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Indie vs Goliath

With Starcraft 2 coming out in a week, how could an upcoming indie RTS possibly stand a chance to remain relevant? How can indies compete with big-budget games in general? The answer: Make sure your game is on the Pareto frontier.

Being an indie developer making an RTS, I'm often asked about how I think the release of Starcraft 2 will affect our game. With Blizzard's hundred million dollar development budget, unrelenting pursuit of polish, and entrenchment in esports, how could we possibly stand a chance to be relevant?

The RTS genre has been a little less prominent in the past few years, but all the buzz behind Starcraft 2 is igniting it. Some people who haven't played an RTS game since the original Starcraft feel renewed interested in the genre. I personally don't think Starcraft 2 could come out at a much better time for us. By the time many people have played a lot of Starcraft 2 and are looking for new challenges, Achron will be coming out.

I think every indie developer looking to succeed in the business of making games needs to reflect upon the question, "why should people play my game instead of a big budget game?" There's a notion in mathematics (originally stemming from economics) called the Pareto frontier. If a product is on the Pareto frontier, then that means a customer can't choose another product that is better in every way, price included.

By simply having multiplayer time travel, Achron is already on the Pareto frontier. Even beyond that, both Starcraft 2 and Achron have very different feels even when time travel is excluded.

Achron has command hierarchies instead of unit groups, and is focused on hard science fiction rather than the more fantasy-based science fiction of Starcraft, with all of the things like psionic energies. Conversely, Achron won't have the gorgeous cutscenes or all-encompassing matching service that Blizzard can provide.

A big studio can easily spend millions in marketing to sell a large number of copies of a game that may not otherwise be on the Pareto frontier. With significant marketing, you could argue that they've moved it to the Pareto frontier simply by providing name recognition. You can stand out by having significant innovation, excellent gameplay, unique graphics, or a great mod community, just to name a few.

You don't need to be the best at any one aspect, you just need to be the best for your combination and niche, however large your niche may be. For example, Blizzard focuses on game polish over innovation, as they openly admit. If your game is about ninja animals, is the sequel to a game that fans love, has a strong community, and your company is reaches out to the community, then you're most likely squarely on the Pareto frontier.

However, if you're an indie making another first person military shooter without laudable gameplay, graphics, or a compelling story, you're most definitely not. Business people often call being clearly on the Pareto frontier as "best in class" or "best of breed".

This isn't to say that you can't make money by offering "me too" type games. On the one hand, you're competing for attention from fans, and if you have an inferior game, you probably won't sell as many.

On the other hand, if there are two games, people can play both, and the added attention to the type of game can benefit the sales of one or both games. If you can produce a similar game for a tiny fraction of the cost of the original, you've moved yourself back on to the Pareto frontier with respect to cost.

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