A couple walks up to him and says that they’ve just quite their jobs and plowed their life savings into making an indie game...that looks a lot like other indie games that are already out there on the market.
They’ve run out of money, and they’re seeking Saltsman’s advice on what they should do next. Take out a loan? Do some marketing?
There is no good answer. “It’s way too late,” says Saltsman. “There’s just no good version of what to do next. A little more care a little earlier in the process helps a lot.”
That was the thrust of Saltsman’s talk, “What To Make: A Greenlight Process for Commercial Indies.” Saltsman, who is making a game called Overland and publishing a game called A Night in the Woods, told GDC attendees that there are things that game makers can do at every step of the development process to help make sure that their game is profitable--including well before the development process begins. “The earlier you can discover flaws or errors, the more flexibility you have,” he says.
Saltsman pointed out just how competitive the landscape is now for indie developers, even trotting out the dreaded hockey stick graph that crops up in most conversations about the "indiepocalypse."
“The bar for selling games used to be low,” he says. “And indie games used to be worse. There are indie games that were huge hits 5 years ago that just wouldn’t stand out today. Weird games got way weirder. Polished games got more polished. Big games got bigger and small games got smaller
Saltsman went on to lay out the steps that guide Finji’s greenlight process--how they decide what games to work on and invest in, and how they hedge their bets and acknowledge risks and work to mitigate them. “Basically, what do we do as a company to survive in this new environment,” he says.
Saltsman suggests that it’s helpful to employ the philosophical notion of Platonic ideal--the best possible version of a thing; the Ur thing. What is the Platonic ideal of the game you hope to create? “The ideal sandbox game is gonna be very different from the ideal RPG,” he says.
Perfection is of course unattainable, but it’s still useful as a target, something to aim at.
After fixing the ideal in your head, you must balance goals for quality with practical limits on money and time.
“Given limited time and money, which of our game ideas will be best to pursue?” he asks. “Predicting absolutes is really hard, and prototypes grow in unpredictable ways, but you can make a relative comparison. You may be able to make pretty good call of which idea you can take furthest with the resources you have”
He next talks about an inverse pyramid of how your project develops--something that retains the same overall profile as you add new layers, building it out from a minimum viable product into a more and more robust version.
Saltsman says that it’s important to think about how labor intensive different features will prove to be. That guides the sort of projects that Finji tackles.
“We work in on systems-based games that use randomly generated content,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to nail down the basics, but then as you add new things, it tends to grow in exponential way. You can add one thing to a sandbox game, and it doubles the size or expressive space of game”
Saltsman notes a paradox of game development: you want to create something that stands out and differentiates itself from other titles...but isn’t so different that it alienates or confounds consumers.
“That’s the contradiction of commercial game making,” he says. “You want to make a game that looks like commercial product, but for practical reasons, you also need it to have a unique silhouette.”
Creating something unique is probably why you got into gaming. But at the same time, you need to take your progressive or challenging ideas and make them fit just enough into the commercial game box to find an audience.
Saltsman tries to differentiate between making commercial considerations and designing with a specific audience in mind. “You can’t make everyone happy all the time,” he says. “If you’re not careful, it’s really easy to stair step your way into trying to design for all audiences, and undermining the things that made your game so different in first place.”
You should design in ways that will boost the exposure your game receives. Exposure design is essentially marketing, according to Saltsman. “Marketing in this sense is not a thing that you do or don’t do; it’s just the part of your game people can see or hear about,” he says.
Saltsman invites attendees to think of their game as an ice berg. “The 20% that sticks up out of water is marketing--it’s exposure design,” he says. “It’s the outer layer of this weird psychic playground you’ve built. It’s the only way people will get into this strange world that you put inside your game. You should pay attention to making that little top piece tempting.”
That can mean anything that communicates the essential experience of the game--some element that demos well, that’s entertaining for streamers, that captures the imaginations of players, that’s easy to describe, etc.
He points to the game Devil Daggers as a good example of something he would’ve greenlit. It’s unique take on arena shooters is readily apparent. “The screenshots have a pretty clear identity, and they show most of what you do in this game,” Saltsman says. “There’s not a lot of moving parts, and if you add a new piece all of the core game is still there. Anew piece won’t change shape of that
“Does this mean that I think all arena shooters are good idea?” he asks. “No, but the mix in this particular thing is really intelligent.”