Product or Process: an Indie Game Question

I haven’t been thinking about games much. Finals are rapidly approaching and so is Christmas. Though I’m not technically in classes, everything is coming to a head and I haven’t had a free moment to do some serious processing of my gaming experiences for this week. But I had had an issue a couple of weeks back that I wanted to blog about but couldn’t, so I figure there’s no time like the present to try and get my ideas out there (and probably crash and burn in the process).

There are a lot of issues with the indie game community, which I have tried to be involved in supporting and encouraging through my blog posts, my money and in a (very) small part my musical/programming ability. I feel like it’s a healthy community with a lot of people in it that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition from the mainstream media. (Interesting tidbit! NPR just did an article on “The Stanley Parable” that was an actual serious review of it in an artistic sense. Huge step forward! Read it here. As it turns out, they have articles about indie games every Tuesday? Who knew?)

I find it’s also a lot more of an artistic medium (the indie game community, I mean) than the triple-A games because there’s not so much commercial pressure. I’ve talked about that before, too.

But here’s the thing. It’s a COMMUNITY. There is no triple-A game community. There are businesses and that’s about all we can say for it. Sure there are developers and programmers and musicians and artists and writers and etc etc etc who are all well-known in their own communities of developers and programmers and (you get the picture)… but no crowdsourcing, no community involvement, no back-and-forth between the people playing your game and the people developing it. Massive outcry over Mass Effect 3’s ending got them to change part of it, and some other large protests (please note, PROTESTS) against things done in triple-A games have sparked change. But there’s no suggestion box at Blizzard’s or EA’s HQ.

There’s a lot to be said for that, though! Producing a PRODUCT is what video gaming is all about. You want something that a player can immerse themselves in and enjoy. They don’t worry about how it was made, they don’t question whether or not it could have been made better. Did you do your beta testing? Did you work out the bugs? Are you suuuuuuure?!?! (I’m looking at you, Skyrim.) Then we’re good. Ship it out, sell the preorders, make the DLC, reap that cash cow for all it’s worth. We’re done here. That’s how the industry works. You don’t regularly update something you sell people on a Blu-Ray disc. You can’t.

Granted, some game companies try to. It’s not always pleasant.

But an INDIE game, oh! The possibilities are endless! Every time you play it, there’s a new update! New updates every Tuesday? Twice a week, even? Say you’re playing at 8pm, and the update comes out. After you download it, at 8:30, you could be playing a different game! One that’s better, has more features, has less bugs, and more exploding cool stuff! (That falls under the realm of “features” but bears special mention. I mean, c’mon, EXPLODING STUFF, HELLO.)

Indie games have the ability to get you up close and personal with the development process. Let’s go into WHY that is!

1. The Kickstarter

Kickstarter/IndieGogo/Steam Greenlight have helped indie games in development get community support (and build their fanbase) since their inception (ooh, Inception!). They say, “Look at the potential of this idea! Help me make it a reality!” And the community overwhelmingly responds…

Fry <3

Fry ❤

What else? They provide “stretch goals.” This is also brilliant because even at the very outset of a game’s existence you’re involving the community in deciding what is in the game. Whoa. (This theme comes back, remember it.)

2. The Wiki

Great indie games have great wikis. How do these wikis get built? The community! Now, having said that, this is definitely a two-way street. The developers have to put their time into giving people the framework they need to edit and expand a wiki, and they need to be diligent about its upkeep… but the rewards are enormous! All you have to do is create and maintain a webpage (which I’m certain every gamedev has to do twice or three times for each blog/merchant site/github/etc. they own), and now your community is talking, discovering, playing your game, and making things happen. If they run across an item or dungeon that they don’t know about, it’s only a matter of time before they start figuring out how to explain it or use it in wiki-able terms. People talk about your game? People can get an inside look into your game before buying it? People can see how it develops? Good news, everyone!

3. The Forums

It seems ridiculous that a triple-A game would be without forums, and for the most part, you’re right. There are, of course, discussion forums for many, if not all triple-A games, but please, I beg of you, go on them and lurk for a bit. You’ll notice that it’s a greasy mixture of bragging, complaining and outright indecency and it quite frankly scares me. 

But, go on the forums for a game like MineCraft or Gnomoria, or Proteus or Bastion or Desktop Dungeons or or or or… and you’ll see something different. You’ll see (most of the time) a nicely organized and well-run site that puts updates up and posts patchnotes, encourages discussion AND FEEDBACK  about their game. WHOA WHOA WHOA. Stop the presses! Feedback? That makes a difference? My god! You mean that involvement in the process of the game’s development could… somehow… influence the game’s development in a positive manner? Holy cow!

Sorry about the sarcasm. But many triple-A games ignore their communities, and they sort of HAVE to. In a commercial business model, there is no open beta. There is no free updating. There might be some bug fixes, but if there’s going to be extra content, you’re going to be paying for it and it was probably already in the works when the game came out. The gradual adding and changing of features is something that’s only possible with an indie game community that’s involved and active in the development process. They don’t need to know how to code, but they do need to be able to say, “This was unbelievably frustrating. I tore out chunks of my hair.” or “Man, I wish this could be faster.” or “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were horses? I like horses.”

That’s community right there.

4. The Let’s Play

Everyone knows that MineCraft started the Let’s Play boom (sort of). People made living wages by being entertaining commentators of their exploration through the game’s mechanics. They showed curious users how to do everything from starting the game to building a house to farming to finishing the regular content of the game. Many just show people playing, screwing up, dying, figuring out their mistakes and growing from their experiences (okay, maybe not that last one). If there’s an indie game, there’s an LP of it.

I don’t know if I have to go too deep into why this is great! Why do you test-drive cars? And why DON’T you test-drive games? An LP is a real-life look into how a game works, how people play it, as well as figuring out a lot of the mechanics and playstyles of the game. It’s a fantastic and free way to get people interested in your game. It’s free advertising that comes from the ground up.

A lot of triple-A games have significant Let’s Plays behind them as well, especially in-depth, open-world games like Skyrim, but if you watch enough of these, you’ll notice a difference in the flavor of commentary and playing styles. In triple-A games, it’s not an adventure of discovery, because even in the newest, most innovative games, you’re still expecting the quests, blacksmithing, vendor trash and conversation options of the next Elder Scrolls game, or the “boogey-boogey-boo” scares of a game like Dead Space. When a Let’s Player plays a game like Proteus, Journey, or even the first forays into the world of MineCraft, often the player (and the audience) has no experience and, as a result, few expectations. You get this excited sense of discovery with indie LPs, instead of the… less discovery-oriented excitement of “WOOH LET’S KILL ZOMBIES GUNS GUNS GUNS FIRE YEAH!!!”

Also worth mentioning: dedicated Let’s Play creators are an amazing asset to gamedevs who want people to experience firsthand the changes made during beta. Instead of reading patchnotes, your prospective clientelle can watch the new features and cool stuff unfold before their eyes with snarky British commentary.

5. The API

“What’s an API, Another Gamer?!? Is that a kind of beer?” No.

It’s the Application Programming Interface, which is a complicated term (like everything in CS…) that explains a simple concept: it’s how the parts of your program work together, and how they receive and deal with extra parts. The modding API of games is a modders ability to reach inside the code, change things, add things, and extend the functionality of an already complete game.

Whew. A lot to take in there.

Why do you care? Because the mod API for games like MineCraft turned it from something of a curiosity to a fantastic, enormously massive game of never-before-or-since-seen proportions. Indie games have a penchant for letting their users fiddle with the guts of the game, and with MineCraft especially it has produced results that never fail to boggle my mind. Computer crafting, power and electricity frameworks, extra minerals, creatures, trees, biomes, items, weapons, items, armor, items… there’s a mod called “Too Many Items,” and a snarkier, newer version called “Not Enough Items.” There are mods that stretch the bounds of creativity, crafting elegant storylines and forging brand new dimensions for you to explore, mine, battle, and die in.

It’s about involvement in the process. It’s about involvement in the product. Indie games can do this, and they’re unique in their ability to. It’s a magnificent skyscraper of artistic and technological achievement that is built from the millions of users and their involvement with making something greater than an already pretty great game made of blocks.

Of course, not every indie game supports modding as well as MC (as a matter of fact, none of them do). It may be the difference between changing the zombie skins to My Little Pony characters, but most games have some small ability to be modded. Word to the wise, though: this mutability and versatility is what made MineCraft what it is. If you’re smart and you’re creating a game that is in any way a changeable experience, then let your users change it. Let them design new events or levels or characters or enemies. If you build it, they will come :3

I couldn’t figure out how to work in Garry’s Mod, but… Garry’s Mod.

It’s a long post, I know, but there’s a lot to be said for involving and building your community when you build a game. It’s something that indie games can use to gain a huge advantage in popularity and advertising reach, and it’s just a nice thing to do. Whereas big companies may have insidious ways to push their new game (toolbars, mobile apps, etc etc etc), this is a pure, simple way to be a good development company while putting yourself out there (or allowing your users to do the work for you!). As a dev, it’s great. As a consumer, I find it equally great, and if you didn’t appreciate it before… go out and buy MineCraft and start appreciating, damn you!

~AG

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on December 20, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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