There are a lot of different simulation games out there that have the player start off as a small business and rise to the top. These “Tycoon” games come in all shapes and sizes, from the high profile Sim City series to the legion of free tycoon games that make up much of Addicting Games’ arsenal. Yet a notable exception from this series of games that range from building one’s own amusement park to cornering the market with your lemonade stand is the games industry itself. Sure, Game Dev Story came out last year, but it was merely an app for the Android/iPhone, and it didn’t have the depth and complexity that one has come to expect from the genre. Enter Greenheart Games, an indie game developer that’s decided to corner the market on games that allow you to corner the games market. It’s already been released on the Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms, and will inevitably be on Steam shortly. But does it deserve a 10/10, or were some aspects rushed in production that hold it back from it’s true potential? Let’s take a look.
Game Dev Tycoon
First, it’s important to note that the game looks very nice. The graphics aren’t anything fancy, but they don’t have to be. The cartoony design is more than enough to get the job done. Art assets used aren’t anything fancy (there’s very little animation in the game, and most of it consists of your game designers scratching their heads and typing away), but they use a wide range of colours to help make the game pop. And the parodies of the game systems that have come out are quite clever.
Yes, you read that correctly. You start the game as a single game designer stuck in your parent’s garage (a place we are informed is the starting place for a ton of successful companies, apparently) about thirty years ago in the game industry. At the beginning, the only consoles available are the PC and the “G64″ made by a company called “Govodore”. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious to see to what they’re referring, but it’s a nice touch to see some companies you know and love (“Ninvento’s” arcade title “Dinkey King” was my personal favourite) enter this world while also touching on that good ol’ nostalgia. Because really, who doesn’t wish they could have developed a game for the Super Nintendo? Sadly, you’re not going to see every console that’s been made (Atari and Sega Jaguar are notable exceptions), so I wouldn’t really recommend this as a full piece of gaming history, but what is presented definitely adds to the experience.
Shooter? RPG? Puzzle? You choose.
Obviously, the central mechanic of Game Dev Tycoon is to make and sell games. I know; I was shocked too when I first heard. This is easily the most fun aspect of the game. You begin by picking a genre (Action, Adventure, Casual, RPG, Strategy, or Simulation), topic (anything from Sports to Ninjas to Horror to Vocabulary), and giving it a name. As you progress through the game, you’ll unlock different research options that will give you access to new topics, create your own game engine, determine a target audience for your game, and pick the level of graphics you want to use. While the creator does allow for a wide range of options, I can’t help but think about what isn’t there. Those six genres I listed are the only genres in the game; if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably named at least five genres that they didn’t include (most obvious: shooter). The topics are broad, but you can only pick one, so if, say, you want a post-apocalyptic military shooter in which you fight against zombies…well, you’re out of luck. Given how well certain topics go together (Alien and Horror, Vocabulary and School, Hospital and Surgery etc.), it’s quite odd that they never allow you to use more than one topic at a time.
Nevertheless, once you’ve named and given broad parameters to your game, it’s time to get to work. Development is broken down into three phases. In each phase, you’re given three options in which you can choose to focus your time and energy. Some of these choices (Gameplay, Engine, Artificial Intelligence) are technology based skills. Others (Level Design, Story/Quests, Dialogue) are more design oriented. And in the final stage (Graphics, Sound, World Design), you need a bit of both. The more time and attention you spend on each of these nine things greatly affects the final product, and the key is to focus on the things that are most important to your game. For example, a strategy game focuses more on gameplay and artificial intelligence than the story and dialogue, so you would want to spend more time in those areas; meanwhile, an RPG requires heavy emphasis on the quests and level design, while the engine and AI aren’t as useful. You can’t ignore any of these traits if you want a good game, but figuring out what you should emphasize in each is key to making your games the best they can be.
During these phases, you accumulate four things: bugs, design points, tech points, and research points. Design and tech points are what will largely determine the quality of your game; assuming you’re up to date with your research and features, and have dedicated your time to the right areas, more points ensure the end result will be more successful. Research points can be used to research new technologies that can further improve your game engine once you’ve made one (like cutscenes, mod support, and surround sound). Bugs are evil things that work their way into the game while you’re developing it. If you don’t want to be critically panned, you’ll have to wait until all the bugs are removed until you can release the game. It’s very rewarding watching these points accumulate over time, and when your team gets bigger in later stages of the game, the number of points you can accumulate is pretty incredible.
Once your game is released, the game gives you scores based on how well you did. This is easily the most exciting part of the game, as watching those numbers flick back and forth wondering what critics will think of your game is quite exhilarating. It’s nearly impossible not to fist pump when you get a slew of nearly perfect scores, or to avoid cringing when a game you hoped would succeed bombs horribly. It just feels right.
Charts and stats
Unfortunately, these scores are also the perfect example of the worst part of the game: its failure to give proper feedback to the player whenever they do something right or wrong. Often, players get bonuses by making games that have good combinations within their topic and genre choice, but there’s no way of knowing what does and does not grant bonuses. Whoever it was at Greenheart Games that decided “Alien” and “Strategy” wasn’t a good combination clearly needs to play more X-Com. Worse still is the “trends” system, in which at random points in the game, certain genres or topics become popular. However, the window in which one can take advantage of these opportunities is so small that you can’t really plan for them. If you’re already developing a game when the new trend is announced, you can forget it, as you simply don’t have enough time to release the next game before the trend disappears. One would think that there would be a research option to discover what combinations are popular (something like market testing), but it never appears.
I know that Tycoon games are not meant to spell everything out for the player, but I can almost assure you that you will fail your first few times through the game simply because you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. For example, early on, Ninvento releases the Gameling, a portable device that perfectly resembles the GameBoy. For a while, it has the largest market share by far, so you want to release as many games for it as you can, right? Well, not if you want to make anything outside of games for kids. No matter how good your game is, if its not intended for younger audiences, it won’t sell well. Your only hint that you screwed up is the game telling you that that particular genre isn’t what the fan base is interested in. But since that could be referring to anything (topic, genre of game, etc.), it really is trial and error to get it right, and it shouldn’t be.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the progression through the game. Once you make your first million dollars (one big hit will do it), you’re able to move into a new office, hire new employees, and start making medium sized games. Once you get a staff of five, you can make large games and move to an even bigger office, where you can eventually create R&D Departments and develop your own console. The good news is that these jumps in size create a very nice pace within the game, teaching you the basic mechanics and adding more later on in a logical way. The difficulty increases as the player increases in skill, which is quite rewarding. Of course, the game never tells you how many fans you need to actually self-publish a game of a certain size until you’ve already hit that level or wasted your money on a game sure to fail. Not that I’m bitter or anything (I’ll miss you, Drunk Bunny, Inc.).
There are more mechanics present, but those mechanics are rather self-explanatory once you get into the game, and don’t offer enough depth to deserve critical analysis.
An indie game that lets feel AAA
At the end of the day, Game Dev Tycoon is still a very good first outing by Greenheart Games despite all of the mixed things I had to say about it. It dumps you into the world of game development and allows you to work your way from the ground up to create a gaming powerhouse. Yes, I wish topic selection was more robust, genre selection was more varied, and that you could actually see other game companies being formed around you and their successes (you get almost no perspective on what’s going on in the rest of the gaming world outside of console development), but these limits are understandable given its an indie studio that’s never done anything like this before. Since it’s only $7.99, I don’t expect as much from it in these regards, though I definitely hope more depth is added to any future outings they may have in the genre. That said, not every mistake is so easily forgivable. The trial-and-error nature of the game may be desirable for some, but I definitely felt cheated at times as I failed without having any perspective as to why what I did didn’t work and was a bad idea to begin with.
Still, I can tell you from the 10+ hours I’ve already invested in this relatively simple game that it’s worth checking out and seeing for yourself. Again, it’s a whole 8 bucks. What else were you going to do with that money? Is it better than making a game for Ninvento’s Super TES? I don’t think so.
- Final Verdict: 8/10
- Pros: Game developing feels rewarding. Review scores and nice nods to nostalgia. Very natural progression into later stages of the game.
- Cons: Not as deep as it could be. Doesn’t provide as much information as it should, relies on trial-and-error mechanics