Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Making Games. Faster.

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 10, 2012

I was reading a little bit this weekend about fiction writers “going indie.” I’m not very in tune with the fiction biz, but what little I gleaned sounded like indie is progressing in that industry about at the same pace as indie games, maybe a couple of years behind. However, those writers who have effectively “gone indie” have a little bit of a leg up on their game-making cousins, due to experience in a far more mature industry, and the fact that there isn’t such a huge difference between the two in terms of content.  A novel is still a novel whether it’s published by Bantam or self-published.

One thing that struck me was that success in the indie book field – in general – is not too different from success as an indie game developer. It often comes down to perseverance, having several titles for sale, and some pretty good marketing / salesmanship. An indie author cannot expect to release a novel they haven’t managed to sell to a publisher and expect to see hundreds of thousands (let alone millions) of dollars start rolling in from Amazon.  One article suggested that newcomers find a day job (where have I heard that before?) while generating a number of novels and short stories to offer to readers.

And the number… well, that’s where things get interesting. In the Amazon world, the above link recommended somewhere around ten stories (or novels) where – if you are good and once you are “found” – things go dramatically from next-to-nothing to something that might, on a good day, resemble a living wage if you squint really hard.

The rate of production which an author can create short stories and novels is a lot faster than what most indies could hope to achieve. I’ve seen some small studios, particularly during the heyday of the iPhone boom (it’s still booming, just really, really saturated) produce roughly a game every 4-8 weeks, often with gameplay no more deep than Simon Says.  Hey, if it worked and kept them in business, good for them.

But where a novelist might be able to produce 2-4 novels a year, your average small-team (1-4 developers) indie game studio would have a pretty tough time maintaining that pace unless they are consistently re-using the same engine, and re-using as many game mechanics and content as they can.

And maybe that’s the trick of it.

I had a really good time making that 0-hour game a few weeks ago. That’s the video game equivalent of a thumbnail sketch or one-page vignette, I guess.  But taking the kind of time it took to make Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon? Or even Void War? Unacceptable.  Even as a part-timer, I should be able to do better than that. Okay, maybe not when the day job is working me over 60 hours a week or stuff like that, but in general.

There are a ton of games I want to make. Soon. But a nagging feeling I’ve been dealing with lately has been this:

Let’s say Frayed Knights 1 had done well enough all by itself for me to quit the day job that’s currently running me ragged, and made enough besides for me to hire a couple of guys and go full-time. Could I do it? Do I feel confident in my abilities as a game producer, manager, whatever, to transition to full-time and feel like I wasn’t going to pull a Duke Nukem Forever?

To be brutally honest, I don’t know that I’m quite there yet.  Particularly for making RPGs. I don’t have a process down. Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon was a great learning experience, and I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned to the sequel.  But I haven’t taken the effort to break it down into a process.  It’s still kind of seat-of-the-pants development now tempered with greater experience.  That’s not something I’d feel willing to gamble the house on.

I don’t know if most indies think of these things. I expect many of the long-time successes out there, if they haven’t actually been through the effort to formally codify a process, nevertheless have evolved something along those lines which they now practice intuitively.

What that doesn’t mean is breaking it down into a formula. Yes, I know, there are many authors out there who do quite well writing to formula. And some game developers out there who prosper (for a while) effectively re-skinning a game.  That’s not where I want to be. But it does seem like there is a lot more I should be doing to make what time I am spending making games more productive.

Filed Under: Production - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    I’m a bit in the same mood currently and my #1 mistake related to my last game was that it took way too much time to complete. I made many other mistakes but when I look back the thing I really regret is that it took that long to get to the release.

    I came to the conclusion that I really need to scale down and refocus my next projects. It means less “I need to learn how to do that” and more “how can I make something fun while using the knowledge I already have”. It’s not a matter of finding my “own formula” but to help me to get the wheel turning with the resources I have (like you my day job is eating most of my time and would appreciate one day to be less dependent from it).

    I had a little taste of this when working on “Flash” games. I mean smaller casual games meant for games portals. So far it’s been for me the best hours of work/money ratio. But why am I not doing that anymore? Well I didn’t like it that much and my time is too precious to waste it on something I don’t enjoy.

    “They” say we have about 10 projects that will go nowhere so we’re better to get them out of our system as soon as possible. It used to get on my nerve when people were saying this. Now that I’m about to start game #12 I see a bit what people were trying to tell me.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I read that same article in Time, and I had the same thoughts as you on the comparison to the indie game market. “Publisher” must be a very scary job title at this point.

    But where a novelist might be able to produce 2-4 novels a year, your average small-team (1-4 developers) indie game studio would have a pretty tough time maintaining that pace unless they are consistently re-using the same engine, and re-using as many game mechanics and content as they can.

    And maybe that’s the trick of it.

    I think that IS the trick of it, and honestly I’d like to see more developers and studios doing this.

    I’ve seen too many studios scuttled by massive costs brought on by the constant need to “innovate” and create new tech. It seems like the game industry has this burning need to constantly re-invent the wheel. I want to scream when I see studios spend years developing a new 3D engine when Unreal and the Cry Engine are sitting right there (or even Unity!). It would be like if every novelist tried to invent a new type of paper for each book they wrote. “My paper, which I’m dubbing Woodpulp 3, handles ink to page contrast 20% better than the competitions’ paper!”

    And usually this is all to avoid paying licensing fees. Are the licensing fees so great that they exceed the opportunity / man hour / maintenance costs of spending years of company time to recreate what already exists?

    I think we could get better gameplay, better stories, more cost efficient developers if tech was reused to do new things. Imagine if a developer could stop trying to squeeze more polygons or texture maps into a game and could focus on unique art direction?

    Telltale Games just won the VGA Game of the Year award for the Walking Dead, which uses their same old engine tech, just with a compelling story and the new mechanic of timed choices. How much of that success in story-telling and pacing is due to not having to focus on state-of-the-art graphics creation? Or world-building? All their development resources could go straight to – “How do we make these characters compelling and tell this story?” How much of that success is that their tech was simple enough to run on every platform known to man?

    A “point and click” adventure game composed almost entirely of people standing around having conversations just won Game of the Year in 2012 based on the strength of it’s characters and narrative.

    I don’t think it’s fair to call it “reskinning” a game when novels, movies, and non-digital games have effectively been doing this for decades. I think game developers would do fine if they only focused on innovating ONE thing per game – be it the story, characters, gameplay, or graphics. In that way a developer could slowly and profitably build a “formula” game by game that made them successful critically with the public and kept them afloat at the same time.

    The idea might wound the idealist in me, but the jaded pragmatist in me supports this 100%.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    2-4 novels a year? Maybe if you want to die young. Especially considering the average length of the modern novel. 😛

    As for games, the only way you can churn them out industrially is if it’s a very formulaic genre, such that you only need to make new content and perhaps a little scripting here and there. Such as… oh I don’t know… text adventures!

    That’s actually a very good example if you want a parallel between writing and game development. Interactive fiction is halfway between the two, and you generally just have to write text and script interactions, since most engines and libraries are not meant to be customized for each story. And you still need to do quite a bit of custom programming for anything remotely fancy. Do we count the beta-testing period, by the way?

    Now, how long does it take to write a text adventure? That’s like asking how long is a piece of string, but there are SpeedIF events where you’re supposed to write one in hours or days (and it’s possible to make a decent one!) while something like The King of Shreds and Patches took two years to write. But the average dev time for a typical IFComp entry is probably around 3-4 months. Which incidentally fits your 2-4 novels a year figure.

    Except… a typical IFComp entry isn’t anywhere near novel length. In fact, they’re supposed to be playable in two hours. The rest is overhead: code, optional text…

    So yeah. That’s about the best you can hope for. Any other kind of game will inevitably take even longer. Unless you want to release endless level packs for the same puzzle game or FPS, I guess.

  • ThreeEyedCrow said,

    @Felix 2-4 novels a year are entirely possible if the author doesn’t write them himself/herself.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    @ThreeEyedCrow Ha ha, good point. But seriously, it’s possible, as NaNoWriMo demonstrates each year. You just need to give up any other activity, such as rest, a social life etc.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    You guys are assuming big ol’ epic fantasy novels. And incidentally, I do have some favorite authors who maintain approximately a 2-novel-per-year pace (one in one series, one in another). Stephen King, for example, keeps a pretty regular 2-novel-per-year pace.

    But I was trying to be generic here. There are also writers who can crank out the “pot-boilers”, young adult fiction (which isn’t necessarily shorter than adult novels), and so forth at an even greater pace. When I was working on the Animorphs game, K.A. Applegate was cranking out several novels per year (although, by the time we were working on the game, I’m sure many if not most of the books released each year were ghost-written).

  • AtkinsSJ said,

    Christer Kaitila is running a project for 2013 where people try to create a game every month. I’m going to give it a go, and thought you might be interested.