1. Managing Personalities and Leadership
People who start an indie studio or work at an indie studio are often fiercely independent --that's why they're attracted to indie development!
The truth is that for a lot of people working on indie games, they want to have control, they don't want to compromise, they may have difficulty working in a group and they may have trouble working for a common cause when they disagree on priorities. While this can be said for people working anywhere, in our experience this is especially true of indie developers.
During the development of Guacamelee! we had particular difficulty managing some of the personalities on the team, and at different points on the project we had to dismiss two individuals. These dismissals were not related to work performance, but instead were precipitated by a breakdown in working relationships.
While in the past people had left the team, we had never experienced problems like these before and the build-up was a surprising and time-consuming disruption.
When we founded the studio a loose formal structure developed. The initial company was small and had people in each discipline who could communicate comfortably and confidently with one another. Everyone owned part of the company, was invested in its success, and we were all peers, which made strict rules and policies awkward. While the initial members of the team had titles (largely for the purpose of communicating with publishers), we didn't want formal roles to dictate what people felt they could contribute to or question, and so we avoided creating new ones.
During Guacamelee!, we encountered difficulty scaling this approach. Some new members of the team struggled to find their place alongside peers when working without a clear authority structure. Lacking the confidence to navigate disagreements constructively, in frustration these team members sometimes ignored decisions or emotionally disengaged from certain tasks. As a result, we've begun to put a clearer authority structure in place for the team, and we've become more aware of the need to monitor personalities and provide ways for people to make their concerns known.
In other cases we failed to set clear boundaries on inappropriate behavior. For example, it came as a surprise to discover individuals working on personal projects that seemed to be affecting their work performance and that were, in our view, in conflict with their employment obligations. As a result, we've become more explicit and proactive about enforcing company policy and behavior.
2. Memes and References
While we've placed this item in the What Went Wrong category, it's probably more of an "Important Thing That Happened That Was Both Good and Bad." Our previous titles were full of references to other games, pop culture and online memes such as "O Rly owl" or "Business Cat."
A previous in-game reference
Why do this? It amuses the team and creates lots of little jokes that players can discover. Even if people don't understand the jokes themselves, the source material creates a jumping off point for an interesting image or phrase. Naturally we continued this trend with Guacamelee! and thought nothing of it. We made an effort to integrate the references into the game world within the Mexican theme in order to avoid the accusation that they were unnaturally forced in.
When the game was released the memes were a problem, and a vocal group of people took exception to them. In particular, the memes seemed to offend some people. From our perspective the references were a little piece of extra fun primarily isolated to the two towns the player visited. There were references elsewhere in the game but they were few and far between.
However, in retrospect, things may have gone too far. The emphasis seemed to have moved more towards memes than game references. In addition, this bit of environmental spice was not as unique as it had been in the past, and games such as Borderlands 2 made the approach seem less fresh.
One reference in a town area of Guacamelee!
On the flip side, in spite of early blowback on the memes and references there remain a large group of players who appreciate them. The screen capture capabilities of the Vita allowed players to Tweet pictures of the references to each other, and a few sites even wrote articles cataloging them. Did this hurt the game more than it helped? It probably helped it more than it hurt, but in retrospect we would like to have emphasized the game-references more than the memes, and perhaps scaled the quantity back a bit.