Video Game Design: Are Indies the Wave of the Future?
Developing a video game was once the exclusive province of computer programmers who built games from scratch in computer languages like C++, Visual Basic or Perl; these programmers worked for big-name game manufacturers like Apple, Zynga or Activision. The successes of games like Doodle Jump, Minecraft and Angry Birds are changing the industry’s marketplace. Independent developers with access to expanded game publishing options are often turning a tidy profit. Technological advances in game-building software have also opened doors for indie gamers, and new publishing platforms like Apple’s App Store and IndieCity continue to widen the playing field for new customers.
This change in the gaming industry is a relatively new one, and successful indie developers are learning the ropes as they go. Markus Persson, creator of the immensely popular Minecraft, started building the award-winning sandbox exploration game on nights and weekends while he worked for a gaming development firm during the day. Around the time that Minecraft’s gameplay began to take shape, Persson stumbled across a little-known indie-developed game called Infiniminer. Persson was inspired by Infiniminer and stepped up the development of his dream game. In May of 2009, still employed at a professional development firm by day, Persson released Minecraft as a developmental alpha release. The game was an instant hit in the gaming community. Persson immediately began work on a beta release, and within months was so busy that he switched to part-time work. By the following winter, the beta version of Minecraft generated enough revenue for Persson to quit his day job entirely. The game’s popularity has not waned; affectionately termed “Minecrack” for its addictive qualities, the game has generated sales as high as $350,000 a day.
Rapidly evolving game platforms have also aided in the success of indie gaming. Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel, developers at Electronic Arts, were tasked to bring a game called World of Goo to the iPhone market. However, several delays conspired to make the intended launch date impossible and Electronic Arts dropped the project. A year later, the introduction of the iPad spurred Gabler and Carmel to further develop the game to fit the iPad platform. Funding the development from their own bank accounts and working in coffee shops with free wi-fi, World of Goo was built over the next two years. On its release in 2008, it received numerous awards, including Best Independent Game from Spike TV. Currently, this popular video game is available on Wii, Nintendo and the iPad platforms and has sold over a million downloads.
Developer Jonathan Blow created an innovative time-warp platform called Braid. Blow had personally financed $200,000 in development costs and was in considerable debt when Braid was released on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service in 2008. Three years of relative poverty and dedication paid off. Several months after the game’s release, Blow checked his bank balance on his smartphone – and discovered that he was a wealthy man. Braid was the second-largest grossing Xbox title in 2008.
What do these three games have in common? All of them are the result of persistent efforts by developers who loved their craft. These individuals also saw changes in the gaming world and took advantage of new tools available to developers. While there is no guarantee that every game achieves massive financial success, many indie developers are operating profitable businesses by self-publishing their games. Successful independent developers do offer some advice for would-be game builders.
The core to every successful game is three-pronged: gameplay, art and concept. Your concept must be instantly clear to players and your play must be designed so that users have fun right away. Whether you are appealing to a niche audience or a wide swath of users, consider that everyone problem-solves differently; present your concept with extreme clarity for every type of player. You must have a solid grasp of video game design. Your rule systems will be employed by users of different skill levels and your game rules must be consistent and understandable. Last but definitely not least is artwork. The aesthetic component of your game is what attracts users, and the more original and polished your graphics are, the better chance your game will succeed.
Operate as a business entity. You may be developing a game by yourself on your days off, but that does not preclude the need for a business plan. You must think commercially to succeed, or partner with someone who can leave the creative direction to you. Hire an accountant, set sales targets, establish timelines. Consider pricing models and payment methods. Determine whether you will publish beta versions and request gamer feedback. Ensure that your game contains a method for data analysis; post-release, player analytics can provide you with priceless clues about improving your game or developing another one.
Market your product aggressively. Weak marketing efforts are often the reason indie games fail; factor public relations into your business plan. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube offer low-cost avenues to raise awareness of your game. E-mail game reviewers with a free promo code and ask them to review your game. Be a part of the indie gaming community, and network your way to brand awareness or cross-market with another game. Consider value-added pre-sales, where you offer an interesting new feature for early adopters prior to launching your product. Create buzz as often and as loudly as you can.
The success of so many fan-funded indie development ideas on Kickstarter proves that customer interest in indie games is high. If you enjoy programming and possess a resilient spirit, the gaming industry welcomes you. You may not achieve great personal wealth and you may not even successfully sell your first game; however, successful indie developers stay in the industry because they love what they do. Learn from your mistakes, collaborate with the right talent and make yourself known in the gaming world – you may very well be the next award-winning independent game developer.