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