When playing a game that doesn't achieve its potential, there's one thought common to all players: I could have fixed that. Kane and Lynch? Tweak the cover system, give the weapons a bit more oomph, improve AI. New Vegas? Keep debugging until there's no glitch left standing. Wii games? Ban waggle. Gross oversimplifications of complex products? Of course – but it seems so easy from the outside.
Kairosoft's Game Dev Story nourishes exactly that preconception. In this game it's hard to be wrong, easy to be right, and impossible to avoid frequent glows of self-satisfaction. You are the head of a new startup, with four employees and just enough cash to develop something minor for the PC. After choosing both genre and type from a limited list, it takes three in-game months or three real-world minutes for the game to be complete.
Development is a simple process: your little developers yammer away at each other and bash their keyboards, while icons pop up above their heads to indicate what they're working on. Each game has a number for its gameplay, graphics, sound and creativity (like many a classic review score) and the higher it is, the better. This part of the game is entirely passive but your involvement, and GDS's trump card, comes with boosting.
This is the crack moment, an interstitial that transforms sprite-watching into riveting spectacle: at certain points you choose a staff member to work on one aspect of a game (or hire outside talent), and a pop-up window shows them hammering at their keyboard while gameplay and creativity icons cascade from their monitor and into the game's stats. Initially there's strategy to this, but beyond a certain standard of employee it's largely random: there could be five cycles and fifty gameplay points or one and five.
These moments occur like clockwork: at 40 per cent complete, the graphics have to be worked on, at 80 per cent there's the sound, and at some point one employee will nervously approach your desk and request permission to try boosting a random stat in the game – the better they are, the less risk involved. Each boosting attempt is accompanied by a delicious series of 8-bit bleeps that rise and lower in pitch as the stats flow in – by the time you've got Walt Sidney working on the scenario, it's a miniature symphony to your incredible competence.
The success of Dickysoft was instant, and huge. The money led to an increase in office space, which led to better employees, which led to better games and licenses to develop for more popular consoles. The hits just kept coming: Homeric Battle (a motion baseball game on PS2), Dicky's Souls (an action dungeon game on DS), Dicky Ninja (a ninja RPG), Dicky's Crossing (an animal town game on Gamecube).
But there's an uneasiness with GDS, and here's why: at some point you realise that it's impossible to lose. Your capital is so huge and the team so talented that very little can possibly go wrong – and we tried. Our online poncho simulator, World Of Ponchos, sold over 20 million copies. MegaChess on the PS2, released with over twenty bugs, was a similar hit. By this stage Dickysoft was just knocking out things for the fun of it: a Sumo Audio Novel? Sure, that'll do the numbers.
Thing is, it did. GDS initially resembles a simulator, but in fact it shares more with Peggle: a combination of audiovisual rewards and just enough agency to keep a player from noticing that they're not actually doing very much. But Peggle, even in its most random setups, retains an element of strategy. Game Development Story is brilliant on the surface, but ultimately that surface is all it has. It's a simulator you watch rather than play.
And what does it say about game development? It says that making sequels and sticking with one or two genres guarantees massive success. That employees are disposable nuggets only useful until you can afford to hire better ones – and that they can be overworked without penalty as long as you buy enough Red Bull. Probably true enough. But what GDS ends up proving about game development is this: making simple, fun and, yes, casual games that can keep rewarding players after that first flush of fun is so much harder than it looks.