Mad Games Tycoon is like Game Dev Story but for grown-ups, so how well will it live up to the more immediate demands of a targeted console audience?
Personally, I love an economic management simulator, and to be honest, the more depth the better. Such games are becoming more common on consoles, perhaps because the Nintendo Switch bridges the gap between mobile device and home console. Whilst Mad Games Tycoon may look like a relatively basic mobile port, it actually has its roots in the more hardcore PC scene.
Mad Games Tycoon is a game, perhaps unsurprisingly, about running a video game development studio. Beginning in the humblest of garages potentially as far back as 1980, the player will develop games, research concepts and genres, build their own engines and potentially go on to publish games designed by others. Every aspect of managing the studio is in the players hands, and the game steadily unlocks new features as certain milestones are reached.
Games like this tend to struggle on consoles when it comes to their controls, thanks largely to the fact that a mouse and keyboard is considerably more intuitive and, frankly, a lot faster. Thankfully, Mad Games Tycoon doesn’t have too much trouble, simply because it is very straightforward. The day to day management of the studio is relatively automated, and the actions you’ll take that directly affect employees or rooms are generally achieved by just clicking on whatever you want to interact with.
The more challenging aspects come when doing more complex (but thankfully rare) things, like building a new room or adding furniture. Thankfully, again, Mad Games Tycoon isn’t one of those management games that has complex placement restrictions for items within the studio — most things work in any location, and add whatever their effect is to the room simply by being in it, whether usable or not.
This lack of focus on useful aesthetics combines nicely with the overarching focus of Mad Games Tycoon’s gameplay, which is a weird sort of min/maxing that has an element of unpredictability about it. As I mentioned before, the player begins their career at the beginning of a decade from 1980 to the 2010’s, with gaming in a different state of flux during each timeline.
Players beginning the game in 1980 will see that the features available to them are extremely limited, with only PC sound (bleeps) and 4-colour graphics forming the basis of most games. A few themes and two genres will also be available, and the player can set their game up so that it focuses on gameplay or visuals, story or length and so on. There are five sliders relating to these features, plus four more that indicate development focus, but once these are set, the quality of the output seems quite random to begin with.
That is, of course, because the avatar representing the player (and any early game staff) are useless, as is the technology. This results in a game that is likely to be rated no better than 50% by the gaming press (if even that) and probably only a few thousand sales at most. Training and improving staff, enhancing the technologies going into your games and improving the facilities is the only way to edge review scores up — and in turn, profit.
Mad Games Tycoon, as a result, is bloody hard. It’s ridiculously hard in fact, if you want to play it based on your own merit and not take out constant bank loans to fund failure after failure. There are a few tactics to consider — do you invest heavily at the beginning of the game and buy a bigger property with several staff, or do you keep it tight to begin with, earning your crust from contract work and releasing only a select few games?
The problem with the first approach is that if you can’t make profitable games quickly, then you’ll just end up in more and more debt until you eventually run out of credit. The latter approach, on the other hand, is financially viable, but as time in the game ticks on, new technologies appear in the market that will make your basic game designs obsolete quickly, and you’ll end up spending even more money on investing in third party engines and similar — a position that it’s hard to come back from.
This leaves Mad Games Tycoon dealing with something of a double-edged sword when it comes to console gamers. It’s not the sort of game that I think you’ll expect to succeed at on the first run through, and it’s sandbox nature means that there are no missions, challenge modes or similar — it’s just the same game every time, albeit that the player can choose to begin from the beginning of any given decade (and benefit from skipping a lot of the less modern developments in game design.)
I know that there will certainly be some console gamers willing to invest the time and effort into Mad Games Tycoon that it demands, but many will rapidly become bored with the simplistic but clunky controls, the slow rate of unlocking new features and, most critically, the opaque level of difficulty. I’m not saying that console gamers don’t like tough games — just look at how popular Soulsborne games are — but I think in a strategy game like this, it’s unfair to leave the player with so little feedback.
I can’t help but keep coming back to the game design inputs sliders — I really don’t know why I am choosing to focus only on graphics or gameplay, for example. Why can’t I have both? Why was a game that seemed to have all the right features and a currently popular genre and theme still ranking poorly? More confusingly, why is a game with an unpopular theme often rated higher, with sales that defy expectations?
Whilst I enjoy many aspects of Mad Games Tycoon, I often found myself frustrated by following what seem to be pretty clear indicators of success within the game (like the popular and unpopular themes) and yet no matter what I did, the outcomes from one game to the next seemed far too random. On about my fifth restart, I did start to refine this through very, very fine-tuning of the various development sliders, but by then, the fun of running the studio had passed, and I had become morbidly obsessed with simply figuring the game out.
In closing, it is certainly possible to have fun with Mad Games Tycoon and there is a surprisingly deep game here if you’re willing to wade through a lot of mud to find it. When you do, it’s something of a rough diamond at best and even when it shines it is simply good, rather than exceptional. Good economic management sims are rare on console and this one sits in the top half of the average, so if the theme appeals to you, then you could certainly do worse.