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Game Dev Tycoon reminds its creators that success is fickle, and failure is always on the table

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Meta-game still goes strong after five years of winks and nods at indie development

game dev tycoon greenheart games
Game Dev Tycoon
Greenheart Games

Patrick Klug only metaphorically put DRM into his game, and he did so five years after it launched. But the effect was practically the same.

“It reminded me how you have to really prepare yourself for a general audience,” said Klug, the co-founder of Greenheart Games and developer of Game Dev Tycoon. “On the day [the update] released, we saw its lowest [user] rating, multiple negative reviews, people saying ‘How dare you do that,’ or ‘How dare you portray piracy in this way?’”

Earlier this month, Klug had gotten Game Dev Tycoon, which launched at the end of 2012, back into the news the same way he and his brother, Daniel, got it there in the first place. With a playful poke at piracy.

Game Dev Tycoon, a business-management sim that takes place over 35 years spanning the major eras of video games development, introduced “Pirate Mode” to its console versions in celebration of the game’s mobile launch back in November. In it, players’ theoretical creations would be under siege from software pirates and freeloaders; they could research DRM options to secure their titles, but of course, that risks pissing off the installation base. who pays for the game and has to suffer with the inconvenience. “Bankruptcy is likely,” warns the mode.

pirate mode in Game Dev Tycoon
“Pirate Mode” in Game Dev Tycoon
Greenheart Games

Game Dev Tycoon is available on Steam, but it originally launched DRM-free for Windows PC at the end of 2012. Back then, Patrick Klug had a wry idea. He uploaded a cracked version to torrenting channels, in which every studio a player started was doomed to fail as pirates circulated cracked versions of their virtual projects.

“When we published that first blog post,” five years ago, Klug said, “I said to my brother, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m going to take a two-week break; I’ve worked every day of the last year. The next morning, we had 500 emails in our inbox.” Vacation was officially canceled. Game Dev Tycoon quickly passed Steam Greenlight in 2013, but its Metacritic score hovered just south of 70 as the Klugs analyzed where the game wasn’t connecting with its players.

In some ways, the success of Game Dev Tycoon has been as inscrutable as one of the fictitious projects (“Y-COM” or “Aladdin’s Creed”) players start within it. When the Klugs struck out on their own to make video games six years ago, they were captivated by the idea of procedurally generated resource-management sims that were all the rage of the time — think of Terraria or Minecraft’s hold on the popular imagination around 2011 and 2012. But that was beyond their reach.

“We had thought about making a colony simulator where you programmed robots to mine resources, but realized it was ridiculous to think we could do that by ourselves, so we had to pick a smaller idea,” Patrick Klug said. “Thankfully, we both loved business simulation games, we loved playing them all the way back in their day on DOS systems, and felt like they were under-represented in the video game world.”

Game Dev Tycoon was born, with full credit and acknowledgment to Game Dev Story as an inspiration. Game Dev Story was a mobile release, however, launching in 2010 and largely unchanged since. Game Dev Tycoon launched on PC and not mobile at the end of 2012 not because the Klugs wanted to avoid biting on Game Dev Story’s turf, but because it was written in HTML 5. It was until they hired Rarebyte, of Austria (where the Klugs are from), that the game was finally ported to mobile late last year.

But Game Dev Tycoon’s origins made it easily moddable without releasing an official toolkit. “If you knew HTML 5 and JavaScript, you could write mods” for Game Dev Tycoon, Patrick Klug said. “People were adding new platforms and story elements. The modding community, fairly quickly, started doing things we did not feel were possible.” Among those mods was a multiplayer mode, wherein players logged into a server and ran their studios in a persistent world alongside one another.

Patrick Klug is grateful to have a game worth modding, but he notes that oftentimes a mod to it ends up as a bolted on feature that isn’t fully integrated with the rest of the game. This is partly what gave rise to “Pirate Mode,” which was an attempt to introduce new winks and nods to real video game development that ripple throughout the game. “A lot of mods are the start of something,” he said, which is why he and Daniel Klug are seriously considering a sequel.

Meantime, they’ve paid attention to how people play the game, and what they’ve seen has helped keep it fresh and the updates rolling. “We watch people play it on YouTube and Twitch, and it really gives you a different view of the game,” Patrick Klug said. “It’s humbling to see this person is struggling here and it’s my fault because I didn’t anticipate that.”

The Klugs continue to play Game Dev Tycoon for themselves, and it gives them a sometimes dark reminder of the mortality of their real-life venture. “The most common way for people to fail is to have a big hit game, then you move int a bigger office, hire a bunch more people, and make a bigger game, and then you go bankrupt,” he said. “It’s a constant fear of ours that we’re falling into a similar pattern. The entire idea of Game Dev Tycoon is you have to make compromises. You can’t do everything.”

tavern keeper alpha
Tavern Keeper in alpha state.
Greenheart Games

Greenheart Games is engaged in its next effort — Tavern Keeper. In Tavern Keeper, players run a bar in a fantasy landscape setting. Players will have the usual business development tasks of managing supply and growth, leavened with weird fantasy context events, such as orc rebellions or undead uprisings.

The Klugs have been noodling on it since 2014 and hope to get it into beta some time this year. “Tavern Keeper is a different league as far as engineering complexity,” he said. “We feel like [thanks to Game Dev Tycoon] we were given a chance to do something bigger than an indie game with our own savings, and business development sims have been a passion of ours.

“We wanted to have a different perspective,” he said, and “this gives us a little bit of distance to also look at Game Dev Tycoon with fresh eyes.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this post incorrectly compared Tavern Keeper to another game. This post has since been revised.