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Nine Paths To Indie Game Greatness

February 26, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

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

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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.

Article Start Previous Page 3 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.