Why you should use Minimum Viable Product game production

The term Minimum Viable Product (MVP) has recently come to be used in the world of video game production but what does it mean and how can it benefit our games and the gamers themselves, including how to get the feedback you need.

The phrase Minimum Viable Product is a product development and release methodology pioneered by Eric Ries as part of a long series about Lean Startup companies. Its main tenet is the development and early release of only the core of your product, allowing the marketplace to vet and feedback on its pros and cons. While the developer still has a roadmap of their own, risk is mitigated as feature feature has an already receptive audience and the product offering more tightly focused when the core is released early and iterated upon often, in response to real customer feedback.

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Rapid Iteration

The Minimum Viable Product is dependant on rapid feedback loops and is quicker these are the more successful the iterations will be.

This approach is wide spread on web-sites and browser games where the game is effectively re-downloaded every time the game is launched, it’s been used to great effect on games for iPhone to produce some great experiences.

While it is possible to take on this approach for traditional console games, their closed nature and long approval and release cycles can make the feedback loop a very long process and therefore seem disconnected from the community.

Get Feedback

Of course, connecting and interacting with the community around your game is absolutely essential and is likely to require specific community management staff to be successful. I have been fortunate to work with a great community manager and I have witnessed what a real difference this can make, this is a skill that is not to be under-estimated.

You will need to offer simple opportunities for your audience to feedback. It has to be trivial and caught at key moments to gain the most valuable information. The closer the feedback loop is to the game, the easier it is for the player.

As a minimum consider simple 5 star systems in the game, like iTunes or eBay as they’re easy and trivial for players to give you a rating. Maybe even some pre-defined phrases that help them communicate feelings such as “Happy”, “Great”, “Slow”, “Dull”, “Exciting” or “More!”. Try and give the player an opportunity for extended feedback via a short text box and maybe hook them up with a backend web-site if possible.

When to get feedback

Consider collecting feedback at key points in the game such as when a player has finished all of the levels, tried a new character, tried a new download pack, experienced some user generated content or even uninstalled the game.

Social Media – connect outside the game

Connecting with your audience via social media warrants an article in itself but I’ll cover some basics here.

The old style way of interacting with “consumers” was to wait for them to discover some forums you had lurking around somewhere, on a discretely hosted web-site hoping they stumbled across them. Such forums still have a valuable role and can gain some feedback that you really need to know. A certain amount of “know how” is required to use the forums and they typically contain dedicated gamers used to giving feedback in this area.

The more modern way is to go to your audience on social media sites and connect there. Good examples include [blippr]Facebook[/blippr] Fan pages and [blippr]Twitter[/blippr] streams where people are likely to be sharing feedback about your game anyway and you need to be there, especially if you’re doing Minimum Viable Product production and need to iterate your game.

Metrics

You can take advantage of a connected game by collecting hidden metrics within your game and reporting them back to a central repository, either in real-time or caching them to be sent when it’s convenient.

Collect data from areas such as level start, level completion, game mode selection, use of the abort/quit game, lives lost, time played, etc. etc.

Analysis of global system metrics such as Achievements, Trophies or similar can be used to discover how successful some areas of your game have been. How many people have finished the game in under 5hrs? How many people have collected all of the cars? How many people have played level 1? How many people have booted your game (includes rentals and re-sales)?

It’s possible and advisable to engineer some of your achievements / trophies to bring this information to you automatically without the need to write your own systems.

All of this is valuable information you can gain without asking the player specifically for it.

Use It!

Of course you need to use the information from you’ve worked so hard to collect or the whole process is pointless!

Quit Early

A Minimum Viable Product also allows for game ideas to be released into the market to see how it responds, truly weak ideas can be abandoned early and the developer can move onto something likely to be more successful. It’s better to remove these failed attempts rather than leave them hanging around unattended.

Of course, this isn’t an excuse for releasing poorly thought out and dull games with a “throw enough mud at the wall and see what sticks” approach as your reputation is attached to each connection you make with your audience. The last thing you want is to be known for releasing a stream of half-baked ideas.

Rapid Prototyping

I would say that the Minimum Viable Product concept has been used by many game developers for internal concepts and prototypes under the banner “Rapid Prototyping”  where ideas are taken far enough to demonstrate before a decision is made to change or abandon games at review meetings during its lifetime,

Summary

The development approach of rapidly incorporating feedback from your audience is here to stay and the Minimum Viable Product concept suits this well. Consider using it where possible in your game life cycle for maximum success.

Further Reading

Minimum Viable Product – Wikipedia definition

Eric Ries – Eric’s website with lots of great information

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