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10 Ways To Improve Your Indie Game Development

By Bratie Fanut | Published Nov 26 2013 05:54 AM in Production and Management
Peer Reviewed by (Khatharr, jbadams, ivan.spasov)

indie games

I realize that most, if not all, of the stuff in here is somewhat obvious – it’s not like I’m the first to have these ideas. However, I believe that a lot of good games could be great ones if some of the following ideas were acted on. Most of these suggestions are either free to implement or require nothing more than an investment of time and energy. This, in itself, is often at a premium, which is why I’ve started the list by discussing community.

Here are my thoughts…

Step 1: Foster a community developed for – and by – your fans


The most important word here is foster. Just because you’ve thrown up a blog or a forum and you’ve got a twitter account, doesn’t really mean you’re fostering a community. To build the community and have it last, you’ve got to be involved with it. This means listening to, responding to, and even implementing the community’s suggestions for the game. If you’ve drawn people to your site that are bothering to post, tweet or comment on your game, chances are they’ve got some good ideas. Clearly not all of them are, but every now and then there’s a gem that’ll actually improve the game. Don’t be scared of trying a few of these ideas – the community will appreciate the fact that you’re paying attention.

Big companies generally have the budgets to go beyond these basics – they create art packs and/or music for their community to build their own fansites. This is huge – you’re basically giving your community the opportunity to do your marketing FOR YOU. Let them do it – give them the art, screenshots, wallpapers, mp3s. Whatever it takes to get your game out there – after all, there’s thousands of games coming out a year, yours needs to stand out. So let your community work for you.


Step 2: Don’t worry about graphics, but DO pay attention to art style


Many indie games do this right (Braid, Terraria, Revenge of the Titans, Castle Crashers, Frozen Synapse, Lume, etc etc). There’s a ton of great examples where in lieu of big-budget graphics, they’ve opted for 8-bit looks or just a clean, stylized look. This is great for several reasons – it makes your game more recognizable and also makes your game far less hardware-dependent.

Where this might be a negative is if your look strays too far into a design that some might consider childlike or ‘kid-friendly’. Bold, colorful graphics are great, but you might turn off some people who just prefer a more “adult game” look. Regardless of how many people think your game is the best-looking one they’ve ever seen, by making sure your game looks unique, you’re going to guarantee that it will at least stand out, which gives it a far better chance of being remembered by your target audience


Step 3: Mods, mods, MODS


This is going to give your game longevity out the wazoo. Heck, I’ve replayed games for hours and hours just to try out new mods. Notable games that have a great mod scene are Half Life 2 (2006), Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), Oblivion (2006), Torchlight (2009). Heck, even Morrowind (2002) has a dedicated mod community that’s as strong as ever. There’s many more than just these few examples, but the key here is longevity. Granted, Oblivion and Morrowind are huge games, expensive games, but even in the most recent super-ridiculous Steam Sale, they only dropped in price by $6 and $5, respectively. They’ve been lower in the past, but they maintain a reasonably high price for old games, mostly due to the fact that they can get it. They’re well supported, they (by now) run on almost all hardware, and staggeringly enormous amounts of mods are available for them. You can quite literally play these games for years. Only Half Life 2 has a mod community that rivals them.


Step 4: Let me play it first – the disappearing demo


This is something some devs do really, really well – Spiderweb Software and Soldak Entertainment come to mind here. Not only do they both provide comprehensive demos for every game they make, Soldak goes the extra mile and updates the demo with pretty much every patch they apply to the full game, so when you download one of their demos, you know it’s going to be representative of what you’re buying. Kudos to you for that, Soldak.

Demos are going the way of the dodo in the era of 10+ gigabyte games. That’s not surprising, but if you’re an indie developer, this is your chance to get your game out there into people’s hands. This may not always result in a sale, but if it does, that’s not only cash in your pocket, but also a potential one-person marketing team. If they like it, they’re probably going to tell their friends about it or possibly even join and become active in your community. This is worth its weight in gold.


Step 5: Stay focused on your simple, unique idea and implement it well


This is a tricky thing to nail down. You’re developing the game, so clearly you’re doing this. And in some ways, it flies in the face of my suggestion to take your community’s suggestions and implement them. I guess what I mean is this: make sure that whatever the core of your game is, do that one thing really well. In Braid, it was time-manipulation in a platformer. This could have bombed, if they’d over-complicated it, but they stuck to the basics and polished it until perfect. That’s what is going to make your game different from all the others, so make sure it works.


Step 6: Make your website look professional enough for people to give you money


This is something that can be overlooked quite easily. It’s also something that isn’t necessarily a hard-and-fast rule. But the way I see it, if I’m going to give you $10 or $20 of my money – or more – I want to feel like you are going to be around for a little while. I don’t want you and/or the site to disappear. This goes hand-in-hand with creating and supporting a community. If you’re working on your game a bunch and want it to be awesome, this is really a no-brainer. If web’s not really your thing, you’re more of a programmer, put some feelers out to the community and see if you can get some volunteers to add a level of polish.


Step 7: Keep working on it and keep those patches coming


This, like above, is going to give your audience and potential customers a lot of confidence. They want to feel like you’re working to make this the best game ever. If you don’t patch it regularly, and especially when it’s necessary, kiss a lot of possible purchases goodbye. Nothing kills enthusiasm more than a buggy game that’s not getting the love it needs. People will talk, negative reviews will get posted. Start working on patches regularly, even if it’s not perfect, people will start talking about that. This exact thing happened to Star Ruler last year. By most accounts, buggy and unfinished out of the gate. This was admitted by the developers, as they simply ran out of cash. People took them on their word that they’d keep working on the game and bought it. Since that time, they’ve sold enough to be around a year later with reports of the games’ current state being a massive improvement.


Step 8:Design your game for netbooks and other really low end hardware


This is sort of a given for most Indie developers simply due to the fact that the majority of them are developing low-poly count, reasonably non-hardware-hungry type games. Generally they’re slightly more casual. That being said, some of them aren’t. However, with the explosion of netbooks and now handheld devices, be they smartphone or tablet, I have a ‘gaming platform’ with me at all times, pretty much. The more platforms you can get your game on, the more it will sell.


Step 9: Leverage other people's work


It was very interesting to work in the game industry until about the early 2000’s. We were figuring out new rendering technology, how to solve physics, collision etc. At some point in early 2000 or so these all sort of became solved problems. There really isn’t any value in solving them again (back to point one). You might be really interested in how physics simulations work, but you need to decide if you want to play with a physics engine or make games for a living. There are tons of middleware out there - if it solves a problem for you, use it, instead of wasting your time reinventing the wheel. This is a great lead-in to our next topic.


Step 10: Make it addictive


This is one that can’t always be implemented. And of course, all designers probably want this. Get ‘em hooked on a simple but addictive gameplay element and you’ve pretty much guaranteed yourself a bundle o’ dough. Hell, who woulda thunk a game with a unicorn mascot based around a game that became popular with a daytime TV show (Pachinko) would help get their company sold for over a billion dollars? I probably wouldn’t have put money on it if someone had said it that way… but if you play Peggle… then you start to understand why. That crap is addictive like heroin added to your morning cup of coffee. Heck, I’ve put more hours into Zuma-alikes than I’d care to admit.

And frankly, although I seriously dug Crackdown, the thing that kept me playing for hours and hours on end were those goddamn orbs. I just.. needed…. to… get… one… more…

Addict me, I’m begging you.


Article Update Log


23 Nov 2013: Initial release
26 Nov 2013: Changing the title from: How to build a better indie game in 10 steps



License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments

The step 4 is totally wrong. Be careful with the demos, because if your demo is revealing too much, the customer might not even buy it since he already played it.

This is a well made article, and the content is good, but I'd recommend changing the title to something like "10 ways to improve your indie game". These aren't really steps in a process, but they're each a way in which a dev can help their game along.

This is a very nice summary! 

The step 4 is totally wrong. Be careful with the demos, because if your demo is revealing too much, the customer might not even buy it since he already played it.

A demo is never "wrong." It's called a demo for a reason. If the demo is revealing too much as you say, the game probably isn't very interesting in the first place.

The step 4 is totally wrong. Be careful with the demos, because if your demo is revealing too much, the customer might not even buy it since he already played it.

I totally disagree with you. There are many games, especially on the mobile market that go even further then just a demo and make a "lite" version of the game that is completely free and in turn sell the full thing as well. And some of these games are doing really well. If you've designed and developed a good product, the demo is only going to help. If you have a half-finished product and you have put all of your effort into a 30 minute demo and the rest of the game basically sucks, well then - that is a design problem.

This is a well made article, and the content is good, but I'd recommend changing the title to something like "10 ways to improve your indie game". These aren't really steps in a process, but they're each a way in which a dev can help their game along.

Thank you for your feedback. Yes, these aren't steps in a process as much as these are kinda tips for indie game developers, things that many of begginer devs forgot or don't consider them too important to implement.

Step 10 is so important and is not only a tip for indies or beginner's. I've seen and played so many AAA titles that have great graphics and all, but are forgotten so fast, because they can't hook their playerbase.  It's part of what I consider good gameplay and is often connected to replayability. 

Great article but I was disappointed to see some larger titles such as crackdown and oblivion used as examples. 

How come you didn't mention Doom in #3? As far as I know there's still a modding community around it, and that game was like the thing that made modding so popular in the first place (OK, Wolfstein 3D was getting hacked like crazy, but Doom took it even further). Doom is set to be 20 years in two weeks, to put things in perspective...

 

But yeah, I'm surprised everybody seems to forget about mods when talking about indie games. I guess everybody is too busy trying to finish the game. Honestly, I think modding should be considered a must for an indie, period. It's one of the easiest ways to build a community, why it's downplayed so much is beyond me.

I thought I remembered seeing this on Gamedev before:

 

Game demos halve sales, new data suggests

http://www.computerandvideogames.com/416824/game-demos-halve-sales-new-data-suggests/

in addition to the above there is one more point I'd like to add. 1. Music, you can't stress on how important this is, very often it gets lost in the background while playing but it completes the atmosphere of a game.

@Sik: I'm a big fan of modding/tools however it can interfere with indies' business model. If everything is moddable there's hardly any room left to make some money on skins/maps etc.  And the price of an indie game is often lower anyway because they can't charge the same price as an AAA game.  An example of this is ' Grim Dawn' (successor of Titan Quest) on steam which is a hack and slash game like Diablo.

 

But I get your point, For free/under the radar games, modding can be a key element for growth.

The step 4 is totally wrong. Be careful with the demos, because if your demo is revealing too much, the customer might not even buy it since he already played it.

 

You're not entirely right on that point, but credit where credit's due: creating a demo is not always beneficial. It's a decision that should be weighed from a cost-benefit position, and ideally based on platform specific data. Case in point, EEDAR's insights on Xbox Live Arcade titles.

 

I'm also not so sure about Netbooks. My reading of the market is that they've been on the way out for years. Smart phones, however, are certainly a valid point though probably not news to most indie developers. Otherwise, a solid article.

 

EDIT: Somehow I missed GameCreator's link to the same data. My apologies.

Some steps doesn't make any sense for some games. "make it addictive","Mods, mods, MODS" and the "Netbook Thing" won't work for every game, and trying to put those in afterwards, won't work. You should add a step like "make a game YOU like to play" instead of "do whatever every other successful game has done".

In my eyes a good game needs personality. And the most succesful indedevs do put a lot of it in their games by making game they want to play. And without personality you can't build a community or a fanbase.

Just a note regarding "Step 10: Make it addictive": 

Now that I've grown older and have more goals and responsibilities, I avoid games that are deliberately addictive (i.e, Skinner boxes) because they constantly tempt me to waste time grinding in the virtual world when I could grind in the real world and accomplish something real. If the gameplay is addictive because it is entertaining, that's great. And bonus points go to games that are easy to pick up and put down at a moment's notice.

The step 4 is totally wrong. Be careful with the demos, because if your demo is revealing too much, the customer might not even buy it since he already played it.

Maybe "totally" is a bit of an exaggeration, but you do need to consider how much of the game to reveal in a demo. I once played a RTS that allowed you to do random map skirmishes as the demo and kept the single player story for the full game... I never bought it.

The step 4 is totally wrong. Be careful with the demos, because if your demo is revealing too much, the customer might not even buy it since he already played it.

I would not say wrong but I do see your point as well. It all depends on the game you are making as to how much you reveal, it relates directly to Step 10. It is all about addiction, if you can get someone hooked in 10 seconds...make a 10 second demo, if it takes 20 levels...make a 20 level demo. Its a fine line and you have to know where to draw it.

 

Edit: Awesome article... how did I forget that.

Very useful article, +1 and bookmarked.


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