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

Learn from the veterans

I was watching a video of a talk by an indie game dev recently, where they outlined all of the huge mistakes they made with their first indie game. They were very clever, very capable programmers with a huge amount of mainstream industry experience, and this was their first indie game. They made pretty much every mistake in the book. They picked a vastly complex and huge project without testing the code gameplay first, they aimed it at consoles instead of the (much easier, open market) PC, they took YEARS to make it, got burned out, kept re-designing it…

All the stuff that old and grizzled indie devs like me keep telling people not to do. Why do new indies do this? My theories:

  1. They thought they were not NEW to this. They confused being part of a AAA team to being a sole coder/designer/artist/businessperson in an indie team. In other words, they thought they had experience in something they did not.
  2. They were arrogant, and thought they were better than the devs such advice is aimed at. This isn’t as critical as it sounds. I’m pretty arrogant too. Most people who think they can design whole worlds to entertain others are arrogant. It’s important to at least *know* you have this trait, so you can check it now and then.
  3. They were stuck in AAA development habits. In their experience, games take years, they take big teams, they are done for console, they are done with crunch. Why would it occur to them to work any other way?
  4. They think people only buy AAA games, so they aim to compete with the games they are used to working on. Not true. Just ask notch :D

I don’t think anyone can change all this. Those reasons all seem pretty *real* to me. I fumbled and made mistakes and screwed up as a new indie dev myself. The good news was I did that as a hobby, with a secure job, and I never spent years on a game to learn that lesson. I probably shouldn’t expect anyone to take a more considered approach to seeking advice than I did (although to be fair there were VERY few indies back then. these days we are swamped with experienced devs offering advice).

Still… It does make me cringe when I see first-time indies outlining their 3D MMO ideas on the day they quit their jobs. Don’t do that :D

11 thoughts on Learn from the veterans

  1. Yup, this all seems pretty on point.

    One of the hardest things I had to do when I was working as a producer/designer (at a small company, nowhere near triple AAA) was trying to keep everyone’s expectations and ambitions in check and within scope. Harder still was doing that without being a killjoy and destroying everybody’s enthusiasm for the game.

    I think most successful games, whether indie or not, need a razor sharp focus on their core elements and I think some people who might not have worked on projects in a broader role lack this critical outlook. On some level it’s not even money or time to consider, it’s just the purity of the gameplay itself.

  2. Still… It does make me cringe when I see first-time indies outlining their 3D MMO ideas on the day they quit their jobs. Don’t do that :D

    I’ve personally seen that happen time and again on the much reduced scale of mods, for Morrowind and all points forward. A person appears in Bethsoft’s forum, announces a mod to completely change the game at all levels, garners about two dozen huzzahs and a dozen helpers, and goes off into the sunset claiming they’ll turn the universe around. They’re never heard from after that.

    The only reason I mention this is that it occurs repeatedly. It’s a phenomenon that’s always fresh. Your warning is well intentioned, but it won’t reach those that need it most. Those folks who know it all? They won’t read you. Not even if they *do* read you. Because they still won’t get it.

    Youth goes together with virginal ignorance. Fortunately, both conditions are easily cured.

  3. typo: ‘code gameplay’ -> ‘core gameplay’.

    Yeah, it is a natural thing to happen.
    It is easy to get very enthusiastic without overseeing the sea of complexities that await.

  4. I worked in the interactive industry for about 15 years starting in the mid-90’s. Between then and now literally nothing has changed at the development level, for two big reasons.

    First, the arrogance you wonder about is endemic to the industry. Everyone believes they “get it” and everybody else is an idiot. You could drive an A380 through the blind spots most lead designers have about game design, most producers have about effective production, and most coders have about code — yet each one of them is always absolutely certain they’re the only one who knows the truth.

    Second, the appeal of independence only fuels and reinforces this kind of arrogant blindness. When you’re working for the man you have to deal with constraints and controls and other human beings. When you’re working for yourself you’re only sucking up to one person and because you think that person is wonderful you’re going to do a lot of sucking and very little else.

    Combine arrogance with a fierce desire for independence and you have not only created a psychic barrier that will refuse to allow any criticism to be entertained, but you have guaranteed that all previous knowledge must be rejected because it comes from someone else. Only the truly independent and courageous developer can save the industry from itself, and pretty much every indy developer becomes that independent and courageous developer in their own mind.

  5. I know exactly what you mean. Part of the problem for indie devs, I suspect, is that there is an intimate link between “game that I would play the hell out of” and “game I want to make”. Without orders from on high, there’s no internal division between the two concepts. Unfortunately, the personal interest that is required in order to motivate also causes massive feature creep. I’m sure we all know how it goes:

    “These enemies should have a couple of tactics variations to make it more interesting. How about if I make the pathing algorithm generic and able to automatically plan and execute without map hints? That sounds a lot like a proper AI system. I could add in personalities to encode differences in aggressiveness and so on for units of the same type. They need to coordinate with each other though, so leaders need to be special, and of course the subordinates need a courage stat to determine how likely they are to follow orders under fire. That stat should have modifiers depending on the current conditions.”

    And so on. What started out as a way to give an enemy unit a couple of hardcoded pathing options turned into an attempt to model realistic people and command structure. Sure, you really want to play that final version of the idea, but you’re also much less likely to end up shipping it.

    Over time I’ve built up a collection of game ideas that I one day want to play. Each one is either way out of my current capabilities or has key areas where the sort of feature creep I mentioned is almost definitely going to happen. I keep reminding myself that if I’m going to do anything I have to start small. Very small.

  6. How long did Gratuitous Tank Battles take to make if you don’t mind saying? Or for that matter any of the Democracy games?

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