29 December 2010

The Indie Condition - by Alistair Doulin

I went to Freeplay Independent Game Festival in Melbourne, Australia on the weekend.  It was a good conference with inspirational talks and a great opportunity to catch up on many of my friends in the indie scene.  I noticed a trend among many indie developers I spoke to and wanted to raise some thoughts in this post.  Many indie developers were developing their first game with a common complaint being that they didn’t have enough time to work on it.  Today’s post is talking about this common condition and some thoughts on alleviating it.

What do you want to get out of your game?

Many indie’s are soldiering along in a multi-month (or multi-year) project without having clearly defined goals for their project.  When asking developers the common responses included:

Express creativity or artistic ability (e.g. I just have to be making games all the time, to stop the voices in my head)To make enough money so I can quit my day job and go indie full time (often accompanied by a long tirade of complaining about current boss)Bootstrapping a larger game companyTo get girls!

If you haven’t already, stop and list the top 5 goals you want to get out of your current game.  Do this for each individual team member, as well as the team as a whole.  Make sure each team member is compatible and make sure the goals are realistic.  More importantly, look at whether the game you are making is the best way of achieving your set of goals.

Write this list on a piece of paper and put it on the wall.  Every time you (or your team) have a question or are unsure of a direction to take, use this list to help with the difficult decision.  It’s crucial that everything you do is driving you towards these goals otherwise you will not reach them.  This is particularly important if you are making your independent game in your spare time (as most people I spoke to are).  The less time you have, the more productive your limited resources must be.

We’re all on the same team: share, learn and collaborate

Unlike mainstream game development, we are not competing with each other.  When making small, low priced games, there’s less competition than between the big developers.  Gamers can easily buy many awesome indie games released on the iPhone for less than the cost of a single full priced AAA title.  It’s not you OR another indie, it’s you AND another indie.  As people start to enjoy games from indie developers they are more likely to buy more indie games.

Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses.  This also goes for small teams.  Unlike large developers we can’t just hire in the top talent to do a specific area of development.  However within the indie community there will usually be someone with the specific skill you are after.  By maintaining an open relationship between indie developers we can tap into a larger pool of resources to help with specific problems.

Finish SOMETHING

Get out there and finish something.  Many indie developers I spoke to were in the middle of working on their first indie game.  Some developers had been doing this for months or even years and still hadn’t released their first game.  Common reasons for this included:

Stopping work on a project to start on a smaller game (which is often still too ambitious)Getting bored with an idea and moving onThe entire game was one big feature creep where it would never be finishedFar too ambitious for the team size and skill

Pick something extremely small and make it.  Adam Atomic gave one of the keynotes at Freeplay and commented on how Canabalt took him five days to create.  While he may be an exception, it goes to show that small, successful games can be created in a short period of time.

For your first game, I recommend giving yourself one month and creating whatever you can in that time.  Aim to complete the game in three weeks with one week of polish.  It’s important that you release something.  Like building a deck in Magic: The Gathering, it’s a lot of fun making a game, however until you’ve released it, you haven’t fully experienced game development.

It’s the best way to learn.  You can talk to as many developers as you want, go to as many conferences or read as many books as you can find.  Nothing compares to the experience of releasing a game.  You’ll learn a lot about yourself, your team and your players.  This ranges from time taken for polish to headaches with distributing your game after it’s complete.  It will also make your next game better...

Finish something GOOD

The next largest group of indie developers I spoke to were those that had released a small game that had reached little success.  Many of these games were (almost) direct copies of existing games.  If you want to have a successful game, you need to make something that stands out.  Put yourself in the shoes of your player.  Why would they buy your game?  What value do you add to their gaming life?  If this isn’t an easy question to answer then you need to stop and re-assess your main goals.

Conclusion

Are you working on your first indie game?  How long have you been working on it, how do you keep motivation and what are your top five goals from the project?

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