category, and it was here that the developers decided to innovate. Stealth FPS, a new and unusual combination of game mechanics, became Thief: The Dark Project’s USP. But the developers didn’t stop there. They went to the Cinematology category and integrated sound so intensely into the game that, by all practical means, it became a game mechanic in its own right. And they didn’t stop there either. The next thing they did was crank up player agency in the Narratology category, with unscripted gameplay and the option to solve the game without killing anyone. The necessary trade-offs were equally intrepid. Highly common and routinely expected elements like multiplayer, coop, and literally everything else from the CRM category was dispensed with. All these were daring design decisions. Rare is the publisher who would touch such a project with a ten-foot-pole, but Looking Glass Studios had a terrific track record at the time, and Eidos Interactive went with it.
Thief: The Dark Project introduced a new mechanic and raised other elements to unexpected potentials. Yet, there’s a well-documented dark side to this aptly named project. The game concept mutated through a number of wildly different design stages that included a CIA zombie slasher and an Arthurian sword simulator—and from a certain point onward, the development process spiraled into a health-threatening nightmare. (But this isn’t so much a game-specific phenomenon as a wide-spread game industry calamity that still remains unresolved to the detriment of virtually everyone who makes their living by creating games.)
A second, less tempestuous example is the original Unreal, also from 1998. Again, first-person shooters had been hugely popular since 1993’s Doom release, and some very fine specimens had been released since then, among them Quake and Quake II or GoldenEye 007 for the console. What did the Unreal developers do to differentiate their game from other FPS? It was in the Cinematology category where the game stood out. At its time, Unreal’s mood and atmosphere was unmatched, notably through its towering outdoor levels. Importantly, and as a word of caution, one should not confuse technological advances with value characteristics. In Unreal, it wasn’t about the Unreal Engine’s graphics capabilities or about the multi-track module files for dynamically-created tracker music. It was about how these technologies were used to create the game’s mood and atmosphere. Since the adaptive music seamlessly adjusted to player action and actual gameplay, it created for the player what can be called “emergent atmosphere,” adding into the game’s overall personality of exploration and survival. That atmosphere was at the heart of this magnificent game, especially in its outdoor levels, nothing of which had been seen before. That was its USP. But again, as with Thief: The Dark Project, the developers didn’t stop there. Unreal’s variety of highly unusual and very distinct AI in the Game Mechanics category was as unmatched at the time as was its arsenal of highly distinct and unusual weapons and weapon controls in the Ludology category. In the Narratology category, it was the only game in our value matrix example from Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix that offered a customizable player character, and it excelled in environmental details and world narrative, also called environmental storytelling, through artifacts and numerous diaries and log files scattered about with personal tales of resistance and defeat.
Unreal was a revolutionary game in its own right. In hindsight, alas, it is overshadowed by Half-Life and Unreal’s stand-alone multiplayer Unreal Tournament, released at the end of the year in 1998 and in 1999, respectively. Both are excellent examples for innovation through differentiation too, but Unreal shouldn’t stand in their shadows.
In both examples, the developers created superb games that made history by doing one thing that had never been done before, Thief: The Dark Project in the Game Mechanics and Unreal in the Cinematology category, and then raised the bar for several other value characteristics in the process, and demoted or dropped other value characteristics in turn as trade-offs. Within the parameters of your constraints, as discussed in Level One: Spawning Ideas, you can do that too. It works with every kind of game, not just AAA games. But if you’re not working on a AAA game, and chances are you don’t, then you should keep it real. A fresh combination of existing values and/or one crisp new value is really all you need.
Otherwise, there are no rules, no recipes, no clever formulas or smart strategies for choosing the best option. And that is a good thing. Because of it, everything depends on your creativity and your imagination.
When you have created your set of value characteristics and decided what to tweak and how to innovate and where to establish your USP, ask yourself the following three questions:
If one or more answers to these questions turn out to be “no,” you need to return to the drawing board. It could be this level or Level Five: Enter the Value Matrix. Or, with some bad luck, Level One: Spawning Ideas. Whatever it is, somewhere along that path you missed something or took a wrong turn.
If you can answer all three questions with an unambiguous “yes,” you’re almost set.
You have to be cautious one last time before wrapping everything up, and you will exercise this caution by double-checking for booby traps. Has a concept with a similar value set or USP been tried before and failed? If so, why? Are there technological obstacles that you underestimate? Is there an element among your value characteristics with known tendencies to create a black hole that will swallow your resources and only Hawking-radiate a few miserly crumbs in return? If nothing terrible turns up during this last step, you’re done. You just won the boss fight and passed the Preparation phase!
Congratulations. You have advanced from a game idea to a game concept with a target audience, a value set, a USP, and a fairly good idea about what it will take to turn that game concept into a game and compete with similar games in the marketplace. With this, you can now exit the Preparation phase and enter the Procedure phase!
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.