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2. Thinking too retro
Coinciding with our unfortunate choice of choosing a genre past its prime, we also chose to model many of our design decisions on older games that were popular in the day, but that might seem too thin by today's standards.
My brother and I put hundreds of hours into Tetris Attack and Kirby's Avalanche (aka Puyo Puyo) growing up. I count these games among my favorites of all time. Since we hold these games in such high regard, it was natural for us to design MadStone using these games as a benchmark.
Specifically, we opted to include a small selection of carefully balanced game modes, mimicking the handful of options offered in Tetris Attack and the original iterations of Puyo Puyo.
Tetris Attack, one of the games the inspired MadStone
This was another big mistake. The limited number of modes available in Tetris Attack and Kirby's Avalanche might have passed back in the day, but modern puzzle games are expected to have a large variety of different modes and options to mix things up.
MadStone basically only offers competitive play with a few bonus levels and varying win conditions. Compared to other modern games like Tetris Party, which even lets players control the game with the Wii Balance Board, MadStone gave the impression of lacking features.
We should have spent more time studying modern puzzle games. It would have been clear that our limited number of game modes wouldn't suffice. Instead, we patterned our decisions after old games without realizing that the industry had steadily been marching onward.
The Lesson: Love the old games you grew up with, but don't forget that your games will be compared against the latest and greatest.
3. Laziness (and hoping the press would forgive us)
I don't envy the task of game reviewers. Let's admit it: the most influential part of their job is to give a numerical score their subjective experience of playing a game. The written portion of a review, no matter how nuanced, is overshadowed by this single number.
But what does a score really mean? Is it the game's value for the money? Is it the game's quality compared to other games in the same genre or the same platform? Is it a game's quality compared to every other game in existence?
When we started working on MadStone, we knew that WiiWare games would be priced between $5 and $20. Considering companies like Square Enix were making high-budget Final Fantasy games for the service, we decided to price MadStone at $8.
Given this amount is five to seven times less than the price of a retail Wii game, we operated under the assumption that reviewers would overlook missing features like extra game modes, widescreen, multiple control schemes, online multiplayer, and progressive scan.
This was wrong. Every single review makes exhaustive mention of the features the game is missing, and it cost us dearly. IGN's review, had it been more positive, may have helped boost sales considerably. Instead, with a 4 / 10, sales were disappointing.
My initial reaction was to be angry that reviewers would place so much emphasis on mentioning the missing features of an $8 game. Of course it's missing features! It was made by three people!
Then I realized that this was at least partially avoidable. With a few extra weeks of work, we could have implemented extra game modes, widescreen and progressive scan, and maybe a few alternative controller positions. We didn't do that, though, because we thought we didn't have to.
I'd argue that most of these features wouldn't actually make the game more fun. We tried several controller schemes and we chose the one we did because it's the most responsive and intuitive. The visuals, being composed of mostly abstract shapes, weren't really affected by widescreen stretching. The modes we included represented our best effort at balancing the game's mechanics.
The fact is though, the list of missing features made MadStone very easy to rate poorly. If one game is missing five common features, and another game is missing only two, a reviewer can justifiably rate the former game much lower.
I wish we'd taken the time to put in the features we knew the game was missing. We made the conscious choice to draw the line at a certain point, so we could release the game in a timely manner. We should have drawn the line just a bit further.
The lesson: Don't give reviewers the chance to make easy marks against your game. If you can implement a common feature for relatively little cost, do it, even if it doesn't really enhance the game.
4. Productivity Killer: The Internet
An indie developer has a lot of options when he or she sits down to work in the morning. On a typical day of MadStone's development, my choices included background painting, animating sprites, special effects coding, writing marketing material, arranging playtests, refining game balance, recording sound effects, and handling logistics with Nintendo.
Faced with all these possibilities, I often resorted to the most obvious solution: check my e-mail and read Slashdot.
I can tell you without an inkling of doubt that if I had unplugged from the Internet, MadStone would have been a better game. Blog reading is easier than game making, and my brain seems hard-wired to take the easy way out. I'd often kill hours a day idly browsing, getting almost nothing important done.
A about two-thirds of the way into the project, I finally started to accept the fact that my habits were slowing me down. I took what I considered to be some radical steps: I uninstalled Gmail Notifier, I deleted the Firefox shortcuts from my quicklaunch bar, and I unplugged my Ethernet cable when I was making art or composing music.
A clean, unplugged, workspace
The transition wasn't easy. For awhile my eyes would instinctively look to the corner of the screen to see if I had e-mail. Seemingly on its own volition, my mouse cursor moved toward where the Firefox icon used to be. Most surprisingly, I experienced pangs of loneliness and isolation.
I got over it and I'm glad I did. Not only do I work more hours now, they're cleaner and more focused. I feel a connection to my work that was impossible when I took Internet breaks every few minutes. I've even started to experience that fabled state of "flow" where I enter a zone of productivity and my work seems to finish itself.
The Lesson: When you're working, work. Focus wholly and completely on the task at hand. Unplug if you have to. Take sustained breaks a few times a day instead of tiny breaks every few minutes.