Five Laws of Being an Indie Anything.
As a moderately avid video game player (somewhere between Grandma’s handheld Yahtzee! game and that kid that played WoW for six days straight and died of Mountain Dew poisoning and the couch equivalent of bed sores) I had this idea that it would be cool to make video games myself. This places me squarely in that rare demographic of pretty much every single person that’s ever played a video game ever. Fortunately for me, I’ve been a professional digital artist for a few years and have nominally accumulated the skills (and the necessary reckless optimism) to make the attempt. The result is two iPhone games, dream:scape and RobotGladi8tor, which succeeded precisely to the extent of teasing me to keep developing games while not quite making it financially viable.
Luckily, I picked up a few things along the way, five basic laws for how to not utterly fail at being an independent artist. I’m applying it to game development, but they work for pretty much any indie creative endeavor, from novel-writing to nihilist puppet shows.
Here, for you wannabe creators (and observers who like to laugh at their generally foolhardy attempts) are the top five laws for making indie video games or whatever.
#1 Don’t Cater to the Hardcore.
It seems like a good idea at first. Hardcore gamers, for instance, are the people who buy games, right? If there’s money to be made in game development, it’s got to be in games targeted to the hardcore types who are always first in line to shell out their hard-mooched-from-their-parents’ cash for the latest and greatest button-masher. The flaw in this logic is forgetting that the hardcore gamer is a spoiled, whiny, basement dweller with the social skills of a Scientologist Speak-and-Spell*. Hardcore gamers take their gaming VERY. SERIOUSLY. To them, a less-than-perfect game is not just a disappointment, it is a mortal insult, one worth waging war over. And wage they will– bravely and courageously, the way all great wars are fought: via flaming online reviews, anonymous comments-section insults, and self-righteous troll tirades.
The hardcore gamer is not a forgiving person. In some cases, they are willfully killing the very medium that supports them. As an indie developer, they, quite literally, want to eat your flesh and make your bones into magical amulets to impress hot female avatars that they know are probably just fat forty-year-olds with taco stains in their chest hair.
The beautiful thing (if you can get that last image out of your mind) is that there are loads of new gamer demographics out there, especially with the advent of mobile gaming. You can make games for kids, or for the incredibly growing adult female market (not that kind of “adult female market”), or for the casual gamer who is just looking to kill a few minutes waiting in line at Walmart.
These demographics are much more forgiving because 1) they have more realistic expectations of how a video game might or might not completely justify their existence, 2) they haven’t been spoiled by mega game developers competing to fulfill their every wish, and 3) they think a troll is a mythical creature that lives under a bridge and potentially has a thing for billy-goats.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll have anything like a free ride, because:
#2. the Audience Doesn’t Know You (or Care).
I made both of my iPhone games almost entirely by myself. This, I think, is a pretty damn impressive feat, especially since neither of them consist solely of sticking a picture of your face into something that makes you look like a bee-stung Lucille Ball (although…!). My games are fully 3D, with a massively detailed open-world, animated characters and creatures, and an admirable lack of ballistic birds. I taught myself almost everything required to make these games, and it was, if I may humbly say so myself, a nearly superhuman endeavor requiring nothing less than kahoneys of the hardest steel. And yet, this:
PLEASE STOP ! – ★
by Stinkygirl1 – Version 1.2 – Feb 26, 2012
Who on earth came up with the idea that someone who would buy a action is going to like pushing stupid crates across the floor.Would delete app after playing this part of game but don’t want to erase my review so people are warned of this absolutely stupid portion of the game !
That is a player’s review of my latest game, giving it one-star because she (gender assumed) didn’t like the bit where one must use crates to form a bridge over a toxic spill. I happen to know that that bit occurs nearly two-thirds of the way through the game, which means Stinkygirl1 liked the game enough up to that point to keep playing. Still, that one little thing was enough to fill “her” with enough hate to start her own little self-righteous war against the game.
Stinkybabe doesn’t know that I tried very hard to avoid the annoying busy-jobs that many games include to inflate their playtime. She doesn’t know that one guy made the game all by his lonesome, as opposed to a huge team of developers, and might therefore be deserving of a little leeway (for God’s sake!). Stinkerchick doesn’t know any of that, and she doesn’t care. She just knows a game disappointed her in some small way and felt it was worth whining about. People will do that.
As an indie developer, if you hope to make games at the caliber of a huge studio, you have to assume that people will judge you by those same lofty (perhaps even impossible) standards. You can whine about it all you want (this is the option I have chosen, of course) or you can just accept it, do your best, and know that the game buyer will never offer you an ounce of grace because you are, you know, loveable, loveable you.
#3. Look at What Other People are Making.
Remember that bit in Beetlejuice where the newly dead couple try to use their ghostiness to scare the obnoxious new owners out of their house? If you don’t then you are obviously at the wrong website and are probably looking to go here. If you do, then you recall that no matter how hard the dead couple practiced being comically horrifying, they had no luck whatsoever being noticed by the living (unless you count Winona Rider, and you know we don’t). The viewers had to be ready and willing to see the ghosts. The same is true in virtually any creative endeavor.
The toughest part is never simply making something cool. It’s figuring out what the roaming masses are going to want to see at any given time. No matter how great your product is, if it doesn’t happen to coincide with the public’s interest level at that exact moment, they won’t see it any more than Delia Deetz saw Geena Davis ripping her own face off. (speaking of which, that might even be a better “face-booth” idea than the bee-stung Lucille Ball thing…)
It’s incredibly difficult to predict what people want to look at at any given time, and even harder to tailor something original to fit that requirement, but it is always worth the effort. Watch what other developers are making and what people tend to be buying up. Consider modifying your product to cater to those same interests and demographics, at least superficially. Sure, it’ll make you feel a bit like you are pimping your precious virgin creation for an under-appreciative soulless proletariat, but face it, the proletariat is what’s going to be buttering your metaphorical (and in some cases, literal) bread. Maybe it’s not such a big deal to cater to them a little bit.
But be careful, because you can easily go too far and violate law number four, which is:
#4. Do Not Make What Other People are Making (or Maybe Do).
I made this mistake with my latest game, “RobotGladi8tor”. It is a swipe-fighting mobile game with a mechanic similar to the massively popular “Infinity Blade”. I figured that, considering the interface style of touch devices, swipe-fighting would soon enough be a genre of its own, sort of like racing or shooting zombies or mocking noobs for the size of their swords. Unfortunately, Gladi8tor was one of the first to come after Infinity Blade, which begged comparison to its monster-budget counterpart. Forget that it was stylistically totally different, or longer, or utilized full open-world exploration and various additional puzzle/story elements; the only thing a certain type of gamer noticed was that the fighting was like Infinity Blade and was therefore a pale imitation.
This is forgivable, at least amongst non-hardcore-gamers. What is not forgivable by anyone at all is a complete and obvious ripoff. Angry Birds was (and is) the monster hit that it is because it was the first game to do what it does in the way that it does it. The worst mistake that a developer can make is to develop a completely identical game, with, say, disgruntled penguins in the slingshots. Nobody cares about the anonymous redux of a super popular concept (except the well-meaning grandma that buys “Pac Mon” TV games for her grandkids at the Dollar Store). Making something that exists solely as a copy of something that worked once before is not only a cheap gimmick, it almost never works.
Except when it does.
A few years back, a game called “Plants vs. Zombies” appeared. It was wildly popular in the mobile market, and it spawned a whole heap of games whose titles incorporated the half-word “vs.” between two unlikely and purposely inane enemies. In the same week that RobotGladi8tor came out, another game hit the market and promptly trounced it. What was it called? “Pizzas vs. Skeletons”. This, I am absolutely sure, is how that development meeting went down:
Big Fat Cigar-Chomping Money-Man: “Plants vs. Zombies was big. We want some of that action. What’s almost completely like a zombie but not exactly?”
Soul-crushed Creative Type: “Er. Well. Skeletons?”
Big Fat Cigar-Chomping Money-Man: “Perfect. Now what can fight it? Something really hip with kids these days. Pizza maybe. But better.”
Soul-crushed Creative Type: “Pizzas vs. Skeletons.”
Big Fat Cigar-Chomping Money-Man: “Hell, just go with it. Tell the guys making Disgruntled Penguins to put that crap on hold and start designing customizable pizza topping weapons. HellOOO easy money.”
And I can assure you that the above is not at all inspired by any bitter angst on my part. Perhaps the point here is that if you are going to make what other successful developers have already made, sell your soul entirely and make a completely unapologetic ripoff. Or else make sure that your idea is different and unique enough to stand on its own while still appealing to a current popular interest. No one said it was going to be easy. But someone did say that if you make a total ripoff and achieve success with it, you will likely be forced to spend your eternity in a broom closet playing bad Wii-ware games with the maker of “Pac Mon”.
#5. Take Success Where You Find it.
When I released my first game, it made a surprising amount of press. All the app review websites talked about it and linked to the youtube trailer, sending its hits skyrocketing past 100,000. Of course, I started entertaining visions of finally being able to afford that fabled solid gold Lamborghini that I’ve been dreaming about. And yet, when the sales figures began to tally up, they weren’t even enough for a humble bronze Camaro. I fell into weeks of annoyed sullenness and vowed to never waste time on games again. Of course, I was afforded those weeks of lazy self-indulgence because the game did, in fact, sell well enough for me to not have to work during that time.
Wait, what? I was a one-man indie developer whose first iPhone game not only got featured by the iTunes AppStore for two weeks, it was considered by Apple as a potential keynote example of the iPad’s graphics capability for that year’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference (it didn’t get chosen, but still, really?). The game made worldwide press and earned enough money for me to live in a bathrobe for two months, and I still managed to feel like it had been a complete failure and waste of time.
It’s easy, during the development of a personal project and potential money-maker, to fall into lengthy fantasies about what it would be like for it to achieve cosmic levels of success. It’s so easy, in fact, that we start to assume anything less would be not only a failure, but a complete butt-naked embarrassment. To some extent this is necessary. Visions of Platinum Lamborghinis keep us much more motivated than visions of hopefully paying the cable bill on time next month.
The thing is, in retrospect, Dream:scape was actually a surprising success by any objective standard. I didn’t allow myself the pleasure of appreciating its success because I had become so fixated on what success was supposed to look like. In a universe where most people have to go to a job they hate everyday just to get by, the fact that any of us get paid anything at all to do what we love to do (make games, write stories, paint ourselves blue and hit things) is completely gonzo amazing. The sooner we figure that out, the sooner we’ll be able to appreciate any level of success at all.
Unless you’re responsible for “Pizzas vs. Skeletons”. For you, no success will fill the artistic void in your cursed, cursed soul. Damn you.
*Honestly, I don’t know what that means. Maybe they jump around on couches while swearing in monotone? I got nothing against Scientologists. Speak and Spells, though… (shiver!)