Independent Game Design: A Pep Talk

Indie Game Development Dreams

(This is a space for would-be game designers. All the “insights” herein are based on an insatiable passion for games, and a deep desire to learn how to make them. That aside, I have no idea what I’m talking about. And yet I do. Because passion is everything. Probably. Oh, fuck-it; just listen to what I have to say. You’re on the site anyway. Sheesh.)

Any creative endeavor is fraught with self-doubt, especially if you’re developing something that requires you to do the prep-work, or first iteration alone. Is your idea good? Will people like it? Should I even tell anyone for fear they’ll reject it? The less people involved in a project, the more lonely these initial stages can be. Typically, you’ll sit by yourself working on that adventure draft for hours before you play test it. Sometimes people collaborate. But even then; self-doubt is not your friend, and even teams suffer from a lack of confidence. If you’re the leader or manager, you can’t afford to express your fear. You need to be the example, and this itself can be a lonely place.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stuff out there that frankly, and often needlessly, fuels self-doubt. People will tell you that you’ll never make any money, that the game design life is hard, that it’ll take up all your time. The list goes on. I’ve never really seen the point of such advice. I suppose they’re important ‘reality checks.’ But when does any creative type really care about reality? It’s not going to stop anyone worth their salt from creating something they want to create, because frankly those who want to make art do so out of need, or at least a very intense form of desire. Sure, there are those whose priority is money and success, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if that’s their driving force, they rarely make anything I care about. Consumers can smell disingenuous products a mile away.

Still, I find myself having a visceral reaction to negative perspectives, mostly because I struggle from fear and self-doubt. In the past these problems have stopped me doing things that I love to do, and have derailed my life in several ways. So, it irritates me when I bump into a naysayer. But that’s a product of my personal demons. And for anyone like me, I want to provide an alternative perspective on the perils and pleasures of being an indie developer. I’m not much of a “pep-talk” kind of guy, but I suppose that’s what this is. I’m arguing that despite it all, regardless of the obstacles, if you truly love something, you should go anyway–caution signs be damned. Almost every million dollar idea began with a host of people saying it couldn’t be done. Is that a cliche? Yes. Did I steal it from someone else? Probably. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Anyone Can Make a Game

 

SMXLL

In recent years, with the advent of new technologies and their falling prices–both hardware and software–it’s now possible for anyone to create and distribute a product without a huge team of employees and marketers. This hold true for writers of source books or adventures who can now self-publish their work in pdf format with little to no production overhead. Video game designers, providing they haul ass, have access to easy to use programs that minimize the need to code–check out Game Maker, for an example. And everyone can showcase their work online (see Drive Thru RPG for paper examples). This fact is what we need to focus on. We can make games! Relatively easily. We can do what no generation before us has been able to do. This is amazing.

But just because people can make stuff, does that mean they have any hope of reaching an audience? The idea of market saturation says no. It can and it can’t be done.

Market Saturation

The market is saturated. Just because there are now more developers, and more people able to make games, doesn’t mean the market has grown too. There isn’t necessarily a correlation between what’s available and what people can afford, both in terms of time and finances.This is a problem if you’re focused on money and success. No doubt. Steam games don’t sell that much. It’s harder to get noticed.

But let’s look at this reality from a more positive perspective. More products means more competition. Consumers have more options. Your shit needs to be good. Even though the market hasn’t necessarily grown, the number of quality products on it has. When I can buy an indie classic like Hyper Light Drifter for $20 or so bucks–less during a sale–and people are telling me it’s as good as anything out there, then I’m going to tempted away from paying $60 on a AAA title like God Of War. This means the AAA game has to be damn good. And it also means indie games have to be damn good. And all that damn goodness is going to translate to quality and innovation.  Both games I mentioned are awesome by the way). The need to stand out from the crowd puts impetus on everyone to do better.

So yes, the market is clearly saturated, but that saturation has a positive upswing. And the fact is, this article, and my blog in general, is aimed at people more interested in quality than quantity. That being said…

We All Want to be Famous

Okay, not all of us. But we do want to sell. Why? Because few people create without hoping that their creations will be experienced by others. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. Emily Dickinson was ambivalent about being published, and Franz Kafka ordered his friend Max Brod to burn all his work after his death. Thankfully, both writers ended up getting out there and literature was changed forever.

Most of us, aside from not being Dickinsons or Kafkas, are interested in being seen. This is especially true for game designers. Why make a game nobody will play, or a film nobody will watch, no matter how good it is. That’s why commercialism is so attractive. Sure I’m making crap, but I’m making crap people will watch.

We also want to make money–not for money’s sake, but because it enables us to what we love full time. If you offered me ten million dollars on the proviso I’d never work again, or one million to spend on what I want to do, I’d take the second option in a heartbeat.

It’s naive, and probably dishonest, to pretend a certain degree of success doesn’t matter. And thus the realities of the saturated industry can be daunting.

So, what if we want money and success, and hear we’re not going to get it. Why bother?

Necessary Existentialism

SLXLM

Why? Why are we here? Why is there something and not nothing? Why does God seem to enjoy fucking with us. Why do anything at all?

You can fall into the wormhole pretty quickly if you ask why too much. And yet any serious artist should ask that question a lot during the creative process–most importantly at the start. That’s my opinion. But it’s true. No arguing please.

Why am I making this? If it’s money and success, the negs have a good point. There’s no guarantee that’s going to happen, and in the world of paper game making there’s next to no chance.  It’s less important to focus on this negative reality than on your motives to begin with. It’s a matter of definitions. What do you mean by money and success. Do you want to make millions off your indie project, and reach the same number of people? Or are you content making enough to pay the bills, or fund your next project, or even just put some extra cash in your pocket as a nice side product of doing what you love? And when you consider your audience, is it enough that a few good people play and see your game, or do you need mass recognition? Sometimes a single positive review, or an award is enough to satisfy the needs of the designer. These are reasonable goals, and they are attainable.

With paper gaming this is even easier. You can easily find play-testers for your project. Most gaming groups need DMs more than they need players–someone who puts in the time and does the heavy lifting. And usually they’ll be more than happy to test out your homebrew creations. A lot of people even prefer them to more conventional published material. The very act of having a group enjoy your stuff, even if it’s only five or six people, can be extremely rewarding. You’ll rarely lack an audience as a paper game designer. It might not be huge, but it’ll be there.

Bringing it All Back Home

SLXLM

 

This post has been somewhat unfocused. That’s okay. I needed to write it, just as I have a need to make games. And make no mistake, this is need, not desire. When I don’t do it, I’m unhappy. Regardless of my reasons, I hope I’ve inspired people to take a positive rather than negative perspective. Instead of focusing on somebody else’s expectations and definitions, forge your own. Instead of seeing the market as a daunting, over-crowded obstacle, view it as the impetus to get damn good. And that’s what this is about–making something your proud of. Unless you care about your product, nobody else is going to.

I also hope I’ve been realistic. At the start of this article I joked that creative types don’t usually care for reality. This is true to an extent. But fear thrives on unrealistic expectations. Positive thinking is pragmatic thinking. When your creating, stick your head in the sky. When you’re thinking about living life, dream big, but be practical.

And this is all, really, just a letter to myself–a personal pep-talk. Maybe it helped you. I hope so. This is my goal. It begins with the personal benefits of creating, and ends with the communal benefits–the hope that some way I can be useful.

So go anyway.

(Here’s a Rolling Stone article that’s a combination of positive or negative. There’s a lot of nay-saying here, but the final message is on point).

 

Things I Learned from: The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.

If you want to learn how to design games, you have to play them–a bunch of them. But playing alone is not enough; you have to think about what made the game good, bad or indifferent. This series does just that.

 

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, a reboot of The Binding of Isaac (which started as a flash web game), is good. Very good. It’s play for hours longer than you expect to good. And, maybe most importantly, play until you’ve squeezed the last breath of life from it good. (Much in the same way that Isaac’s mother wants to squeeze the last ounce of breath from her son). Yeah, the game is kind of messed up.

I’ll explain. It’s a rogue-lite indie title, in which the protagonist’s religious fanatic mother hears the voice of God telling her to kill her son. Isaac escapes into the basement of what apparently is the scariest house in the universe, and finds his way through some caverns, (because this house has caverns). Eventually he ends up against mamma herself. Who he kills. In your second play through, you climb through your dead mother’s womb and…

So, what did I learn from it?

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic

ONE

Aesthetics make your game stand out. There are dozens of rogue-lite, randomly generated games these days. Plenty of them are dungeon crawlers, and some of them are top-down shooters, in which you collect a bunch of power-ups to offset the insane difficulty that is a staple of the genre. But none of these games is The Binding of Isaac. Why? Because Isaac has a truly original, or at least less familiar, aesthetic. When I say aesthetic, I’m using a fancy word to describe the overall feel of the game, as rendered by the interplay of graphics, art design, and sound design. The Binding of Isaac’s aesthetic is twisted to say the least.

Isaac is a cute, wide-eyed, globular thing with a permanently terrified expression, which makes it all the more horrible when the grotesque enemies–including animated poos and sphincter mouthed flying things–kill him. The fact that everything is cartoonish adds to this effect. It’s funny and upsetting at the same time, and I can’t think of many games that have achieved this kind of off-beat horror. It’s the kind of title that won’t necessary scare you, but might give you nightmares.

 

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic

 

TWO

Give the players inches. Like many games these days, those part of the post-Demon Souls, hard as nails renaissance, the monsters in Isaac’s basement will kill you. A lot. Puddles of slime will kill you. Flaming torches will kill you. Flies that are also bombs will kill you. The game requires practice. I’m not a particularly great gamer, so maybe the ten hours it took me to “kill mom” for the first time was an anomaly. But overall, you’re going to rack up hours finally finishing a run that in truth only requires half-an-hour of actual game time.

But The Binding of Isaac kept drawing me back because it gave me an inch on a regular basis. An inch, by the way, is not a unit of measurement used in many of the world’s societies. On the contrary, it’s an official gamic term for making enough progress to create the illusion that you are improving little-by-little, and are thus accomplishing something in life.

I’m ornery, and get easily frustrated. I’m also weighed down by the existential burden of life in general. The last thing I want to do with my free-time is experience yet another series of crushing failures through which I learn the ultimate meaningless of an indifferent universe that cares little about whether you live or die. I want something! Games like The Binding of Isaac give it to me, if only in small doses. But it’s enough to keep me playing, and to temporarily assuage the constant desire to cry myself to sleep.

 

 

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic

 

 

 

THREE

Secrets are addictive. There are a ton of secrets in the game–secret passages you blow in walls, secret characters to unlock, secret items that appear once certain conditions are met. Explaining too much about this would ruin the fun. So, I’m not going to. From a game design perspective, all these hidden ‘achievements’ make the game infinitely replayable. As I said earlier, after the initial difficulty, it is possible to get through a play through in less that an hour. The randomly generated dungeon design helps keep things varied, but it’s the unexpected surprises you can unlock that add something. The game doesn’t give you many hints in this regard, and you often find things by accident, at which point the game will say “x (usually a vaguely weird or horrifying descriptor) has been locked in the basement or another level).” This gets you to wonder a) what is x, and b) where the hell can I find it, and c) what is it going to do to me when I do? There’s nothing particularly original about this design element, but it’s one younger gamers and designers might not be so familiar with. Before games had save points, beating them in one sitting was a necessity, and to get your bang for your buck you needed a reason to play the game again. Secrets were these reason. They continue to be this reason. And reason is good in an indifferent world.

 

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic

FOUR

You can make some pretty salient emotional statements without being heavy-handed, and/or allowing story to eclipse game play. The Binding of Isaac is most definitely a gamer’s game. More than anything else, it demands reflex, hand-eye coordination skills, and a good deal of patience. There might be a little strategy, but overall the game is of the old-school, learn how to play well variety. Iit still has a story, and it still deals with heavy subject matter–heavier than most heavily cinematic AAA titles.

This is about a religious fanatic wanting to kill her son because God tells her to. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ll know where this story comes from: The Book of: Wow! That’s Pretty Fucked-Up. The religious critique is inherent. As is the general feeling that abusing and killing children is wrong. Not that anyone but a sociopath needs this explicitly stated, but the game still makes you feel for Isaac. It’s funny, but it’s also heart-breakingly sad. Take the fact that Isaac shoots his enemies with his tears, for example. When you stop to think about it, that’s really sad, and it’s especially sad for me because, full disclosure, my two-year-old’s name is Isaac. Although, I assure you, God never told me to sacrifice him (yet), and he’s not a globular white sack.

Also, when you die, the game over screen is a crudely scrawled “will” that Isaac leaves to his cat. It details Isaac’s possessions (the items you found along the way), and a brief doodle of the ‘thing’ that killed him. Very sad. Kind of funny. Similarly, in the loading screens between levels you see that Isaac was bullied, and generally lived a kind of sucky life, which isn’t as heavy as it sounds, because the game definitely doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it made me feel things. And feeling things is good. I guess?

 

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic

 

FIVE?

Poo is terrifying. Seriously. There’s shit everywhere in this game, and for some reason it wants to kill you. (Oddly enough, there are few rats in this basement). But that’s beside the point. The designer definitely had some issues in the anal stage of his development, and he’s put them to good use. But the poo. Yeah.

 

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is an indie game classic

 

UM…..

Okay, the last “point” was a non-point. But I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to write.

The Binding of Isaac is a hidden gem. And since it’s 2018 most of you probably know this. I’m always late to the party when it comes to jumping on bandwagons. But once I jump I’m usually not disappointed. Except with Stardew Valley. That game put me to sleep.

So what’s the takeaway from this? I’ll go back to the first point. Aesthetic. A lot of games are good mechanically, and from a strict design perspective. Few games are truly memorable. They’re far from a waste of time, but after the title screen fades it’s onto the next thing. A great game has a great “feel” to it AND great mechanics. You need both. The game Lisa has an amazing “feel”, but I didn’t love the gameplay.

This truth applies to any game your making. Even if your working on a traditional fantasy or sci-fi setting, you need to find a way to give it that little something extra. And if you can make it deeply disturbing then you get bonus points. With me at least. Normal people will probably just assume you belong in some kind of institution.

So…Think of a way to make even tried and tested game mechanics seem different, even if it’s not: i.e. have the gun be a little boy’s tears. It’s basically a gun, but you won’t forget it. Make this mechanics jive with the concept in a cool away (again the tears). And when somebody tells you your idea is ludicrous–as ludicrous as a top-down shooter about a child trying to kill his mother, then you know you’re on the right track.

Sanity never did an artist any good.

 

NOTE: Ed McMillen, the twisted genius behind The Binding of Isaac, is developing a card game (non-digital) based on Isaac’s adventures. More information can be found at Kickstarter. Yup. Check out a couple of images below:

 

The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls, by Ed McMillen

The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls

 

 

Dread

Dread, created by Epidiah Ravachol from Dig a Thousand Holes Publishing, is rules-light horror and supports any sub-genre–slasher, zombie, vampire, cosmic, weird, occult etc.. It doesn’t use dice, and instead of the traditional character sheet with lists of stats and equipment, players create their avatars by answering a list of questions prepared by the DM (usually a dozen or so). The questions afford a certain amount of freedom–enough for the players to feel they’re crafting something unique–but they also enable the DM to “lead” the party in a certain direction by establishing set parameters and interpersonal relationships before the game begins (I’ve included a sample questionnaire at the end of this post so you get the idea). The DM can decide the party is going to have x females and y males and that at least one character is a paranormal psychologist, as reflected in the questions he or she asks. Otherwise the rest is up to the players.  In addition to background info, the questionnaires also suggest skills the characters might possess, as well as weaknesses they suffer from. There’s no set inventory but the questionnaires often ask “what is in your pockets”, or “what items have you packed for the trip.”

Play proceeds much like any other RPG. The DM describes a situation and the players react by describing what they’d like to do. And this is where things get interesting. If the proposed task is simple enough–open a door, jump a short distance, apply a bandage to a shallow cut–then the DM usually tells the players that they succeed. But if the task at hand is more complex–something that has the possibility to fail–all eyes fall on ‘The Tower.’

 

Jenga in Dread the Indie Game

The Tower is a fully assembled Jenga set, placed in an easily accessible place on the table, but somewhere stable, where it is unlikely to be accidentally knocked over. To succeed on a difficult task the player makes a “pull”, which is exactly what it sounds like. They try and take a block from the tower and if it falls they’re out of the game. They don’t necessarily die. They might go mad, or have an unexpected accident, or find out a loved one at home is sick and have to rush away (I’m getting these examples from the rule book). But for whatever reason, they’re out of the scenario. If a task is particularly difficult, the players may be called on to make multiple pulls. The number of pulls can also be used to determine degrees of success or failure. For example, when applying first aid to a serious wound, more successful pulls means better treatment and less eventual impediment to the injured party.

The tower is not specific to any one character. The precariousness of each pull is necessarily predicated on the pulls made by previous players. In this regard the tower is a metaphor for the overall sense of dread and suspense that pervades over the scenario. Everyone is in this together, and the further they descend into the horror, the more tense and dangerous things get–for everyone.

It’s an astounding mechanic. No matter how far player’s attentions have drifted from the scenario, as soon as someone is called on to make a pull, everyone snaps back to the intensity of the present moment. In my game, one particular family member wasn’t taking things too seriously, and in any other horror game this might have ruined things. But thanks to the tower, the tense, frightening atmosphere persisted. The rule book gives suggestions for how to pace the number of pulls over the course of a given scenario, although it assumes that a certain number of players are going to die.

And that’s my only problem with the game. Early death. As the scenario progressed and I began to think about how the tower was suffering, and the player’s position deteriorating, it became apparent that someone might die long before the scenario ended. Like any other RPG Dread session can take hours, and the system has no mechanic to include those who are forced to sit out at an early–or even mid–stage. It’s true that it’s a fun game to watch, to participate in the tension of watching others work on the tower, but not so much so that one will be willing to do so for the two hours remaining in a long game.

One potential fix for this, I thought, would be to give each person their own tower–perhaps a mini travel Jenga–but I fear this goes against the core philosophy of the game–the metaphor of the tower as collectively applicable to the group. The other possibility is that in the early portions of the game, the falling of the tower doesn’t signal death, but rather a set of serious drawbacks which come back to haunt the players in the final act, when death is a possibility. In my game, I decided that the tower would represent either the “good” ending or the “bad” ending. In this case, it fell and the players experienced a bleak conclusion to the story I’d prepared.

Ultimately, it’s up to a skillful DM to time and pace the pulls so that the tower doesn’t fall at a point that would ruin the game for the afflicted player. And I suppose keeping the experience fun for players, as always, supersedes even fidelity to the philosophy of the system.

It also occurs to me that the tower mechanic might have a place in certain sessions from other systems. I can imagine a one-off DnD adventure when I could place players in a horrifying situation in which they might be driven mad, but instead of using the optional rules for insanity found at the back of the DM’s Guide, I’d employ the Dread mechanic. There’s a lot of potential here.

So how did my unsuspecting and long-suffering family like the game? I think they had a good time. As long as your non-gaming friends are okay with horror, Dread provides a perfect opportunity to introduce them to the hobby. Jenga is an immediately recognizable “casual” component, character creation is creative without being overly complicated, and the free-form nature of the rest of the rules allows a good DM enough freedom to craft the kind of adventure that can appeal to those unfamiliar with the particularities of the standard RPG experience.

 

Sample Character Creation Questionnaire

PLAYER 1

You are 35 years of age, female, married to player 2, mother of Emily (five years old).

1. What is your name?

2. Do you resent being a stay-at-home-mom, or are you proud of it? Why?

3. What is the worst thing you’ve ever done to Emily? How does remembering it make you feel?

4. List a precious or especially useful object you have packed for this trip.

5. Do you believe in the Devil? Why? Why not?

6. What part of your appearance are you most proud of?

7. What character flaw do you find most repugnant in others?

8. Why don’t you speak to your father?

9. What do you love most about your husband?

10. What do you resent most about your husband?

11. Name one physical strength.

12. What about Emily makes you most proud?

13. How did you choose Emily’s name?