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Tiny Games, being indie, and having a relationship with your players

A first post for Gamasutra from Alex Fleetwood, founder of UK game studio Hide&Seek, reflecting on Paolo Pedercini's Indiecade talk Toward Independence and describing their own efforts to move beyond working for clients.

Alex Fleetwood, Blogger

February 8, 2013

5 Min Read

As I reflect back on a year in which Hide&Seek turned five, opened a studio in New York, and made more games than ever before, something I keep coming back to is Paolo Pedercini’s deeply thought-provoking microtalk at Indiecade, Toward Independence.

The first thing Hide&Seek did was put on a festival of pervasive games in 2007. The festival was made with the help of many artists, companies & volunteers, and made possible through a small grant from the Jerwood Charitable Trust. Here’s a video of the festival, and here’s Jane McGonigal describing her experience a year later. We continue to produce live events and festivals, and we curate and support makers from different disciplines as they experiment with game design for public spaces.

At the time, the games we were making were about as far from the commercial mainstream as it was possible to get. Conservative games industry pros looked on with bemusement as we made the prediction that smartphones would ultimately become enablers of social play, linking devices, players and the world around them in ever-more interesting and playful ways.

Fast forward to 2012. Johann Sebastian Joust has conquered the hearts of the indie scene, Spaceteam is nominated for an IGF award and Tadhg Kelly is predicting “local” mobile games as the Next Big Thing. It feels like our experiments in designing games for public spaces are heading towards a new mainstream in games, and we’re very excited about that.

An infographic from Paolo's talk Toward Independence

Sounds pretty indie, huh? Well. Here’s a different view. We’ve funded that experimentation by working for hire, selling our games and ideas to clients. We’ve taken money from public funders, cultural organisations, broadcasters, global corporates, confectionery manufacturers, alcoholic beverage providers, and one time a mysterious organisation that we think maybe had something to do with the CIA. We’ve happily consulted on projects we knew to be hopelessly doomed.

It’s like Paolo said:

Indie is not a boolean value, a true/false attribute, but a continuum, a gradient. It’s a degree of compromise with the capital that should not be seen as a degree of purity or just a personal moral stance.

So, we’re fifty shades of indie – design consultants, service providers, imaginers of utopian games, enablers of other makers’ creative  development. All at the same time.

What seems more urgent, and more practical, is the question of our relationship with the people who play our games. This concerns me a great deal more than our indie-ness, whether real or perceived. The crucial problem with being a games agency, rather than an independent studio lies in the difficulty of building and maintaining a proper relationship with the people who play our games. Here are four reasons why.

1. Most of the people who play our games don’t know they’re our games, because they belong to our clients.

2. If they do know, they don’t know about our other games, because we can’t communicate with them ourselves.

3. Even if we get past that, they are pretty unlikely to enjoy all the games that we’ve made. Because they’ve been made for a variety of reasons, they are wildly diverse. Fans of Dreams of Your Life are not likely to dig The Show Must Go On.

4. When we’ve done our own direct-to-consumer games such as the Boardgame Remix Kit, we’ve never succesfully persisted with them, rewarding fans, publishing updates, adding features. The demands of our clients have had to take precedence over the needs of our audience.

We’ve been working on solutions to this, because having a proper relationship with an audience who values our work feels like the most important next step we could take as a studio. Enter Tiny Games! Tiny Games is a smartphone app that enables you to play fun, social games in the real world. You tell the app where you are, who you’re with, what’s to hand and how you feel, and it supplies a game to fit. Having designed real-world versions over the last two years, we know they work and that people like them.

A mockup of the Tiny Game user interface

TAPI screen shot

The app itself will be free to download and come with a stack of content and features. Different content packs for different locations will be available to buy. Tiny Games for the Beach, Tiny Games for Weddings, Tiny Games for Pets, Tiny Games for Horrible People – we have a lot of plans…  and of course, we’ll be listening to our players and building things they want to see and do.

So, none of that is rocket science – it’s all straight from the social game development playbook. The key for us as a studio is to build something that we can afford to maintain and evolve no matter how busy we get, and continue to add to for as long as we’re able. We need to be realistic that this project is additional to the work that pays the bills. So we’ve played to the strengths of the studio; content updates require us to design new batches of Tiny Games – which is something we can all do. In fact, we’ve made it part of the studio’s culture for us all to be designing Tiny Games at every opportunity.

We’re a long way from getting the Tiny Games app to market. We’re planning a Kickstarter in March to raise funds for completion of the game; partly because there are a number of things we can’t afford to do any other way, but also to test interest in the concept and make sure we’re planning something people actually want. But if we do make it, I hope that it will enrich our practice as a studio – creating a real dialogue with players and giving us the chance to polish something over years rather than months.

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