The Drake equation for games

The Drake equation was devised in the early sixties by Frank Drake to calculate the possibility of life on other planets. It looks something like this:

N = R * fs * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * L

N is the number of possible civilizations to communicate with, R is the rate at which stars capable of sustaining life are formed, fp = the fraction of these stars which have planets, and so on.

I realized it is possible to do something similar to calculate the possibility of a game development project being successful or not. Naturally, this involves many generalizations and simplifications. On the other hand, many projects seem to fail because of the same few problems. Although it is possible to argue with every single element of the following equation, I still think it is an interesting exercise.

So, here is Jurie’s equation for success in game development:

Ps = Ptm x Pts x Pfi x Pbd x Pcv

Ps = Probability of a game being successful. My definition of success here is a combination of critical and business success. The game is “good quality” according to some not-too-subjective measure, say average ratings, and it made more money than it cost to make.

I am not considering the long term prospects of the company or team making the game, even though this is unrealistic when there is a significant delay between mastering and getting paid.

Also, I am considering the chances of success of a single game. A more strict equivalent of Drake’s equation would calculate the number of successful games, probably in a given period of time, but I feel this is less interesting.

Ptm = Probability of the team being motivated enough that it jels and all the team members can and will focus their energy towards the product. This indirectly includes the effects of the actions of the management of the company the team may belong to.

Pts = Probability of the team members having all the skills they need. This can be roughly subdivided into: design (i.e. understanding both interactivity and entertainment), code, art and management. The latter applies to all levels: project, discipline (e.g. code) and self.

Pfi = Probability of having sufficient funding for the duration of the project. This usually involves pitching, both internally and externally, and then successfully managing the relationship with the source of funding for the duration of the project. If you’re self-publishing, you have the additional uncertainty of whether you will be able to make enough money fast enough to survive.

Pbd = Probability of being lucky enough to avoid a business disaster, such as the company going out of business, the publisher going out of business, the platform manufacturer going out of business, the publisher deciding to cancel the project, bad marketing, subcontractor failure, bad localization if done outside of the team, incompetence on the part of another link of the value chain. This basically includes anything which cripples or kills the game and which is beyond the control of the team.

Pcv = Probability of the game being commercially viable in its market by the time it comes out. This can be influenced by the team (by choosing to make the right game, actually making that game, and aiming for and hitting the right time window), but is also affected by forces outside of the team’s control. (Remember, the goal is breaking even, not making a smash hit. That is even harder to predict.) This factor does not include design or other development issues that reduce accessibility or entertainment value.

The actual values of the factors depend on the situation and are unique to each game.

It is possible to weight these different factors, but I’m not going to do that here. I think that even if people agree with the factors and their meaning, everyone will have a different opinion of which factors contribute most to failure or success, based on their experiences.

Having worked for developer-publishers for most of my career, I have always been lucky with funding, but I’ve experienced my share of business disasters. I’ve mostly done OK with the team factors, but have had problems with commercial viability: Albion, for instance, was graphically outdated when it came out in the US. Plus it launched at the same time as Diablo.

How well does the formula work for the projects you’ve been on? Are any major factors missing?