Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Games: do we need to go big or go home?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 18, 2015

A friend pointed me to this post by Joost van Dongen called “What Many Indies are Doing Wrong.” I liked the article even though I disagree on a few points. But … Joost is a more successful indie than I am, so I’d weight our respective opinions appropriately.

On many points, I completely agree. Now that we are in the “post-indie revolution,” or whatnot… now that indies are now as much the rule as the exception… things haven’t turned out exactly as I envisioned. Yes, the floodgates are open. Yes, there are some amazing gems of games that are making it out to market that never would have during the bad-ol’ days when the big publishers ruled the industry with an iron hand. Yes, we’re experiencing a resurgence of game genres and styles once thought to be on death’s door. Old-school dungeon crawlers. Roguelikes. Point-and-click adventure games. Platformers. Space combat games. It’s all happening, and it’s awesome.

And… we’re deluged with crap product. Or… not even crap. Mediocre. Derivative. Boring. Sad but true.

The thing is… there’s a whole lot of amazing stuff hidden within those mounds of … uninteresting. I know, I’ve seen them. And the point I’d like to make is that they were NOT all made by larger teams with much bigger budgets and higher production qualities, as Joost suggests. Sometimes they stand out enough and get lucky enough to get noticed all by themselves, and they become hits. Sometimes, not so much.

I’m not sure there really is a “right way” or a “wrong way” to be indie. In fact, indie is almost by definition the “wrong way” of doing things – outside the established process and players. It’s really all about being an outsider. The point is being independent of all those voices telling you what you can and cannot do. And I hate to keep bringing up Minecraft, as it was an exception in many ways (you ain’t gonna be the next Minecraft no matter what you do…), but it broke almost all the established indie rules-of-thumb for marketing and selling a game. Java? No Steam distribution? Paypal? An ultra-early (free?!?!) release? Blocky programmer graphics in 3D? Sheesh. Nobody’s gonna buy that.

But just because you whipped up your first game, a mostly functional clone of your favorite Genesis game, don’t expect the world to beat a path to your door. Remember that your game is floating in an ever-growing sea of indie games, many of them indistinguishable at first glance from your own.

My current view on long-term indie success is this:

#1 – You need to achieve a minimum standard of quality. Period.

And yes, the quality bar keeps rising, but it’s not a full-on arms race. But assume that your customer is actively trying to find any excuse to disregard as many games as possible so they can zero in on a few that are worth paying careful attention to. You must not provide them with any of those easy “outs.” Bugs, lack of polish or attention to detail, clunky interfaces, or boring presentation are all great excuses for a potential customer to ignore your game and never give it a second look.

#2 – You need to stand out from the pack

We are overwhelmed with “me, too” games.  Every game might be a “special snowflake,” but from the perspective of a guy shoveling his walk, it’s all just mounds of snow. Your game needs to really be special, and able to draw positive attention to itself. There are lots of ways of doing that, and there’s no need to limit your game to just one axis of “special.”

Really blowing the curve on quality or production values is one way. If people look at your game and say, “Wow, is that really an indie game?” then you’ve nailed it. Ditto for making a game with a larger scope. But that was how we got into the whole arms race of production values and mega-hits that led to the giant publishers ruling the industry in the first place, so I reject that as the “one true way” of standing out. It’s just the way where money can make a big difference. Serious originality  – at least as far as your customer is concerned (we all stand on the shoulders of giants, after all) – is another way. And yeah, a solid gimmick or hook is another… but there has to be more to your game than that. A unique style or visual approach is another. While it’s more subtle, a unique voice or “personality” is another. Maybe a game should stand out by choosing a totally different way of standing out. The bottom line is that a potential player shouldn’t be able to dismiss it as “just another… <fill in the blank> game.”

#3 – You need to achieve a brand

You could create the ideal, perfect game – the One Game to Rule Them All – and it would still more than likely fail utterly in the marketplace, even with decent marketing in place. Or at least Not Succeed Very Well. Success builds on itself. It’s all about being prolific, consistent, and representing quality – as well as forming a long-term relationship with your audience. And a bunch of games out there all drawing attention to themselves as a group will likely be far more successful in the long run than a lone (non-monster) hit.

Maybe it’s my involvement in the world of indie books now that is influencing my opinion, but I’m seeing an indie career a lot more like a baseball game these days. Sure, the home runs are awesome, but you can’t rely on one or two of those to win the game for you. Winning the game means consistent play, mastering the fundamentals, and scoring consistent base hits.

#4 – Focus on providing a quality experience for the customer first, monetizing second

This is really something that goes into all three of the previous objectives,  but it’s worth noting. A big chunk of the sea of indie flotsam out there consists of pretty but vapid attempts to cash in on whatever perceived trends are out there. Many appear to have high production values, but it’s all on the up-front eye candy. This seems especially true in the mobile markets. I’m sure it works in the short-term. But it’s choking the industry in the longer term.

I think for long-term success, indies need to focus less on how they can rake in the cash from the customers, and more on how they can provide quality experiences for the customers. Yes, you can’t ignore the financial aspects, but I’ve played too many games where it’s clear that the latter came first in the design. It shows, and it’s irritating enough once. But three or four games down the line, I begin to feel as if it’s all a carefully orchestrated attempt to empty my wallet with little more to offer me, and I’m ready to swear off an entire genre of games. And – in the long term – I want to avoid that particular developer / publisher.

Focusing on the value you provide to the audience will help you make a better, quality game. It’ll help make your game stand out from the sea of carnival barkers masquerading as games. And they’ll help you establish a better long-term relationship with fans. So it’s all good.

Filed Under: Game Development, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Charles said,

    Too many times have I read “make a small game and grow from there”. Besides gaining some technical knowledge a small game will get you exactly nowhere unless you pull a winning lottery ticket (Flappy Bird or the like).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    A bigger game WILL stand out more (just made an update to reflect that) – but it’s still just a lottery ticket.

  • Dave Toulouse said,

    It’s not about big vs small or it depends what you mean by that.

    If you spend 2-3 years working on a big game (and no that’s not a lot compared to AAA studios) and it goes nowhere then it’s not really helping to build your brand.

    I guess what “make a small game” means for me is to work on an interesting concept you can release relatively quickly but then work on it to make sure it’s not small AND crappy.

    It took me over a year to work on Human Extinction Simulator which I consider a “small” game (well, okay, I did this part-time) but just after a few months I could have released it but I didn’t and instead made sure it got to a minimum required quality (as seen in point 1 here).

    Now I could have gone for bigger but then it would have brought other concerns like more funds needed, risk of losing motivation, etc.

    But eh, anyone can do whatever works for them. Me, I spent 4 years working on an MMO that, yes, got me experience but no money so I don’t feel going down that road again.

  • Corwin said,

    Might I offer a fifth suggestion. Take the time to get involved with (genre specific) news sites and forums (like RPGWatch 🙂 ) which actively support and encourage Indie developers. The extra exposure will help you stand out in the crowd and give you lots of FREE publicity. Not that I have any bias in all of this!! 🙂