Saving a Flopped Game

Seeing a game flop can be frustrating, but it’s almost always remediable if you have the patience.

Icon from my show “Developer SOS” that helps Roblox Devs with their games every other week! Read more about it here.

Not Reasons Your Game Flopped

Before I get into what I think you can do to fix your games, I want to dispose of some popular reasons I’ve heard from frustrated developers (including myself). Unfortunately, these aren’t the reasons your game flopped.

“The problem is nobody plays my game”

I hear this one a surprising amount. I’m surprised by it as in my opinion it is so obviously a symptom of a problem. People not playing your game sucks — I swear I know it sucks, it’s happened to me many times. But there is a reason people don’t play it. That reason can be found, you just need to follow the clues.

“Not enough assets”

So this one is a bit complicated, you can indeed ruin a game with a bad map, but making more bad maps is not necessarily the fix. Rather than continuing to pump out potentially flawed assets, focus on figuring out what’s wrong with the current ones. A game doesn’t need to be (and in my opinion shouldn’t be) fueled entirely by new updates. Replayability is key, especially for indie developers with limited budgets.

You want to invest in systemic gameplay, using game mechanics to get as much fun as possible from the assets you have. If Chess can be fun after 1400 years with only a board & 6 unique pieces, your game can be fun without a dozen maps/swords/hats/etc. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean never add new assets — but rather pumping new assets into a flawed game won’t fix it.

“Someone stole my idea / A competitor popped up and everyone likes them”

Not going to lie — this sucks. But it’s not a reason your game flops, just a reason why it doesn’t succeed as much. Think about Mad City vs Jailbreak — they’re clearly occupying the same space, but they both continue to not flop.

That’s because each is very well made. If two competitors are equal, arguably they split the market between them. If your competitor is outperforming you that’s a game design problem on your end. Your game failing to compete is not their fault, it’s yours — something I have found myself bitter about on numerous occasions.

“I don’t have enough money to advertise”

Despite hearing it often, this has yet to be the reason any deserving game has ever flopped on Roblox. It’s a bold statement, but I stand by it. Anyone with enough free time to make a game can earn the very small sum of money needed to get an advertisement up.

Now, this is not to say advertising isn’t important — players need to know your games exists after all. But you don’t need too many Robux to get a fun game going. I made this tool a while back — it’s called the Player Acquisition Calculator. Feel free to mess around with it, but basically, it allows you to predict how certain advertising attempts will impact your game. You can see by adjusting the variables, that even a starting sum of only 450 robux can be enough to get people coming back if you figure out your user retention and monetization.

From a business perspective, it’s simple math. If you spend more on advertisements than is gained by players in-game, you will lose money. If you spend less on advertising than your game earns from the new players, you gain money. If you re-invest the money you gain back into advertising you continuously grow your game. Sure, you will start to see diminishing returns with increased advertising — but if you’ve got a decent game this doesn’t really happen until you’re spending tens of thousands of Robux on marketing a day.

So, you don’t really need much money to get a game going. What you need is a well-designed game.

Resuscitating a Flopped Game

So, if those aren’t why your game flopped, what was?

In my experience, you can figure this out with a 3 step process, and so far it has never failed me in figuring out why a game is flopping. I recommend going from left to right, as the earlier parts are more vital to a successful game. In my opinion, a game’s post-release success is almost entirely the result of succeeding in these 3 things.

You’ll notice between each step is a blue arrow labeled “Verify” — this isn’t meant to be something you do easily. You can’t just say “I have fun”, or “I was able to find everything fine”, or “I could play this every day” — I want you to prove it.

I’ve composed a handy pro/con diagram below to help you figure out how you’d like to prove it. I prefer more analytics-heavy stuff personally, as recorded data is often more reliable than human perception, however not every problem can be fully solved with numbers so live playtesting can be very important.

As a rule of thumb, have your playtests/analytics stick to a certain format. This allows you to track changes in metrics & player feedback across updates. If players spend 5 minutes in the game on average before an update, and 15 minutes after, you can prove your update had a positive impact on the experience. Just be sure to keep the Law of Large Numbers in mind when considering results.

In terms of custom analytics software I recommend getting into the Roblox Playfab program, however, if you can’t currently do that I’ve worked with GameAnalytics and Google Analytics and they both can be used to solve most problems, albeit not as efficiently as Playfab from my experience.

So now that you know how to verify, let’s break down the three major things to check.

Core Loops: Is the Game Fun?

A core loop, to those who may not know, is the core actions & tasks a player flows through for the majority of the game. For instance, the core loop of Minecraft’s survival mode is notoriously easy to understand: Mine + Craft + Survive. These core tasks drive most of the gameplay and have to be fun for the game to succeed. If there was no anticipation of finding a diamond, if there was no joy in building something, if there was no thrill in running from zombies, Minecraft would be boring. But it isn’t boring, because each part of the core loop is quite compelling.

It’s also important to note that even with content-driven games, the core loop is always systemic — though I have noticed content-heavy story games usually have lame core loops. This doesn’t need to be the case, but it often is. For instance with Detroit: Become Human, the core loop was typically: watch cutscenes + choose dialogue options + walk. With a core loop like that it’s no surprise nobody really plays it anymore.

After you figure out your core loop, verify that players have fun with that core loop. If the core of your game is boring then that’s a major problem. This is why it’s highly recommended you playtest your core loop as early as possible.

My talk on Player Motivation — it’s a bit long so feel free to use the timestamps to navigate across it as you please.

I’d also recommend looking into the field of player motivation. I gave a 90 minute lecture on it last year, and in my biased opinion you should watch it. A solid understanding of player motivation can help a ton with fixing boring core loops.

You may find some of your mechanics act against the goal player motivation. Core loops are so, well, core to the game that a small mistake in the core loop can cause a major dip across every major metric, especially player retention and play duration.

At the end of the day though, it is very rare for a game with a bad core loop to succeed. In my experience, only AAA games with million-dollar advertising budgets and next-gen graphics can ever get away with it.

Onboarding: Are New Players Accessing the Entire Core Loop?

Let’s say you’ve proven your core loop is fun — what if players aren’t playing it correctly? The previous section assumed players understood the game perfectly, but that’s never going to be the case with a new player. So is your game still fun for new players? Games that fail this step often have a dedicated fanbase, but fail to ever hit the mainstream audience due to how rarely new players can figure out what to do to have a good time.

For example, in the early Dark Souls games, they provided a shield early on to help new players not die all the time. Good idea right? It may have done irreparable damage to the series. It taught new players to cower behind a shield — this is the most boring way to play. In order to have fun players needed to be daring, with dodges and rolls. Because of this, most players left the game thinking it was boring and difficult. Now when many people think of Dark Souls they imagine a brutal and unrewarding experience. First impressions matter a ton, and onboarding is your first chance to sell them on your game.

A much more common cause of players failing to access the core loop is simple confusion. Players may get lost or stuck, and then they quit and never return. Maybe they never leave the original town, never spawn a vehicle, never equip their weapon, etc. We all know overbearing tutorials can scare off new players, but to onboard a player without one is a difficult task. It’s up to you the developer to try and get them to the fun as quickly as possible without overwhelming them — a task easier said than done.

Verify that players are smoothly flowing through your core loop in the proportions you expect. Make sure they aren’t getting stuck in one part, and make sure that another part doesn’t lead to them quitting 80% of the time. In my experience, this is an excellent case of “detect the problem with analytics, solve with playtesting” as there are so many ways to mess up onboarding you really need to play to the strengths of both tools.

Progression: Why should players come back?

So, once they’ve played your game why will they come back? Sure if they enjoyed their first time in, they might play once or twice more — kind of like popping in your favorite movie once a month. But usually, what gets them back is new experiences. This can be done through either new content/updates, or through systemic progression loops. I much prefer progression loops, and unless you enjoy the smell of burning money you should too.

Remember the core loops from earlier? Typically you’ll want to nest a core loop in a progression loop, allowing for each area to evolve through gameplay. At their most basic, a progression loop changes the status quo for the core loop, allowing you to get new experiences from the core gameplay.

For instance with Minecraft, mining gets more interesting as you get better tools, go deeper, visit the nether, etc. Crafting becomes more interesting as you unlock new production stations like brewing, find new ingredients to make new things, etc. Survival becomes more interesting as you get better weapons, armor, and meet new types of monsters, come across dungeons, nether, stakes are raised when you have more in your inventory, etc. If you only learned Game Design from Minecraft you wouldn’t be in a horrible position.

Now not all games need progression, but all can benefit from it. For example, Natural Disaster Survival is a highly systemic game that generates disasters to survive, but that doesn’t really change through repeated plays. Its systemic nature allows it more slack here than most games, but there are certainly ways it could increase user retention through additional mechanics. In many ways, Shark Bite is just NDS with progression, and as of writing this, it seems to have more players despite only having one “disaster”, namely sharks. Make sure you give players a reason to come back.

Conclusion

One final warning, don’t wait until the end to test your game. You don’t want to test the foundation of a skyscraper as you’re completing the final floor. In my own life as a developer, my games that flopped which I could never un-flop were due to me waiting until the end to test anything. When you’ve dumped a mountain of assets and mechanics on top of a single bad decision, undoing it can be unbearably costly. In some cases, it’s just easier to start over again.

Game development can be quite stressful, with players telling you different things, the envy of watching other games succeed despite their flaws, the frustration of having to create prototype after prototype — it can be a real slog sometimes. But through consciously designing and improving a game from the start you can save yourself a ton of pain, and if you’re lucky like me you may come to find you enjoy the designing/problem-solving aspects the most.

Best of luck to you and your game!

Founder of Nightcycle Studios. He/Him. Slight Workaholic.