Should I Release a Game as Soon as It’s Done?

Apr 30, 2012

The question sounds pretty obvious. Of course, right? I mean c’mon, it’s done!

But the answer is no.

Releasing a game just as soon as it’s done is kind of a bad idea. When someone is new to game development, and they’re mostly just making projects as way to figuring out how things work, it’s not really a big deal. Once someone has a bit of experience though, and they’ve invested themselves into crafting something that has potential to be of interest to strangers (a good litmus test, since strangers won’t just play it to be nice to us), there are at least two more small steps to take after completion before releasing it.

First, if you haven’t already done so earlier in development with a build that looked finished, it may be useful to promote the game a bit and create some decent promotional materials to point people to. A short and simple YouTube video will do, but make it entertaining instead of descriptive. Also, take a bunch of screenshots to pick out the few best to represent the game on the web. Maybe even gather a few player testimonials from private testing.

Lots of people either don’t play games or don’t have the time or set up to play your game right this minute. That includes classmates and family members on Facebook, friends without the particular platform or specs you develop for – even recruiters at game development companies (you’d be shocked by how many people working at game companies don’t play videogames). Having a decent video can help these people quickly learn about the game, and even share it with others that may be able to play it.

Meanwhile for people that do have the time and system specs to play your game, watching even a half minute of the developer showing one way to play the game the way that it was intended (even if not the only way to play!) can help players get started quickly instead of fumbling around trying to figure out what’s going on.

People are busy and there are a ton of exciting, free, easy-to-reach things competing for everyone’s limited free time. Watching a sweet video may be just the thing needed to bridge the gap and convince someone to try it. If they decide it isn’t for them, no big deal, but at least then they can base that decision on information other than the game’s title.

Retail commercial games come in a packaging that allows undecided players to get a quick sense of the game by the cover art and information+screenshots on the back. Think of the video, screenshots, and (if relevant) testimonials as your version of packaging. And just like it would not be acceptable for a game company to just sell their retail games as unpackaged DVDs laying on the shelf, even otherwise happy players will pass on your game if you don’t show enough interest to package it decently.

The second thing, and this of course comes before packaging but it’s equally important, is to really user test the ‘final’ game with people that have never seen you play it or had you explain it. This isn’t really about fixing bugs, so it doesn’t matter how thorough of a programmer you are, it’s about identifying accidental design slips that you would likely apologize over if you saw someone struggling with it. Yes, it’s necessary to write a game that doesn’t crash, and it’s necessary to ensure that it installs and/or runs decently on a variety of machines, but I’m assuming that you’ve solved those problems already.

This is about having one last chance to smooth over, fix, or improve the places that new players get stuck or confused by when sat in front of the game without help. If someone needs you as the developer to explain, clarify, coach, or point something out to them when they sit down to play the game, multiply that problem times 1,000 players and realize that you won’t get an opportunity to talk to any of them.

Take whatever it is that you find yourself desperately wanting to tell your playtesters and either embed that information blatantly into the game at a relevant time. Or, even better, if at all possible find some clever way to remove the need to provide that clarification. You will always, always catch something surprisingly important by doing this for each game. Not doing it would be like shipping code without even first trying to compile it to see if any errors come up. Madness!

Testing the would-be-final version with a few people can make a big difference. It’s well worth putting a few extra days into, at least. If you don’t feel like you can even bother a few of your personal connections to try it, are you really sure that you’re ready to bother a few thousand strangers with it?

By comparison to how long is needed to take a game from concept to release, we’re really only talking here about a tiny percentage of total development time – maybe a few percent for some immediate gains, or a bit more if you’re really wanting to polish it, say, for commercial release.

That little bit of extra work at the end, even though the game is technically functional enough and feature complete so it could be released, can greatly amplify the size and satisfaction of your audience. While there’s obviously more to being happy with a game project than simply hitting bigger numbers, these two practices can also help your game wind up in front of the sort of players that it’s intended for, and increase the probability of them seeing all or more of the content that you (and your team, if applicable) worked so hard to create for them.

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