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GDC Report – Monday

From February 28 to March 4, I spent most of each day at the Game Developer’s Conference at the Moscone Center. I took in a massive number of sessions and lectures. Here’s the chronological list of what I did, and what I learned from each event.

Monday: Indie Gaming Summit

The Humble Indie Bundle

This panel discussed how the Humble Indie Bundle came to be, and their learnings from pricing the bundle. If you’re unfamiliar, the Humble Indie Bundle is a website that, for the last two holiday seasons, has offered a bundle of Indie computer games for any price. You enter any value, from $0.01 to infinity, and get your games.

Interesting points:

It took about 6 months from the concept of the Bundle to actually launching the website.

Bundle 1 sold $250,000 in the first 24 hours, and made $1.27 million total.

Bundle 2 sold $500,000 in the first 24 hours, and made $3 million total.

Mac and Linux represented about 50% of the revenue, despite being much less of the total in terms of bundles sold. Moral: Support Linux, those guys are willing to pay for your games.

For HIB2, they did a promo where you also got HIB1 if you donated more than the current average. Unsurprisingly, their average saw a huge boost!

Marketing: It’s not hard to get on sites like Digg or Reddit. You just need a compelling story that people will want to share.

Care and Feeding of your Indie Game Studio

The first part of this session was a sort of mini-rant at casual game portals, for accepting too many games, having too many clones on them, and reducing the quality to the point where people couldn’t find the gems. It sounds a lot like the iPhone these days.

You can do low-risk indie development. Make a small game. Use the proceeds to make a bigger game. Use those proceeds to make a bigger game. It’s very slow, but you can do it without selling out.

Think of your products in terms of IPs – the individual products/SKUs don’t matter. On that note, port your game to as many platforms as you can, too.

The trick is to get your game to stick anywhere. If your game does okay everywhere, but does great on Android, you can leverage that, cross-promoting to other platforms.

Don’t outsource your game design and development, but you can outsource translations.

He recommended that indies don’t start on Facebook. It’s too easy for other companies to buy your users away from you.

Feel free to try different business models: packaged, freemium, subscription. Who knows, maybe one will work!

Perfect a single mechanic, publish it, and keep improving it. Pretty soon you’ve got a really good game.

Innovative design protects you from cloning, gives your games a long lifespan, and gets you more media attention. Go for innovation!

Keep it small, keep it all!

Game Design By Accidents

Some classic games, such as Tetris and SimCity, came from accidents. The designer was working on a different idea, and stumbled across something interesting – like “rotating pieces is fun!” or “the level creation is more interesting than the game. Hmm.”

The speaker suggested you start coding before you have a really solid game idea. Just start messing with code. Eventually, you’ll stumble across something interesting and fun, and that will launch you into a game.

An extra bonus is that, when you stumble across a neat feature while coding, you don’t have to figure out how to make it happen – you already programmed it!

He suggested Ruby as a programming language that lets you make lots of interesting code quickly and see the effects.

Super Meat Boy Meatmortem

Super Meat Boy was just the right project at the right time: they wanted to do something for consoles, and Meat Boy was doing well as a Flash game. Super Meat Boy was just going to be a small test, but then they discovered they had something compelling, and decided to expand it.

On conventions: going to cons and preparing demos for shows can totally mess up your schedule, but they’re good for your confidence when you see people having fun with your game.

Another lesson they learned is to do your own promotion as much as possible. You should get outside promotion as much as possible, but don’t rely on it. Microsoft made a bunch of promises to Team Meat, and they pretty much all fell through…but Super Meat Boy was successful because Team Meat had gone out and made themselves visible, and drummed up excitement on their own.

Leave Enough Room

Designing games with enough room for the player to express themselves. The speaker defined expression as any time a player makes a choice from a range of valid options. The trick to games is to give enough valid options that the player can choose from. Character appearance is an easy one, as long as there are many good choices. Same with weapon selection – as long as you can finish every mission with every weapon, then weapon selection is an expression of a player’s personality. It’s interesting to think of expression as meaning more than just ‘branching storylines.’

Don’t tell the player what to do. Score can be dangerous in this sense: making one path worth more indicates that it’s the ‘right’ way to play.

Lower the minimum threshold for success. Allow any idea to be successful with effort, but also allow the player to go above and beyond the minimum requirements if they want.

Make elements that are agnostic, and react to the player’s actions. Is this character a friend or enemy? Is this item a tool, or a hazard? It depends on what the player is doing.

Give the player tools to say things. Or to phrase it more technically, empower the user to generate data. Then, react to that data. Let the player see what they made, share their choices, and give unique gameplay reactions or events based on their style.

Turning Depression into Inspiration

Indies work long hours, often alone, on repetitive tasks. It’s not surprising that they get depressed. However, indies can’t afford depression – making games is what they do, and you can’t just say “I don’t feel like being fun this month.”

Depression is self-reinforcing. You feel worthless, so you don’t want to do anything. But then you haven’t done anything, and you feel worthless.

Ways to combat depression:

Highly rewarding projects. Get to the gameplay. Do a project you love working on. Don’t get bogged down in details. Just be careful – it’s easy to do all the fun stuff on a project first, then have nothing but months of slog left before it can ship.

Create progressive gameplay. Progressive gameplay can be played at any time; you just keep adding features to it to make it more fun. On the contrary, complete gameplay needs to be fully developed and realized before you can try it out. As an example, in a platformer, you just need to code in movement and jumping, and you can start trying it out. But to really try out an RTS, you need resources, resource units, buildings, a building queue, unit production, unit pathfinding, attacking, tech trees, fog of war, etc.

Work on awesome ideas, stuff you really believe in. Design for yourself, and enjoy your day to day work. What do you love? What do you hate? Use your personal skills and interests, and express them in the game – and create a design that doesn’t require things you hate. (Don’t like doing server code? Don’t make a multiplayer game!)

Stop being a perfectionist. You’ll never get anywhere if you aim to make the perfect game. Get other people playing your game. Call another designer you know, and ask them how they’d solve the issue you’re stuck on.

Get on Steam and play indie game demos. You’ll get new ideas, and you may find that the quality bar for a finished title is lower than you thought.

Measure the hours you spend on the game. The speaker recommended Procrastitracker. When you’re depressed, it’s easy for your work hours to start shrinking, without you even realizing it.

A game is the result of thousands of choices. When you’re an indie developer, all of those choices are yours, and every choice is affected by your mood, no matter how much you try to avoid it. Game design is experience design, and expression is an experience. Let your experience come through – make a dark game if you need to – and let your depression carry your design until you climb out of it.

From AAA to Indie

Stories of developers who went indie after being in the industry for a while.

Jake Kazdall from Skulls of the Shogun laid out the pros and cons: you avoid executive mismanagement and gain creative control, but you take a huge financial risk! Also, you’ll have to go outside your comfort zone. As an indie, you’re doing art, programming, PR, business development…you can’t be just an effects animator or whatever anymore.

Jake emphasized style guides. Create a vision, then document it. Keeps everyone on the same page, and helps anyone new get up to speed quickly.

Build a brand. Market the idea of your game, and market yourself. As an indie, your success is entirely dependent on you!

Show your game to people. Watch them play. It’s easy to accidentally make a game that only the developers can play.

Old cartoons are a great visual style for 2D games – characters that are distinctive, even on a fuzzy black and white TV.

Create a vertical slice: take a piece of the game and make it perfect, to understand how long the perfection process is going to take for the rest of the game. Another developer later at GDC also mentioned vertical slice, but he recommended keeping the visuals and gameplay separate: make a polished piece of gameplay, and a polished visual presentation, but they don’t need to be the same project. The reason he gave was to be able to keep as much of the vertical slice work as possible, and to throw away as little as possible.

Get playable! A good playable game is better than a hundred great unplayable ones.

Daniel Cook from Spry Fox stepped up next, recommending a portfolio approach to indie game development. Have several games in development, so you’re not relying entirely on the luck of one game – and it’s more interesting to move back and forth between projects.

Get people onto your own website. Web portals can get you started, but players coming directly to your website gives you a bigger piece of the pie.

Too many designers are like too many cooks. Have one designer, and just follow your instincts.

Teams should try to iterate daily – have something new to show every day, and play it. Every iteration is an opportunity to find the fun and cut out the problems.

Most games are disposable experiences. Building a long-term, meaningful hobby is hard. Ask yourself: will anyone play my game in 10 years? Multiplayer and community features are very important, but not many indie devs know back-end development. Developers who know back-end/multiplayer code are gods.

To hire new people: give them a short project, test them out. See if they have the skills…but more importantly, do they finish the project?

Great teammates are reliable, can see the big picture, work well with others, and respect the game designer (and don’t constantly try to insert their own design ideas into the game without asking.)

Great teams make the impossible possible. Sometimes it’s good to look at the games of today, and ask, “What is impossible…and how can we make it happen?”

Also, Realm of the Mad God is really good. And addictive.

Ichiro Lambe, from Dejobaan Games.

His advice:

Think holistically – meaning ‘as a whole system.’ It’s often said that indies wear many hats. How can you make your many hats into one hat?

For example, you might have to do both marketing and customer service. However, if you can think of them as the same task – communicating with people outside the company – it helps you understand how they’re connected, and lets you do more with less effort.

Tie marketing into design. Marketing is not “convincing people who weren’t going to buy your game to buy your game.” The best marketing is to create a product that people want – to make something so wonderful that people will give you money and talk about it. You can save a lot of time and money by making a game that can make an impression without being forced in front of people.

Pick a game you want to make, AND a game people want. Follow your instincts…but also listen to the market’s instincts, too.

Next, he emphasized planning. Trust that your team is competent, but also understand that creative people need budgets, plans, and schedules. Make sure you allocate time for postmortems, too; understand why a plan worked or didn’t, then put it aside and move on to the next plan. Learning takes time.

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