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Jonathan Blow has some advice for indie developers hoping to capitalize on current trends in an uncertain market: stop.
“At a place like this, you’re hearing the [conventional wisdom] right now,” said Blow, the indie-darling creator of puzzle-platformer Braid during a panel about the present and future of independently developed games at today’s GamesBeat in San Francisco. “If something seems like a good idea, if that’s the theme of the conference, then that’s not what you do. Because if you do that, you’re playing the odds that your game is the one word game that breaks out from 30 crappy word games.”
With this console generation grinding to a close and buzzwords like “mobile” and “social” gaming flying around thick and fast, Blow and SpyParty developer Chris Hecker in particular stood firm in the need to create high-quality content over following current trends.
It was a common thread in a discussion that saw Blow, Hecker, Nicalis’ Tyrone Rodgriguez, and Super Meat Boy’s Tommy Refenes alternately rail against the failure of platforms to properly promote smaller titles, praise those who they believe are getting it right, and expound on the current state of indie development.
Among the platforms the group believes is “getting it right” is Valve’s digital download service, Steam. It received praise for promoting smaller titles and making it easy for indie developers to turn a profit.
“It can be a little harder to get on Steam. But once you’re on there, it’s pretty easy to make $50,000 or $75,000 in a weekend sale, and you do that a couple times a year,” Blow said.
Hecker was effusive in his praise for what he sees as a “golden age” in which “triple-A indie games” are rewarded with strong sales on platforms like Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network. He used Magicka as an example — a little-known action-adventure game developed by eight Swedish students that managed to sell 200,000 copies in its first two weeks on Steam: “If you make a game that’s high quality, you’re totally set.”
Other platforms took the brunt of the criticism. While Hecker referred to Steam as a “healthy market for a certain kind of game” and included XBLA in his “golden age” statement, he was critical of Microsoft for “being more intent on having car ads than on featuring games that will make them money.”
Hecker was forceful throughout the panel in touting independent development as a new artform, wondering why Microsoft doesn’t do more to help the medium grow. “They have no interest in helping with that. They would rather chase what is popular now,” he said.
Blow had his own criticism for the certification processes of XBLA and PSN. “There’s a long list of rules that you have to follow. It doesn’t look that bad until you try to actually follow them,” he said, adding that they aren’t “testing your game for actual bugs, so you have to do that yourself.”
All four developers cut a wide swath through the industry as the panel went on. While Rodriguez praised Nintendo’s eShop for being a feature-driven system with much larger numbers, he was critical of WiiWare for requiring too many clicks to navigate and failing to highlight all but the latest games. Refenes criticized the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s most recent handheld, for not making it clear that it’s possible to download complete games and being afraid to “step into the new territory [of digital downloads] and take the plunge.”
Hecker and Blow were both harsh in their assessment of free-to-play games.
“Free-to-play is kind of a slum,” Blow said. When Hecker agreed that free-to-play “warps game design” by weaving incentives to buy items into the gameplay, Blow added, “It fundamentally shifts your relationship with the player, and it’s very easy for that to become ugly.”
Nevertheless, Blow said that he wants to do a free-to-play game at some point. However, it won’t have premium items like “hats.” He instead envisions a system in which players pay a dollar for a level to explore with a friend. According to Blow, “That’s a respectful way to treat players. Tweet this game to your friends is not a way to treat players.”
As the discussion ended , the panel examined ways in which to promote independent games to both the press and gamers at large. Blow was blunt: “You don’t want to try and expose [the press] if they aren’t going to care when they play it.”
Braid was a game that got a lot of press despite having a marketing budget of “zero dollars and zero cents” because “enough people that I sent the game to found it interesting…that did the work.”
The press and gamers are “starving for interesting content,” Hecker said. “If you give them something interesting to talk about, they will love it.”