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Lessons from Freeplay 2009

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This is a cut-and-paste copy of my latest blog post over at my own website. It's a summary of the lessons I learned from Freeplay 2009, the indie game conference/festival/thing that was just held in Melbourne on Friday and Saturday. Hopefully videos of some of the panels and workshops at the event will be up at tsumea in a week or two. I've got very brief summaries of my thoughts of the panels I attended that I typed up the night after each day, but they won't hold a candle to the info you'd get from the vids.



I've put together a summary of some of the main points I learned at Freeplay 2009. Most of these aren't lessons from any one person, but are a collection of the impressions I got from the panels and workshops I heard, the discussions I had with attendees, with possibly a fair chunk of my own opinions subconsciously working their way in (so if any of this turns out to be a faulty recollection of Freeplay 2009, blame my brain).

Prototype, prototype, prototype!

By far, the most common thread in talks was the need to build prototypes. Half of Petri Purho's keynote was on how moving to the game-in-a-week model best shown by The Experimental Gameplay project. Conor O'Kane's How to make games on your own, for free talk included the importance of making prototypes and how this can easily be done (incidentally, you can grab his slides from his website). And throughout the other presentations there were themes of how prototypes are important for both fostering creativity and as a way to see if your ideas have legs before you invest too much time in them. The common wisdom is pretty much unanimous that if you don't first start investigating your idea with a prototype (or two or three), you're doing it wrong.

Can't code? Can't draw? You can still make a game.

Another common theme I got from the talk is that there's loads of material out there to help making your game very easy. If you really are passionate about making games there isn't really any excuse for you not to. For only a couple of hundred dollars a developer can get an indie license for Unity or Torque. You can get XNA for free. Flash is a bit more expensive, but you can get the Flex SDK command-line compiler for free if you're prepared to work in ActionScript with an engine like Flixel. With just a bit of scripting and some simple graphics, you can easily built a prototype with these tools all by yourself regardless of your skill level. If you're savvy about your graphics style, you can make a full game that still has a quality feel. And with the not-really-that-expensive outlay of a Mac Mini, an iPod Touch and an iPhone Developer License, you could sell a game for the iPhone.

With access to the internet, you've got access to a top training resources. If you get stuck, there's heaps of forums out there to help you. There's tutorials up on the web, and entire university lectures available onlines (MIT apparently has every one of their classes up on YouTube; that's pretty amazing). In short, if you can read this, then you've got access to all the material you need to gain the skills you require for game development.

So if you think you have the next great game idea, there isn't anything stopping you from building that prototype. If you can't, well maybe that game idea isn't so great after all. Try another.

iPhone is really popular with indies...

Out of the available indie game platforms I felt the biggest buzz was for the iPhone. About half the people I spoke seemed to be either working on the platform or were planning to. I can see why. It's pretty cheap to launch a title on the iPhone, there's only one main sales channel that everyone can access, and the platform is very well suited to small games that can be made in a couple of months. It's perfect indie fodder. Of course, that also means the platform is now flooded with developers and is now garnering attention from mainstream publishers, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. You can't make a mint with a novelty flatulence app these days, and with the big developers now muscling into the space it's becoming a lot tougher to crack the top of sales lists. But that's true of all the other platforms. I think it's still viable a platform as any other with the right sort of innovative game. And let's face it; being able to play your game on a sleek handheld device is just cool.

...desktop games, not so popular.

There were still a fair number of developers aiming for desktops (Windows, Mac and Linux), but the vibe was a lot cooler on this. Most of the panelists thought that the traditional pay-for-copy-of-game market for the desktop was too tough these days due to over saturation. Most of those still developing for it were into making free games, either just for fun or for other purposes (self marketing, running paid servers, etc). It seems there's more excitement about getting your game on the iPhone or Xbox Live than the PC.

I'm not sure how valid the strength of that opinion was. Most of the attention for paid portals seemed to be focused on Steam, which is from what I've heard quite difficut to get your game onto. There's also the casual portals, although my feeling is they're starting to become less attractive as they play cut-throat price wars. And there's always the option to sell it through store fronts like BMT Micro; the big downside being you need to market yourself, but the way I see it there's no avoiding that.

Other, miscellaneous stuff

A few more thoughts from the festival talks that I'll summarise. Some of these had some expressing the counter argument, but the notes here was the general feel I got from the indie developers in the panels:

  • Ideas are cheap. While people will politely listen to ideas expressed in words, you really need a prototype for them to "get" it. As mentioned above, prototypes are easy to make, so make them.

  • Share your ideas. While the lawyer presentation stressed the importance of using NDAs in formal discussions (say with a game producer), with other indie developers you'll just be wasting their time. Sharing your ideas, even in prototype form, can get vital feedback as to what works and what doesn't.

  • Don't be afraid to abandon an idea if it isn't working. That's what the prototypes are for.

  • Move fast. This seemed most important for the iPhone developers, where a few made it big just by being the first mover. A small developer can sense changing industry directions and put out a game before the larger publishers take notice.

  • Don't skimp time on the polishing and testing. This is counter to "move fast", but you need to make sure your game doesn't have any obviously detracting rough edges. The rule-of-thumb I heard was to spend a third of your dev time on this.

  • If you're aiming to be a full-time indie, be prepared for a hard slog to gain sustainability. You generally need multiple games before you break even. The sensible indies seem to have either an alternative source of income while setting up (another job or someone to mooch off ;)) and a timeline where you can call it quits without facing complete ruin. Note though that even in this worst case scenario, if you really put your heart and mind into it you still won't be a failure, as you'll have developed some important skills that other employers should appreciate.


I'm expecting videos of the talks to be up at tsumea sometime in the next week or two; when I find out they're up I'll post a link.
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