Do you remember feeling that certain feeling the first time you picked up a poorly translated RPG with a picture of an androgynous hero on the box, or started out with a pathetic settler and a warrior in Civ II, or clicked through a mind-bogglingly detailed transfer list in Championship Manager?
It was a special amalgam of pleasure at mastering the simple mechanics of the interface, dread of the more complicated elements hovering ominously a few clicks away, and an expansive sense of joy at the sheer vasty depth of the possibilities inherent in the game.
To be brutally honest, the games themselves never quite lived up to that first sense of promise, discovery and liberation. I might have sunk horrendous amounts of time into Civ II, guiding my mindless masses (We love the Dictator day!) to nuclear annihilation, but there was always a sense of the missed opportunity. Forge on with mighty feats of kingly courage as you would, there comes a point where you simply run out of things to do. Future Tech? Who the hell thought that was an acceptable piece of game design?
The same problem is inherent in GameDevStory. That sense of discovery is there, and just like those past masters it certainly has the potential to swallow a great deal of your time. But it is, after all a very limited game, and not just by the constraints of the mobile platform.
Let’s get the window dressing out of the way first
The interface is very nice. The whole thing is menu-driven, like a proper JRPG should be, and tapping anywhere on the screen will bring up your top-level management choices. Everything is nicely laid out, and the (limited) choices are fairly self-explanatory. This is a good thing, as the in-game tutorial is frankly laughable, and compared to some of the hand holding that goes on in AAA games these days, a little disorienting. Still, there is a sense of achievement to overcoming ignorance and grasping what you can achieve with the tool set.
It runs like butter on my antiquated HTC Hero, with custom 2.2 Android software. This is quite the plus, seeing as most games available on the Android Market that will actually run on my device look like arse. And I don’t mean that in the good, healthy, Curse of the Chocolate Fountain way.
In GDS your little game developers will potter about, look out of windows and occasionally sit down and write a line of code without frame rate issues or skipping, just like in real life!
The controls also don’t suffer from the same disgusting input lag that has plagued high quality games like Angry Birds (although this is probably a processor-bound limitation, like the lack of Flash video).
So what’s the point of the game?
Essentially, you want cash. Lovely piles of moolah, Scrooge McDuck-style wads. You can’t really do anything with the cash, but it serves as the measure of your progress. That, and your dominance of the sales charts.
You start as the owner of a tiny game studio, which you get to name (OMGs, personalisation! Now I care about these virtual folks). You always start with the same two employees, a crappy coder and a crappy writer. The first thing the tutorial wants you to do is to hire more people, and seeing as there are four job types initially and two empty seats, you’ll probably be hiring a Designer and a Sound Designer.
From there, you can choose to do some contract work to build up capital, or jump straight into developing your first original game title. Either way, development consists of waiting for your little minions to generate enough Fun, Creativity, Sound and Graphics icons to fill a little bar. When doing contracts, you will have set target to reach in order to get paid. Developing new games differs in that you are trying to generate as much of each quality as possible to boost the review scores, and thence the sales.
The complexity comes in determining what genre of game to develop, and for which console. To begin with, you have access to only a limited pool of game genres (puzzle, adventure and so on) and game types (robot, ninja, chess, etc.). Poor combinations will lead to badly motivated staff, poor reviews and flagging sales. Excellent matches (I recommend Action+Ninja) will add new points to assign to development foci such as innovation, simplicity or polish.
Game companies will periodically develop new consoles, which change the makeup of the marketplace and the number of players on each platform. You have to balance the potentially larger market against the cost of developing for newer and more popular consoles, which is far higher. Each game can only be developed for a single platform, although if you’ve bought a licence already, subsequent developments are cheaper. You can also develop your own games console later in the game, although this requires substantial capital and specialised employees.
From there, you assign your writer, graphics artist and sound designer. You can pick from your staff members, or hire in talent from outside. The more skilled the staffer, the better the eventual game in that particular department.
There is a lot more dynamic interaction to take account of, like employee fatigue, market share, demographics and advertising, but those are the basic steps in developing. The best thing about the underlying bulk of the maths powering the game is that it stays relatively submerged.
You have the opportunity to spot patterns in the distribution of your fans, and to selectively target your games to them, but you can easily play along happily without going down that road. If you do however choose the accountant’s path, the depth is enough to draw you in to a self-reinforcing cycle of develop, advertise, train which flows naturally without the whips of narrative to drive you along.
Is it worth the hassle?
Like any deeply immersive sim, you can play GameDevStory a couple of ways.
The first, and probably healthiest from a psychological standpoint, is to dip into the game occasionally, take the time to pick up the mechanics and enjoy moderate successes and failures. If you play it that way, this game is a great little diversion, something to pick up on the tube on the way to work and fiddle with for half an hour when the free newspaper is just too moronic to stomach.
The second, and my preferred, mode of play is that of obsession. You can tell you’ve slipped into this particular zone when you sacrifice social interaction for hitting preferred shipping dates, or show anger when dragged away from experiments into the ultimate game combination. It is a nasty little parallel with the actual practice in the industry when pushing your team to the top of the big leagues demands so much from you, to the detriment of other interests and relationships.
And that has always been my problem with sim games. The lack of payoff or resolution drags play out into meaningless infinity, wherein you cannot ever really master the game. You can always start another game, build it back up from the gutter, but that gaping void is still waiting for you after the booth babes at GameDex. My in-built safety mechanisms have up to this point always kicked in around this time, rapidly deleting my interest in ever going back to the game.
Does this mean I’m sorry I ever played it? Well, strangely, no. I sometimes wonder what exactly it is I’m getting out of games like this, and rarely am I satisfied with my own answers. It must be something worthwhile however, as I keep coming back to the scene of the crime, ready to go overboard on a new twist on the old formula.