We have a hundred ideas for games but we're only two full time people here at Focused Apps. So how do we choose what to work on next? What ideas do we spend time prototyping, and which projects do we push forward to market? We developed our own 'points out of ten' scoring system called the 'FAM' score. FAM stands for Fun, Ability (our ability to produce and sell the game), and Market (which includes monetization). We award0 to 3 points in each category: 0=bad; 1=OK; 2=good; 3=fantastic, leaving 1 bonus point to add if we think there's some factor so super awesome it deserves another point.
The greatest of these three is Fun. For app store games, no awesome monetization scheme or ad campaign will make up for a lame game. We're aiming more towards casual games than hard core, for a broad market, for free-to-play, and we are consciously designing for iPhones: pocket sized, touch screen, connected, short pick-up-and-play gaming sessions. So things we consider for Fun include
- Easy to learn / can the tutorial be integrated and very short, or none at all?
- In the first 20s of play, can someone figure out what to do and start having fun?
- Is there always something to do?
- Is it too frustrating to lose?
- Would you play it on the bus?
- Are the controls intuitive? Do they replicate a real world action? Is there a rhythm to the controls?
- Hard to master?
- Natural Flow - does gameplay difficulty adapt to player’s skill level?
- Are there challenges that require some skill?
- Is there interesting / surprising / funny stuff to discover?
- Is there uncertainty / chance? I.e. do some things the player does have unpredictable outcomes. = more endorphins.
- Is there easily attained progress? Is there a 'progress checklist'?
- Is there a reason to come back for just one more try?
- Does the game align with common fantasy & basic human drives? E.g. becoming rich, famous, popular, loved, laid, being great at a sport or your team winning, nurturing, driving really fast, flying, being a hero, showing off, ...
- Are there cute puppies? Sexy women? Sexy men? Sexy cars, ...?
- Is it nostalgic?
- Will you want to talk to your friends about it?
- Will you want to play with or against your friends?
- Will you want to play with or against strangers on the internet?
- When we show someone the prototype, can they play it without instruction?
- When showing the prototype to an adult, do they actually play or just talk about it and then change the subject?
- When showing the prototype to a child, do they keep playing or do they quit and switch to a different appas soon as you turn your back?
Real programmers ship. Real publishers sell. Given our strengths and weaknesses, some projects are going to be easier for us to ship and sell, and that’s what the Ability score is about. A huge part of the reason to be self employed is to do what you love, and to be motivated as a self employed person you've got to love it. It follows then that in order to ship, we only work on projects that we are really excited about. Things we consider for Ability include:
- How excited are we to work in this?
- How big is the project? Smaller projects ship more easily.
- Can it make sense to release a minimum viable product and keep updating it as we build audience and tune fun and monetization?
- Are we artistically capable? Can we produce the game art, can we buy it, or can we hire artists to produce it under our direction?
- What is the balance between programed content (our strength) and artwork content (our weakness).
- Will we have to design all the levels / game world by hand? Can we generate levels with code?
- If we publish this, will we be proud of it or ashamed?
This is a business. It’s our job. We want to make money by entertaining people. We don't imagine ourselves to be artists, and we really want to avoid the 'starving' part of that dream. We think about the game as a sales funnel, about how the game’s name, icon, screen-shots, first play experience, continued play, will all propel players towards becoming paying customers and advocates for the game. To succeed financially we want good conversion at as many levels as we can, and perhaps more importantly, we want to be able to measure conversion and improve over time. Things we consider for Market:
- How broadly will the appeal of the game be, is it mass market?
- Are people searching for title words?
- Will people recognize something from the name and icon (before they specifically know about the game) to imagine that they might like it? I.e. how well will the game's listing perform? This is a concept we call 'swimmable', as in, 'how strongly will the app swim by itself in the sea of the app store?'.
- Does the concept have international appeal? Is it going to be stronger in some countries’ app stores than others?
- Will the screen shots look cool?
- Will the game seem familiar enough that players will imagine playing it from seeing a screen shot?
- Will the game make a story for the press? Is there a way to market the game to the online games press?
- Is there something new or unique about the game?
- Might Apple like the game and promote it?
- Will the concept appeal to the same kinds of people that are playing our other games? Can we do co-marketing deals with other games who do have our target audience?
- Can we come up with well performing ads for the game? Can we design compelling promotions for the game?
- Will players want to promote the game to their friends? Is it social or viral?
- Is the name memorable, easily pronounced and spelled?
- What In App Purchases will we put in the game?
- Are there multiple price points for IAPs?
- What power ups could we have?
- What wearables / vanity items could we have, and is the game social enough to justify that?
- Can we sell levels packs, new characters, new play environments?
- Is there a content pipeline of IAPs (that we are capable of sustaining)?
- Is there any user generated content?
- Are gameplay & screen layouts suitable for banner or full screen ads?
- Is there a niche that will fit a sponsor?
- What will the games age rating be?
- Is there anything that might be an App Store approval risk?
- Is there a natural progression to episode 2 of the game, or a spin off, or can we lead players into a 2nd game from this that has deeper engagement and more things to sell them?
We've now released two games. Hit Tennis 2 and Santa's Lil Zombies. Hit Tennis 2 is doing well for us, and Santa's Lil Zombies makes no money at all. Our FAM score for Hit Tennis is 7 (Fun 2, Ability 2, Market 3), and Santa's Lil Zombies scored 4 (Fun 1, Ability 2, Market 1). Both of these games were released before we came up with our FAM score as a tool. (The Zombies game was developed as our 'learn how to use Unity3D' project that we then subsequently released because we liked it.)
We're using FAM going forward to evaluate ideas and prototypes. We find the FAM score very helpful at keeping us in check when we get all gooey about a new game idea and when we get fed up with our current main project. FAM keeps us honest and on track with our business strategy. I think that developers fall in love with an idea, and therefore that’s what they’re going to work on, whether or not they are on track for business success. This happens to us all the time, and the FAM score forces us to reflect on why we love a particular idea. I'm not a typical iPhone user - I'm logical, I like optimizing complex systems and shooting at stuff that moves. My favorite games to play are Civilization IV and Borderlands (neither of which is even mobile). Our business strategy is not to appeal to me. FAM helps us see the difference between an idea that we love because we want to play or program that game vs an idea we love that will also be something fun for a broad audience that we can ship and sell.
I hope our FAM scoring factors list will be helpful to you. Use it as-is or develop your own list of factors that fits your business strategy. I'll write more in the future about all the sources and influences. Many are mentioned the game design and business sections of my book recommendations.