Tales from the Back Burner: Stack

Sometimes we learn more from our failures than our successes. In this series, we’ll take a look at some of our projects that didn’t pan out, and see what lessons can still be gleaned from them.

What was it?

Stack could be pitched as an innovative brawler-style free-for-all about hoarding, hauling, and hurling super-powered stacks of blocks. Think Super Smash Bros. crossed with NES pariah Bible Adventures. Wait, where are you going? I swear it’s better than it sounds!

The setting: a 2d platform-littered arena

The cast: 2-4 players vying for control of a limited supply of valuable blocks

The objective: collect stacks of blocks and carry them back to your goal. Meanwhile your opponents will do anything in their power to collect them first. Luckily, blocks are good for more than just scoring points – many have powerful offensive capabilities, like the rocket and flame blocks. Each match is a chaotic struggle between collecting as many blocks as possible, and expending blocks to prevent your opponents from doing the same.

How’s it play?

Players scramble around the stage, picking up blocks and carrying them in a large stack over their heads. As a stack grows, it becomes more unwieldy, and blocks at the top are at risk of falling off if the player runs into low platforms (not to mention providing a bigger target for attacks from other players). Individual blocks can be tossed in to a goal for individual points – even from far across the stage, if nothing else gets in the way – but running into the goal with an entire stack earns the player a big “touchdown” bonus. These differing incentives (large stack = lots of points, small stack = agile and less vulnerable to attack or mistake) provide plenty of opportunity to develop and refine strategies, react to counter-strategies, and develop personal mastery of the game.

The blocks themselves are a blank slate on which to paint an array of surprising and delightful gameplay concepts. It starts simply: a vanilla block is worth one point; a gold block is worth many. But throw a fire block at an opponent and they’ll burst into flames, periodically shedding blocks off their stack until the fire is put out. A direct hit from a rocket block will blast the entire stack out of an enemy’s hands. Hit a seed block with a water block, and it’ll suddenly grow into a vine that provides a convenient ladder to higher platforms. A well-lobbed milk bottle block will drench an opponent, attracting a swarm of hissing cat blocks, tying them up and causing them to drop their stack (cat blocks can also be picked up and thrown, but they don’t like it and will try to escape!).

What went wrong?

Stack was incredibly fun to design and showed a reasonable amount of promise as a game concept. The reason I decided not to move forward with it had little to do with the idea and everything to do with competitive analysis. Couch multiplayer games are already a well-served market segment. Even putting aside AAA heavy hitters like Smash Bros., Steam is littered with quality indie offerings like Towerfall, Ultimate Chicken Horse, and countless others.

What’s more, even with full confidence in my ability to compete on quality, the fact remains that the segment itself is very challenging in terms of market size. Titles cost just as much to bring to market, but in all but a few cases only one person has to buy the game in a group of friends for everyone to enjoy it. A few more might shell out based on an enjoyable experience at a game night, but most players would be happy with a few fun play sessions and quick to move on to whatever the new, exciting release was. This means these games tend to have a short tail.

Lessons

  • An interesting idea doesn’t necessarily mean a viable product
  • Competitive analysis is a critical component of the decision-making process. With limited bandwidth to work on ideas it’s important to dedicate time only to the ones that offer the best chance of success
  • Study the size of a potential market. Lots of competition doesn’t always imply a profitable segment. Red oceans are red from the blood of competitors, not customers after all