Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

8 July, 2012

You can copy the steps and still not copy the success
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:59 AM

There’s a tendency for people to want to boil things down to the very essence. We don’t want to deeply analyze an issue and figure out all the complexity, we want to find the one magic element that we can use to understand and/or fix the issue. When facing a problem, we want a magic bullet or miracle pill that solves the problem. When analyzing success, we tend to want to believe that it was something simple that we can copy to duplicate that success.

As any experienced game designer knows, humans are terrific at matching patterns. Unfortunately, that also means that humans are terrific at creating false matches for patterns as well. Often the patterns we find, especially when analyzing something as complex as success in game development and business, tend to not be as simple as we first think. Trying to analyze success often results in more confusion than enlightenment.

Hindsight can still be nearsighted

Despite the adage we see printed in investment material, people like to believe that past performance is indicative of the future results. We look at the past to try to analyze success to replicate it. But, sometimes we analyze what we want to see and what we feel is important rather than really getting to what lead to success.

I read a really good article on Chrono Trigger‘s Design Secrets. I think it’s a great read and an interesting analysis. Given the game’s legendary status and great story, it makes sense to analyze it to figure out how to duplicate that in a newly created game. While I enjoyed the article, I hesitate to recommend anyone use it as a pattern for how to make a successful game. Right in the article you see contradictions in what the author claims makes it great.

For example, the article praises Chrono Trigger‘s easy world exploration. Compared to other games of the era, Chrono Trigger allowed you to explore the world unmolested by random combat encounters. The article points out that in many games random encounters have variable difficulty without notice, so you could wander into an area where you could be smacked down hard for walking across an invisible line. Also, a high level party wouldn’t have to suffer through trivial encounters when re-visiting earlier areas. Seems reasonable at first glance. But, then the article goes on to talk about how Chrono Trigger‘s dungeons must be done in a certain order, and they use monster difficulty to encourage the player to find a dungeon of appropriate difficulty. So, harder monsters in the overland map to hinder player is frustrating, but in dungeons it’s clever design?

Of course, you can point to later cherished games that demonstrate that random encounters don’t prevent success, even in a story-focused game like Final Fantasy VII. I’m sure if you dig far enough, you can find a game that uses an encounter system similar to Chrono Trigger that wasn’t as successful; the problem is that unsuccessful games don’t often get the attention of the successful ones, so finding counter-examples can be difficult. But I think it’s fair to ask how much impact did this design decision have on the success of the game?

Now, it’s clear that this article doesn’t say “copy this and you’ll have success”. But, such an analysis is usually done with an eye to how these lessons apply to more modern design. While it makes for interesting reading, taking one particular element like this from a game and trying to learn lessons from it can be tricky. In reality, the success of Chrono Trigger came from many sources, and while the encounter design might not be a major factor, it could contribute to the overall appeal of the game. But, it’s hard to tell.

Being an outsider is a disadvantage

The other problem here is that you have a someone guessing at what the intent of the orignial developers was. Did the original Chrono Trigger designers intend for monsters to only be in dungeons? For all we know the monsters might have been left out due to time or resource constraints, not as part of some master plan. It’s also hard to say definitively if this feature really made a difference in the game, particularly in the context of the time when it was released. The author could also be impressing her own preferences for games and holding this up as a pivotal design decision because that’s what she happens to prefer. As I point out, this feature doesn’t seem to be particularly required to tell a moving story in an RPG. Without knowing what the original designers intended, it can be harder to understand the design decisions in order to learn lessons from a game.

Plans may be different when told after the fact

But, even if you’re on the inside it can be hard to determine what made your project a success. As I’ve seen first-hand from working on Storybricks, when you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, it is very hard to create exacting plans. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes sense to do with the resources at hand. When you’re in a high pressure situation, you often don’t have time for methodical plans. Afterward you might like to pretend you had a plan; it makes for a pretty unfulfilling story if you say, “I dunno. We just kinda did stuff. It worked, I guess.” Plus, when you write the book later to cash in on people who want to duplicate your success, you want to say something that sounds plausible. ;)

And, as I said before, it might be a combination of factors that lead to success. Let’s say that someone says “X is the way to success!” If you did X and didn’t succeed, then your failure could be blamed on something else that happened or you did.. If you point out that someone else didn’t do X and succeeded anyway, it’s easy to point out that there isn’t just one path to success. So, it’s hard to prove or disprove if doing X really does lead to success, or if the original person who did that was successful despite it.

I was talking with my friend Dave “Over00″ Toulouse about this. He quoted me in a recent blog entry:

People rarely understand what made them successful. And, people on the outside VERY rarely understand what made someone successful.

I think that’s the truth. People can make guesses, or people can explain what they think leads to success, but being able to duplicate that success isn’t easy. If it were easy to replicate success, people would do it more often and more consistently. I think it’s especially wrong-headed to write up a “list of things that will make you successful” as Dave is ranting about in that post.

So, what’s the point? Can success be planned?

As I’ve said before, success isn’t entirely random, but luck does play a non-trivial role in a lot of success. I don’t think the path to success is something you can boil down to a simple element. There’s no magic bullet that if you do it you will be successful; and on the flipside, there’s no one thing that will guarantee failure. There are often a lot of smaller elements that lead to success or failure. But, it’s in our nature to want to pretend we can boil things down to something simple.

So, are lists of things to do pointless? Not exactly. A lot of times some of the elements might strongly imply other parts. Like if someone says to “consider marketing early for your project”, this means that you should be making plans. Just thinking, “Yeah, I should do marketing… later” when you begin your project doesn’t help. But, how to do proper marketing is a deep subject that I’ll freely admit I haven’t learned to do well yet, either. Sometimes it can be useful to read these lists as a reality check for your own plans, but not something you need to slavishly follow.

What do you think? Are lists totally useless, mostly useless, or are there often useful tidbits in there for you to follow?

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  1. I think success or failure on this field is not much different from any other product targeted to the masses.
    Technical quality, originality, good gameplay and all other positive traits that would make the critics give highly favorable reviews don’t necessarily trigger a success. If anything, they could guarantee a niche cult game.
    Once and again we see surprisingly mediocre games hitting the jackpot while offering nothing new, or nothing particularly remarkable. It’s not hard to mentally enumerate several of these odd-success games.
    Sometimes a game is released with little expectation, and it becomes into a huge success. Some other times a lot of effort is invested into a game, and the game flops, only to become a recurrent entry on those “Terribly underrated games” lists.

    The reason, I believe, is that “the mass” is not an intelligent creature. It moves with trends, and it also pays attention to countless minor details that make for them a big deal, and so it’s almost impossible to predict what it’s going to be of its liking.
    For example, would you think that Farmville would have been successful had it not been released with the social features for showing off to your friends?
    Farmville has got more than $600 million profits for their developers. When you compare that figure with what the actual game is, from a developer’s point of view, you can’t but pull your hair and crouch in fetal position in a corner trying to understand why. That… “thing” is not even a proper game, but a cute-looking ToDo list of repeatable virtual tasks and a store. And yet it is horribly successful.

    Without intending to sound sexist, maybe the success relies on targeting an undertargeted audience: women. There are thousands of games that, while not actively targeted for males, are rarely appealing to females. But this would be only one droplet in the ocean. We could write a thesis and get a Ph.D. by researching what makes a game appealing to females, and still it wouldn’t guarantee that the game is going to be a success overall.
    Like Economics, that are good at predicting the past, we can be really good at saying why game X succeedED or failED; at predicting the past. We will never be good at predicting the future because, as you said, maybe our “predictions of the past” aren’t really hitting the reason why they succeeded. And also, nothing guarantees that what worked in the past will work in the future, because the environment (the audience) changes continuously.
    It almost feels like Chaos theory, were very little changes lead to hugely different outcomes. Look at Crush The Castle and Angry Birds. They came out mostly at the same time, both games being virtually identical. Difference? One uses medieval aesthetics and the other uses cutesy ones. Something that could probably be 1% of the total development effort. Maybe that was the reason why Angry Birds succeeded? Maybe was the mobililty and touch interface? Maybe the fact that someone would find charming that some “Rose has beaten Patrick at Angry Birds, stage 54″ messages would be shown to everyone in their Facebook walls?
    Actually, we will never know which of these were the reason, because we can’t prove any of the conclusions we may reach. We can’t travel back in time and remove cute graphics from Angry Birds and check that, indeed, it doesn’t succeed.
    We can just prospect different directions at the same time and hope that one of them hits a vein of success. I can’t but see Valve’s Orange Box as an example of this. That bundle came with the newest Half Life episode (the biggest name in the bundle), the new Team Fortress 2 (a title that spawned from a Quake 1 mod, and took nearly 11 years to materialize), and a little experimental game based on and indie proof of concept called Portal. Well, now we can see that after that, no more Half Life episodes have been released, Team Fortress has become a relative success (but lower than expected), and Portal has reached the stars.
    I think sometimes it’s just easier to attempt to release many different smaller inexpensive projects and hope that at least one of those gets enough critical mass playerbase to develop a proper AAA sequel. That’s what it seems to have worked recently.

    Or maybe this is just another misprediction of the past.

    Comment by Azrapse — 9 July, 2012 @ 10:36 PM

  2. True to Design: What I’m Reading

    [...] You can copy the steps and still not copy the success : [...]

    Pingback by Managing the Game — 30 July, 2012 @ 7:42 AM

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