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Sucking down a 50-gallon drum of reality

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"Ahhhh... feel the burn!" Urp!

Last week I got to talk over beer with several veteran indie developers, one a biz guy who started three companies, and a couple of programmers and artists. The biz guy and I talked for over three hours, and I swear I wish I could have simply downloaded his brain and posted it in my journal (would be messy, though. [wink]) (I won't use his name, btw, since he hasn't given me permission).

If I could distill in one nice, clean gutshot what I learned it would be this: Too many indie game developers are working only on games.

Think about it: We work like hell to scrape together enough resources to create a game, many of us can't sustain ourselves on games full time, we do our level best to market it in an already clogged channel or amid publishers who often demand ownership of everything, even the wall textures, we often don't have the talent or even basic interest in good business practices, and in the end, what we work on is a star that shines for but a second. If we're lucky, we may make enough to do it again. But the more common result is that we make little, if anything. Not very motivating.

Our games often are too big, too similar, and focused only on gaming when they need to be focused on being a phenomenon. We think that if we keep refining the design document (!) we'll find the right formula to bring in enough people to do well. But the design doc hardly matters if there isn't a strategy to build the game into a larger something that's part franchise, part mythos.

The example he used was comic books: Look at what Marvel or DC, paired with Hollywood, have been doing with Spiderman, Batman or the X-men. The comic book is only an agent to sell a mythos. Even taking Hollywood out of the picture, how many of us as kids had pens, patches, lunchpails or cereal boxes with our favorite comic book characters? I know I had probably a full metric ton of G.I. Joe paraphenalia (probably worth a fortune today if my mom had't thrown it out!)

My gut reaction to this is rejection, but I'm doing the same thing these days as successful indies who have finished games: Casting about for a way to make the business viable. I heard war story after war story from the biz guy, from personal experience, of damn good dev teams and designs fading into nothing, or limping along because the market is to fractured.

Yes, some of us do transform this to more than a hobby. A Tale In The Desert was a successful MMO made on just over a million (a huge initial chunk self-funded, btw). But GDC and the conversation I had a few days ago keep driving home that damnably few of us make anything sustainable in the long run. (In fact, one more confirmation I got from this biz guy, privvy to publishing deals for indie games, was that there's so little financial information out there about indie development stats because most people don't make any money.)

Now we could crawl into a hole and chant "if we build it they will come." Or we could decide that we're making art or a game just for ourselves and say screw economics. Either might be comforting, but neither I think is viable. As I get older it seems that I'm increasingly sucking down a 50-gallon drum of reality made of one part responsibility and one part hard limits. Even if you're an ascetic bot with neither want nor care for much beyond games, you're still going to either have to divide your time between making your heart's work and paying the bills, or figure out a way that you can pour more of your time into what you want to do. The later requires facing down reality.

I hope that I don't sound disasterously pessimistic. Truly, one the the last things I want to do is try to figure out the psyche of the average consumer so that I can somehow, like a leech, attach my mythos to some region of their brain. It makes me think of jingles. And God, how I hate jingles.

But I take heart by going back to the comic example. Is it demeaning to aspire to create a mythos that's completely bigger than a game? Wouldn't it be fun to think about how other media could carry the weight of the work you're trying to create?

And, hey, wouldn't it boost the ego just a bit to see someone wearing your game's logo? Not because they're some idiot without taste, hypnotized by mass media-- but because they love the mythos you've created and want to paint a small corner of their world with it?

I don't know. Maybe half of accepting a hard situation is finding within it an empowering perspective.

Straylight Update
-The book has SEVERELY gotten in the way of coding, but should be finished in about 2 months.

-I thought long and hard about freezing Straylight and making a few smaller games to have some revenue, but while that's probably the most intelligent decision, damn me for not having the heart for anything else.

-Finally scraped together some more money to invest in Torque tools. I'm looking forward to getting better specs on how characters are developed so that I can formulate needs requirements that can be handed off to artists. (New Torque Shader Engine has some easy techniques for creating O'neil Cylinders! I am PSYCHED!!!!!!!!)

-I've been giving serious thought to how to make the design more "mythos" friendly, in terms of making more memorable characters and settings.

-Doing a lot of brainstorming on how I might conduct low-cost market research to vett some of the premises of the game. How many gamers even play science fiction games? How many people would play a game set in the future that's cooperative? Need to get a sense of this kind of stuff.

-Still using MDA Framework to prototype design elements before coding. As time allows, I'm tackling the task of spicing up being an nanotech engineer.
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Guest Anonymous Poster


I for one would play a cooperative science fiction/future game.

Been following your posts, looks like a good game.

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