Minimum Viable Game

In my day job, I work for a software startup. There is a concept in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, an influential book that guides a lot of thought in the software industry, called “Minimum Viable Product”.  I’ll leave it to others to describe what it means for software companies, but suffice to say that this concept weaves it’s way through my everyday language and work such that it has become a natural and obvious way to approach the development of any new product.

I have said elsewhere that I have set myself a personal challenge to write a game a month. This idea has its roots in a book I read about 10 years ago called The Frustrated Songwriters Guide to Songwriting. In this book, Karl Coryat and Nicholas Dobson say that the best way they knows to break through a writing block, in any creative pursuit, is to create an avalanche of bad work in as short a time as possible, very specifically in an atmosphere that welcomes (nay revels) in failure and bad work. I recommend anyone buy the book and read about the “20 Song Game”, it’s life changing and really funny too. This approach frees you from the paralysing fear that your next piece of work will be bad, and, as the creative person is defined by their work, therefore YOU are bad. This is the fallacy that Coryat and Dobson free you from, and one that I wholehearted agree with. I strongly believe that in any creative sphere, you must make ten bad things for every one good thing. Hence the monthly avalanche of terrible games that might have a good idea at their heart, but which don’t even work and aren’t fun and are in the bin now.

Returning to the idea of “Minimum Viable Product” – MVP says that, given a product hypothesis (e.g. “people would like a new car combat game”) you should find the fastest and cheapest way to test that hypothesis with real customers. If you can spend a few days and “no” money finding out that people in fact do not want a new car combat game, then you can save yourself months of toil and heartache and wasted effort creating something that there wasn’t a market for in the first place.

For the games that I write, I apply the same approach: create a “minimum viable game”.  For Gaslands, this meant a thrifty prototype game made out of sticky labels stuck on old playing cards that I can demo to others, and a short rules booklet that has no artwork and has had the minimum effort put in to make it hang together as a fun game.  Sure a campaign system might be fun, but do you need to write it before you know that the game even WORKS on the tabletop?

Both MVP and Dobson are saying the same thing: do not fear failure.  Failure is powerful and helpful.  Both then go further and provide specific strategies to fail as fast as possible, so that you can discard your failures quickly and without emotion, and not get attached to things that aren’t working or (most importantly) other people aren’t going to buy.