Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Game Developers: “Soulless, Basement-Dwelling Sociopaths?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 26, 2011

I laughed (well, snorted) when I read the CRPG Addict’s account of playing retro indie role-playing games (late 80’s “shareware”):

“Shortly after I began this blog, it took a turn that I didn’t expect, and didn’t even really notice at the time: I began playing a lot of independent CRPGs. About one-third of the games in my blog (if you count the “backtracking” postings from last July) were developed as what we would now call “shareware.”

“Independent games tend to lack the bells and whistles of commercially-developed CRPGs, but they often have more intriguing gameplay, as we find with NetHack, and certainly a much greater challenge. But here’s the essential “problem” with them, coming from the perspective of someone who has in front of him a task to play thousands of games and is only at Game 56: commercial game publishers have to worry about the market, and so they tend to avoid releasing games that are @#!@%&ing impossible. With independent games, on the other hand, you are often at the mercy of a single soulless, basement-dwelling sociopath. I’m not saying that Laurence Brothers is such a person, but I’m frankly beginning to suspect that he at least was.

He’s of course merely venting in a humorous way. But now that he’s got contact information for his tormentor, I’m really interested in hearing what said sociopath indie game developer will say about his approach to creating the arguably roguelike game Omega.

The perma-death thing is argued a lot, and my favorite approach is to simply have it as a “hardcore” option in games like Diablo 2 and Din’s Curse (and, now, The Witcher 2). But for early developers, the most intriguing aspect of permadeath was that it replicated the dice & paper feel and gave decisions meaning. In the dice & paper game, unless you were really, really good at fast-talking the DM into a retcon, death was final. Well, with the exception of raise dead spells and the like, but those generally came with side effects and were not usually available for lower-level characters. But the lack of any kind of time-reversal in the form of saved games meant players had to make decisions carefully. This is actually a fun thing, assuming you have a gentle game master and a decent level of predictability for your decisions.

Alas, many roguelikes have neither.

I haven’t played Omega at all, but after reading the CRPG Addict’s accounts (and playing other roguelikes), I’m reminded of just how much presentation gets in the way of features.  You lower the bar on presentation detail (and the requisite work needed to create it), and you can go for a larger scope. Like having ghosts of former characters appear to haunt your new character. Adding a new monster that only needs text and an existing ascii symbol is relatively simple. Once you start requiring new models, animations, sounds, AI, etc. – it becomes an issue.  All companies – big or little, mainstream or indie – have a limited amount of resources to throw into a game.  Devoting it to one area means less left over to put in another. And if you raise the bar of quality in one spot, it’ll make everything look more shabby by comparison unless you bring everything else to a consistent quality.

Translation: There’s a reason indies today are using 2D graphics in the style of old 8-bit games.

But the real point of this post (HAH! I HAVE A POINT! That’s new…) is to look at that difference between mainstream publishers versus indies through the lens that the CRPG Addict jokingly provided.  Many (most?) indies have a vested interest in supporting their game-making habit just as much as the big publishers do. So why do they make the games they do (and risk getting branded as soulless, basement-dwelling sociopaths for breaking with tradition)?

#1 – They just have no clue what they are doing, and just making the game they wanted to play (this is the primary answer for most first-time indies).

#2 – They didn’t have other people test the game before releasing, so the only tester was the game creator(s) himself / herself / themselves. Which makes judging difficulty very hard, and exposes the developer’s blind spots, among other things.

#3 – They are deliberately avoiding direct competition with big publishers who could basically spend them into oblivion.  So they go out of their way to create something different that will appeal to an underserved niche. That is a major reason I’m making the kind of game I am – no mainstream dev is doing it anymore, and I feel I have something new and exciting to add to the sub-category.

#4 – They do know what they are doing, but are confident enough in their own ideas and unique take that they don’t care (much) about competition or category. (I think games like Din’s Curse may fall under this one). Or they are making the game as a part-time gig and not depending upon sales for survival, and are thus willing  to make design decisions that have a higher risk of limiting sales.

#5 – Their design was dictated by limited resources. Well, okay, that’s again true of all games, mainstream or indie. But when you do a budget and realize that you only have six months of runway before your team of three have to find day jobs,  reality has a way of dictating design. Shoestring-budget developers must make do with what they have, which may drive a radically different approach from audience expectations from the mainstream industry.

#6 – They are fans of some other person’s twisted vision, and seek to both imitate and improve upon it. This was, after all,  how Minecraft came to be…

#7 – They are targeting a very specific niche, and aren’t concerned about appealing far beyond it. This is both a good and bad thing. I love it when game makers target niches that appeal to me, with games like Knights of the Chalice which totally scratched a long-standing itch I’d almost forgotten I’d had. But on the flip side, I shelled out the money for the highly praised, hard-core Super Meat Boy, but the game left me (out in the) cold after only a few levels.  Same deal with the masochistic I Want to Be the Guy!, which garnered a small but devoted following. But this is something awesome about indies – instead of going after a broad but lukewarm appeal, they can afford to make a game that a niche can really love and be excited about.

And it may (usually) be a combination of the above factors.

So it doesn’t have to be sociopathy or lack of a soul that drives some of these compelling-yet-frustrating or oddball game designs. It’s just what comes with the indie turf. Indies are truly the ones who are “evolving” the medium, and it’s not by merely throwing permutations on last year’s biggest hits.  They are making gaming more diverse than it has ever been, including the “golden era” of the arcades and early home computers.

That’s my kind of crazy.

Filed Under: Indie Evangelism, Roguelikes - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Max said,

    Really long list of points :/ I think it simply boils down to this – asset creation is hard work, largely unrewarding and limiting gameplay. UI and graphics are not something most people who make indie games want spent time developing.

    I suspect very few people actually like those parts but when someone wants to reach broader audiences they have to (indie or not). You can paraphrase the OP argument: Those who make unwieldy ugly indy games are probably narcissistic and anti-social enough that implementing their vision takes precedence over audience.

  • skavenhorde said,

    And this my friends is why I love rogues. Give me those sociopaths in the basements making games that challenge my intellect instead of button mashing my way through games like ArcaniA.

    I’ve been doing these little articles on Rogues because they are absolutely brilliant and would like to share that brilliance with some of the visitors here.

    I’ve played A LOT of games over the years and can appreciate just about every genre out there…..but Roguelikes are my “drug of choice” now. Not for the flashy graphics (which they normally don’t have any) or for the outstanding voice acting (once again they normally don’t have that either) or finally the epic quests (Wrongo the quests are basic and simple. Kill the foozle, get something, get back out.)

    Instaed of all that they have something else, gameplay. Lots and lots of just plain ol gameplay. A game where there are so many things to do and see it boggles the mind. That is why I love that little genre above all others. I don’t care if they use ASCII or graphics, have sound or not, just leave all that stuff behind and give me a good adventure where I have to use my wits to survive (and luck….lots and lots of luck)

    Same could be applied to indies. Since they are not going to have cutting edge graphics that frees them up to try other things like fleshed out NPCs, interesting settings and of course the gameplay.

    Thanks,Jay, for this article. It was a great read.

  • McTeddy said,

    You know… anyone else and I’d be up and arms… but the CRPG addict has earned his opinion many times over.

    Before I started programming, I had a much harsher outlook on game developers. Things like balanced difficulty, beautiful graphics, and polish were extremely important to me.

    But nowadays… I see past the polish. It’s sad to look at the beautiful and amazing games of today… and only see polished turd. Little balls of old, used up crap from sometime last year that have been covered in glossy paint.

    But Indy work on the other hand… these flaws tell me about the creator. I see the hardships that they fought through… I see where the schedules broke… where they duck taped together the code at the last minute. You can see the love, sweat, blood and tears that went into the project.

    I don’t see a sociopath… I see a survivor!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Awesome comments.

    And amen to the CRPG Addict having earned the right. I think the dude has played more CRPGs to completion in the last 18 months than I’ve completed in my entire life. I thought I was knowledgeable about old-school RPGs, but he’s suffered through some titles I’ve never heard of. So yeah, while he’s got his preferences and quirks, he’s a guy I listen to.

    And if a game is incredibly difficult for *him*, I’d say it’s crazy-hard.

    I’m *still* not yet a big roguelike fan. As I’ve said, I’ve spent some time playing them, and got really hooked on one many years ago. But with my limited time, I usually get dissuaded by the learning curve at some point. (Another reason I’m kinda keen on the upcoming Dungeons of Dredmor). But they can have so much interesting detail that really thrills me.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I like #3 best.

    As a fan of apparently many “dead” genres, it is the smaller developers that make the games I love. Sometimes even for free (Battle for Wesnoth I’m looking at you)!

    Without the volume of creative, niche-seeking smaller developers I would have given up on new PC gaming and resigned myself to replaying the games of my youth.

  • Rick C said,

    It was cool to see Omega mentioned–I did some work on it years ago. The game is in the middle of a massive facelift intended to both clean it up and allow new features/quests/etc to be added, but life intervened and everyone working on it got too busy.

  • Modran said,

    I like Rogues in theory. But when I see the amount of commands I’m supposed to use, kinda like dwarf fortress, I admit I get a brain freeze :/. I like building up my strategy, thinking of what I’ll do next, I love trying to overcome great difficulty with limited resources, but when those limited resources are my goldfish memory… It gets kinda harder.
    Apart from that, Yeah, give me gameplay over graphics anytime :p

  • skavenhorde said,

    Here is a lecture from Barry Schwartz on “The Paradox of Choice” that might explain that brain freeze a little better 🙂


    I’ve managed to overcome that freezing with RLs because I decided one day to sit down and learn ADOM. After that the other RLs were a lot easier to understand and play.

    However, games like Unreal World and Dwarf Fortress remain in the “Holy freeholies! There is no way I can learn all that!” category. One day I figure I’ll give URW/DF an honest try, but until then I have enough RLs and commercial games to keep me busy for years.

  • Tesh said,

    “UI and graphics are not something most people who make indie games want spent time developing.”

    Oddly, I’m on the other side of that fence. I’m an artist/designer, and can do anything *but* code the games I’ve designed. I have a few “indie” games that I’ve designed and I’m making art for that I’d like to cobble together, but my coding is limited to some CSS/HTML and old Java stuff.

    I’ve wondered lately… is it easier to get programming help or art help in the indie scene?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I think it’s easier to get art help – mainly because art is way, way more modular than programming (even with our best object-oriented efforts). That being said, getting art help that is indie-priced, reasonable quality, and handled professionally is all but impossible. And when you find someone who will do it, they are probably good enough & professional enough that they will get snatched up quickly.

  • McTeddy said,

    “I think it’s easier to get art help-”

    Yeah…. I had something to say about this… but you redeemed yourself with the rest of the post.

    I’ve actually heard both sides. I find it nearly impossible to find an artist who is actually willing to actually WORK on a game and has the time to do so. Actually, thats not true… but the ones who are willing to work charge more than any sane person can afford.

    At the same time, the artist I’ve been working with has told me stories about programmers who are the same way.

    I think that it just depends on who you know. There are good workers in both sides… you just need to be lucky enough to know them.

  • CRPG Addict said,

    I appreciate you turning my slightly-insulting (if mostly joking) comment into a thoughtful posting. You’ve given me a lot of insight into the independent game development process, and I’m going to start paying a lot more attention to your blog now that I realize that my CRPG list has almost as many independent games as commercial ones.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I was also kinda surprised how many “indie” games you have been playing (far predating the use of the word “indie” with games). One of my first “indie” RPGs I really got into was Moria, a PC roguelike I’m sure you’ll be getting to sooner or later.

    It’ll be years (decades?) before you get to the recent era, but over the last few years indie RPGs have outnumbered the mainstream releases significantly. So if you get that far, you’ll be playing far more indie releases than mainstream ones.

    Heh – I don’t like using “commercial” as a counterpart to “indie” because most indie games are created for commercial purposes – they are just an off-beat form of commercial venture. But calling older games “mainstream” is just as bad of a misnomer, isn’t it? You are just now getting into an era where it’s not so hard to tell the difference.