Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Games With Personality

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 19, 2012

If you go to the main website for Rampant Games, you’ll see the slogan on the header: “Games with Personality.”

I came up with that several years ago when I was trying to distinguish the value for indie games compared to their big-budget cousins. With so many mainstream games available for cheap in the ol’ bargain bin (this was long before the appearance of GOG.COM and many similar services offering old mainstream games for really cheap, though Steam and a few others were already there), it was clear indie games couldn’t compete on price alone.  This challenge has not gotten at all easier over time.

While some indie games are extremely innovative and fresh, it’s not like the creativity fairy uniquely blesses all those (and only those) with who call themselves an “indie,” either. In fact, many indies have achieved success by simply catering to a pretty well-defined, straightforward niche (albeit an under-represented one).  Sure, they do what they can, but the current narrative in games journalism notwithstanding, indie isn’t limited to artsy, experimental stuff. Not even a little. Never has been. As I was coming up with the slogan in the midst of the era when indie was rapidly becoming synonymous with casual games, this wasn’t going to stick.

But it really hit home when I was comparing the two RPGs which (at the time) had just been released – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Aveyond. As much as I enjoyed Oblivion, it seemed more generic and bland than its predecessors. Aveyond, on the other hand, was exploding with flavor and really seemed to reveal it’s authorship. It had personality – partly a reflection of its creator, and partly its own.  This concept really struck home to me, and I found that in a field that is more defined (IMO) by its diversity, this was as close a point of commonality as I was likely to find. And it was also a big part of the appeal.

It made me think back to my younger years playing dice-and-paper RPGs with a variety of game masters. Yeah, some kinda sucked. And in a lot of cases, it wasn’t the GM running the game so much as the players themselves that defined the gaming experience. But there was a lot of fun to be had in that raw variety, and I enjoyed some unique and thrilling games from some very talented amateurs. Maybe I was just lucky to get some really good GMs and groups, but those were great experiences.

I’ve noticed lately that this topic has come up a bit lately. Some studios get it, and are actively making an effort to allow their team to express themselves in their games, in spite of them being such a collective effort. It’s hard to do with a large studio. Very hard. Not only is it more difficult for authorship to get lost in the crowd of a large team effort, but large teams also demand large budgets. With so many stakeholders (managers, stockholders, marketers, etc.) involved on so many committees worried about maximizing sales, there’s a lot of pressure to minimize anything that might limit its appeal to the lowest common denominator.  All sharp edges must be filed off. And because publishers cannot own people, only IP, there’s even a deliberate effort by many publishers to scrub away any vestiges of individual authorship. This way they can better avoid the negative effects of swapping teams for future titles in the series, or having a signature designer leave the studio and take his fan-base with him.

It’s something that I noticed declining in mainstream games on a subconscious level over the years, and had trouble putting my finger on it for a long time, simply wondering “why don’t they make games like they used to.” It wasn’t just nostalgia; a little bit of retro-gaming helped serve up a big portion of that personal expression, good and bad, and it contrasted against similar modern offerings. I’m not saying that modern mainstream games are devoid of personality or a feeling of authorship, but there’s definitely a trend towards things getting too even, too balanced, too clean-and-polished, too deliberate.  I am not alone in this feeling. Even amongst mainstream developers. But it’s a natural tendency as budgets, teams, and stakes have grown.

Granted, I sometimes run afoul of those “sharp edges” in indie games, myself. And there are some personalities that really don’t appeal to me very much. That’s the risk. The small indie teams don’t have much choice -they don’t have the layers of committees and meetings and focus groups and so forth. They don’t need to appoint some vision-keeper to keep the focus and spirit of the game alive through the development ordeal because they already have one by default. It’s simply a natural result of tiny, fully independent teams.

This is what keeps me excited about indie games. This was what I thought was the most valuable message of Indie Game: The Movie. It’s what makes an Aldorlea RPG fundamentally different from an Amaranth RPG, even though they do share the same audience and game engine, or a Spiderweb game from a similarly-inspired Basilisk game.  It’s why I get so enthusiastic about upcoming releases from these indies that I’ve come to be acquainted with – if only on a very informal, Internet-only way. It’s a human connection between the creators and their audiences in an exciting medium.

I want games with personality.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Albert1 said,

    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of the “4000 true fans” (copyright (c) Jeff Vogel) each indie developer would like to reach are indie wannabe developers themselves. This, in my opinion, explains why they are generally more indulgent regarding low quality assets, etc: they feel reassuring to see that someone is doing fine with few resources, as they’d like to do – they probably don’t recognize the recursive part of the thing: indie dev is doing fine with less because of his/her true fans indie wannabe that are happy to see that indiev dev is doing fine with less because…
    This suggests the importance, as an indie, to have a blog, a technical one: true fans indie wannabe are usually really happy to read about the behind-of-the-scenes part of the thing. This even relates to your previous post on GSB: it clearly wasn’t my kind of game, but I found Cliffski blog very interesting (I still read it) and, after some time, I decided to give GSB a try… and I didn’t like it, hence I didn’t buy it. Nonetheless, I consider it a win for Cliffski: often, the hard part is to convince people to even try your game.

  • Anon said,

    Good thinking, Albert.

    And I actually see this as a positive thing!

    You know, back in the eighties almost every homecomputer owner was programming a bit in BASIC and some even in assembly language (or combining the stuff).

    Of course most of that was crap or at least unsuccessful – as it is today – but people got a lot of knowledge that way and gaining knowledge is never bad.
    Lots of the “stars” of the nineties also came from these roots so lots of indie programmers today mean more ace game programmers tomorrow.

  • necronomicon said,

    Amaranth Games are most notably wayyyy more girly than Aldorlea Games.
    Both are pretty awesome though, very good stuff if you like retro RPG.