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).

 

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?