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GDC 2014: The Independent Game Summit Report

The most refreshing, relevant and important ideas come to the surface at the Independent Games Summit.

Now that the summits and tutorials have come to a close here at GDC, it’s a great time to look back and see what knowledge can be gleamed from the talks.  I spent the majority of my time this year, as I do every year, at the Independent Game Summit.  The most refreshing and relevant ideas come to surface in these sessions, and ultimately they’re the most important to hear.

My Monday started out with Chris Cornell’s talk “Building Player Investment.”  Cornell and his studio, Paper Dino, developed the game Save the Date.  He proposed that the number one goal for developers should be connecting with their players on an emotional level.  How can we do this?  He promised that it wasn’t easy, but there are a few tricks to employ.

Developers should change the relationship players have with the game.  They should feel a part of the game.  This means stripping away all forms of buffers in games.  Things like avatars, names, and gender selection all need to go.  The player should feel as if they are a part of the game and breaking the 4th wall to talk to them is encouraged.  Additionally, much should be left to the player’s imagination - the things that happen in their minds are often times much cooler than what happens on screen.

Next up was Florian Steinhoff’s “Three Ways to Make Players Love and Hate You” talk.  He and his team developed a popular puzzle game on the app store called Jelly Splash.  Besides having some really cool illustrated slides, he offered three primary pieces of advice.

The first was simple - make your game more difficult.  In Jelly Splash they paced game play with what he called “blocking levels” which have a loss rate of about 95%.  Not only do they slow down players, but they monetize the best.  All players tend to respond to the difficulty and truly desire the challenge in the first place.  He posed that you should determine an “FUUU Factor” for your levels, which is the # of tries needed to win divided by the # you almost won.

The second piece of advice was to keep it casual.  This can be achieved by pacing the player’s choices.  A player’s typical process playing is to identify all moves, evaluate the good ones, and then make the best one.  Keeping this in mind, he suggested balancing the # of possible moves with the # of good moves.

The last piece of advice was to add more luck.  He suggested building in a luck factor of about 70%.  Why?  Because people love seeking patterns in randomness and they also love to blame the game.  It also is a significant way to pace the player.  Luck allows you to speed up bad players and to slow down experts.  They’re able to reward their own actions, too, even if it’s not by their own hand.  Steinhoff proposed that players themselves only want a luck factor of about 50%, but designers should shoot for 70%.  A byproduct of luck is what he called “F*ck Yea Moments.”  These moments are things that change the tide of a level and suggests it should happen to the player at least once.  This is because hope is powerful in games.  No matter how difficult a level the player thinks a F*ck Yea Moment could happen again - so they won’t restart constantly.  The also will play about 200x times just to experience the amazingness one again. When it happens, it’s very share worthy, which helps with word-of-mouth advertising.

After Monday lunch, I headed back to the Indie Game Summit to listen to organizer Steve Swink’s talk, “SCALE and the Ethics of Kickstarter.”  After a comedic introduction in which he searched the audience for YouTube personalities and journalists to promote his Kickstarter campaign, (sarcastically) he rattled off some practical Kickstarter tips.

  • Always make it one day longer than you think you’d need.  31 days.
  • Start on Monday or Tuesday at about 7AM.  You’ll get max donations and press coverage.
  • $50,000 is the magic number.  People don’t want to see anything much higher, or much lower than this.

Swink then moved into the more personal part of his talk.  He proposed that creating a Kickstarter will challenge your core beliefs.  He looked to Socrates and quoted “People act immorally but do no not do so deliberately.”  Kickstarter projects can at times make you bend your morals.  He asked the audience if they’d feel as comfortable taking money from their family and not ever returning their investment.  Kickstarter is the same - you’re taking money from people online and potentially never giving them anything in return.

Because of this pressure, he asserted that Kickstarter has a warping effect on game design.  It’s impossible not to hear feedback from the backers and want to change your design.  You constantly receive a torrent of feedback from “Joe Internet.”

He concluded with the take-aways.  Kickstarter helps you raise money in some way.  It serves as a dry marketing run and helps to build a community.  It’s a great place to start promoting.  Lastly, you don’t need a “real” job and you’re able to freely work on your game.

Next up, Kenny and Teddy Lee’s postmortem on Rogue Legacy.  They first detailed what made their game so successful, and explained why it’s not necessarily rogue-like.  First off, they removed any harsh punishment for death.  They also made the game more skill-based and took away the traditional roll of the dice and insta-death events.  Random things should only happen when they are beneficial to the player.  They strove to reduce obscurity by describing virtually everything in the game.  Lastly, they built the lineage system and streamlined it so the one minute life expectancy would remain fun.

The Lees offered a few take-aways from what they learned crafting their flagship title.

  • Work with people who can be independent.  Micromanaging is hard so autonomy is key.
  • Build editors for games, not for companies.  The time saved creating content justifies the time creating the tool.
  • Design Alternatives - always have them.  This means changing the design to save budget or time, and not being a slave to the design.
  • Never shoot for perfect, it’s impossible. Build something fun and polished.

My second day at the conference started with what turned out to be my favorite session so far, Alexander Bruce’s “Antichamber: An Overnight Success, Seven Years in the Making.”  Bruce started his talk with positing that he sat in the very seats the audience were in only five years ago, and he was asking himself how he could be like the people standing on the stage in front of him.

Bruce advocated for networking, real networking that is, which he described as building genuine relationships.  He did this with all sorts of folks in the industry, indies, CEOs, and the press - hundreds of people who he said were necessary for his success.  He learned that everyone in the game industry is just another person, and when all else fails to “Fake it till you make it,” something he learned from Heather Kelly.

Bruce gave an impassioned speech with many other take-aways. I’d like to rattle off a few.

  • Factor luck out of every business decision.  Luck is always present and you can’t plan for it, so you should remove it entirely from any decision.  Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
  • “If I don’t do X, nothing will happen.  If I do X, something might happen.”
  • Festivals are great ways to get noticed and to meet fellow developers.
  • Making a game that is different isn’t enough to succeed, we should strive to create remarkable games, i.e. worth making a remark about.
  • Explaining your game is difficult, it takes practice, and you need to be good at it you want people to care.
  • If you only look at the successful people in the industry, you miss out on half the story.  It’s important to look at those that faded away or failed as well.
  • Naming your game is important.
  • What’s big news to you, may be nothing to someone else.  Don’t build lofty expectations, so you can’t get let down.
  • Have brutal self-awareness.  Question your assumptions and course correct.  Doing what you do is less important than understanding why you did it.
  • Making games is hard.

I stuck around for Peter Molyneux’s “From Indie to AAA to Indie” talk.  Molyneux spent the majority of time talking about his new project Godus, but I thought he had some great things to say regarding indie game development.

Why be an indie?  Why not stay in a corporate world?  He likened the corporate world to safety, contentment, predictability, and security.  Indie’s on the other hand he suggested represent danger, risk, fear, and longing.  Design and innovation is death, but that’s what it takes to be an indie.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  At the moment “we have one huge f*cking vacuum.”  He suggested the industry was making poor and unsophisticated games with terrible monetization models.  The industry is not exploring new technology in a world-changing way, and it’s not using analytics in ways to make games better.  He went back to being an indie to fill this vacuum.

Being indie is more than being a small company, it should be about taking risks, about embracing the things that a large cooperation cannot attempt.

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Evan Goncalo is a game industry professional based in the Boston area.  He works as a teacher in the Game Design program at Bristol Community College and as Lead Designer at Bare Tree Media.  In addition, he is a self-employed graphic designer and an independent game developer.

Prior to his current positions, he has served in roles encompassing QA, Design, Engineering, and Marketing.  Evan has held positions at Turbine Inc, Blue Fang Games, Gatehouse Media, Hasbro Inc, and Varolii Corporation.

Evan holds an associates’ degree from Bristol Community College in Game Design and is in his final semester of completing a dual major in Graphic Design & Digital Media at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

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