Monthly Archives: September 2010

How to be an indie and retain your sanity

This is somewhat of a funny post, but there’s truth in it, I assure you 🙂
What I’m talking about? I’m talking about how not to lose motivation or get “burned”. Getting burned is really more common than what you might think. If you consider that most indie spend months (if not years!) on the same game, is easy to understand that you can be burned.
By burned I mean that you can’t really stand anymore in front of your monitor coding your awesome game XYZ. Usually the indie game development is divided into 3 phases:

  1. game concept / design – this is the most funny part for sure. You start writing down all the possible amazing/awesome features that your game is going to have. Is easy to get things out of hand during this stage. Already at next stage you can be sure that you’ll read some of those features and think “I was nuts? How I could really think to have a full 3d walkable world??”
  2. implementation – this starts great, but as the time goes on, in 99% of cases become like any other “real job”. Bugs shows up, testers complains, you realize that what you thought would be a  great gameplay system actually sucks. Then, what you do? You necessarily have to rethink some parts completely, so you rewrite them and then start testing again, and so on. In this stage you also realize how “this quick 2 months project” will turn into a “long 9 months project” easily.
  3. polishing/release – polishing is really an IMPORTANT stage but so many people (including myself) don’t take it into much consideration. How some small little insignificant features are going to change the game sales so much? is not possible! No, you’re wrong, it is very possible 🙂 Then there’s release day and unless your game sells within a few hours you’ll start having some serious crisis.

Some people get so pissed during stage 2 or 3, that they put project on hiatus, or even abandon it completely. It might seem strange but this happened to me too in the past, with two games. One was a fantasy RPG which I was coding (I realized that was insane to do all the coding myself!) and another was a mission based shoot’em up (I realized that it was such a poor selling genre that I would have wasted my time).

There are some solutions though that can help indies to finish their project and avoid burning. Some are rather obvious, others less:

  1. take breaks from PC. Seriously, go out, take a walk, take a break of a few days, go on holiday, anything – if you’re burned, and if you’re late but insist on working you’re most likely to be burned even more and lose days doing nothing but getting stressed. Even only a small break can let you regain motivation and reduce stress.
  2. have a small side-project. This has really worked well for me. For example now I’m doing Planet Stronghold but at same time several other “minor” games. This helps me because if one day I’m too tired to code complex RPG mechanics, I can always “relax” by going on with some much simpler gameplay elements.
  3. do other tasks. When making a game there are LOT of other task beside programming it. Things that are usually easy and don’t take much time/resources. You have done the website of the game? did you setup the product in your vendor control panel? did you wrote the PR (press release)? have you blogged about it? did you contact some journalists to ask for interview/previews of the game? the list is long…
  4. outsource/find a partner. This is really useful if you’re like me, and even if you can code yourself you’re too tired to do it now. Beside, if you outsource to the right person, you’ll get a better overall result. In the beginning I was doing *everything* myself: coding, art (using poser), gamedesign… But now I have started outsourcing art already since 2 years, and next year I’m probably going to outsource coding as well, because what I do better is gamedesign. If you’re a coder, is stupid to save a few thousands and try to do yourself the art. And viceversa if you’re an artist, is stupid to waste lot of time trying to understand how to code (even with some easy tools) when you can outsource or partner with someone else.
  5. better have a smaller game finished than a big game never finished. Some indies attempt making something too big. Cut features out , as long as the main gameplay stays intact. If the smaller game works out, you can always make a sequel with all the features you cut out and the game will sell more. Some examples of this are Positech Kudos 1-2 and Democracy 1-2. Each sequel adds much more to the original game and I’m sure they sold more. So, build a smaller game to “test the waters” and if works, work on something bigger.

Planet Stronghold status of development – September 2010

I thought about writing each month a sort of mini-development diary about what is the current status of my upcoming RPG sci-fi game “Planet Stronghold”. I know it’s not the end of September yet but I am so busy recently that I can assure I won’t be able to make anything more beside what I’m going to write in this post.

So let’s start in order:

  1. at beginning of the month I thought I made the game a bit too much “casual”. There was little strategy involved in the fights, so I decided to add Action Points, several different kind of attacks, and more
  2. I then realized that, beside being a pain to code, it would have been too much “hardcore”. So I ended up with a middle solution that I believe works quite well. You have different attack types that can change a lot the course of the battle, and now each item can be used only once, then your turn ends (before you could just heal yourself completely provided you had enough healing kits in your pack)
  3. Then I started implementing the quest and side quests. I made only one so far, as a test, and I am very pleased. Before uploading the new alpha though, I’ll wait until I have written a bit more quests / main plot story, so you can try different kind of quests. I like the fact that now you can use the heroes skills to solve certain situations instead of simply jumping straight into the battle (you can still do that, of course!)
  4. like many RPGs, the game is mostly linear as far as the main plot is concerned, but the side quests are very open. You can complete them all, or you can ignore them all, as you wish. Some give very powerful reward items though, so I would advise trying to complete them all!
  5. I am now at a good point: the game engine, including the battle system and the new quest/skills usage system is very stable. I believe I fixed all the bugs. I am also going to improve the barracks so that you can also choose the party formation: this way you can fight the battles with less party members and they’ll get more XP each one.

About this last point, I am still unsure if to use the Training Screen I’ve been coded though. In practice would work like this: the heroes left unselected can begin a training session so they slowly improve the skills automatically on their own. Though I am not sure would make much sense? Perhaps would be cooler to have lower level heroes to bring with you so they would then level fast when fighting higher level enemies? (it’s some sort of powerleveling  that you can do in the MMOs :D)

I have to think about this! Share your thoughts if you want.

In October, I’ll surely reach a point where I can think seriously which direction to take. I could start a beta pre-order of the game, since then the game would be already quite long and don’t want to keep it public, or perhaps do a closed beta. I have also to see if to integrate some optional online features in it. I think a pre-order would be a good move so could give me an idea of how much people like the game, so I know if I can spend lot of more time/resources on it, or not 🙂

Why you shouldn’t compare adventures with other kind of games

Was talking by email with Dave Gilbert of WadjetEyeGames yesterday about some complaints from players for the length of story-based games like adventures or visual novels. Some would say that for $20 they expected at leat 8-10h of “gameplay”, since most other games you find (especially in portals) offers you that.

As I wrote already a few weeks ago in my “how long is it” post, you can’t really compare such kind of games with other games. Take a look at the Hidden Object Games you see in portals: they offer usually 4-5h of gameplay, but they do that using several tricks:

  • first of all, there’s much less text/narration. This isn’t necessarily bad: many people don’t like to read much texts, and that’s why I want also to make some more classic adventure games alongside my actual Visual Novel and Dating Sims. But is much easier to write a story with less dialogues, than come up with a long story rich of plot twists and interesting situations, as you can imagine
  • then they’re filled by minigames. Many minigames are mini-puzzles, so it depends also how skilled you are. But should that count towards the gameplay length? If so, the problem then is not the actual story/plot length but the kind of minigames that are in it. Also the risk is of breaking the narration by putting too many minigames, so there will always be someone unhappy
  • reusing content. Many games reuse locations, for example the same background, but you have to find different set of objects. That’s ok of course, as a game designer I know perfectly that you often have to find a compromise. But is the player really happy about that? I mean, why stretch the story/gameplay recycling stuff, just to “reach 5h of gameplay”?

I understand the complaint of some people, but you need also to understand the amount of work that’s behind those games. Is much easier to come up with a new “reskin” of time management games or even strategy games (unless you put something different). Many RPG made with RPGMaker XP uses all the same tilesets/sprites! So you need to understand how hard is to make adventures, since you can’t recycle/reuse stuff, but everything needs to be drawn from scratch, a interesting story needs to be written, and so on. There is a reason if mainstream AAA companies left adventure games a few years ago. Now they’re coming back a bit because with 3d content is indeed possible to re-use many assets (a new character can be easily created starting from a old 3d model as base).

I really think that the only solution in this case would be recurring to microtransactions but also some online game. If I was selling my Vera Blanc games for $9.99 I probably would sell more copies but would almost for sure make less money overall (believe me I tried so many times to lower prices but I simply couldn’t survive with the revenues).

So I was thinking that a webgame made like an adventure, at a very accessible price (price based on game length) should make everyone happy and at same time being online could get more viral and known, so get more exposure (needed because if I set such low pricetag I need to shift much more copies).

Though I’m sure there still would be someone who complains about price 😀

How all indie developers can get their games on Steam

Today was talking with some other developer friends about a “hot topic”. Steam, and the difficulty to get in it.

If you’re an indie developer, at least once in your life you got a forum/post comment saying “you should get your game on Steam!”. It sounded almost as an insult, like saying “you fool, why don’t you just use that?”. Yeah, like if Steam was an OPEN platform.

Getting on Steam is really HARD, and for most indies they represent the main source of income, a bit like casual portals are for casual game developers.

There’s really no rule (for Indies) to get on Steam. Many games look very similar, yet “some” are accepted, and others not. Their selection criteria aren’t really clear to be honest.

Now, I came with a solution that I hope the Steam people will at least consider: why Steam doesn’t allow any indie to sell their games through them, as a sort of shareware vendor? We could add “Buy on Steam” button beside our usual vendors like BMT Micro, Plimus, Regnow, and so on.

And those games wouldn’t appear on Steam. They would need absolutely to do NOTHING, except create an interface for developer so they can setup their products. They could even get away with a submission fee or a yearly subscription like Appstore does.

Advantages would be for both sides: indie devs would finally be able to tell to the users who ask if they can buy from Steam “Yes, here is the link.”

Steam could get “free money”, and honestly they would get the most advantages from this idea. They could also be surprised by how some apparently unknown games sells, and maybe “promote” the best selling “underdogs” on their main games catalogue.

I see really no downside to this idea. Now I hope someone at Steam looks at this post, and at least takes in consideration this suggestion 😉

What is a “casual RPG”

As you probably know, I’m working on a RPG game called “Planet Stronghold”.

I am trying to do something slightly different with this RPG. I would even dare call it “casual RPG”, since it misses some of the classic “hardcore” gameplay elements. In particular:

  • there is no in-game currency. You can’t sell or buy weapons. This is probably the biggest difference from… well, ANY rpg I’ve ever played. What does it means? That you’ll have several weapons and armors at your disposal, but you won’t have to buy them. To get the best ones, the only way would be to solve some quests you’ll encounter through the story.
  • there is almost no “permanent death“. You can’t really “lose” in the game. This is also very different even if something similar could be already found in recent casual RPG like Torchlight, for example. In my game, if you lose a battle you’ll simply have the option to fall back and try it with a different team/equipment configuration. Of course there will be a few exceptions: in some particular plot situation you’ll face a hard battle but you’ll be warned to save before it. But I hate the mechanic of “save/try/reload” that is used in many RPG just to give the players the illustion that the game is longer (but in reality you’ll spend most of the time loading and saving)
  • there won’t be a huge map. I mean, a tilemap or detailed map as it is in many RPG, mostly JRPG. I was dubious if to implement this or not, but given the nature of the game, I decided to skip this. Since the gameplay follows the main story, you will be able to use a small map with instant traveling between each different location to complete side-quest, but not like you do in normal RPG/JRPG. If you hated walking endless hours in those insanely huge (and repetitive) tilemaps, you’ll like my game. Otherwise…I hope you’ll like the game anyway 🙂
  • very few grinding. You won’t have to kill 500 rats  to get to level 2. The leveling up will be slow, and you won’t get much XP from battles, but you’ll get a big boost if you solve quests. Anyway, being the game linear, I’ll be able to craft each specific battle so hopefully that should lead to more interesting enemy encounters.
  • There also won’t be endless random encounters, unless you choose to adventure in the wastelands (so, there will be but will be entirely optional). I understand that random encounters are a good way to raise your characters levels without doing side-quests, so I’ll leave that option available for those people who prefer to fight than solve quests.

As you can see it’s quite different from a “standard”, traditional RPG. I hope the direction I took will be appreciated anyway, so far the feedback from the Alpha testers was quite positive (many says it’s the best game I’ve made so far, even if isn’t finished yet! :D).

Note that this won’t mean that the game will be easy. It will be if you choose the “easy” option. But if you pick the “hard” option, in the game you’ll have to face some really tough fights! That’s all for now, I’ll get back to writing more plot and coding more enemy battles.

p.s. For those who like traditional RPG, fear not. My other RPG game in development, the Dungeon Crawler “Tower Of Destiny”, will be much more similar to the classic “hardcore RPGs” 😉