4 MIN READ
Opening the Development of Darknet
Why I'm doing open development on my next game.
I recently announced my next big indie project: Darknet, a cyberpunk hacking game for the Oculus Rift.
Darknet is based on the winning entry of a game jam, and a lot of people seemed to like it, but it still feels like a very risky project. It doesn't conform to any established genre or set of mechanics, and I don't suspect that I can count on a big audience of cyberpunk enthusiasts. Moreover, the game is being made exclusively for VR, and so the target audience is seriously limited to begin with. There are advantages to this approach, and I believe in the game, but I still feel like I've got a lot of work cut out for me.
So, as part of the effort to get the word out about the game, I've decided to follow in the footsteps of other great indies and do my development out in the open. I'll be writing a dev blog often, sending out lots of updates to social media, and running a "perpetual AMA" on the game's dedicated subreddit.
Before making this decision, I noticed a sort of pushback against open development. First there was this article by John Walker, arguing that "open development is crap". That was followed by a response by Simon Roth and then another by Sean Lindskog. But although this was framed as a debate, they seemed to be mostly in agreement.
John argued that letting players determine your game's design is a recipe for mediocrity. Simon agreed, but said that player feedback can also be extremely valuable when handled properly. Sean agreed, but reminded that you should never confuse marketing with design or make popular decisions that compromise your vision.
Not much of a "debate", but good advice all around!
It seems essentially the same as the advice I've heard about playtesting. Andy Schatz has talked about asking his testers only three questions: "What did you like, what did you not like, and what confused you?" But "none of these things say 'What should I do about it?' That's the designer's job." Players will make a lot of suggestions, including some good ones, but ultimately it's the designer who needs to make those decisions. Bennett Foddy has mentioned this as well: "99% of playtester suggestions identify a real problem with your game, but the suggestions propose the correct solution about 1% of the time." He mentions a similar strategy of taking feedback and "stripping it down for parts"; you need to learn how to interpret it in a way that maintains the integrity of your design.
There's also a different, separate danger of open development. Recently, it seems like there's been a series of stories of developers getting burned by their audience after reaching a certain level of success. The saga of Flappy Bird is one such story, but even Notch has been deluged by undeserved hate mail. Open development deprives the developer of any professional shield; if you immerse yourself in your game's community, you can't easily separate yourself when it gets ugly.
I've heard that nobody knows what a fan backlash feels like until they've experienced it. I've only recently had a game become popular enough that I started getting the occasional negative email, and it's true that they stick with me much longer than the more common positive emails. It's possible that people will eventually learn not to hate-bomb developers, but changing cultural norms among large, diverse groups on the internet will be a slow, tough process at best.
Instead, I'm going to hope for the best, brace myself for the worst, and use Reddit for my conversations with fans. The last point is an important one: Reddit contextualizes feedback through its system of upvotes and downvotes, so you're better able to filter out the crap, and you can get a sense for the mood of a crowd. Reddit still has flaws, of course, and it can still fall victim to vocal minorities or bouts of hysteria, but it's a much better option for interacting with a crowd than forums or email, especially when the subreddit is a small one. I'm hoping that I can grow /r/darkcom into a healthy community, and that my presence there will be helpful rather than fuel for any fires.
It's possible that this plan will fall apart if the community gets large enough, but I count that as a good problem to have. So, as the saying goes, I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.