In a well-received Independent Games Summit lecture, Derek Yu and Alec Holowka from Bit-Blot discussed Aquaria, the IGF Grand Prize winner from last year, presenting a postmortem of their critically acclaimed 2D underwater action title.
They discussed the early days of the company, making the I'm OK parody game about Jack Thompson, and actually started off with a game called Eminent Kingdoms, which they demonstrated in prototype form at the IGS, and which "...randomly generated a new Final Fantasy every time you play the game."
But they decided it was far too large a scope, and settled on Aquaria, based on an earlier prototype of Holowka's. The original version of Aquaria had a gigantic world with the idea for lots of individual quests, but decided to move it away from text-based RPG styling.
After a detour even further into multiple-choice text answers and even more complexity, they sat down and worked out: "What was the core of the game?" They realized that the game was overcomplex, that there was too much training and character setup, and especially too much in-game text.
So, using the 2007 IGF Competition as a deadline, the Bit-Blot team refocused on the main character, Naija, and the gameplay would be based around exploration rather than text. They also decided to go with voice-acting rather than text, and went through an in-depth process of finding the correct voice actress for Naija, happily finding British-based Jenna Sharpe, who "fit perfectly" with the character.
The team also re-centered the gameplay around a 'ring of notes' and went HUD-less, having "found the heart of the game" - with Alec noting: "Time is a very important factor. It cuts out a lot of the crap."
Having entered the Independent Games Festival, the team noted that winning the Seumas McNally Grand Prize was a huge psychological factor for them, validating their work both for themselves and their families - as well as giving money and publicity.
Final tweaking dealt with issues of the levels being "huge and empty" to some testers - so having after cut down, they decided they need to add a little more. They put back in a cooking system, which fit well into the world, and ended up adding a map system alongside landmarks. In addition, early versions of the bosses were based around only one gameplay idea, adding multiple stages of boss tactics.
The late 2007 game release was based around a creator-designed marketing concept - 'Seven Days Of Aquaria' - with new information on the official Aquaria blog every day with podcasts, concept art, and other free materials.
Yu noted: "You have the ability to engage your audience on a personal level" with such marketing - and the result was downed servers on the first day of release thanks to the game's popularity.
The title was released for $30 at a downloadable game, a price that caused a small amount of controversy - "It's what we felt the game was worth... the baseline from indie games is, for whatever reason, $20... I don't know where that came from."
The game was a PC downloadable release to start with - and was only released directly through their site, so they got the vast majority of the money. Most of the marketing is word of mouth, with fans talking through forums - Alec commented: "People do the marketing for you."
Holowka ended with defining the 'Triforce of Game Development', referencing Zelda - splitting things into Technology (programming and platforms), Business (money, food, and time), and Art (graphic, sound, design, and an overall 'feel'). He suggested that if the technology and marketing is in place to support the artistic side, indie game creators can make the author's presence felt in the final game - the perfect indie formula.