Should Indies Make Bigger Games?

I’ve been participating in the Indie Indie Conversation on YouTube with other full-time indie game developers. We upload 3 minute videos at a time (although some are a bit longer) and have a discussion about all sorts of topics related to being an indie, such as technical struggles, the need to explicitly make time for social interaction, and meaningful game play.

Recently, there has been some talk about financial concerns. Andy Moore of Steambirds fame has talked about his recent return to full-time indie status, but his lack of contract work was not his choice, and the lack of a safety net is made worse by the lack of a current project. Mike Hommel chimed in saying that his last project was a flop and lost him money, and he’s going to have to make some games for Flash Game Licensing to make a bit of cash. In the end, he got a new business deal, so good for him, but the turn this conversation took bothered me.

So I made this video:

Now, keep in mind, I write way better than I speak. To clarify, I don’t want to say that Flash games are necessarily dinky little things that get churned out with no soul. My impression of the attitudes of some indies, however, is that spending time on a game to make it great rather than merely good is spending too much time on a single project.

How much value can you really provide your customers if you spent only a few weeks on your game? Chris Hecker’s 2010 GDC rant Please Finish Your Game talks about the idea that a lot of games are prematurely “finished” by indies. That is, they are put out there, and there’s no follow-up or follow-through.

Yes, it is important to get feedback as your game iteratively develops, and releasing early and often is great for getting that feedback and helping you see what direction to take. But it’s not as if indies are putting together epic games and dropping development as soon as they see that there is no audience, or at least that’s not my impression. They just aren’t trying to make bigger games, and apparently they think they’re being rewarded enough for the smaller games.

So are big games inappropriate for developers who aren’t Mojang? Is it too financially risky to make something deeper for players to enjoy, or is it the exact right way that we should be making games? Did you quit your day job to be mediocre, or do you want to meet your potential, even if it is a bit riskier?

14 comments to Should Indies Make Bigger Games?

  • Well I think it is obvious that games (if they show a lot of promise) should be polished the heck out of.
    Sure you can be a successful indie dev by just releasing a lot of good games but you only need one polished perfect game to redefine a genre, the industry, and set your name in stone forever.

    Take Cavestory, eventually got ported to the wii as a fully commercial title (I assume he made good money off of that).
    or Dwarf Fortress (tens of thousands of dollars each month in donations) and Minecraft (Notch is a millionaire from Minecraft alone).

    And actually I cannot think of a single example of a unpolished game making much money.

    Anyone who makes a lot of money had a game that is polished or has promised to continue working on polishing.

    Not that there is no place for quickly developed games, I will play them and likely like them but also forget about them shortly after playing.

    And you are right Flash games are dinky, cannot make a proper game without threads in my opinion.

  • I don’t know. Two of your examples were or are highly unpolished. Dwarf Fortress has a horribly obtuse interface, yet people play the game despite it. Minecraft became popular long before it was considered polished.

    But they are games with a lot of promise. They are epic-sized game. Big games. Notch didn’t stop Minecraft development when he could place and remove blocks in the world. He kept at it.

    And I think it is entirely possible that Notch got advice that he should finish his Minecraft quickly and move on to something else if he wants to make money. It sometimes seems that indies think big games aren’t worth the time or effort, that making something forgettable to make a few bucks now is safer.

  • Well that is why I included “or has promised to continue working on polishing.”
    But you are right, big would of been a better term.

  • And on the topic of Steambirds, I think it makes perfect sense that he lost money.

    It was too big and too polished for a throwaway flash game, in fast it is probably the best throwaway flash game I have ever played (but if it had been 10-20% less polished or smaller I do not think that I would of played it less).

    Now if it was slightly more polished and moderately bigger, well the he could of sold it on steam for 10 bucks a pop and people would of been lining up to do interviews and buy it.

    I really think he was really very close to becoming a icon of the industry.

  • Note that the three big examples pointed out here, none of these guys were full time indie developers to my understanding. If I remember correctly these projects were all part time gigs, while they worked for some other company, and thus didn’t have to rely on indie game income as their only source of income and staying alive.

  • I am not sure what point you are trying to make, but to me that seems to make the point that better games come from developers that have absolutely no concern about money.

  • I think that was his point and I totally agree. I’ve been living without a day job for the past 4 months, and even though it’s more relaxing on the overall, I did get a bit nervous a few times when money reserves were getting lower than I liked. Just so you get a clear idea, since I quit my day job I’ve been working towards my masters degree; I get a fellowship stipend and a research salary which, combined, provide me with less than half the salary I got from my day job. I do some freelance development work to make up the difference.

    I think it’s an excellent idea to be a full time indie, but like everyone seems to agree, you have to make money somehow. However, I agree with GB on many of the points he posted here and in his video responses on Indie Indie Conversation. More specifically, I don’t think game development should turn into just making “any” games just to make some money. Isn’t that what most of us quit their day jobs to get away from, doing something you don’t want to be doing just to make money?

    Speaking only for myself, what I would do when I’m done with my masters (something else I love doing; studying and doing research) is keep working on freelance stuff to make a living, and make games with the intent of making good games, not making money. I think this can easily be adopted by indie game developers, and I believe anyone who can write games would have no trouble whatsoever making a few websites or applications. It might also be worth noting that the freelance/outsourcing market is in high demand at the moment; especially for high quality output which I believe most game developers would be able to produce with ease.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it might be better to focus on making good games without thinking about money (vs. throwaway games with money as the primary focus), and if your game is really good it should be easier to market (some may even market themselves) and make money out of.

    Just my humble opinion on the matter…

  • My point really was simply about the reality of “Need”. If I have large amounts of savings, or alternative income streams, I can take potentially any amount of time drop it into a single project, and even if that project bombs I’m more than likely fine lifestyle, and survival wise. (Emotionally, motivationally, and mentally, a giant project of that size bombing, can be another thing.)

    On the other hand, as a full time indie, that isn’t interested in having an employer, or doing side jobs, and who doesn’t have funding, or large savings, there isn’t any choice at some point.

    You have to release something, to hopefully make enough money to allow you to keep living, and manage to make the next something. Now you might get make a lot of income off the game, and be able to afford a long development cycle for the next game, though often this isn’t the reality.

    So yeah certainty, more time generally can make better games, and if you don’t need income from your business of making games, then you can spend that time. Otherwise you have reality and actual need which generally overrides the art side of game making, sad as that maybe.

    So I think indeed, most of really do want to make these epic sized games, but simply can’t afford to at this point in life.

    Is churning out small games when you have to, in order to generate cash to keep yourself/business afloat, better than taking on freelance work, or side jobs?

    I’d say absolutely, every game you turn out is a potentially valuable resource, its a new IP you can draw on, maybe some unexpected hit that makes a ton of cash, and usually in some way still advances your skills in the craft. At the very least if you have a website, and a presence, it also expands your marketing, SEO, and brand.

    You rarely get any of this doing freelance or side job work (Especially if its outside the games industry). You’re just working for someone else at that point, to make cash, which keeps you alive, but certainly isn’t directly helping your business in anyway outside of that cash infusion.

  • But then does that not beg the question, how are you any better or more free artistically then the mainstream if your primary concern is money?

  • Well thats where a fine line of love and hate tends to come into play for myself, and I imagine many full time indies that are dependent on the income. I mean ultimately we need to be making projects which are commercially viable, in order to sustain ourselves, and that can mean minimizing risk, and being less artistic and so forth at times.

    However, its still a world more of freedom, and ability to be artistic, than if you were making some AAA title with a publisher laying down 40-50 million dollars, and being tightly involved in oversight, and coming down with game design alterations and everything else, due to the risk and their need to make back and profit from the investment.

    Outside of that, art and business has always been against each other generally, what usually happens if you’re lucky is you have enough money coming in from other games, that you can afford to finance and take the risk of making some more artistic or risky game piece. Its all about income, if you have it, you can be super artistic, take huge risks, and if it flops it flops, things go on. If you don’t have the income, and your title flops this may mean you closing the doors, and moving to the streets with your family.

  • The big problem I have with this “Indie Conversation” lately is that “Indie” does not only mean “Solo Indie”. These guys are doing everything themselves. Of course they can’t release a big game. If they want to do something big, they have to get over themselves and team up. They have amazing talent and I always hoped that Ludum Dare would be a place to get together rather than show off.

    Nobody should be spending two years full time on a game. You need teamwork to develop a big game in a reasonable time. Some big games (or at least an unpolished beta or demo version) can be pushed out in a month with proper collaboration, making the total dependence on flash games kinda silly. Note that my definition of “big” here is on the order of World of Goo, Super Meat Boy, and Braid, all of which were done by small teams instead of a single guy who occasionally outsources art.

  • Wow, great discussion here!

    Jonny D: You’re right. Indie doesn’t need to mean solo. I will say that World of Goo, Super Meat Boy, and Braid all took way longer than a month, and Brain especially took a LOT of capital and time. Three years, in fact. As far as I know, it was mostly Jon Blow and an artist. So if Braid is a big game, it was done with a small two-person team in three years.

    I don’t agree that nobody should be spending two years full-time on a game. It might be hard, but it isn’t impossible if you have the right skills, resources, and motivation.

  • The core gameplay was not what took three years. Polish and careful completion to AAA quality may take that long in some cases. Jonathan Blow didn’t have to do all the programming if he wanted the game to be done sooner or was unable to invest that much time; he had the leisure of choice.

    My point is that a big game can be proven as a worthwhile investment (and make some money) in the time that it takes for a lone wolf to make a small flash game. Each of those games could have been made (perhaps were made) in a very short amount of time, just without as much polish.

    I think that bigger games are also more satisfying as long as you are sure of how enjoyable and attractive the game will be. You should be able to get money, whether through a paid beta or a publishing or investment deal, before you spend two years on the game.

  • @Jonathon Wisnoski Steambirds hasn’t lost money, it’s made quite a lot actually, so there must be some confusion there. I know Andy personally and just spent the week with him in Seattle at Casual Connect + saw his talk at the FGS.

    Yes, very interesting discussion. I myself believe I have made good quality casual games that I put a lot of care and effort into, although with all of them they eventually shipped with me wishing I could have put more stuff in. These games have been successful and kept my family housed and fed since 2005. However, I’ve seen what I believe to be lower quality games do better because they have a more appealing theme, and this has taught me that maybe I can be a bit less fussy about some of the details. Also, in Andy’s FGS talk he mentions making a quick prototype and getting out there to test the market, and if it meets with approval, then improving it. I agree with this method and will do it with future games instead of working in a darkened room for a year on a bigger project, crossing my fingers and hoping (some indies do this!)

Twitter: gbgames

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