Programmers making games on their own face steep odds, butting up on one side against the gorilla of commercial development, and against the challenges of independence, finances and satisfying an enormous community on the other.
As lone coders, Space Giraffe
creator Jeff Minter, Desktop Tower Defense
designer Paul Preece, and EA expat-turned-Boxhead
series creator Sean Cooper may represent a dying breed in the days of burgeoning dev teams and even bigger budgets.
But the three had an opportunity to speak out at the recent Develop Conference and Expo in Brighton -- Gamasutra was there to hear Edge Magazine's Alex Wiltshire lead them in a panel discussion focused on their experiences in going it alone.
Doing It Your Way
"It's the only way I get the freedom to make the games I want to make," said Minter. "Love it or hate it, I have developed my own style, and this is the only way to pursue that with absolute purity."
Cooper agreed -- after 15 years of writing games for others, he said, "hang on a minute -- I want to make games for myself." Leaving EA, he said, was about fatigue for a team dynamic where he was tired of hearing "'that's rubbish design,' when I knew there was something good in there and they were just being too cautious."
Preece confessed to being a control freak -- teams are all right with him, he said, "as long as I get to run things. It works out well being left alone to make games on my own."
Wanting to be on one's own is all well and good, of course, but most Xbox Live Arcade titles require large teams. What do the panelists use as tools to support them in going it alone?
Minter said he does many of his games procedurally, mainly using his Neon procedural graphics engine that he wrote for the Xbox.
"It’s been vastly upgraded and is now useful for freeing me from needing external artwork," he said, adding that he hopes to migrate into procedurally-generated music, and eventually the gameplay itself.
"It would be incredible if we could make a game and procedurally create an experience though the parameters that we put on it," said Cooper.
For Preece, quick feedback in the Flash games market means he knows nearly immediately on a title's release what players like -- and what they don't. "Get it out to them, get them to feel it, bring it back and take the lessons into the next thing.
Minter, on the other hand, expressed caution about migrating to XBLA -- "to be honest, I don't think it’s quite enough to sustain my business," he said.
Speaking of Flash, Preece cited scripting speed as its primary advantage, and debugging as its weakness, while Cooper agreed that it's "basically an artwork scripting tool."
Nonetheless, "For me, it makes things better," he said. "I can have a game open in an IE window, I know the limitations and have to optimize things that you did in the 8-bit days."
Confidence Amid The Noise
What about other internet-based advantages? Does the tech support and developer community online make it easier to do a title like, for example, Minter's Space Giraffe
? Or does being so connected to the end user create challenges?
"At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone," he said. "There will always be people on the internet who will moan and tell you you’re rubbish and your game is gong to be terrible, but you just have to shut them out and trust that it’s going to be good."
What does it take to cultivate that sort of faith? A long apprenticeship within a developer?
"I think if you’ve got it, you've got it," said Minter. He also said completing projects can instill confidence just as surely as failure to finish them can shake it.
"If you try a bit of this and a bit of that you end up with thirty half-done games, and if you never complete, then you’ll never get the feeling that you can actually make games."
Cooper said that in "the old days" at EA, he found design documents to be one of the dev cycle's biggest flaws. "It would be like Ford saying, 'we’re going to release a car on paper, make it and release it without testing and refining its elements.'"
So then, how do you know when a game is actually finished? Never, really, said Preece.
"You can keep updating your game -- my game is a number of iterations along from its initial release. We take our own stats, so we can monitor. Most of the stuff you can do post-launch is refinement based on the data coming back." And Flash, he added, lends itself to this degree of iteration.
And is it difficult, flying solo? Do any of the developers long for a return to a big team?
"I would say that the last year has been really hard," said Minter. "We learned a lot of lessons through Space Giraffe
"It’s a good life though... It can be a bit more demanding than an office job where you can close the door at 5:00. But it is my passion – it’s how I want to spend my life."
Money is the main stressor, said Preece -- adding that the Flash biz has become what he calls a "footnote for the casual games industry" causes issues, too.
Minter, however, said he doesn't mind the opinions of commercial developers. "I tend to say a bit separate from those things," he said. "I try to keep true to what’s in my head."