Staying true to a laser-focused design is important when making games. Without a north star to look at when making decisions can lead to games that feel lost, contradictory or, at worse, soulless. Art designers use mood boards, accountants have bottom lines but what do designers have as a north star to look towards when weighing which game mechanic to implement or which features to cut to ship the game in time?
Story time: I once worked at a big game publisher in their central org. One day, a co-worker presented our “targeted” games list based on some indicators that were questionable. Our target games included very broad categories and genres like “Action/Adventure” or “FPS”. What constitutes an Action/Adventure game? What is the setting, art, theme, story of an FPS? Who are our users? This was not an actionable list for a publisher; funding Subnautica is wildly different than funding Sekiro, yet they both fall under the all encompassing Action/Adventure. We could fund 20 different FPS games and get back games that target 20 different audience-segments.
Chances are if you want to get one of those fancy Google or Facebook Product Manager roles, you will have to do a product design interview. Here you will need to razzle and dazzle your interviewer by answering the question “Design an improved a shower curtain” in manner that gives them confidence you can solve complex problems by breaking it down into manageable steps with a thorough process of arriving at the answer.
Game design choices should be no different. Although we would all love to be the alpha designer that just knows the correct answer and has a vision to be executed, it does not always turn out that way in practice. Today I want to look at my favorite product design framework, the CIRCLES Method™ by Lewis C. Lin (LINK). Let’s apply CIRCLES to finding a new game to develop.
If you didn’t click the link above, I’m giving you a second chance because I’m going to dive into the CIRCLES Method™ .
Comprehend the Situation
We want to identify new game opportunities, for underserved markets that have an appetite for games.
CIRCLES recommends these questions:
- What is it?
- New game
- Who is it for?
- Market that isn’t getting served to their potential
- Why do they need it?
- They have (entertainment) needs to satisfy
- How does it work?
- Players will purchase and play on existing platforms
This is fairly straight forward for new video games.
This is the hardest point, you must use your intuition, knowledge of the game industry and general understanding of the zeitgeist of diferent cultures to create personas of target consumers. Don’t lie to yourself and develop personas for a game you are more inclined to make, you are applying CIRCLES seeking an answer.
CIRCLES recommends listing potential customers so we’ll do it as well. Note, generally you wouldn’t start with such a broad ambition as “new game”, so this list will seem disconnected at best.
- Bored teenagers
- Insecure men
- Lonely people
- Children learning to read
- Fans of cooking shows
- Sneakerheads (sneaker collectors)
As you can see the list will sometimes boil down to insecurities that need addressing, dull points in the day and times where digital interactivity is the best medium to perform something. The first three points in particular represent most games you see on the market today. Again, “new game” is much broader than what you will encounter in practice.
Let’s identify a specific customer to develop personas for. Ideally you want to find the customer need that is most-unfulfilled, with the largest potential user base and that has purchasing powers or value attached to their eyeballs (ads). I am going to choose the last customer, “7. Sneakerheads (sneaker collectors)”. I’ve read plenty of articles stating that new marketplaces and startups are forming around sneaker collection, so I think sneakerheads are an underserved market in video games.
Now, according to CIRCLES, we need to do some quick 2×2 persona matrices.
|Justin, the basketball fan||Behaviors|
– Follows NBA religiously
– Wants products players endorse
– Sneakers are pinnacle products
– 16 year old
– Lives with parents in NYC suburbs
– Yearly spend is $2,000
|Needs and Goals|
– Associate himself with player
– Brand himself as an NBA fan
– Sneakers become part of identify
|Esther, the collector||Behaviors|
– Collects sneakers as main hobby
– Follows major brands for shoe drops
– Researches market value on shoes
– 32 year old
– Lives in Torrance, CA
– Yearly income $152,000
|Needs and Goals|
– More ways to interact with shoe market
– Expand shoe collection, rarer shoes
– Collecting connects Esther to others
|Jamal, the fan of culture||Behaviors|
– Follows mainstream hip-hop culture
– Sneakers are critical part of style
– Keeps up to date on fashion and style
– 25 year old
– Lives in Oklahoma City, OK
– Yearly income $75,000
|Needs and Goals|
– Wants to appear to be fashionable
– Uses fashion to peacock outwardly
Report Customer’s Needs
In this step we are going to refine the entire brainstorming exercise of the last step into use cases that will guide our product. Use the personas mapped out from our chosen potential customer. These will be the driving customer needs that we will look to as north stars when making decisions related to the product’s final purpose.
CIRCLES recommends the format “As a <roles> , I want <goal/desire> so that <benefit> .”
As a basketball fan, I want a game for sneakerheads so that I can feel connected to my favorite players.
As a collector, I want a game for sneakerheads so that I can connect with other sneakerheads, expand my sneaker knowledge and stay up to date on the marketplace for sneakers.
Fan of Culture
As a fan of culture, I want a game for sneakerheads so that I can express my style and keep my fashion relevant.
Cut, Through Prioritization
Now we’re at the step where we need to prioritize one use case over the others. This entire exercise of CIRCLES is bringing the billion ideas in your head on what to build down to a single, hyper-focused need that you are solving.
I’ll use the chart that is recommended for quick and dirty interviews. Ideally you should evolve this step based on your own studio needs and create a unique prioritization methodology.
|Revenue||Customer Sat.||Ease of Imp.||Overall|
|Fan of Culture||B||B-||B||B|
It’s pretty clear that the Collector is both the most underserved, easiest to address and has the highest upside.
This is the second major brainstorming step of CIRCLES. On the website (LINK), Lewis C. Lin list some methodologies to get the brainstorm juices flowing. Being game developers, lack of possible implementations likely isn’t our problem and CIRCLES is more providing focus than ways to come up with ideas for games.
With products and games, we want to differentiate ourselves and truly solve need. Here are some call outs from my own experience to avoid:
- Iterative Ideas, taking existing products and making small incremental improvements
- “Adding blockchain onto a loot shooter”
- Me Too, taking existing products and adding innovations from competitors to your product
- “Let’s add RPG elements to our racing game because XYZ did it”
- Not Thinking Big Enough, thinking in confined terms of the current state of games
- “A 4vs4 fighting game can’t work, nobody has ever made it”
This is where people START their game brainstorming. They say, “Hmmm should I make an Adventure game or a Survival Game?”. Game genres are loose containers for players to conceptualize an experience before it happens and to group games into digestible categories. As a developer and designer, game genres mean absolutely nothing. If anything, just completely forget genres or categories even exist. Think of mechanics, not in terms of their association to genres, but as tools to craft an experience that satisfies the user’s needs.
Here is our Sneakerhead brainstorm:
- Integrate all existing real-world sneaker into the game
- Earn digital shoes, some timed to different exclusivity types, and ability to trade shoes
- Create, customize and organize your shoe collection space for others to see
- Leaderboards/Rankings on top collectors by type (rarity, quantity, etc.), allowing them to peacock
- Get deal with sneaker manufacturers to reward real world shoes or knowledge of exclusive shoe drops (when/where)
- Enter barcodes to bring your physical shoe collection into the game, gaining a slight advantage over digital-only players
- Dress up contest where you match shoes to outfits and occasions
- Shoe collection contest where players select grouping of shoes based on occasions, properties, identity, NBA players, etc. and vote on other player’s groupings
- Name that sneaker, based on silhouettes or facts
- Guess favorite artist, sports athletes, celebrities favorite sneakers
We could keep going but you get the idea. Some of these brainstorm ideas aren’t good, but that’s OK. Some are Me Too or Incremental, that is also OK. The idea is to keep going until you have something that truly satisfies the persona need in a way nobody else is satisfying that need.
This step is going to be completely studio-dependent, as skill-sets, experiences, budgets, time constraints and everything will come into play. There could be an entire separate article dedicating to evaluating game development tradeoffs.
Write your findings out in as short and concise of a manner as possible. Here is our need, here is our solution. This will be your north star to look at all throughout development.
“We are making a game for sneakerhead collectors to bring together the community, allow them to interact with sneakers digitally and gain shoe-drop insights or exclusive shoes. The game we are making does …”
What does it all mean?
I don’t expect anyone to sit down and think to themselves “I want to make a game, where should I begin? Ah, I remember that rando on the internet said to use the CIRCLES Method™, let me do that”. Games come from a lot of places and CIRCLES is best suited for generating ideas for products and services, not creative endeavors such as games or films.
What CIRCLES can provide is a framework to make decisions and express the Who, What, Why and How better than existing terminology. To give developers a better tool than saying “Should we make an Action/Adventure game or an RPG?”. CIRCLES can help you drill down into what your game idea is trying to accomplish in terms of needs, and eliminate the noise of existing products to solve those needs.
At the end of the day, frameworks and methodologies are not bullet-proof solutions, but tools to bring out, utilize and refine over time to focus problem solving. There is a reason management consultants (McKinsey & Company), top tech companies (Google) and investment banks (Goldman Sachs) all want to see structured thinking and frameworks before they hand you high paying jobs. As the game industry, we should leverage their leanings and adapt them to our own specific needs.
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