The Design Lane - Fortis Games

The Design Lane

Welcome back to the Fortis Games ( metablog, where we offer non-fungible knowledge as a token of our appreciation.

We’ve been building toward this one. Part 1 was all about the aspirations. Part 2 was why those aspirations are difficult to fund (I blame society). Part 3 shall delve into the dark depths of assembling a Design Lane company.

How it’s different.

How it’s the same.

How if this doesn’t work out my mother is going to be right that I should have never left law and that my entire life is a fraud. Not her exact words, but we all know what she was thinking last Mother’s Day.

Shawn Foust with hair and Shawn Foust without hair
A visual representation of why mom thinks I should go back to law. I’ve told her the hair isn’t going to regrow, but she thinks it’s worth a shot.

Anyways, on to the main event.

The Design Lane

We should define the Design Lane. That seems important. As much as I like making up mysterious terms and lording them over people, it’s not particularly conducive to blog retention.

The “Design” in Design Lane is relatively straightforward. It refers to game design.

A “Lane” refers to a company’s competitive strategy. It guides the company’s choices, it determines the type of talent it wants to attract, and it drives the sort of products it’s going to make. Here are some examples of major lanes in the industry:

  • The traditional Publishing Lane focuses on building a competitive advantage around gaining access to users, typically leveraging their scale to outbid/out-market the competition. In the boxed good era, this looked like the AAA publishers with their privileged access to brick and mortar retail. Now it looks like scale spenders on ad networks.
  • The Financial Engineering Lane looks for market pricing inefficiencies that can be exploited via acquisition arbitrage. Folks buying up companies at a lower multiple than they can obtain on elsewhere market fit in here (often private/public or geo/geo).
  • The Platform Lane typically seeks to aggregate a number of content creators in a single place by offering some efficiency (either a technology like an engine or a distribution platform) and then levy a tax. It’s the publishing lane without the middleman.
  • The Disruption Lane focuses on being a first-mover in an emerging macro market shift. It’s speculative by nature, but amazing when it works out. Mobile was a good example there. Web3 folks are betting on this now.

This isn’t total coverage of the lanes, and there’s some interesting variants within and between each that are worth talking about at some point, but let’s stay focused. All of the lanes described above are commercially viable. They’re also investable to varying degrees, depending on market conditions.

None of these lanes have game design at their core. They’re all dependent on design, but they’re not driven by it. They benefit from advancements in design, but these lanes do not focus on generating them. They are design opportunists, not innovators. This does not make them evil, but it does make them unlikely to produce much by way of novelty in design.

And that’s where the Design Lane comes in as a competitive strategy. It’s a bet on game design. More specifically, it’s a bet that commercial opportunities within our industry can arise with abundance out of design innovations in addition to the more traditional bets on model shifts and arbitrages. That there is an explosive economic potential lying within so many audiences, if only they were presented with something sufficiently new and interesting to jolt them from their dreary doldrums.

In a Design Lane company, the organization must put design itself in the center of its competitive effort. It must believe that the commercial goal comes out of advancing design and be wholly organized to pursue it. A Design Lane company is open to arbitrages, business model disruptions, and other opportunities, but they’re always placed in the context of a single question: Is there a design gap (and are we positioned to close it)?

A design gap occurs when there is a mismatch between assumptions driving existing design principles/norms and the actual circumstances related to a given audience.

Some examples of historic design gaps:

Shooters. I discussed this briefly in the last part, but shooters were largely calcified, with Call of Duty and Battlefield dominating the field and typically competing within the same framework (team deathmatch + RPG progression + fidelity advancements) with periodic premium releases. Competing with these two games, particularly during the holiday season, was largely seen as a fool’s errand. This viewpoint was anchored in the assumption that the traditional publisher model was unassailable, particularly on console. Eventually, a novel design, service-based Battle Royales, that leaned into the shifts in the market (the rise of alternative distribution models, increased bandwidth, mobile, etc.) upended the space.

Roguelites. This one is in progress, with the design model beginning to move from the indie space to broader adoption. The roguelite model substantially increases the value of and durability of content by networking it together via a repeatable decision tree rather than placing it on a purely linear power progression. Indies utilized this framework because it made a body of content significantly more replayable (which made it easier to justify a price point on Steam)— the same theory is valuable in the context of a service (but significantly more difficult to design and balance). The linear model is outdated, based on a time and place in services that no longer exists. Expect more here in the years to come.

Mobile. When mobile first arose, many assumed it would be similar to the traditional premium model. It took some time to recognize these assumptions were incorrect, that the immersion framework didn’t work well on a phone. That a design focused on intermittent, session-based play throughout the day was the opportunity. Even now, there are fairly regular “AAA for Mobile” pitches, which tend to conflate largely incompatible design frameworks.

Aside: Interestingly, a more immersive model (but not typical AAA immersion) might be viable now due to recent shifts in demographics, community, and technology. Genshin Impact, I’m looking at you.

Some existing unsolved gaps that generate a lot of noise (we aren’t pursuing these):

Web3 — NFT/Play-to-Earn. Within web3, there was an initial assumption that standard free-to-play designs could be leveraged despite the fact that they are simply not built for open economies. A “Play-to-Earn” or “Play & Earn” model is not viable within prevailing designs in free-to-play. They’re mutually exclusive. This is beginning to be understood as the speculative mania dies down and people begin to talk about “utility,” but that’s an oversimplification. There’s a complicated interplay between utility, scarcity, transaction costs, and time/value balancing that needs to be worked out. Needless to say, there’s an opportunity for Design Lane companies here (just not us for the moment).

Metaverse. The aspirational metaverse, one that operates as essentially a duplicate existence in a virtual space, is going to require a completely different design model. I wrote at some length over here about what that design model might need to be based upon (I argue you start with virtual identity as the foundation rather than any particular platform or piece of content), but I’ll freely admit that I have no certainty as to what design framework might be required to generate a viable digital life. Solving for meaning in digital life seems like a good use of time for a Design Lane game company though.

Those are a few design gaps. There’s a zillion others. Some big, some small. Many of them with wildly commercial opportunities attached to their resolution. Identifying gaps takes some craft, determining which to prioritize takes a strong sense of where your design strengths lie (and hoping there’s an overlap with the identified gaps), and closing the gaps takes a heavy investment into building an innovation-oriented creative process capable of producing solves.

Innovation-oriented creative process.

So many words.

Why not just say greenlight process?

Because a greenlight process, as it’s currently understood, doesn’t produce innovation. They’re largely there to reduce the scope of a project to something quantifiable and checkable via milestones (which has the side effect of eliminating innovation discovery). In fact, many of the processes for developing games aren’t designed for innovation. That’s the legacy of an industry dominated by lanes other than the Design Lane. Since other competitive lanes tend to co-opt design solves rather than generate them themselves, the processes they’ve developed tend to skip over the angst and misery associated with innovation.

I don’t blame them. Angst and misery are decidedly not fun.

Sadly, you can’t skip over that part. In fact, you can’t build a Design Lane company using standard processes. They’re incompatible (except the Disruption Lane, there’s some overlap there).

That’s a problem. A big problem. A big process problem.

It’s problematic.

I’m still processing it.

Processing Design Lane Greenlight Processes (a process in progress)

The heart of the matter comes down to this: in the other lanes, you can assume the outcome. You don’t need to question whether something is possible, you already know it is. If you don’t know it’s possible, you can’t price your arbitrage/upside value, which means it’s not worth pursuing. It’s a perfectly reasonable principle to apply when you’re a scale business that needs to build additional scale businesses and isn’t rewarded for volatility (most public companies fall into this category, and most VC backed companies just want the hockey-stick).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, the nature of industry risk aversion was the theme of Part 2.

With question of innovation removed from the equation, the decision process in the other lanes proceeds in a fairly orderly matter. You’re basically just getting to an ROI calculation on the known, identifiable thing:

  • What is the thing we want to arbitrage?
  • How long do we think it will take to acquire/duplicate?
  • How much money will it cost?
  • How much execution risk is there along the way?
  • Can this level of risk be sustained by the arbitrage margin?
  • Is what margin remains attractive?

This reasoning tends to dominate the Publishing, Platform, and Financial Engineering lanes. The Greenlight process reflects these key questions and seeks to control the investment of resources. Gates are established to ensure the expected return is being protected before additional resources are released and everything works out fine so long as the margin on the arbitrage is big enough to sustain some execution risk along the way.

That is the Greenlight process as it exists in the traditional sense.

Within the Design Lane, there’s a slew of additional questions that complicate matters considerably:

  • What audiences do we believe are currently underserved?
  • What are they currently doing with their time?
  • Can we identify an alternative that they would consider doing?
  • What would motivate them to consider switching to that alternative?
  • How easy is it to communicate that alternative?
  • Can that alternative be distilled into a set of designs?
  • Can we determine the best design of the possible options?
  • Will those designs be defensible from fast-followers?
  • How long do we think it would take to gain confidence in this path?
  • What is the opportunity cost of pursuing this path versus alternatives?

The majority of these questions cannot be answered via speculation alone. They require experimentation. They require slamming our collective heads against the wall and bitter tears of defeat as you search through the design labyrinth, trying to find the right path. The target is often moving, and in constant competition with the other options the company might pursue. Data is sparse (particularly if you adhere to standard practices) during the early going as well. Getting lost in the maze is very possible.

David Bowie and baby from the movie Labyrinth
Of course, if a concept gets lost in the Design Labyrinth, it’ll be imprisoned by David Bowie until you navigate the maze with Jennifer Connelly. Happens all the time. Poor captured baby concept. 🙁

Process needed to change to accommodate this search. To guide it. To make progress possible amidst the ambiguity of endless possibility.

The end result is a massive overhaul of the traditional greenlight framework at Fortis. Concepts are neither vague ideas nor X for Y statements — they’re thesis arguments. They’re a statement of position on an identified design gap and a request for resources to prove the thesis one way or another. They’re an acknowledgement of the core unknowns that sit at the heart of the concept and an offering on how best to proceed with understanding whether they can be solved. They are brutal to assemble. Intellectual self-flagellation.

We greenlight when we feel like we’ve honestly identified why the design gap is there, and how difficult it will be to find a solution. Then we gather a team.

Once a team is assembled, their progress through the labyrinth is measured by increases in confidence rather than a checkmark next to a deliverable. Constant communication about ideas becomes the heart of the process, and every playtest is treated as an opportunity to learn more about the problem space we’re searching through. Knowledge flows from the data gathered via experimentation, so speed of iteration is paramount. The success of the process lives and dies on the back of collaborative back and forths between stakeholders (which are a smaller set of people than in a traditional process), with a lot more effort at honesty about where things stand.

It can be frustrating, because things often feel uncertain. Where a project stands is often in doubt, because the path through the labyrinth is hard to judge (and it may be an illusion).

It takes a lot of trust. A lot of belief in the skills and the intentions of the people in the process.

Which gets us to people. The industry processes surrounding people are also a problem.

People process problems.

Problems processing people.

Processing people problems.

Words are fun.

Next time, we’ll talk about the traditional model of hiring, training, and managing and how that maps to the Design Lane.

Here’s a teaser: Not well.

Authors: Shawn Foust