Being able to make a living off of my creative work is my driving motivation in life and has been for some three or four years now. Thus, naturally, I like games like Game Dev Tycoon, where I get to pretend for a bit that doing this is quick and easy. Unfortunately, Game Dev Tycoon specifically is kind of meh.
Now, don’t get the wrong impression. GDT is not shovelware. It starts you out somewhere ambiguously in the 80s (time is tracked as years since game start, not actual years, which allows the pace of events to be set faster or slower by a drop down) and takes you through to the near future, and demonstrates a pretty solid understanding and appreciation for video game history on the way, it’s updated itself to account for the release of the eight generation of consoles, including the fairly recent Nintendo Switch, and has speculative ninth generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft. And while the game isn’t super deep, it isn’t a SimCity 2013, either. If you sit around doing nothing, you will not end up with a studio that is lawless, flooded with sewage, and on fire, but somehow still turning a profit and steadily growing. You can go bankrupt if too many of your games flop, and in fact, early on two failed titles in a row will do the trick (an unrealistic amount of breathing room for a small studio, but being able to rebound from failed experiments by picking something reliable is unquestionably a better gameplay experience). There’s even fun little references that you might never even notice until they’re pointed out to you, like how your starting garage studio in 1984-ish has a DeLorean under a tarp on the far wall, a cheeky implication that you’ve used it to time travel back to the beginning of the post-crash era of video games.
But although your input matters at all and it can even take a bit of analysis to get the hang of how to train your staff once you become a larger company, for the most part, the gameplay of Game Dev Tycoon is in playing it safe and recreating what came before. Even very effective studio management from a very well trained team won’t save your game from a bizarre and unpopular genre/topic/audience combination. This is certainly realistic, but Game Dev Tycoon isn’t about realism, it’s about fantasy. That’s why even a very early studio can bounce back from a single flop, giving them time to learn from their mistake when most small studios couldn’t realistically survive a single failed game. Although it is possible to use on-the-ball time/staff-management to do quirky runs like “every game has the same target audience” or, God help you, “every game has the same topic,” doing so isn’t challenging, it’s boring.
Optimizing your staff and development is pretty straightforward after your first playthrough (and your first playthrough was probably a standard “let’s just make good games based on market trends” run), and after that, an intentional handicap to your review scores and sales just means it’s harder to stay on top of the tech curve which means you spend more time between unlocks. The game just isn’t dynamic enough for drastically changing your approach from one game to another to be worth it. There’s one optimal way to make each kind of game and, like, five types of game, so once you’ve got those optimized, you’re still shifting sliders around, but only because you can’t save presets. The only actual choice you’re making is whether the game is Action, Adventure, RPG, Strategy, Simulation, or Casual, each of which has an optimum balance of development time spent on graphics as opposed to sound as opposed to world design and etc. etc., and each of which has an optimal list of features. You can mix and match those genres, but each combination can also be optimized and only a few matches are viable. Action-Strategy doesn’t require a specific approach to work, it just automatically takes a bad genre crossover penalty.
The only thing that’s different from one playthrough of Game Dev Tycoon to another is which four topics you start with and what order you can unlock new ones in. Since each topic has an intuitive and optimal match-up to genre and target audience, only one variable is really changing here. Technically, the job applicants you get when seeking staff also vary, but the differences are too small to really make a difference. Ultimately, it’s very easy to get a few design-heavy devs, a few technology-heavy devs, and to train and assign them appropriately to different tasks during development to make high-rated games consistently, so you just do that, the same way, every time. You aren’t mastering a system. You’re learning a recipe.
Pewdiepie’s Tuber Simulator had a similar thing where different video topics were more or less popular at different times, but it also had a mechanic whereby you only have three video ideas to pick from, each on a different topic taken from a list of…I think eight? Maybe ten. The point is, you get a random selection of less than half of all topics to pick from, so sometimes you have to make do with something that you don’t have a whole lot of points in or which is pretty played out in the current market. When you’re playing Tuber Simulator, every time you go to make a new video, you have to make a decision, and you can’t do it completely on auto-pilot. Sometimes it’s obvious, and the topic you’re best at is also the thing that’s currently trending and it’s one of your three available selections, but sometimes you have to make a choice between something you’re good at and something that’s popular, and sometimes your gamer/horror ‘tuber has to make a cooking video because it’s the least bad idea they have today. Mechanics like that keep the game engaging, and Game Dev Tycoon could really benefit from them.