Friday 25 March 2011

Some Industry Reflections

One thing I have been thinking about recently, is the direction in which the indie game scene seems to be heading. This is something that can be seen in upcoming of games, various talks, articles and what is considered the largest recent successes. It is a direction that might have large consequences for the future of the medium.

Quickly summed up, there is a strong design trend of making games by iterating and extending a fun core gameplay mechanic. This is then incorporated to a game with heavy emphasis on re-playability and/or ease to make levels. The main perks of this approach being that the game becomes more fun to create (as you can have fun at a very early stage), it makes it easier to home in on a "fun" core and allows for an early beta to be released (thus allowing feedback and income to trickle in before completion). This is of course a rough outline of the trend, but I still think it represent the main gist of where the industry of indie game development is heading.

Designing a game like this is of course perfectly fine. It makes sense financially and personally. By having a game where the fun comes in at a very early stage, it is much easier to discard bad ideas and figure out the best way to do things. Getting some kind of income before completion can be crucial for a start-up company, which is much easier when having an early playable version. Betas/alphas also help building a community and spreading the word. On the personal side, motivation comes a lot easier when almost every added feature add something to the gameplay and change is easily tracked. This can make up for other not so motivational aspects of being an indie (low income, non-existing security, bad working conditions, and so on and so forth). Summed up, making games like this make a lot of sense and it is not strange that it is a wide-spread trend.

However, what troubles me is that this kind of development is seen by most as THE way to design a game. While of course many great videos games can (and have!) come out of this manner of creation, it is not the only way to go about. I believe that doing games this way makes it impossible to do certain type of video games and to expand the medium in a way that I personally think is the most exciting. Because of the focus on instant gratification, gameplay will pull towards a local maximum and only take short term value into account. This disqualifies videogames that focus on more holistic experiences or has a non-trivial pay off (for instance, lowlevel gameplay that only becomes engaging in a certain higher-level context).

As an example of this, after finalizing the basic mechanics, it took six months before Amnesia: The Dark Descent became a somewhat engaging experience. Note that this time was not spend on perfecting the mechanics but on building the world in which they existed. Without the proper context, Amnesia's core mechanics are quite boring and it took additional layers, such as the sound-scape, high fidelity graphics, etc, to bring it home. With this I am not saying that Amnesia is the way forward for the medium. I am simply saying that a videogame like Amnesia could not have been made using the type of development that a large chunk of the indie scene (and mainstream for that matter too) is currently advocating!

Another thing that has also struck me is how many people that are interested in videogames with experiences not solely focused on a fun core. For example at GDC, we met many people, from many different places in the industry, saying how much they liked the game because of its non-gamey aspects. Also, most of the random people that we "dragged" in to the booth were very interested in this kind of experience and often surprised that videogames like Amnesia even existed. We have also seen this kind of response across the Internet, with many people wishing there were more games focusing on these aspects. Again, I am not saying that this means Amnesia is some candle bearer into the future. What I am saying is that there was an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards the kind of games where a fun core mechanic was not the focus.

However, because the current trend of developing games, this potential market will most likely go without many games.

A positive consequence of this is that it creates a potentially very profitable niche with almost no competition. So while the preferred way of making games might be more secure, these projects will be launched in an extremely competitive environment. I think this evens out some (all?) of the risks involved in a development not focused on quickly iterating fun mechanics.

A negative, possible devastating, consequence is that the lack of these kinds of video games might remove the market altogether (or at least limit it to a very niche one). What I mean here is that if the general population's view on view games is that they are just about "cheap thrills", people will never bother looking for anything else. Thus most people who would have been interested in more holistic video games, will never be exposed to them. In a worst case scenario, this would mean that these kind of game will pretty much be stopped being made.

I consider this is something worth thinking about and believe the critical cross road will come very soon. The video games we decide to make today, will shape the future for quite some time.

End note: For those wonder what other ways of designing games there might exist, check this post as a starter.


  1. Another important aspect is of course Amnesia's immersion, which makes the game so fantastic. That's also a reason to release it as a whole, because it would suck when you'd already played the game, but then an update that makes it much better would be released. It is simply a one-time play, IMHO.

  2. Amnesia was definitely not a "candle holder", Silent Hill games (especially Shattered Memories), Cryostasis, Metro 2033, Mor.Utopia (Pathologic), Sublustrum (Outcry), Phobos 1953 and other games (including your very own Penumbra) would've never been great if not for the elements complimentary to the core mechanics, since core mechanics themselves were pretty boring. What makes Amnesia more clever, than all these games is that you acknowledged the fact of annoying mechanics and made them never get in the way of other things, like the story. There is no real fail state, there is no replaying one moment until you get uninterested. It makes the game "easy", but it wasn't what Amnesia was about.
    games like "experiences", games based on mechanics and games in between should always be in balance, since they all work in their own ways. Super Meat Boy works as a >mechanics" game, Amnesia works as "experience" game and Aquaria works as something of both, for example. All three games are wonderful in their own way and do not directly compete with each other.

  3. Curses. I just wrote a somewhat lengthy and rambling contemplation of these topics for a comment, then clicked preview my browser proceeded to misplace all of what I had written. I don't think I'll write it again, but suffice to say that I always enjoy In The Games of Madness, and the thought-provoking insights you offer alongside fascinating technical details.

  4. @Last anonymous: Yeah, commenting on this blog is broken in Firefox. I've commented twice so far; both times I lost my first reply and had to re-write it.

    Would be cool if Frictional guys could look into the problem and fix it.

  5. intgr: Not sure what I can do :/ I have no real control over the system and can just use what blogger provides. For me it works pretty nicely in firefox (3.6) though.

    If anybody knows more then please help me out :)

    For now, it is always best to write a lengthier post in textdocument and then copy-paste.

  6. I think a few games managed to still produce rather holistic experiences using this development process, but it is still not that good. Making the game fun at first and everything else second usually makes the game-play seem disconnected with the rest of the game's components. Most of the games I can think of that produce a holistic experience, provoke emotion without the use of interaction. It's like a film with fun game-play attached.

  7. Making a game that isn't focused on fun can be tricky. It has to be at least interesting, and a good way to do that without resorting to instant gratification is creating curiosity and a promised reward for getting through something. The reason I don't see a lot of developers trying new things is because they are afraid of the risk of failing and losing a lot of money. Keeping close contact with the players at an earlier stage to receive feedback, however, can greatly reduce that chance of failure. I rarely see that happening with non indie companies, which is why I see so many dull and overdone games.

    As for games that don't focus purely on fun, I wouldn't say walking through a huge maze is terribly enjoyable, but if there was something that caught my curiosity that looked rewarding at the end, it would seem like a shame NOT to go through that maze, yes?

  8. I don't think more than a handful of indie developers will work on a game for six months.

  9. Then only those handful are worth paying any attention too, Zaratustra. This is a new medium. If you're not working hard, you're doing it wrong.

  10. Good thinking, Thomas. There does seem to be a strong tendency within at least the North American indie games community towards everything being fun. Up to the point where developers flaunt their lack o sincerity as a badge o honour. It's simply considered not cool to be ambitious creatively. I'm glad that there's developers like you, who look further and reach higher. I guess it should come as no surprise that you're an exception rather than the rule. But then again, isn't being indie supposed to be about exceptions?

  11. @Thomas, intgr, and anonymous right above:
    Regarding the comment-system problems, I had a similar problem on few occasions: I think that Blogger's anti-spam filter sometimes get's a bit too aggressive... Not much can be done about that, I believe...

    Comment on the post:
    "lowlevel gameplay that only becomes engaging in a certain higher-level context"

    I've been thinking about something like that recently. For example; a simple gameplay mechanics like the ability to put your fingers in a pool of blood and look at them (lots of blood pools in today's games...) are pretty meaningless on their own - it's just another fancy thing that the game can do; however, in a when put in a context, for example in a horror game that instills a sense of dread and danger, this simple trick can have such a strong emotional effect, especially if the game previously made you care about the NPC whose blood it is.

    "What I mean here is that if the general population's view on view games is that they are just about "cheap thrills", people will never bother looking for anything else."

    We need gameducation! People need to know that games can be art!
    BTW, speaking of "gameducation", I have some friends that don't regularly play games (that is, what most of us here mean by 'game') - they occasionally play things like Farmwille on Facebook, or something like that...
    I made them play Amnesia, and after a few minutes I realized that they are having hard time just using the mouse to look around. They missed the door-blows-open scare (with me yelling "Why are you looking at the floor, dammit!"), and soon expressed that the game felt too spooky (and nothing even happened yet!), but otherwise boring (as nothing really happened yet...).
    Then I let them of the hook, thinking "why do I even try"...

    Sry, for using the blog to ask, but it's kind of hard to get attention from the developers on the forums, and you're the only ones that can answer this...
    The XML files generated by your editors sometimes store the absolute path. As you know yourself, this is not really the desired behavior. Maybe I've configured the environment wrong or something? I'd really like to create something non-trivial using your tools, but there are some significant problems caused by the lack of a more detailed documentation (I know it takes time to do it, time you may not have).
    Anyway, here's the link to the forum post where everything is explained with more detail (but please excuse my obvious frustration at the time of writing there :D)

  12. About editor paths:
    The absolute paths are not a problem. While this should not be the case (most are relative), the engine just uses the paths to pick the correct resource if there are several with the same file name. The engine keeps a list of all files (search paths are in resources.cfg), and can therefor load files even if just the name (no path) is given.
    If there are several with the same name it works its way backwards (the folder the actual file is in) and then checks for each identically named files how many directories fit, in the end picking the file which most picks.

    Regarding blogspot spam:
    It is pretty agressive yes, and cannot remove it because the blog gets enough spam as it is. I will make sure to check the post moderation more often.

    Really sorry that comments get lost as I often find the exchange from readers extremely interesting. And it would be really bad if people refrained from commenting just because what they wrote never got published.

    Final note on this: If posting on older topics (14 days I think) I need to manually publish these. So just have patient if your comment does not show up on these.

  13. Don't worry, people like deep experiences, even if they don't know about it.

    It's true, as a person who has enjoyed games for more than two decades and that has always loved big, interactive worlds with deep stories, I'm afraid that the new trends go right in the opposite direction. Not only indie games, mainstream ones also abuse the concept of DLC. There is an obvious trend of making games as modular as possible to sell them in smaller, easier to market chunks. This may be good enough for shallow games that are only about the fun, but this is not good at all for gamers like me who want something meaty and auto-conclusive.

    Look at Mass Effect series, for instance. It is one of the most serious game universes I can think of right now, but they keep releasing DLC stories, cheap games for the iPhone, comic books, etc. How can I respect a video game when it is being exploited to such degree? How can I enjoy the experience if I know that it will be expanded indefinitely until they ruin it somehow? It's very distressing.

    The reason for this to occur is that profit is put above all (what a surprise, eh?), but never forget this: people need authenticity. Sooner or later, everybody ends up burned-out of meaningless products that only offer instant satisfaction. You will always have an audience if you give priority to art over profit (and if you have talent, but that is more than proven at this point). The problem is how to reach that audience over all the commercial noise that they hear all the time.

    By the way, sorry for the OoT, but what are you waiting for to put Penumbra on I think it classifies already as a "good old game", :)

    P.S.: To all the people complaining about the comment system: I always Ctrl+C my comment before sending it, :D

  14. During a distance game-design course over a summer I learned the phrase "test fast and fail even faster", to aggressively iterate between ideas. I found this to work quite well, especially in contrast of what I had understood that many game-devs were doing: they created an idea for a game that they -decided- was fun, and went 100% for it while ignoring anything or anyone that said that idea might be bad or "unfun".

    So I definitely believe on this process to quickly iterate between designs - it is a good way to find a working (entertaining) design. Though I support this post (I generally like those that question what is considered as the standard), as game ideas should be thoroughly explored before abandoned.

  15. @MichaelPalin

    I used to like Team Fortress 2, it had such a good visual style and that's the main reason why I liked it. But now, it has been chucked full of DLC garbage that completely ruins the consistency of the visuals. Now you have friggin huge pumpkin-headed things.


    I told my friends about the idea of a game not designed for fun and they responded by questioning the possibility of a non-fun game. When I told them about Indigo Prophecy, they questioned why I don't just read CYOA books. They seem a bit too complacent about video-games in their current state.

  16. JM, I agree that if you want to make fun, the iterative design method is one of the best around. Fun is delicate, and even if you have a genuinely fun idea you probably won't be able to make the best possible game with that idea without iterating.

    I think the solution is to focus not on fun but on a gripping experience. If you want to make a game like VVVVVV (which I love, by the way) then fun (and, as a result, joy) is obviously your prime concern. But what if you want to make a game which forces people to question capitalism, or to push their morals as far as they can go, or to consider the brutality and pettiness of mankind, perhaps with relation to something monumental like the slave trade or to something small like a dysfunctional marriage? If a developer wants to make a game about these topics (and I think some should) then fun is certainly not - and should never be - their yardstick.

  17. @wasd8910
    I agree with you. If the developer wants to convey some deeper meaning or question, then some other method needs to be used. Though I think that quickly iterating can still be used for such games, but on a much lower level. If I take your example with a dysfunctional marriage, then what actions or events can show the player that two characters has an unstable relationship? What I think can be usable is to brainstorm an idea, implement it quick’n dirty (at least till it works), and then playtest - what feelings does this give (or not give) the player? If it works, evolve this idea - else if it doesn’t work, change it or repeat the process by continue thinking of other ideas (and so forth).

    I don’t know of many games that try to send some deeper message instead of being a “normal game”, though I know of a small game that shows a player a scene of a guy being tied to a pole. The player controls a rifle-aim and can shoot the guy, killing him. After that the character stays dead, even if the player restarts the game - this is intended to make the player think of his actions, in comparisons to all those shooting games where the player kills characters left and right. (I think this game was created by the same developer that developed some small and easy game, it tells you exactly what to do while playing, and when you beat the games only boss you get this ridiculously long ending song.)

  18. I was wrong, it wasn't by the same developer. Though here is the game that I mentioned: Execution.

  19. Hey guys, interesting post. I feel as if the success of Amnesia is, in itself, a pointer as to how a large portion of the game industry is very much interested in the type of game which Amnesia is, and not only interested, but 'demanding' more.
    I feel the opposite to what you said at the end, inferring that the industry could lean towards these other 'quick fun fix games', they definitely have their place but I feel like the less 'gamey' games (like Amnesia) fill the void that 99% of the top gun game companies continue to miss. Thats one the many advantages of Indie games, there is a mold, and they can choose to break it, and in breaking that mold, re-interest those who have been lost under a swarm of linear fps's and other overdone game types.

  20. completely out of the blue and purely for the sake of argument:
    would an indie developer be liable to agree to have his new game beta-tested in a public library (including through lending), to the tune of an amicable agreement where feedback would be seriously given by library users (and staff) in exchange for the chance to have the finished "product" on catalogue without have to pay out vast amounts of public funds for multiple license (or something like that)?
    just asking.


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