Think Product Not Design

Think Product Not Design

When I interviewed at A Thinking Ape I remember saying “I am a designer” a lot. Often accompanied by “I’m not an analyst” and “I’m not in marketing”. Fortunately for me the interview panel felt I had a decent enough grasp of what I claimed I didn’t know to offer me the Product Lead position. I’m glad they did as the role has pushed my thinking outside of pure design and that has brought incredible benefits.

I want to talk about the fundamental difference between design thinking vs product thinking and give credence to a statement that is true for me and I think a lot of other game makers today: I have made lots of good games, but I’ve made very few good products.

By this I mean that my games have nearly always been fun, but they have not all been commercial successes. A good game is a subset of a good product and, whilst important, you need more than than just great mechanics. This might seem evidentiary when said aloud, but in practice there’s much of the Field of Dreams mentality floating about an industry where plenty build good games and yet repeatedly few ever come to play.

This thinking extrapolates something that I’ve long held true: The games market is a meritocracy where the best are rewarded. However merit extends beyond the game and looks towards a whole list of considerations. A great game product is produced with long consideration of the four Ms of product:

  • Mechanics: Good mechanics are core to making a good experience, but have varying weight dependent on the business model and marketing strength. For a F2P game the mechanics are essential to a title’s success as that alone drives sells, whilst paid movie tie-in have a very low need for good mechanics as the draw of the license is the largest driver of sells.
  • Monetization: Dependent on your model this can be as simple as setting the price of your game or as complex as an entire economy with multiple resources, random drops and pinch points that requires deep analysis and modelling. If it’s wrong then revenue will be heavily impacted.
  • Marketing: Marketing has long been considered antagonistic to good design, but it is probably the single most important aspect of a game’s development and can’t simply be tacked on to the end. Without asking yourself honestly “why would someone play this game?” and “how do I get them to see it?” over and over you’re leaving it to very long odds that you get it right.
  • Management: Working back from how much you expect to earn from your product over a lifetime and when you need to be in the market by you can extrapolate and manage your resources to make this work. If the time and money doesn’t add up then you need to go back to rethink everything else. Additionally you need to be on top of the culture and working relationships in your team because if that isn’t healthy then everything else will fall down.

I can point to very specific times in my past where I have made great games that have been commercial flops. Where getting caught up in the quality of the game mechanics, I ignored how we were ever going to get it done on time, on budget and sell it in to a market to make enough money to break even let alone profit.

Specifically, my first ever mobile game was B-Boy Beats for iOS and was a superbly fun and incredibly inventive rhythm action game where you breakdance with your fingers. I was certain that it was going to shoot straight to number one. However, nobody had really stopped and thought about how. I never stopped to think: “Is this game too hard for casual players?”, “what’s the business model?”, “do people know what a b-boy is?” and “how big is the market going to be for a breakdancing game where all the music is obscure nerdcore hip hop artists most of whom have already split due to abject commercial failure?”

Had we stopped congratulating ourselves, thought about the product, changed the theming to something less obscure and gotten some artists with commercial traction on board we could have possibly beaten out Tap Tap Revenge in the market. After all, our game was better.

Having one, or even two people product thinking is good. Having your whole team product thinking will mean that they’re forever making trade offs in the best interest of the commercial outcome of the product rather than just in the interest of the fun of the game.

The games market is deterministic if forever moving. If you make sound and accurate decisions based on rigorously challenged assumptions in all aspects with the right weighting and trade offs your success is guaranteed, however doing so is a large and daunting undertaking where mistakes are likely and often deadly.

This is why it’s comforting to consider product success as luck, however in doing so it’s all to simple to withdraw yourself from the equation and ignore that through hard work you can significantly increase your chances of success.