I don’t know what to think of Kairosoft anymore. I once saw them as a developer that was so cohesive they basically carved out their own niche for themselves on mobile platforms. Their games were similar, built on the same addictive formula. Presented in the same art-style and containing the same personality. Kairosoft was comfort food.
Things have changed since then. My opinion of them has been soured by free-to-play and free-to-start offerings that leave a bad taste in my mouth, even if I admittedly haven’t really sampled many of them. Their catalogue is now dauntingly immense — yes, the formula is addicting, but how far can you stretch that before it becomes redundant? The biggest bee in my bonnet however is how they’ve chosen to price their games on the Nintendo Switch. Yes, I’d like to play these games on my Switch, but no, I don’t want to pay double the price for that privilege.
They also don’t seem to have credits in their games, and I can’t find a list of employees anywhere, so I have no idea about the individuals designing these games.
But let me take you back to 2010. The smartphone wasn’t quite the cultural zeitgeist it is today. The mobile game market was just getting warmed up with its devious tactics, with developers everywhere jumping ship to get a piece of that pie. During this time, an unassuming Japanese developer had ported over one of its Windows-based games to the platform.
SO, YOU WANT TO MAKE A GAME
The business simulation or “tycoon” genre has been around for decades, varying heavily in depth and subject matter. I personally had, in my youth, spent hundreds of hours invested in Roller Coaster Tycoon. There’s something inherently addicting in building something and then watching it grow.
Game Dev Story comes to the genre with that in mind, but adds its own philosophy into the mix. Rather than allowing you to micro-manage every facet in the development of your enterprise, you merely steer it on its course.
Not everything is dependent on the choices you make, but rather on the employees you hire, a smattering of experimentation, and sometimes frustrating heap of luck. There’s a lot less skill involved than you might find in some of its colleagues, which contributes to its lighthearted addicting quality.
I’M ON A ROLL NOW
As the name may imply, the goal of the game is to run a game development company from its humble beginnings until it becomes a soulless machine that seeks only revenue by pumping out an endless stream of sequels. You hire staff, complete contracts, and, of course, develop games. Play your cards right and you may even get the chance to create your own console.
To develop a game, you pick the genre and type of game, trying to match up a winning combination. Then you allocate direction points, and I honestly don’t know if these make a difference, but you accumulate additional points over time. You then choose what staff takes the lead in designing the various aspects of the game.
From there, most everything is left up to luck. Whether your employees create a masterpiece or completely phone it in is just fate. Their stats play a role, but even the most highly trained and experienced employee will sometimes just put in a poor performance for no reason. You also have to watch out for random chance occurrences, like blackouts that wipe out progress (without allowing you to delay your game to make up for it) and companies releasing similar games at around the same time.
In a way, I suppose the inability to control these factors of development is actually rather realistic, but I don’t think realism is what Game Dev Story was going for here. It would just become frustrating when my staff would absolutely be nailing all their individual tasks, when suddenly something outside my control cripples the game I’m working on with no way to make up for it.
Why can’t I buy backups or an uninterruptible power supply for my company so we don’t lose data? Why can’t I extend development on the game to make up for the lost time? It can be so vexing.
NOT BAD, IF I DO SAY SO MYSELF
Like many future Kairosoft games, the first playthrough is typically only part of the story. For each subsequent playthrough you maintain your direction points, as well as the level each of your types and genres are it. This makes it slightly easier to get further ahead the second time through. There’s also lots to discover as you figure out the intricacies of employee job types and training.
This allows you to accomplish things you weren’t able to do the first time through. For example, I didn’t even attempt console development the first time around, but was able to do so midway through my second playthrough. Still, on that note, my goal for the second time around the block was to get a Game of the Year award, and it nearly didn’t happen. I had a bunch of games that maxed out the critics’ score, but still wouldn’t do any better than runner up.
Game Dev Story has a terrible habit of not telling you anything. To even partially understand the game, you have to go through the included manual, and even then, there’s a lot that is mysterious. For example, does an employee’s job make a difference? Do Designers do a better job with graphics than a director with higher stats? Is there a reason why I shouldn’t just replace everyone with hackers. What effect do genre combinations and levels actually have on a game?
YOU COULD BE THE NEXT SOULLESS GAMING SWEATSHOP
You’re maybe not supposed to take things so seriously, but I find it hard not to. I enjoy pulling a game apart and seeing how it ticks, and when I sliced into Game Dev Story, all I found was an appendix; just another mystery.
Even despite that, I was compelled enough to give it three full playthroughs, and back in the day it set me off on a quest to play as many Kairosoft games that I could get my hands on. The simple fact is that it’s charming, and its main gameplay loop is addicting. It’s easy to get trapped in an endless cycle of waiting for a game to finish development so you can start on another one while waiting for the sales information.
It’s a good fit for a mobile game, something that you can pick up and play mindlessly then quickly put away when your boss comes and knocks on the door to find out why you’ve been in the bathroom for so long.
So regardless of whether or not Kairosoft is a plucky dev struggling to survive like in the early stages of Game Dev Story or the big money-grubbing dev greedily pumping out sequels to try and rake in as much capital as possible like in the late game, Game Dev Story was a successful start for them. This may not be the last time I pick the game up to take a crack at developing my own games, rather than just ripping them to pieces.
To note, on my iPhone XR, there were some formatting issues with the text. Nothing too severe, but it was a bit distracting and ugly.
This review was conducted on an iPhone XR using the newest software. It was paid for by the author.