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The smiling face of The Destroyer.

Independent games are more relevant than ever before, and developers in the indie scene are becoming braver and branching out into genres historically left to industry juggernauts like Capcom and Namco.

One such title is the upcoming 2D fighter Skullgirls by developer Reverge Labs, which has demonstrated the polish and technical appeal usually associated with larger releases. Its creators display a clear love for the genre and an attention to detail that's become the hallmark of top-tier indies.

Seth Killian is Capcom's Community Manager and has roots in the fighting-game community — an attribute which has come to define his role at the company. Mr. Killian is often the face of Capcom's newest fighters when they hit the PR trail. He's the man that brings the news to the masses. And did I mention he is also a top-tier Street Fighter player? (Any man whom can win a match using only one hand is not someone to mess with.)

I recently spoke with Killian via email about the rise of independent development, how fighting games are intersecting with the indie scene, and the importance of community to developers big and small. Check out what he had to say!

Independent developers seem to work in a limbo where they are very much tied to the big-business end of gaming (as evidenced by the expanding availability of indie titles on platforms like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam), but at the same time, they have close ties to the gaming community due to how accessible they are.

What are the potential risks in marketing and community relations with attempting a genre-specific title as opposed to a niche title that takes some explanation? At some point do you have to try and "rally" your community behind an idea or game concept that may be new?

Seth Killian: I think it comes down to player expectations. When you look at, say, Cut the Rope or Angry Birds, players don’t begin with a lot of expectations and assumptions, and they are able to focus their attention around the core mechanic and experience, rather than having it judged against a predefined set of expectations about features and polish levels. If it looks pretty good and is fun right away, you can find an audience. Simplicity helps there as well, because it’s easier to communicate and also requires less up-front investment from the player. They can just jump in and play.


On the other hand, while it means facing expectations that may be set by big-budget games in a similar genre, a genre game can also leverage those player expectations to some advantage. If you have a clear genre game, not only is some of your explaining already done for you by the genre (so you can then focus on what your title does well or new or different), you also have a clear audience that is often easier to target rather than building a campaign from scratch. You may also be able to provide a deeper kind of game experience with more options if your genre is familiar and players come with a built-in understanding of how it should work.

Should somebody tell Kazuya that there's a fireball about to hit his face?

A few independently created fighting games are popping up on the radar for the 2011 release schedule. Do you foresee any challenges with the fighting genre as a whole in the hands of a smaller development group? Some would argue that fighters, much like the first-person-shooter genre, live and die by their community support, which could be hard for an independently produced fighting game based around a fresh intellectual property.

Is the best solution to embrace the community you attempt to foster, or does the developer have to stick to their guns and keep the finished product as they intended? Should they rely on community feedback in the way that Capcom has with Street Fighter 4 and Marvel vs. Capcom 3?

SK: I think fighting games tend to demand more investment and work from their players, so I’d say that if you’re making a traditional kind of fighting game, it would be very hard to succeed while ignoring the community’s requests. The fighting genre has a generally very smart and very demanding community. That can be a dangerous road, but it also means you start with a very clear idea of the kinds of things people want to see. You won’t necessarily be able to do them all, but if you can get a few key things right and have a dialogue about your direction, you can find success.

There may also still be room for a nontraditional fighting game to win over a new breed of fan and then try and interest existing fighting fans as well, but I think that is only likely to succeed on something that’s innovative across many variables. Simply making a Street Fighter clone wouldn't do it. As for challenges particular to a small development team, I’d say balancing and bug-checking (which can represent up to as much as half of the development time) are huge and are harder to do efficiently with a small group.


Lastly, on a blog post, a developer for Bethesda defended community interaction when the lead of another development team stated that developers are better off ignoring their community feedback and the consumer in general. What are the pros and cons of community-to-developer interaction?

SK: It’s easier for a giant studio with multimillion-dollar advertising budgets to say something like that, because they’re essentially saying “We don’t need to have a real conversation and win you over as developers. We’re going to outsource that to an advertising agency and our marketing department.”

That can certainly be successful, but it’s a pretty cynical attitude. I think it’s important for any development team to have a vision and confidence in their ideas, but the idea that you’re “better off” ignoring community feedback and the consumer seems pretty asinine. Backyard development and the romantic idea of a singular vision are great, and there are many examples of people that did it their way and succeeded, but I think there are many more examples of people that did it their way, ignored everyone else, and failed. You may not hear about them as much because everyone likes the story of a brash rebel that followed his own heart. It may also be because there aren't interesting stories published about failures.

Overall, in my view, a good idea tends to survive criticism, and a bad idea wants to run and hide, so if you get a negative reaction and want to hide, rather than explain, you've probably got a bad idea.

It should also be said that there are parts of games that are akin to art. Those are the parts where you most want a clear creative direction and vision, and those are the bits where trying to please too many demands can definitely create problems.

There are other parts of games, however, that are much more product-like, and those can virtually always benefit from a lot of consumer feedback: menus, controls, save systems, etc. Things that affect usability or aspects of multiplayer design that may only become apparent after large-scale community testing. In those cases, the consumers usually know best, and I wouldn't want to invest in anybody who makes a habit of ignoring them.

Apart from not improving the product, that “we don’t care” attitude also cuts a developer off from their fans, and that’s just sad. If this is something you spend your life working to create, it’s extremely satisfying to be able to bond and engage with the people that care enough about what you’ve done to hold elaborate, considered views and want to talk about them with you. Wanting to live up to their expectations can push you to heights you might never have achieved by just trying to meet a deadline or satisfy a list of contractual feature demands. Talking to fans is also just fun, and it makes your work life better and more meaningful.

Originally posted on Digital Hippos.