(There Will Be Justice is a blog series inspired by the design and development of a text-oriented indie game. You can find the prototype for Justice here)
I prefer to spend my time thinking about design, but indie developers don't actually have that luxury. We have to be programmers, artists sound engineers, marketers...and CEOs. That’s a lot to ask of a twenty-something with a day job. But we’re smart. We can handle it. But sometimes it feels like the development game needs a bit more balancing.
There has been a lot of talk about Steam Greenlight in the last few months. Between the Depression Quest team receiving death threats and a general sense of disdain I’ve gotten from other developers, Greenlight seems to be facing a great deal of criticism. I have no doubt that Valve is watching these things carefully and will make changes of some kind in the future, but hope is of little solace to a developer currently working on a project.
Before delving into my own particular criticisms, I’m going to try to express why Steam is so important to indie devs. If you are going to release your game on the PC, of course, steam release is a necessity. EA might be able to find success with self-distribution, but realistically individuals or small teams have no hope of drawing attention to their games unless they are on Steam. Users WANT steam releases. They have a big list of games in their Steam accounts, and they are iffy about buying things that don’t go on that list.
The obvious response is to release for phones, but that places unavoidable limitations on design. Starcraft, Silent Hill, Half Life...these are not games suited to phones. It’s also not a universal option. I for one am a “liberal artsy” developer. I’m pretty good with Unity, but I’ll never be making my own engine. Even exporting from Unity to Android costs over a grand. It’s not as though one is able to make a game for Android and then use the near-finished product to raise money and buy a commercial licence.
The end result is this: I’m terrified of Steam Greenlight. Why is that? I made a concept page last month, just to see what response I would get. It included a link to the original Ludum Dare project and a reasonably specific description of where I was going with it. Here’s the response that I’ve gotten so far:
Short version: of the 16 people who have visited that concept page, only 6 voted. None of them want it.
I won’t be deterred by 6 people. I am, of course, massively stubborn. However, I also know from having seen people play and talk about the prototype that it is an interesting project worth pursuing. I don’t even mean that artistically: If we want to be exceptionally reductionist about it Justice is a blend of Law & Order and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Both of those were critically and commercially successful, so I’ve got some kind of reason to believe that this will play to a moderately sized audience.
Without direct feedback from those 6 people, it’s hard to tell what turned them off the concept, but I’ve been terrified about Greenlight since its inception for one major reason: Games are accepted based on concept, not execution.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Two games go up on Greenlight. One of them is “Hero’s Journey”, a platformer about a knight hunting dragons. The other is “Flame War”, a turn-based strategy game about cats who secretly run major governments and use subversive message board posts to do battle with each other. If you could only greenlight one, which would it be?
Did you pick Flame War? I would have. Well, there is one piece of information that I didn’t give you. Hero’s Journey is being developed by Rockstar North. Flame War is being developed by Bobby Kotick in his basement. Still want to stick with that choice? I'm willing to bet that the Rockstar game will be a lot more interesting that Mr. Kotick's brainchild.
The problem I’m trying to illustrate is that good execution, especially in games, doesn’t become apparent until you see something in its entirety. If The Walking Dead and Telltale had no street cred, you wouldn’t be interested in them based on a 30 second video. Deadly Premonition wouldn’t have been greenlit if it wasn’t already a cult hit.
Of course, these are all problems that devs will also face in marketing their game. The big difference is that, once a game is released, you can sell it based on reviews and word of mouth (and let’s be honest, this is how indie games are sold). One of my favourite marketing horror stories is Quake 4. What should have happened is that reviewers said “There is an awesome thing that happens in the middle of this that you need to see”. Unfortunately the marketers weren’t interested in this and proudly announced in advertisements, and in fact on the back of the box, that the player turns into a Strogg halfway through. That’s not such a big deal for Quake 4, but if your game’s strength is manipulating player expectation you basically have to ruin portions of it to get Greenlit. This is even worse with major plot twists. Even giving a few of those away as teasers can impact hours of player experience.
I drive a used 1995 Honda Civic, and my friend is the first owner of a 2006 Pontiac Sunfire. On the face of it her car should be significantly better, but it isn’t and additionally needs constant repair. It’s only after nearly 20 years of reliable service that you realize how well designed and built the Civic is. Which car would get greenlit?