Merely saying “analytics” causes some indie developers to recoil. For others it conjures up a nightmare of services and analysts far beyond the scope of a small team. While true that much of what I’ll call non-creative game design involves using data to predictably cause player behavior, data itself is not inherently evil. In “Understanding your game through data” author Sergey Galyonkin offers an in-depth look at how to put data to work in your game design. I recommend reading it but if you need a little more convincing, read on.
To hopefully assuage any remaining fears, Galyonkin notes up front his discussion focuses on indie game design, not free-to-play optimization. From there the article gets down into practical applications of data in the development process to which I think every game designer can relate. These cover all three phases of a game’s lifespan: preproduction, active development, and postlaunch.
Preproduction: Synchronizing Your Creative Vision with Players
Yes, data plays an important part in preproduction. If it helps to think of it as research then do that but whatever you call it, the concept comes down to figuring out how to get the creative vision of your game in sync with your players. Without getting to far down the philosophical rabbit hole, one of the chief challenges any medium faces comes from the disconnect between the intention of the creator and the interpretation of the audience. Besides recognizing this, steps can be taken to give yourself meaningful guidance on how to get your vision across. Gather intelligence on similarly themed content in other media, play games that share elements of your mechanics, and then assess how the audience reacted in these cases to gain understanding for what you face.
For a small team play testing poses a daunting task. Don’t let that be an excuse not to do it. During development you hold the opportunity to respond to those places that aren’t connecting the intended way before everyone plays your game. This covers everything too, from the high concept level to basic player interactions. Questions to observe include how closely does my intended art direction match the atmosphere players perceive? Where do my game loops lose the player? And how easy is it for the player to understand how to play the game.
Great Design Continues After Launch
After launch attention turns to the data elements most commonly thought of when game analytics gets talked about. That makes them no less useful to good game design. If a tool is powerful enough to get people to spend money, imagine how productive it can be helping achieve the vision for your game design. Instead watching player behavior to determine where to monetize them, you can equally well use that data to get them to the amazing special item that no one seems to be finding. Your game doesn’t have to be PvP to reap the benefits of data to better enable every player to have fun.
Yes, that’s an awful lot to digest and incorporate into your development process if you haven’t before. Don’t let that dissuade you. As game developers you make tradeoff decisions all the time. Try approaching this the same way. You know your game. Think about it analytically and bring as much of these practices into your project as you can within reasonable limits. Good luck; have fun :D
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