Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Games: Be More Indie Please

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 25, 2011

I like to praise the really good subset of indie gaming that is of quality, beautiful, creative, genre-defying, innovative, and / or just extremely well executed. Naturally, I focus on the tip of the iceberg that stands out above the rest. But unfortunately, the indie world is full of crap. And clones. And even clones of crap. On some level, I don’t mind this. A lot of indie games are the result of people learning to make games.

But as a customer and as a gamer, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions for game makers for what I want to see, play, and buy.  While as an RPG fan some of these suggestions may be oriented more towards RPGs, this is really supposed to be genre-agnostic. And I can’t even say if these are commercially viable suggestions. These are just what I’d like to see more of – what tend to grab my attention.

Don’t Give Me Something I’ve Played Before

I’m enough of both a gaming geek and programming geek to be intimately familiar with the thrill of getting stuff up on the screen that works the way you envision it in your head, or more particularly from another game. Remember: Your job isn’t done there. It’s not enough to emulate your inspiration. If you are trying to appeal to me, as a fan of the original, remember that I’ve already played that game.  I don’t want a reskinned, low-budget rehash of a game I loved. I want something familiar but different.

Provide a new twist on the mechanics.  Play with concepts that were not taken far enough. Hey, you are an indie on a budget, why don’t you try scaling down the mechanics and distilling the experience into an even tighter core. Maybe your idea is a counter-terrorism version of X-Com. Seize upon that theme and think about what else could be done with that concept to make the gameplay more authentic to the theme and more interesting. IEDs? Hostages? Political twists?

Don’t just clone an older game. Use it for a jumping-off point, not a destination.

Put Some of Yourself Into the Game

Don’t be afraid to put some of your own personality into your game. One of the reasons I have been so fond of the Aveyond series has been because of how the personality of the designer (or, I guess, designers, with the latest offerings) come through.  Sure, older games (especially adventure games and RPGs) were filled with some silly aspects and pop culture references that haven’t aged well. But in spite of that, I think that the “authorial voice” behind them was what gave them the staying power in my imagination, while many newer games have have either that “designed by committee” lack-of-flavor, or a lack of consistency caused by too many cooks.  I still enjoy them, and they are still of high quality, but I do like my games to have a little personality in them.

Better yet, look at Dejobaan Games’  AaaaaAaAaaAaaaaAAAa! A Reckless Disregard for Gravity.  It’s got personality in spades. Maybe too much for some, but for me it’s a big part of what makes the game so  fun.

Explore some themes or beliefs that are important to you, too. Remember what Ultima IV did with the virtues, or what Ultima VII did with the idea of organized religion. Fallout used parody and science fiction to offer a little bit of social commentary on government and corporatism.

Now, there’s definitely a danger there, and you don’t want to get preachy about that. The above games are great examples because they did not go there. You need to be genuine. Use the metaphors as a chance to hold up a mirror to the player and let them draw their own conclusions. Maybe they won’t agree with yours, but that’s okay. Also, don’t try too hard to be “edgy.” There’s a point where it ceases to be cool and interesting, and it comes off as disingenuous. I have no interest in contrived shock effect.

Within some pretty generous boundaries here, I think there’s plenty of room for personal expression and for game creators to try and make more of a personal connection with their players. Don’t be safe and generic.

Play to Your Strengths

This is another item where I need to kick myself and follow my own advice more often. But while tiny teams and tiny budgets are often perceived as a disadvantage for an indie, they’ve got a lot of advantages they can exploit as well.  Look at the success of Minecraft and VVVVVV and what they were able to accomplish in spite of (or perhaps because of) the lack of high-quality art.  Or what some of the RPG Maker developers (or Unity developers, for that matter) have managed to do without extensive coding backgrounds.

Ultimately, indies have several things going in their favor. They have freedom that big studios and publishers don’t have.  They have more ways to distribute and monetize their games than ever before. There’s an amazing array of tools out there that are cheap and more powerful than ever, especially for a studio that doesn’t need to stay on the bleeding edge of technology.  These are powerful advantages all by themselves.

Indies should play to these strengths. And the successful ones are doing just that. Focus more on quality of mechanics, not on quantity of content. Focus more on depth of a few simple systems, not scope. Go low-budget, go low-tech, and make the most of it! Be agile. Be quirky. Be cool.

Be indie.

Filed Under: Game Development, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • MalcolmM said,

    I agree with all your comments. Of course, indie developers are less guilty of creating “me too” games than the major software houses.

    After listening to the latest Matt Chat with Brian Fargo, I think that a modern take on a Wasteland type game would be great. Not a remake of course, and nothing like the Fallout series. Sometime more like the original, turn based and creating your own party. As Brian said, one of the great things about Wasteland was the number of unique events and places the game had. No cookie cutter towns and dungeons.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    But unfortunately, the indie world is full of crap. And clones. And even clones of crap.

    Swap out indie for mainstream and that statement works just as well. The truth is that innovation and creativity are hard no matter what your budget. Too many people just copy some source of inspiration and run it straight into the ground. Look at the explosion of movie remakes of tv shows, cartoons, and movies from the 1980s. The directors and writers making these films all grew up during that time. In place of personal creativity, they are taking something they loved as a child and essentially making big budget fan fiction.

    The same applies to game makers. When we sit down to create a game, our mind inevitable wanders to the ideas, themes, and styles of games we have loved playing in the past. Maybe that’s natural. Human beings are always looking to the past to improve upon it to create the future. Only too often we designers forget the “improve upon it” part. Or our “improvements” are not what everyone else considers to be better.

    I observed something incredibly interesting several years ago when Fallout 3 was still in the pipeline. The Fallout community is infamously bitter and protective, so there was much vitriol on the forums about what changes Bethesda was making to the franchise. Well, after several months of this, one poster started a thread where he asked everyone to post their design document in as much or little detail as they wanted, for their perfect version of Fallout 3. Hundreds of posts, and no one agreed with anyone else on everything.

    I agree with everything else. (And I guess I agreed with your first point, I just wanted to elaborate on it.) Games need an “author’s” voice. Someone to set the tone and direction of the game and keep it on track with a particular vision. I read an old article on Gamasutra from 2000, and I wish I could remember the writer’s name, but he said something that stuck with me. “Games designed by committee don’t result in a game everybody loves, but a game everyone least hates..

    And I hope we have moved past the “edgy” phase as an industry. I like to view the history of the games industry in comparison to the development of a person. The late 70s and 1980s were our childhood, where we were amused by simple shapes and colors and played for fun to the exclusion of all else. The 1990s and early 2000s were our adolescent period, where we were obsessed with being “cool”, edgy, and impressing our peers while we tried to see as much female anatomy as possible. I am hopeful that we are now in our young adulthood or “college days”, where we still occasionally go to strip clubs or throw keggers, but are increasingly concerned with more adult and mature matters.

    Indies have more going in their favor now than ever. Huge and widespread distribution channels, press and respect from industry sites and publications, and like you said, access to a huge amount of cheap and free tools to make games with. And even as an indie you CAN stay on the bleeding edge of technology – the UDK from Epic Games is available for free (25% royalty fees after you make your first $5000). And of course Unity is cheap and offers a wide amount of publishing options. Both it, UDK, and XNA all over ready to go options for porting games to mobile devices.

    I always laugh when you talk about taking your own advice. It’s so hard, isn’t it? I fall in the same boat most of the time. Hopefully not right now, however. I am working on a short game using the UDK (and bleeding edge graphics – cause I am an artist and cry for my normal maps and custom graphic shaders at night ;P ) similarly themed as Jacob’s Ladder. No weapons. No monsters. No high octane action. No health meter. No way to die. It is basically a first person personal tour into madness where the environment changes around the player on the fly in real-time. Puzzles must be solved and the player must decide or discover whether what they are seeing at any given time is real or not. I want to play with players perceptions and force them to piece together what is objective reality from an elaborate fantasy or delusion.

    So, uh, not exactly mainstream. Did I mention I have to finish the alpha for this sucker in 12 weeks? Why am I posting on here?! Jay, you and your thoughtful articles will be my undoing! ;P

  • Tom Wilson said,

    This is actually helpful to me just now. I’m at a point in designing my own game where I’m having to choose between the game I want to make and the game I’m capable of making by myself in a reasonable amount of time. Embracing my limitations has led to what I hope are interesting and different design decisions. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that it isn’t what I really want to do. With each revision in scope, I’m trying to use this yardstick: is it still a game that I would want to play?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Even with a cutting-edge engine, it’s hard to maintain cutting-edge graphics. Maybe that’s less of a problem for you awesome artist types, I guess. 🙂

    And sometimes I wonder how much sooner I would have been done with FK if I didn’t post five+ times per week. But then I decided that I really don’t want to know.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    You mention “Put Some of Yourself Into the Game”, and even Ultima, but don’t mention what was my immediate thought, which is the Richard Garriot lookalikes? (see also Warren Spector).

    Also, I’d suggest that even the “lesser quality” art of the likes of MineCraft is still of high quality in some peoples eyes (namely mine). Getting appropriate images to fit in a 16×16 grid can be difficult, you have to compress a complex object into a small number of pixels. It takes skill to make something that looks appropriate for the setting.

    (Also I’d like to shamelessly plug my Ultima-based texture pack, hosted by Ultima Aiera! I’d post a link but it seems like bad manners)

    Generally though, with indie games, it tends to be the first point (sort of) that I base my buying decisions around. I tend to check strategy, RPG and similar games more often than any other categories though, but that’s my particular niche of choice (one that is cruelly under-served by the mainstream)

    I’d also suggest you check out Kieron Gillen and Cliff Harris’ videos from World Of Love, the indie developer conference (if you haven’t already). They have a lot of content about marketing, use of the media and so forth, which is a good additional thing for indie developers to be aware of. Because once you’ve made that brilliant Game X, if nobody knows about it, you aren’t going to make any money! http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/tag/world-of-love/

    I’d suggest that this is related, because there could be indie games out there that fulfil all of your criteria, and yet you may never have heard of them.

    There are so many games produced it is hard to keep on top of things!

  • Bad Sector said,

    And to add a bit of a opposite “force” to the topic, in your pursuit for innovation please don’t break what works 🙂

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    “And sometimes I wonder how much sooner I would have been done with FK if I didn’t post five+ times per week.”

    Probably even less, because the monotony would have driven you crazy. 😛 So don’t worry about it.

    On the topic of game development tools, it just happens that I published a two parter about it this weekend. And I have a question: Unity3D really is as easy to use as they claim?

  • skavenhorde said,

    Ugghhh I just got done with a mile long post over at rpgwatch discussing this very issue.

    My take on it is if they try to improve what has been established then I’ll be a happy camper. For example: AOD improves upon C&C immensely. They aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but they are trying to perfect it.

    Now on the other hand it can get too much of the same. Like Din’s Curse. I don’t like that game at all because it’s basically just a Diablo clone. However, Depths of Peril was sublime. It offered something interesting and new into the mix.

    So either try to improve something by making it just a bit better or throw in some new awesome gameplay feature like the factions in Depths of Peril.

  • Tweets that mention Indie Games: Be More Indie Please -- Topsy.com said,

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Darin Pope, Andreas Panos, Barry, Dan, Ray Wenderlich and others. Ray Wenderlich said: Advice for indie game makers: be more indie, please (via @RampantCoyote): http://ow.ly/3KyHN […]

  • sascha said,

    “designed by committee”

    I feel that most new mainstream games are affected by this. They seem to be made by a committee of graphics card manufacturers.

    Other than that I agree with all your points. I’m glad I got at least three game ideas in the cooker that cover all your points. Now I only need to realize them *groan*!

    One other thing I’d like to mention on this occasion is that you ‘shouldn’t kill your favorites”! A friend some days ago told me that one should be able to “kill his favorites” to be able to finish projects. After some thinking I disagree with this however. Because what’s your point of making games if you kill what you love about it?! Maybe there are some people who want to make games just for the money or because it’s currently hip but for me the single most important requirement about creating games is passion! And passion comes from something you love. If you kill this, how can you still have passion for it?! Don’t kill your favorites, foster them!

  • jaes said,


    I think either you or your friend have misunderstood the term “Kill your favorites” (or kill your darlings, as it’s usually called).

    The point is not to kill the core ideas. The point is to kill the stuff that keeps the player/reader/etc. from experiencing your art/product as intended. E.g. streamlining the game, keeping the focus, etc.

    More on the subject here:

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, that’s my understanding of the term too – a writer (or game designer) may be attached to a particularly lovely part of the their work which – often the scene or concept that was the inspiration for the whole thing – which in the end detracts rather than adds. It basically means to be humble enough to axe that parts that don’t work, no matter how much you’ve personally invested in them.

    That’s a danger of being too much of a “lone wolf” indie — you may not have that support structure in place to help you recognize when such things need to be culled out.

  • sascha said,

    Yup, I’m aware of that term, kill your darlings but I think what my friend meant was to kill the stuff that you are (too) attached to. In this case the stuff is a rather ambitious RPG project of mine. If I’d be not attached to it, I could throw it all out of the window right away and stop making games.