Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Competing allies

Here is a question for indie game developers.

Who are you competing against, and who is on your side?

It’s not as simple a question as you might think. Don’t rush to judgement. I find that the supposedly simple questions are in fact the most interesting. I can list a lot of people on my side, and a lot of people who compete with me, and some people who are in both lists. The people in both lists are what I’m pretentiously calling competing allies.

Imagine a fellow PC indie strategy game developer. Lets call them ‘Cunning Fox Games’. CF Games earn about the same as I do, and sell direct online. We probably have some crossover of customers, with people owning games from both of us. Are CF Games on my side? or my competition.

They are both.

A customer of CF Games has been identified (maybe at some marketing cost) by that company. The identity of that customer has worth. They already own CFG’s games, but possibly not mine. I would benefit a lot from CFG telling their customers about me. And the reverse is true. In other words, if me and CFG mention each other, we can BOTH make more sales, and be better off.¬† So far, so obvious.

But let’s say I mention CF Games, and they don’t mention me back. Maybe their CEO met me once and thinks I’m a bastard, and doesn’t want to give me any publicity. Maybe I know this. Should I still keep recommending them?

Yes

And for purely rational self-interest, too. I *want* people who enjoy my games to buy games from CF Games too. I can’t make 3 games a year, but my customers can buy 3. Why not become known as someone who recommends good, relevant games? Why not encourage those players to keep playing strategy games? Why not encourage them to keep buying indie games? and to buy them direct from the developers. In the long run, this grows the market for me too. The more people who are used to using BMTMicro, the better.

Some small businesspeople can be very small minded. They keep an eye on fellow small businesses and treat them as the enemy, but that’s just wrong. If you sell indie games, I’m not your competition, I’m your ally. Activision sell 1,000 times more games than you and me combined, and frankly, I’d rather have a beer with you and swap ideas, strategies and business tips with a fellow indie, whose experience is directly relevant than some CEO who never plays games anyway.

So my tip of the day, is remember, sometimes helping rival companies helps you too. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Dubious uses of anonymous file hosting

I saw that a well known ‘anonymous’ file sharing site won on appeal their right to continue ‘unknowingly’ hosting copyrighted movies, music, games etc, this week. A great victory against ‘the evil megacorps’ that already have too much money blah blah.

Except of course, that the site in question is a huge company, one of the biggest online users of bandwidth, and likely all of it’s ‘sticking it to the man’ directors are millionaires. Undermining the system from within?

I have no problem with people using online dropboxes. Quite a few contractors in my industry use them to transfer finished art assets to customers, for example. And every time someone, fairly reasonably points out that 99.99999% of rapidshare/megaupload etc’s content is copyrighted, they always wave their arms at the odd graphic designer who uses their site for legit reasons.

I think the solution is simple. Continue for it to be legal to host file drop-boxes, with the normal DMCA takedown procedure, but make it non anonymous. Ensure you need to buy a one-off account, for maybe just $1, with a proper bank account. A traceable one, basically. One that, if *horror of horrors* someone uploaded a copyrighetd movie/game, they could easily be traced by their bank details, and prosecuted for damages.

I’m sure people will say ‘what about whistleblowers’, and yay, what a great point. By all means, allow anonymous uploads. Cap it at 10MB a day. 1 MB is a comrpessed copy of War & peace. Exactly how many classified documents do you need to upload in a day? You can still leak those emails to the press, you just can’t upload¬† Spiderman3_HD1280_RiPpEdByMe_3434.rar.

There is absolutely no justification to allow unlimited uploads to a server you run in the multi-gigabyte range from someone anonymous. Especially in the form of password-protected rar files. Try going along to one of those self-storage places and saying

“I want to store 4 lorryloads of stuff in your warehouse, and I want the only key. By the way, yes I look a lot like the guy who stored stuff here every day for the last 2 weeks, and every single time it turned out to be stolen goods, but clearly it won’t be this time, honest guv!”

At some point, hopefully, the era of ‘anonymous file hosting’ will be put to rest by lawyers. I doubt it though. Lawyers are good at earning themselves money, not seeing the right thing done. I won’t shed a tear if one of those companies gets a huge business-destroying fine though.

But forums are great (bring a dagger)

So jeff thinks game devs should rarely read their forums. I disagree, although he makes some good points. The best point, is about taking things personally, and getting angry. I often get angry on forums, but rarely my own :D.

I’ve found my forums to be fantastic for four reasons:

1) I find out about bugs quickly from people who won’t email me

2) Other people find solutions to their problems really easily in a sort of self-updating FAQ method.

3) People who are considering buying the game can see it’s popular, and read real opinions on how it plays from actual buyers. As long as your game is good, this is a win.

4) I get great feedback on what works, and what doesn’t, and find out how people want the game to expand and develop.

That last point is vital. When I designed GSB, the challenge system was a bit of an afterthought. it wasn’t the core of the game, which was supposed to be offline. Eventually, that challenge system got vastly expanded and improved based on forum feedback. I also improved a number of things that people had asked for, but which had not bothered me, such as the ship design hull picker.

The big danger, and Jeff mentioned this, is that you can’t get too swayed by the forum posters into switching design decisions. There is a big temptation to do this, but be wary. If I look at the percentage of GSB buyers who are forum posters, it’s pretty small. They are a tiny percentage of the playerbase, and not the group that I should really take design cues from. Some of their ideas are truly cool (someone mentioned fighters that could repair other fighters recently), but the key is to knowing when you have spotted an idea that really is good, and when you are following the crowd.

There is a solution:

You develop a huge, planet-sized ego such as mine. This solves everything. That way, you can easily brush aside 5 page forum threads saying how you need to change the game to do X, because you know you are right and they are all wrong. It’s pretty much essential as a game designer working on an original design, to be pretty full of ego.

Most really good design decisions seem pretty insane. A turn-based life simulation game doesn’t sound like a top hit, nor does a politics game with a complex charting system of icons as a GUI. Nor does a space battle game where you can’t control anything. They all seemed to work for me. A virtual dolls house worked well for one guy, as I recall. You need confidence and ego to push those ideas through.

The only problem is, if you *do* have that frame of mind, you will not work well as a team. You need to be indie, or promoted rapidly to lead designer. Otherwise you will go mad. I was in a meeting with Peter Molyneux once, where he was explaining how the game would work, and I interrupted him mid-flow with the phrase “surely it would make more sense to do it like this…”

It was briefly, like that moment where Worf Challenges Gowron for control of the klingon empire. Sadly, my Daq Tagh was next door on my desk. Bah.

That was the last design meeting they let me in :(

In retrospect, I see that I am exactly the same sort of person myself, so no wonder I ended up as an indie developer. Also, let me be clear that I’m not saying you need to be a total bastard, and angry, or difficult. You just need to have the confidence to know when you are right. My aim is to do that, but to still be nice to people. I still manage it, 9 days out of ten :D

How to sell the sequel to your game?

There are various ways to sell sequels to games. I’ve sold 2 sequels myself (Democracy 2 and Kudos 2). The approach I took was this:

  • Take what’s good about the original game, and expand upon it.
  • Fix any of the design or technical limitations of the original that were too big to just patch.
  • Add some new features, and polish the stuff that is already there. Maybe with a bigger budget this time.
  • Respond to tons of real paying-customer feedback to make changes and improvements to the user experience.

In short, make a better version of the game.

Or of course, you can be cynical as an ambulance-chasing lawyer, and just turn off the servers for last years version, and then sell the same game again with some extra bump maps and a new logo.

Seriously, running game servers is cheap. How do people think all those FreeToPlay games cope? This is so, so cynical.