Have you ever played a game and had the impression the developers were out of their comfort zone? Perhaps a sports title in which the official rules weren’t followed, or a movie tie-in with the source material misused in an obvious way? Mad Games Tycoon is the complete opposite, being a video game studio management sim developed by, well, do we need to finish this sentence?

It comes as no surprise at all to find that it’s exceedingly well-observed. Your voyage into game development (hell) begins with a garage set-up and a modest budget, with a choice of starting in the ‘80s, ‘90s or noughties. Office planning plays only a small part, marking out rooms and purchasing desks, water coolers, toilets, and other essentials. After hiring a couple of programmers and maybe an office worker, you’re then pretty much set until expanding into a bigger premise.

Unlike other sims, you don’t have to worry about spontaneously combusting equipment or other troublesome events. Aside occasionally asking for a fridge or similar, the staff remain content throughout, dispelling any possible fears of a walkout or protests for higher pay. That’s to say, the focus is primarily on game development rather than dealing with your team’s wants and needs.

Once a development team is assembled, it’s time to start outlining a hip new video game. This is a deeper, and more exciting, experience than it may sound. Also: expensive, with costs running into the millions. Giving a chance to expand and progress, a huge hit often doubles the initial outlay.

One of the biggest issues is choosing the right engine for the job, with a choice of buying an engine outright or developing your own. Certain engines are better suited to particular genres, and they all have a limited amount of features. After picking a genre, it’s then time to pick a catchy name, choose a target audience, select primary and secondary topics – with a ticker to show what’s popular – and whether it should be a smaller ‘B’ release or a ‘A’ title.

Sliders then shape the core experience. It’s possible to put graphics over gameplay, or story over atmosphere, for instance. Letters from fans – hidden away in one of the lesser-used menus – help put you on track for future releases. It’s worth mulling over which of the 20-30 available features to apply, as choices can make or break a game – ‘90s gamers expect more than ASCII art visuals and no joystick support.

During the early years, only 8-bit/16-bit visuals, parallax scrolling, split-screen multiplayer and a handful of similar once-essential features are available. As time goes on, more modern concepts unlock including VR support, online play, destructible environments, voice acting, and dozens more.

Another critical element is choosing which formats to develop for, each with a varying market share and their own development cost. The ever-popular PC remains inexpensive and lucrative to make games for, while consoles and handhelds come and go. The Mac, meanwhile, carves its own niche.   

Indeed, Mad Games Tycoon follows a recognisable timeline rather than a fictitious one. Consoles are easy to identify, changing just a few letters here and there or using a play-on-words. Journey through the ‘90s and you’ll see numerous systems swiftly vanish from the market, including the Katari Lion and the 4DO. Mad Games Tycoon really isn’t concern about being brazen – the initial set-up screen is full of familiar publisher/developer logos. Big shout outs to Cupcom and Siga.

Low budget, quick turnaround, products take roughly a year (10-15 mins) to create while bigger budget titles can take twice as long. While this wait may sound unnecessary, it’s an integral part of the game’s pacing. Due to the build-up and lengthy gestation period, launching a hot new release is easily Mad Games Tycoon’s most satisfying element. Perhaps even nerve-racking – there’s a lot of moolah at stake. Thankfully, the bank will bail you out if you ever accidentally become the next THQ or Acclaim, misjudging the market and releasing too many quick cash-ins.

Launching a new release is surprisingly exciting, especially when the orders start to roll in. Every game gets the review treatment, including a written review and a breakdown of its graphics, gameplay, sound, and controls. This gives a chance to see where you’ve perhaps steered development in the wrong direction. Incidentally, screenshots of your latest release are automatically generated. You can even check mid-development to see how it’s shaping up.

With your new release reviewed, it’s then time to either find a publisher – some of which specialise in certain genres – or go down the riskier route of self-publishing. Becoming a publisher requires a significant outlay to purchase both a press and a storeroom, but once acquired it’s possible to package releases with pens, T-shirts and other trinkets/tat, re-release budget games and bundles, and take on money-making publishing contacts. The risk? You may overestimate demand and be left with a storeroom of surplus stock, or accidentally sign up a stinker.

Once sales dry up, a game is automatically yanked from sale, although it can be re-released a few years down the line. Budget re-releases can bring in a surprising amount of cash, all while giving something to focus on when the team is creating their next big blockbuster.

The fact that Mad Games Tycoon is multi-layered makes for a compelling experience. Not only are you trying to keep the studio afloat, but also trying to make the best games possible with the resources available. Of course, it’s possible to bend things in your favour by other means, splashing out on advertising and buying movie licenses – including ‘Hairy Potter and the Chamber of Combs’ – to secure orders.

There’s a lot to delve into, as there’s no limit to the number of games on sale or in development at once, allowing for a crack team of skilled developers to work on an ‘AAA’ title while a smaller inexperienced team churns out puzzlers and arcade games. Taking on projects is another option, complete with a penalty to pay if a deadline is missed.

Even after spending over a week building up a studio, creating over 50+ titles and moving to three different bigger locations, I still felt like I had only scratched the surface. It’s even possible to manufacture a console later down the line, which requires not only a lot of time-consuming research but also a large facility with a workbench and a marketing team. All the while I was still chasing the dream of creating a “perfect” game deserving of a GOTY award – the achievement list suggests a 100% review score is possible. 

The only thing holding Mad Games Tycoon back from top marks is its presentation. While nobody expects a management sim to boast the latest tech, it’s still pretty crude. A comparison with 2004’s The Sims 2 isn’t far off the mark. The music, although not particularly grating, also plays on a short loop. Over an hour you can expect to hear the same track a dozen times. Considering the £24.99 price tag (£35.99 on Switch), we expected slightly higher production values.

This isn’t a deal-breaker, fortunately. It still ranks in as one of 2019’s best surprises. A hidden gem, if you will. There aren’t many games that boil down to making smart choices and reaping in the rewards. Considering how addictive that process is, maybe there should be.

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