The Minimum Viable Product Dilemma

At the Ottawa Game Conference on May 29, 2012 a common idea kept on being expressed by several speakers: If you’re planning on launching a game or app, it’s important to get it out as soon as possible, and continually update and iterate until it’s a finished product. Of course, Minimal Viable Product isn’t anything new, though it did get me thinking about our own games in development now, and when they can be considered MVPs ready for the market.

When thinking about launching a product in a crowded space like the Mac App Store, you’ve got to ask yourself if putting something out there too early in the production cycle might actually end up burying it in the mass of apps forever. What I mean is: if the app ‘ain’t all that’ the first time around, why will anyone bother giving it a second chance as upgrades and iterations are implemented?

What most argue is that by putting a product out in a preliminary state you get the consumer feedback you need to improve the app and make it a more robust product. But I can’t help but continue to wonder, how does one know for sure when they’ve reached this MVP threshold? How do you know when you haven’t gone too far in production that there’s no turning back, or put it out so early that it isn’t remotely competitive and is likely to fail at a later release date? How do you put out an MVP for a game that will create the conditions that will have consumers coming back for more?

Thinking about all this, I realized that maybe I didn’t have a very good grasp of the MVP concept. So I did what most people do when they find themselves in the dark: Reseach. What did the experts have to say? Let me fill you in.

I started off by going straight to the source – Eric Reis, one of the pioneers of this ‘lean startup technique’. He starts off by saying that “(the MVP’s) power is matched only by the amount of confusion that it causes, because it’s actually quite hard to do.” Excellent. Now I’m getting somewhere. He goes on to explain that  the MVP is “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort… the definition’s use of the words maximum and minimum means it is decidedly not formulaic. It requires judgment to figure out, for any given context, what MVP makes sense.” Now I’m really getting somewhere!

At first I felt a bit frustrated, because what this really means is that determining the MVP for a product is a completely subjective process, but I realized that this makes perfect sense. Only the designer, or the people intimately involved with the creation of a product, could really understand what the MVP is for their particular product. Who else could do this anyway?

In a post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, David Aycan, a Design Director and Business Design Discipline Lead at IDEO, further develops the MVP strategy by pointing out common mistakes made by entrepreneurs and tips for enhancing successful MVPs. He gives five very helpful tips; let me see if I can break them down:

1. “Cut the fat, not the essence”

  • Your MVP should include the critical components that will differentiate your offer from the competition, thus making your product ‘truly viable’.

2. “Prototype multiple MVPs in tandem”

  • A diverse set of MVPs can allow for more feedback leading to an ability to choose the right route to invest in.  (A valid tip, though I’d say difficult for indie game developers on tight budgets and time constraints)

3. “Include a strategic business model hypothesis”

  • Have a fluid business model: “the idea is not to perfect the economic model prior to building the MVP, but to have some idea that the economics you are proposing will set the venture up for eventual profitability and a low-friction scaling process”.

4. “Consider and retain the passion-igniting elements”

  • Stay true to your company’s (and your own) values and principles – this gets people behind your company and your products.

5. “Don’t get too fixated on the present market landscape”

  • The market is “a moving target”, so aim for the future. (Definitely easier said than done!)

Tips 1, 2, and 3 are clearly relevant for MVPs; I’d say 4 and 5 are more general tips for good business practices; they don’t necessarily speak solely to the concept of MVPs. Nonetheless, all very helpful tips. Thanks, David.

So, to bring it back, what does this all mean for us game developers? How do we know that our game qualifies as an MVP?

Clearly there is no straight answer. Again, it’s really a judgment call. But as long as it retains and displays its essence, it’s made with heart and with gusto, and it’s a vision for the future, you’ve got something ready to go.




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