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GDC 2011: INDIE GAMES SUMMIT

02 Mar 2011

I only went to a few sessions of this year's Indie Games Summit. To be honest it was a bit ad-hoc: my plan for today was actually to spend the day in the Unity sessions, but those apparently required some form of pre-registration that I never saw mention of anywhere on the GDC site or at the convention center itself, so I was unceremoniously turned away. This did not a happy Josh make.

But I ended up listening to some great insights into the development of Spelunky and Monaco, and witnessing some very entertaining hijinks at the indie micro-talks session at the end of the day, and that seems like a fair trade. ;)

Spelunky XBLA

For Derek Yu, creator of Spelunky, it seemed to be all about frequency of iteration. He described prototypes as "doodles in a sketchbook", where Game Maker is the sketchbook. He made, and discarded, a bunch of prototypes before arriving at the freeware Spelunky, which itself was an amalgamation of many previous prototypes and some new ideas.

He discussed the role of freeware as it relates to commercial releases, saying that freeware games are great for testing ideas and for creatively refreshing yourself between larger, commercial projects. But the key, he said, is to release as many games as you can. People can play your game; they can't play your idea. When people play your game, you can get feedback, and with that you can iterate and improve on not only that game, but future games as well.

Freeware can also inform commercial projects directly: clearly this is the case with Spelunky. The free version of Spelunky, he said, acted like an "interactive game design document" for the XBLA version.

He also talked about approaching Spelunxy XBLA not as an HD remake, but as a sequel. This gives him the freedom to make changes to the game, taking comfort in the knowledge that the original still exists: that experience is in no way nullified by changes in the XBLA version. What's critical, he said, is making sure not to break what worked before.

He talked about some of the changes in the XBLA version, starting with the obvious one: the massively-upgraded artwork. (The original was no slouch, but the new art is straight-up beautiful.) When he announced the addition of 4-player local co-op - the first-ever announcement of this feature, I believe? - the room erupted into cheers and applause.

During the audience Q&A someone asked a question about difficulty, and I thought Derek had a great answer. To paraphrase: the key to making a challenging game that's not frustrating is to give the players all the tools they need to overcome the challenge, and never make it the game's fault when the player loses.

I'm really looking forward to Spelunky XBLA. 8)

Monaco

Andy Schatz's Monaco won the Seamus McNally Grand Prize at last year's IGF awards after just 15 weeks in development. It's easy to see why: not only is it a great concept, it's a succinctly-presented one. My biggest takeaway from everything I've seen or read about the game so far is its well-defined identity, which comes in a few parts:

  • What's yours is mine.
  • Get in. Get Out. Get Rich.
  • Pacman meets Hitman.

The first two are catchphrases from the game's promo materials, and the last is Andy's own characterization of the gameplay. It says to me that he understands very precisely what his game is. Many designers - even some good ones - never achieve this clarity of vision. Frankly: I haven't. I feel like I've come close in some cases, but never (yet) nailed it.

Andy started by discussing his "holistic approach" to game design, which says that motivation and inspiration are just as important as tech, art, and mechanics. Motivation and inspiration are the core themes of the story of Monaco's development.

Andy worked in commercial game dev for several years before deciding to go indie. He had $150k in his bank account and a desire to make cool games. After a couple modest successes he became mired in a monster project that drained his finances, motivation, and inspiration. With dwindling finances, an upcoming marriage, and a desire to eventually start a family, he considered giving up on the indie life.

Then, he basically thought, "Fuck it, let's just try something neat." He was interested in the problem of visibility determination in roguelikes, specifically that no consensus had been reached on how to do it. So he wrote one, and it became the basis for Monaco.

There are lots of boring, but necessary, tasks in game development. To keep up his motivation, Andy decided to set a goal: implement one "cool" thing every day. That didn't mean one thing players would like; it meant one thing Andy himself would like working on, and would be proud of. His visibility system was the first such thing, and plenty of others followed. The only rules were, at the end of the day the game had to be a) playable and stable, and b) more fun than it was the day before.

He made a point not to get bogged down in cleanup and re-architecting, which are common programming traps. Forward progress was of the utmost importance.

He also got playtesters onto the game very early. He divided playtesters into two classes: advisors, of whom he had just a few, and who knew and understood his vision; and "everyone else", whose impressions of the game were sacrosanct. The latter group received three primary questions:

  • What did you like?
  • What did you hate?
  • What confused you?

By taking impressions from players and advice from advisors, staying focused on his goal, and making cool things every day to keep up his motivation and inspiration, Andy took Monaco from prototype to IGF winner in just 15 weeks. And he closed his talk with the day's most inspiring point:

"You should not be NOT enjoying your job right now. FUCK IT: make something awesome!"

Indie Micro-Talks

This session was a series of very short talks - about five minutes each - from a range of indie developers. Some were okay, some less so, but I just wanted to highlight a few things.

Chris Hecker, with his trademark delivery that can only be described as "breathlessly brilliant", admonished game developers to talk about their games early and often. He pointed out that awareness-building takes time, and that players and the press want to know about your game, and they want to have a conversation about it. And I agree: gaming culture is awesome, and it feels strange to me when studios and publishers keep gamers at arm's length. Our industry needs more, not less, communication with its audience.

Anna Anthropy admonished indies to drop the label "indie", which she said draws a line between people who can make games and people who can't. Today we have so many tools freely available that make game development easy and accessible: anybody can make games, and we shouldn't clique-ify that with our indie nerd club consisting of the same few people releasing the same types of games year after year. In this case, I disagree with Anna: I think she's ignoring the real distinction the "indie" label creates, in favor of an imagined one. To me, "indie" isn't about who can and can't make a game, it's about how and why those games are made, and specifically how the process and motivation differ from that of large publishers who value money over art.

Kyle Pulver took advantage of the session's unprecedented early finish to treat the audience to comic impressions of well-known indie game developers, and a re-enactment (along with Tommy Refenes) of the Bill Pullman "Independence Day" speech.

Yes, this actually happened.

Conclusion

I also attened a panel on social games today, but instead of writing that up on the spot I'm going to file it for post-GDC review. There's a lot of social games stuff going on this week, a lot of sessions and panels, and a lot of perspectives. I feel like wrapping it all up after GDC into a more bird's-eye view of the situation and a more thoughtful and constructive argument from my perspective than I had last year. ;)

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