Tales of the Rampant Coyote
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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
 
Bruce On Games: Why the AAA Games Business Model is Broken
I don't agree with Bruce Everiss on a lot of things (but then, I'm a game developer, and he's a games marketer, which means we're naturally at odds...), but he's been in the biz for a very long time and his observations are worth paying attention to.

Today, he reveals why he thinks the traditional "AAA" games business model is broken.

Maybe "broken" is too harsh of a term. "Unsustainable at current levels" is probably a more accurate description.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010
 
Worst DRM Scheme Ever Has Been Clarified...
Don't worry. It's only mostly as bad as you thought it was.

You know, I went on a business trip for two weeks last month where the Internet was $14 / day from my hotel. I skipped a couple of days (yes, it does happen!) of connectivity. After all, I had stuff to do, books to read, and ... hey, games to play on my laptop!

Games that were, in some cases, older and no longer supported by their creators.

Games that did not need to be connected to the Internet to play.

You know, I'm going to keep buying games like that. Not the handicapped crapware that Ubisoft will be selling from now on.

It's too bad. I have some fine games in my library that I bought back in the day published by Ubisoft.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010
 
IGDA Elections
For game devs interested in the IGDA, Scott McMillan of Macguffin Games now has write-ups on all 23 candidates for the ongoing election of board members.

IGDA Election - Candidate Scrutiny

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Keep Shooting Yourselves in the Foot, Publishers!
Hey, mainstream game publishers!

Please, keep shooting yourselves in the foot.

Like this.

We'll miss you when you are gone. A little. Oh, you'll blame the PC platform, you'll blame the spineless douchebag pirates with their endless justifications, and you'll eventually blame the consoles when things go the exact same way as the PC market in a hardware generation or two.

But the one who is really to blame are those knuckle-dragging suits who failed to recognize that those useless appendages to the wallets that you like to chase are actually PEOPLE, paying customers who really are smart enough to realize they are NOT playing World of Warcraft, and do NOT appreciate being screwed out of the $50 or $60 for the game that they didn't realize came with both an expiration date in the near future and a buttload of reasons you won't allow them to play after you've taken their money.

And what about all those experienced developers, the ones soon to be out-of-work after you sabotage the product of their underpaid, overworked labors by packaging it in a poison-coated turdshell? Well, many of them - and many of your disgruntled, screwed-over ex-customers, are going to wake up to the truth that we in the indie game community now know:

We don't actually need you.

Game over.

(Bonus Update Section - another warning from a highly successful indie developer and pirate-hunter. Yes, we hate piracy. Yes, we're technically competitors. No, we don't want you to actually self-destruct, but that seems to be your intention...)

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Monday, December 28, 2009
 
Indie™ Games - Just Like Homemade™!
Let's say you have one driven, talented seventeen-year-old laboring part-time on her laptop on a video game with a budget of almost nothing. Maybe she's using a copy of Game Maker Pro she purchased with money earned by asking if people wanted to super-size their orders. The game is weird and original. Our game developer then releases her game for free on the Internet.

Is our theoretical game developer an indie? Is his game indie? Of course. This is just about the epitome of indie.

On the flip side, we have Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Funded by a major publisher, with a huge budget and team, and the biggest video game launch (so far) in history, selling nearly 5 million copies in the first 24 hours across two platforms in two continents.

Indie? Not at all. This is the anti-indie. This game was produced by the very system that "indie" evolved to bypass.

While there is simply no way in the world our hypothetical indie is going to match the production values of the mainstream game, when you strip away the glitz there may actually more similarities than differences. Both games were created by talented, skilled, and driven people. Both games may provide equal amounts of "fun." Assuming our heroine creates a "deluxe," premium version for which she charges money, and she inks a deal with a publisher / distributor, both games could end up on neighboring shelves at Wal*Mart. Even "scope" may not much of a difference - as many indie games have much larger scope than their mainstream counterparts (*cough*DwarfFortress*cough*).

It gets more complicated if we go somewhere between these two extremes. What about a small company that gets a sizable budget from non-traditional investors? What about tiny "indie" publishers? What about an independent ("indie") studio that has gotten wealthy enough that they can run things exactly like a mainstream development project but without any publisher oversight? Or a mainstream "guns for hire" studio that moonlights as an indie?

I worked on the MMO game, Saga (an "MMORTS"), a few years ago. From my perspective, as part of a small studio, it wasn't indie. We had a smaller team by modern standards, sure, and a budget that was way too small to be a AAA mainstream game (but still bigger than most indie titles). But the publisher was a tiny new startup that received investment funding from outside the games biz. These guys were total outsiders, which pretty much defines "indie." But from down in the trenches in my studio, except for a closer working relationship, it was no different from taking marching orders from a major publisher.

Later, I found myself working on a tiny team funded by EA's Pogo. Most of the time, it "felt" closer to an indie development process. We had a shoestring budget and were focused exclusively on online distribution. We would be competing directly with pure "indie" titles. But in spite of embracing much of the "indie ethos," it was definitely not an indie game - a fact brought home when the project was canceled by the publisher just shy of alpha. (And a major regret on my end, because we thought it was a lot of fun and coming along great... but the publisher decided it just wasn't going to sell in the numbers they needed).

I'm really talking about two issues here. First of all, indie is a process, not a product. It's an "outsider" approach to bypass the mainstream game development industry which dominates the hobby. And indie is a spectrum with obviously indie on one end, obviously mainstream on the other, and a very broad nebulous zone in-between without anything even close to a clear-cut boundary between the two... as hard as I try to find one.

It's a little like food being labeled "homemade." Some lady making fresh pies for her family from scratch using apples taken from the trees in her backyard is unquestionably making homemade pies. As she scales up her operation to makes the pies for friends and neighbors, it's still homemade. But then she continues to scale up her process, with only minor modifications, to sell her pies at local grocery stores, and then on an even larger process. At what point in the evolution of her pie business do her pies cease to be "homemade?" As I'm putting a frozen pie I just bought from the supermarket in the oven to heat it up and serve to my family, am I still providing a homemade pie? Does it matter to my family?

For us, the gamers, it can be difficult to just look at a game and say "indie" or "not indie." I ran into this problem recently trying to classify the action-RPG Torchlight. In my view, it's not indie. But I had to look it up to find out. If they'd hidden their process completely from public view, I'd have no way of knowing. And the game dwells deep enough in the nebulous spectrum between indie and mainstream that people could very easily argue with me, even knowing the details, and label it as a full fledged "indie" title.

So if it makes no difference to the gamer, is the distinction at all important? It is to me, definitely. I guess I do support a double (or triple, or spectrum-wide-multiple) standard. I don't think a high school basketball team should have to make any apologies for not being an NBA team. And I really don't know that a high school basketball game is any less entertaining than an NBA game (especially when your neighbor or nephew is one of the players). Likewise, I don't think The Three Musketeers should have to make any apologies for not being Dragon Age: Origins. For that matter, I don't think Torchlight suffers much from the comparison, either. While they may be in three separate leagues in terms of production values and intensity of experience (as they should be), for pure entertainment value the difference isn't nearly as extreme.

My reasoning (justification?) is that emphasizing "indie" encourages players to filters out the glitz, shader effects, modeling of individual hair follicles, ten-minute pre-rendered cut-scenes, and famous voice actors. Admittedly, that's a lot to look past, and video games have always been at least somewhat about spectacle and technological pizazz. But if we can do that, suddenly discussing Cute Knight Kingdom in the same sentence as Fallout 3 doesn't sound ridiculous at all. Nor is comparing a little indie game favorably to a big-budget blockbuster.

That's where I am, most of the time. And where the rest of the hobby / industry seems to be going, at long last. The spectrum is broadening daily. "Indie" is going to become increasingly more difficult to define, especially for the consumer who doesn't really care to peek into the sausage factory to know anything more about how his game was made.

But that's okay. What's more important is that as the domination of the biz by a few companies weakens and indie games gain more "mainstream" acceptance, the old rules dictated by those same "industry power players" lose their influence on players. This includes the old criteria for judging the worth of a game, usually measured in terms of what bigger budgets could buy. You've seen the TV and magazine ads, you know what I'm talking about. While still important, they are secondary concerns for what really matters.

And what really matters? For me, it's still about having fun.

So have fun!

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Saturday, December 12, 2009
 
More on Sensory Sweep Collapse
Continuing the story of the collapse of the (arguably) largest independent video game studio in North America (at least for the brief time between Bioware's purchase by EA, and the time it collapsed)... Kotaku adds a bit more to the story.

Kotaku: Back Pay is Hell, and Utah Devs Still Aren't Getting Any

A correction / clarification: As I understand it, workers are not on the hook for our unpaid social security taxes. It was deducted from our pay, and was in the custody (and responsibility) of the company when it was... uh... "lost." Proving proof of that may be a little tricky if we find ourselves having to draw social security in the next year or two, but otherwise it is supposedly a non-issue for us.

But it's likely a much a bigger issue for the guy responsible for not paying the taxes.

Have I mentioned lately how lucky I feel to have gotten out when I did?

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Thursday, December 10, 2009
 
Portrait of a Video Game Studio's Collapse
“I would love to visit him in prison,” former employee Paul Grimshaw said of Sensory Sweep president Dave Rushton, echoing the sentiments of other former employees...
This is the most accurate and most detailed account of the collapse of Sensory Sweep - my former "day job." My best guess is that I left in the nick of time - another three weeks or so, and I doubt I'd have ever gotten my final paychecks.

When I was there, the company had the distinction of probably being the largest independent game studio in North America, courtesy of Bioware being bought up by EA. I was one of something like 200 employees.

Now, some people who have heard about this story ask, "Why didn't people leave when the paychecks started bouncing / appearing late?" A few have even gone so far as to blame the employees for letting themselves get exploited and ripped off for sometimes more than $10,000. Here's my take on it.

I was lucky enough to get out while the getting was... well, not good, but not quite disastrous yet. I was able to do this because I was #1 - A programmer with a lot of non-games-industry experience who could actually find another job (and one I really enjoy!) in the midst of a nasty recession. Pity the poor game designers! And #2 - I'd been through something like this before in the 2001 recession, and knew the warning signs.

But here's why I believe people DID stay. It's why I stayed as long as I did:

#1 - You only collect unemployment if you are laid off, not if you quit. While you could argue that late paychecks constituted effective termination, this takes time, and is not be guaranteed. So there's really little to be gained by making a show of storming out the door when told, once again, that paychecks aren't ready on payday.

#2 - Throughout the latter half of 2008, paychecks WERE still arriving - late. While it's frustrating as hell, the management was making good on its promises (up until a point) that paychecks WERE coming. We were still getting paid. You get to a point where you get used to the uncertainty. But it also makes it difficult to tell when paychecks are just "late" or "never coming again."

#3 - We were in the middle of a recession (well, in retrospect, still in the beginning of a recession, it seems...). Jobs were already scarce, especially for people like game designers. A job that is currently theoretically paying you is preferable to no job guaranteed not to pay you.

#4 - When the company is in trouble and (supposedly) depending on your project to make everything good again, it's very hard to abandon your teammates and fellow employees. There's a certain level of tolerance for B.S. that you find yourself willing to take in order to make sure that if things fail and a whole bunch of people lose their jobs, it's not your fault.

#5 - It's easy to get addicted to smoking "hopium" in these situations - especially when you like what you are doing and you like the people you work with, and you hear promises from above about how awesome things will be once the group can "power through" this rough patch. There's always a chance it will be true.

And again, nobody realized at this point that their 401k contributions hadn't actually been "held up" but had instead been used to pay salaries (allegedly, I guess I should say...). And who really checks to verify that their FICA withholdings actually made it all the way to the Social Security office?

Anyway - while I would generally prefer working for a small, independent game studio over a big-budget publisher-owned studio, I kinda doubt you'd have seen anything like this happen at an EA studio. I think this should be required reading for anybody seriously considering a career in the videogames biz. And even more so for anybody contemplating starting a game studio. So here's your cautionary tale for the week:

Sensory Sweep Shortchange

Sobering stuff.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009
 
More Indie-Friendly Licensing
Havok Offers Indie Developer Program

Press Release

Not sure how truly indie-friendly it is. But are you seeing a trend? I sure am...

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Friday, November 13, 2009
 
A PSA for Indie Developers:
Getting control of your own destiny is important.

Getting revenue and profitability is important.

But your soul and the well-being of your customers is far more important.

So don't take lessons from this schmoe
, who brought the (alas, insanely popular) Mafia Wars and other games to Facebook, who admits to scamming customers in the name of bootstrapping his company.

Just ... Don't.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009
 
Mothers, Don't Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Game Developers
Bruce On Games has a very good list of reasons why you don't want to work in the (mainstream) games business:

Bruce On Games: You Don't Want to Work in the Video Games Industry

For the most part, I think his list is pretty accurate insofar as my experience goes. Though I think in American companies, there are quite a few more game designers than he seems to indicate. The role of "designer" isn't what most wannabes think it is, though. It's not designing games whole cloth - more like being a level designer on the design committee. There's a lot of scripting involved. And filling out spreadsheets. And whining to programmers that you need such-and-such a feature.

I used to recommend the experience for people who might want to become indies down the road. It's still good on-the-job training, but the larger studios are so compartmentalized now that it doesn't provide the breadth of experience that used to be worthwhile. So I'm now hesitant on that recommendation - unless you get a job with a small studio.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009
 
Unreal 3 Engine - FREE! Er, kinda...
Well, if you weren't planning on selling your game, you can now use the Unreal 3 engine for free. Have at it!

Unreal Development Kit

They have also released a more "indie friendly" commercial license. It's a royalty-based license - 25% (YIPE!) of your revenue after the first $5000. That could eat into an indie's profit margin by a pretty significant amount... or not. Your business decision, folks!

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Thursday, October 29, 2009
 
GarageGames Exits, Unity Enters?
Jeff Tunnell, one of the founders of GarageGames, writes a few words about the passing of the "GarageGames" name into history, and some of the magic of the company's first years.

Jeff Tunnell: GarageGames Name Joins Torque Game Engine In Retirement

An excerpt:

"We got paid back in so many ways though. Like our first booth at GDC, a wooden concoction I had a friend make for us. Our little 10 X 10 booth was the busiest per square foot of any booth at the conference, with people lined up 10 deep just to get in to talk to us. Or like seeing employees at big companies like EA walk by and thrust their clenched fist in the air and shout, 'GarageGames!' with us knowing that they were using Torque in their off hours trying to escape the Man."

He does note that while he can't see the name of the company retired without feeling "tugs on (his) heart strings," he completely understands their move and can't disagree with the "Torque Technologies" crew in their decision to rebrand the company.

In my opinion, the company-formerly-known-as-GarageGames is now adapting to a world Jeff Tunnell and the other founders helped build. The line between "indie" and "mainstream" is becoming increasingly blurred, and the barrier to entry for game developers has been almost entirely obliterated. Now, instead of "haves" (supported by mainstream publishers) and "have nots", we have an entire spectrum of game development studios. This now includes a professional, commercial "indie" tier that was only in its infancy ten years ago.

But now that Torque is focusing on this growing niche and in some many ways leaving the "entry level" game developers behind, another company is jumping in... with a vengeance. The Unity game engine has grown in popularity among indies, particularly due to its iPhone support, browser-based-app support, low price tag, and popular titles from Flashbang Studios like Off-Road Velociraptor Safari*.

But now they've announced that the "indie" license option has a new price:

Free.


In an interview at GamaSutra, Unity CEO David Helgason explained, "The thinking was that Unity Indie isn't generating a significant portion of our revenue, and we've always had this vision of democratizing our tools. We have over 13,000 customers using our product, so we figured, let's take Indie and just give it to everyone. Whether that becomes a cash flow positive or a cash flow negative -- and some people will upgrade -- is not really important. What's important is to get this in the hands of as many people as possible."

Now, I don't know that part of the business. It seems to be the similar strategy GarageGames used to pursue with the dirt-cheap $100 Torque Game Engine (and one currently employed on a wider level with Microsoft and their "express" edition of their compilers). A strategy they have now abandoned to focus principally on the "pro-sumer" audience. Is Unity jumping into a fallow niche with a great deal of potential, or has GarageGames (soon to be Torque Technologies) learned hard lessons that the Unity team is about to discover?

From a business perspective, I don't know what to expect. They know their business way better than I do. But while there are some license restrictions that may give indies pause (and no source code), the free indie option for Unity can't be anything but good news for indie and hobbyist game developers. It may not be the be-all, end-all - and no game engine is or will be - but there's a lot that can be done with it.

So get to work... and have fun!

Unity 3D Game Engine



* If you haven't played it, DO SO! It's a blast. Their other games are pretty cool too, but that one remains my favorite.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009
 
Adios, GarageGames
GarageGames, the company that in many ways pioneered the indie game movement (is it a movement?), has changed a lot since they started. Arguably, with the sunsetting of their flagship product - the original Torque Game Engine - and its immediate successor in a few days, and the departure of the founding members, and their change in focus, there's really not much of the ol' company left.

That's neither good nor bad. It's just the way of things.

But now it looks like the name, "GarageGames," is being retired. They are focusing on the Torque brand name, and the website will be "Torquepowered.com."

Feels kinda like the end of an era, doesn't it?

Still, while I miss the old GarageGames, I can't really fault the vision of the new crew. While they no longer emphasize making game development "dirt cheap" for anybody, they are shooting for the low-budget professionals' pipeline - getting games from concept to market as quickly and easily as possible. A noble goal.

But it seems GarageGames is soon to become just a historical note.

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Friday, September 11, 2009
 
Vogel Defends DRM
Don't see this much, but he's not really wrong here:

The Bottom Feeder - Some Kind Words About DRM. For Once.

Of course, popular downloadable games haven't been through a cycle yet where a major distribution point has shut down downloads, denying people access to the games they've paid for. I don't forsee that happening in the near future (thankfully), but as a gamer who really does like to dust off and play old classics, I see this as a significant concern. I'm glad to see we're moving towards a "kinder, gentler" DRM solution nowadays.

And he makes an important point: Pirates rip off everybody. Not just The Man. And not just the developers. (And they seem to rip off struggling indies just as readily as they rip off the multimillion-dollar EA ubergames).

Although I will note that I've recently had to deal with copy protection woes on an older game - those old copy protection schemes were just as horrible as the ugly crap EA and Starforce and others cooked up.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009
 
Happy Birthday, Dreamcast
I don't play it as often, but I still play it. It was way better than many gave it credit for.

I developed (well, ported) one game for it. The game was horrible, but the machine was pretty awesome.

Happy Birthday, Sega Dreamcast. Released ten years ago today (in North America), 9/9/99.

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Monday, September 07, 2009
 
Game Publishers - What Are They Good For?
Bruce on Games asks, "What Do Game Publishers Do, and Is There Any Need For Them?"

It's easy to see how game publishers followed the model they saw in the recording industry, book industry, and - to a lesser degree - Hollywood.

Of course, that model was based on technological limitations that were centuries old. And which, coincidentally, started going obsolete about the same time the game publishers jumped on the bandwagon.

The thing is, publishers can still play a vital - but smaller - role. We still need financing. Sure, we can try and take out a small business loan or something, but realistically - specialized investors who focus on game development (and can amortize costs and absorb risks across multiple games) remain valuable. We still need marketing. We still need distribution (albeit in a very different form). Someone needs to help the developers make their games, and connect the gamers to the games.

But unlike Bruce, I don't think it's all going to continue to consolidate down into a handful of players who completely dominate the market anymore. They are losing their lock on the economy of scale of mass production. And the distribution channels - while still powerful - are no longer the only road into town. Which means publishers are no longer the only game in town.

Now we just need to figure out more business models that work in an era where the supply-side is practically infinite.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009
 
IGDA and Indies
Wherein I stammer and say "uh..." a lot:

Podcast at Zakalro: IGDA and the Indie Dev

For those not in the know, the IGDA is the International Game Developer's Association, a professional organization of - you guessed it - game developers. This podcast is very much a group of with-it members / leaders of the IGDA and... uh, one ignorant semi-outsider... trying to figure out how the IGDA can better serve the indie game development community.

Even when I was a member, I wasn't exactly active. I'd been a professional game developer for years without IGDA membership. And until recently, an indie game makers and a so-called "AAA" (or wannabe AAA) mainstream game producer / developers didn't even sound like they spoke the same language.

But times change. The local chapter organizer here in Utah is very active in the indie community. So who knows?

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Monday, August 24, 2009
 
How Long Should an RPG Be?
I ran into this tech article on classic RPGs on tablet PCs last week which got me to thinkin' a little bit (I don't do it often, so it's worthy of note). The article is geared more towards discussing hardware, but in the context of playing older games such as Baldur's Gate. The author comments on the length of games of an earlier era versus today:
"The minute that I figured out that there's more than enough fan-made material out to give these classics a new lease on life, I started picking up used copies of them and making plans to play them, some of them for the first time. But then I ran into a problem: these games are long. For today's games, 30 hours of play time is epic; but old-school RPGs, could run well over 100 hours. In fact, I spent one summer working 15 hours a week as a computer lab monitor, and pretty much all I did was play once through the Mac ports of Fallout 1 and 2 for the whole summer."
But I don't think he's wrong. I do remember how the old games of yesteryear really weren't the kinds of games you beat in a week or four so you could move on to the next game. They required some measure of devotion. Though Oblivion and the latest Persona games aren't really all that old-school, and they sure took some serious time out of my life.

When I was at Infogrammes (now Atari) , the company head Bruno Bonnell told us that a study had shown what many of us suspected - the majority of players never "finish" their games. They would eventually give up and move on to the next game. Bonnell's contention was that we were wasting half our development efforts if the players were only playing half the game. I don't think the math necessarily applies - you reuse a LOT of code and content in later levels that is needed throughout the game.

While he wasn't speaking specifically of RPGs at the time, but I've little doubt that most copies of RPGs in the 1990s never accessed the "ending sequence" file on the hard drive. Players tend to play until they grow bored or frustrated, and then quit. Those aren't reactions any developer wants to his or her game. But even the most sadistic game designer really wants and expects players to actually see the endgame.

(As a side note, speaking of sadistic game designers: If anybody actually played through the final boss fight of Outwars to see the ending, I want to personally apologize. I was young, inexperienced, and I needed the money. And we'd lost half our team and most publisher support by then...)

Now, I do love my epic, sprawling RPGs that I can just lose myself in for a long time. In spite of its flaws, I had a blast playing Oblivion - if for no other reason than I was constantly finding something interesting to do, or a new quest line to follow up on. It's all well and good to say, "It got pretty old after a while," but when "while" is measured with three digits I think it is pretty forgivable.

But - let's get real here. A lot of these old RPGs which could consume multiple full 24-hour days of time to complete did not do so by providing second-upon-second of extremely high-quality, engaging content. And yes, Oblivion's fill-in-the-blank dungeon populations is included here. And Persona's random dungeons, too.

I think most players would really rather play a 20-hour game full of extremely awesome, high-quality, engaging content than a 100-hour game made up primarily of "meh." But I do wonder if there isn't a target value of an optimum average number of hours in an RPG before players start growing weary of even the most well-crafted storyline. I think the law of diminishing returns does apply somewhere where even the most devoted players may waver in their attention.

I remember a note in a game design lecture at GDC one year that the Japanese RPGs (which were just gaining some strong mainstream popularity at the time) were designed to have a boss battle about every two hours. The games were designed to hit a nice climax and stopping point every couple of hours - which was the average amount of time per day that their customers could play their games. I thought this was a brilliant concept.

It's hard to force the issue in a non-linear game, and less of an issue where games offer the option to save anywhere. But it's not a big deal to make sure that any significant segment of the game has reasonable stopping points with fairly satisfying conclusions and a promise of new developments to come at frequent, regular intervals.

Can this be extended on a larger level? Can it be extended to plots as well as gameplay? Should we a significant plot reversal / twist approximately every eight hours, so that players don't grow too tired of making baby-steps towards the goal? Is 25 - 40 hours an "optimum length" for any major RPG, beyond which tedium is likely to set in?

Is there such a thing as an RPG being "too short?" As short stories coexist with novels, is there a place in the market for a "small" RPGs of 4-8 hours' length alongside their big brothers of 24+ hours length? Is that long enough to have a satisfying RPG experience and sink your teeth into the characters and world? Or would they only work as part of a larger series? Or not at all?

Let us pretend that bang-for-the-buck price differences weren't an issue - you'd be paying about $1.50 per hour regardless of the size of any single game. You could play one huge 100-hour game, or five short 20-hour games for the same price. Let us make another huge assumption, too, that quality would be the same - the 100-hour RPG wouldn't be padded with tons of "filler." Under these ideal conditions, everything else being equal, would you prefer to reach a conclusion relatively quickly and move on to the next game, or play a single "epic-length" RPG which can pull you in for weeks and weeks?

So fess up: How much does size really matter to you?

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Saturday, August 08, 2009
 
Indie Blowout Sale on Steam This Weekend
Ye gods.

So - big sale this weekend on Steam. A ten-pack of popular indie games for $29.95, or a five-pack for $19.95. I don't have many of these, myself.

Among the games for sale are Blueberry Garden, The Path, Crayon Physics Deluxe, Braid, Everyday Shooter, World of Goo, Mr. Robot, Gish, Audiosurf, and Darwinia.

Now, I know Steam makes up for in volume what it squeezes to hell on profit margins, so ... this is probably not a horrible deal for the developers. But still, it's a great deal for the indie game player, so ... enjoy. $3 / pop on the 10-pack deal is really pretty unbelievable.

Big Steam Weekend Indie Game Sale

Enjoy.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009
 
How to Sell Your Indie Game
Amanda Fitch of Amaranth Games (Aveyond, Aveyond 2, Aveyond: Lord of Twilight, etc.) has put together a quick-and-dirty guide for newbie game developers on how to sell their indie games. We're talking traditional download-and-sell type things here, not online games.

It is far from exhaustive, but it's also a nice step-by-step set of instructions for people who are just getting started. The guide suggests how to do the following:
The PDF follows up with an offer to work with Amaranth Games to sell your game. SHREWD! Amanda is a dangerous person, and I mean that in a very complimentary way. I only wish I was half as dangerous. :)

How to Sell Your Game, from Amaranth Games

Anyway - while the options suggested in the PDF may not be the best for you or for your game if you are a game developer or living outside the U.S., they are a good start.

One thing she left out was the marketing side of things - to which I can only suggest shelling out a few bucks for Joseph Lieberman's excellent Indie Developer's Guide to Selling Games.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009
 
Indie Game Makers: Don't Quit Your Day Job. Seriously.
Jeff Ward has done the research and run the numbers.

This probably won't put to rest the eternal question of, "How much money can I expect to make with this indie game I intend to make?" But it's a good reference point for when you answer, "not nearly enough."

Good thing I'm not in it for the money.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009
 
How Indie Games Took On the World (and Won)
I am not sure if the article answers its proposed question, but it's an amusing read over at Games Radar:
"Guys like Dylan, like 2D Boy, Edmund McMillen and Vic Davis are changing gaming as we know it – evolving it into something new and endlessly diverse, made from love and wonder rather than commerce. And yet, at the same time we’re going backwards – this is a bigger, bolder return to the way games development once was, when tiny teams free of publisher interference were releasing some new slice of crazy wonder every week."
How Indie Games Took On the World (and Won) at Games Radar

I think the big take-away from this article is understanding just how impossible it is to categorize or characterize the indies, or define the One True Path to indie success. You have some claiming its a tight-knit community, obviously excluding all the other indies like Vic Davis who are completely separate from that "scene."

Indie is as indie does. Really, when we talk indie, we're talking about all the outliers from the traditional, mainstream, "one true way" of publishing and distributing games that has existed since the early / mid 80's - borrowed heavily from the music and print publishing industries. Trying to generalize a group that is defined as not being in a particular subset is gonna get tricky.

But it's cool to read about how many different approaches there are that have so far managed to work. The one troubling bit is the amount of dependence that seems to be growing on aggregators like Steam and Direct2Drive. Not that this is nearly as bad (so far) to developers as the physical media publication business, but it does give those channels a good deal of power to dictate terms.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009
 
Payin' the Indies
Reverend Anthony offers his Rev Rant about donating to indies for small games:



An excerpt:
"We're willing to pay $60 on the chance that a game will be good, so long as it's a big budget, mainstream title. I mean, we may have paid a demo of a game like Assassin's Creed, or whatever, but when we pay that 60 bucks, we're still gambling. We don't know that it will be good. But we'll pay it anyway, because 60 (dollars) is the norm... But we won't pay a dime - not a f***ng dime - for a game that we just finished playing, even if it was fantastic. "
There are actually three different points here, and while I agree with two of them, I think the third one stumbles into human nature problems that just won't be fixed no matter how vociferously one makes his appeal.

And I haven't played Assassin's Creed, so I can't speak on that one with any authority.

The first point is that we can and should be creative with how we compensate people for making us games. I agree. The one-size-fits-all shrink-wrapped boxed-display-packaged physical goods model is a relic of an era that isn't quite dead yet, but it's probably in its twilight years as far as software (and other media) is concerned. Maybe we should be more creative. Certainly bypassing the middlemen and the physical package is part of it - but maybe we can do better.

But that is currently running into problems with his second point, which is the actual pricing of these little indie games (particularly when compared to mainstream titles). It's weird and counter-intuitive, but oftentimes people will agonize and debate more over paying $10 or $20 for a small indi game than they will paying $50 or $60 for a mainstream game. Or maybe it has something to do with the formality of the games business. Do people feel weird giving their money to some dude out in Nebraska over the Internet, but feel better handing their credit card to some overweight clerk at Game Stop to process because it's more conventional and seems more like a "real" business?

Maybe it's an expectation thing. Here in the U.S., we're accustomed to paying as much or more for a 24 ounce cup of carbonated beverage (which is mostly ice) at a restaurant as we'd pay for a big ol' 2-liter bottle in the grocery store. (And yes, we mix metric and English measurements like that all the time, too.) Because it's at a restaurant, our pricing expectations get reset.

Maybe the problem is we're now all programmed to expect games to be $50 - $60. If a game doesn't cost that much, then we automatically assume it's an inferior game, and an inferior game just isn't worth our money. Or, on the flip side, maybe people still think that just because it's on the Internet, it should be free. Case closed. A lame, emotional, knee-jerk reaction with very little logic to back it up, but that's the way it goes. Maybe. Or maybe that's just me (and I've been happily buying games for a while, so I'd assume I'm a little more "deprogrammed" than your average gamer).

This, I think, can be addressed over time. It's just expectations that need to be reset. Rants like this one help.

The third point he brings up is paying for the game after you have played it.

Some things in our world work that way. In labor / service businesses, you are often billed for a project after it is done. Larger projects might involve milestone payments along the way. But sometimes collecting on those charges can be so difficult that it's spawned its own industry. Psychologically, people are hard-wired to trade for those things that they want, not things that they already have.

I don't know if any amount of ranting is going to change human nature here. Shareware authors back in the late 80's and 90's tried - and failed - repeatedly to get conversions to go up without resorting to crippling features. But apparently, appealing to basic goodness and responsibility of human nature only works on about 5% of your potential customer base.

The rest need to be bribed.

I think while it's good to make the appeal to people to donate (even after the fact) and pay for these tiny but fun indie games - if for no other reason than to remind people that these may be labors of love, but they are most definitely LABORS that deserve compensation as much as fixing someone's roof or car or performing magic tricks at a birthday party. But ultimately, I think the failure is on the developer side. A game developer has to have to have a plan in place in order to profit from those psycho hours that they work when they could have been relaxing and spending time with their family like normal human beings.

Which brings us back to the first point - creatively compensating developers. There are some really weird, interesting ideas out there that could be explored that haven't been. A street performer accepting donations might also accept requests from those who donate. Gabe Newell's idea of gamers being investors might have some merit, too. What about custom endings? Some of these ideas don't scale too well to selling thousands of copies (let alone millions that the mainstream shoots for), but they might scale just enough that they work for indies.

But the biggest thing we have to get over, I think, is the expectation that a game has to exhibit all the graphical glitziness and slickness of an expensive mainstream production to be worth our time and money. I'm not sure how that illusion got into place, and I know I've gotten way more value out of a $20 or $25 indie game than from a LOT of mainstream titles costing more than twice as much (will I ever finish Mass Effect?). Yet I still experience some irrational hesitation at times when it comes to indie games, though I prefer to chalk it up to the fact that I don't have enough time to finish all the games I have already bought...

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Monday, July 27, 2009
 
The Quest for Gaming's Citizen Kane(s)
Over the last several years, a lot of people have asked about when video games will have our "Citizen Kane" - the artistic masterpiece that legitimizes gaming as an art form the way that movie legitimized cinema.

Over at GamesRadar, Mikel Reparaz argues that Citizen Kane's importance was not recognized when it was first released, nor did it really legitimize film. It's importance was in its influence over cinema, and the groundwork it laid for years to come for other films to take better advantage of its medium.

Taken from that perspective, Mikel argues that have already had several games that could qualify as Citizen Kane's analog in gaming:

The Citizen Kanes of Videogames

He submits his picks for the 25 potential "Citizen Kanes" of the videogame world. He includes Ultima III, Half-Life 1 and 2, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Brothers, EverQuest, Donkey Kong, Sim City, Call of Duty 4, Metal Gear Solid, Doom, King's Quest, Starcraft, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and many others in his list that sounds like it came from the "Who's Who" of videogames.

Though I was more than a little surprised that Sid Meier's Civilization didn't make the cut. Or The Sims. Devil May Cry was more pioneering and influential than those? I don't think so.

Still, I don't know if many (or even any) of the above games would qualify as being in the same league as Citizen Kane. But I do tend to agree with the author concerning the search for gaming's Citizen Kane. I don't think that the day after Citizen Kane was released, the world changed and people started taking movies seriously. Even today, cinema is generally considered a "lower" form of art than live theater (and television is considered even lower than that - though it wouldn't be hard to argue that there's been more quality content produced for the small screen in recent years than the big screen).

I think that we will instead need to look to time and the cumulative effect of games that manage to break new ground and provoke thought as well as provide entertainment, rather than a single shining example that changes all the rules Maybe we'll get one game at some point (or maybe we already have, and haven't recognized it yet) that manages to do a little bit of everything right which we can set up as a figurehead, but I think that we're looking for a single Citizen Kane of videogames in vain.

(Hat tip to RPGWatch for the link)

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009
 
Flash Gaming Love Letter
DanC has posted the first of a multi-part series of articles on making (and making money from) Flash games (and web-based gaming in general). It's all about the business side of things - monetization, finding customers, generating value for customers, etc.

The first installment is about the different approaches to trying to put food on the table with Flash games. Unsurprisingly, ad-based revenue is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel (by a couple of orders of magnitude) in terms of revenue.

So if you wear an indie developer's hat, it's worthy reading:

Lost Garden: Flash Love Letter 2009 - Part I

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
 
id Software: Independent No More
I guess we can quit arguing over whether or not id Software is an "indie" studio or not.

Bethesda Parent ZeniMax Acquires id Software

I had to check the date to make sure it wasn't an April Fool's joke. But yeah - the house of Doom is now a sibling to Bethesda.

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Friday, June 19, 2009
 
Indie Game Prices - The Streets Run Red
Jeff Vogel once again weighs in on the price wars that are pretty much killing the casual game developers (which includes a lot of indies):

Indie Games: Still Too Cheap, and Getting Cheaper


There's a key term he uses there which I have to agree with: "Unsustainable."

I mean, it's a pretty good deal for the portals (including consoles and iPhone). While they do have SOME costs associated with adding a new game to the library, for the most part the developer is shouldering the burden of cost, and the portal is getting it for somethig close to free. So their profit is completely independent of the content. For the big game portals, now, it's even more extreme. They don't have to convince users to even buy the games - they just gotta sign them up for a subscription, and sit back and rake in that nice, regular revenue stream.

The price-fixing screws the hell outta developers, though. Even the formerly super-successful ones. It's actually a pretty old story. The middlemen take home the cash, while the producers take home their personal belongings after clearing out their desk.

It would be another story if the developers were actually seeing at least 3x the sales for taking home 1/3rd of returns. Maybe that's happening amongst the very best-selling games, but the grumbling I'm hearing from the rank-and-file indicate that's not even close to what's happening. After a brief surge in sales with the price drop, their volume is returning to not much above the previous levels.

Ultimately, the one-size-fits-all "lunch-money" price point is unsustainable for the broader indie market. Or, put another way - there is only a limited class of games which can be made to work at those prices. If you are forced to sell a game for the price of a ringtone, then you need to be able to make a game for the same cost as making a profitable ringtone.

Good luck with that.

I think what we're seeing on the casual-portal side, at least, is a consolidation of an industry that has expanded much faster than demand can sustain. This happens in every new industry. Once upon a time, we had a dozen American automobile companies, too. But eventually, the streets have to run red, and the armies of suppliers have to duke it out until only a few are left standing. The others must die out or be absorbed.

And then, once the dust clears, things stabilize. The market re-calibrates and finds some kind of equilibrium. And yeah, prices rise, now that the supply of competing producers is no longer near-infinite.

In the meantime, since it is largely a battle between the big portals, some indies are just avoiding the fight and hoping to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Others are making necessary adjustments to survive (like Amaranth Games, breaking their "casual" RPGs into smaller, bite-sized episodes that can be sold seperately by the portals). Unfortunately, a lot of developers - like Gamelab, which was heavily dependent on the portals - are going to disappear.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009
 
Classic Games versus Indie Games?
A couple of weeks ago, I finally succumbed to the siren's call of GOG.COM (Good Old Games) and purchased some older RPGs - Gothic 1 and 2, and Arx Fatalis. Last weekend, I also found myself buying Phantasy Star II - an RPG originally released for the Sega Genesis - on XBLA.

Not that I really have time to PLAY these games in a serious, committed way. But I LOVE this growing trend of classic games getting re-released as downloads (or as remakes, though it makes me feel old). It's re-introducing games to gamers who might have missed them the first time around - whether due to age or attention. It's forcing publishers to re-evaluate their history and wealth of great properties ... an important thing when I'll betcha most of the suits making these decisions weren't there when these games were hot and might only be barely aware they exist.

I barely noticed Arx Fatalis when it was originally released. Its user interface is the sort of thing nightmares are made of (except for spellcasting, which is way cool), and its obviously nowhere near as pretty as Oblivion or Fallout 3. But so far, when I can look past all that, "she's got it where it counts, kid." I mean, for $6, it's a steal. Big-time. I pay more than that for lunch at Apollo Burger. Incidentally, thanks to you folks here and on the forums who clued me into this one.

But when I put on my businessman hat (it never fits very well, but I try and wear it from time to time), I get a little bit alarmed as an indie game business.

Here's why: One of the secrets of the console game market's success - the console makers wipe the slate clean whenever the market gets too crowded with games. That way the newer games don't have to compete so much with a large back-catalog of titles (many of which are now available used or at reduced prices).

The PC doesn't have that, and instead game-makers relied on the nature of the platform and kept our minimum specs creeping up year after year. And the fact that that in a brick-and-mortar world, those older titles don't usually stay on the shelf very long to crowd out your brand new game. But now, part of the challenge PC game publishers are facing now is that the ol' dog is having trouble keeping up now. We're hitting the law of diminishing returns on technology. Besides the fact that it is costing more and more to keep pushing that bar of visual quality higher, the kinds of gamers that at one time would annually drop a hundreds or thousands of dollars to maintain the ultimate gamer machine have defected to the console camp.

And then you have the indies. Like me. Particularly, those indies who are delving into familiar categories. The restoration of these classic games to the market means indie games have to jockey with some heavy-hitting old warhorses for position along the long tail. And it's only going to get longer. And the indies won't have the price advantage against these titles for which any residual profits are pure gravy.

But this means Frayed Knights is going to be going head-to-head against Gothic 2 Gold and Arx Fatalis. And do I really want a player to choose between my game or Fallout? Especially when Fallout costs less? Holy crap!

I guess I'm just gonna have to hope that people have already played Fallout. And ... *gasp* ... I'm gonna have to make sure that my game is something that's not just a clone of an older game.

Okay. So we indie RPG developers and adventure game developers may be facing a bit more competition since some of the artificial pruning of the marketplace may be getting undone. But really, I see this as a positive. A really big, wet, sloppy kiss positive. Here's why:

Do you think that Telltale Games is worried at all that LucasArts is going to be releasing a "remastered" version of The Secret of Monkey Island at approximately the same time they are releasing their new Tales of Monkey Island episodes? Of course not. If anything, the games are going to help sell each other.

Ditto for these older titles and the new indie games that they may have inspired. I think anything that grows interest in the kinds of games I want to make is a Good Thing.

So bring 'em on!

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
 
Competing for Indie-Hood
Brent Fox of NinjaBee has taken a stab at defining "indie." Well, more like ranting about the use and misuse of the term. I don't think it will ever have a final, agreed-upon definition which can really be misused because ... well, that's just the nature of indie.

If you hang out in certain gaming forums long enough, you'll find Brent's analysis to be a subject that is all too familiar. There is often a bit of grousing over who is more indie than whom, and whether or not some company that isn't indie enough is trying to 'cash in' on the term that more rightly belongs to someone else:

NinjaBee: Indie Game Developer Definition

Now, I used to work there, so I may be biased. But I first ran into these guys when they were a "guns for hire" studio that had barely survived the last recession. They were down to a skeleton crew looking to go indie more out of desperation than anything else. Outpost Kaloki had been developed on their own dime, originally shopped around to publishers without success before they decided to take it indie in hopes of recouping some of their losses. It was self-funded, and self-published.

Brent, Lane, and Steve put their livelihoods on the line to try and live the dream and chart their own course in the games biz. And they've been extremely generous and supportive of the indie community for years. When people talk about the indie gaming spirit, I think of these guys just as readily as some dude in his parent's basement making free games that would have looked at home on the Atari VCS. Any definition of indie, in my mind, has to include them.

But I think it goes beyond a self-esteem or insecurity thing, as Brent suggests. Indie games must compete with each other as much as they must compete with mainstream titles. They must compete for recognition, awards, and - yes - sales. The difference in production quality between high-end and low-end indie games can be even larger than that of mainstream triple-A titles and the top indie offerings.

When you've spent the entry fee to submit your game to the IGF for consideration, and find your game has been beaten by a game which obviously cost 100x as much to make, some issues of fairness are going to get called into question. It's unavoidable.

While I resent it being used in this way (by myself as much as by others), to some degree the "indie" label is used to reset the expectations on the audience. Slap an "indie" label on a game with lower production values that would otherwise be met with nothing by contempt by gamers, and at least some fraction of the audience might be willing to give the game a second look and try to see past the lack of gloss and current-gen graphics. But when "indie" can apply to a game that cost a half-million dollars to make (and looks it), it leaves the bulk of indies out in the cold. Nobody wants to compete in a category where they are hopelessly outclassed.

So arguments about who is and isn't indie really revolve around attempts to level the playing field. I doubt there is a good answer. Limiting games by budget would be a ridiculous exercise. What's the difference between paying a professional artist thousands of dollars to create content for my game, and getting him into donating all his time for free? From the player's perspective, not a thing.

Ultimately - for me - it's about the games, not the labels. I think the little guys suffer more from lack of attention than anything else, which is why I try to evangelize the best of the indie games. There are a lot of overlooked gems out there. And I like hearing the stories of these guys who bring games to their audiences outside of the conventional routes - who are able to bypass the old middlemen and gatekeepers to get their visions and creations more directly into the hands of the players.

Beyond that, I try to stay disinterested in who might be "more indie" than whom. It doesn't really matter.

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Friday, June 12, 2009
 
XBox Live Community Games Now Becoming Indie Games
With the release of XNA Game Studio 3.1 (Microsoft's SDK used to make "cross-platform" games for the XBox 360, Windows, and ... uh, Zune), there was a tiny announcement at the end that XBox Live is renaming Community Games "Indie Games."

The hope, according to the announcement, is that the name change plus new features (like user ratings) will "increase understanding and discoverability of (creator's) games," and that they "believe this name better represents the independent spirit of XNA Game Studio gaming and creations."

So - uh, does this mean XBox Live Arcade is now "Not Indie Games?" Okay, granted, most of the games there have not been made by indies, but they still had a toe-hold there.

But aside from that - I don't really have a big problem with it. Aside from some pretty stupid apps that don't qualify as games anyway, for the most part its calling it like they see it. I mean, sadly, 95% of indie games really are crap - I just like to focus on what I consider the top 5%, and on my little niche of specialty. But that's both the blessing and the curse of indie games - there are no gatekeepers, so it's not my place (or anybody else's) to decide what is worthy and what is not. We can advise to provide limited filtering, but there's no impedements for anybody getting their game out to the public.

So... overall... I say, "cool."

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Thursday, May 28, 2009
 
How To Fix Game Sequels
So the movie Iron Man 2 is scheduled to be released in May, 2010. The first movie was awesome. But if you missed it - hey, don't worry. Just watch the sequel. Once you watch Iron Man 2, there's no reason to go back and watch the original.

In fact, you could just watch Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith to get the whole Star Wars experience. You can skip the other books and just read The Return of the King, too. Ditto for the movies. And Led Zeppelin's final studio album was, arguably, In Through the Out Door. No sense dredging through that earlier stuff, right?

Wouldn't life be weird if we treated sequels or further volumes in a series in other media the same way we treat games? Unlike other media, with games we have the belief that newer is (almost) always vastly superior. Not just the, "If you liked Batman Begins, you'll love The Dark Knight" kind of superiority, but the kind of superiority where going back to play an earlier title is almost physically painful. There is a tendency for newcomers to a game series to assume that previous entries aren't worth revisiting.

Why Sequels and Series?

Our reaction to sequels was born of harsh experience. At least amonst the hard-core gamers who have been at it for a few years.

First of all, games are frequently built upon the foundations of their predecessors. Oftentimes, the sequel is effectively everything the developers wanted to put in the original game, but couldn't. But with the sequel, developers frequently have a solid code base, tools path, workflow, and pre-existing content to build and improve on. So the next game is everything the previous one was, and then some.

But even when that's not the case, the developers (or at least the publishers) also gain experience. Game development is still not a mature science, and the market seems to be constantly in flux. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a game, and the needs of the actual audience (the fans of the previous game), can really help developers make a better game. Each sequel allows them to refine the formula.

In addition, games have been so dependent upon technology that it's difficult to even go back and try to play older games. I spent part of last night trying to reinstall Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption, with no success. You'd think a game that came out in the Windows era would be easier to run than an old DOS title, but that frequently isn't the case. I remember excitedly installing Strike Commander on a hot new Pentium once, wondering what the game would play like when finally playing on a machine capable of running it at more than 8 frames per second. Guess what? It sucked. Apparently it had never been tested beyond about 15 frames per second, and the horrible frame rate actually disguised some pretty ugly math issues.

Marketers in the game industry have also really pushed this expectation. It's been very easy for them to sell us on "newer is better," as they have all this inertia to work with. Particularly with games that you don't clearly "win," they have to convince us that while we're still playing and enjoying Madden NFL 08, we should put it on the shelf and shell out another $50 for the "new and improved" Madden NFL 09. And keep doing that, year after year. And so they keep telling us that everything that came before is - well, not exactly crap - but unworthy of our continued attention, and that we should only pay attention to the new and shiny that is coming down the pipe.

Finally, there's the flip side of this issue - as gamers, we have come to expect that sequels are too often little more than "new and improved" versions of their predecessors. An upgrade, not a different game. We have been entrained to view games like widgets instead of entertainment. The stories may be a little different, there may be a couple of new play modes or updated player rosters, but the "formula" that the developers keep refining often gets stale pretty quickly. The enhancements may give us a reason to go forward, but very little argument to go backwards.

Fixing the Perception Problem

Publishers in long-standing novel and movie series often drop any numerals from the title. The concern there is that their potential new audiences may shy away from the newest installment because they aren't familiar with the predecessors. They don't want to limit their potential audience to those who have already enjoyed the preceding works.

This has annoyed me a bit recently, as I've been reading the Harry Dresden novels, and after book six the publisher quit advertising each book's position in the chronology. Fortunately, it's not too hard to hunt down which one is the next book in the series (my friends and my wife have all read them, and have been trying to get me to read 'em for years - as they knew I'd love 'em). I really don't want to read them out of order, but I can see the publisher's intent here. Sequels and new installments in a series in other media frequently increase sales of previous installments.

Game developers and publishers have started shying away from enumerating the order of their games for an altogether different reason: They don't want to sabotage residual sales of previous games in the series. So they disguise their order so each game has to stand on its own. I do not know if this is a valid concern or not - but we gamers definitely come in with our preconceived notions in that regard.

(I should note: This wasn't always the case. The early Wizardry games, reportedly, suffered the same problem as traditional media - their audience was always a subset of the players of the preceding games. Back when the platform - the Apple II - was relatively static, and for full appreciation of the sequels you really needed to have played through the earlier games).

Is It Time For Change?

From my limited vantage point into the sales of things, it does look like a sequel results in a short burst of improved sales of the original, followed by an immediate decline (and then stability). On the indie game front, it's unclear as to whether sequels really cannibalize sales of the original over the long-term or not. But my vantage point is also restricted to a pretty small subset of the wider gaming universe.

On the mainstream front, it is unclear just how many residual sales of older games are actually generated, and at what price point. The bulk of game sales - or so we are told - have run their course within the first three months of the games' release. So why be concerned, as a publisher? Technology as a driver of game evolution also seems to be slowing down. Each successive console generation seems to last a little longer than the last, and four years makes far, far less difference in than it used to in terms of capability and apparent quality.

A lot of the issues with sequels do not apply equally across all genres. Sure, while there was little to prefer Guitar Hero III over Guitar Hero II other than new songs (and I didn't even bother with World Tour), there's not such a comparison between, say, Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy X. I actually preferred the earlier release. Or Monkey Island 2 versus Monkey Island. Sure, the latter was technologically very clearly superior to the first, but both games stand well on their own. RPGs and Adventure Games seem to leave a lot more room for real sequels rather than just a succession of upgrades.

For indie games, there's even less of a natural succession. There's even less technological change, as they are frequently created for compatability rather than taking advantage of the cutting edge. Now, I'd be the first to say that I felt Aveyond 2: Ean's Quest was a superior game to Aveyond: Rhen's Quest (note that Amaranth Games also seems to be deprecating the numbersl in the game titles), that superiority has nothing to do with technology. It's using the same engine. She clearly learned a lot from the first one, and had a bigger budget for the sequel. I'm sure the two chapters of the next game will also show improvement. But these are much more like books or movies. You really, really don't need to play the first game to enjoy the second. Aside from some cameo appearances and a couple of references to the events of the prior game, Aveyond 2 stands completely on its own (and I never played much of the freebie original "prequel" to the series, Ahriman's Prophecy, so I have no idea if I am missing anything... Gee, it sounds like I'm officially Part of the Problem, doesn't it?)

I believe things are already changing. While sometimes even the classics don't always age well, there has been a bit of a surge in interest over the last several years in older games and games that aren't riding the top of the technology curve. Both games and their audiences are maturing. I don't know if we'll get to the point where people frequently revisit an entire series of "evergreen" games like they do certain book or movie series, but I think there's a distinct gravitational pull in that direction.

How to Fix Game Sequels

Unfortunately, I believe attitudes will lag reality for a bit. But I also believe there are a few things that developers / publishers / marketers can do to speed things along - and that's by fixing some of the issues that caused our strange attitudes about game series and sequels in the first place.

#1 - Make an effort to make sequels different, not just an ugrade.
We enjoy a series or a sequel because we want, "familiar, but different." That's a tough tightrope to walk, granted. But half the reason game sequels have such a bad rep is they are too frequently little more than a retread of too-familiar territory.

#2 - Reward familiarity with past games.
While you do not want to even come close to alienating new audiences, it doesn't hurt to reward loyal audiences, or to throw in a little bit of veiled advertisement for older titles in the series.

#3 - Revisit the Older Stuff
Just because game #3 is out in the series with some new whistles and bells does not mean you couldn't or shouldn't go back and provide a little bit of the same TLC for the previous games. No, nobody expects you to support them as well as when they were new and leading your sales charts. But going back and letting them take advantage of some of the easier-to-import improvements you've since made in the newer titles could give them a nice bump. And if those older games are still worthy of your attention, that leads us to believe they may be worthy of ours.

Hopefully, one day, we won't have quite as much a problem with sequels being treated as simple upgrades - by developers OR consumers.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009
 
Why Bother With DRM?
It sounds like DRM continues to lose favor. This week at GamaSutra there's an insightful article about the alternatives:

PC Game Piracy: Why Bother with DRM?

I think that Stardock's "Goo" solution still counts as DRM as far as the original meaning of the term. But what gamers have grown weary of is the draconian restrictions imposed by the more recent flavors of DRM which - more than anything else - impose a very real risk of loss of their purchase, particularly over the long term. A risk not shared by pirates who simply use a "cracked" copy. When the pirates have a superior product to the paying customers, something's wrong.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009
 
Game Designers are Childish and Immature?
Man, I feel like Leigh Alexander is coming out swinging to help us poor game developers who got bullied at GDC last week.

Pixelvixen reported on Heather Chaplin's rant (which most of us are only now hearing secondhand), where she took game developers to task:
Like Wendy slapping around the lost boys, Chaplin patiently but firmly laid down the line. “It is you guys as game designers who are mired deeply in ‘guy culture,’” Chaplin said. The problem isn’t the medium: “You are a bunch of stunted adolescents.” Games avoid any of the things that separate men from boys: responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery. And “when you’re talking about culture-makers, this is a problem.”
Leigh Alexander has responded eloquently to Chaplin's rant, and David Jaffe has a surprisingly low-key response as well.

In my opinion, Chaplin isn't wrong, but she isn't right either. (How's that for weaseling?) I think that in part, she's confusing cause for effect, and I think she's also suffering from a bad case of tunnel vision. I'll frame my own opinion / response in the form of an analogy:

This is about like Ms. Chaplin ranting at McDonalds for not offering fine French cuisine and a mature, classy dining experience. And then going further, and not just blaming the managers at McDonalds, but calling them a bunch of immature, provincial, ignorant, uneducated, butt-scratching American hicks. Nevermind that one of the local managers she's ranting about is using his McDonald's gig to pay his way through culinary school.

And all the while, three blocks away, there's a small French Restaurant that almost nobody - including Ms. Chaplin - visits or even knows about. But it offers - if not exactly what she is ranting about - then something pretty close. But no, that's unimportant - the important thing is trying to get McDonalds to change.

Sound silly?

Like it or not, an entire industry has evolved out of making the very kinds of games she doesn't like. Optimized to sell the most possible games, it offers the lowest common denominator in gaming - repeatedly - because that generates (as far as they know) the greatest return. Yeah, this usually means adolescent power fantasies.

It saddens me too, because some of my favorite kinds of games are no longer being produced by the industry that once served me much better. Sure, there are occasional successful diversions from the formula, with a few success stories (The Sims being an almost canonical example - though it's now been a decade since it made waves in the business). But usually an attempt to offer something outside the box in a direction that Ms. Chaplin suggests ends in commercial failure and a loss of jobs.

As far as the designers themselves: As varied as this industry is, painting them with such a broad brush is doomed from the start. I know there are several designers who match her description. Many of the companies that hire the designers pay crap wages and offer a work environment that would only appeal to the kinds of kids Ms. Chaplin seems to be describing.

But there are many others in the business who would be the choir for her preaching if she'd quit calling them names. But 99% of them aren't empowered to change anything. They aren't named Will Wright. They are being paid to do a job, and that job isn't to isn't to sit in an ivory tower and conjecture on how to provide a game that deals with issues of intimacy, intellectual discovery, introspection, and responsibility. No, their job is to very specifically to make level 8 as cool as hell, provide the player a shotgun, and introduce the player to the Battleoid Zombies. Unless said designer relishes a trip to the unemployment line with a depressingly specialized resume, he (or she) is going to do exactly what they are paid to do.

Unless the market for these games shifts (and I think, in many ways, it is starting to do just that - but it's a slow process), the industry that was built to support that market is just gonna keep going with small evolutionary changes. Right now, the mainstream games industry is simply incapable of serving the "broader spectrum of masculinity" (or femininity). It just how it rolls.

And the whole "indie thing" is one big end-run around an industry mired in it's own success.

Take a look at casual games, for example. A decade ago, these kinds of games occupied a tiny niche only being addressed by a few shareware developers and - every once in a while - the occasional bone thrown by the mainstream games industry. Nowadays? There's an entire industry that has built up around them, separate from the mainstream games business entirely but for a few points of intersection (mainly where the big mainstream publishers are trying to "cash in."). It's still not as big as its multi-billion-dollar cousin, but it's growing.

I'm kind of astonished that Ms. Chaplin would issue this kind of rant at the same convention that hosted the IGF awards literally hours earlier. The Independent Games Festival seems to have the tendency these days (from my perspective) on rewarding the weird wannabe arthouse games or the bigger-budget indie titles.

The mainstream games business is McDonalds. In time, it may evolve as the tastes of the general public drift. but if you want something it is incapable of providing, don't just rant against it, and please don't call its employees names. Instead, please take your business down the street to the little restaurant that WILL try and give you what you want. Don't get suckered into believing that McDonalds is the only restaurant in town.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009
 
Torque 3D Announces New Indie Licensing
A while ago, while listening to a book on tape about running a business (yes, I actually listen to those kinds of things - scary, isn't it?), I read about one technique one business owner used to massively increase his business revenue.

He fired his customers.

He went over his numbers, and realized that 20% of his customers consumed 80% of his time. They were "high maintenance." They consumed the greatest amount of his resources while providing the lowest level of revenue. So he called them all up, and politely referred them to his competitors. His competitors, who were maybe not doing as well as he, were thrilled to receive the new customers. Meanwhile, he freed up most of his time, which he then used to try and find new, higher-quality customers.

Sometimes it works. If you are in a mature enough industry, and you are really good at what you do, you can actually pull this off.

It seems to me that this is the strategy that GarageGames is taking now.

GarageGames appeared on the scene when "indie" wasn't even in folks' vocabulary. Scarily enough, that wasn't very long ago. As the story goes, a bunch of former Dynamix folks got together to buy their old engine - the one used to make Tribes 2 - back from their former overlords. They had a big hairy audacious goal of taking this full-on, hardcore, commercial game engine and distributing it to the masses. What sort of amazing things could be done when this much power got into the hands of the hobbyists, the mod-makers, and dreamers of the world? They could sell it for so little that any 14-year-old could buy it for the price of a couple of weekends of mowing lawns. Plus GarageGames could turn around and publish these awesome homebrewed games.

From my own speculation, the reality fell a little short of their expectations. From their perspective, they were providing an extremely powerful, commercial game engine for peanuts. From the perspective of a 14-year-old with a lawn-mowing job and a dream of making the next Halo, they'd just spent a ton of money on a codebase that was buggy, confusing, and poorly documented. What were they supposed to do with THIS????

Having worked in the video game business for several years, I feel this pretty much describes every in-house engine ever created. In fact, it describes quite a few third-party engines too. There's a big difference between that kind of software and what the average consumer expects to install on their PC. GarageGames spent years trying to bridge this gulf. I think that did a pretty admirable job overall, particularly with their later products. Though mucking about under the hood of their flagship engine has always been a pain in the butt for me.

I'm sure that, like the aforementioned business, there was a segment of the customer base that represented a significant chunk of time for the GG crew. The inexperienced hobbyist, tinkerer, or student demands a great deal more time than the quietly laboring professional, I'd imagine.

And so perhaps GarageGames is hoping to "fire" those "lower quality" customers with the next generation 3D game engine. The new licensing and pricing came out last week, and the new Torque 3D engine is being sold for ten times what the old "TGE" (or, prior to that, "V12") engine used to run for. In my opinion, a thousand bucks is a bit pricey for anybody who is not committed to commercial products. With that kind of skin in the game, you'll want a return on investment, and enough experience to be confident about obtaining it.

That, or you are richer than I am.

There is a cheaper option for the hobbyists, tinkerers, and students - a feature-crippled version with no source code (and limited customer support) is available for $250. That's back within the realm of reason for newbies - though unless the base engine is a heck of a lot more flexible than TGE ever was, I do not feel that this offers much potential.

But to sweeten the pot a bit more, they are discounting it now for pre-orders and existing TGEA owners now for the full-fledged "indie" license:

Read the Licensing Announcement Here

My thoughts? I've been a fan of the company for years, but more for what they were trying to do than on the merits of their engine or development efforts. Their formerly flagship product, the Torque Game Engine, has been the bane of my existence sometimes. It provides a lot of really cool features as part of the package, but sometimes working with it can be a nightmare. Documentation was always spotty, though they really improved things with their 2D engine, the Torque Game Builder.

And the company isn't the same company as the one that released TGE. Another company has a significant investment stake in them now. The leadership is a different crew, and this is an all-new engine (built upon existing tech, I'm sure, but they are really trying to bill it as being different and new). So I can't use their former products as a yardstick to measure them by, or their former corporate culture.

So, as far as I'm concerned, they are back to square one - new company, upcoming engine. And they have to compete with a buttload of 3D game engines now available. I can't say I'm thrilled with the pricing decision - as a customer, I have a tough time seeing a steep increase in cost as a positive thing, particularly when the benefits are unproven. I'll be the last one to say that a thousand bucks is "overpriced" for a reasonably state-of-the-art 3D game engine, but they aren't the only game in town. And I'm still slogging along with older tech because it works. Kinda. And should work on the older systems of my customer base.

I HOPE - but I'm in no position to judge - that this focus on sort of an "upscale indie" pricing means that this new engine is going to reach unprecedented levels of both functionality and ease-of-use for the new engine. And if it achieves this, I may mow a few extra lawns myself to pick up an indie license for the new engine. As far as I know, I could be saving myself hundreds of hours of effort and frustration by upgrading to it right now (well, when the beta is released), instead of continuing along with their creaky older tech.

I wish them the best, and I'm still a nominal fan of their 2D engine, but I'm taking a "wait and see" attitude towards this new engine. I don't think GarageGames' track record - both good and bad - has much bearing on the new technology. But - if you have faith in their plans and promises - and you are serious about creating commercial-grade indie 3D games - the pre-order discount is pretty compelling.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009
 
Jeff Vogel: More On Indie RPG Sales
As promised, Jeff Vogel returns with more on making (and selling) his ever popular indie RPGs - specifically Geneforge 4.

An excerpt:
'And here's the sad truth. Suppose I spent a bunch of money, busted my hump, and wrote a game with graphics as good as, say, Eschalon. Then people who really care about graphics wouldn't look at my game and go, "Wow! He's really doing good now!" They'd go, "His graphics suck. They haven't improved at all." And then they'd go play Fallout 3.'
He follows up by saying, "And, once again, I make good money overall. So who knows? Maybe I'm onto something. After all, I'm more profitable than Electronic Arts right now."

He also talks about how he prices his games - why they cost $28 instead of $10. And the advantage of owning your own intellectual property (HUGE!!! New game developers, do not underestimate this!), and oodles of straight-talkin' goodness.

Now, I guess many gamers could not care less about what goes on to make these games. I'm kinda weird that way. Even before I became a professional game developer, I was hooked on "behind the scenes" views like this (often found in the pages of Computer Gaming World back in the early 90's). I guess not everyone likes to peek into the sausage factory to see how their food is made. But I'll keep sharing what I find for those weirdos like me who find the process almost as fascinating as the game itself.

Incidentally, I am also one of those strange people who actually listen to the DVD commentary track of my favorite movies, and Almost Famous is one of them... That might explain a lot.

Anyway, here you go:

The Bottom Feeder: How Many Games I Sell, Part Two

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009
 
Jeff Vogel Casts "Dispel Illusions" On Indie RPG Sales Numbers
I posted this earlier in the forums, but I figured I'd throw my commentary around. Spiderweb Software is perhaps the most well-known indie RPG developer out there, as Jeff Vogel has been at it since ... well, since people were still talking about Doom. That's a lot of experience, and a lot of market share. He's not the typical indie developer.

This week, he's gone out on a limb to post actual hard numbers about costs and sales for what he considers a pretty representative "average" game for his tiny company. He chose Geneforge 4, as it had numbers that were easily tracked, and represented a pretty average game for his company. Next week, he'll discuss it in more detail, but here's his report on the game:

"So Here's How Many Games I Sell" at The Bottom Feeder

I recommend reading it even if you have no intention of developing games. Unless you really, really don't want to peek inside the sausage factory for fear of losing your appetite.

I think if you have an image of indie game development as some kind of a miniature rock-star path - the equivalent of playing the club scene until you get "discovered" and start making millions - this might be a little damaging to your worldview.

The bottom line: The game cost $120,000 to make, including the cost of printing hint manuals, contractors for art, and a salary for three full-time employees (though not all three were working on this project specifically the whole time). That's pretty modest returns. Now, a year after the release of the PC port, the game has made about $117,000 back - including the sales of the hint book. So it's squeaking in at about $3000 short of breaking even.

It has sold less than 4,000 copies.

By comparison - a game selling less than 400,000 copies in the mainstream, triple-A game world is often considered a failure. But then, their budgets are often about 5x - 10x what Jeff has, and they probably make less profit per unit after considering the retailer's profit margin, the distribution costs, reproduction costs, etc.

Jeff notes that while he hasn't tracked piracy, he has plenty of anecdotal evidence that it is very high. Into the tens of thousands. Far more people play pirated versions of his games than pay for them. Which, unfortunately, seems to be pretty consistent across ALL games - indie or mainstream, DRMed or non-DRMed. Pirates are indiscriminate, and they outnumber honest people by a gigantic margin.

Dirtbags.

But in spite of all that - he's managed to make a sustainable business out of it. I'm sure he still makes a trickle of sales each month for the first three Avernum games. Building a sustainable business like this is a success all by itself.

And that's the really unsexy, non-rock-star thing about indie game development (well, mainstream development, too). It's a business. It's about building a business. It requires a lot of work and effort put into non-game-making stuff to make it a business. And oftentimes, it's a business that doesn't pay all that well.

I really appreciate Jeff's candor in presenting a solid data-point of reality to help people understand the industry and dispelling certain illusions. Here's hoping the indie RPG biz remains profitable enough that Jeff and the other folks at Spiderweb can keep making games for us to enjoy!

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Friday, March 13, 2009
 
Reminder: Eschalon Book 1 Sale Ending!
Just a reminder - the sale for Eschalon: Book 1 ends on the 15th - that's this Sunday.

If you haven't tried it, Basilisk Games' excellent "Eschalon: Book 1" is a wonderful return to "old school" role-playing for the PC. It's old-school, it's hard-core, and it's a lot of fun. And - for a few more days - it's available ON SALE for 20% off! But only until March 15, so you have to move quickly!
Here's what you do. First of all - download the free demo and make sure it works on your system and make sure you want to play it:
Download Eschalon: Book 1 (PC, Linux, or MacIntosh Versions)
From within the game, you can go directly to the order form. That's really how I'd recommend doing it. I want you to make sure the game runs properly on the system, and that it's a game you really want to play. It may be awesome, but Eschalon: Book 1 isn't for everybody.

However, if you really want to, you can go through these links to order it directly:
Eschalon: Book 1 (PC Version)
Eschalon: Book 1 (Mac Version)
Eschalon: Book 1 (Linux Version)
IMPORTANT: Underneath the quantity section of the order page, there's a space for an optional COUPON CODE. Enter the following code exactly (your best bet is just to copy and paste it in):
BOOK1RAMP
And click on the "Recalculate" button.
This should get you the 20% discount, but you only have until March 15th - so act quickly!

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