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Opinion: Lessons Learned From The Indie 'Meatgrinder'
Opinion: Lessons Learned From The Indie 'Meatgrinder'
August 30, 2011 | By Daniel Cook

August 30, 2011 | By Daniel Cook
Comments
    32 comments
More: Indie, Design, Production, Business/Marketing



[Daniel Cook, chief creative officer at game developer Spry Fox (Realm of the Mad God, Triple Town) offers his take on what he sees as common -- and sometimes devastating -- missteps for indie developers.]

Up on the sixth floor at last weeks' PAX 2011 -- above all the cacophonous, hateful marketing that replaced all human interaction -- there was a much quieter space, where the indies and board games gathered. Every station was manned by someone who had poured their souls and life savings into make a dream reality.

I sat down with devs. We talked. I played their games. They told me about their relationships, their trials and their bright hopes.

Honestly, it was heartbreaking. So many great games. And yet so many broken business models, broken production techniques and broken philosophies of what matters. Eighty percent of the games being shown will not make back their development budgets.

Maybe 30 percent of the teams won't survive the next two years. Some will be burnt out on games forever. This human loss is a loss for all of us. A handful will get lucky and stumble towards success that gives them another year or two of financial runway before they crash and burn when luck runs out.

Many of the devs are 95 percent of the way there to supporting themselves financially, yet they cling to views of the market that prevent them from ever feeding their families with indie games alone.

Here are some particularly painful observations -- not all games I saw have all of these issues, but they were very common.

No understanding how to put their game on multiple platforms: Your game is fun and is pure gold. Leverage those years of work by putting it everywhere. Partner if you don't have the resources to do it yourself.

No understanding of the logistics of multiplayer: You can easily make a multiplayer game that is impossible for others to play. Just do local multiplayer, only with no join-in-progress feature and no friendly way to play with strangers. You've just guaranteed that the massive effort you put into multiplayer will be enjoyed by a tiny percent of your players only a handful of times. By hamstringing multiplayer with design philosophies from 20 years past, you've essentially crippled all long-term social value for your game.

No trial or freemium version: There's this weird hope that people will see a screenshot of your game and buy it. That is how the world worked for Nintendo in the 1980s. That isn't how the world works now. Give the player value and then upsell them.

Over-reliance on PR: Press doesn't translate directly into sales. You need distribution first and foremost. Steam is a start. Mobile is good. Flash portals are great. If you can get into Summer of Arcade or other gatekeeper-controlled promotions, there is an incredibly slight chance you can make money on XBLA or PSN, but that indie-friendly window has mostly closed.

No monetization strategy: Many of the games have reams of content, but they aren't charging for any of it. The "one low fixed price model for everything I build for the rest of my life" sounds lovely for a gamer, but damns developers to the poorhouse.

Years spent building expensive consumable content: This kills me. Indies sacrifice richness and length of gameplay for production values and throwaway levels. Painful tales of crunch and burnout result. Afterwards, each one says it wasn't worth it. Yet they do it again and again and again. Future games are 5 percent more efficiently made because "they learned their lesson." They need to be 80-90 percent more efficient.

No long term vision for a game: So many teams think they'll make a game and then move onto the next. Instead, ask how you turn your game into long term franchise. You've created immense value. Don't throw it under the bus.

Limited metrics or playtesting: Few teams have a version up and running in front of players on a regular basis. Many are showing the game to players in large numbers for the first time at PAX.

Focus on engines: Wow...so much passion for cool engine tech. Such an incredible waste of life. Almost every single design I saw did not require a custom engine and could have been done in half the time with Unity or Flash. And the gameplay would not suffer in the least. And 100-1000 times as many people would play it.

Complete ignorance of running an online game: Turning their great gameplay into an online service that brings in a steady stream of revenue is a completely alien idea. History has good lessons for indies here. When you create disposable games you get a highly bursty revenue stream with a high likelihood of zero cash flow times. No cash flow = death.

Every single one of these will kill your game and your company even if everything else about your work is great. And it really doesn't take much to fix them. A shift here, a tweak there.

What if there was a slightly easier way of learning these lessons without having to go through a multi-year, multi-game meatgrinder? To cut out just some of the divorces, the resentful kids, the broken friendships, burned up years and the wasted savings? Perhaps by talking about how financial issues create an emotional rollercoaster, a handful of indies might skip ahead a few steps on their personal journey and have one or two fewer scars at the end.

Yet, when I mention any of these issues, they simply do not compute or are seen as minor unimportant side items. Indie devs have deeply held assumptions and huge time investments in their games. (Talking about engines alone is a nigh holy war.) To question some of these topics is to question the foundations of their passion.

So the best I can do often is give them hugs and words of encouragement. I have deep love and respect for those that choose to learn through failure in their own passionate ways. There is something quite heroic and deeply tragic about the blind journey. I've been down it myself many times. Go indies.

Further info:

Work life balance
- Rules of Productivity

Efficient Production
- Content is Bad
- Goodbye Handcrafted levels

Distribution
- Game of Platform Power
- Flash Love Letter 1
- Flash Love Letter 2

Generating ongoing streams of revenue
- Learning from touring bands


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Comments


Jack Menhorn
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Yes!

Tony Celentano
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Fantastic article, I agree with all points. Incorrect monetization strategies can cripple a game, it's amazing how many developers try to cash in on the "pay for perks" model while creating a humongous gap between paying versus non-paying players. I wrote an article on this very topic that I hope you'll read http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/TonyCelentano/20110830/8330/3_Simp
le_Steps_to_Extend_Your_MMOs_Lifespan.php

Becky Muth
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I completely agree, Tony and have seen all too often when the cash flow starts rolling in, that becomes the main focus of the reason for the game. It's fine turning a game into a business, as long as the main objective for creating the game in the first place isn't lost in translation.

Ron Alpert
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The average indie developer, especially these days during the boom, are not business-minded. They are much closer to hobbyists or fortune-seekers, many jaded by the traditional industry. They come from a background where they've never had to deal with things like marketing and promotion, biz dev, in any meaningful capacity and doing things like market research feel like a waste of time when they "should just be coding."



To be honest, it is unfair to expect anything less. This is a new world and the floodgates have opened for "anyone to get in," and we are still at a very early part of this phase. As time goes on, many indies will get burned/give up and move on to whatever next idea they have, or learn from (at least some of) their mistakes and mature to produce better business plans and therefore more accessible products. In the meantime, it's a gamer's market.

Tony Celentano
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Your first paragraph sums up MUD developers, yet two companies (Simutronics and Iron Realms) are still raking in cash over fist, despite a: MUD's being 'outdated' and b: MUD developers suffering almost everything you said.



I'm curious as to your opinion on the longevity of niche games like Achaea, which enjoy large financial success despite small player population, utilizing "dual currency" models.

David Paris
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I'm curious what makes you think Iron Realms is making significant money. They don't seem to have the draw for a substantial player base, or the ability to pull significant income from what they do have.



I'm betting its more of a life love thing than a solid business model, but I could be wrong. Can you point to any actual information?

Tony Celentano
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You're equating a large audience with a large income, when really you just need a small audience making large purchases. Iron Realms games are free to play, yet they offer an "elite membership" to players that grant exclusive perks. The cost of being an "elite member" is $25 a month, twice the cost of a WoW subscription. Iron Realms has a playerbase in the thousands, so even if just 500 of them pay $25 a month, well, do the numbers. With a mostly volunteer staff, it's easy to see that their business model is all profit.

John Tynes
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Seriously? If they're raking in a princely $12,500 a month from those 500 players, that's $150k a year gross. If they're renting office space, that's more like $125k a year. I have no idea what their server hosting and bandwidth costs to run the games but even if that $125k a year is pure profit, turn that into salaries and after taxes you're talking about maybe $90k a year. For a staff of what -- one? Two? Three? That's not a business model, it's an enabled addiction.

David Whatley
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In point of fact, our "MUD" like games (GemStone IV, DragonRealms' etc.) do make a lot of money. An order of magnitude more than the highest figure mentioned here. But that doesn't make them necessarily a model for how to do anything going forward. We invest heavily back into our products, but mostly we are taking care of our loyal fan base with constant content and engagement.



This is more of a story of about how to give a hit product legs, not how to get a hit product in the first place. For that story, pro or comtra, watch what we are doing with our just-released iOS game: Tiny Heroes.

Jeremy Saunders
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I cannot speak for Simutronics, but at Iron Realms, despite having a smaller player base, we have several full time, well paid staff. The optional subscription mentioned above is just one of many ways we generate revenue. As with the Simutronics games, we have been able to finance and develop several other side ventures with backing of our main company.

tony oakden
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I think I disagree with the first item "No understanding how to put their game on multiple platforms:"

Some games work much better on some platforms than others and leveraging what makes a particular platform unique is often a way to claim a niche market which the bigger companies are not able to exploit.



I do agree though that many indies (myself included) start of by thinking they can make the game they want to make with scant regard for who is going to buy it. The old adage "If you make it, they will come" is no definitely not true of the games industry any more.

Todd Boyd
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Additionally, depending on which platform you release on first, you may be legally prevented from releasing on other platforms (at least for a time).

Lars Doucet
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Danc - I've been a devoted fan of your columns for quite some time, and I understand the underlying points of your philosophy, so I'd like to ask you a pointed question, if you don't mind.



I notice that you've become a fan of multiplayer and microtransactions as of late. I understand this as a fullfilment of your first principles (don't build expensive fast-burning content, diversify revenue streams, get in front of lots of eyeballs, use cheap-fast-good engines like flash, leverage distribution, etc, etc), which of course all makes sense.



So, do you think that the following things are fundamentally unworkable, or can they be leveraged in a way that fulfills your goals?



* Monolithic experience (you get the whole thing for the price, rather than buying pieces)

* Single player

* Desktop-oriented offline play



As far as monolithic experience, I don't necessarily mean "fixed price." The humble indie bundle is an example - you can set your price, but you buy the whole thing, not a piece of it, and everyone gets the same software.



I ask this because, though I definitely get what you're saying and I agree with the principles, I don't really like playing (or designing) the kinds of games that result from your conclusions.



Steambirds and Realm of the Mad God are cool, but I just don't like micro-transactions, and I'm not a fan of online games that require me to connect to the internet (and, as an Indie, the specter of building and maintaining an online service is pretty intimidating). Nothing fundamentally wrong with them, it's just not my style.



However, your points are very important and to be ignored at ones peril. No designer should put on blinders and say, "I'm going to make my game my way and the money will just roll in and find me." So, I was wondering if, in your opinion, your design philosophy can be used to leverage new ways of making different styles of games, including, for example, games that exhibit the three features I mentioned above.

Jeff Hangartner
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"Perhaps by talking about how financial issues create an emotional rollercoaster, a handful of indies might skip ahead a few steps on their personal journey and have one or two fewer scars at the end. Yet, when I mention any of these issues, they simply do not compute or are seen as minor unimportant side items."



On that note I'm actually just finishing up a series of articles (on my Gamasutra blog) covering my adventures in marketing and watching my game bomb. Article IV is dedicated to the Psychology of being an indie dev and dealing with the stress of spending your money, watching sales figures rise and fall, making big decisions, handling critics and pushy marketers, watching your game get pirated, etc. Article I's up now, and I'll be posting the rest as I finish 'em up this week! :)



I love the endlessly optimistic indie attitude, but I really think devs should search out some kind of short business course, even an online one, just to get a handle on how managing budgets, schedules, employees, finances, marketing strategies, etc. works in normal business models. It's not FUN stuff, but it's important and gives you a solid structure to build on and a plan to follow.



I think Lars has a point that the games that result from what you're describing fall into a certain mold where ya, they're profitable, but most indies are actually gamers themselves so there's that struggle of "but I'd be annoyed if I downloaded a game and 90% of the content was an in-App purchase" Personally I think it's important to focus on making some money first so that you can afford TO make games that are risky and might not pay off.



At the very least, developers should read your points and think about them and consider ways they might be able to integrate them to their designs. I know I'm eager to get into making games that involve in-App purchases because the money potential is astronomically higher but I also know designing the game will involve a lot of "is this going to tick off gamers, or will this content I'm charging for seem fair?" :)



- Jeff



bulletproofoutlaws.com

Andrew Ekeren
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I've been following Daniel Cook for quite some time, and can safely say that the "90% of content" comment doesn't apply to the games he designs. For instance, in Realm of the Mad God all the purchasable items are either cosmetic (pets & cloth dye), available as random drops (instance keys), or simply open up new and slightly varied strategies (additional character slots and storage chests). None of these are things that make the player feel the need to "buy or be left behind" like most Facebook premium games. It is a very ethical approach that even single-player indie games can adopt without feeling like the scum of the earth.



PS: Your article on psychology sounds really interesting. I'll definitely read it soon. :)

J Brian Smith
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This has been touched on by others but "Turning their great gameplay into an online service that brings in a steady stream of revenue" is not a "A shift here, a tweak there." It requires in many cases a dramatically different game design, and even when it doesn't it's a dramatically higher implementation cost (plus ongoing costs associated with running the servers).



I think the rest of your advice is excellent but that piece runs counter to the entire reason most people are doing indie games: they want to build the game that they feel passionate about first and foremost. Of course they want to make money doing it and even maybe have a shot at getting rich. But if making money was the top priority, they would be working at a big publisher or doing non-entertainment software altogether.

Michael Joseph
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J Smith said: "I think the rest of your advice is excellent but that piece runs counter to the entire reason most people are doing indie games: they want to build the game that they feel passionate about first and foremost."





To these people I would say that treating their labor of love like a business will make their project __BETTER__ both in the short and long terms. Further they'll stand a better chance at becoming empowered to improve upon it in the future and to make the finished product more closely match their ultimate vision.



Developing the dream project is not mutually exclusive to being smart about things and being smart is really what running a business is all about. If they can switch their thinking to accept this reality, then they may realize that the shortest path from A to B may actually involve going thru C, D, E first. (eg. first we'll release some smaller sensible apps and build our business and if those go well we can use the revenue to hire more people and work on the dream project and actually get the dream project done faster than we would had we worked on it exclusively from the start.)



Working on a labor of love is no excuse to act stupid. To summarize several of Mr Cook's points, managing your project like you're running a business will make you more efficient, will force you to think early on about monetization strategies, and will help you formulate your long term vision. Altogether they will increase the odds that you, your business and your projects will survive to fight future battles.

Bart Stewart
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To be fair, I think J Smith was not objecting to treating the design of a commercial game as a business process. What was being questioned was the contention that redesigning a game concept to work as an online service model requires only "a shift here, a tweak there."



An occasional offline (and therefore self-contained) event and a constant online presence are very different content delivery models. They create extremely different expectations in players. So it seems a little unreasonable to think that changing a game designed for occasional offline play into a game with always-available online content is relatively easy.

Daniel Cook
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@Lars



Sure. I still make single player games myself and it is how I got my start. You don't control as many of the variables (distribution, monetization, retention, etc) so your options are a bit more limited, but it is by no means hopeless.



Here are some points that still apply:



Distribution:

A lot of devs just stick their game on a website that gets a few hundred hits a month. Put your game on as many friendly download sites as possible. Ones with good populations are players that fit your game are gold. (Steam is the current gold standard in the core PC downloadable space, but it doesn't hurt to try to be everywhere that has a non-abusive contract)



Trial

Let people play your game and then upsell them once you've demonstrated value. And don't give away the whole game for free in the trial.



Efficient design

I've yet to see a game where a few tweaks to how they make their art assets and levels wouldn't result is lower production costs with little decreased in perceived player value.



Games as a service

Quite a few PC devs constantly update their game and do everything they can to maintain their community. Minecraft is the most recent example, but many of the indies that survived the Casual Downloadable boom and bust have followed this strategy for years. Just like online games, you can create a direct relationship between your players and your customers unmediated by middlemen. This means they look to you when they look for their next moment of entertainment.



Think of some of these ideas as 'Lean Game Design'. They are more a philosophy for maximizing your chances of success than a recipe that tells you what game you should make. Asking the questions are the important part. The specific answer is going to be dependent on your game.



I look at certain developers who have really solid relationships with the right distribution channels in the right windows of opportunity in the market. You seize the opportunities at hand. Just do it in a smart, cost effective way that mitigates risk if you happen to be wrong.



take care,

Danc.



PS: Regarding the pain of developing your own scalable online backend, you might want to check out player.io. They are a white box solution that I've seen client focused folks have good results using.



PPS: Just musing out loud on a very different topic: Something I personally struggle to understand is the sea of nostalgia we now swim through. When I grew up, games were this bright new thing that was always shifting and changing into some unknown amazing and transformative future. With no past, anything was possible. I'm always surprised when I hear that someone doesn't want to make the 'immoral new thing' because they prefer the 'good old thing'. These aren't your words, Lars. But the sentiment floats out there and it just doesn't match the idea of games as a frontier.



Heraclitus, baby. There is only fire and change. Embrace it.

Michael Joseph
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re: "I'm always surprised when I hear that someone doesn't want to make the 'immoral new thing' because they prefer the 'good old thing'. These aren't your words, Lars. But the sentiment floats out there and it just doesn't match the idea of games as a frontier.



Heraclitus, baby. There is only fire and change. Embrace it. "

--



I'd say the disconnect you experience comes down to a difference in perspective. Games are a frontier of sorts and I doubt very much there's many independant developers holding onto the past out of nostalgia. I think there are some who look past the fancy graphics of non indie mainstream titles and see a fundamental decrease in the quality and diversity of games. I think some of them would argue that it's actually many of the big players in the industry who are refusing to embrace change and who are not venturing out into the new frontier and who are content to pump out sequel after boring sequel.





As for the main tips in your article, I think another unfortunate reality is that some indies (especially younger ones) have to learn things the hard way. One has to be able to honestly evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses to determine (for instance) if they need to work with a producer who will help keep their work focussed and prioritized. Unfortunately evaluating one's own strengths and weaknesses is something many never think to do and others are incapable of doing objectively.

Lars Doucet
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Cool, that's a really thoughtful response.



The core tenant of my strategy has always been "don't quit your day job," so if my indie career doesn't pan out, at least I didn't mortgage the house and I'm still getting paid :)



As for the rest of it, I definitely agree. I appreciate the explicit not-putting-words-in-your-mouth note on the PPS, but I'll still rise to the challenge:



There definitely IS a pretty strong nostalgia filter over indie gamers, mostly because new entrants into a field start by copying what they already know, usually things they played in their youth. Of course, nostalgia conveniently edits out all the unplayable crap that came out in the 80's and 90's.



I'll jump in on the "opposition to the new" thing real quick, as this is one of my favorite topics. I understand you weren't calling me out on this one, but here goes anyway:



Although some might, I don't oppose new things BECAUSE they are new. Rather, it is because I believe advances in technology are *not* neutral. Technology is devised by intelligent people with explicit purposes, therefore intentionality is built into technology. The old adage "a hammer can be used to build or destroy" is true only because a hammer is so simple (and because it was explicitly designed to drive nails with one side and pull them out with the other). A nuclear missile has a pretty explicit and undeniable purpose - to hurt people and break things (exaggerated example, of course).



Another exaggerated example, but closer to our field: genetically altered "terminator" seeds designed to self-destruct are built with the moral intention of forcing farmers to buy them again every year. People like me oppose these advances, not because they are new, but because they are bad.



Likewise (but perhaps without the moral equivalence of Monsanto), many (but not all) social games are built with the moral intention of stringing people along to suck virtual quarters out of them. This isn't bad because it's new, it's bad because it's bad. And old things can be just as bad - this is exactly the same model the arcades used, something that nostalgia generally papers over.



Of course, I think it's wrong to trash everyone who uses microtransactions or universally proclaim them as evil in all cases. I just think there is a moral intention in many implementations of these systems (I'm looking at you, Zynga), and that moral intention is exploitation.



That's why I prefer monolithic sales - you pay the fee, you get the thing, the WHOLE thing, and after that our relationship as designer and player isn't tarnished by financial incentive.



But let's look at things another way - microtransactions really ARE an elegant solution to a problem, which is to lower the floor and raise the ceiling on payment - make it so as many people can gain entrance as possible, and find ways to make ongoing revenue from their project. I'm just interested in exploring other ways of achieving this very worthwhile goal :)



Thanks for getting a good conversation going!



I would comment on the other points, but as I agree with them and this is too long anyway, I'll stop here :)

Megan Fox
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You can hold all those views and still design smart. Like Dan mentioned, games-as-service aren't evil, and don't create a monetary spectre. Adding new content every month, adding a bunch of add-on content pieces to extend the game, trials, etc - these all work perfectly well with a monolithic game.



Look to Dragon Age: Origins and its various DLCs (and one giant expansion, Awakenings) - very traditional old-school game, monolithic in nature, but with tons of other side-stories to play through if the player wants to try them all.



Also look at games like Shadow Complex, that use social ties to increase engagement. I didn't care so much about punching guys... until I saw that my friend had punched only 10 more guys than me, so if I just made an extra effort to punch a few more... and there we go - my experience improved, and I was encouraged to keep playing (and play in a unique way) all thanks to a tiny leaderboard popup. It's still a single-player game, it's still a monolithic experience, and yet I could kinda-sorta play it with my friends and laugh about it in the office the next day.

Jamie Mann
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I think the main lesson for an indie dev (assuming they're looking for commercial success: some people just like to make games!) is: be patient. Most of the high-profile, commercially successful indie games (e.g. Minecraft, Braid, World of Goo, Super Meat Boy) have two things in common: they were produced by experienced developers and a lot of time was spent polishing the game prior to launch - years in some cases.

Jason Girdler
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Focus on engines - Man I struggle with this one. I fully agree with the whole wasted life thing and I hate myself when I realise how much game I haven't worked on because this engine feature is going to be so useful in my next project...

Tomiko Gun
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"Focus on engines: Wow...so much passion for cool engine tech. Such an incredible waste of life."



HAHA so true.

Alex Hutchinson
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A few bonus notes:



- No true differentiation from existing games (or worse, Super Nintendo Games): Most Indie games are pale echoes of the 1990s. If people stopped buying those games then, they sure won't be buying them again now. Worse, despite cries for innovation, most of these games (and even iOS and mobile games) are less innovate than the latest revision of Madden. Indies are often failing not to succeed with new ideas, but even to have new ideas.



- Excessive focus on niche audiences: Connected to the first one, but Indie games tend to be even more naval gazing / less accessible than 'mainstream' games, limiting their audience and only reminding your average person why they didn't play games 15 years ago. Where are the games the average person would want to play?

Michael Joseph
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re: "Where are the games the average person would want to play?"



I find more than a little cynicism behind that question. I for one am not trying to develop games for "average" people.



Did William Shakespeare write plays for the average person? Shakespeare expected his audience to rise to his level and parents and teachers expect their children to rise to the level to appreciate and understand those works and NOT to stick to watching easy, unchallenging, "average" crap meant for their "average" selves.



When we start creating seperate classes of creative works for the different classes of people (eg nobles vs plebs, educated vs uneducated) then you work to debase the entire culture. And by "classes of creative works" I'm talking about substance and content and not genre or medium.

Karl Parakenings
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Shakespeare did actually write plays for the average person. Going to the theatre was culturally (and physically) slumming until relatively recently; he was simply trying to make the best product he could while making them as good as he could make them under the circumstances, and that included writing for an eye to what would attract audiences. There are many parallels between stagecraft and playwrighting and the modern game development industry.



It's only in hindsight that literature and theatre attains cultural status. Until history validates you, you do the best damn job that you can, and that includes making it accessible enough that you're not driving people away. It's no different for games than it is for writing, painting or music.

Michael Joseph
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I don't know.



"he was simply trying to make the best product he could while making them as good as he could make them under the circumstances, and that included writing for an eye to what would attract audiences."



Good point. But seems to not be so cut and dry as pandering to the lowest common denominator.



That said, I will concede that creating something for "average" people does not necessarily mean creating for the lowest common denominator.

John Tynes
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I think one of the problems we have with the current wave of indie games is that they're remaking and demaking the games they loved when they were young, the stuff they played on NES or Game Boy or whatever, which means they're hung up on engines and single player and simultaneous-start symmetrical multiplayer and all that. This new world of freemium games and always-online games and so on is so new that we haven't yet seen the rise of gamers who take them as a baseline to innovate on.



We're not that far off. Kids who were playing the likes of Ragnarok Online and Club Penguin six years ago are hitting college age now. I want to see what they come up with, having grown up in this new paradigm. I don't need to see another innovative dual-stick shooter or 2D platformer.



And Dan, while you kindly tried to pull out of the crash dive in the last paragraph, you still managed to score a critical hit: for all that indie devs are bush-league heroes for their creativity, they are fucking abysmal at reaching a useful audience or designing games whose ambitions and critical thinking are properly scoped to their market.

Megan Fox
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There already are indie Freemium games out there, being made by a new generation of developers. They have depth, actual gameplay, and are miles beyond the typical click-fests. The issue is just... that they don't find a market ;) Pretty much the same problem indies in other markets hit. You're also seeing a new generation of indies making visual novels, what with their explosion in popularity a few years ago... with much the same difficulty.



There's really no magical line separating indies that cut their teeth 20 years ago vs indies today. Kids growing up playing Club Penguin don't stop there - odds are good they've fired up emulators to play the classics, they probably had a portable game system at some point, odds are relatively good that they've played on a console at some point, etc. Casual gamers don't typically go onto become game developers. The very act of becoming a game developer implies some deeper interest in the craft, some passion for it, which kind of necessitates that they've gone beyond casual interest.



So yes, they'll go out and make the kind of games they've attached themselves to, but it won't be magically separate from our generation. They'll still be making Shadow Complex successors, or Metroid Prime successors, or Zelda: Noun Adjective successors, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution successors even. There will still be indie platformers, and there will still be indie shooters, and there will continue to be indie freemium games et al.



(a big driver behind indie games being 2D platformers has nothing to do with tastes - it just so happens that 2D platformers with simple tiles are amongst the simplest style of game to make, with a legion of toolsets out there to train you up to making just that sort of game)



(similarly, twin stick shooters are the easiest style of 3D game to make for a team without strong art support - they're kind of the default choice, and give you a great excuse for just having arenas full of spawners)

Callum MacKendrick
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I've been lucky enough to recently work with a successful, experienced dev team on a game (admittedly, a sequel) that recently got to #1 on the app store in about 20 countries. This is the most commercial success that I've seen in the industry, during an admittedly short career. The achievement speaks to the brilliance of the original concept and the team's talent, but the game was

-unoriginal

-totally single player

-single platform (iOS)

-tested by only one full-time QA person and part-time by several staff

In fairness it does have in-app purchases and the monetization strategy was worked out already based on the original game.



As a result of this and other experience I agree strongly with Jamie Mann's comments, esp. the one about polish making the difference between indie success and failure. Which is why I am surprised that 'production values' was panned as being one of the things to which indies should devote less focus.



Wouldn't highly polished, fast-burning consumable episodic content be justifiable if it was also easily re-used and re-purposed for future episodes? Wouldn't this be a way of reconnecting and refreshing a fanbase? Hasn't this been done successfully in the past? <- Not rhetorical questions; I'm really asking since that would be my game plan if I were a lone-wolf indie. Many indie devs don't have the connections or the clout or the money to find good experienced collaborators, producers, and so they go it as a one-person op or possibly a couple part-time cronies. Which isn't a bad thing at all, usually, except...



Even if I were a genius artist, designer and programmer I don't think I could build a satisfying multiplayer, always-on, in-app purchase type game without devoting many years to it, and isn't that part of the risk we're trying to avoid as indies? So it seems (but what do I know) like Lars, J Smith, are on the right path, even if single-player is usually the path to ruination. (Is it?!)



I also think too much is made here of innovation. The average dev cares deeply about innovation because it is a sign of talent, and experience fulfilled, but the average player cares little for it; their focus is on fun. The predictable, reliable and well-tread can often be very fun, esp. with a good coat of paint. We see real innovation in indie thought experiments all the time in weekend competitions, but the vast majority don't go anywhere except possibly as lessons learned for future experiments.

If that isn't enough, innovation is also risky, and isn't this mostly about mitigating risk to indies?



Lastly, I think that Shakespeare's enduring popularity had a lot to do with knowing how to play to the penny crowd (groundlings) and the royalty in the upper tiers, with simple plots that anyone could follow but lots of in-gags for the educated classes. Probably a good lesson for game writing in there somewhere.


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