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Indie game design principles

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Trapper Zoid

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I apologise for the lack of updates. I've been procrastinating more that is healthy lately. I've been putting in a reasonable amount of time to my projects, it's just that most of that time appears to be spent blankly staring at a piece of paper lost in my own thoughts. Before I know it the clock has moved on three hours with nothing to show. Infuriating. I've been trying to beat this with some anti-winter counter-measures, such as having more light while working and a general increase in bustling (extra bustle can't hurt!), but it's taking a while to kick in. It's only today that I can feel I can write a credible journal entry; the previous aborted draft I've got from yesterday are pretty poor.

Since I was in a bit of a slump, I spent a bit of time rekindling the flame for game development by reviewing exactly why I want to make games. It's a good idea to sometime recheck your own personal map to make sure you're heading in the right direction. I've got a series of documents with lists of game ideas, business plans and general development strategies which I can review in situations like these.

It also gave me an opportunity to review my philosophy about what kind of games I should be making. Since it might be interesting to some of you I'd like to share my argument here for discussion, and to fire me up for a weekend afternoon of hobby projects. I know I've posted points like these before, but it's helpful to make the argument again so I can attempt to make it better. Plus it puts it out of my mind so I can post next time directly about my development (hopefully!).



Some Basic Principles of Indie Game Design

A basic marketing principle is if you wish to compete in a market place you need to offer some unique selling property that distinguishes your product from your competitors. The stronger your unique selling properties, the stronger your business opportunity. This is true even if your "business" is making hobby games competing for players time and interest rather than for the contents of their wallets.

Obviously it is completely infeasible to go for every possible unique selling point - in some cases they are exclusive to each other, such as budget versus prestige. Instead you need to aim for the strengths that you think you are best suited for in your situation, which also are suitable from a business perspective.

In my case, I'm a small hobby game developer, dreaming of someday moving into selling indie games but still small scale. Given this is GameDev.net I'm assuming you are in a similar position; a hobby or indie game developer. Since we're in the field of entertainment, our main competitor would be mainstream computer games, along with TV, DVDs, books and so on. I'll focus on indie versus mainstream in this argument since they are the closest. Here "indie" refers to any small-scale developer operating without much if any publisher support, including hobbyists just making games for fun. "Mainstream" refers to the publisher funded development houses.

The question you need to ask, as an indie, is what strengths can you use to compete against the big boys of the mainstream developers? Or to put in differently, what can you do well that the mainstream cannot?



Strengths and weaknesses of Mainstream vs. Indie

It might be easiest to answer these questions by focusing first on what the mainstream business model's strengths and weaknesses are. In brief, there are two main properties they have that the indie does not: money and contacts. Unfortunately for the little guys, as advantages go they're particularly good ones. The downside is that, because of their size, they need many more sales to return a profit.

Money is an obvious advantage. Having funding means they can hire more, better qualified and full-time staff, and can buy more equipment and software. The indie usually has to cope with just themselves or like-minded people working for fun or for potential profit in the future, with whatever equipment they can scrounge.

Having the contacts is another advantage that most indies don't have. Publishers are powerful enough to talk to distributors to get your game on store shelves (money helps here too). They also have contacts within the industry to help you; they often have their own QA teams, they can help you find voice over or cutscene modelling if you need it, and so on.

The downside of the mainstream model is they need a lot of money to pay all the people involved in their production. This means they need to be focused on large market segments; they need to ensure they will make enough sales to make a profit. This need is why mainstream games need to be relatively conservative and not veer too much from the established genres. Occasionally a more ambitious publisher will take a chance on a more innovative game, especially if it has the backing of a very famous developer, but for the most part the risks they can take in game content must be minimised.

The indie business model's strengths are slightly more subtle, but they are there. The main strengths of the indie stem from the fact they are small and thus don't need as much return to be profitable. This means you have far more flexibility in what types of games you can make; you aren't restricted in content to those dictated mainstream markets. The weaknesses however, also come from being small; you are in fact heavily restricted to the scope of what you can achieve with a small team.


Now (finally) we come to answering the question of what properties we should aim for with indie game development, playing to the strengths of the indie model and avoiding the weaknesses. Here's my philosophy on what an indie should do.

Keep It Simple Stupid!

The biggest weakness of the indie is in the man-hours available. As an indie, you're a small team, usually working in your spare time. The mainstream development house has dozens of paid professionals working full time. Even if you have a very talented programmer or artist on your indie team, there's still just one of them; there's only so much they can create. Thus in terms of ability to create content, the mainstream developer trumps the indie hands down. Thus you cannot compete by trying to do more than the mainstream.

I'll repeat that again, since it bears repeating: you cannot compete by making having more content your unique selling point. You can compete by having more of a very specific type of content if you wish, such as having a deeply involved storyline, however that will mean you will have to compromise by being much shallower in other areas, such as graphics.

I'm making a point of this because it's the primary flaw I see a large number of game concepts I see in the design forum. It seems a lot of people think that the best way to improve a game is to include more stuff. In a way they are right; it's one way to improve a game; but it's not an option available to an indie. You just can't compete on producing more content the big guys.

Some examples of attempts to compete on more content:
  • Bigger worlds - either in the sense of larger space for the player to explore, or in graphics (such as more varied environments)
  • More characters and items - either in number (thousands of unique NPCs!) or in type (thousands of unique enemy types!).
  • More rules - the more complex your ruleset or the game modes you provide, the more coding, testing and balancing needs to be done.
  • Richer storytelling - the longer your story, or the more involved it is, or the broader it needs to be, or the more choices you need for interactivity, then the more content is required.
  • New technology - for every piece of technology you need to develop you'll need to spend considerable time designing, implementing and testing. If it's a completely new piece of technology that no-one has implemented before, you also to add considerable R&D time as well as the massive risk that your research may fail to find a solution. If you aim as an indie to compete with better technology, such as the best 3D engine, then the odds are extremely stacked against you!
  • Hybrid game genres - this isn't too bad if the idea is just something that's hard to pin down to one specific genre, but if the idea is to combine all the features of two or more genres together you've just described working on multiple games, combined with the effort of making them gel.


Note that it is entirely possible to include some of the points above in a viable indie game design if you are careful and are prepared to make concessions; an RPG with deep character development is possible, but only if you put severe restrictions on the world size and the graphics. I think of these more as warning signs when I read game ideas. To me, having one of these points in a design is acceptable if it's your strength you make it the focus of your development work (such as a writer/designer aiming for rich storytelling). But having more than one, to me, is far too much of a risk. (And any indie with the full set almost certainly doesn't know what they're doing!)

The best think for an indie to do then is keep it simple. That's why indies do so well in the casual market; simple goes hand in glove with casual games. You can't complete by doing more, so compete by being clever and being different.

Give it loads of personality

This might be partly my own opinion, but I love games where the developer has imbued it with their own quirky sense of personality. This is one area where the indie can really shine, as you are both free from the restrictions of aiming for the mainstream and have a small team size to avoid the "too many cooks" problem of blanding down the game. Stick as much of your personality you can into the game to make it truly your own.

This has two benefits; firstly, the more personality you put in the more likely it is to resonate with players. Sure, you might alienate four out of five people with your eccentricity, but if you click with one out of five they'll be much more likely to want your game. You don't need to sell to everyone, and it's far better to have a small but significant player base who really loves your style than to have a large number of people think your game is merely "okay".

Secondly, your personality is the unique part make your games yours. It's the part that makes your games stand out, and the hardest part for others to copy successfully. Use this strength as much as you can!

Be close to your players

The last point is the strength that all small business have; that of being close to their customers. Big companies, due to their size, need to have several layers between the customer and the people who make the decisions. With a small business, often the person dealing with customer is the one calling the shots. This makes it easier for them to tailor decisions to each customer.

So don't put a shutter between yourself and your players. Communicate with them, be nice to them and listen to what they have to say. The ability for the player to have the ear of the developer is a big strength of the indie and one you shouldn't ignore.



I'm out of things to add for now, and I'm hankering to get stuck into development work (I think I ranted on a bit too long on the "KISS" principle, although it is the one I think that's most important.)

Next time I'll post more info on either the game engine or art work, whichever I get the most done on.

Discussion is welcome!
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Actually, one of the driving concepts behind Eugn and I's new project is to make it completely random, so we can have diversity, while avoiding the man-hours required to make it. Whether or not our approach works, we'll see.....

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Original post by Sir Sapo
Actually, one of the driving concepts behind Eugn and I's new project is to make it completely random, so we can have diversity, while avoiding the man-hours required to make it. Whether or not our approach works, we'll see.....

Procedural generation for the win! Rogue-likes are a good way of being smart about the content problem; you'll get a lot of playability for less work. Of course, you'll lose the hand-crafted touch and it's not exactly easy to make a good rogue-like.

Soon I'll have to join the GDNet fad and make a rogue-like of my own! In truth, I've been building myself up to the point where I can have a crack at procedural generation myself, as I think it's part of the solution. Not to mention it looks like a fun challenge.

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I think another strength of indie is that you can make a game in a genre that isn't considered profitable by the publishers, if it's well made people will be attracted to it, and you don't need to sell as much to turn a profit. And a lot of neglected genres (side scrollers being my favorite) still have a decent amount of fans.

And speaking of rogue-likes, I want to eventually try to make a cross between a rogue-like and a traditional jRPG, I think it'd be interesting to see.

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Original post by johnhattan
If uniqueness is the best business opportunity, why is my best selling game a sokoban clone?

Because your customers find it unique in some way. Maybe they find it the best Sokoban game they've played? Maybe it's the first one they found? Maybe they just like you?

Of course, it could be that the Sokoban market is just so huge that everyone is getting lots of sales. But even then I argue that it would be better to make your product unique in some way to attract more customers that the other Sokoban games.

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