This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the second in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
Spry Fox currently has several original f2p games in development, not including ports of our existing IP. Each game is being produced by wholly separate teams that are geographically dispersed, using different technologies and tools, under different contractual arrangements. And each team is compensated entirely via their future royalty; none are being paid cash in advance.
While we won’t know for a while to come whether our development strategy has been wise or flawed, we’ve already learned a great deal about the ideal composition of small, geographically-dispersed development teams. Some of our active teams have exceeded our expectations in terms of game quality and development time, while some are significantly behind where we expected them to be by now. A few of the characteristics shared (or not) by the high-performing and slower groups may obvious to you, and some may surprise you:
That’s what my friend Brian replied when I told him that no one in Microsoft’s target audience would purchase an Xbox plus Kinect for a minimum price of $300 when they either A) own a Wii already, or, B) can purchase a Wii (with MotionPlus, Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort) for just $200. Brian, as I frequently must admit, is a perceptive fellow.
People are indeed very willing to pay for magic. They have lined up around the block to pay $500 minimum for a slice of magical iGoodness from Apple. They lined up to watch Avatar in 3D (multiple times.) And they — that is, we — will continue to line up for the products and services that dazzle us, recession or no.
So, if you want to know who “won” E3, perhaps one way to figure that out is to apply a magic test to the products that were unveiled there.
For a trip down memory lane, check out this old TV commercial for Super Mario Bros 2:
What I find interesting about this commercial (aside from the cheesiness) is how pure it is. Unlike its predecessor, Super Mario Bros 2 was a game about defeating your enemies by throwing stuff at them as opposed to jumping on them. So Nintendo focused their commercial almost exclusively on that aspect of the game.
If the first Super Mario game was all about “amazing jumping” (as Miyamoto has supposedly said), then the sequel added and focused on “amazing throwing.” The developers got it. The marketers got it. And not surprisingly, the rest of us got it, too.
What’s the essence of your game? Can you say it in a few words? Can everyone else you’re working with say it in a few words?
Observation #3: A polished game stands out from the crowd.
Some of the games that I played could really have used a few additional rounds of playtesting and design iteration before they were submitted to the IGF. The developers of those games would probably have been better off holding back their games until next year’s competition.
I know this can be tough to swallow. Perhaps you’ve worked long and hard on your game, and you really want some recognition for your effort. You might be counting on that recognition to help boost your marketing or business development efforts. I can imagine many an indie developer thinking, “My game isn’t perfect, but it shows a hint of something great, so I’m going for it!” And to be clear, that’s a fine attitude — if you wait until your game is “perfect,” you’ll probably never finish it! But unfortunately, some developers jump the gun and submit their games before they are truly fun, much less “perfect.”
If you’re creating a new gameplay mechanic (or an interesting twist on an old mechanic), make sure that you have implemented at least one very polished, very entertaining instance of that mechanic. A single, excellent level is better than five mediocre levels, in my opinion. Per observation #2, other developers are making me trudge through hours of tedious gameplay, so I’m going to be especially appreciative of a developer who wows me with ten short minutes of brilliance.
Of course, “very polished” doesn’t necessarily mean “short and sweet.” But many independent developers don’t have the time or resources to produce several hours of very polished gameplay, so all I’m saying is that if you can’t, you might as well err on the side of short and sweet. I’m fairly certain that you’ll be better off!
PS. Don’t forget to frequently playtest your game on other people. It doesn’t take long to lose your sense of perspective when immersed in a project; a pair of fresh eyes will significantly increase your odds of ultimately developing a polished gameplay experience. Also, for an example of a relatively simple indie game that is extremely polished, check out geoDefense (or its sequel, geoDefense Swarm) on the iPhone.
Observation #2: if at all possible, it’s best to entertain a judge from the very first minute — just like a potential customer.
Several of the games I evaluated simply weren’t very fun to start with. Some even came with explicit caveats which I will collectively paraphrase as follows: Dear judge, you must play this game for several hours before you understand why it is special.
Who wants to slog through an endless tutorial that isn’t inherently fun before actually getting to enjoy themselves? Who wants to trudge through hours of uninspired gameplay before the “magic” of the game’s design reveals itself? As a judge, I’m willing to do it because I feel obligated, but which game do you think I’ll probably give the higher score: the game that entertained me for three consecutive hours, or the game that entertained me for only the final hour out of three hours, total? With rare exception, it will be the former. And you can bet that most consumers will vote the same way with their wallets. In summary:
Long-winded, boring tutorials are bad (seems like this should be self-evident, right?)
Conversely, dumping people into a game without any explanation of how to play is also bad, unless the initial gameplay experience is very intuitive. For an example of a game that does a good job of introducing the player to the core mechanics of the game, see Braid.
Games that don’t become very interesting (or don’t reveal their “special sauce”) until the player has invested lots of time into them are not inherently “bad”, but unfortunately such games are often doomed to smaller audiences. Most people simply aren’t willing to give a game the benefit of the doubt if it doesn’t entertain them relatively immediately. Long story short, developers should think carefully about finding ways to expose their game’s “special sauce” right away.
Anyone developing an original IP for XBLA, PSN or Wiiware should take note of LucasArts’ Lucidity. Why should you take note? Because Lucidity is a truly delightful game that unfortunately showcases two of the most common “big mistakes” made by developers and publishers on XBLA. If the leaderboards are any indication, Lucidity’s sales are suffering as a result.
First, it’s worth recognizing how many things Lucidity gets right. It is beautiful, distinctive, and offers an original gameplay mechanic that actually works. Many game developers will never manage to create something that meets all three of those criteria in their entire careers. And many developers, with such a game on their hands, might assume that their success is all but assured.
There’s just two problems. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant period of time, you already know one of those problems: insufficientmarketing. Lucidity was unveiled mere weeks before it was released. No time to build consumer awareness. No time to woo the press. Nothin’.
The other problem is the game’s unforgiving design. (I won’t say the game’s “difficulty”, as something can be difficult without being unforgiving.) Lucidity lacks a checkpoint system, and that combined with a few other design issues causes the game to quickly become a punishing experience. This is apparent to players even in the demo.
It’s no accident that most modern platformers are more forgiving than their ancestors. While many XBLA and PSN users enjoy a stiff challenge, their patience is ultimately limited. Don’t let the success of a few insanely challenging retro titles fool you — those games have generally succeeded because of nostalgia, not because today’s gamer longs for the relentless butt-whooping of old.
1) Come up with a meaningful value proposition for your game. 2) Craft a gameplay experience that emphasizes that value proposition and that accommodates as many players in your target demo as possible. The latter can almost always be accomplished without noticeably diluting the gameplay experience. 3) *Repeatedly* communicate the value proposition far in advance of your game’s launch. –> These are the fundamental tricks of our trade.
A couple of months ago, Eve and I played The Maw together, and I’ve been mulling a related post ever since. The Maw, for those of you who haven’t played it, is one of the more approachable titles on XBLA. It has relatively simple controls — for a modern 3D platformer, anyway — and a cute style and theme. I’m quite fond of it. Anyway, watching Eve grapple with The Maw was enlightening, to say the least.
A bit of background for newer readers: Eve is a perfectly capable smarty-pants, but she didn’t grow up with video games and is often frustrated by the few console titles that I have introduced her to. I knew that she would have trouble with camera management in a 3D space; that’s a skill that simply needs to be learned over time. And I knew that she’d have difficulty remembering which Xbox controller buttons mapped to which in-game behaviors, even though The Maw has relatively few mappings; that’s partially an experience issue as well, and partially a consequence of the Xbox 360 controller’s near-magical ability to terrify and stupify casual gamers.
One of my biggest gripes about most online social networks that I participate in (Facebook, LIVE, etc) is the absence of functionality that takes into account how “strong” or “open” my friendship is with any given person. Fixing this is a major opportunity — if not a long-term, competitive imperative — for social networks in general, and the video game ecosystems that aspire to be legitimate social networks in specific.
We do not treat all our friends and acquaintances equally in real life, so why should social networks force us to treat our online connections in equal fashion? People need tools that enable them to selectively modify how any given user in their network can view their profile, interact with them, etc. This process of selective modification can be sped up with user-defined “friend types” that can be applied, in a stroke, to many users in a network.
For example, were such a system to be implemented for LIVE or Facebook, I would personally choose to break all my connections into three categories:
Chris Avellone was telling me about a panel on writing that he attended at Comic-con which devolved into an interesting conversation about circumventing writer’s block. That’s a challenge I struggle with all the time, so I asked him for his notes on the panel, and he was kind enough to share them with me. And now I’m sharing them with you. And you can share them with someone else, if you like. Ain’t sharing grand? PS. Many of these tactics seem as applicable to game design as they do to writing.
Go buy three magazines (games) you don’t normally read (play), then flip through them and free associate.
Grab a Gideon Bible, open it randomly and then see what it sparks.
Have three creative projects going at once so you can switch off when you get stuck with one. (For games, they shouldn’t have to be large in scope; how about having a pet flash, XNA, or mod project on the side?)
Do something else creative that doesn’t involve writing – doodling, sketching, painting, whatever.
Go workout for 30-40 min with no music and no TV, and then let the endorphins do their work.
One guy said that “writer’s block happens because you’re writing something you’re not excited about or interested in,” and he suggests that when that happens, take a step back, ask why, then charge into it in a different direction that does excite you.
Keep a collection of works that excite you. When you hit a block, go back to this library, re-read them, and remember why they excited you.