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The Indie Content Problem
by Alistair Doulin on 07/09/14 12:10:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

indie-game-contentNow that we’re wrapping up work on Battle Group 2 we’ve begun planning out our next major project. I’ve briefly spoken about this previously and today I’m going to share some further discussions that have come out of our planning. The main theme revolves around creating enough content for a game with a small development team. With three main developers (a programmer, a designer and an artist) and a project timeframe of 12 months we need to make smart decisions about how we will create enough content for our game. I see the same problem crop up with a lot of other indie friends and I thought I’d give my thoughts on the subject. 

The Problem - Not Enough Content

The underlying problem is the creation of enough quality content to keep players engaged for a set period of time. For Battle Group 2 this was a handful of hours, however for our next project, we are aiming for something people can play for months without running out of content. The problem is that a small team is limited in what it can produce in a given period of time. For us, 3 (hu)man-years of work. So what are our options to solve this problem?

Solution 1 - Reduce Scope

The first solution is to reduce the scope of the game. Instead of providing x-months of content for the player, cut this back to weeks or hours. This is the usual advice I give to game developers when they are concerned with the amount of time/budget required to develop their game. It’s a common trap to overscope a project and have the development go on for years, abandoning it entirely or releasing something that doesn’t live up to the original vision of the game. Reducing scope has the advantage of focussing the design back on the core “5 minutes of fun” and making sure the game being built is the tightest play experience possible.

Solution 2 - Change Design

The second solution is the change the design of the game to cater to limited resources. From a business point of view, this can involve changing the monetization for the product. Free to play games often require a large amount of content to keep people engaged/playing and therefore draw out more money. Switching to a paid model allows developers to “get paid” up front and focus on quality over quantity. The game is then more about providing an enjoyable experience than keeping people playing and extracting as much money for as long as possible. From a game design perspective, this involves changing the underlying design of the game to cater to reduced resources. The difficult part to this is keeping the original vision of the game at the same time.

Solution 3 - Roadblocks

The current trend for free to play games (Boom Beach, Candy Crush) is to stop the player from racing through the content by placing artificial blocks on their progress. Players continually run into roadblocks that require them to wait, ask a friend for help or pay cash. This is not something we want to do for our future projects. While it has become the norm for a particular set of games, I’m glad to see it hasn't made its way into more mainstream games outside of F2P mobile domain.

Solution 4 - Procedural Content

The solution I am leaning towards on our future project is to use procedural content generation for the majority of our content. This changes the problem from one of time/resources to one of solving complex problems and tweaking algorithms to make quality content. This in itself can sometimes be as time consuming as simply creating the content and therefore needs to be handled carefully. The major advantage to this solution is that it frees the team up to make the building blocks for the game and have players explore the space in the direction they enjoy. One risk of this approach is creating content that all feels the same. Players quickly see through procedural generation when all that changes is simple stats or superficial changes to content. However games that are built upon procedural content from their core (Minecraft, No Man’s Sky) can give deep experiences that allow almost unlimited play time.

Our Decision

We are in the middle of making this decision for our next project at the moment. We have not decided on the best option and this blog post is a way for me to think through our options as clearly as possible. Have you encountered a similar problem and what was your solution? Are there any other solutions you would suggest?


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Comments


Nilanjan Bhowmik
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Yeah I agree that procedural content can be the best solution for small teams but if not done right the game can get monotonous very quickly.

Alistair Doulin
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This is definitely our biggest concern. Do you have any examples of games that have done this particularly well (or badly)?

Javier Degirolmo
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Some people may nitpick on what you said about F2P on #2, because while it's true it needs more content, it's also true that by the time the extra content kicks in you're supposedly already making money (since by that point the game should have already launched). That nullifies the lack of resources.

James Coote
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The turn around time between launching, getting money, paying someone to produce content, and updating the game with it is too long if your retention strategy is built around a constant stream of new content.

You need the system for producing content to be already running when you launch

Darius Drake
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I think these could be good ideas in general (except I don't like the roadblocks method). Half of the solutions you present focus on shortening the game to make it fit the content; the other half focuses on making more content to fit with a longer game. Aren't you looking for ways to create more content to fit a longer game?

One idea is to use premade engines. This not only adds more to your game, but in the case of a physics engine, it allows for a greater number of in-game ramifications. Playing in a physical game world, you may come across some quirk or trick after playing for 30 minutes that you didn't see before. Maybe not always, but if you design the game with this in mind, you can use it to your advantage. This is what I'm doing for my game and I'm one single developer. Take this advice with a grain of salt (I haven't ever made a big game like I am now). You can also allow players to create their own content, which fits into procedural content.

Say you are making a game about medieval knights in which you can mold your own weapons. When creating a sword, you can use iron, steel, or bronze. Suppose that there are three variables assigned to each type of material as follows:

weight, flexibility, maneuverability

For bronze, maybe weight is 7, flexibility is 4, and maneuverability is 2. Steel has different numbers, as does iron. The game allows you to combine the two to create a new alloy. This allows for six different combinations, each presenting a unique sword with unique characteristics.

Now here's where we can get practical. Don't make a defined sword for each combination--let the swords make themselves. Set up the game as a system, resembling real life. For example, you can program the character's walk speed to be based on his sword's weight--if its heavier, the character moves slower. Instead of coding "if bronze sword is equipped, speed = 5" set things up like an equation: "speed = sword_weight/2." This allows for more variations than simply "if this then that." Do you see what I mean? My game will also utilize this method of assigning characteristics to objects to guide how they work in the real world. By using this method, a game can allow many meaningful variations without having to program each individual variation.

Does that help?

Mark Troyer
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I think you just gave an example for solution 2. It would have been more clear if solution 2 mentioned trying to change the design of the game by reusing content in a multiplicative way rather than a linear use once and dispose sort of way. Content that becomes obsolete or used only once would probably get cut from the design.

I personally prefer solution 2 and I'm not sold that you have to change your monetization strategy to support it either. It's more a function of how well you can design your game around it.

I have yet to fully commit a project to solution 4 but from looking at games that took it all the way (looking at you A Valley Without Wind) I much prefer the other games that used some procedural content to augment the hand created content.

Darius Drake
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I guess I combined solution 2 and solution 4 (players can effectively make new swords that weren't there before by combining alloys).

Well I'm sure you can make a free to play game based around less content. People have done greater things before, and with God all things are possible. When I saw "F2P" I had "free download" games in mind. Okay, now solution 2 makes more sense (I didn't understand what he was saying before).

Kujel Selsuru
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My personal solution to the content creation problem is to create a game that is all about user generated content (in this case an RTS builder). Sure I'll provide some basic gaphics, sounds, and music but the plan is to get users to create assets and share them freely while I provide an engine and tool set for them to play with.

Oh and a dash of procedural map generation :)

Alistair Doulin
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Totally agree. When I say "procedural generation" our designer thinks more along the lines of "user generated content". Our current thought are a combination of the two.

Darius Drake
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Yeah, why should we make the game when the players will happily do that servile work for us!

The smaller the parts are from which to generate objects in a game, the greater variation that's possible. Someone could eventually set up a game to make procedurally generate objects from virtual atoms. :P Not the player, mind you, the game.

Brandon Shelton
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This is only personal preference, but I can’t stand the amount of indie games coming out now with procedural content. It seems like everywhere you turn there’s a new game coming with randomized dungeons/maps/monsters…everything. I understand that it’s a more compact way to handle content creation, but it also leads to a lot of games feeling fairly same-y (I lost count of how many “roguelikes” are available now). But I suppose I’m an outlier here, because gamers seem to love it. There's also another option which is episodic content. This can work pretty well depending on the design/genre, and gives the team more time to create non-procedural content over a longer period of development.

Alistair Doulin
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Do you have any recommendations for how to stop the games feeling so "same-y"? We're hoping that a mix of procedural content along with specific styles of content will keep things unique.

Nilanjan Bhowmik
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That seems to be the best solution for small teams.There's a great read from Dejobaan on procedural content :

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/174311/procedural_content_g
eneration_.php

You can also have a look here-http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/181853/5_tips_for_using_proced
urallygenerated_content_in_your_game.php

Darius Drake
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I agree with what you're saying about games having the same feel or presentation because they have procedurally generated content. I actually have played few or no indie games like this. But I can still empathize with you.

When I play games, I'm looking for artistic value, goals that seem within reach, and order. When objects are procedurally generated, I tend to see less significance in them. They hold less artistic value and meaning because they weren't designed from start to finish by an intelligent being. There's a difference between content that an individual designs and content that a computer designs.

And I seem to see less order in indie games, but that may just be because they're less polished. I speak in general terms.

Someone probably just needs to handle procedurally generated content in a new, appealing way. And people don't HAVE to advertise it, either. "This game includes procedurally generated maps!"...yeah, you can leave that out of the Steam page description. It just seems like another feature. We're looking for fun times, not just more time to waste.

Tyler King
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I agree that when doing procedural content a lot of time must be dumped into how levels are designed that the game doesn't feel like its randomized. That's the dream right? Random levels that feel hand crafted! However if you really spend that kind of time to make your randomization work that well wouldn't that actually be THE selling point for the game. Procedural generated maps will always be a huge selling point because that is what the developer is/should be focusing on if they choose that route.

Fabian Fischer
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The focus on "delivering content" is a huge problem in the industry as a whole. The thing is, humans like novelty (http://blog.bufferapp.com/novelty-and-the-brain-how-to-learn-more
-and-improve-your-memory). So always giving them something new to buy is a poweful motivator from a financial point of view. Whether or not the "current" stuff is actually "new" (as in innovative) or actually interesting, is a totally different issue, that more often than not is disregarded, because players are just drowned in new content all the time. Who cares as long as they run after (and thus pay for) the shiny new thing?

So, what I do is just not to support these "buy, devour, throw-away" kind of products ever. They are meant to be completed instead of played, and therefore defy the basic idea of a game anyways. If a game is based around the idea of "content", of "playing through" and "finishing" it (i.e. if there are fixed levels, campaigns, a story or whatever), I generally do not engage with it. More often than not, these games, given their fixed-content nature, break down into being (more or less elaborate) puzzles anyways, even if they're marketed as "(strategy) games". What you have to do is memorize the content and play it out perfectly, i.e. solve it. Fixed, completable content also suggests low or no systemic complexity and interestingness, which is the number one thing I'm looking for in games. Instead, more often than not, what we're getting is an "asset tour". Once you've seen all the "stuff", it's over.

I want my games to be interesting at their core, in terms of their ruleset. Thus I can embrace their value on my own, I can autonomously make progress in terms of understanding the systemic intricacies, without being whipped through a "campaign" or whatever. I will have "completed" them at some point, in the sense that I don't feel the value, i.e. the competence-gain, I'm getting by playing more is enough to justify an ongoing time investment. And not because I've just "seen everything". So, such a game's lifetime depends on a) how much depth there actually is to explore and b) how efficiently it delivers this depth (e.g. how elegant the rule design is).

Obviously, these qualities are naturally harder to perceive for players. "289 levels, 10 skill trees, 18 characters, 31 cut-scenes" is on the other hand, just as audiovisual spectacle, a lot easier to grasp and seems like "value by numbers" at first sight, but is it actual value? Does "stuff" automatically generate depth?


Furthermore, I think two articles by Richard Terrell of the Critical Gaming blog are highly relevant here.

One of his findings is that actual gameplay ("the act of interacting (using mechanics) to influence an outcome of a game challenge") tends to get overlooked by today's gamers, because it's harder to perceive than other things (like graphics, sound, story, compliments etc.).

He believes that "to embrace and appreciate gameplay you must embrace the fact that learning is a crucial part of most gameplay experiences". But " just consuming what is presented for you is easier than appreciating a learning experience". And thus "companies have found ways to entertain players in ways that require less work from the players and in ways that are more familiar to a movie-watching-music-listening culture".

He therefore started out with the thesis of "modern gamers don't like gameplay" (http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2012/4/4/a-defense-of-gameplay-pt
1.html), which he then further developed into the notion that gameplay is basically "invisible" to most gamers and "in general, people don’t value, critique, share, or talk about things that they can’t perceive, experience, or feel" (http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2012/12/18/the-verdict-on-video-g
ames-pt1.html).

He concludes that gameplay is transformative in that it "quiets the weakest parts of yourself", and lets "the version of you that you hope to become grow stronger", and "embracing and learning complexities" helps you be more "creative and expressive". But nevertheless, he has to ask: "Doesn't it seem odd that gameplay, the primary and most unique experience in games, is practically invisible to gamers? How can it be that after years of participation and dedication that so many gamers are blind to gameplay, how it works, and why it's a meaningful experience with profound artistic value?"

Now, I would concurr that persistent numerical progress (be it an experience level, a campaign mission, a scene of a fixed story) is another one of those things. It's not playing for the sake of playing, not for the sake of learning, it's not intrinsically motivated. It's basically playing for numbers to go up.

Alistair Doulin
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Wow, great thought, thanks for sharing!

Ian Morrison
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I'd like to add another solution you haven't included: building out your tools to get the most for your designer/artist buck. A small amount of effort spent on building a robust toolset can pay MASSIVE dividends later when it saves your artists and designers a huge amount of time per level and lets them iterate quickly. An indie developer that doesn't have the bandwidth to just throw people at their content problem like the AAA studios needs to be able to maximize every single person's effort.

One variation on that idea is to build procedural content generation into your tools so that you can auto-generate something basic to get a quick start and then tweak it manually afterwards. A simple example of that is something I used in my last project to turn some commonly used tileable assets into line or rectangle shapes that'd generate and randomize all the objects in the tiling pattern, saving me having to manually place them (or update them if they needed to be moved around a bit). A more advanced setup might involved being able to set up a tree structure that defines a level, having that auto-generate generic assets to create that level, and then adding flair, tweaks, and unique setpieces by hand afterwards.

Alistair Doulin
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Totally agree with your thoughts. I think with whatever option you choose tools are an absolute necessity. In Battle Group 2 we did this exact thing for our procedural land generation. The game could automatically generate land pieces at run-time and there was an option in the editor to do the same. The designer and artist would generate pieces until they got one that was close to what they wanted. They would then hand tweak it and save for loading into a specific level. This saved hours of work hand crafting land pieces (along with their buildings, objects, decals, etc).

John Donovan
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Interesting blog post.


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