Nine Paths To Indie Game Greatness

By david marsh

[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.


Many game studios are crippled by the amount of resources they require to keep operations going. I have seen plenty of companies that operate "contract to contract" with little hope of ever breaking out of the cycle. The studio growth required by the increasingly resource intensive modern crop of games is many times unsustainable. In fact, the problem seems to be getting worse.

According to a report by the BBC, "Back in 1982, the Japanese company Namco produced Pac-Man for $100,000. Now, the average PlayStation 3 title is estimated to cost $15m. Even after adjusting for inflation, that is still a significant rise. While production costs have tripled in recent years with the introduction of next-gen consoles, sales and revenue have hardly changed."

Independent developers usually operate with very limited initial resources. By operating without a loan of resources, they create a development environment for themselves free from outside influences or restrictions. The only obligations they hold are to themselves as developers and the people who play and purchase their games.

Here are 9 methods independents are using to develop games with fewer resources:

1. Efficiency in Design

Design around getting the most bang for your buck. Think of your game as an engine, where developer resources are the fuel and the output is player value. Imagine how much developer fuel the Counter-Strike engine required to output so many hours of entertainment compared to how much fuel had to be poured into the Halo engine to get a commensurate amount of entertainment.

The two engines might not be on the same scale, but the efficiency in terms of resources consumed is radically different.

Your browser may not support display of this image.

Efficient design choices to utilize could include:

Multiplayer

Making a single player epic saga with hours and hours of linear consumable gameplay is not very efficient. A well designed multiplayer game that simply gives players a set of rules to play by can provide an infinite amount of gameplay for a fraction of the time spent creating content, as well as dramatically increase a game’s lifespan.

User Generated Content

If you don’t have the resources to make large amounts of content yourself, why not give players the tools to do it? An even better argument is that it is almost a certainty that players will come up with things for your game that you would never have created in a million years.

Line Rider is a popular flash sandbox type game started by Slovenian university student Boštjan Čadež. In Line Rider, players draw a landscape which the player character, a little man on a sled slides down. This is a pretty typical example of what an average player might come up with after spending some time with the game.

It’s not terribly exciting, but there is a group of people that when given the chance to be creative, will initiate a nuclear arms race with others in the community to see how far they can stretch the system they have been given. Those people come up with things like this.

Garry’s Mod is a $10 Source Engine mod written by Garry Newman that unlocks low level functionality of the engine for players to experiment with in real time. The "gameplay" part of Garry’s Mod is exploring the creations of other users, many of which have evolved into their own scripted games within Garry’s Mod itself.

An example of this in action is this video of a player creating a robot out of Half-Life 2 props. That’s about what you might expect people to do given the power to animate pieces of the game. But then of course there are those people who look at the tools you have given them, and take things out of this world. Here is a list of other benefits your game could see by utilizing the player base’s resources.


Procedural Content

If done well, the ability to create an endless amount of content for the frontloaded price of designing the generation system can provide for exponential efficiency.

As Introversion Software explains, "For Introversion Software’s latest game, DEFCON, the only real content that we made was the audio. Almost everything else in the game is generated from publicly available information -- the locations of cities, longitudes and latitudes of the various coastlines and country borders of the world are all freely available on the internet. DEFCON was in development for about a year. Introversion’s Darwinia, on the other hand, has about 10 hours of game-play from hand-built content, and took 3 years to develop." Another Indie favorite that utilizes procedural content generation is Dwarf Fortress.

Avoiding Photorealistic Art Direction

Any game that utilizes a photorealistic look is immediately in visual competition with games like Crysis, and the amount of resources it takes to compete on that level is growing every year.

As David Hayward muses in this article, "Art assets as we know them are expensive, with costs rising in each generation of hardware. This is a catastrophic obstacle that cannot be ignored, as it means that only the largest publishers will be able to afford photorealism with current production methods."

Re-Exploring the explored with modern technology

One way to get results with fewer resources is to explore themes and designs from 15 or 20 years ago with technology from today. Kokoromi’s Fez is quite literally a new angle on old school pixel platformer games.

At first glance, the game is a straightforward 2d sidescroller, but the modern technology twist is revealed when the entire scene rotated 90 degrees and reveals the world to be made entirely of "Trixels" or 3d pixel blocks.

As lead designer Phil Fish explains, "Since the rotation mechanic and level design might not be immediately easy to understand, I wanted everything else to be. So I just took a bunch of objects and things and concepts from these old games to give gamers a point of reference. A lot of Fez's design, besides the 2D/3D mechanic, is very oldschool for that reason. I wanted it to have a kind of 'comfort food' appeal to it."

Besides having a visual appeal, abandoning popular modern game design issues to explore new ideas through some of the most experienced legacy design choices in gaming is a very efficient development path. Trade bump maps for bitmaps and shave off a dimension or half. The popularity of retro classics on Xbox Live Arcade, as well as retro-styled hits like Geometry Wars give a sense that gamers might not mind the loss of fidelity.

2. Utilize existing free, cheap, or open technology

Your browser may not support display of this image.

There is no shame in climbing on the backs of others, especially when you are trying to make the most with the least. Counter-Strike, as I have mentioned previously, is perhaps my favorite inspiration in this respect. Counter-Strike started as mod of the original Half-Life by Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, along with the help of others in the mod community.

By only performing basic modifications to the Half-Life engine (changing game rules, weapon behaviors, creating new art), Counter-Strike came into being with a budget of roughly $0 (minus spare time spent).

The fact that a game which started with that budget went on to become one of the most popular and recognizable multiplayer shooters in gaming history still inspires me to this day. Just a fraction of the free or cheap technologies to look at are:

Rendering: Ogre, Irrlicht, HGE, Panda3d, Crystal Space, SDL

Game Engines: Flash 9(AS3), Shockwave, C4, NeoAxis, jME, Torque, Unity, Blitz, id Tech 3, XNA, Multiverse, Adventure Game Studio, Game Maker, Wintermute, Scrolling Game Development Kit, Source, PopCap Framework, metaplace?

Physics: Bullet, PhysX, Farseer, Box2D, Motor, Chipmunk

Networking: RakNet, SmartFoxServer, HawkNL

Scripting Languages: Lua, Python, GameMonkey, Ruby

Sound: OpenAL, SDL mixer, DUMB, irrKlang, Audiere, MikMod, BASS

GUI: AntTweakBar, Guichan, Navi, LibUFO

For a much longer list of free-ish game development libraries/tools, check here.


3. Distribute digitally

"The independent game movement is also a major new trend, moving the industry (finally) onto the Internet for real, embracing digital distribution chains and unique gameplay." – Raph Koster

The ability for developers to deliver their games directly into the hands of their audience is an enormous step forward in terms of efficiency. The resources required to distribute games over the internet are microscopic compared to the cost of pressing, packaging, and shipping physical copies of games to stores all over the world.

Throw technology like BitTorrent into the mix, let your fans carry the weight and reduce your distribution cost to literally nil.

Red Orchestra is a World War II shooter that started off as an Unreal mod. After winning the "NVIDIA $1,000,000 Make Something Unreal contest" they were granted an official license of the unreal engine, and were set to find a way to distribute their game.

Tom Buscaglia, the lawyer helping the Red Orchestra team recounts, "There was a great deal of interest in the commercial version of the game from several publishers including Midway. And we worked for months trying to close a deal. But eventually it became apparent that even though the folks on the product acquisition side were very interested in the game, the marketing folks were not going to green light the deal because their retail buyers had not heard of the game and would not put in significant initial orders necessary to minimize their risk. So, no deal."

As a fluke, they got in contact with Valve, who had recently launched their own digital distribution service, Steam. The team figured that Valve would only be interested in Source Engine powered games, much less a WWII themed shooter that would directly compete with games in their own catalog. "To my surprise, the folks at Valve were not only interested, they were straightforward and easy to work with. A real pleasure. So, in short order we had our digital distribution deal in place."

Buscaglia adds, "Digital distribution means more ways to get your games directly to the players with as little 'middle man' action as possible. That has always been the great promise of the internet and it’s great news for developers. Heck, higher royalties, you get to keep your IP and direct access to your user base. It’s hard not to believe."

4. Develop on open platforms

As any professional developer could tell you, getting a game onto closed game platforms can require a lot of resources. New digital platforms on consoles such as Xbox Live Arcade, which serve as more favorable outlet to less resource intensive games, still hold many of the downfalls of a closed platform.

Jeff Tunnell, a founder of Garage Games, the company behind the Live Arcade title Marble Blast Ultra states on his blog about Live Arcade game budgets, "The industry standard arms race will quickly make the top end $300,000 budget a cheap product. Right now, I wouldn’t consider attempting to make an XBLA game with a $100,000 budget. Development kits and Certification (QA testing) would eat up half of that, not leaving much for the actual game development." Jeff also adds that if current trends continue, "This will inflate rapidly".

Besides the rising costs associated by competing on a closed platform, there is the issue of your game fitting into the platform holder’s catalog. Jeff describes the situation as such, "slot approvals are getting hard to get. In fact, I liken XBLA360 slots to the 'Golden Ticket' in Willy Wonka. If you get one, you are set!"

By developing your games on open platforms like the computer or the web, the resources you would have spent fulfilling the requirements of a closed platform can be saved.


5. Collaboration

An integral part of developing with little resources is collaborating with others who have the resources you need. Indies look for other developers with a similar focus or that might be willing to collaborate or trade in lieu of a more traditional business deal. Unrestrained by the clout of commercial competition most developers actively participate in online communities and share the most intimate details of their development processes.

Sites like TIGSource and Indiegamer are both hotbeds for developer discussion and collaboration along with many others. The desire for collaboration can hurt as well as benefit, as passion and enthusiasm tend to be a more fickle force than a paycheck.

The most successful collaborations are centered on developers that share a very similar set of goals and motivations. While there is plenty of pro-bono works in the independent sector, it does also host many developers who contract out their services.

6. Consider less traditional monetization methods

There could be more efficient ways to monetize your game other than the traditional means. A game designed to be played for free could still be monetized in a variety of different ways. Advertising, micropayments, virtual item sales or even sell your game while it's still in development.

Similar to how the advent of Google’s AdWords revolutionized monetizing content on the web, technology is providing alternate ways to make money other than the traditional fixed-price for a box of goods model.

Your browser may not support display of this image.

One example is a website run by Gene Endrody, MaidMarian.com. He makes multiplayer 3d games using Shockwave that players can access directly in their browser. Instead of charging players directly to play the games, they are made free to play without any restrictions.

By removing almost all barriers to playing his games, MaidMarian.com attracts 1.5 million unique visitors a month, and up to 4,000 concurrent users, which generates a comfortable amount of revenue solely through advertisements on the site.

By the time Gene left his role as a technical art director at Radical Entertainment to focus full time on MaidMarian.com, he was already earning more than his day job by attracting visitors to roam through his virtual worlds.

7. Redefine success

A game developed with a fraction of the resources of a blockbuster game does not need to sell a blockbuster number of units to be merited a financial success. Many independents don't spend resources trying to develop features that will cater to the mass market. Often, they spend their resources on what they feel is important for their game, and let their target audience be gamers with the same tastes.

One case in point is Gish, which was made by developer Chronic Logic who has been so open as to share their sales stats. The figures show an approximate total income of $121,000, an amount which might be a drop in the bucket to many larger game studios. But to a team of 3 developers who took only 6 months to make the game and whose budget (not including time) was only $5,700, the amount warrants enough of a success for a sequel.

That does not mean indies never pull the big bucks. RuneScape is a java-based MMORPG created by brothers Andrew and Paul Gower. After getting a basic version of the game operating as a project during university, they implemented an optional membership service that provided paying players with access to additional areas, quests, and items. The players who don't pay are still monetized by advertisements displayed above the playing window.

To any developer looking at the game, it would jump out as a game made with few resources. It doesn't have flashy graphics, or a soundtrack specially recorded by a choir. The gameplay must ring true with some segment of gamers, however -- today, Andrew Gower is the 654th richest man in the UK.


8. Use alternate sources of funding

Once you significantly reduce the amount of resources you need to develop a game, the number of opportunities to find different methods of funding rise exponentially.

Mount & Blade is a medieval combat simulator/manager/role playing game. Developed by another husband and wife team from Turkey, the game has developed an incredibly enthusiastic community following. The game is in a constant state of development, and while there is always a free demo -- players can purchase the full game for a rising cost as the game develops more features. The earliest of adopters might have gotten the game for as low as $6 where as the price of the most recent release is $22.

Once you have purchased a license to the game you always have access to the latest version. Amazingly, these developers have replaced the role traditionally filled by game publishers with the gamers themselves. As of this writing, it has even supported them enough to grow their team to six full time developers along with a number of contractors. It would be hard to imagine this method of operation being very viable if the developers were not limiting the amount resources needed to support development.

Unknown Worlds Entertainment, an independent company made up of two full time developers and a collection of others spread around the world are working on sequel to their Sci-Fi Shooter/RTS hybrid Natural Selection. In order to offset some of their development costs, the team created a casual Sudoku game in 10 months (though they started selling a beta after 5).

Charlie Cleveland, Game Director of Unknown Worlds, in a presentation at the 2007 GDC, admitted that creating the game took more time away from their core development than planned, but found bootstrapping through a casual game much more attractive than pitching their main game to investors, writing business plans, or trying to convince others to give them the resources.

9. Get Personal

If you are developing something that strikes a chord with gamers, the community surrounding your game can be a very powerful and free (or cheap) resource. Put your fans in charge of marketing your game, use them as moderators, allow them to create content.

Fraxy is a unique top down space shooter that consists entirely of user-constructed boss battles. The game comes with a easy-to-use editor that lets users create complex and unique boss machinations and then share them with the community for everyone to play. By giving users a framework to be creative within, instead of simply something authored and experienced once, Fraxy is using its players as a resource to provide gameplay limited only by people’s imaginations.

Kingdom of Loathing is a dead simple browser based parody MMO. In this satirical adventure game, the hero is a stick figure which forges through zones like "The Orcish Frat House" and "The Misspelled Cemetary" while battling creatures such as "ferocious Sabre-Toothed Limes" and "Ninja Snowmen".

The fuzzy personality of the game has proven to be a hit with fans who have grown the game to over 1.4 million accounts registered, through not much else but word of mouth. There is a large and active forum community surrounding the game as well with over 57,000 forum users discussing gameplay, helping others, participating in contests or posting fan artwork.

There is such a sense of community around this game that players have created a 24/7 internet radio station, with DJ-hosted music shows as well as discussion segments about the game that often play host to the developers. Kingdom of Loathing is free to play, however there are opportunities to "donate" and in return receive special items which are very useful inside the game.

According to Wired, a sizeable number of players choose to donate, "the game has earned enough in donations (its only source of revenue) for creator Zack 'Jick' Johnson to quit his day job and hire six employees to help deal with bugs, servers, and the in-game economy. There's even a black market on eBay where $1 buys about 480,000 units of the game's currency -- hunks of meat."

In Conclusion

These may not be totally new concepts to many game developers, but there are many misconceptions about what independent games are limited to based on the method of their development.

Many developers assume that there is a large insurmountable gap in between commercial and independent games. On one side they see the big budget blockbusters and on the other they see "match three" puzzle games, and assume that there is a vast chasm in between where nothing can exist.

In reality, more developers are staking out claims at various places in the middle every year. As technology marches forward and access to the global community becomes more accessible, developers are inevitably being given more chances to exist at new places in the market.

All professional game developers should be aware of the growing independent games community. By taking a look at Independent games, developers might find some inspiration for solutions to the challenges they face. By the looks of things, you might be bumping into more Independent games whether you are searching for them or not.

Return to the full version of this article
Copyright © UBM Tech, All rights reserved