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makeshiftwings

indie games in "AAA" genres

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There is a basic principle that small, independent developers tend to follow when creating games: that you can't compete with the big boys, and that rather than try to create an FPS better than Quake or an MMORPG better than WoW, you should target a niche group where there is less crowding, and market to them. I can't argue with that; overall, it is very sound advice. The problem, to me, is that most small indie games turn out to be puzzle games, spaceship blasters, obscure flight sims, or turn-based WWII strategy games. And I don't really like any of those. I was hoping to get some ideas from other indie devs and see how a small, independent, low-budget game might succeed in one of the big-name genres. First, we should set some ground rules: no assuming that your team of two programmers and an artist is somehow "so good" that they could recreate Half-Life 2 from scratch in a month. We need to be realistic and expect that we will have far less artwork and content in general than most retail titles. Also, no relying on a publisher or investor swooping in to give you millions of dollars or set up a ton of servers or give you a hundred customer service employees, which means certain ideas, like standard MMORPGs, are right out. The game needs to remain underfunded and understaffed throughout its whole life time, in true indie tradition ;) Also, I'm assuming the game will sell through shareware or other internet-based sites, have a small marketing budget, and generally not make it into retail outlets, so there will be a smaller user base, again, throwing out certain concepts like "the MMORPG that will beat WoW". So, here are some ideas I have, first, general ones that apply to all genres: Dealing with Less Content - Indies can not realistically make an RPG with 60 hours of quests, or an FPS with 200 missions, or 100 different monster models. Two alternatives are: Episodic content: Instead of a 60-hour RPG for $60, you could sell a 10-hour RPG for $7.99, with the hope that if it sells well, you could make part 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. I think this method has a lot of advantages: with smaller games, you have more chances to listen to player feedback and try out new ideas without worrying too much about losing a huge investment of time and money. Players win because if it turns out they don't like a game after buying one episode, they've only lost a sixth of the price if they'd bought a full retail game. However, the episodic model hasn't proven to work that well in real life, for various reasons. Some players are just turned off by the idea of a small game, and wouldn't waste their money on it, even if logically six small games should equal one big game. Similarly, against logic, a lot of people are LESS willing to spend money on something with a low price than something with a big price, because they assume anything with a low price is low quality. Procedurally Generated Content - This is a method that a lot of indie games use now. For maps/levels/quests/etc, you come up with a set of rules and let the computer randomly generate content for the player. The good part is you then have infinite content, and infinite replay. The bad part is that procedural content can often start to seem repetitive and shallow, especially if the game or genre in question usually focuses on things like story or dialogue, which is notoriously hard to generate procedurally. Player Generated Content - Retail games are now realizing that this is the wave of the future, and I think indie games need to take advantage of it. Offering a good construction set to your players and letting them trade their creations to other players is basically like getting an entire extra art and design department for free. The good news is that a mod community can keep your game going well beyond its original life expectancy, offer the players the chance to make the game their own and fix any little problems that might otherwise stop them from liking it, and in general solves a lot of the problems of people not wanting to buy your game because there's not enough content. The bad news is that making mod tools and an easily moddable game requires additional time, and you generally can't release a game that's JUST mod tools; you need to do plenty of your own content as well in order to get people hooked. Genre-specific: FPS - Unfortunately for the indies, FPS's are often marketed by their graphics. It's unlikely that an indie could pull together a better graphical engine than whatever Quake/Unreal is doing AND fill it with better artwork than the latest iteration of those games. I'd say trying to compete graphically with retail FPS's is hopeless. Instead, you could focus on other aspects that FPS players like, target niche audiences within the FPS audience, or try to bring an alienated niche market into the FPS fold by offering something different. For example, multiplayer online modes are veyr important to hardcore fans, and they might be willing to play an FPS with bad graphics if it offers a unique and balances online mode. You could make an FPS with no single-player campaign, one that maybe focuses just on a particular style of match: deathmatch, or Capture the Flag, or something more esoteric like Unreal 2004's Onslaught mode. If you put all of your effort into creating just a cool variant of Onslaught Mode, with some unique weapons and vehicles, a good mod tool, and didn't try to do anything else that FPS's do, you just might be able to gain some ground. RPG - Unfortunately for the indies, RPG's are often marketed by their huge number of quests, hours of gameplay, or number of weapons/spells/classes/races/whatever. It's unlikely that you'll be able to create a standard RPG with more quests than Baldur's Gate 2 or Final Fantasy X. There are a few areas where an indie RPG might gain ground though. First, story. Plenty of RPG entusiasts proclaim "the story is the most important part", though there may be some debate as to whether they're telling the truth. It's difficult to say what makes a "good" story, but I think an RPG could get an audience if it works with settings or themes that the retail system thinks are unprofitable. Putting your game in a different setting than standard fantasy or sci-fi, like germany in the world war, or the 1970's american disco scene, or "mars, during the victorian era, but there are robots, and everyone has telepathy" might be enough to garner a niche audience that will forgive your game any other flaws it might have. Even in a standard setting, certain themes might attract a niche audience: adult/sexual themes (the retail avoids them, but we all know there is a disturbingly large audience out there dying for elf porn... :/ ), intellectual/philosophical/political themes directed at older gamers (the retail circuit is often accused of "dumbing things down" so as not to alienate players), etc. Yet another method to gain an audience would be to focus solely on a certain aspect of RPGs at the cost of all else. Say, the battle system, leading to a tactics-style game with minimal quests and plot, but lots of random battles. Or reverse it, and downplay combat/skills/equipment, leading to more of a Sims/interactive fiction game where almost everything is resolved by story and dialogue choices. This post is already too long; I'll leave it to some other people to respond or post some ideas for other genres. :)

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Guest Anonymous Poster
I think rpg would be a good place for indie developers as most of big name ones are somewhat unoriginal and a lot people exisit that feel rpg are focused too much on bleeding edge graphic and painfully long fmv's than gameplay

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You've hit the nail on the head. You may be interested in this if you haven't already seen it (note, I realize the link's been around)

Basically, it talks about procedural content generation merged with player-created content. It mirrors pretty much everything I can think of saying so I'll just let Will take my post from here.

Spore and Game Creation

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The thing about the "big boys" is that, just like big movie studios, they tend to play it safe and formulaic. Indie games, much like indie movies, don't have to rely on formula. They can try new things and experiment with more radical ideas.

The plethora of indie games already available shows exactly how much they can vary already. Of course, many of the games are more formulaic than the commercial games (tetris clones, or computer versions of board games).

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Heh, this reads exactly like what went through my head a week or so ago, when I realised that every one of my game ideas was morphining into the impossibly long RPG I've always wanted to make. I suppose the main difference is that I actually like puzzle games and spaceship blasters as long as they have originality and soul [smile].

The other big difference is that I think aiming for a "big-name genre" is itself a mistake. If you aim for a big genre you are more likely to hit squarely into a mould of game that the AAA high-budget developers presently dominate. If your game design can be best described as "It's like *insert big name AAA title here*, but with *insert insignificant change here*", then it's pretty much doomed as a commercial prospect.

For example, I'd personally steer away from FPS games that are in any way similar to those made by the AAA teams, including trying to make the best Onslaught game possible. An FPS game might work if you pick a unique setting, such as setting it in the Napoleonic Wars or in the Caribbean during the age of pirates. Or even better, mould it with another game type, such as FPS/RTS, FPS/RPG or a FPS/adventure game.

As for RPG games, these can work if you've got enough content creators and you don't aim for a ultra-high-tech engine, as a good story is unique enough to act as a selling point. However I think it's better if you don't aim to make an RPG in the style of Bioware or Square-Enix. Depending on what you define an "RPG" to be, you could consider making an adventure game instead, or a strategy management RPG-type game like the Princess Maker series (like was done with Cute Knight). Story and stats doesn't have to mean a Final Fantasy type game.

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1. Indies don't have the resources to compete with AAA games in the GENRE.
2. Indies fall back to puzzle games and other simpler GENRES.

Here's my question for the indies out there: why are we trying to compete in their genre. Why not create your own genre? Screw the first person shooter and the MMO. Let's bring in some new genres! We need Bomberman, Lolo, Pac-Man, Bubble Bobble, Katamari Damashii... at one point Tetris was innovative, now it's been done to death. We need to let that sleeping dog drown and move on into the sunrise... or whatever I was trying to say.

I'm not saying clone the lesser known classics, I'm saying be inspired by their innovation and do what the major publishers can't afford to do: experiment!

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What about the fact that indie teams, without pressure from management and budgets, can afford to take twice as long to make the same game as a larger professional team? Xenallure aims to be an RPsim of roughly equal quality to Final Fantasy 8. It has a bit less content in that it will use scripted scenes rather than FMVs and should only take about 40 hours to play the first time, but it's still a huge project. It has been in production for 2 years and will probably take another 2 years to complete, but it will damn impressive when we're finally done with it.

Another tactic indies can use that the industry can't is sharing code and content. Xenallure will hopefully include several subgames. Rather than writing them all ourselves, we'll look around for indie puzzle and arcade games which could fit into Xenallure with a little remodeling and ask their creators if they want to team up. [smile]

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What about the fact that indie teams, without pressure from management and budgets, can afford to take twice as long to make the same game as a larger professional team?


Except, you know, that unfortunate need to eat that we all have. :)

Some indie teams have that ability, either through luck or sheer willpower, but where exactly does an indie make enough money to pay rent if they're not releasing games?

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makeshiftwings:
I enjoyed reading your post very much! I had same sort of ideas but havent seen it so clearly.

Quote:

...the retail avoids them, but we all know there is a disturbingly large audience out there dying for elf porn...


fine... I give you my blessing with your elf porn as long as you promise to leave the dwarf porn


M2tM:
Wow! I saw the spore video now and its amazing!! (its 3:27am now, an hour ago I was like "Ill just see the first few minutes..." and I couldnt stop watching.

Will Wright is a genius, but I think I figured his secret -

(Player generated + Procedual)*(inovation + skill) = pure total amazing jaw dropping goodness.

plus he is a great lecturer.



as for inovating, thats pretty hard! The human brain usualy comes up with stuff somewhat near examples seen before... its how we are made, so coming up with something entirely new is hard.

what about combining genres?
- GTA combined lousy FPS with lousy car racing with somewhat lousy modern RPG and got a smash hit (well, they had some not lousy stuff too).
- Unreal's Capture the flag is sort of a mix between FPS + Sport(football style).
- More and more games and genres steal from RPG ideas such as xp and leveling (even some platform/arcade games now feature leveling up).

But I guess there arent that many generes so mixing them isnt going bring thousands of new ideas.
there are some new mini generes forming (for example, protect the castle type) so it may be beneficial to look for those and try mixing and matching to get new game concepts. Some new generes may start from a simple internet flash game and can be mixed into a AAA size project.

Iftah.

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Quote:
Original post by JBourrie
What about the fact that indie teams, without pressure from management and budgets, can afford to take twice as long to make the same game as a larger professional team?


Except, you know, that unfortunate need to eat that we all have. :)

Some indie teams have that ability, either through luck or sheer willpower, but where exactly does an indie make enough money to pay rent if they're not releasing games?


Isn't an indie team by definition one that doesn't make any money? If you turn a profit you become part of the real game industry.

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JBourrie:

you are contradicting yourself abit,
first you say:
Quote:

I'm saying be inspired by their innovation and do what the major publishers can't afford to do: experiment!


and then you say:
Quote:

where exactly does an indie make enough money to pay rent if they're not releasing games?


if you experiment and fail, how do you pay the rent?
If I was indie (and I hope to be one day) I'd like to experiment but the dreadful rent may push me to the more known success (no I dont mean tetris, I mean FPS/RPG/racing/arcade/etc..)

so, what do you recomend to the rent worrying indie? experiment with a brand new game? yes it may be a hit (such as the all famous tetris or the more recent Bejeweled), but many many more experiments end up being lousy games (not GTA lousy or other AAA lousy, I mean plain zero profit lousy)

I think experimenting is for people who are sure that their dream product will be a great hit (and hopefuly they are smart enough to check others' opinions before taking a loan) or for indie programmers who won the lottery (like I hope to be).

Iftah.

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Quote:
Original post by sunandshadow
Isn't an indie team by definition one that doesn't make any money? If you turn a profit you become part of the real game industry.

I think there's a few definitions that people use, but I always thought an indie team was one that was free from any obligations to a publisher, meaning they could work on whatever they wished; the financial success of the indie developer (or lack of it) not being an issue.

Quote:
Original post by Iftah
JBourrie:
you are contradicting yourself abit,
first you say:
Quote:
I'm saying be inspired by their innovation and do what the major publishers can't afford to do: experiment!
and then you say:
Quote:
where exactly does an indie make enough money to pay rent if they're not releasing games?

if you experiment and fail, how do you pay the rent?

I don't think that's a contradiction at all. The most risky path for an indie is to do something too large and too close to the "AAA" titles, as it takes much longer and is much harder to do, and is in direct competition with the big guys.

The strength of the indie developer is their smaller team sizes and their much smaller start-up costs. This means they don't need to bring in as many sales in order to turn a profit. A big-budget AAA title will need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in order to break even, whereas a lone indie developer will only need to sell a few thousand copies to make money.

Experimental games work nicely for an indie, provided they do it sensibly. Some ideas might fall flat (especially the really weird ones), but if the idea can be quickly prototyped then it can be tested. Also from what I've seen from successful indies, a good plan is to make sure your game doesn't take much more than a year to make at most, so that you can build up a catalog of titles that earn money. That way if one game bombs, you still have an income stream. Plus it's a good idea not to give up your day job (or at least be able to work part time). And taking out a loan is a bit too much of a risk.

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Quote:
Original post by Trapper Zoid
Quote:
Original post by sunandshadow
Isn't an indie team by definition one that doesn't make any money? If you turn a profit you become part of the real game industry.

I think there's a few definitions that people use, but I always thought an indie team was one that was free from any obligations to a publisher, meaning they could work on whatever they wished; the financial success of the indie developer (or lack of it) not being an issue.

Quote:
Original post by Iftah
JBourrie:
you are contradicting yourself abit,
first you say:
Quote:
I'm saying be inspired by their innovation and do what the major publishers can't afford to do: experiment!
and then you say:
Quote:
where exactly does an indie make enough money to pay rent if they're not releasing games?

if you experiment and fail, how do you pay the rent?

I don't think that's a contradiction at all. The most risky path for an indie is to do something too large and too close to the "AAA" titles, as it takes much longer and is much harder to do, and is in direct competition with the big guys.

The strength of the indie developer is their smaller team sizes and their much smaller start-up costs. This means they don't need to bring in as many sales in order to turn a profit. A big-budget AAA title will need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in order to break even, whereas a lone indie developer will only need to sell a few thousand copies to make money.

Experimental games work nicely for an indie, provided they do it sensibly. Some ideas might fall flat (especially the really weird ones), but if the idea can be quickly prototyped then it can be tested. Also from what I've seen from successful indies, a good plan is to make sure your game doesn't take much more than a year to make at most, so that you can build up a catalog of titles that earn money. That way if one game bombs, you still have an income stream. Plus it's a good idea not to give up your day job (or at least be able to work part time). And taking out a loan is a bit too much of a risk.



I was just about to respond to all of the above comments, but I think you just summed up my entire point in one fell swoop :)

Short Version:

Indie is independent, which is not synonymous with non-commercial.

And as an indie, good luck competing with Halo! We need to make games that people haven't seen before, to make up for the fact that it won't be as big and expensive as the AAA titles.

Finally, you do have to pay the rent, but why pay the rent with Tetris clones when you can pay the rent with new and innovative ideas?

For more information, see Trapper's brilliant post :)

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Of course I'm all for innovation, and I didn't mean to present the original post as any sort of "Get rich quick" plan. As I said, I'm sure it's safer and more profitable as an indie to make puzzle games than an FPS. And it's probably more... glamorous?... to try and be a genre-defying visionary that single-handedly brings about the new age of gaming. However, there are those of us who say "Screw all that, I just want to make an (FPS/RPG/RTS/whatever)!" And I'm trying to present some ideas where you could work in your chosen genre yet still sell enough copies to pay the rent. As I said, you won't be "competing" with Halo; you will need to accept that your overall FPS package will never compete; you need to concentrate on something specific within the genre that is lacking and would be enough of a draw that fans will overlook your lackluster graphics or tiny amount of maps.

I think there's still plenty of room for innovation within the "genres", and I think genres, in video games as well as music and movies, are something that is going to get slapped on to your game by an audience anyway; you shouldn't fear being labeled. Katamari Damacy wasn't a good game merely because it's difficult to place a genre label on it (I'd say 3D platformer); it was a good game because it was fun and the artwork/music/story were so endearing. If the rest of the game had been the same, but the primary mechanic were changed from rolling to running and jumping, it may have sold just as well. The trippy artwork, humor, and overall theme were what held most of the gaming audience in my opinion; it's mostly game developers who laud the fact that it had a different primary mechanic than most platformers. I'd say Katamari's polish made it a success DESPITE the fact that it introduced a new primary game mechanic, not necessarily BECAUSE of it. In fact, I can think of a thousand ways to base a game around rolling things up, but have the art and music so bland and uninspiring that most people would find it dead boring.

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Quote:
Original post by makeshiftwings
Of course I'm all for innovation, and I didn't mean to present the original post as any sort of "Get rich quick" plan.


Don't get my posts wrong, definitely not... I wrote my first post as a follow-up to yours, not a direct reply. The discussion about innovation kind of brewed from there, I think. :)

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makeshiftwings, you have been reading my mind! [grin] That's pretty much the cornerstone of my realisation of what makes an indie game great. If you look at the best indie games reviewed at gametunnel, what all of them have in common is a high amount of polish and a huge amount of "personality". Most of them are also based on really simple ideas, but the polish and personality make them work.

The personality aspect is also where a small team can beat a larger one, because with a small number of developers it's easier to stamp personality into a game. With too many developers, with everyone putting in their own points of view it seems games tend to trend towards "industry standard personality", which is defined by the bulk of the commercial games.

So if you are trying to work on a standard genre (FPS, RPG etc.), I'd try to base it on something different that you can really throw your spirit and personality into, so you can make it "yours".

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If your aim is to be published, you should create a demo of your game. A demo does not require tons of content and shows the publisher what your game is all about.

You can't afford to be innovative these days. If you want to land a job in the game industry, create a game that publisher will want to publish. Otherwise you'll remain a indie developer for the rest of your days. I'm all for innovative new games, but publisher won't risk it.

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Original post by DarkZoulz
If your aim is to be published, you should create a demo of your game. A demo does not require tons of content and shows the publisher what your game is all about.

You can't afford to be innovative these days. If you want to land a job in the game industry, create a game that publisher will want to publish. Otherwise you'll remain a indie developer for the rest of your days. I'm all for innovative new games, but publisher won't risk it.


Ouch.

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1. Use prebuilt technology (graphics engines, physics code etc etc) where possible.
2. Opt for graphics that favour unique style over level of detail (see Darwinia) so they are quicker to produce.
3. Make you game much smaller - if it is an FPS make it one chapter long instead of 4-6 chapters long. - you can always do more chapters later

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Quote:
Original post by DarkZoulz Otherwise you'll remain a indie developer for the rest of your days.

Is that a threat? :)

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Having gone from AAA -> Indie development, I'd say that being Indie is a better life. There's no left space left for personal innovation in a 80 man team.

At the same time; Game Development is what I do.. I still expect to make a living out of it. It's not as if targetting the causal / indie market invalidates the basic principles of marketing, budgeting or scheduling, any more than it invalidates the art/code/design abilities you bring along.

Allan

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Quote:
Original post by Frequency
Is that a threat? :)


lol. If you feel threatend, I guess it is?



Do indie developers actually make any money? I mean, enough to keep a company up and running with employee saleries, office costs etc. Sure, making games is fun. But you'll want to be able to earn a living by doing it. At least, IMO.

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Quote:
Original post by DarkZoulz
Do indie developers actually make any money? I mean, enough to keep a company up and running with employee saleries, office costs etc. Sure, making games is fun. But you'll want to be able to earn a living by doing it. At least, IMO.

Some of them, yes. In some cases enough to live off (as well as sustaining the business), often just as a second income, and many simply make some extra spending money, but have a good time doing it.


I think most of what I would have said if I'd arrived earlier has already been said, so I'll just contribute to the prompting for more originality by suggesting that people may be interesting in taking up the challenge of Dogma 2001, or that defining a similar set of contraints yourself could produce some interesting concepts.

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Quote:
Original post by DarkZoulz
Quote:
Original post by Frequency
Is that a threat? :)


lol. If you feel threatend, I guess it is?



Do indie developers actually make any money? I mean, enough to keep a company up and running with employee saleries, office costs etc. Sure, making games is fun. But you'll want to be able to earn a living by doing it. At least, IMO.


Enough to pay salaries and office costs, yes. Do indies make millions of dollars? Not unless you're PopCap Games.

To some people, though, $100k a year salaries are less important than enjoying life. And I'd rather make $40k and make great, new, innovative games, than to make $80k+ making generic licensed hack-n-slashers that make me hate my job.

There is a breaking point, where the salary isn't worth it, but often this is also because the games made ARE just the quick licenses (GBA movie-licensed titles and such) but they aren't innovative and new anyway.

Of course, making $80k+ AND great new games would be nice :)

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Quote:
Original post by DarkZoulz
Quote:
Original post by Frequency
Is that a threat? :)


lol. If you feel threatend, I guess it is?



Do indie developers actually make any money? I mean, enough to keep a company up and running with employee saleries, office costs etc. Sure, making games is fun. But you'll want to be able to earn a living by doing it. At least, IMO.


I'll be happy if I can make as much as an indie game dev as I do as an indie musician. And let me tell you, the indie music and art scene has learned to live in some pretty abject poverty but still make it seem glamorous. ;) When worse comes to worse, I contract out to a real game company, or, if I want to get paid more, nearly any other type of computer-using company in existence (games are a poor choice to try to get rich on).

My initial post was actually specific that we WEREN'T talking about relying on getting a big publisher and "going corporate", and that I was mainly referring on internet distribution, not retail. "Indie" goesn't have a strict definition, but I'd say if you've got a large contract with a publisher, a bunch of employees working full-time, and a game going into retail stores, you're not indie anymore; you're just the president of a company instead of a programmer.

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