Monday, April 26, 2010

My five top reasons to be Indie

Image from Mobygames

I know I should stop brainstorming and run into production, but I feel the need to share those deep motivations that pushed me on the way of game creation. If that’s invigorating to me, maybe that’s invigorating to you…

1- You love games, and you want to create that cool game in your way. It's still very nice when you are your first customer, and this is a great chance to be involved in something you love, especially when you are the boss, when you move the ship in the direction you choose, when you drive.

2- The Rise of the download era and online payment.
Whether your game is for the casual market or for the gamer market, there are number 1 download service operators doing a giant business:
- If you make casual games, you can't go without Bigfish. Luckily, it's not hard to be on Bigfish. The business model is very robust, and if you bring enough value your game can generate a comfortable income. The competition on this market is very tough, but who knows...
- If you make games for gamers, being on Steam is a priority, but you will need good reviews of your game, or they won't even answer to your emails. There is less competition on this market, so if your game is really fun and attractive you can still make business on your own.

3- Some crazy dudes shown us the way.
More accurately: Jonathan Blow, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel shown us the way. Ok, I won't go playing soccer even if Beckham shown me the way. The question is: can I play soccer as good as Beckham? Answer: Not even in my dreams. Can I create something as good as what Jonathan Blow did? Answer: Well I hope, but maybe I'm dreaming, and I will never know if I don't give it a try!
Anyway, even if they are now joining in a kind of superhero league against the villain publishers, these guys are not superheroes. They have very good ideas, they have the skills to realize them with solid computer science background. That's a huge work, and I hope that's within my reach.

4- There are some proven solutions to online marketing
This is the logic sequel from point #3: the crazy dudes didn’t have any marketing forces, but that’s not a reason to think they didn’t have a solid marketing strategy. Not only it would to be a big mistake to think so, but it would also be insulting for their brains. I can’t imagine they were that lucky. Of course luck is still a factor. They made a great game with solid and fun gameplay mechanics, all with beautiful content. They added value to the gaming panorama, definitely, but that’s not all: they knew how to tell the world about it.
Even if that’s the most interesting point here, I won’t develop it for the moment. In a next post, I will explain my views about the best "indie path" from the game prototype to its release and after. Whatever your strategy is, it should all start with the same creed: Blog early, at the very beginning of your project. That's just what I'm doing with this blog, just like every other indie game developer around. Blogging has become mandatory to get exposure. Of course, that's also a place to share views, tech advices, etc. But first of all, this is the main window between your geek-room and the rest of the world.
A side note: burry this stupid idea that ideas can be stolen, ideas are not important, while turning ideas into realworld games are.

5- if, like me, you decide to target the hardcore gamers, your potential audience may be lower but the current PC gamers is under-served (see the reasons in my previous post), so any new game in this genre will attract all those starving gamers. At least, it will attract me… That’s my “Build it and they will come” reason.

Last but not least, I forgot the obvious (number 0) reason to jump into game creation is the community of indie game developers. This is not specific to game development since any given community is usually very active on Internet (fishing, bowling, plane modeling...), but that's a good reason anyway. People around love to share their experience and skills, and this is a huge value for every newcomer!

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.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Targeting hardcore gamers – Part 3

Computer of the Dust
Image courtesy of Skeddles

In part 1, I gave my own internal reason to target hardcore gamers: that's what I play, and if I build something I enjoy, there are great chances that it can be appealing to others.

In part 2, I gave a market view, an external reason to target hardcore gamers, that can be summarized with this fact: hard-core PC gamers are not fed with the current offering of smaller titles.

Another fact is that, each year, there are more AAA titles that I want to buy than indie titles, and believe me: I watch everything, and I instantly buy any game that could entertain me.
So, in this last part, I give of my point of view about why I am starving of fresh cool and small games, and why other hardcore PC gamers may feel like me.

The reasons are:

1) Everybody seem to think hardcore gamers prefer gamepads, and have bought a XBox to rush on XBLA

I think it's wrong. One thing is to own a console, and another thing is to play on a PC with mouse-centric gamedesigns which are not huge FPS. When I search for such games, my choice is very limited. This argument will be blown away when consoles will have mouse and keyboard controls, but that's not the case right now and there is no industry move in this direction yet (despite this awesome mouse for PS3 made by a very quiet third-party).

The deep underneath choice in going to create a game for XBLA is: gamepad-based game design and mechanics. As a consequence, if the game is ever ported to Windows, traditional PC gamers won't feel at home... and I think that most of cool XBLA developers have understood this, and they don't insult PC gamers with ill-adapted game conversions.

2) The dev crowd is captured by the current buzz

Casual games, iPhone, and now the iPad... Those new gaming Eldorados are like Blackholes swallowing all indie developers around! When you see what has just been released on Steam, comparing to what they released one year ago... I know it's bad to compare (especially when I compare what cannot be compared) but it's like everyone has abandoned the spaceship except Doctor Hans Reinhardt.

3) Many developers feel that they would compete with AAA titles if the gameplay is too sharp

This is wrong if your game doesn't aim to be the next Half Life. Your project should not require too much graphics content, simply because this is incompatible with indie means. There are some very good indie developers around, trying to make some huge 3D project. This is very ambitious, in particular when you watch their impressive tech videos, but I think this is very risky, because the final game will be inevitably compared to current 3D production values of traditional publishers... where there is a bloody competition.

On the "small games" side, this is the exact opposite: there is less and less competition, because Publishers makes too few small games for gamers and when they do, it's a go-to-hell sign for PC gamers:

a) when a first party publisher makes a small game, the game is reserved to the online store to promote their own platform.

b) when a traditional publisher makes a small game, they just think PC gamers are not worth the effort (Capcom released ONE "small" 2D game in 2010: Megaman 10 ; Namco remakes are for Wiiware only). This choice is relevant since traditional publishers never shown anything that is: small + use PC controls (ie mouse/keyboards). It's like there is quite nothing between a VALVE hardcore FPS and a cool action indie game (except maybe Torchlight and a few others).

c) finally, when a traditional publisher makes a small game, they fail. Lucidity from LucasArts is a great example of what a a false true indie game can be, it's a good example of failure too. I think they don’t really know how to do this kind of games anymore and it’s no surprise if EA now chase the best of them (and they change the target from PC to PS3, which - in the case of Shank - is a good choice since this game has to be enjoyed with a gamepad).


If you create PC games, resist to the temptation to condemn Hardcore gamers. I'm sure that when the Apple tide is going out, true gamers will stand. And, now, at high tide, with only some small fishes around, there is a huge opportunity for game creators to innovate in projects tailored specifically to hardcore gamers.