In the world of digital games, you generally have two ends of a spectrum. On one end, we have the AAA stuff - the stuff that has a standee at GameStop and that you might see television commercials for. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the indie stuff - stuff that you encounter simply browsing app stores or due to word of mouth.
While I have a whole slew of problems with AAA games, I don't find it that interesting or worthwhile to criticize them. They are, for the most part, doing the only thing that they can do. They work in an industry where the expectation and standard is a multi-million dollar production, which in turn means that very few risks can be taken at all. This results in games that are of high production quality, but which are extremely safe, canned, and unoriginal in their gameplay.
But I can't blame them for it. Not only is it asking a lot of any investor to risk millions of dollars on an idea that seems like it could be cool, but making another third-person action game about "zombie apocalypse!!!" is basically a guaranteed success. People just buy these things, year after year, over and over again, for sixty-five dollars. So you can't blame the AAA people for what they do, and that isn't what this article is about.
However, you can blame the indies for some of the problems they have. Being an independent game developer myself, I feel it's particularly fair for me to criticize some of the behavior of my colleagues. And for all the hype that's been swelling around the world of indie games over the past few years, there is one issue holding them back from their potential more than anything else - and it isn't their lack of a budget.
What I am going to hold indies accountable for is their generally poor, unsupportive attitude towards their own work. For the most part, indies make an app, throw it on a store, and are onto the next thing.
The Costs of Experiencing A New Thing
A fundamental part of my ideology as an artist/creator/stuff-maker-guy is that I have a responsibility to the people who experience my work. When someone sits down and runs my game / listens to my song / reads my article / watches my video, they are paying out a resource of theirs, a resource more valuable than money. They are paying me their time, and further, their attention, and to some small degree, a challenge to their entire point of view.
To illustrate my point: a person comes to a piece of art with a certain view of the world. This view that they already had contains all of their experiences - all the movies they've ever seen, all the comic books, all the videogames, paintings, poems, and of course, all of their personal experiences. They come to you with some Grand Total of Experience.
But then they see your thing, which - assuming it isn't a complete copy of something that already exists - is a new thing. It is not already represented in their Grand Total of Experience. This simple fact actually causes some degree of tension, some dissonance, as the person must now incorporate your new thing into their Grand Total of Experience.
In this moment, we scramble to make room for this new thing --- to organize it in such a way that it doesn't ruin what was already there. Most often we categorize it alongside other things we consider "similar", and then are relieved. Sometimes we can't do this, however, and it results in a paradigm shift, which can be awkward, confusing, or even painful.
This entire process generally is uncomfortable, because of the risks involved. That Grand Total of Experience is a big part of how we self-identify, and whenever it gets challenged, it's scary. We can sometimes feel like our entire being is in doubt. This is why people tend to gravitate towards things which are at least similar to things they already understand - it's a lower risk.
Of course, many people realize that it's in their interest to take these risks, and so they force themselves to go outside their comfort zones quite often. But that doesn't mean that they aren't paying the costs. Even if you have a positive attitude about trying new things, the costs cannot be avoided.
The Game Developer's Responsibility
So, knowing this, how could you ever put something out there for people to see if it wasn't the best you can do?
I realize this sounds like a platitude. Obviously we should all do the best we can; everybody knows that. And I know that there are real-world limitations that cause us to not be able to do our best, at least within a given time frame. Maybe there's a personal tragedy which interrupts you. Maybe you just really can't come up with a solution to some difficult problem. Who knows. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for why doing your best would be delayed.
But there really is no excuse for either of the following things:
- Releasing something into the world before you feel like you've done the best you can, or
- Releasing something, then finding a problem with the thing / way it could be made vastly better, and then deciding you'll never do it
And yet, this is standard protocol in the indie development world. People release half-baked games which feel like college projects, or unfinished betas*, all the time. Further, actually supporting your released game is nearly unheard of. I have some ideas for why this is.
"Indie Games Aren't Real Games"
Last month, I picked up an OUYA console, and I've been scouring its entire app store looking for games. I'm happy to report that I've found at least four or five really original, interesting games with innovative gameplay. However, just about all of these feel like they aren't well-balanced, refined, supported, or have the set of features that would really allow the game system to shine.
What's really nice about the indie-est of the indie games - which many of these interesting OUYA games are - is that you can look up who made these games, send 'em an email, and they'll probably get right back to you. I emailed about 4 or 5 different OUYA developers** of some of the coolest games on the system.
The two most common things I would write people and say are:
Do you have any plans to add/improve online multiplayer to your game? Leaderboards/Leagues? Other community features like chat?
Often I'll play some really great game that is fully capable of being a sport - a thing that is a part of a person's life, but in order to do this, there generally needs to be some effort on the part of the developer to create a community around the game.
I love your game, but I think it needs balancing/fixes.
Most games I play, I feel like I'm able to find the optimal strategy within an hour of playing. I'm fully aware of how some things can seem imbalanced to a new player but actually aren't, but I've gotten confirmation from the developers themselves that they know their game is not balanced.
I've written developers huge patch change lists. I've drawn them new maps, charts, etc - all for free, mind you!
Sadly, to both of these, no matter how emphatic and specific I am, I'm almost always sent back a depressing response. The developers almost always:
- Are just eager to move onto the next thing. I understand this feeling, but the idea of pumping out two or three mediocre games and leaving them to fade into obscurity every year isn't a positive way to spend your time. If you want to make games as practice for yourself, that's fine of course, but don't subject other people to it, at least without a huge flag saying, "this isn't meant for other people to play!" The world already has enough mediocre crap, so you're really just adding noise to the world and making it harder for people to find the good stuff.
- Don't see their game/their own potential. Sure, maybe it has a neat gameplay idea, but what's that really worth? It'll never be great like League of Legends! It's just an indie game, after all.
I really think that indie developers have, on some deep psychological level, bought into the idea that the things they make aren't "real" games. Real games are made by teams of 80+ people with millions of dollars. We're just doing "hobbyist" little digital arts and crafts. Many indies hide behind a facade of "being a gag game" - having some kind of outrageously silly theme that they feel excuses them from having to try and make the game be truly great, because hey, it's just a novelty product after all!
I've also had at least one developer tell me, after reading my suggested patch notes, "I was scared to change anything because I didn't want to make it worse."
Your Game Is Your Baby
The reality is that indies have every capability of making games that are not only as good as AAA games, but vastly better, due to the fact that they can afford to take risks. Right now, every indie developer has it within his power to create not only the best digital game of the year, but arguably the best game of all time, ever, digital or otherwise. Minecraft (not a game by my definition, but a colloquial game) is a great example. Someone came up with a great idea, and then supported it, and saw it through.
Of course, some developers will say, "yeah well that's Minecraft. If I was making millions off of my game, you can bet I'd support it then!" It's true that there's an entire echelon of super-successful indie games like Super Meat Boy, Braid and Angry Birds. But that's actually irrelevant, because no matter how successful or unsuccessful your game is, you have a responsibility to the people who bought your game. If you know how you can make your thing better, you have a responsibility to do it.
The good news is, actually acting on this responsibility can only improve your chances of better success with that game, as well as with any games you do in the future.
I'm not saying you have to make it better right now. I understand that sometimes life gets in the way. If you have to delay improving your game for some amount of time, then that's how it has to be. But as soon as it is possible, you need to support your game. Fix balance issues. Add or remove rules if it will improve the game. Add new social features. Add variants. Keep telling people about your game. Keep it alive.
I want to see developers taking pride in their games and improving them decades after they're released. Even if it's just a small patch every couple of years - after a certain amount of time, the game won't need much in the way of fixes. Then focus on community building, variants and other cool ways for people to explore your system.
Your game is your baby. You probably spent a year or more working on it, so how does it even make sense to just abandon it once it's out? If it's not successful, that's even more reason to support it. Make some awesome balance patch and tell people about it. Consumers love to see a game that's being supported. If I know that, when I buy this game, I will be getting balance patches, new features, community support and more from the developer, I feel way better about my purchase. In fact, you almost can't even put a price on that.
I'm not saying never make a new game, and I'm not saying stay full-time on a game you released five years ago. What I am saying is more a problem of attitude. Independent videogame developers simply have a bad attitude about the things they make. They seem to want to make a game, upload it to the app store, maybe issue one or two patches to fix critical issues, and then move on forever. We can do so much better than that, and again, we have a responsibility to our players, who have kindly loaned us their time.
Treat your game just as you would a baby. In its infancy, work hard to make it strong. When it gets released like when your baby's first day in preschool or something. After a couple of decades, it might be strong enough to move out, go to college, get a job, but that doesn't mean it stops being your baby. You should always be there for your games, the way a good parent is always there for their child. If you are, I believe that players will always be there for you.
*I should point out that one caveat to this is something like a public beta. If you make it abundantly clear that your app is a beta and needs testing, then I think it's perfectly fair to show those testers your game even before it's the best it can be. It sucks for them, but they know what they're getting into, and you need beta testers!
**Also, you should know that while much of this was inspired by my experience dealing with OUYA developers, this isn't an "OUYA thing". I've talked to developers who've made games on iOS, Android, PC and Xbox Live and their replies were similar.