Sunday 15 March 2015

What many indies are doing wrong

The indie explosion has finally happened. New indie companies and teams appear every day. At the same time a lot of pessimism has entered the scene: so few indies are actually making money! This is mostly because the market simply isn't big enough to support us all. But I believe another cause is that a lot of indies are all making the same mistakes. Here is what I think many indies are doing wrong.

Before I continue, a little disclaimer: this post is about what I think gives indies the best chance at making a reasonable income from their games. If you don't care about that and just want to have fun making games, then none of this applies.

Too small games

Every day dozens of indie games are released. During big game jams this can even be hundreds during a single weekend. To stand out from this crowd more indies should focus on making larger games. If you and your team spend dozens of man-months on a single game, then that game is much bigger than most competing games. This way you aren't being compared to a dozen games per day, but 'only' a few games per week.

Too many gimmick-games

Lots of indie games are based on a super unique idea that is fun... for exactly five minutes. There are tons of games that purely resolve around some weird gimmick. This trend is fuelled by game jams, since it is often impossible to make more than that in just 48 hours. Such gimmicks can be fun and exciting, and can sometimes grow into larger products like the excellent World Of Goo. But too often they don't grow beyond a simple gimmick.

The true skill of the game designer isn't in coming up with something original, but in turning that original idea into a substantial game that is enjoyable for hours. And no, adding a highscore list to your gimmick-game doesn't solve this: very few people will be triggered enough by that to play longer (even if it does work for a few people who might play your game for dozens of hours to get the best score).

Not enough polish, depth and quality

Very few indie games seem to execute on all fronts. Looking at trailers it is rare to see a game that has interesting, original gameplay and a cool visual style and good animation and good audio and etc. A game can't be excellent if not all aspects are at the very least acceptable. Especially animation seems to be something that few indies get right.

Too many bugs

Many indie games launch with a lot of bugs. Early Access seems to have triggered a trend where bug fixing and polish isn't valued as much any more. It seems like many developers think we only need more features and more content. You might want to reply that Minecraft and DayZ were huge successes despite being really buggy, but this isn't the norm and not an example that should be followed. In general, good games sell better than bad games. Don't make a bad game.

Too small teams

All of the points above have one thing in common: you need to spend more time on a game. This is easier said than done of course. What if a lot of indies joined forces and formed larger teams? Ten people all making a game on their own could combine into ten people making one big game together. Not only does this allow making bigger and better games, but it also fixes the problem that one person can't be good at everything. With a larger team it is possible to have specialists on board, instead of only generalists.

We made our first big release Swords & Soldiers 1 with a team of seven people and spent a whole year on it, full-time. Yes, we were lucky that we released that game in a time when there was hardly any indie competition, but that isn't the only factor. With around 100 man-months spent on it (including interns), Swords & Soldiers 1 was much bigger than most indie releases today. So even in today's crowded market it would stand out at least a little.

To avoid confusion: by "bigger teams" I don't mean 50 people. I mean 5 to 15 people who work on a game full-time for something like 1 to 3 years. That is big for an indie studio but still minuscule compared to triple-A.

Too many side-jobs

A lot of the indies I meet make money through work-for-hire and then spend the remaining time on their indie games. I understand the necessity of this of course, but often it doesn't work. If you work on your game part-time, how are you ever going to spend enough time to make a truly polished game? It is possible of course, but not focussing fully on your main game makes it really difficult.

How to fund development then? For me personally the funding was really simple: I kept living with my mom until Ronimo made enough money to live on. This took a whopping four years! I wasn't the only one living cheaply back then: three of the other founders of Ronimo rented a single apartment together. Had we sought a normal job, each of us would have made enough to get a decent apartment of his own right away. If you really really really want to make it as an indie, you have to be willing to make serious personal sacrifices. (Note that my mom is great, so not being able to move out until I was 26 wasn't that bad.)

Too little focus on the craft

Making games is hard. Programming complex systems is hard, drawing anatomy is hard, designing puzzles is hard. To make good games, you need to hone your craft. This seems obvious yet in the indie scene there is very little emphasis on hardcore creation skills. I saw this recently at the Screenshake indie festival in Belgium: hardly any of the talks were about actual development. Of course there should be room for a conference that focusses on other aspects of indie games, but I do think it exemplifies a trend that the only indie conference of Belgium ignores the craft of making games altogether.

Unity and GameMaker are a big part of this: they have made it possible to make games without serious technical skills. This is great but if you don't have those skills then it is also extremely limiting. Many indies wouldn't be able to make tech that isn't available as a standard Unity plug-in. This limits your possibilities and makes it more likely that you will make something similar to what others are making. Our own game Awesomenauts and my hobby project Cello Fortress wouldn't have been possible without serious tech knowledge of respectively multiplayer and sound programming. Having the skills to make whatever you want opens up enormous possibilities to stand out from all of those who are limited by the standard features of Unity and GameMaker.

No originality

This point pains me greatly. Five years ago being indie was all about being original, expanding what games can be and delivering unique experiences. Today so many people are making pixel-art rogue-likes, voxel sandbox games and platformers-with-a-twist that it seems like 90% of all indie games fall under one of these very specific categories. Not to mention zombies... I think it is super lame that 'indie' is now often the equivalent of unoriginal me-too games. This also means that you are competing with lots of very similar games, decreasing your chances of success greatly.

Of course not everyone is doing the same thing, but too many indies are. There are opportunities elsewhere. For example, Reus and Banished each brought a unique twist to the god-game/management genre, and both sold really well. For some reason hardly any other indies were doing this genre so Reus and Banished easily stood out.

Stand out from the crowd

Luck is always involved in success, but my impression is that if you want to stand a decent chance, you need to have at least one of these:
  • A better game than the competition
  • A game that does something truly new
  • Appeal to an underserved niche audience
  • More marketing budget than the rest (and being pro at using it effectively)

That last one only really applies to big companies with big budgets. I think a company like Supercell simply bought the success of Hay Day and Boom Beach through the massive marketing budget they earned with Clash Of Clans. For an indie, the other three are the reasonable alternatives.

A great example of this is Ori And The Blind Forest, currently a big hit on Steam. Not only is it incredibly polished and beautiful, and thus simply better than most other games, it also serves an underserved niche: big metroidvania 2D platformers are rare. Luck is always involved, but this game had really good chances at becoming the hit it is now.

Don't blindly follow my advice! Instead, figure out your own path and find an original way of doing things. There are a million ways to be an indie and many can work. But please stop all making the exact same games and mistakes, and consider what I have explained here. Some of these things are really difficult to achieve, for reasons of budget, skill or inspiration, but that shouldn't be an excuse to not strive for them!

Special thanks to Ronimo producer Robin Meijer for discussing these topics with me and coming up with most of that list at the end. This is the second part in a short series on the state of indie. The first part was about luck and in a few weeks I will write about why I think indies should care less about financial independence.

Sunday 8 March 2015

The downsides of gameplay variety

An important goal in the game design of Swords & Soldiers, Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers II is gameplay variety. We try to make all the classes, units and factions play and feel as differently is possible. This makes it more fun to try them all and allows for much more interesting and varied tactics than if everything feels the same. It seems quite obvious that a game gets better if more diversity is added, as long as you have the budget to do so and it does not take away from the core vision. However, there are some serious downsides that are not as obvious. Adding more diversity can hurt many different aspects of a game, as I will explain in this blogpost.

When striving for variety it is important to be aware of the trade-offs. It does not mean that you should avoid diverse mechanics, far from it: it is a key element of the games we make at Ronimo! But consider the consequences before blindly adding variety.

A great example of such trade-offs can be found in the movement mechanics of Awesomenauts. We try to make every character feel different, not only their combat skills, but also their basic movement. Some characters can jump, others can fly, float, make little hops in the air or double jump. There is also variation in walking speed, acceleration and sliding time. Not all of the 21 characters we have so far are completely unique in their movement, but there certainly is a lot of variety. As the interplay between the different classes in Awesomenauts is a key part of the game, this diversity is really important to us.

So where is the trade-off? The problem is that there is such a thing as the ultimate jump. If a jump has the right duration, height and speed, it just feels excellent. Make it a little bit faster or slower and it is instantly less glorious. The jumps in the old Mario games are a great example of this. They strike a perfect balance and it feels awesome just to hop around.

This is where variety bumps its beautiful head. If every jump is to feel different, they cannot all hit that sweet spot. They can feel good in their own way, but it is practically impossible to make them all feel equally super. My colleague Fabian Akker, currently lead game designer on Awesomenauts, recently voiced this very clearly during an internal meeting: "Yes I can make this character faster and yes he will play better then, but I can't make them all be Mario because they will all feel the same." Adding variety will often make the individual parts feel slightly less good than possible, because there is only one "best thing in the game" and not everything can be that thing.

Another example where movement diversity can hurt a game is in graphics. In early prototypes of Awesomenauts we had a skill to walk on ceilings and another to walk on walls. For various reasons both were removed, and one of those reasons was how limiting this would have been to the graphics. To communicate clearly where the player can walk, floors need to be mostly straight and clear. If characters can also walk on ceilings and walls, they would have to be straight and clear too. That would have been a huge limitation to our art style! In this case adding diversity to the gameplay would have removed diversity from the graphics because of the restrictions imposed by the necessities of walkable surfaces.

Diversity is also a problem for balance. The easiest way to make a game perfectly balanced is to have but a single character. Boring, but definitely 'balanced'. As soon as you add more characters, balance quickly becomes infinitely complex and often practically impossible to achieve perfectly. In a previous blogpost I discussed how there are many sides to balance. Even if you manage making all the characters equally strong for pro players, they might still be imbalanced for beginners, in specific team compositions, or in some other way.

A great example of this can be found in map design. It is fun to have a bunch of maps that all play differently. But even the smallest difference can cause problems. If one map is larger than the rest, slow characters will be at a disadvantage. You might try to solve this by giving slow heroes buffs suited to large maps, but that probably introduces other problems. The simple truth: the more diversity, the more impossible it becomes to achieve perfect balance.

And yet balance is so important! How to handle this then? In Awesomenauts we had the problem that one map (AI Station 404) had a single lane at the centre, bunching up everyone. This gave characters with strong area-of-effect attacks (like Raelynn) too much of a benefit. We ended up modifying this map (into AI Station 205) and removing the old version from ranked matchmaking. The downside to this solution is that we lose some diversity in map layouts.

This is just one solution. Another would have been to show the players which map they were getting, so they could avoid certain characters when they feel they are underpowered on a specific map. This would allow us to keep the maps diverse, but at the cost of character diversity, since each map would probably see a more limited set of characters being used. In an ideal world one would find balance tweaks that influence only specific characters on specific maps. However, balance is so complex that such solutions do not always exist, or cannot be found.

Variety can also make a game too complex. I recently finished Advanced Warfare, my very first Call of Duty experience. At the beginning I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of guns, grenades, dashes and options. This is likely due to the series' yearly updates, which force them to add something every time to make it fresh again. At the end of the campaign I still couldn't remember the buttons for half the things I could do. This increase in possibilities adds burdensome complexity, requiring more explanations and tutorials.

We also see this in Awesomenauts: with every character we add it becomes more difficult for beginners to get into the game. In every match they encounter another new Naut they don't know how to fight yet. Having more characters adds longevity and depth, but might make the experience during the first few hours worse for some players.

As a final example I would like to discuss my own hobby project Cello Fortress. Cello Fortress is a hybrid between game and live performance, which means that players only play it for ten minutes each during an event (have a look at this trailer to see how it works). In such a short playsession I can hardly explain anything, so the game needs to be extremely simple. Sometimes players come to me afterwards and ask why I didn't add more diverse weapon. The answer is really simple: because there already is so much I need to explain and communicate during those ten minutes. Variety often adds complexity and there is a limit to how much a player can stomach in such a short session.

I love gameplay variety. My favourite game of 2014 is Far Cry 4, exactly because there is such a big open world where I can do all of these different things. Variety is also super important in our own games Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers. But it is important to keep in mind that adding diversity almost always comes with a cost somewhere, so you shouldn't be reckless with it. Add variety, but do it deliberately and take into account the trade-offs it always brings.

Special thanks to Roderick, founder of Leeuwenhart Publishing, for helping me improve my English writing skills. Roderick is the writer of the young adult book Pindakaas & Sushi (in Dutch) and did some freelance writing for Awesomenauts.