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Phil Steinmeyer, PopTop Software

For the past few editions of this book, PopTop Software's president and lead programmer, Phil Steinmeyer, has shared savvy strategy design tips. Steinmeyer has a number of games under his belt, including Railroad Tycoon 2 and the Tropico series.

When it comes to general game design, Steinmeyer says to focus on a small niche somewhere within the gaming universe for your first project:

If you can, create something with a built-in audience that will find your product with little marketing or distribution clout on your end, and with no big-budget competition. Some excellent niches to start in are war games, detailed 4X space games, games about semi-obscure sports or hobbies, gambling games, and so forth.
Too many beginning game developers overshoot on their first game and never get it done. First, games are rarely brilliant—better to get something completely done and published and shoot for the moon on your second game.

Where does Tropico fit in?

Tropico was my fifth major game; I had a much bigger budget and a more experienced team than anybody would typically have starting out. My first game (released in 1994) was a low-budget war game called Iron Cross. I did all the programming, most of the art and sound, and it was my first game—a true garage effort. There was a built-in audience (World War II enthusiasts), and little big-budget competition. It didn't sell nearly as many copies as my later games like Railroad Tycoon 2 and Tropico, but it did all right given its budget—I made a decent amount for my time invested, and more important, I got my start in the industry and moved on to bigger and better things.

But is it possible to make a game easy to get into and understand while trying something new at the same time?

It's hard to define it—this is sort of a "gut feeling" thing. I think Tropico was pretty good with this. The concept was quite novel (playing a Caribbean dictator, à la Fidel Castro). There had been few if any games set in the Caribbean or Latin America before, and our humorous Latin/Caribbean feel was very fresh, I think. At the same time, we grounded our gameplay in previous successful titles, particularly the SimCity series, although that was only a rough gameplay guide. But we thought the millions of buyers of SimCity and RollerCoaster Tycoon would immediately be able to "get" Tropico just by looking at the screenshots or seeing a little snippet of gameplay.

For more from Steinmeyer, flip to Chapters 6 and 21.

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