Grinds My Gears: On the Subject of Indy Games
Last week, I wrote a rather scathing indictment of developers for releasing games without first taking the time to make sure that, in some ways, the game is “finished” without relying on updates to fix the big stuff. The resulting discussion was interesting, but there was one subject that came up time and again that I wanted to clarify in this week’s column: indy developers.
Many of you who wrote in expressing your desire for indy companies to be treated differently and given a fairer shake when it comes to criticism about too-early releases, shoddy updates, and length of time between updates. For those folks, I have a couple of things to talk about. None of it is particularly new, as I’ve written about it before, but I thought it bore re-hashing given the responses.
First, I don’t know why I would hold a company to a different standard when the price that they charge is the same as big studio AAA games. If you’re saddled with a smaller budget, smaller staff, less experience and the like, set a realistic price, don’t go aiming for what I’m going to call the WoW Bucks.
I don’t think it’s a question of greed either, for indy developers who over-charge for their products. I think it’s more the fact that a lot of developers across the board have a hard time looking at their projects objectively. They all want to believe that they have the “next big thing” on their hands, that they’re making the best game with the best ideas. For many, especially in the indy circles, these games are like their children. It’s hard to put a realistic price tag on that. The brutal reality is though, if you can’t offer the same kind of service that the $14.99 a month crowd offers, then don’t try to compete with them. Make your advantage a lower price.
Second is a question of realistic scope for expectations. Time and time again, indy developers run through their development cycles promising this feature or that feature, a new approach to feature X, expansive new features never before created, etc. and every single time this happens, your users’ expectations are ratcheting up another level. If you don’t deliver on those early statements (which by now, despite all logic and reason, have become promises by this point), you’re not delivering on promised features. That’s bad whether you’re indy or big budget. If you can’t be sure your awesome and innovative idea can be done and done right, keep your mouth shut about it. An awesome surprise close to launch or after launch is worlds better than a broken promise or a half-finished, buggy mess that’s really just a shell of the innovative idea anyway, and players will find more value in it if it’s done right, I promise.
Finally, it’s a question of realistic development scope. So many indy projects aim for the moon right out of the gate and their games end up feeling buggy and half finished. Then, when the game gets less than enthusiastic player and press reviews, the developers and fans of the game point out their lack of resources, both financial and human. To me, that’s a reality, and a tough one, but it’s not an excuse.
From the beginning of your development cycle, you know roughly what your finances are going to look like. Plan you launch version accordingly. Start small, and do it right. Once again, less stuff and more polish is going to be better than more stuff that’s buggy and half finished. Remember that you’re charging money for your “final” product. it should be fun, and it should be done. That’s the glory of MMORPGs. Growth can happen after launch as well.
So here are my basic suggestions to indy developers as it relates to selling their games to gamers and not releasing buggy messes while relying on the tired “We’re an indy studio” trope and hoping for the best:
Set a realistic price for your game. If you honestly can’t look at your game child objectively, then hire an outside consultant or two to look at the game and give you honest feedback.
This one wasn’t mentioned in the article, but: Don’t ask for objective outside feedback from friends and family. Honestly, have you ever looked a friend or family member in the face and told them that their child was ugly? I thought not, and they’re not going to want to do it to you either. Pay someone to do it.
Hire a Producer or Game Director who has the experience to assess the scope of a project and the resources that it will require to complete and then plan within your resources.
If your game isn’t worth $14.99 a month, don’t charge $14.99 a month. This is also where a consultant is useful.
Remember that you’re not making a game “just for you”, you’re making a game for an audience. While you might play your game and forgive yourself and your team the glaring bugs and other flaws, the public just won’t do it.
Finally, polish and completeness are more important than quantity and size.