Saturday, April 17, 2010

Picking up the right design for my first Indie game

Pixelart Landscape 2: Watching

by Josiah Sparklepants
Image used under Creative Commons license

Let’s say I have 10+ game designs in my notebooks and dozens of drawings here and there. They are all focused on hardcore gamers since I’m one of this tribe, and my imaginary games are the ones that I just can’t play in the real world. Anyway, the fact is that my budget to go in production is low, and I can’t do everything by myself, so I have to pick up in my notebooks a game design which is the most compatible with my means. After months of brainstorm about my first game, I can now conclude that I should:
  • Go 2D
  • Go Online Multiplayer
Go 2D

- In top-notch 3D, a game is directly compared to AAA titles, and this arena is already overcrowded with multi-millions dollars productions. So let’s simply avoid an unfair competition.

- Big publishers don’t create very much 2D stuffs (except « King of fighters » series and other 2D fighting games), so, if you are not cloning any of the Street Fighter friends, there are great chances that you can be noticed.

- Any 2D title that comes up is often identified as an Indie game, or as a smaller game which price can be lower. Not « low » as in « budget », but « low » as in « you have as much as what you paid for ».

- 2D doesn’t mean « not 3D ». In fact, what’s important is the original style behind the word « 2D ». You can use 3D cell shading, or any rendering trick that gives a retro feeling, or – at least – a handmade feeling. That doesn’t mean using amateur content (it’s obvious to say the production value should be as high as possible) but that means giving a human face to your game. It’s like smelling the wood of the barrels when visiting a French wine exploitation. To me, I think it's easier to give this handcrafted feeling in 2D. 3D is often seen as a cold media, and you will need really great artists to blast your 3D content out of this coldness... or to find this cool shader that works. That's why I still prefer 2D over any 3D trick...

The goal is to be different from the AAA offer, so whatever is the look of your game, it has to be original and instantly differentiable, and choosing 2D graphics is just a common way to achieve this distinction.

Go Online Multiplayer

If you create a platformer or an adventure game, you have to ensure the players to keep it playing during a significant amount of time, say 6-10 hours (especially if the demo is 60 or 80 minutes). Even 6 hours of game implies huge content. In fact, any solo game requires an impressive amount of graphics content. But if you go multiplayer, your content is basically: players + 1 arena. You may add more arenas in the future but having just one is OK for the beta. Another route is to design a solo game where levels are easily built-up: any breakout game or some very clever designs (Cactus Bruce for example). In fact, Casual games – with the exception of adventure-casual games - are in general made around this model: no heavy-content levels, no-multiplayer, and that’s OK for the casual crowd.

We know that Hardcore gamers are more demanding. So if you remove the solo campaign, you have to release a multiplayer mode. If the multiplayer is awesome, they won’t even notice that the solo campaign is missing, simply because that’s not the purpose of your game.

The perfect example

A good example of such a game is Plain Sight (released on April 5th) from UK-based Beatnik Games. This game is roughly: retro-cartoon 3D + online multiplayer. The retro style means to me that it looks original enough so you can't even think it's a dirty made clone of any AAA title (see 1 screenshot and you get immediately 2 feelings: graphics are cool + it's not VALVE). And the fact that you can’t play this game alone is simply a way to avoid to produce large levels to feed those gamers who finished the solo campaign of Modern Warfare 2 in less than 10 hours. The result is still appealing to them thanks to the online multiplayer nature of the game.
I really think this is the perfect way for indies to propose something tailored to hardcore gamers in the current gaming panorama.

That said, it's not obvious to develop an online multiplayer game, and Beatnik Games (8 people) is more a small studio organization than an indie dude in his garage... So, in my next post, I will see more deeply the pros and cons of making an online multiplayer game, starting with the dev questions and how difficult it is to implement network functionalities in a game.


  1. Great post!

    But I think you forgot to mention:
    - automatic/dynamic level generation (dungeons games)
    - solo sports/management games: just modifying colors or skills.

  2. Thanks Olivier for your comment.
    Well, you are true: content that requires no edition at all is always welcome :)

    I didn't use these ingredients in my thinking soup because I'm not fond of these kind of games, but I admit they are valid and entertaining.

    The key question here is how far you can create the illusion of high quality content with dynamic generation...

  3. One great charsimatic map is better than any random stuff, like in DotA for example. Some Counter-Strike players could only play on de_dust2. Map choice depends of your gameplay, if it's an arena type, only one can be enough.

    I dislike automatic environment cause it's never the same so you can't learn it. Hardcore gamers know & love to know maps.

  4. Thanks H, I agree: as a harcore gamers, I don't play every map, and I don't think the best maps could ever be auto-generated...