Imagination and Independant Game Devlopment

Discussion in 'Indie Related Chat' started by Dan MacDonald, Nov 10, 2005.

  1. Dan MacDonald

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    Recent examples have shown that it is possible to make a lot of money in the casual games business re-skinning existing game designs. I look at this as an affirmation of some of the culture values that have been around this forum community since it's inception. "Pick a niche you can be successful in and target it", "Have direct sales, own your customer, and leverage portals for additional profit", "Commit to your indie business (go full time?)".

    All of these goals / directives are achievable by targeting the casual game niche. Despite the general perception of casual games being the be-all and end-all of downloadable games (and independent games for that matter). I maintain that they are every bit as much a niche as RTS and Adventure games are. Granted these niche's have grown into their own genera's but they are still an sub segment of the market with particular tastes and needs that are readily identifiable. Casual games have proven to be a niche that is very exploitable with proven formulas for success. Hence it's attraction to the larger players, it's still a high margin market and the formula for success is repeatable and profitable. Take a hit game and re-skin it or derive from it or add to it and then release it. Granted you aren't guaranteed success but your chances are much higher then if you did something entirely different and new.

    "So what does this have to do Imagination?" you ask. I don't know how many of you sketch for personal enjoyment but those of you who do I expect will instantly relate to this. When you make a sketch in your sketchbook, what is it's purpose? I would wager that there is something cool in your imagination that you want to capture on paper. In the end, the person who gets the greatest value from your sketch is you. To see your idea realized is satisfaction in itself, being able to share that with others is just an added benefit.

    So let me ask you this, when you sketch do you think about who you are trying to impress with your sketch? Do you think, "would people be willing to pay for this?" or do you think "How can i make this sketch so that my mom and sister will enjoy it". Now if you sketch for a living, or your are sketching for your mom or sister you may. But for the most part if you have the freedom to sketch whatever you want, you are going to sketch something that's cool to you.

    The thing is when you open up your sketchbook with an idea, you are exercising your artistic freedom to do whatever the hell you want, limited only by your own skills and the tools you have at your disposal.

    Those who have gotten this far will have guessed the direction of my analogy already. I think we as a community have over emphasized making games for a living, for profit, and for markets. I think we have lost sight of the fundamental thing that makes us independents. The ability to exercise our artistic freedom and make something that captures our imagination. Generally we do not emphasize this aspect of indie game development here because every beginning game developer has this attribute in spades. They have the next best MMORTSRPG in their minds and they are trying to recruit a team of artists and programmers to make it for them.

    I think we downplay this enthusiasm, imagination, and passion because it is commonly associated with pie in the sky beginners. In doing so however, we diminish one of the most fundamental attributes of being independent, the freedom to follow our imaginations. We limit ourselves to the same things that limit businesses built around game development. We consider too strongly profitability, distribution, and marketability and we sacrifice creative expression, imagination and artistic freedom.

    I don't want this to be yet another line in the sand to determine who is a "REAL" indie and who isn't. At best that is a counter productive activity. What I would like to do is encourage independent developers to do what interests them. As indies we have the freedom to put Passion before Profitability and we may be the only group of game developers with that freedom. I feel that we are remiss in not exercising it and recognizing it as as community, if not us then who?
     
  2. soniCron

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    You may not like the "business" of independent game development, but most developers rely on their business in order to sustain their passion of game development. If that business tanks, they are more than likely stuck without a paddle -- their dream of creating games has dissolved to the realities of life. Combining long-term game development with a "normal life" is usually a tragic affair with the developer losing sanity trying to juggle a normal job, a family, and their passion.

    Frankly, I think freeware developers are probably a better audience for these musings. Independent developers are the least capable of creating games they're interested in by virtue of their position as an independent game developer, creating commercial products as a generally unestablished entity. That's not to say a developer can't be creative, but to be completely selfish and only create games that interest "us" is running a race with financial suicide -- it is not conducive of a successful independent game development business.

    There is certainly some sort of market for the games that developers are most passionate about, but the largely untapped facets of the video game market are far more lucrative and beckon to the developer that is serious about his future. For an independent developer trying to make game development generate a sustainable income, the option is clear: Business before passion. If a developer isn't content creating freeware games for the rest of his life, then an alternative must be found, and that is creating and following new video gaming markets that may or may not passionately touch the developer.

    Sometimes it's hard to forget that the business of fun isn't in the business of being fun.
     
  3. TimS

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    I'd agree with both of you so far.

    There IS a class of indie developers who can follow their passions without considering the market for them AND sell the fruits of their labors. This class is wide-ranging, and includes:

    1.) - People with a stream of income from something else (passive or otherwise).
    2.) - People living in their Mom's basement.
    3.) - Peter Molyneux, and others who put their pants on just like everyone else in the morning, but when they're done, they make gold f@$%ing records.

    I think at least to some extent, every indie developer wants to fall into one or more of these three categories -- freeing themselves forever to dance their whimsical only-games-I-wanna-make game-creation jig. I've often heard folks from category 1 or 2 making fun of folks who don't fit into any of these categories... chastizing them for whoring themselves to the casual market, etc.. What they don't realize (if they're in #2) or perhaps don't remember (#1) is that the path from NOT being in ANY of these categories to being IN one is something that takes considerable time, effort, and ningenuity (barring moving BACK into your Mom's basement).

    So for those IN the group, I'm glad you follow your passions -- yours are the games I'll likely play, since they'll be infused with unrestricted creative juices and steeped in love for the project.

    For the rest of us... ganbatte!

    p.s. - I suppose there are SOME out there who literally don't care to make games that they are passionate about -- since making casual games can be profitable for a skilled programmer and it is WAY more interesting than coding banking applications, plus you get to be your own boss... it is likely seen by some as just a "decent job by which to make a living". I just hope these people have other hobbies. So it goes.
     
  4. soniCron

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    All the passion in the world is no substitute for excellent design. If it was, all the Star Trek fan-fic writers would be published by now! Frankly, I think a targeted game has the same likelihood of being poorly designed as the passionate niche product. There is a dearth of highly talented game designers in this industry right now, no matter which angle you look from.

    When an excellent, non-mainstream game bubbles up to the surface, people are quick to hail the underground as a rich playground of digital entertainment. This simply isn't true. Mainstream titles are high profile, so we notice when every one stinks like a pot of sour potatoes and spoiled love. But the non-mainstream is just as putrid -- we just don't notice the smell because it's so far underground.
     
  5. TimS

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    I agree entirely -- in fact all of my favorite designers are mainstream and high-profile. Throwing freedom and money at people doesn't make them expert game designers...

    But then there's game design as a technical skill and game design as a creative skill; the two are intertwined but a lot of folks only have one or the other. Many budding young game designers have neither... they just want to make games because they like them. Making games is a worthwhile and fulfilling hobby too I suppose.

    I think I'm off topic, so I'll stop now... :D
     
  6. DrWilloughby

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    It kinda depends on your business model. Some indies make a living on fresh content, others make a living sucking the teet of the portals with clones :)

    I have no right to use myself as an example, but I will... I made an animal game that is -- I think, at least my mom says so -- creative and unique. It is clearly targeted at an audience, but I hope that its freshness will help it to reach outside of its core market.

    Think what you will about Wildlife Tycoon, but games like Gish, DROD, and Outpost Kaloki make me think it's possible to do both.

    It's a different form of competition, though. Those making clones or near-clones compete largely in how they can keep costs down for high production values. Those making more original content compete largely in how creative they can be and how capable their marketing and distribution channels are.
     
  7. soniCron

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    Not only is this an incredibly small sample, but, with the exception of DROD, there is little evidence of sustained success from future titles by these developers. When they have a library of hits, I'll believe it's possible. Until then, I'm skeptical that these are any more than one- or two-hit wonders.
     
  8. DrWilloughby

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    Chronic Logic, makers of Gish, have been around for YEARS. They started with Pontifex, which morphed into Bridge Builder, which is still their best selling title.

    Outpost Kaloki is NinjaBee's second title, and is now going to the Xbox Live Arcade.

    Other examples include:
    Three Rings, makers of Puzzle Pirates
    Stardock, makers of The Political Machine (have been around for 10 years I believe)
    Reflexive -- while most of their titles are clones or near-clones, and Wik wasn't very financially successful, it certainly earned them goodwill and improved their already stellar reputation

    shall I continue? ;)

    I realize you said they might just be one or two hit wonders, but what does that have to do with anything? We are talking about if it's possible to make a living making games that are a bit morewild in their designs, right? Well, these people are, and all of them have been doing it now for 3-10 years.

    edit: closing in on that Senior Member tag... ooooh sweet Senior Member tag
     
    #8 DrWilloughby, Nov 10, 2005
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2005
  9. KNau

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    What I am most heartened by lately is the trend towards "40 Hour Game" experiments.

    Truthfully, once you have basic programming and art techniques down game development is a stupidly easy profession. Even my absolute failures have managed to pay the rent for the month or two in which they were first released. If I were able to produce games at the pace of one per month I would be a happy cat, indeed.

    The 40-hour concept is brilliant because it's such a short time commitment that the cost of experimenting with unique designs doesn't become a burden. Within a week you will know if you have a winning game design on your hands. Then take another week to polish it and put it up for sale. Even Steve Pavlina admitted to a similar technique on a few games.

    The only problem is that none of the people who have taken up the 40-hour game challenge have succeeded in completing even "a game" let alone "a saleable game". The ones I've seen seem to be aiming for the wrong target but that's for another post.

    I think it's like the 4-minute mile, once someone breaks the record lots of people will start doing it. I know I'm planning to try.
     
  10. KNau

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    It only takes one hit to build a company, look at Bravetree (ThinkTanks). It's like the money-dude on TV says, "You only have to get rich once".
     
  11. ManuelFLara

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    I also agree with both points of view. My current situation is that I have a full time job and I'm developing a clone in my spare time. I'm not gonna drop this project since it's 80% done and I think finishing all that you start is a good practice. On the other hand, I realized that all that free time I spend doing games, I want to have the most fun doing it, and so my next projects will be concepts I'd like to play (sim, strategy or action games). Yeah, they will be harder to develop and sell, but my friends and I will have a great fun playing them! And hopefully other people too. Hot seat mode? Sure!
     
  12. Fry Crayola

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    I'm an idealist. I would be considering I haven't a single game to my name (other than two games I knocked up for the Amstrad CPC ten years ago) so I've still one foot in fantasy land, but I don't consider it a bad thing.

    I have three game ideas in my head at the moment. The one I'm working on is the least imaginative and least creative, yet the most ambitious. It's just football. That's been around for over 150 years. But I have a huge passion for it, and if there's only one game I ever make now it'll be this one. And in its defence, I am aiming to do something that has never once been done successfully - merge playing and management together without having proficiency in one area rendering the other redundant.

    The other two are more creative. In terms of mechanics, neither are anything new, the creativity is in the scope and design.

    Ideally, these games would be successful and I can take it full time as a career. I'm not above making a simple but well produced arcade title or a puzzle game, and I'd even be happy to do it to pay the bills and keep me out of the drudgery of commercial jobs. But I consider games as art and myself as an artist and so I'm always going to try to produce something to satisfy myself, first and foremost.
     
  13. papillon

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    Oooh, time to defend fanfic! :)

    Well, actually, I think you can already see the problem with the above. The reason Star Trek fanfic can't get published has nothing to do with how good it is. And some of it IS good. (Some of it is also utter dreck, it depends on the writer.) But if you want to play with an established setting and you don't get permission from above, you can't be published. There are entire orphaned Star Trek novels out there from people who were writing for the paperback line but didn't get the go-ahead on the story...

    And we see plenty of game designers who want to make not just a game, but a SONIC game... And of course, they can't. Not for sale. Even if it's good.

    But both fanfic writers and fangame designers can learn from the experience and go on to make things that CAN be sold or distributed without fear of lawsuit... (Fanfic tends to get a lot less legal hassle than fangames, though, so if your motivation is just "make what you want" rather than "make something that can be sold", you can stay 'fic for a long long time. Fangames have an unfortunate tendency to get shut down, even though they did the IP no harm at all.).
     
  14. Escapee

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    Personally
    I think a successful indie casual game business should take originality as last resort as the failure % for being original could be much higher than making a well polished clone game.
    Since i'm taking this indie game Dev stuff as my lifelong passion/hobbies rather than "business". Making a match 3 swapping game is never in my plan . :D
     
  15. PoV

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    I'm not sure of the sort of response you're looking for Dan, but I don't think we've ever really disagreed. Actually, I'm starting to wonder if I just do everything you say ;). We'd previously discussed not getting stuck at my previous employer and taking it full time, which I did a few months back, and getting in on Live Arcade, which I've been working towards exclusivly. And now this, which more or less sums up my thoughts why I'm here... yeah, I'm a tool. :D

    Every similar conversation like this that pops up tends to turn in to this. "Indie's should do more original stuff", gets responded to by "Indie's can't afford to be original", which gets responded to by success stories of indieland, some additional related banter, rinse and repeat. The point Dan is trying to get across is yes, you could follow one of the established money making casual gaming schemes, but you don't have to, and you can be a success. I'm sure I'm not the only other person that thinks this is realalistic.

    Rather than discussing how more can, these discussions always get dismissed as special cases, heroes, or whatever. I know it's hard for some people to put aside their preconceptions, but why not try. Be the MMORTSRPG kid again, and use your knowledge and experience to shape a project that can be profitable and that you'd play.

    Or maybe Sonicron's right. Perhaps Indiegamer is the wrong place to talk about creative game development. Maybe we're too tainted by business here.

    Despite all the evidence in my prior experience, you'll never convince me the business of fun isn't fun. It's just lacked good control up until now.
     
  16. Robert Cummings

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    Tainted And Evil
     
  17. papillon

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    Is a good-but-not-very-original casual game really losing the spirit of fun?

    Is anyone here making money hand over fist on a game they personally loathe?

    Isn't the key difference in being independent of studio demands that you don't have to waste your time pasting Barbie sprites into a leftover platform engine so you can release a dreadful licensed tie-in in time for the movie?
     
  18. DrWilloughby

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    Back tot he original post -- here's where I disagree -- you can make something you are passionate about and STILL target an audience, one which you think might be big enough to support you financially.

    I love turn based strategy games, open-ended sandbox games, FPSs, RTSs, epic action games, adventure games, RPGs, and puzzle games. My favorite games in the world are RPGs, and if I am randomly doodling ideas about games, often, RPG ideas come to my head.

    But instead I decided to make a Tycoon game, which is a genre I also enjoy, because I thought there was an underserved market niche. I was very passionate about making my game, while at the same time constantly trying to be aware of the market I was targeting.
     
  19. Dan MacDonald

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    Sure, I know when I make a sketch of a cyborg samurai, for example, I'm largely catering to my own interests. The flip side of that is that there are probably a number of gamers out there who would love a Final Fight type game with cyborg Ninja's and Samurai. This may not be the best example, and possibly the market wouldn't be large enough (or reachable enough) to sustain a small family in suburbia. But maybe enough for a college student living on campus?

    The point I'd like to make, and I feel it does warrant representation on these forums, is that designing a game, giving it some individuality, having it be some sort of expression of the authors preferences and personality are what make indie games great. These games are the reason sites like GameTunnel, DIY, TIGSource exist. To review the cool, fun, expressive games that people with the passion and ability create.

    After some introspection, I realized that the goal to "go fulltime" was leading me to create games I really wasn't interested in. I've realized that I would rather keep my full time enterprise development job that feeds my family, and have the freedom to pursue my own interests in my game development time. As opposed to following the most lucrative markets interests. It is not my intention to try and convert everyone to my perspective. I do want to make an appeal to indies out there to have fun making games, put some of yourself into it, do a little design as opposed to borrowing one. In the end even six figures a year isn't going to make you excited about the games you are copying (as opposed to creating).
     
  20. Sharpfish

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    The first part a lot of us can probably identify with, I remember posting way back how not "worrying about money" can be liberating to the game designs you you are working on. I don't have a "day job" so need money, which is why I began more and more to understand where the people who made "simple casual games" were coming from.. now I am in the middle. I only make games I feel excited about making, and I design them from scratch (no clones from me). This takes more time and is probably going to be met with less monetry rewards (if any)... and that is with no "plan B".. However, I feel the market for the game I am working on is still casual but "different", basically I have stuck to my original idea but tried to make it as accessible as possible to the mass market. It is really an experiment and I am sure to learn a lot from it. After that, then I can really decide my true future direction (more hardcore, more casual or maintain the same direction).
     

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