7 secrets of blockbuster video games

Most video game designers dream of designing a blockbuster hit, but what makes a game break out?

By Erin Hoffman-John
April 20, 2017
Fireball Fireball (source: Geralt)

The video game industry is broadly regarded as “hit driven” and this defines it not just for investors and companies, but for developers downstream as well. (By “video games”, I mean interactive games for any platform: mobile phone, PC, console, etc.) Engineers, artists, and designers working on games are always trying to pick winning development teams—and it’s amazing how much of the development process we just can’t control.

In 17 years making games (and two years lecturing and teaching about them), I’ve seen a few misconceptions about creating blockbuster video games pop up repeatedly regarding what they must contain, and almost as importantly, what they should not contain. In this article, I’ll explain seven necessary ingredients for a blockbuster video game, divided into controllable and uncontrollable variables. Understanding these variables will help you focus on the ones you can control and let go of the ones you can’t. And who knows—after reading this list, you may decide you’re not interested in trying to create a blockbuster because doing so would require too many compromises1. Either way, you’ll go into the design process with your eyes open.

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Defining “blockbuster”

For the purposes of this discussion, a “blockbuster” is a game that sells more than 10 million copies. These games—such as Overwatch, The Sims, and Sonic the Hedgehog — come from different eras of video game history, but have had a massive impact on game culture. To eliminate prior-knowledge bias, we’ll be looking only at games that are the first in their series (since a sequel of a breakout typically becomes an even bigger hit).

So how do blockbusters become blockbusters?

Controllable variables

The following five dimensions are crucial to consider when deciding whether to embark on a blockbuster video game quest. The key isn’t to maximize each variable (if you try to do that, you’ll blow your budget). Instead, you should aim to find the sweet spot within each one. Blockbusters are carefully calibrated to spend only as much as they need to on each attribute.

1. Technology

You might think that blockbuster games always have maxed-out technology budgets, using nothing but the latest and greatest components. But blockbuster game technology—from graphics code to networking and engine architecture—usually isn’t as maximized as you might expect. Most popular games use about two-thirds tried-and-true technologies, and about one-third innovative technologies. A blockbuster can’t crash—it needs to run reliably for most users on all its launch platforms—but that’s really the extent of its technological requirements. All other development resources (time and energy) should be focused on innovation.

The Sims by Electronic Arts—a blockbuster at 16 million copies sold—had notoriously rickety technology, full of single-use systems that were brittle, resource-heavy, and difficult for new engineers to learn. It was just good enough to get out the door and not trigger a lot of returns, but had been pushed far enough to maximize its feature load. The team that created The Sims may have pushed its innovation too far, but managed to keep the game stable enough that it reached millions of players.

A common mistake in engineer-driven game projects is over-engineering. Particularly when you’re in charge of your launch date, it’s often tempting to keep delaying release to refactor just one more piece of code—which is a great way of ensuring you either never release at all, or are beaten to the market by a competitor. Remember: good enough is good enough, and “perfect” can be the enemy of “great”.

For tips on making games that use technology flexible enough for multiple platforms, check out the How to Build Cross Platform HTML5 Games for Mobile and Web webcast video course by Jesse Freeman.

2. Scope

Think of “scope” as the landscape of your game (imagine the booming voice of Jame Earl Jones in The Lion King: “everything the light touches!”). The trouble with scope, even for an experienced team that is well versed in estimating feature costs, is that it is almost never possible to precisely predict the time needed for successful innovation. On top of that, designers tend to want one more thing, and in our defense, it can be very difficult to know what’s “enough” in terms of game features until you see it in live software. So defining your project’s scope—everything it will contain, with enough detail that any solid team could execute it according to a provided schedule—is very difficult. Blockbuster games, in order to hit the right release timeframe, have rigorously defined scopes of production. This is important because, if your game takes too long to develop, your brand-new idea is likely to be old news by the time you release.

There’s a trick to defining scope that surprisingly few developers (especially beginning developers) know: utilize pre-production. By setting aside the first portion of your development time to focus on the game’s mechanics and core systems (rather than on big issues like story and progression), developers emerge from this process with 1) a playable prototype, 2) a full “vertical slice” example of the final game experience, and 3) a macro-design specifying how many “slices” will constitute the full game experience. Essentially, you multiply (2) by (3) and you have your scope.

Independent games, and many games made in environments without strong production practices, skip or short-change this pre-production process, which can introduce wild variables into the production phase, confusing the team and bringing progress to a halt. Given unlimited time and financial resources, this is fine and can result in excellent games, but if resources suddenly run dry, games can be halted or terminally slowed before the end is even in sight. Understanding what you can afford to build—how much runway you have and how long you really want to work on a single project—is crucial to making it to the finish line.

Keeping your prototype small but complete—that’s the nature of a vertical slice — allows you to figure out everything that the game will need before you staff up. If you have to start developing the full game before you know whether your prototype works, you’re experimenting dangerously with a lot of developers’ time, and the pressure of those stakes is a recipe for failure.

For more on design considerations such as scope, check out Jordan Shade’s live online training: Design Thinking: 90-minute Introduction.

3. Familiarity

The design—which is to say the look, feel, and mechanics—of a blockbuster game has a finely-tuned quality that I call familiarity. This difficult-to-measure variable captures the relationship between the game and its audience. You can think of it as a game’s “mainstream-ness” or popular appeal. It is a challenging variable because it is never fully predictable, but some aspects can be understood. Non-blockbuster games can get away with being either retro (100% familiar) or purely innovative (100% unfamiliar), but a typical blockbuster is poised at a spot that is just new enough yet also just familiar enough to appeal to a mainstream audience.

It’s important to keep in mind that the audience for video games is not homogeneous, being composed of so-called independent (“indie”) gamers—who tend to be picky connoisseurs, literate in a variety of game genres and mechanics—and more casual players. Because indie gamers are devoted, vocal, and widely played, perceptions of what constitutes innovation in new games tend to be driven by the indie-game-playing portion of the fanbase. However, a blockbuster needs to reach a much broader audience. Therefore a blockbuster is likely to be perceived as very familiar or even disdainfully derivative by connoisseur indie gamers, but very unfamiliar to millions of more casual mainstream video game players.

World of Warcraft from Blizzard Entertainment is a classic example of the just-familiar-enough blockbuster. But WoW didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was based on its predecessor, Everquest.

Everquest featured an open world full of thousands of simultaneous players, and was based on an adventure-combat RPG questing model in which players band together to fight monsters. (These are just a few of its core concepts.) World of Warcraft built upon this base—which was very familiar to the thousands of people who had played Everquest, but unfamiliar to mainstream audiences—and made it more approachable, juicier, and more beautiful. The result was one of the highest-grossing games and franchises of all time. Had Blizzard pushed the envelope further toward pure innovation, it’s unlikely that World of Warcraft would have achieved its mainstream success.

Another game from Blizzard, Heroes of the Storm, offers a recent and fascinating example of a near-miss that shows how precise and fragile this variable is. Heroes tried to take Riot Games’s popular League of Legends as a foundational MOBA core and improve its accessibility, but it fell flat because it was slightly too similar to its predecessor to be fundamentally interesting to the recently-established audience of MOBA players.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the recently released No Man’s Sky by Hello Games exemplifies an extremely hyped and ultimately far-overreaching title that attempted to innovate on procedurally generated game content, massively multiplayer experience, game-based representation of planetary physics, open-world harvesting mechanics, and more—the list is so long that the game is now primarily associated with broken development promises. Had the game been marketed as a niche independent title focused purely on innovation, it may have been forgiven its shortcomings, but because it had blockbuster ambitions and blockbuster marketing, it became one of the great crash stories of 2016.

It’s a good idea to be precise about your familiarity variable: to state at the outset of development as quantifiably as possible what you will and will not be innovating. For example: “we are innovating four-versus-four multiplayer” or “we are innovating on real-time strategy control schemes”, “we are not innovating on graphics shaders” or “we are not innovating on game AI”. For a blockbuster, innovation is often restricted to as little as 10% of total game features. This may seem like a small percentage, but narrowing your innovation to a small number of features allows you to achieve more predictable project scope and squeeze as much juiciness and production value as possible into the areas you are innovating. Reaching mainstream audiences, which blockbusters must do, requires super-smooth usability and accessibility, and that takes time and effort.

For an excellent overview of reaching mainstream audiences with your games, watch the video Designing Games that People Want to Play by Jon Manning.

4. Core mechanics

Blockbuster games have solid, understandable designs—meaning the architecture of the game, usually represented by documentation created by designers for the development team—containing elegant core mechanics.

A mechanic, simply, is what the player does in a video game. It is composed of actions (for example: “pressing the B button”) and feedback (“when the B button is pressed, the player character jumps into the air for 1.5 seconds”). A mechanic can involve one or more of these action-feedback pairs, and mechanics can chain or combine to produce more complex mechanics (so in Super Mario Bros, the “running” and “jumping” mechanics can be performed singly or together to form the “running-jump” mechanic, which behaves differently from either the “run” or “jump” used alone).

When a game’s mechanics are tightly interrelated—one mechanic generates resources (usually game items) that feed another mechanic, such as breaking a block in Mario creating a fire flower that allows the player to fling fireballs at enemies—we describe the design as having a tight core or elegant inner-mechanical relationships. Conversely, games that sprawl (having a lot of mechanics that don’t connect) are not elegant, and they tend to become both confusing to players and expensive to create. Sprawling games are also badly expensive insofar as their developers wind up spending a little bit of resources on a lot of different mechanics, resulting in a quantity of experiences at the expense of quality.

Core mechanics are the actions that players will return to again and again without becoming bored; they are what you do the most when you play. This sounds simple when a game is done, but before a game is created—especially if that game is innovative—defining “what players do” is wide-open territory. Solid design constrains this territory by focusing on just two or three core mechanics that the player will perform.

For more on great game mechanics, check out Jon Manning’s Creating First-Person Shooter Games with Unity.

5. Aesthetics

In addition to being conventionally attractive to mainstream eyes, blockbuster games frequently utilize advances in graphics technology to achieve unique looks (and sounds!), and place these innovations in the hands of traditionally trained artists (think figure drawing, digital oil painting, and symphonic composition) who can push them to their limits. While audiences might disagree over whether they find a particular blockbuster game appealing, they will generally agree that the art has high production value or is well rendered, which means beautiful to its target audience. Unless you happen to be both a graphics programmer and traditionally trained artist, this translates to “expensive”: top-shelf skills don’t come cheap!

Even if everything else in a blockbuster has come together, if its art isn’t beautiful or its soundtrack is cheaply made, players are going to notice. You don’t necessarily need John Williams to write your score, but investing in professional artists and musicians is a must for a blockbuster.

For more on making your game art great, check out the screencast Just Enough Game Art by Rex Smeal.

Uncontrollable variables

Finally, there are a couple of important variables that, unfortunately, you have no control over. They’re still worth considering, if only to understand the role that chance plays in every blockbuster’s success.

1. Zeitgeist

Beyond Good and Evil, a 2003 action game by Ubisoft, seemed to have everything going for it: a big budget, beautiful art, just-novel-enough design, and solid technology and execution. But in its initial release it fell flat commercially, despite being nominated for Game of the Year at the Game Developers Choice Awards. What happened?

Beyond Good and Evil missed the zeitgeist—the “spirit of the time”. Something in the wind of collective unconsciousness wasn’t ready for this game when it was released, but was ready later, enough to eventually elevate the game to cult status. Sometimes we just can’t explain why a perfectly great game flops.

To explore VR as one possible “well-timed” game choice, check out Creating 3D VR Games with Unity by Jon Manning.

2. Competitor timing

No matter what you do, if a competitor develops a game very similar to yours and manages to release it ahead of yours, your game may be doomed. For example, when Myst was released, numerous other developers were working on first-person 3D PC puzzle games—and you probably don’t remember the names of any of them. Was Myst really that much better? We may never know.

For more on making the most of release timing and other product tips, check out Scott Hurff’s lesson How to Design and Prototype Products that People Love.

Applying these lessons

You now know the seven main variables that determine whether a game can potentially become a blockbuster. What next? That’s up to you. In order to decide what kind of game you want to design, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I want to make a blockbuster?
  2. Do I care more about innovation (making something totally new) than about fame/sales?
  3. What is achievable with my budget?
  4. If my heart is set on a blockbuster, am I willing to do what it takes to get there? This might involve going to work on someone else’s blockbuster for several years, and then raising startup capital.
  5. Do I want a large mainstream audience for my games or a small devoted connoisseur audience?
  6. How will I feel if I do everything right and my game still flops?
  7. Can I let go of my urge to make everything about my game—the innovation, the technology, etc.—perfect?

Answering these questions honestly will guide you toward making the kinds of games you really want to make without torturing yourself by trying to do everything in a single game. The controllable variables all involve learnable skills, and, regardless of whether you want to make blockbusters or simply execute and deliver really excellent games, the controllable variables are worth careful consideration.

1 The vast majority of games are not blockbusters, and solid careers have been made on non-blockbuster games for as long as video games have existed. Independent games, mid-range published titles, games for kids, and so-called “shovelware” games are just a few of the totally-viable, non-blockbuster game categories.

Post topics: Software Engineering