The lean movement has clearly taken off in the startup community.  First designed by Toyota in the 1950’s to improve their production cycle and minimize faults, it has gone through multiple rounds of adaptations for small business development, and recently been popularized by Eric Ries and Steve Blank.  But like so many movements (#occupy, the Atkins Diet, and a few religions I can think of), what began with good intentions has become severely overhyped and underdeveloped.  Too often now, companies decide “we’re going lean!” before they understand what it means, how to do it, and whether it’s right for their business model.  The Lean Movement was meant to improve innovation and reduce time, but when applied carelessly it risks doing just the opposite.  This is especially true with the most often mentioned lean concept: the “MVP” or Minimum Viable Product, and its application to game development.

Startup teams, including gaming companies, often get so wrapped up in creating the MVP that they devote more time to minimizing product design than they would have just building the damn thing.  This also encourages too much focus on product and little or none on process – which is what being lean is really about.  You simply can’t launch any game – a $60 console came or $1.99 mobile game – with barely comprehensible graphics, half a story, or partial mechanics.  Remember, MVP is minimal VIABLE product: a fully functioning game, to which you certainly can add features, adjust stats, or redesign quest lines, but that must launch into the market on par with the competition.  You rarely get a second chance with your audience in this industry.

Gaming startups need to refocus on process early on; incorporating clear and relevant Scrum, and finding ways to test ideas and get teams talking earlier.  The easiest way to do this, while reducing development costs (time and money), is to step away from your computer, pull out a good old pen and paper, and make a playable physical version first.  Before spending days building a database or weeks designing characters and elements, sit down and play it; use pieces from board games, D&D pages for stats, or paper cut outs for elements.  You’ll learn right away what facets you could cut out of your first game, what aspects are actually fun, and what elements may be poorly balanced; and you’ll probably get some great team bonding and fresh ideas out of it, too.

So before you go drinking the Lean Kool-aid, pick up Eric’s book “The Lean Startup” from your local library, check in on Gamasutra’s Scrum articles, and read up on how Gary Penn and Denki have been developing their games.  Lean isn’t about the final product, it’s about the process to getting there.  This is more important than ever with game design, when you really can’t pivot well once your game is launched; you can only go back to the drawing board and try something new.