Game Dev Tycoon: Here's How to Rock the Industry

An armchair expert's guide to the celebrated business sim that's finally on Android and iPhones.

Despite the trials and tribulations of office life, a lot of us still enjoy games about working at an office, and Game Dev Tycoon (Android, iOS) is arguably the best one we've seen; sadly, it hasn't been available for Android or iPhone users until now, five years after its debut on Windows and macOS. But it's quickly climbed into the top sales charts on the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store, and it's easy to see why.

You get a buttload of game for a low price; it's not the kind that kills your battery; and it won't hit you with loot boxes, energy refills, currency purchases, timers, ads, notification spam, or any of the other tropes of mobile gaming that make you want to smash your phone. You just pay $5, and you get the game, just like the old days.

Think of this guide as a training course. It won't tell you exactly what to do at every step, because gameplay discovery is an important part of the Game Dev Tycoon experience. Instead, we're going to show you how to avoid early and potentially deadly mistakes, and get your business up and running like an industry veteran.

The Basics

Once you've chosen your character's appearance and name (that's Mr. Jeeve Stobbs to you), the name of the company (Orange, LLC, in my case), and the length of your timeline (35 years by default), you'll start in a garage by yourself. Follow the onscreen instructions to start developing your first game. At first, you'll only have four topics and genres to choose from, to reflect your lack of experience and limited resources. Your topics are randomly chosen each time, so if you don't like your options at the beginning, you can create a new game and try again. Our first playthrough let us start out with a business simulator, but "business" was not an available topic when we started a new game.

Once you've chosen your topic and genre, you choose your platform, and you'll start out with two options. The Gommodore 64 is more expensive to develop for, but it has a larger market share. Developing for the PC instead costs 75 percent less, but it still controls 44 percent of the market in Game Dev Tycoon. Additional platforms will emerge as you progress, and each one has customers who favor different types of games. The first two have nearly identical audiences, but PCs slightly favor sim games. There's also a licensing fee to develop for the G64, and money is tight at the beginning. PCs are a safer bet at first.

Then you'll have to decide between a graphical game and a text-based game. The first option costs twice as much, but product popularity in Game Dev Tycoon is heavily weighted by the historical performance of your previous product, which makes texty games a hard thing to graduate from in the long run. It's arguably better to be positioned for graphical games right from the start, at least for your first play-through.

Starting Your First Game

Production in Game Dev Story goes through three phases, each of which has three different components. In Stage 1, you will decide how to balance Engine, Gameplay, and Story/Quests. The engine is the technical underpinning of the game, gameplay is the mechanics of the user experience, and story/quests are about narrative content.

Since we've decided to make a business sim, we can focus on gameplay and the engine. In this type of game, the player creates their own story as they progress. Game Dev Tycoon actually does "think" with this kind of logic, so you can apply sensible reasoning to this part of your project and probably do OK.

The further you push a slider to the right, the better that part of the game will be. But later on, when you have additional employees, maxing this out will tax their resources. If your workers burn out before the game is finished, it'll affect the quality of the game, which affects sales. If you're also working with a publisher, and you don't hit their minimum review score, that'll cost you even more money. So don't crack that whip too hard, and give your peeps periodic vacations to get their happiness gauge back up.

Stage 1 actually only lasts for five to 10 seconds before you hit Stage 2. Now your considerations are Dialogues, Level Design, and Artificial Intelligence. Since we're not creating a game that emphasizes story, we can scale down Dialogues. And since business simulations greatly benefit from a realistic market, we should scale up AI. At the end of Stage 2, you get the option to add another game feature, which improves its chances in the market but adds to dev time and total cost. Initially, your only choice will be Basic Sounds.

Then in Stage 3, we have World Design, Graphics, and Sound. Again, we can apply some reasoning: Sim games don't have sprawling worlds, so we can focus on making it look and sound nice. So let's crank up Graphics and Sound.

Finishing Your First Game

As you go through these phases, you will collect three different kinds of points: bugs, technology, and research. You can publish right away and save money, or you can let the game automatically tick through the bugs before tapping the Finish button. (You'll have a large number of bugs when you start out, to reflect your lack of professional experience.) After bugs are squashed, you'll continue to get a trickle of art and technology points, reflecting additional polish before release. But you can't let that go on for too long, because you have to pay for salaries and rent every month.

Then you get a breakdown of how much experience you've collected. Each of the three components of each stage gets a progress meter; the more time you spent on a component, the better you get at it in the future -- but the market doesn't respond well if you keep making the same type of game over and over, so you don't want to keep those sliders the same every time. However, pushing those sliders too far from their ideal positions will have negative effects on the outcome of production. Ultimately, the challenge is in balancing the honing of your skills against the constantly evolving tastes of your customers.

At this point, you can tap on Trash Game if you think the game turned out poorly, or hit OK to proceed to the next step, where the review scores and blurbs come in. Since this is your first game, made on a shoestring budget, don't expect to win any awards. If you played smartly, you should get an above-average score. Now that your game is on the market, you'll start receiving income from it.

Game Reports, Research, and More

Right after release, you have the option to perform a post-mortem called a Game Report, where the developer analyzes how the game was produced and how the market responded, in the hopes of finding ways to improve future products. This is a good idea when starting out. It will tell you how good your combination of topic and genre was, what stages you should devote resources to, and how well the genre matches the platform. You'll also earn additional research points. Our game report indicated that we made the right decisions, or at least we didn't make any bad ones.

We had 23 research points after the report finished, but only two available research areas, only one of which we could currently afford. Game Dev Tycoon recommends creating your own game engine, but that costs 50 points. For 10 points, we could add a fifth topic to base a game around -- or we could just make a new game with the available topics and save our points for that new game engine.

Since we already had sim experience, we decided to leverage that, but we switched the topic from Business to Life. This allowed us to maintain some freshness while still leveraging past work experience. PC market share dipped slightly to 43.1 percent, so there would probably be fewer sales, but this platform favors sims, which we thought should make up the difference.

However, we don't want to blow all of our recently earned money on the second game, because other platforms added over time have a one-time licensing fee. If you can't afford it, that platform is closed off to you. That may be a blessing in disguise if the new platform tanks, but it's smart anyway to hold onto a good chunk of your funds for unforeseen expenses. Once you upgrade from the garage, you'll be able to afford pretty much any license you encounter, but money will be tight early on.

Meanwhile, your first game will still be selling, and the game will pause to show you the occasional sales milestone. But sales will inevitably decline and eventually stop completely, so your next game has to come along soon. You'll also get reports indicating what platforms and types of games the market is responding to.

When your second game is finished, your progress meters may show you leveling up with certain components. Crossing these thresholds will influence the quality of your games, which, in turn, influences scores, which, in turn, influences sales. When you get $1 million in the bank, you can leave the garage and upgrade to a technology park, which has a higher monthly cost but allows you to hire people to help you make more complex and lucrative games.

Hiring, and Beyond

Once you've gotten management training for your tycoon, he or she can hire employee #2. You can pre-filter for specialists in things like artificial intelligence, engine coding, and artwork. Ideally, you choose a specialization based on which platforms are succeeding, and what types of topics and genres do well on that platform. So, for example, if the GameBoy is doing well, you don't want to hire someone whose skills are suited for making military sims. You want to make action and adventure games instead. If your applicants don't quite match your needs, you can always train them on-the-job.

Either way, they'll need time to acclimatize to this new workplace, which you can accelerate with Staff Welcome Training, for a small fee. You can hire up to four employees at this location, but each one is expensive, so we'd recommend two more personnel at most, for now. However, as your games get more ambitious, you'll need to hire more employees to manage the overall workload. You'll also soon unlock the ability to make a game for a publisher, which nets you less money per copy, but a much bigger audience than you can acquire on your own. And if you stay successful, you'll be able to return to self-publishing, just at a larger scale.

As you acquire and train employees, don't forget to keep researching better graphics and other tech, and creating engines around what you've learned. Now that you have multiple employees, they can each research independently, so the Research button now shows up when you tap on an individual worker. As your employees level up, they will make better games, but their salaries will also rise.

You'll have to make steadily more complex games as the industry evolves, so as much as you might want to divide into making another game right after your latest one, it's important to set aside time to improve your knowledge, even if it means taking a net loss for a few months. As long as you choose the right mix of topic, genre, platform, and stage development, the extra time and expense for research and engine evolution will pay fat dividends at retail. Before you know it, you'll be raking in millions and bossing around all kinds of people.

About Tom McNamara

Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.