Review: Game Dev Story (iPhone)

The truest measure of how addictive a video game is comes from how much time you've unknowingly lost because of it. It's one thing to comprehend the passage of time but still stay glued to the screen; it's another to look up and go, "holy shit, I've been playing for 12 hours?"

Certain few games fall into the latter category. I'm here to tell you that Game Dev Story, the recently released iOS game from Kairosoft, is definitely one of them. A devilishly well-balanced RPG-slash-video game development sim, Game Dev Story is one of the few games I've played until my iPhone's battery is almost gone — and then plugged it in to play some more.

The actual gameplay in Game Dev Story is simple: You manage a video game studio, including everything from hiring and firing employees and deciding the genre and theme of your next game to advertising the game before and after it's released. You can also take contract jobs such as designing a new mascot for a town, producing sound for movies or building a game engine. Early in the game there is a balance between contracts and games as you build up your staff's capabilities, buy new game console development licenses and become more and more profitable. Eventually, your staff will be churning out Game of the Year candidates, working on sequels to top-rated games, selling millions of copies, and even developing your own consoles.

"Well, that's great," you're saying. "But how is that addictive?" Game Dev Story grabs hold and sucks your life away because deciding on a new game to develop and managing its development process takes maybe 5 minutes or so of real time — and, it so turns out, this is the perfect amount to move the game into that scary "just-one-more-round" level of addiction.

The graphics, sound and writing are all pitch-perfect for the title. The 16-bit sprites strike a balance between detail and simplicity, the sound effects act as good cues for development, and the writing...oh, the writing. Kairosoft is a Japanese developer, but whomever they hired to translate the game's text did so perfectly. There are witty quips about each of the employees you can hire, the parody names of consoles and other video games are spot on, and the review quotes for every game you publish are exactly what you'd expect. There's something about seeing one of your staff pop up a word bubble that says "Fight!" when each game development cycle starts that is downright charming. I know "charm" gets thrown around liberally in describing video games, but for hardcore gamers who remember consoles like the TurboGrafx, Neo-Geo, Nintendo Virtual Boy and know the history of gaming, there are plenty of references that will catch your eye — like the name of Intendro's motion-based console, the Whoops. Employees go the same way, too — you can hire people whose names are clear parodies of Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Shigeru Miyamoto, Bill Gates, and more.

There's also a certain wackiness in the kinds of games you can create. Games are made by mixing genres and types, and while this can lead to some fairly straightforward ideas — golf simulators, ninja action games, and reversi puzzle games are all good, straightforward combinations — you can also get creative. As you level up and train your staff, you can unlock genres and types, which is where things get weird. Dating sims are as popular as you'd expect from a Japanese developer, but poncho? Swimsuit? Mushroom? Time travel? Some of the types are a bit weird, but once you've developed your game studio into a juggernaut, there's little harm in trying some combinations out.

The depth of the game is also seen in the RPG elements. You can level staff up, and move them through a job system to unlock new roles that also bring new skills and expertise. As genres and types level up, you can add points to your game studio's expertise in different aspects of game development, like the game world, polish, cuteness and niche appeal. Moreover, those direction points and genre and type levels are saved if you start a new game+ after finishing the initial 20-year career, allowing you to make the second time through that much easier and more successful.

A game about making games could have ended absolutely horribly. Despite there being a bunch of work simulating games available (everything from city planning in Sim City to the various Tycoon games), the only other game where you run a studio I can remember is Segagaga, a Japanese Sega Dreamcast game that tasked you with...running Sega and the Dreamcast. Really, this is uncharted territory. But with its addictiveness, catchy writing, and quick tempo, this is a game that I will keep coming back to for a while.

Recommended for:

  • Hardcore gamers, who are guaranteed to love the various industry references spread throughout the game
  • RPG fans who can appreciate a game where you can level up your game genres and types, and turn Shigeru Miyamoto into an awesome hacker
  • People who want to sell 10 million poncho racing games
  • Oh my god I'm still shaking this thing is addictive why can't I quit you

Game Dev Story is available on iOS devices for $3.99. The reviewer purchased a copy for himself. He completed the game through its 20-year storyline twice, winning Game of the Year just once. His best-selling game, adventure game Sorrowwind 5, sold more than 39 million copies.