Creating video games without the financial backing of a large company comes with a new set of game design rules. Developers focus on what makes them unique - the innovation and creativity of one or two individuals or a small group, and have done since the 1990s. Early shareware allowed independent developers for PC games to distribute their creations among fellow developers and players. However the steep rise of technology that occurred during the millennium saw a larger internet audience, bigger expectations for the quality of video games, and a more competitive market. While this has seen a large growth in social media marketing, retail (through sites such as Steam), and the general means to create these games, developers need to jump through the hoops this larger audience scope demands.
In writing this, I was attempting to consider some of the most challenging aspects of independent video game design, and came to the conclusion that I pretty much had no clue what kinds of issues faced these organisations in the digital age. So I channelled Sherlock and took to Twitter.
Finances are a big thing on developers' minds, when asked their opinions on the biggest hurdle in indie game development, it seemed the biggest limitation was the dollar. Red Tentacle Studios (@Red_Tentacle),developers of Crazy Critter Dash for iOS, pretty much sum it up when they say "with limited financial resources you have to compete with game companies with millions to spend on advertising, making it feel nearly impossible at times". Relying on social media and word of mouth is stressful and risky, in that sense the advertisement of these games is a slow, repetitive process of plugging, tweeting, posting and pleading, whereas top games companies just have to say one word at the right conference and half the world starts pre-ordering for next year.
And this is mostly funded through a day job, which in itself presents difficulties. For Robert Ota Dietrich (@nobunagaota), this financial matter is "like a timer" - financing a daily life around the demands of creating a successful video game is tricky. He says "for devs with day jobs, time is the biggest limit. Finding the time to make games can be hard. Especially if you have a family". Working around the timings and finances of daily life to create a game independently and then advertise and boost recognition means it's a sink or swim situation in the gaming world (which is why you can help Robert out and vote for his game Ookibloks on Steam Greenlight
So you've passed the time constrictions and the financial risks, but the actual creative process of game design is what Voltwar Games (@VoltwarGames) reckon presents the most difficulty. Focus is something I had never really considered before these guys brought it to my attention, but now I can 100% understand when they say "no matter what, there will always be thoughts like "wouldn't it be cool if we added this thing or this other thing?". You need to learn how to handle that, when to say no". I suppose in the bid to stand out against this vast scope of internet audience, you want to do something innovative, unique and new. But in an unfocused project, this can run away with the developer and they end up throwing everything at a game and then realising it's far too unfocused and cluttered. Voltwar told me that "our first game was a disaster. We kept changing the concept, the target platforms, the scope of the entire project. We changed the art style, went from multiplayer to single player, changed the entire theme of the game... In the end we just put it on ice, because it was so unfocused."
So you've put the hours in, worried about the rent, re-modelled a game over and over until it was sleek, original, focused and fun to play - you have the finished product and you're pretty proud. But then comes the issue of quality highlighted by James Oliver (@JamesDestined) who says the most difficult part is "seeing the reality of how good your product is and not believing it is best / better in an unrealistic way". So after pouring so much of your life into this product, it's difficult not to become blind to its faults - it's what you've sacrificed months of your life for and it can be difficult then, not to get your hopes up for a Nintendo job offer.
You've got your final product now, you've managed not to get your hopes up and don't have unreasonable expectations for its success. Now you just have to do that hard bit and get noticed. This, as well as financing, was the most common response to my inquiries. After all that work, you may still be a tiny, insignificant dot on the web. Steam, blogs, Twitter and Facebook seem to be your methods of advertising, while also relying on the risk of word of mouth. Lazy Lizzard (@TheLazyLizzard), creator of Stray Cat, told me that "it is way too easy to disappear in the crowd. Plus, the freemium market is unsustainable, so you either get rich quick or go broke". So once you've put the endless hours, worry, money, and risk into your project, you still have to break your way into recognition through the sometimes frustratingly slow process of social media marketing.
I've discovered a new form of respect for independent developers now, I already had respect for their creativity and innovation. But the process of developing a game under normal pressures of every day life and then meeting the ever growing demands of both the consumer and the platform of advertisement creates a whole new respect for the dedication and resilience required to make a name for yourself in this day and age.
Red Tentacle Studios: http://www.redtentaclestudios.com/
Lazy Lizzard: http://lazylizzard.org/
Robert Ota Dietrich: http://gamedevwithoutacause.com/
James Oliver: http://www.destined.com