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GDC 2011 - Six Indie Principles to Live By

Check out the six indie principles I discovered at this year's Independent Games Summit!

This my 3rd year covering the Indie Game Summit and the draw to attend only gets stronger.  Each year, a new, fresh faced group of speakers join the group of independent game creators that have come before.  What makes this event so exciting are the new ideas being thrown out to the crowd, innovations, and completely honest commentary on what goes into creating an independent game.  You can feel the creative energy in the air and when you leave the summit – you’re possessed with some inherent indie verve.  I come up with a slew of concepts, designs, and ideas throughout the conference – and it’s this group of speakers that make me dream that it’s all possible.

What have I learned this year?  Here are my newly discovered indie principles:

Humble Indie Bundles Metrics

1.) Build Multi-Platform and Release Multi-Channel

Easier said than done right?  Putting in the extra effort to making your game available to additional audiences is critical for profitability and bolsters your PR efforts.  The makers of the Humble Indie Bundle noted that Mac and Linux made up 50% total of all their sales, and Linux users often paid the highest price point for their games!  Not only that – but Linux buyers spread the news around their communities like wildfire, drastically increasing sales numbers. 

The developers behind Super Meat Boy were glad they kept their distribution channels varied.  The team had initially targeted WiiWare, XBL, and PC – with PSN on the backburner just in case.  Their game was much too large to release via WiiWare, XBL sold well but not great, but Steam came through with huge numbers.   The developers of Shank at Klei Entertainment had a similar approach – with different results.  They targeted XBL, PSN, and PC for their launch.  Whereas XBL did well at first, it quickly slumped, but their PSN sales gradually increased – sustaining their profitability for much longer.  Steam sales were “ok,” but weren’t a huge factor.

Jonathan Blow's Oracle Billiards Prototype

Jonathan Blow's Oracle Billiards Prototype

2.) Get Creative with Prototypes

Several of the most successful indie developers there found that by developing prototypes rather than designing a fully-fledged game they often came up with a more fun production.  Games like Super Meat Boy and Spelunky XBL were based on prior successful flash games.  Although the originals were much smaller the fun was evident – so they built off their success with complete games.

Prototyping also sometimes yields unexpected results!  Tetris Creator, Alexey Pajitnov, came up with the idea for Tetris while prototyping a “tetramino” type game and discovering that making the tiles fall was much more fun.  Indie designer Jonathan Blow prototyped something he named “Oracle Billiards” in which you could see precisely where the balls would go once hit.  He wanted to see what it would be like to view the future, and how this might change a game like billiards.  The idea behind this prototype was what carried him into his award winning game, “Braid.”

Pocketwatch Games’ Andy Schatz developed a game called Monaco in 15 weeks which lead to him winning the Grand Prize for Excellence in Design.  He originally intended to spend 3 days working on a prototype to take a break from developing a biome game he had been working on.  Not only was he happier working on the prototype – but it turned out to be a much more fun game.



3.) Build Happiness through Your Work

Michael Todd gave a poignant and honest speech titled “Turning Depression into Inspiration.”  The key take-away being: work on something that keeps you happy and excited.  Don’t get down on what you’re working on, and avoid being a perfectionist.  Not only that, but design a game that suits your abilities.  If you’re a talented artist, there’s nothing wrong with making an artistic game with very basic game play.  If you’re a talented programmer don’t be afraid to experiment with new systems and give the finger to art.  Stick with what you’re good at.

Todd wasn’t the only developer to stress this.  Andy Schatz was in a heavy state of boredom and depression when he began working on Monaco.  After only a few weeks of working on something that genuinely excited him he was a much happier person.  Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (creators of Super Meat Boy) had high levels of stress and depression when working on Meatboy.  They said the only thing that kept them going was that they fell in love with their game.  They considered the game their child and it took them through the entire process.

Petri Purho's Slide

Petri Purho's Slide

4.) Create Art Instead of Making Products

Petri Purho got deep with his brief presentation this year.  He really wanted to encourage those in the audience working on games not to think of them as some huge product, but as artwork.  He also stressed that we all show off what we’re working on.  Don’t be afraid to fail, or to show it off.  Another speaker implored developers to aim to explore and not to impress by giving some creatively modified Henry David Thoreau quotes.

The big companies in our industry are focused on pumping out sequels and minimizing their risk.  It’s the smaller independents that really have a chance to innovate and explore new gameplay.  So concentrating on the “art” aspect of games, and not being afraid to show them off, we can advance our industry further.

Kyle Pulver Breaks Down Game Jams

Kyle Pulver Breaks Down Game Jams

5.) Build in Small and Focused

This principle works in two different ways: the first – learning quickly and efficiently, and second – keeping your communities happy.  Kyle Pulver talked for a short while about game jams, something I feel is a rapidly growing game development avenue.  He said some of his most heightened creativity was during the game jams he attends.  He described it as a type of focus only attainable while working under time constraint and with limited resources.  He took this as far as attending weekly 2 hour game jams to expand his knowledge of ActionScript, and found that he built his skillset much faster this way and through traditional methods.  Each week he would focus on one system during the 2 hour jam.

Andy Schatz’s development philosophy on Monaco is to implement features rapidly within a day at a time.  He advocated working on at least one thing small and cool everyday… but only for one day.  Make sure it’s something you completely enjoy working on, and after it’s implemented make sure it’s enjoyable within the context of the game.

Lastly, Arthur Humphrey brought up the Pocket God-esque type development methodology.  He made the point that when you start off selling a small game and slowly add to it, the community will remain happy.  This “service” mentality allows you to focus on building great small features while funding it via the game’s sales.

Notch's take on Pirates!

Notch's take on Pirates!

6.) Develop a Thriving Community

Building a strong community has several benefits to your existing projects or works-in-progress.  For those still working on their game, Wolfire’s John Graham suggests that it will build hype for your game passively.  Word of mouth is one of the best ways to advertise and by creating a channel for potential customers to communicate allows this to happen organically.  Jamie Cheng from Klei explained that “Olde Style PR” is dead.  Press releases are a defunct one sided way to talk press and fans.  By opening a 2 way communication channel you can head off potential miscommunications before they can negatively affect your game.  Interfacing with your customers is key.

Andre Clark and Peanutgallery’s game “pOnd” basically slaps gamers in the face.  I’ll leave the reason why for you to find out!  But rather than viewing angry reactive gamer’s comment in a negative light, they appreciate the feedback.  They figure that by slapping you in the face – you should be allowed to do it back.  They encourage feedback and value when gamers leave it.  Don’t fear the negative from your communities, but respond to it.

Minecraft’s famous creator Notch explained that one of the best ways to head off potential game piracy and copyright violation is by allowing them to get to know YOU.  It’s much harder to hurt a person than some unknown entity or company.  Notch communicates frequently with his player-base and they love him for it.  This pro-active method can help to stop problems before they even start.  The Humble Indie Bundle even went as far as to open up an anonymous survey to those who pirated their bundle to find out WHY!

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