Monday, August 31, 2009

Preparation and Luck: Marketing Your Indie Game

AI War has been gathering a fair bit of publicity recently, and I've recently run up against the question of how one markets an indie game from several people. Well, the short answer is this: you do whatever you can.

That might sound flippant, but it's not. You use whatever tools you have available to you, and those tools are going to vary from developer to developer. If you have a big presence on Facebook, use that. Know a celebrity, or someone in the business already, or have some other sort of connection? Use that. If you've got some other sort of talent, that can make for other value-added content, use that.

Really, promoting an independent video game is very much like promoting a novel. If you google guides about promoting novels, you'll mostly find relevant advice (book tours and signings obviously don't apply, but all the rest does).

The Early Days
What about all those people without any special advantages, though? I mostly am in that category, as I had no special connections in the industry. Well, in these cases you are unfortunately reduced to the equivalent of "cold calling" potentially-interested parties (reviewers, distribution channels, bloggers, etc) until you start having some brand recognition or word starts getting out. This part of the process is very frustrating and slow, and you're likely to get very little if any response.

But. At some point some reviewer or distribution channel will hopefully find your brief pitch (like a query letter for a novel) to be of interest, and will take a look at the game. If they don't like it, don't expect much. If they like it or love it, then you've got your first bit of publicity (yay!). You need a ton more. So you keep sending out more missives to anyone you think might be interested, waiting on the existing ones, and sliding in a mention that so-and-so reviewer or distribution channel said [some quote] about the game. NB: Quotes from family, friends, and reviewers from sites the recipient has never heard of will actually hurt your credibility. Hopefully you can guess why.

Publicity Snowballs... Sometimes
Whenever a site of significant stature talks about your game or posts a link to it, other sites will pick up the story. This works to your advantage if the press you are receiving is positive; if the press is not positive, you are in trouble. If you're starting out as a no-name indie developer, you have to make a very good impression right from the start, and keep making that good impression on people as word spreads, or else you're not likely to get anywhere.

Bottom line: people want good indie games that are new and different, but they'll only talk about them if they are a certain amount in love with the product. If they just like the product okay, it's hard to get anyone excited enough to really talk much about it unless the job they do is reviewing indie games. To put it another way, if you want your indie game to get talked about outside the realm of indie gaming sites, your game has to be better than most, or at least have something notable about it.

Oh, and you have to actually put a lot of legwork into the publicity. And get lucky. There are quite a few indie games out there that are awesome, but which don't get the audience that they are really due. There are many other indie games out there that seem more successful than they really are. Since most indie developers (and indeed most AAA developers) don't talk about specific sales numbers in most cases, it's hard to know who is successful and who is not except for the really obvious cases. There are a few standouts at the top and the bottom, but otherwise it's all a big huddled mass of games and companies.

Success Is Relative
Word to the wise: most companies are not quite as successful as they seem to be on the surface. Just because a game is talked about on a major outlet does not mean it was financially successful. This applies to both AAA and indie games, from what I have read. It's a generally-accepted truth that most small businesses fail within their first year, and I don't think that there's much difference from that norm in the indie development business.

The catch? Most indie developers work in their spare time already, so if they aren't able to support themselves solely off of game development the company can still stay around. So the companies aren't failing and going bankrupt, but neither are they self-sufficient. Are there exceptions to this? Thank God, yes. There are a number of indie developers that are clearly successful, even ones that are not "darlings" of the industry. When I talk about "most indie games," I'm referring to some of the indie games you may have heard of, plus the thousands you didn't even know existed because either they are so poor, or so poorly-marketed, that they never break 100 or so sales. Lots of people think they can make a game, and a number of people try and create something, but then they either don't really finish it or they don't follow through with marketing, or both.

Grassroots Works
Word of mouth is invaluable to the indie developer. Having a positive buzz about your game is probably the only way to make it unless you get a publication contract. So this means, once again, exciting people beyond the "it's okay" stage. See the common theme here? Basically all the marketing in the world isn't going to help an indie developer if their product isn't worthwhile. It doesn't work for telemarketers, and it won't work for you.

Here's something else that generally doesn't work (as I've found out from experience, sadly): posting about your own game on message boards you aren't otherwise active in. You can't just register on some forum and pimp your game. I knew this going in, and so tried very hard to make a meaningful contribution to the forums in question while also mentioning my game. About 50% of the time people took offense anyway, and the other half of the time they were pleasantly surprised that I had actually contributed, but still not interested enough to click through and actually look at the links much. So learn from my early mistake, and don't put yourself through that sort of experience.

What does work is when fans of your game post on forums that they are active on, or other similar sites. But you can't control this, beyond getting people to the point of being excited about your game. If someone is talking about your game out on the Internet (Google Alerts to the rescue), you can definitely go join in -- people are generally quite happy to hear from the developer of a game they are discussing. You just can't roam around trying to start conversations about your own game.

Be Interesting
As a new indie developer, you are selling yourself as much as you are selling your game. People need to know who your company is, what you stand for, and come to like/respect/trust you to the degree possible. Think about the creators of your favorite indie games, and most likely you know their distinctive "voice" from interviews, blog posts, magazine articles, or other coverage. You might even have a face to go with those names, if they happen to post pictures or have had some contest wins.

When people talk about PixelJunk, they talk about Dylan. When they talk about Braid, they talk about Jonathan Blow. The guys at 2D boy also get a fair bit of coverage as a company, as did the fellows at Introversion.

AAA games are made by giant companies, but indie games are made by individuals or very small teams. Players often want to know who the people are behind those games. If you want coverage and increased exposure, you need to write or say some stuff worth reading/hearing. The podcasts, interviews, and blogging that I do all contribute significant visibility to AI War and Arcen Games, and it's fun for me besides. I also try to visit most forums that talk about the game, to answer any questions I can and make sure people feel like I'm accessible if they need something.

If you don't like talking to people, you probably won't like being an indie developer. Unless you're exceptionally lucky or well-connected, you're going to have to talk to a lot of people about your game, your company, yourself, and whatever other topics are of interest. Hopefully you're like me and find this to be something of a perq, rather than a punishment.

At any rate, there ought to be something interesting about your game, otherwise you probably need to sit down and do some more work on it. Perhaps you've come up with some cool new game mechanic(s), maybe there are some technical innovations, maybe your art or music is extremely beautiful and amazing, maybe you're blazing new paths in storytelling or crossing game genres in unexpected ways, or maybe you have some sort of new control mechanic. Maybe you're doing something else that nobody ever thought of. Talk about whatever it is that makes your game unique, express your excitement, and enjoy talking with fans and potential fans.

Explore Every Opportunity
Note that I did not say take every opportunity. But, as your game gains in popularity, there will be a number of opportunities of questionable quality/legitimacy. Explore each one thoroughly until you are sure that it is not a good thing before you discard it. Sometimes huge opportunities come disguised as small notes or events that you might be tempted to write off.

Going along with this, this means that you should try to find all the reviewers you can to submit to, every distribution channel that you can find that is honest and willing to treat you fairly, and every other blogger or site that might lead to some promotion. Big boosts to visibility for your game can come from some rather surprising places, and often the places you thought would bring a lot of visibility really don't do much at all.

Provide Excellent Support
This one pretty much speaks for itself. Always be honest and open, don't try to hide your mistakes, and try to provide speedy resolutions to the inevitable issues that will occur (hopefully not too many such issues, though). Be open about timeframes and workloads, so that fans know what is going on. No one likes listening to a void, waiting for the next patch at some indeterminate future time (days, weeks, or months later? who knows?).

Basically: think of all the frustrating experiences you've had with support departments at big companies, and then do none of those things. Instead, just treat your customers like regular human beings, with all the due respect that implies, and you're pretty much good to go. Most customer service problems come about from being impersonal and distant, and/or making things overly difficult or treating customers like insignificant numbers in a queue. Just treat customers how you would want to be treated, and you're pretty well ahead of the game already.

Good customer service is a selling point, and besides which it's just the right thing to do. If you want people to be excited about your company and your games, good service is part of the package. Big companies take note!

In Conclusion
You may notice, looking at this list, that a lot of the topics are only peripherally related to marketing. I didn't talk about magazine ads, banner ads, or any other sort of advertising. I didn't talk about exclusives or back room deals. Indie developers generally cannot afford this sort of thing, but that's okay -- there are other ways to succeed, it just takes longer.

At the end of the day, all you are able to do is create a product and then get some people to look at it. If they think it's great, they'll tell some other people and will enable you to tell yet more people about how great your product is with some degree of credibility. Great service, free updates, and other activities that make it clear you care about your customers are also a real plus.

But that's really all you can do. Keep sending out press releases, keep exploring every opportunitiy that you can find, but in the end you can't make people like your game. Never stray from the truth into hyperbole when discussing your product, because your credibility is a hugely valuable asset (and people don't fall for hyperbole very often, so you're wasting your breath, anyway -- there are solid practical reasons for being honest, aside from the moral reasons that are hopefully your main impetus).

If you make a great game, you still need to do a lot of promotion to actually find your audience. Even if your game is really great and fun, it's still going to be an uphill battle over an extended period of time. But if your game isn't great, no amount of promotion is going to save it. First focus on making the game everything it should be and more, and then focus on getting the word out. Neither task is easy, and both are equally neccessary if you want to do this as a business. Good luck!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Delegation In Game Design

An interesting conversation from the Arcen Games forums that I thought I'd just post here, because I thought it expressed an interesting point about game design for truly huge RTS games like AI War. A lot of people wonder how on earth you can manage thousands of ships simultaneously -- well, this is how.

Me (responding to another subject): More to the point, most RTS players find the economic simulation side of it to be something they would like to set up and forget.

Admiral (one of the AI War regulars): I must say, I find that an odd sentiment from an RTS developer. Isn't economic management and other logistical concerns a large/important part of the "S" in RTS? Isn't that what differentiates this genre from the RTT (such as e-Eraser's favorite NEXUS or the amazingly fun old game Myth)?

Calvin Southwood (Arcen techwriter/moderator): It depends where you want to emphasize the S. Many RTS games place equal value on a variety of areas, including the economy, others like AI War focus more on the combat aspect of the game, and have a relatively easy to manage economy.

Me: Right. And it's not that I don't want to have a robust economy -- that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that I think that players (and myself included) want to be able to "set it and forget it" until we next decide to change something. It's like cruise control on your car; you can set it and not have to worry about keeping to the right speed while you focus on other things, but later when you want to go a different speed or drive in more dangerous conditions, you just turn it off and start readjusting.

There's a difference in being able to fine-tune the economy, compared to having to constantly babysit it. Even games like CivIV, if I am remembering correctly, do a good job at being hands-off unless you want to change something. That way you don't always have to have one eye on the economy, you know that it is left there doing the job you last set it to do until you come back to it.

Same with the military ships, honestly -- you can set them and forget them, to a degree, too. You might be able to get better results if you micromanage them to a certain extent, but that's neither required nor always possible. The goal of a design like this is to have the depth there in every area so that people can micromanage if that's their style, but a degree of automation in all those areas so that players can be more hands-off and let it do a pretty good job in their absence.

And of course, the players are very much having to manage the big picture no matter what, so I really think about this as more like delegation. Whatever aspects of the game are less important at the time given your situation or preferences, you can delegate to automation so that you can focus your attention on the aspects of the game that are more important right then. And when the situation changes, you shift what you delegate versus what you manage directly. That's the only way to control something so vast as AI War, but I think a lot of people don't really notice that sort of design in play just because it thankfully works well enough to be pretty invisible.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Advice For Aspiring Indie Game Developers

This is a question I'm getting asked with increasing regularity: what advice do I have for other indie developers, or aspiring indie developers? While in many respects I feel like it's too soon for me to give advice, since AI War is still not yet providing enough income for me to do this fulltime, on the other hand AI War has certainly had a lot of success already and is one of the better-selling non-darling indie games around.

I'm still reluctant to give advice, however, so I'll settle for this: here some observations I've had from developing, releasing, updating, and promoting AI War. In many cases I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions based on these observations, but at the very least it will provide first-hand data you did not have before. Here we go:

Observation: Getting Started Is Slow
I've had a publicly-released game for only around three months now. That might sound like a long time, but if you're an indie developer with no prior connections and no "easy ins," you're still just warming up. I think that a lot of indies think that their game will either live or die in that first month (I know I did), and I'm finding that this is patently untrue. If I had given up after that first month, I would literally have had around 50 sales total.

That's still not bad for an indie game -- unfortunately, most sell extremely, extremely, poorly. However, if I had given up after that limited amount of time, or if I had stopped trying to get more publicity for the game, I'd have missed out on month two, which had around 8x as many sales as the first month. And each month since then has had even more sales than the last.

So I guess there are a few takeaways from this. First, don't give up too quickly or let yourself get discouraged by early indifference to your product. Secondly, don't quit the day job unless you can afford to go months or more without pay, even after your game is released. Expect to put in some serious time even after your game is out.

Observation: Every Indie Game Is Different
There is no "common path" for successful indie games. There are perhaps a very few things they all have in common, but generally speaking they all entered the market differently, made a name for themselves in a different niche, and then got noticed by the wider gaming press. Some of them had an easier time of it than others.

My Three Major Classes Of Indie Game
Or, at least, this is how I think of it. Here they are:

1. Indie Darlings: These sell tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of copies. You've read about these in gaming magazines and on mainstream gaming sites. Everyone who follows gaming news has heard of the biggest of these, but even the smallest of these have quite a huge footprint. There are very few of these as compared to the other two categories. You know the big boys from this category: World of Goo, Braid, etc. A lot of these are also winners of the various major indie gaming contests, but not all of them are.

1.a. Indies With Publishers: This is a corollary to the indie darlings category, really. Some indie companies actually do form relationships with publishers and this leads to a massive amount more sales and a fair bit more press. Since the indie developer did not receive money up front from the publisher, and since the developer still has full creative control more or less, they are still considered indie, although it is borderline to some people. Examples: Locke's Quest, Supreme Commander.

2. Undiscovered Gems: This is a much larger category of indie games. Basically, these games are not failures, but neither are they remotely near the darling category. Most of these games sell a few hundred to a few thousand copies -- in a few cases maybe a couple of tens of thousands. They might get some spotty mainstream gaming press coverage, but not much (if any). They might have contest wins, but none of the really big ones. They do tend to have some coverage from the various indie-focused websites. Often these games have a really passionate, if small, fanbase. These are quality games, so if they are able to find any publicity at all they will find something of a fanbase, but without serious effort on publicity they will never be very successful (and depending on the game, it might be so niche or hardcore that it never finds a sustainable audience at all).

3. Hobbyist/Nonprofessional: This group is the largest by far, basically comprising anything that a person just slaps together in however much time. Generally there is not much discipline in creating these, nor a great sense of design. Some are really fun and worth playing, most are not. But! Most real game designers start out like this -- I created a large number of games I would consider in this category, although I never publicly released most of them. They were an invaluable learning experience, but if I had expected to make a business out of them that would have been laughable -- selling 100 or even 10 copies would be pretty ambitious and would mostly depend on how many friends you have.

Why The Categories Matter
Objectively determining what category you fall into out of the above is very important. If you're reading this blog looking for advice, you probably fall in or near the undiscovered gems category. If you're an indie darling, you know it, of course (I'm not, for the record). If you're in the hobbyist category you may not know it. But if you just can't get any sales no matter what you do, then you might have to realize that you are in that category. That's okay! Most of us started there.

The realization is important because you need to realize that there is something your game is lacking. You need to either make your game better, or you need to make a new game based on what you now know after having created the first (the code architecture of first-games is often so bad that it's better to just start fresh... I know I did). Similarly, if you are in the undiscovered gems category you are also missing something -- either that "indefinable something extra" that makes the big games really stand out, or else publicity. Or both. Figuring out what you are missing and addressing it is the key to moving up, near as I can tell.

So where is AI War right now? We're an undiscovered gem at present, but we're getting a lot more coverage recently, and that's been helping sales trend ever upwards. We've also got a potential publication deal in the works, which could really boost things even more. We'll see.

Observation: You Need Distribution Partners
To hear 2D Boy (the creators of indie darling World of Goo) tell it, all you need to do is put up a website, make a great game, and people will flock to your site. I have not observed anyone else who has seen this as a workable strategy. For AI War, in our first two weeks of doing exactly that, we had precisely zero sales. It wasn't until we got picked up for Stardock's Impulse platform that things really started kicking off. 2D Boy had an awful lot of publicity before putting up their website.

So, instead, my advice is to pursue as many distribution partners as possible. Only the ones that give you a fair royalty rate (most of the time I get 70%), and those which are non-exclusive so that you can cast a wide net, but otherwise just go ahead and keep casting as wide a net as possible. The specific sites you will submit to also vary by genre. But having a website and an ecommerce partner there is also a good idea.

Observation: Art Is Not As Important As Indie Developers Think
Aspiring indie developers get really hung up on the art in their games. So much so, that many of them never really finish anything substantial. You can't expect an artist to work for you for free -- they're wise to the fact that most of the time the programmer/designer is going to flake out if this is their first project. So do what you can with the art that is freely available out there (there isn't much, but there is some), and otherwise just use placeholder art. If your game is awesome and fun, then you can better attract an artist or you will be better justified in investing in art yourself.

Observation: Art Is Really Important
It's just not as important as new indie developers think it is. You can't expect to have great art from the start unless you are lucky and know a great artist, or have large stacks of cash just sitting around. But you can still make a fun game that will attract something of an audience. Just be ready to either make a bigger, better, prettier sequel after that, or to upgrade the art on your first game. Depends on how big your first game is, and what the potential market for it is, and how bad your initial art really is. Art clearly matters in moving copies of indie games, but it's not the only deciding factor. You can sell pretty well with fairly poor art, you'll just sell better with better art (all else being equal).

Observation: No One Cares About Your Game. Until They Do.
Getting that first sale is brutal hard. You need a good demo, good marketing materials, a good sales pitch in general. You have to get someone pretty excited about your game to shell out for something they have never heard of before. If you can get some positive early reviews, that will also really help. Having a distribution partner will also help, if you can get one. You basically need a way to show potential customers that you are for real, that you build something worth paying for, and that they can trust you with their credit card or other personal information (this can be simply offering paypal as an option, or whatever other reputable ecommerce platform).

Until you start getting some notice, no one is going to want to notice you. It's a very chicken-and-egg sort of situation. There are too many indie games out there, most in the hobbyist category, and especially if your art is not great people will usually assume that's the category you are in if they have never heard of you and their first contact is from you soliciting them. Eventually you will find some people who will take a chance on your game; if you impress them, then you can move up a few notches in exposure and find more people who will take a chance on it.

If no one is impressed after taking a chance on it, then you're probably in the hobbyist category without knowing it. That's not the end of the world -- either make a new, better game and try again, or solicit feedback from your early chance-takers and then improve your offering before you find some more chance-takers. One blown chance is not the end of the line, although you can't afford to blow too many of them with one game.

Observation: Publicity Comes In Waves
Whether you like it or not, the entire gaming community is unlikely to suddenly sit up and notice your game. There are millions upon millions of gamers out there, and they don't all do anything as a group. When you're starting from scratch, with no reputation or contacts, you basically have to scrounge for anything. Each bit of publicity you gain makes the next just a bit easier. You have a bit better story to tell to potential reviewers (e.g., "Reviewer X loved it and I was wondering if you also want to do a review since you like the same genre.").

You will also have players who may be willing to do some publicity of their own, such as talking about the game on other forums, to their friends, etc. I can't stress enough how vital word of mouth is to the startup indie developer. People like seeing positive reviews, but have a mild distrust of that since they don't know if the reviewer's criteria are the same of their own. People also really mistrust anything that the developer says unless the developer has a really sterling reputation (which is why you must never exaggerate or say anything false about your games, incidentally). But people greatly trust the opinions of friends and acquaintances, whether online or off, so personal recommendations like that are the absolutely best sort of publicity you can get if it's on a large enough scale.

If you're lucky, persistent, and patient, you'll see your publicity gradually snowballing into bigger and bigger waves of coverage. That's assuming you have a game in the undiscovered gem category or above. Every so often you should send out more press releases or review requests -- the sites won't ever talk about your stuff if they don't even know it exists.

Observation: Uniqueness Counts
When you are telling people about your game, what do you say? Do you hem and haw and say, "well, it's hard to explain but it's fun?" If so, you're digging your own grave. If you say "it's a clone," you're also shooting yourself in the foot. When people think of indie games, they aren't looking for "like that other game but not quite as good." They're looking for something they've never seen before, that the AAA publishers would never dare give them.

If your game is just a clone of some other game, maybe you can find something of an audience, but I wouldn't know anything about that. I can't imagine it would be a sustainable business. It's okay if your game has some similarities to other games -- every game does -- but you also need to offer something genuinely new and startling. Look at all the biggest darlings, and all of the best undiscovered gems, and you'll see this trait with all of them. There is something very defining and unique about each one.

Tip: Refine Your Story
When you are trying to explain your game to reviewers, to potential customers, and to people you meet on the street, you need to have both an elevator pitch ("AI War is a space-based RTS game with incredible AI and huge unit counts."), and you also need to be able to succinctly explain what is going on with your game at the time. Why is this game exciting? Why should the person take time out of their day to take a closer look at it? This is an evolving process, and takes a lot of work on your part. I highly recommend learning how to write a good query letter, and the best source of information I know about that (although related to book publishing) is literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog.

Just so that you can see what I mean, here are some evolving emails I've used over the past few months (with extra personalization as needed for given sites or individuals):

A Very Weak Query, Circa early May 2009
I'm the CEO of Arcen Games, a small indie developer. We're nearing
release of our first game, an RTS called AI War. The game has incredible AI
and the largest number of units (30,000+ in most games) of any game we know
of. It's also cooperative-focused, which is quite unique.

Through a Gamasutra article I found your site, and was hoping to get more
information about who you are and what sort of opportunities there might be
to work together.

For screenshots, and more info:
Getting a bit better, same week:
Indie developer Arcen Games has just made public an advance release of the RTS game AI War: Fleet Command. This is a pretty unique game, with several firsts for the genre.

- Cooperative RTS game (1-8 players) with numerous unique ship types.
- Challenging AI (some of the best in the genre) in 26 styles, many with unique superweapons.
- Insanely high unit counts: 30,000+ ships in most games.
- Lengthy campaigns featuring 80+ simultaneous planetary battlefields.
- Different Every Time: 16 billion procedural maps, each with specific units.
- A focus on deep strategy that you don't get in most RTS games.

This is a game created by genre veterans for genre veterans, but that doesn't mean it's inaccessible for players new to RTS games: robust tutorials, a simulated campaign, and a free online mini strategy guide make it easy to get into the game, but hard to master it!

The Arcen Games website, with screenshots, videos, a mini strategy guide, and the demo:

Chris Park
CEO, Arcen Games, LLC
Much Better, Much Later -- Mid-July
Hi there,

I'm the developer of AI War: Fleet Command, an indie RTS game for the PC. We're fairly little known so far, but are one of the more popular titles on Stardock's Impulse, and are getting a pretty excellent player community in our forums. The game is a cooperative space-based affair, with some of the best AI in the genre (I did a recent podcast on that on techZing! in addition to a series of articles on the topic at my blog:

You can see screenshots and videos of the game, as well as download the demo, from our company website: If you'd like to do a review, please let me know and I'd be happy to provide a license key to unlock the full game from the demo. Additionally, if you're interested in doing an interview about any topic relating to the game, I'm always game for that (the AI has been the biggest point of discussion so far, but some players have been suggesting that it would be interesting to hear more about the decisions behind the unique and effective "AI Progress" mechanic in the game, or other similar game design topics).

Chris Park
Arcen Games, LLC
Beyond The Basics
In other, later missives I was also a lot more personalized, mentioned various specific positive reviews, and talked about how this was not a traditional RTS but something of a novel blend of grand strategy, tower defense, RTS, and even with a few TBS influcenes even though it is 100% realtime.

I have sent several hundred emails out to various parties about AI War, and my response rate overall has been pretty positive -- maybe 10% aggregate at this stage. These days my response rate is much higher, approach 80-90% because more people have heard whisperings of the game and I have a much better story (having had some really posive reviews from bigger sites), but early on in the response rate was more like 3-5%. This is why you have to submit to so many places! You don't know who will respond, and until you do you need to cast a wide net.

If I had just made a good game, and then gotten on a distributor or two, most of the publicity for AI War would never have happened. It's just a fact. Similarly, if I had not had a number of players out there evangelising for the game, a lot of sales would never have happened. Properly promoting, supporting, and updating a post-release game is a fulltime job in itself. Be prepared. You can do a halfway job with it if you are lucky, but if you are not lucky you are once again setting yourself up to fail where you might otherwise have succeeded.

In Conclusion
If you thought this article was going to be advice about making a good game, then I bet you came away surprised. Making a good game is just the beginning, just as writing a good novel is only the beginning for novelists. If you read much advice for aspiring novelists, almost all of it also applies to indie developers. You need to begin by doing something awesome and startlingly new, and then you need to follow that up with lots of elbow grease, long hours, and promotion efforts (which can often be frustrating and/or distasteful depending on your personality).

Anyone who thinks that being an indie developer is easy, or a path to quick money, is sorely mistaken. There is a high chance of failure, the rewards are not great unless you do above-average or better for the market into which you are entering, and it involves a heck of a lot more than just programming/designing a game. You have to be your own marketing department, sales force, PR firm, accountant, and support staff. And you have to do a stellar job at all of those different jobs, or you're only reducing your already poor chances.

Granted, making a great game is what counts the most. All the PR in the world won't save a poor game, and will only make people mistrust what you say in the future -- did I mention to never exaggerate about your work? So none of this applies if your game isn't already up to snuff. But what most people fail to realize is just how much work is still involved once you have a great game in hand... and how many chances you have to still fail and languish in obscurity.

There isn't a great deal of organized information about this sort of thing out there for indie developers, but you only have to look to book publishing to see where all of this is headed. The steep slope ahead of an aspiring novelist is even taller than the slope in front of the indie developer, but they are very similar slopes all the same. The indie games industry is too new to have much advice around for you to peruse, but if you look at the advice for novelists, you'll have a wealth of mostly-relevant advice.

A surprising fact you might not know: most novelists, in fact almost all of them except the bestsellers, aren't making a living out of being a novelist. I kid you not, google it and see. That's pretty sobering. The rewards of indie games development are potentially much greater than the possible rewards you would see for your average aspiring novelist, but you also have a whole team of people to support rather than just a single writer. Most indie game developers aren't making a living at this either, from what I can tell, although the best certainly do. And to be the best, you've got to have the whole package.

In the end, "the whole package" can be summarized rather neatly: you have to have a game worth playing, and people have to hear good things about about it and be able to buy it at a price they find fair. That's surprisingly harder than it sounds. You can do it, but you'll go a lot further if you consider the pitfalls and prepare for the post-release work before you actually do release. Indie game development is very much a profession, not a hobby, and it comes with all the rigors you would expect from a profession.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reviewing A Bad Review

Amidst the current tide of really great reviews and praise that has been coming in for AI War (and which I am very grateful for), comes the "on trial" review of the demo in the Indie Gaming Mag, which gave it a cumulative 3.66 out of 10. Don't bother trying to read the review online, it's something you have to buy a subscription to their magazine to read (Update: Now they've put it online. Hooray.).

Disclaimer: I am pretty pissed off, which is hard state to get me to. However, I'll try not to let that color this post too much, because I really do think that IGM is doing some things very, very wrong with their "on trial" system.

The "On Trial" Review System: "N/A" For Uninstallable?
All games in the "On Trial" section are looked at by four reviewers at IGM. The four for AI War scored the game 7, 1, 3, and N/A respectively. I've noticed a surprising number of "N/A" reviews in IGM from the two issues I've looked at. Essentially, anytime a reviewer can't get a game to run or install on the first try, for whatever reason, they give up and post an N/A. In the "on trial feature" in the current issue #6, there is an N/A score for two out of the ten games, for instance (one out of the four reviews of each of the two games getting an N/A, that is). It seems like there were more than that in issue #5, but I may be misremembering; I can't find my copy of that issue, and the download link has expired.

I found it odd when it was other people's games they were reviewing, and figured those games must be very poor indeed if a reviewer could not get them to install, but now I see how little effort they actually put into it. It seems almost downright irresponsible for a reviewer to do something like that. If reviewers gave up every time a AAA title did not install or run correctly on the first try, there would be a lot of N/A reviews in most magazines. This is often not the fault of the game (though sometimes it is), but rather is something that just sucks about PCs in general. I love the PC, but -- news flash -- Windows is not always the most stable, sensible, or reliable.

Also? Because Windows is so unreliable, it takes experts on installing software in order to write software to install other software (say that 10 times fast). Almost no game developers code their own installers (I am tempted to say that no game developers do, but I can't be certain there isn't one out there who did for some reason). So, what you are really reviewing when you review the installer is some other third party (in our case Advanced Installer). There are just so many things wrong with this I don't know where to begin, but I will say that for a magazine supposedly devoted to indie games, it's funny to complain about something so outside the developer's control -- did I mention that installer software is fricking expensive? Advanced Installer was over $500, and it was one of the cheaper alternatives.

Bottom line to players is that they want games to install and run on the first try. I get that, and I agree. I think that any reasonable developer tries to make that happen. But this is Windows, folks. I think we all understand that things will not go perfectly every time. Still, with a dozen or so reviews and an undisclosed-but-bigger-than-a-breadbox number of customers, I'm not fighting with installer issues on an ongoing basis with AI War. People seem to be working it out pretty straightforwardly in most cases, aside from a few odd edge cases where either some other sort of software is interfering, a corrupt copy of the installer is present, or their copy of Windows is just plain effed up.

Music and Sound
The music was "fairly torturous" to one IGM reviewer and "annoying" to another. Fricking ouch. Some other reviewers outside of IGM have also been nonplussed by the music, or didn't mention it at all, but one said "the music is beautiful, engaging and compliments the game wonderfully" (Steve Blanch, Bytten). Others have also commented on the fact that it was good, and it has also been heavily complemented by a number of actual players (one calling it "some of the best music I've heard in any Western game.").

On the flip side, some reviewers have very rightly pointed out that the sound effects are like "extremely small fireworks" (James Allen, Out of Eight Reviews). These reviewers have a great point, and this was justly deserved criticism of the game. Sound effects are something we are working on for future free DLC, to make those more imposing and interesting.

I don't understand the polarization in opinions on the music, perhaps it has to do with occasional drops in sample quality -- Pablo, like me, has to work with the tools he has for now. Or maybe some just don't agree with the style, or maybe it's just taste. I feel like Pablo is being mistreated with the caustic IGM reviews, whatever the case.

More Installer Complaints
The list of prerequisite downloads, and the fact that our EULA is in the installer, really pissed off two of the reviewers. They wanted something that you can just click Next a bunch on and be done with it. While I understand that view, this would make the download around 400MB instead of 80MB. Also, SlimDX does not support that sort of silent install, which pretty much kills that right there.

Also also, for anyone who is already up to date on the .NET Framework and DirectX 9, there's just one little install of SlimDX and the game itself and no reboots. The .NET Framework and DirectX are not exactly mysterious, unusual requirements for software. The only reboot required is from the .NET Framework 3.5, which many people should already have on their system, anyway. I don't feel that AI War should be penalized because a reviewer hasn't been keeping up to date with their Windows Updates.

Bad Review vs. Bad Reviewer
It's not that I think that AI War doesn't have any faults -- it, like all games, does. And tastes vary, too. I get that. Even amongst good reviewers, there have certainly been criticisms of the game that I don't agree with. Those I have to accept and move on. This is not what these IGM reviews are.

Some other reviewers criticize the game for not meeting up with what their ideas of what the game should be (such as: lacking story or lore, or not providing some specific play option). In those cases, as a game designer it is my job to listen to those criticisms carefully, but keep the game true to what its core experience is actually supposed to be. Some criticisms result in changes to the game (I treat critical opinions like I would suggestions from any other player suggestion). Still others I just have to chalk up to differences in taste/opinion, which happens. Every game is not for everyone.

IGM is one of the first times I've run up against what I felt were irresponsible reviewers. Maybe they just had too much else to do with other games that were higher on their priority list, but if that was the case they should not have tried to review AI War at all. If you are going to review a game, you should try, you know, actually playing it a bit. I noticed that, among the IGM reviewers who played AI War and talked about it, the ones who played it longer liked it the best. Is that because they liked it better, or did they like it better because they actually saw more of the actual game? I can't begin to say, but I think the latter is a factor to some degree.

How To Review A Game You Don't Fully Love
When I look at the recent WiiWare game My Life As A Darklord, the first hour or two of that game is absolutely boring in my opinion -- too little is going on, everything is overly simplistic or mysteriously complicated in the wrong places (semi-bad tutorials), etc. And if you lose, you are treated to a lot of repetition. However, once you get past that, the game starts to make sense and is actually a load of fun. This is causing the game to get some mixed reviews, and those who recommend it still tend to caution players about the slow start -- but you'll notice that the reviewers actually played enough of the game to get an idea of what is going on.

Furthermore, if you're just not into a genre it's okay to say so. There's no way I would ever try to review a sports game or a fighting game -- I just don't play those, and I couldn't tell you whether they are good or not. In one sense they all seem pretty uninteresting and mediocre to me, even if they do have pretty graphics -- and the interface of fighting games is unintelligible because I am just not practiced in the art of button combos. Does that make those genres worthless and bad? Of course not. It just means I am not their target audience. I actually have a lot of respect for what both genres do, and they certainly are well-loved by many players (including a number of my friends). I'm not insulted that those other genres exist, and I'm not interested in them simplifying to try to bring me into the fold. We can just be friends, and that's okay.

Other Chicanery
The tutorials in AI War have largely been praised and have seemed to be pretty effective in getting players up to speed. But it seems clear to me that the IGM reviewers, some of them at least, were interested in getting into the game and back out as fast as possible. I got the same impression with Mike and Caspian's reviews of Dark Souls, another indie game skewered in IGM issue 6. Having not played Dark Souls I can't comment on its quality, but from Sam's and Kayla's reviews in IGM I am definitely intrigued. Next to them, the comments from Mike and Caspian seem downright flippant, though. Given the game's review on Game Tunnel, I think I will definitely have to try it out.

Light of Altair is another indie title that I have not played but which seems to have been doing well enough for itself in terms of reviews, and which seems to be doing even better with sales. The verdict in IGM is a 5.75, which is several steps lower than other reviews have been. This in itself is not terribly insidious -- perhaps they are just harsh graders. But I find this telling of the fact that they averaged their scores from non-genre fans and genre fans alike. Their scores for the game were 5, 3, 7, and 8. I'm not sure that averaging those into one number gives any real meaningful information to me about Light of Altair.

Light of Altair is a game that looks to not be my cup of tea for a few reasons, but I respect the game and from what I have seen it deserves more than a 5.75, which is a pretty miserable score (and yet so much better than AI War's 3.66 score, which is what I would give to the guttertrash Wii cash-in games that are sold for $10 -- thanks very much, IGM).

See how easy it is to say "this game's not for me, but if you're into it's style of play you might like it?"

A big thing in a lot of the IGM reviews seems to be the "style" of the game. Does the game have lots of "style" and is it consistent throughout? If yes, hooray. If not, as claimed with AI War, then what were the developers thinking?

Answer: there is more to games than just visual style, and we had a $0 budget at start. If you limit your interest to games with a level of polish like the AAA titles, you will only get indie games from previous AAA developers. Oh, but wait, even the art in Light of Altair was criticized off and on by IGM.

We are sure spending a lot of time talking about art in reviews of indie games, which I thought were supposed to be about more. I know that the art in AI War is not the best. We are actively working on that now that the game is bringing in some money to pay for its own upgrades, but even with all of these upgrades it is not going to look like Homeworld or Prince of Persia or something.

That is, uh, a big part of the difference between most AAA titles and most indie titles. Some indie games look absolutely stellar, but my complaint with them tends to be that they are then too short. Budgets are limited at indie developers, this is an almost universal truth, so you are either going to get a lot of content and lesser production values, or AAA level production values and less content. I'm probably always going to be in the former group, primarily because I value function over form, but also because that's what I'm good at making (I don't have a AAA gaming development pedigree, my background is in business software).

In all fairness, IGM did give a pretty favorable review to Blueberry Garden (7.75 is not a stellar review in my book), and a very good review to Plants versus Zombies. Blueberry has what I would call fairly lackluster graphics, but it has the mysterious "style." As does Plants vs. Zombies. I can't actually disagree with that, both games are quite stylish despite the other detractions, although I do disagree that some of the other games in their list -- AI War included -- don't have a style of their own. I thought Light of Altair was one of the more stylish-looking ones, but it was criticized for certain lapses.

Are all of the above prettier than AI War at the moment? Yes, in most respects. We're working on that, but still I don't feel that AI War is unattractive. Does the game lack visual personality? Yes. So does Chess. Maybe that's part of what they were talking about with "style," which they never bother to explain.

Celebrity Obsession
In the end, looking at the games that were scored relatively well and which received the most attention in IGM, I see that it is mostly the same list that has been getting a lot of attention in the mainstream gaming press. Those games are covered by the mainstream press for a reason -- they are excellent -- but isn't there supposed to be more out there? Shouldn't we actually give more time to games we've never heard of?

Put In Some Time, Please, Or Don't Bother At All
Instead, IGM reviewer Mike complains about AI War: "Honestly, I was so fed up with
this tactical game that I didn't give the gameplay much of a chance." His prior complaints being the installer, the pixelart, the "annoying music," and the fact that there were "three extensive tutorials." Incisive journalism there. I similarly enjoyed his other reviews of the bottom-five rated games in IGM #6.

IGM reviewer Caspian notes that the tutorial is "particularly dull," as contrasted with positive reviews elsewhere such as "It is rare to see a tutorial that not only lets the player jump right into the action, but also entertains while instructing the player" (Chris Beck, The Wargamer). Caspian also criticizes the interface as being "pretty bad an unintuitive," compared to others calling it "a great interface" (Beck) or "the interface in AI War is almost completely fantastic" (Allen).

Caspian also asks "why break convention?" This is an excellent question, and one that Tom Chick does a much better job of answering than I could: "because it's big, different, entirely unprecedented and an exciting way to play an RTS." Caspian further snarks that "It's as if absolutely no external testing managed to provide feedback to the developers." Which is just hilarious, given our growing reputation as one of the developers most open to player feedback. The interface isn't graphical pretty at the moment (another thing on our list to upgrade), but it's extremely functional and has been ever further refined with the help of dozens of players.

One telling fact about how little time Caspian put into the game is the fact that he claims "The tutorial stages can't even be skipped." This is patently untrue. The game shows the tutorials menu when you first load the game, with a big button for "Main Menu" if you prefer not to do them first (although, you'll be pretty lost without them, because this game is so different from most RTS titles). The second time you open the game, it takes you right to the main menu -- so this reviewer never opened it more than once.

Finally, Caspian notes that the game is "essentially... the same fare as pretty much any other RTS." Well done, sir. Thanks for that. Not only did none of the IGM reviewers actually look at or comment on the effectiveness of the AI itself (which is admittedly hard to review unless you sink in a lot of time), they also never mentioned it. It seems that having AI that is "some of the best I've seen" (Blanch) doesn't warrant any discussion or investigation at all, or count as a huge differentiating factor. Similarly, with no actual investigation into more than the most basic parts of the interface and mechanics, there's no time to discover that "there's a lot of 2009 to go, but I'll be surprised if anyone else twists the RTS formula this dramatically and this effectively" (Chick).

In Conclusion
There's a hell of a lot of snark in IGM, and consequently I've been inclined to respond with more snark than I normally would. Normally I try to respect the opinions of others, and allow for differences of opinion. I've weathered quite a few beatings and a fair bit of commentary that I don't agree with, without ever resorting to snark. But this manhandling by IGM is just too ridiculous.

First, I highly recommend if you are an indie developer that you give these guys a miss. Either you are already critically popular and you don't need these guys to reconfirm it, or you are not yet critically popular and you don't need a trashing from them. I'm not sure what the goals of this magazine are -- it's certainly not supporting or nurturing upcoming indie developers, since they are pretty brutal when there is the slightest thing they don't like. I guess they are going for sort of a Simon-from-American-Idol vibe? That's entertaining to a lot of people (not me), so maybe that's what it is.

In fact, a lot of their reviews -- from the way they talk about their favorites to the way they trash those they don't like -- are reminiscent of Idol to me. If I'd known, I'd have never volunteered to be a part of it. My resolution in general is to cast a wide net and let no potential opportunity pass by (this is the only way to make it as an indie developer), but these guys seem to be trying to drive indie developers out of making games. The game Enlightenus "stomps out any flashes of inspiration" in its own design, according to IGM; Hollywood Tycoon is "great in its ability to admit the existing of a sci-fi romantic comedy, but little else;" and even Blueberry Garden "would have been much better as a free Flash game."

Way to support the indie community, guys. I don't know what else to say than that.