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Indie Devs: Your Game is Your Baby
by Keith Burgun on 09/06/13 04:17:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

appsIn the world of digital games, you generally have two ends of a spectrum.  On one end, we have the AAA stuff - the stuff that has a standee at GameStop and that you might see television commercials for.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have the indie stuff - stuff that you encounter simply browsing app stores or due to word of mouth.

While I have a whole slew of problems with AAA games, I don't find it that interesting or worthwhile to criticize them.  They are, for the most part, doing the only thing that they can do.  They work in an industry where the expectation and standard is a multi-million dollar production, which in turn means that very few risks can be taken at all.  This results in games that are of high production quality, but which are extremely safe, canned, and unoriginal in their gameplay.

But I can't blame them for it.  Not only is it asking a lot of any investor to risk millions of dollars on an idea that seems like it could be cool, but making another third-person action game about "zombie apocalypse!!!" is basically a guaranteed success.  People just buy these things, year after year, over and over again, for sixty-five dollars.  So you can't blame the AAA people for what they do, and that isn't what this article is about.

However, you can blame the indies for some of the problems they have.  Being an independent game developer myself, I feel it's particularly fair for me to criticize some of the behavior of my colleagues.  And for all the hype that's been swelling around the world of indie games over the past few years, there is one issue holding them back from their potential more than anything else - and it isn't their lack of a budget.

What I am going to hold indies accountable for is their generally poor, unsupportive attitude towards their own work.  For the most part, indies make an app, throw it on a store, and are onto the next thing.

 

The Costs of Experiencing A New Thing

A fundamental part of my ideology as an artist/creator/stuff-maker-guy is that I have a responsibility to the people who experience my work.  When someone sits down and runs my game / listens to my song / reads my article / watches my video, they are paying out a resource of theirs, a resource more valuable than money.  They are paying me their time, and further, their attention, and to some small degree, a challenge to their entire point of view.

To illustrate my point:  a person comes to a piece of art with a certain view of the world.  This view that they already had contains all of their experiences - all the movies they've ever seen, all the comic books, all the videogames, paintings, poems, and of course, all of their personal experiences.  They come to you with some Grand Total of Experience.

But then they see your thing, which - assuming it isn't a complete copy of something that already exists - is a new thing.  It is not already represented in their Grand Total of Experience.  This simple fact actually causes some degree of tension, some dissonance, as the person must now incorporate your new thing into their Grand Total of Experience.

In this moment, we scramble to make room for this new thing --- to organize it in such a way that it doesn't ruin what was already there.  Most often we categorize it alongside other things we consider "similar", and then are relieved.  Sometimes we can't do this, however, and it results in a paradigm shift, which can be awkward, confusing, or even painful.

This entire process generally is uncomfortable, because of the risks involved.  That Grand Total of Experience is a big part of how we self-identify, and whenever it gets challenged, it's scary.  We can sometimes feel like our entire being is in doubt.  This is why people tend to gravitate towards things which are at least similar to things they already understand - it's a lower risk.

Of course, many people realize that it's in their interest to take these risks, and so they force themselves to go outside their comfort zones quite often.  But that doesn't mean that they aren't paying the costs.  Even if you have a positive attitude about trying new things, the costs cannot be avoided.

 

I may hesitate to watch this movie based simply on how weird it looksI may hesitate to watch this movie based simply on how weird it looks

 

The Game Developer's Responsibility

So, knowing this, how could you ever put something out there for people to see if it wasn't the best you can do?

I realize this sounds like a platitude.  Obviously we should all do the best we can; everybody knows that.  And I know that there are real-world limitations that cause us to not be able to do our best, at least within a given time frame.  Maybe there's a personal tragedy which interrupts you.  Maybe you just really can't come up with a solution to some difficult problem.  Who knows.  There are plenty of legitimate reasons for why doing your best would be delayed.

 But there really is no excuse for either of the following things:

  • Releasing something into the world before you feel like you've done the best you can, or
  • Releasing something, then finding a problem with the thing / way it could be made vastly better, and then deciding you'll never do it

And yet, this is standard protocol in the indie development world.  People release half-baked games which feel like college projects, or unfinished betas*, all the time.  Further, actually supporting your released game is nearly unheard of.  I have some ideas for why this is.

 

"Indie Games Aren't Real Games"

Last month, I picked up an OUYA console, and I've been scouring its entire app store looking for games.  I'm happy to report that I've found at least four or five really original, interesting games with innovative gameplay.  However, just about all of these feel like they aren't well-balanced, refined, supported, or have the set of features that would really allow the game system to shine.

What's really nice about the indie-est of the indie games - which many of these interesting OUYA games are - is that you can look up who made these games, send 'em an email, and they'll probably get right back to you.  I emailed about 4 or 5 different OUYA developers** of some of the coolest games on the system.

The two most common things I would write people and say are:

Do you have any plans to add/improve online multiplayer to your game? Leaderboards/Leagues?  Other community features like chat?

Often I'll play some really great game that is fully capable of being a sport - a thing that is a part of a person's life, but in order to do this, there generally needs to be some effort on the part of the developer to create a community around the game.

I love your game, but I think it needs balancing/fixes.

Most games I play, I feel like I'm able to find the optimal strategy within an hour of playing.  I'm fully aware of how some things can seem imbalanced to a new player but actually aren't, but I've gotten confirmation from the developers themselves that they know their game is not balanced.

I've written developers huge patch change lists.  I've drawn them new maps, charts, etc - all for free, mind you!

Sadly, to both of these, no matter how emphatic and specific I am, I'm almost always sent back a depressing response.  The developers almost always:

 

  • Are just eager to move onto the next thing.  I understand this feeling, but the idea of pumping out two or three mediocre games and leaving them to fade into obscurity every year isn't a positive way to spend your time.  If you want to make games as practice for yourself, that's fine of course, but don't subject other people to it, at least without a huge flag saying, "this isn't meant for other people to play!"  The world already has enough mediocre crap, so you're really just adding noise to the world and making it harder for people to find the good stuff.
  • Don't see their game/their own potential.  Sure, maybe it has a neat gameplay idea, but what's that really worth?  It'll never be great like League of Legends!  It's just an indie game, after all. 

I really think that indie developers have, on some deep psychological level, bought into the idea that the things they make aren't "real" games.  Real games are made by teams of 80+ people with millions of dollars.  We're just doing "hobbyist" little digital arts and crafts.  Many indies hide behind a facade of "being a gag game" - having some kind of outrageously silly theme that they feel excuses them from having to try and make the game be truly great, because hey, it's just a novelty product after all!

I've also had at least one developer tell me, after reading my suggested patch notes, "I was scared to change anything because I didn't want to make it worse."

 

Your Game Is Your Baby

The reality is that indies have every capability of making games that are not only as good as AAA games, but vastly better, due to the fact that they can afford to take risks.  Right now, every indie developer has it within his power to create not only the best digital game of the year, but arguably the best game of all time, ever, digital or otherwise.  Minecraft (not a game by my definition, but a colloquial game) is a great example.  Someone came up with a great idea, and then supported it, and saw it through.

Of course, some developers will say, "yeah well that's Minecraft.  If I was making millions off of my game, you can bet I'd support it then!"  It's true that there's an entire echelon of super-successful indie games like Super Meat Boy, Braid and Angry Birds.  But that's actually irrelevant, because no matter how successful or unsuccessful your game is, you have a responsibility to the people who bought your game.  If you know how you can make your thing better, you have a responsibility to do it.

The good news is, actually acting on this responsibility can only improve your chances of better success with that game, as well as with any games you do in the future.

Home of the Underdogs, an abandonware website I spent much of my 20s browsing. The Abandonware situation, it seems to me, is perhaps escalating in a new way due to indies' lack of caring.
Home of the Underdogs, an abandonware website I spent much of my 20s browsing old games that had been abandoned by developers/publishers. The Abandonware situation, it seems to me, is perhaps escalating (in a new way) due to indies' lack of caring.

I'm not saying you have to make it better right now.  I understand that sometimes life gets in the way.  If you have to delay improving your game for some amount of time, then that's how it has to be.  But as soon as it is possible, you need to support your game.  Fix balance issues.  Add or remove rules if it will improve the game.  Add new social features.  Add variants.  Keep telling people about your game.  Keep it alive.

I want to see developers taking pride in their games and improving them decades after they're released.  Even if it's just a small patch every couple of years - after a certain amount of time, the game won't need much in the way of fixes.  Then focus on community building, variants and other cool ways for people to explore your system.

Your game is your baby.  You probably spent a year or more working on it, so how does it even make sense to just abandon it once it's out?  If it's not successful, that's even more reason to support it.  Make some awesome balance patch and tell people about it.  Consumers love to see a game that's being supported.  If I know that, when I buy this game, I will be getting balance patches, new features, community support and more from the developer, I feel way better about my purchase.  In fact, you almost can't even put a price on that.

I'm not saying never make a new game, and I'm not saying stay full-time on a game you released five years ago.  What I am saying is more a problem of attitude.  Independent videogame developers simply have a bad attitude about the things they make.  They seem to want to make a game, upload it to the app store, maybe issue one or two patches to fix critical issues, and then move on forever.  We can do so much better than that, and again, we have a responsibility to our players, who have kindly loaned us their time.

Treat your game just as you would a baby.  In its infancy, work hard to make it strong.  When it gets released like when your baby's first day in preschool or something.  After a couple of decades, it might be strong enough to move out, go to college, get a job, but that doesn't mean it stops being your baby.  You should always be there for your games, the way a good parent is always there for their child.  If you are, I believe that players will always be there for you.

~

*I should point out that one caveat to this is something like a public beta.  If you make it abundantly clear that your app is a beta and needs testing, then I think it's perfectly fair to show those testers your game even before it's the best it can be.  It sucks for them, but they know what they're getting into, and you need beta testers!

**Also, you should know that while much of this was inspired by my experience dealing with OUYA developers, this isn't an "OUYA thing".  I've talked to developers who've made games on iOS, Android, PC and Xbox Live and their replies were similar.


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Comments


Jonathan Jennings
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Great Article Keith our games really are our babies we spend hundreds of hours researching and applying, and planning , and investing, and publicizing ,and developing . After pouring so much into something to simply make it exist and make people aware of it , it really does become an issue of how can you not devote more to maintaining it when you gave so much more for it in the first place?

E McNeill
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Speaking as one of the developers that Keith is talking about:

Yes, we have a responsibility to our players. But that responsibility is to ensure that we're providing a positive experience, a good trade of time/attention for experience, not to provide the absolute best possible experience we can. If I truly had to do the best possible, I would literally never move on from my first game, and the world (and I) would be poorer for it. "Works of art are never finished, only abandoned."

There is such a thing as diminishing returns. Sometimes, even with support, a game's audience becomes smaller and smaller over time, and at a certain point it doesn't make sense to spend effort on such a small group. In other cases, the cost/benefit ratio of making an improvement (whether we're measuring that benefit in terms of player experience or financial gain) is just not worth the developer's time. And the game's developer is usually the person with the best perspective to make that judgment.

On top of all that, there's genuine value in moving on to new things! If I could spend my time making small, costly marginal improvements to an old game, or I could spend that time pursuing rich future possibilities, the best use of my time (even if we're only judging that based on value to players) is often the latter.

So yes, my game is my baby. It grew up, and I sent it out into the world, and although I'm still very proud of it, I've let go. I think that's totally proper.

Wes Jurica
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That baby may have scars and one or two emotional issues... don't we all?

Keith Burgun
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Hey E, you were indeed one of many developers who gave me this similar reply.

Firstly, I should make it extra clear that the only reason I even said anything to you about it in the first place is that Bomb Ball is like a fantastic, awesome concept, and you're one of the best game designers I know of.

At some point, there are diminishing returns, sure, but at the same time with a game system, they tend to kind of be kind of mediocre until the gameplay elements are at a certain level of balance/polish. Eventually you just hit this point of balance - and it's not like a "perfect" point by any means - but there are these thresholds of balance you hit where the game just gets leaps and bounds better.

I think that any good gameplay concept has the capability to like, take the world by storm *if* all of the elements are in the right place. If there's a decent presentation, good community-building efforts by the developer (hugely important), and strong, interesting gameplay -- I just think there's a whole world of people out there who are dying for such a thing. I know I am.

I guess it's just a difference in philosophy, but I'm trying to wrap my head around the idea that it's OK to let a game I worked on for years just sort of fade into obscurity... ever.

E McNeill
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I appreciate that you're speaking from good intentions, and I hope you know that I consider you one of the good guys, even though we do have a difference in philosophy. In truth, I think that many game devs *are* too reticent to make deeper, more complete games. But I think that's different from being willing to drop a game that's not worth the effort.

I can imagine that some games feature accelerating returns, where the design needs to coalesce over many iterations to really click. But I don't think that "any good gameplay concept" is like that. I think some designs are gold mines from the start, where others just peter out or hit a dead end. That might be the core of our disagreement.

What frustrated me more about this article was the idea that designers are being irresponsible by not endlessly maximizing unpromising designs, or the pop psychology suggesting that those indie designers lack conviction. Some games just don't seem to be ripe for improvement, and don't represent an investment of years' labor. Abandoning them to move to more fertile pastures makes perfect sense.

John Owens
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What's this rubbish about one of the good guys as if developers who move on are somehow the bad guys.

If you bring a game out and no-one is playing it then chances are it just doesn't have a hook that people care about. Or at least enough people care about to ever be successful.

At that point you can either accept that you are working for free for the joy of making the game and the few people who do like it or cut your losses and move on to hopefully something a lot of people care about.

If no-one was interested in Minecraft at the beginning do you think he Notch would have persevered with it. He might have but it probably wouldn't have made it any more successful.

How many games did it take Rovio to drop and move on from to hit it big with Angry Birds?

Personally I've spent an awful long time on my game and I would be very cautious on advising anyone to do the same. It's a difficult decision and I certainly wouldn't make anyone feel guilty about dropping a game that has no chance of success.

Sometimes you have to think about your time too.

Keith Burgun
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How many people were interested at the beginning of Dwarf Fortress? I mean the beginning, mind you.

Wes Jurica
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How many people can live on what those guys were/are making off donations?

Wes Jurica
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As you pointed out numerous times in your post, life does get in the way. Should a developer spend more time on an unprofitable game instead of getting to work on their next potential success? If you remove real life from the equation, then the answer is yes. Unfortunately many devs can't afford to do this.

So, to counter the argument you made in your first section, I say it is their budget. How could it not be?

Regardless, you have brought some anecdotal evidence to the table. Looking through the iOS and Android app stores it's easy to see that many devs update their games many times over months and years. There's my anecdotal counter.

Ideally everything should be supported forever, but it's not just indies that have this problem. Look at all the AAAs that drop support, servers and patching once it doesn't suit them financially.

Sjors Jansen
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I always find it difficult to argue that somebody should feel responsible. I know what it's like to be on both ends of that.

I think in the case of entertainment though we are very used to investing in things that disappoint us or we stop caring about very quickly, like movies or books (and that argument could probably be made for life and the world in general in a lot of cases). That doesn't justify making the problem worse, but it also doesn't exactly provide a strong fundament for morality.

Screaming and pleading won't put a dent in apathy.

Maybe there just needs to be put more thought into getting expectations in line with the product.
But that's exactly what marketing (and sometimes pride) are actively destroying.
(Which is in large part due to a lot of consumers and journalists not investing more than 60 seconds unless they get certain expectations: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/198381/How_to_talk_to_the_vide
o_game_press_in_2013.php )

And one wonders why there's all this apathy and disconnect..

There is such a huge gap between the investment of a creator and the investment of a consumer that it mostly leads to disappointment straightaway. They are completely different beasts. I know a lot of developers who are very excited to get even 1 stranger to play their game and give them a response on it.
If this weird gap somehow shrinks, a lot of issues will probably get a lot smaller.

But, as so often, things come down to market effects instead, fast money, fast talking, egos and backdoor politics.

It's noble to fight that downward spiral and I agree with your general idea, but it seems a losing battle because sadly there's more money in doing things that twisted way. Wii/casual cash ins blah blah.

When all is said and done, there's very little time to stand and think about anything else.

So instead of forcing responsibility, I'd probably put some of that energy into creating better personalizable filters (search tools). And probably some of it are just growing pains that will be solved with more diverse and specialized portals. Like concept art, classical junk etc..

Eric Robertson
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On the flip side of this opinion, you might not want to get too invested in a single game and spend 10 years of your life improving it (see my first MMO Hostile Space, IGF Finalist 2002).

These babies can create a great deal of emotional investment.

Of course I was reminded the other day, I've spent 7 years on my current project and haven't even released it yet.

Kenneth Barber
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Its a catch 22. We all want each of our babies to be all they can but as indies need to move on to offer new works. I have a title or 2 out that are not nearly as polished or complete as I want them to be. They are in what I would call the awkward chubble pre teen stage of life. I want to mature them, and I still believe in them but also have other younger more needy titles in development. The shear number of released titles and the apparent short attention span of the consumer conspire to trivialize all but the most well connected/well marketed titles. This makes abandoning old titles to start new titles almost necessity.

Its ego really, at least in my case. I am always chasing the realization of my next "great idea" even at the expense of my last "great implementation"...

Matt McConnell
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I think what Kenneth is saying is true of a vast majority of indie devs, and still holds to the rhythm of this extended "games as babies" metaphor (which is fairly spot-on, might I add) — that is, we "conceive" new ideas for games, even while our other games may still be in their growing stages.

Yes, we should continue to support all of our children, but that necessitates some prioritization. Do we take 8-year-old Fez to soccer practice, or stay home with baby Survive to make sure she gets through her bronchial infection. Apply whatever dev support needs you'd like in place of this metaphor, the point still stands: newer games often take precedence due to their relative fragility.

Indie devs have a responsibility to their players, true. They certainly should make each game a memorable and worthwhile experience for their players. However, if their heart is not in it, if they have a newer idea for a game that they'd much rather be working on, then their older game is suffering with them. I won't make any unwanted child metaphors, because that's just depressing—and not quite apt—but you get the idea. We need to do the best we can, WHILE we can; only as long as it's meaningful to both us and our players.

Israel Lazo
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You just touched my heart, seriously ='(

Robert Boyd
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The problem with long-term support of a game is that unless the game is very popular to begin with, it's very difficult to get a decent return-on-investment out of it. And I'm not just talking from a cold calculating business perspective - those weeks of work on a patch for one of your old games is time that could be better spent on a brand-new game or working on your current project.

For example, we spent a few months working on additional content to add to one of our RPGs, including a whole new playable prologue scenario. We later did a panel on the game at PAX and asked how many people there had tried the new scenario. To our surprise, hardly anyone there had played the new scenario. Keep in mind this was a panel specifically about the game so you'd expect the most diehard fans to be in attendance - the actual percentage of people who had tried the new content was probably drastically lower.

I'm also a little bothered by how cavalierly you mention online multiplayer. Doing online multiplayer right is an extremely difficult & time consuming task for a small indie team with huge potential for bugs. Not only that but it's very difficult to build an active online community for indie games - releasing online multiplayer post-launch makes it even more difficult.

Kyle McBain
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I have mixed feelings on being obligated to the player. I have always though strongly about design in general... that when you create something there are always consenquences. I have tried to implement ethics and thought there was such a thing as "responsible" design when I was younger. Ever since I started following game development as a passion of mine I wonder how much of a responsibility do I actually have to anyone. My goal is to express myself and get lost into a new world where I can explore and play. If I can make a few bucks doing this great. If people want my product to experience then I am happy and thankful and touched by it. But if the inverse is true it does bother me knowing I am alone in what I think is interesting and worth getting involved with but it does make me think and will only add to the next game I create.


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