Game Dev Tycoon Offers Surprising Insight into Game Development... Especially If You've Pirated It
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
There's a new indie game in the spotlight this week, but it's not there for the reasons you might expect. At first blush, Game Dev Tycoon by two-man team Greenheart Games might seem like a simple clone of Kairosoft's wildly successful Game Dev Story (which is not quite fair, for reasons I'll discuss later) but it's the game's anti-piracy measures that have been turning heads more than the game itself.
This isn't the first time that developers have added entertaining features to their game specifically to punish pirates, but in this case it's the sheer irony that makes it stand out. Pirates of Game Dev Tycoon may not notice any difference in their game at first, but gradually software piracy increases until their studio will inevitably go bankrupt from dwindling prices and insurmountable theft rates. Of course Greenheart Games only tipped their hand on this recently, sharing forum posts from players ironically lamenting the effects of piracy in their games, and even asking if they can research DRM. It's well worth reading Greenheart Games' own post on the subject for a full summary.
However, with so many people talking about Game Dev Tycoon, not many of them are really talking about Game Dev Tycoon. Is it any good? Is it just a Game Dev Story clone? Here are my thoughts:
Is Game Dev Tycoon Just Ripping Off Game Dev Story?
I'm no stranger to Kairosoft games. I've played the hell out of Game Dev Story and many other Kairosoft titles (I've even written about them.) When I first started playing Game Dev Tycoon it did feel uncomfortably similar (even the date/timekeeping format is identical) but honestly that feeling didn't last.
Game Dev Story, like most Kairosoft games, is more about managing people or units to max various stats and make the most efficient and successful team/town/studio/store possible. The actual game development side of Game Dev Story is pretty minimal, other than picking themes, genres, platforms, titles, and assigning your workers to large, general tasks. You have some control during development, but it all pales in comparison to the control available in Game Dev Tycoon.
There are multiple stages of your game's development, and within each stage are categories that you weigh against each other. You may not need a highly developed story for a truck driving sim, but it will be vital for a successful RPG.
As your studio grows you hire specialized employees and assign them to tasks as well. You do research on new topics, peripherals, and techniques like dialogue trees and cutscenes, and build them into your own game engines to add complexity and innovation to your games. You can stay independent or make deals with publishers -- but be aware that publishers expect certain review scores, and there can be harsh penalties if you fail to meet their expectations. You unlock marketing, target audiences, hardware development... And probably much more that I can't speak to, since I unfortunately went bankrupt in year 12. The "Dreamvast" years were hard on us.
Game Dev Tycoon plays like it was made as a reaction to the shallow level of product control available (and the resulting lack of realism) in Game Dev Story, and I think can live with that. It builds on the idea in a very significant way that makes the two games distinct from each other... Even if they could still afford to be just a bit more distinct.
Is It A Good Game?
Personally, I've been enjoying my time with Game Dev Tycoon. It's not perfect, but it should say something that the biggest complaint I can think of is the plainness of the user interface. Okay, they skip several consoles/handhelds, and journalist reviews get very very repetitive, but neither of those are what makes the game entertaining anyway. Deciding what to release and when, what mechanics and features to prioritize, whether or not you want to hook up with a publisher or fly solo, all while building a strong library of titles to dip into later for sequels and reboots... That's what keeps me playing.
This level of personal control is what makes low review scores or sales (or rampant piracy, for the less-than-honest player) so much more frustrating in Tycoon. It's about so much more than just trying to find the best combination of themes and genres for the climate. You know your game was great, you know it should have been a hit, you innovated at every turn, spent millions on engines and groundbreaking tech... But you still got a fucking 5 from Game Hero. Those assholes.
Greenheart Games doesn't shy away from taking clear stances on relevant issues, either. Letting fans of your games create fan works without sending a lawyer after them is greatly rewarded, you can crack down on pirates or take a more relaxed approach. You get an achievement for having a diverse team and, gasp, you can even choose to play a non-white, non-male character yourself. It might seem trivial to some, but that kind of thing is deliberate and it matters.
One thing that both Game Dev Tycoon and Game Dev Story have gotten wrong, however, is that both games have followed real life hardware success and failure quite closely. If you know a minimal amount of gaming history it's easy to lean into the consoles that you know will succeed while sidestepping the flops altogether. It's a charming homage, but it gives you an advantage that a studio in this position just wouldn't have, and limits a lot of the real risk associated with developing games. Invent new consoles whole-cloth, change history, randomize everything from game to game -- just take away my studio head's uncanny psychic gift before she decides to leave for a career on Wall Street.
If you're curious and you'd like to see more, check out part one of this Game Dev Tycoon stream I participated in with Polygon's Phil Kollar and my friend Austin Walker last night. Phil will be playing more Game Dev Tycoon this weekend during his Good Game Marathon benefitting The One Fund for Boston. I'll also be participating in the marathon, but playing some games that are decidedly less... good. Check out the Good Game streaming schedule for the full lineup.
You can get Game Dev Tycoon for a very reasonable $7.99 directly from Greenheart Games... Or you could pirate it, but I've heard that doesn't usually end well.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.