10 Things Learnt Running Prehysteria – Part 1

Prehysteria was a web-based game where you play dinosaurs fighting and trying to out-evolve each other to be the top of the bone pile. A friend and I developed it and ran it successfully for about 2 years. It even made some money!

1. Have a plan
When my partner and I first sat down to write Prehysteria, we wrote out an action plan. Basically we covered high-concept topics like:

  • What should the game be like?
  • What are our goals and outcomes?
  • What challenges lie ahead and how can we overcome them?
  • How do we plan on attracting players?
  • What is the central theme and how do we reinforce this in the game?
  • How does the game run?
  • Is it turn-based or real time and how does this affect play?

It was a brainstorming session and our thoughts, in bullet form, formed this document. In the initial design sessions, we would actually bring this plan to the meetings and sit with it in front of us. Each major decision would either be required to fit into our plan or the plan would have to accommodate the change in direction. Nevertheless, having a written record kept us firmly focussed on our theme and goals.

2. Meet early and often
Meet at least once a week, at least until you’re over the initial development hump. This is a non-negotiable. The entire team must be there. Momentum is paramount in getting a game going, and organising regular meetings makes it more concrete and forces the involved parties to act. Physically meeting is putting aside dedicated time to analyze and explore the game concept. It reinforces the evolution of the game, ideas are generated, progress is monitored and perhaps most importantly, firm decisions are made. It’s easy to put down the phone after a telephonic meeting and continue playing your Xbox 360. But when you have a physical meeting it’s a different story. Even if only slightly, it can make all the difference.

3. Theme is everything
Your theme is essentially what makes your game special. In a world of 1001 medieval, space colonization and pirate clones, Prehysteria was to be something out of the ordinary. There was nothing similar to Prehysteria on the market. And playing prehistoric dinosaurs with attitude is cool. Certainly there were other browser-based games on the Internet, but that is merely a technology platform. The theme is what made Prehysteria unique. My partner and I discussed our theme and how to develop it. Thereafter, every decision had to fit into theme. Fortunately Prehysteria is a quirky game so we had loose boundaries. (I.e. Who says dinosaurs can’t build walks and tree houses?) I cannot stress theme more. If you break your theme and become something generic, then you’ve lost the magic.

4. You can’t please everyone
No matter what you do and no matter how hard you try, someone will always get upset with you for some reason. Sometimes this is due to a misunderstanding. To alleviate this we established a forum, in addition to online help, and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). Involve your player base and local development community in helping to build the game. These people are gamers or game designers and are a rich (and often educated) source of feedback. Have an “open door” policy. Listen to feedback. Reply promptly and patiently answer questions. However, some people are just moaners and there’s no pleasing them. For example, Prehysteria offers the four basic races for free. The four advanced races are on a par, but additionally have a special ability. We took care not to allow this special ability to give the advanced races an overwhelming advantage. Despite this a player complained that $2 a month was an unacceptable fee to play an advanced race. I explained that there is no material advantage and even pointed out that the top ranked players were playing basic races. This player was still not happy. Bottom line, he wanted the game, the entire game, for free. Which brings me to my next point…

5. It is not a popularity contest
You can’t please everyone all the time and you will piss some people off. Running a game is not a popularity contest. You will need to make some difficult decisions. Make your decisions based on the improvement of the game as a whole. If you make your decisions to keep a player happy, but the logic of your decision is flawed, your game will be worse off for it. Never forget, you are a wizard. And therefore you must act like one. Enforce where necessary, like cracking down harshly on cheating. At the end of the day be reasonable. Players want to have fun and they will as long as the rules are enforced equitably.

Continued in Part 2

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