Game Dev Tycoon review
Game Dev / Simulation is a great combination
Considering that every man and his dog considers himself to be an authority on game design these days, I’m frankly astounded that a studio didn’t jump on the idea of a development sim sooner. Just about every gamer fantasizes about working in the industry at some point, so a game which presents an idyllic version of said industry and tests our knowledge of game development sounds like easy money. Greenheart’s Game Dev Tycoon is the closest most of us will ever get to actually creating video games, and aside from the novelty of its concept, it also provides an enjoyable and addictive experience. Yet its chief frustration lies in being over-simplified, not affording you enough control over the games you develop, and failing to capitalise on its own potential for hardcore perfectionists to agonise over every little detail in the development process. It’s a competent game from a first time developer, however, which remains enjoyable despite setting the bar a little too low.
At the start of Game Dev Tycoon you create a start-up video game company in the early 1980’s. Beginning with modest funds to sink into your first title, you select a genre, a topic and a platform; during development you then have various options as to how to prioritise your time and which areas of your game to focus on, ranging from graphics and sound to quests and level design. On completion, you release your game, read critics’ reviews, and watch the sales figures roll in. Rinse and repeat. While your options are fairly limited at the outset, time and success bring new options and improving technology, as well as the ability to branch out, develop custom engines and expand your staff. At first look, the game gives you a satisfying amount of customisability over the games you release. While genre/topic combinations are constrained, in practice, by what works – most gamers will realise from the outset that some combinations are always going to work better than others – your creativity is only limited by your imagination. So while it might be safer to stick to medieval RPGs and racing simulators, if you really want to pioneer the pirate sports or vampire sim genres, you can go for your life. Of course, particularly at the outset, your company’s survival depends on sales, so there are always pragmatic issues to consider.
One of the game’s main strengths lies in its historical accuracy. Initially your platform choice is limited to PC and Commodore 64 (sorry, ‘G64’), but as the years go by new platforms and technologies emerge in accordance with the actual history of the industry. Of course, this also affords gamers familiar with this history a somewhat unrealistic advantage – you might, for instance, be inclined to invest in a license for the new ‘Ninvento’ console despite critics’ scepticism – but it’s great to be at the helm of a company and release games across the entire course of the industry. If anything, Game Dev Tycoon doesn’t play this card strongly enough, only allowing you to choose how many years your game lasts and not how quickly you progress. Consequently the years seem to fly by, and you only get a chance to release a handful of games for a platform before it becomes obsolete and taken off the market. Realistic, perhaps, but this is one respect in which I’d prefer my games to deviate from reality.
Given how much the dev sim concept was always going to appeal to hardcore gamers, I’m surprised that Greenheart opted for a more casual approach, and the downside of the gameplay is its tendency to simplify the development process rather than making it more realistic. Once again, on the surface you appear to have a great amount of control over the content of your games; after picking your genre/topic combination and platform, you’re given added options throughout the game such as target audience, game size, and how heavily to market it. Depending on how heavily you’ve invested in researching cutting edge technology, you can also decide on whether to use 2D or 3D graphics, mono or stereo sound, whether to make your game open world, and so forth. Combined with a huge number of available genre/topic matches, the possibilities aren’t quite endless, but there are certainly more than the average gamer will ever get around to trying.
But once you become familiar with the mechanics of development, you quickly become frustrated by how unrealistic it can seem, as well as how much seems to be left to chance. In choosing which areas of development to focus on, you’re presented with a series of bar graphs that represent the relative amount of time you wish to invest in three different areas. Usually this is fairly straightforward – prioritise quests for RPGs, world design for adventure, etc. – but it becomes more complicated when you ponder, for instance, what ‘level design’ actually refers to in an open world game, or why graphics seem to be more important than sound in particular genres when they both ought to be pretty important. Many combinations work despite making no intuitive sense, so much so that a good part of the game becomes trial and error rather than calculated decision-making.
Furthermore, though you’re given rudimentary information on how well a game sells, there’s no breakdown of the effect of marketing, your existing fanbase, and how well individual design choices have been received, on your game’s reception. Did your decision to opt for high quality, 2D graphics rather than low quality, 3D graphics pay off? You’re left guessing. Certainly it seems like including all the bells and whistles will only have a positive effect on your game, no matter how irrelevant (celebrity voice acting in a casual, puzzle game? Why the hell not!). Once again, perhaps this is a snide commentary on the nature of modern game design, but it removes any feel that your choices are actually having any real consequence, at least beyond ‘more’ equals ‘better’.
Likewise, it doesn’t help that critics’ reviews are simply a score out of 10 with a single line of accompanying text (“6 – Ok”, “9 – Loved it”), giving you very little insight into what you did right or wrong. The best you can hope for is a non-specific comment about how suitable a given platform is for a particular topic. While these reviews invariably correlate with how well your game sells, they’re frequently inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary (again – perhaps this is a reflection of reality). And probably the least effective aspects are the stat-based RPG elements that determine the experience you gain while you design your games, as well as the competence levels of your employees. Each time you release a gem, you’re presented with a screen that rewards you with XP towards levelling up in each design area (e.g. Graphics – Level 1, Sound – Level 2). Again, it’s never clear just how (or whether) this affects game development. Indeed, beyond an ill-defined ‘design’ and ‘technology’ score and the aforementioned critics ratings, there’s no objective measure of how good your game is. And while your employees’ skill levels give you some indication of how they improve over time, it’s difficult to keep track of which employees are good at what. It just seems like a half-baked attempt to needlessly overcomplicate the game.
And that’s probably why Game Dev Tycoon isn’t as good as it could be; it occupies an awkward space between the accessibility of casual games and the information overload of high-end management sims. I appreciate that the casual approach might widen the target audience, and how crucial this is for a first time developer, but considering that the development process is the only real source of gameplay, limiting the player’s control over it was always going to set an upper limit on the fun. Either opting entirely for the casual approach, or the hardcore approach, would probably have resulted in a more enjoyable game. Perhaps Greenheart just bit off more than they could chew.
Conclusion: In the game’s own terms, the genre and target audience for Game Dev Tycoon seem like a match made in heaven. Overall it’s a generally solid game from a brand new developer, and I’ve seen enough potential here to convince me that, if Maxis were to buy the rights to Game Dev Tycoon 2 and built on these foundations by allowing more control over the development process, and providing more information on which to base your decisions, the game would be a smash hit. Until then, however, this is the best we’re going to get, and while it’s an enjoyable title that allows gamers to play out their professional aspirations and fantasies to a certain extent, it doesn’t quite hit the spot.
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