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Nine Paths To Indie Game Greatness

February 26, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[The rise of the independent gaming movement is a vital one, and in this in-depth article, game development veteran Marsh showcases nine methods that indies are using to develop games with fewer resources.]

I am a game developer. I have shipped multiple titles across the PC, console, and mobile platforms. After six years of working in the industry I began questioning my desire to continue developing games, and left the industry to try my luck with other endeavors. After leaving, I re-discovered my passion for creating games through the burgeoning independent games community.

My introduction to game development started with a level editor that came bundled with a copy of Quake. From the moment I got my first level to compile and was running around in something I had created, my desire to learn how to develop games was set in stone.

The power to create these interactive worlds, limited only by what I could imagine and my technical ability was exhilarating.

Eventually, I contributed to a few mods that later ended up being commercially developed, and which acted as the key for my entry into the world of commercial games.

More than a few defunct game studios later, it had sunk in that commercial game development requires a wide multitude of forces and considerations to be taken into account over the actual development of the game (and many times at the expense of it).

The more I came to understand this, the further I felt I was drifting from the roots of what had excited me initially about game development. I wondered if there was any place left to create games in the same spirit of the mods that I had started with. It was through this question that I discovered the growing movement of independent games.

What are the practical differences between commercial and independent developers? When a commercial company starts a new project, more often than not it is asking: "Who will give us the resources we need to make payroll?"

If the studio is fortunate enough to have some kind of existing leverage, it can ask "who will give us the resources we need to make the game we want?"

When an independent developer starts a new project, they usually ask: "How do I make the game I want with the resources readily available?" That is, if they even spend the time to think about the resources they are going to need ahead of time at all.

Some less experienced with the process of development will forge blindly ahead without giving this much thought at all. But the most successful independent developers work around the set of resources available, without treating it as an obstacle to be overcome -- but rather, a box to operate within.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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Aaron Murray
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Good article.

As an owner of an Independant company, I find the biggest challenge to be balancing budget and content within short project timelines.

Eric Holsinger
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I think you missed game editor,, as another cheap (and cross-platform) game engine for your list.

Martin Gonzalez
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Excelent article. Very useful!. Thanks.

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Will XNA Community/Creator's Club make the 360 an "open platform" (point 4) with "digital distribution" (point 3)? Only time will tell.

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My biggest concern for the independent development community is it's growth. I mean, the whole point is to stay small and nimble but it seems that this sub group under the game development umbrella is starting to make the same mistakes as it's bigger brother; Big Budget Games. Indie games have grown from simple ideas into a semi-pro activity; thus driving up the cost of development.

I'm not saying that all developers are taking this road but we may quickly see the path that is commonly taken by big wig publishers like EA to "push pretty graphics and people care less about the game play". I'm not stressing at all that a game with "all looks and no brains" will win Game of the Year but we see this trend every time another eyegasmic game comes out and gets an 8/10 score where it otherwise would have gotten a 5/10.

I'm only pleading that developers tread lightly and don't look to Big Brother for examples on how to tailor this young industry. If independent games grow to the production level of current AAA games then we may never again have the opportunity to see small upstarts creating successful products. There should be a real push on all ends to keep the Indie flavor alive and avoid put out "beautiful blond" games.

Paul Lenoue
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Great article! Very well done. I especially appreciate your segment on player created content. Too many indie game developer lock their games up tight, then whine about how nobody plays the games more than a few times.

One thing I think you should have mentioned is that indie game developers should listen to the players more, especially about faults in the game. Too many times I've seen the attitude of "I'm a programmer, so I'm automatically a genius game designer" or "You don't know programming, therefore you couldn't possibly have anything worth listening to." I have tried playing dozens of indie games that suffered from fatal flaws, glaring omissions and obvious imbalance, and when I visit their websites I see many people commenting on these flaws in the forums, yet rarely do I ever see the indie game programmers address these issues. More often than not they just ignore everybody.

This is especially sad during beta testing. There have been several games that I participated in beta tests where all they were looking for was bug reports. Any and all comments about how to make the games more enjoyable were ignored. As a result they came out with well-programmed games that nobody played more than once.

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Whoa there Paul. Don't place the blame on the programmers alone as there are plenty of cocky designers and artists working on indie projects too. I think that is a flaw of the team as a whole and we all know that it takes more than one to tango with game development anymore these days. But I do agree that it does often result in a failed game when developers don't listen to the voice of the people. Also keep in mind that if they are making a racing game and you suggest, "you should be able to get out of the car and shoot people FPS style" then you'll likely be dismissed.

Paul Lenoue
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I don't automatically blame just the programmers, it's just that several bad indie games I've tried had nothing _but_ a programmer or three or more, nobody else involved in crafting the game. They might have had an artist, but it was the programmers calling all the shots. And I've seen a few team efforts where everybody was so close to the project they completely overlooked glaring problems, yet ridiculed and insulted anyone who tried to point them out because they were professional programmers and we were just ignorant gamers. Serious ego problems, for sure.

And I can't tell you how many times game programmers have shut me down because I didn't use the right buzzwords or I suggested something that was different from the norm. I can see how this comes about, you work so hard on coding your brain defaults to a certain logic standard, I've seen this in artists and other people many times. But really, how can you come up with new and innovative games when you immediately shoot down concepts without even trying to think about the possibilities?

And as for asking for FPS from a racing game, that kind of off-kilter feedback comes with the territory, but if a large majority of your beta-testers and/or players ask for the same thing, then you should give it some thought. For instance, one game I beta tested a player suggested they replace all their confusing stats with just three main ones with subcategories that would be introduced slowly as the players advance. Considering how the game was structured this made a lot of sense and would have made the game a _lot_ easier to play, so most of us testers agreed with the suggestion even though it would have changed things significantly. They said "No" quite firmly and stated that the game was supposed to have large pages of confusing numbers so the players could "explore" and "discover" strategies on their own. Most of us couldn't even figure out how to play the game completely, much less discover strategies, so we dropped out and the game didn't even make it out of beta.