“10 Tips for Finding a Developer to Make Your First Serious Game”

1. Work out your serious game idea and learning goals as much as possible before you approach a development team.

If not, the developers will make the game that they are capable of making which may or may not be the game that fits the best with your goals.

2. Play AT LEAST two commercial video games BEFORE you consider even talking to a development team.

These games should be popular with your target group and you can ask them for suggestions. If you are not in touch with your target group at this point, please read “10 Tips for Making a Successful Serious Game” and go back to step one and revise your game idea and learning goals based on input from the target group.

3. Talk to other people who have made serious games that you like and find out who developed their games and what advice they would give you .

Even if you don’t like any of the serious games out there and want to do something completely different, those serious games out there could have had the same goal as you at the beginning. Talk to the people who hired the development teams and get their side of the story.

4. Play the serious games that your candidate serious game development team has made BEFORE you interview them.

If you have major decision-making authority in the selection of the team, DO NOT delegate this task to someone else. If you think, “Well, I don’t play games,” that is precisely why you should play their serious games. The target audience for most serious games includes people who don’t play games so you would be a GREAT test case for how able they are to connect with that portion of the audience. Once you have played them, you have a very strong basis for talking with the serious game developers about what they can and can’t do to make your serious game idea become a reality. If you can’t get a hold of one of their games and they don’t want to share one with you before the interview, take them off your list. And keep in mind that you don’t have to only look at teams that are in your geographical region in order to have a successful project. For more info, read “Your Serious Game Team Can be Geographically Dispersed.”

5. Interview as many candidate serious game developers as possible.

By knowing what different developers can offer you for your money, your B!@#S!@# detector will become a very sensitive instrument. “It’s impossible to make a cooperative video game!” Alarm! BS alert!!! If you want to interview commercial developers that have never made a serious game before, feel free to do so. But make sure you interview serious games companies as well. You might need to reconnect with them after it doesn’t work out with the commercial game companies. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…..

6. Use the interviews to educate yourself and your team.

Be very open with each development team about what you know and don’t know during the interview process. Let them educate you and you can educate them about what you want for your serious game. If they start talking about vertex shaders and you don’t know what they are and how they are relevant to the conversation, ask questions until you understand. These kinds of interactions are important for both sides because they are an initial testing ground that will form an important basis for your working relationship if you move forward with them.

7. When you educate the development team, show and tell them what you want them to know.

Do not hand serious game developers research papers or reports to read. That is the culture of your world but it’s not part of the culture of the game world. You can give them relevant papers as a sort of test to see how willing they are to read and discuss them with you but you may be passing up a good team if they fail the test. That being said, the more that you can play games and become familiar with their world and the more that they read the research articles you give them and discuss them with you, the better your collaboration will be. Both sides need to make a stretch at meeting the other halfway. This “tip” is my attempt to encourage you to work on meeting them halfway.

8. If a development team says, “This will be easy,” when a serious game like yours has never been done before, proceed with caution.

If you’re interested in a serious game that’s not innovative, then it may be the case that it would be easy for the developer to make. But do some homework to check out if that’s actually the case. Personally, I would walk away because I like to make innovative games that break new ground and move the field forward. If a developer has the impression from the start that an innovative project will be easy, I don’t want to work with them. Excellence does not come easy and innovation involves risk and courage to face the unknown to move the field forward. A developer who says an innovative project is going to be easy from the start is either naive or thinks that their customer is naive enough to believe them.

9. Make sure the team will work with you on a design document BEFORE they start production.

Even if you’ve done an excellent job in fleshing out your serious game ideas and learning goals in #1, you are still going to need time to finalize a game design document with your serious game team so that it will be consistent with what they can do. And yes, scrum and agile project development are great but the more you can specify what you want in the end product, the better. Also, keep in mind that a lot of development companies have to pay the salaries of artists and programmers that are not working so they want to get you to start paying for programmers and artists as soon as possible. I am sympathetic to their position but just know for yourself that it is in your best interests to lock down your design as much as possible at the beginning even if the plan is to develop the game through rapid prototyping. You inevitably adjust along the way anyway but the adjustments should be minor or you’ll lose a lot of money and time managing changes.

10. Shhhhh……Have a secret budget and project schedule in your mind that you don’t share with your developers. 

I believe that transparency is a good thing. But there are also times when it is appropriate not to be transparent. Here is the deal. No matter how many projects software developers work on, they truly believe in their hearts that they will deliver your product on time. They will also tell you that they have never been late in delivering a product and they are telling you the “truth” when they say that. Their product wasn’t “late” because they negotiated to extend the project deadline with their client’s approval. They met the extended project deadline on time!

Here is what happens in the middle of EVERY software development project. There will be a bug in the program that will take X days, weeks or months to address that they truly had no way to foresee.  However, these “bugs” come up in every single software project. If you don’t acknowledge that in the first place you further can’t acknowledge that you have no idea how long it will take to resolve them. The fact that you can’t predict how long it will take to resolve them makes it very difficult to plan for them in the beginning of the project for the client or developer. If the serious game developer will not  admit this possibility, you as a client should be prepared to deal with this reality with your “secret” budget and project plan. So, before you sign on with a developer, do not blow your whole wad on the stated contract amount. Plan to have extra money in the bank earning interest to pay for the extra time needed to address the bugs and complete the project. You also should NEVER promise to deliver the game on the completion date as stated in the contract. It NEVER happens. Again, don’t say I didn’t warn you….

By the way, developers will correctly come back to me to tell me the “truth” that their clients are largely the source of the delays with feature creep requests and delays in delivering them needed materials or resources. There is truth to this as well. Don’t worry developers, I’ll give you some tips to deal with us annoying researchers and our foibles as well.

In the meantime, everyone else, happy hunting for your serious game developer!!!

I welcome your thoughts about this list. Please feel free to comment in the box below.

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4 thoughts on ““10 Tips for Finding a Developer to Make Your First Serious Game”

  1. Pamela – thank you for these thoughtful and insightful instructions. I do have a serious game idea that I am just beginning to flesh out with a friend so I’m nowhere near ready to approach developers. It is very good to know what to do prior to speaking to them. I’ve hired developers for multimedia software development but not for gaming.

    Question: How do you protect your idea short of getting a patent from developers who might want to steal it and develop it themselves?

    • Hi Stefan, You can protect your ideas when you present them to potential development teams by having them sign an non-disclosure agreement. To be double sure, you should put “CONFIDENTIAL” on the materials you give them to evaluate your project. That makes it really clear what you want to protect. They might also ask you to sign a Mutual Non-Disclosure agreement so that you will also keep the details they share confidential. This shouldn’t be a problem for you to agree to. Some big video game development/publishing companies (e.g., Electronic Arts, Nintendo) do not allow their employees to sign non-disclosure agreements when considering game ideas. I don’t think you’ll be talking to any of these if this is your first time out but you never know. Then it is up to you if you want to talk with them at all given your ideas can’t be protected.

      I hope this helps. Good luck, Stefan!!!

  2. Thanks Pam! Appreciate your reply. I do use confidentiality agreements for other work that I do so I may use that form once the idea is fleshed out. BTW, this idea is for kids primarily with adults as a secondary market and is a serious game. Once I have this fleshed out, if you are interested, I can perhaps connect with you offline to share. Lots more to do based on your excellent ten step program!
    My cousin married someone from the Netherlands so I’m going to borrow some Dutch from your LinkedIn conversations with Sheila and surprise my cousin when next I speak with her. She’ll freak out! 🙂

    • Hi Stefan, Good luck in fleshing out your serious game idea! Feel free to contact me when you’re ready to share.

      Also, feel free to borrow the Dutch phrases but keep in mind that the pronunciation is REALLY hard. They use the guttural “g” and have very funny sounding vowels that we don’t have in English. Let me know how that goes too! Veel success!

      Met vriendelijk groet,
      Pam

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