A Successful Indie Videogame Company Vs. A Failure: What’s the Difference?

successful-game-companies
ambroo / Pixabay

A videogame company is a difficult venture for anyone, even with the deepest of pockets. The failure rate is EXTREME. How extreme? The New York Times says 80% of games (8 of 10) fail to make a profit.

So what distinguishes a good videogame company from all the failures?

We came upon this game industry question on Quora:

What separates successful indie games companies from unsuccessful ones?

We couldn’t resist writing up a quick answer. You can see the brief answer at the Quora link below, but here’s a more in-depth discussion:

Great question.

There are a lot of elements that go into a successful indie videogame company, just like any other business. It can fail on funding, staffing, management, vision, design, execution, technical foundation… so many pitfalls. But if I were to pick one, I’d say FOCUS is the key to a successful indie game company. You could also say DISCIPLINE.

People don’t make videogames to make money or to become famous (although that’s usually in there somewhere*)… they make games because they’re passionate about games, love playing them, skilled at creating or coding, and love sharing the joy and fun of a good videogame. 

The most common mistake I’ve seen with game startups — and with the personal approach taken by videogame employees toward their work, as well! — is that people don’t know where to draw the line. They overestimate what they can do, lose track of their budgets and their scope, and gallop headlong off the cliff of fiscal and timeline suicide. The saddest cases involve videogame companies that bet the farm on that first game, without realizing how malformed the initial approach was.

Examples: 
1) The game concept was for a Triple-A title, but they had a single-F budget.
2) The game concept was essentially a remake of last year’s big hit, and by the time it got to market five years later, it looked uglier and played worse than the game that inspired it.
3) The team was passionate but green, and they bit off more than they could chew.
4) The game was well-funded by one of the biggest companies in the world. The team was full of veterans. Great marketing and support. Everyone wanted the game to be a blockbuster, but too many months wasted on building hype, making demos that didn’t improve the game, and indecision on actual gameplay. By the time it hit the market, it sold well enough, but was too late to make a real impact. Bitter? Me? No, never!

Focus maintains a clear vision of a viable, polished, and fun product that fits the market and the resources available. You rarely see an indie game company fail because it thought too small (although it’s possible). You often see a game company fail because its reach outstripped its grasp.

I think it's also important to acknowledge how stacked the deck is against videogame development/publishing success. The odds are not in your favor, bravehearts. As with movies, it's a saturated market and your efforts are competing with some of the heaviest hitters and most beloved franchises in the world. As a result, a lot of indies cannot be blamed for failing. Market conditions shift during a game's months- or years-long production 

But I guarantee you: if an indie game company is in the black, they are lean, mean, and focused like a laser on their goals. And they should be championed for it.

I met a guy recently who is one of the founders of Storm Wars, a free-to-play collectible card game on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. He's not a gaming icon, but he's making ends meet while working for himself creating games. I told him, "You're living the dream!" and he laughed... but I really think it's true. Anyone who's hammered out a place in the game industry independently is worthy of our respect.

*If you just want to make money, you’re probably at a bank figuring out how to cook up some new and ethically-dubious financial instrument. If you want to be famous, you’re probably… waiting tables in Hollywood.

https://www.quora.com/What-separates-successful-indie-games-companies-from-unsuccessful-ones

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This Is Why Marvel Is Better Than Star Wars

Marvel Is Beating the Pants Off Star Wars – Admit It

Marvel Comics and Star Wars have always been the polestars of my geekdom, but things have changed and now we have to admit that cinematically, Marvel is better than Star Wars, for some really obvious reasons.

marvel-is-better-than-star-wars

Star Wars came to greatness by taking chances. It had a cast of virtual unknowns, wacky creatures and locations, and a story based on Japanese archetype that blended fantasy and scifi elements.

Now, after a whole trilogy’s worth of cringe-rife agony brought on by George Lucas’ egotism and inability to innovate, Star Wars is trying to regain its mojo, but in the worst possible way. Star Wars: Force Awakens summarizes the dilemma in a nutshell. They hired a hotshot director and were so busy trying to please the fanboys that they remade Star Wars: A New Hope with a less-compelling protagonist with no weaknesses or interesting flaws. (Aptly named, Rey, which is “King” in Spanish, enters the franchise able to fix spaceships better than Chewie, fly and shoot better than Han, mind-control better than Obi Wan, and swordfight better than Luke, but is as interesting as a cardboard cutout.) The whole thing felt more like a salute to a dead franchise than a new chapter in a living one.

Meanwhile, In a Marvel Franchise Far, Far Away

Marvel has its own set of issues, as it introduces more and jankier heroes and muddies the waters of public consciousness as it tries to combine storylines and build team adventures while still maintaining a logical universe (not exactly its forte). Honestly, sometimes I wonder if they’d be better off keeping each character’s arc as separate as possible, a.k.a., not digging into the Civil War storyline while the Avengers thread is still running.

And then Thor: Ragnarok comes out with a totally new approach. Folks, Marvel reached out to Taika Waititi, not the other way around. And this indie director, best known for the hilarious Flight of the Conchords vampire spoof What We Do In the Shadows, is destroying Thor in just the right way.

This is a movie where Thor and the Hulk have a fight and then the next scene is the two of them sitting on a bed, talking about their feelings. Would this scene ever have been pre-approved by committees and fanboy screenings? Hell no! But are the fans loving it? Hell yes! We don’t want crowdsourced entertainment. We want new ideas, and the two are antithetical.

It’s different and fresh and irreverent, but also attuned to character and Marvel’s rich history. Marvel has always been the anti-comic universe, the funny universe, the reality that counterpunched Superman’s sanctimoniousness with Spiderman’s sass and humanity. And Thor has been Marvel’s Superman in the previous movies, noble and distant and sterile.

That’s right: the Marvel handlers wanted a Cannonball Run-style wacky romp with Thor at the wheel. They knew that Thor was boring and stiff and needed a revamp. The MCU vision remains clear, echoing the blast of fresh creativity and fun that was Iron Man. Rather than strangling out new approaches and slavishly trying to recreate its past, it is charting a new and vibrant future.

This is the kind of vision that I admire as a game writer. This is why Marvel is better than Star Wars. All hail Marvel.

And what is Waititi doing next? Why, a stop-motion retelling of the Michael Jackson story from the point of view of Bubbles, his pet monkey. Depending on your point of view, it’s either trash or genius, but apparently it’s one of the hottest scripts in Hollywood.

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PewDiePie Makes $15M/Year and Is a Racist

Sigh.

I haven’t watched much PewDiePie but occasionally I’ve enjoyed one of his playthroughs as a way to get a sense for a game. Now, after he’s been dropped by Disney and YouTube, I realize from the reports that he’s a dirty scumbag and a hero to neo-Nazi hate groups. (I also realize he was pulling in $15M per year for his goofball videos. WHAT?!?!)

This is yet another sign that the Internet is making it so we can’t have nice things. It used to be that you could watch baseball, play videogames, and pretend for a few isolated moments every day that we can all coexist without hating each other based on superficialities.

But no, that’s no longer the case. Baseball’s now political (I cite the congressional hearings where Democrats and Republicans lined up on party lines to support or criticize Roger Clemens for PED use). Choosing a home improvement store or a pizza delivery service is now political. And watching a freaking game playthrough is political.

I blame you, PewDiePie. Die, PewDiePie, die.

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JRPGs versus Western RPGs

I just posted on Quora in answer to an interesting question: what do I prefer, JRPGs or Western-style RPGs, and why?

Since David Nguyen and I just published the JRPG Crimson Sword Saga: The Peloran Wars on Steam, you’d think I’d prefer JRPGs, but you’d be wrong. I’m a Western guy, and David is the JRPG fan. But I see the appeal of JRPGs and I’ve played and enjoyed both flavors.

Why am I disenchanted (ha ha) with JRPGs?

  1. There are always exceptions, but I feel JRPGs are more character-focused and dialog-focused, with the dialog word count often doubling or tripling equivalent Western RPGs. This wears on me, even if it’s a game with a storyline I enjoyed, like FF VII. I want to know about the major threads, but I don’t want to listen to a tertiary sidekick vent about how their ingrown toenail reminds them of some traumatic childhood incident (exaggeration, but only a slight exaggeration). Skyrim and Fable are more my style. Exception: I enjoyed Planescape Torment but the incessant dialog rivaled the talkiest JRPG, and they made no effort to distinguish between primary quest interactions and “color” interactions with inconsequential NPCs.
  2. JRPGs tend to be a little more colorful and fantastic. JRPGs are high fantasy where a team of plucky teens in fanciful costumes is fighting to save the world from the ultimate evil. Western RPGs lean toward low fantasy, a little grittier and more… um… adult. The characters are older, their stories a little less fanciful, and their experiences more equivalent to medieval history (although I don’t think anyone would confuse an RPG with history). I prefer the latter.
  3. Did I mention those fashions and costumes? Yeah. I can pass on the bright yellow rain slickers and the pompadours. They’re great for distinctive cosplay, which is also not my thing.
  4. Some JRPGs overdo it on the replayability and depth thing. I enjoy a minigame as much as the next guy, but I don’t want an RPG to force me into a 40-hour-long racing tournament with subpar gameplay. Nor do I want it to inundate me with dozens of half-baked minigames that should’ve been whittled down to one or two strong ones. I respect players who want their game to be a lifelong adventure, but that kind of immersion isn’t my style.

That said, I think there are some things that JRPGs do better than Western ones. Humor, color, distinctive locations, and gameplay innovations, for example. Western ones tend to be so traditional they’re almost remakes, and some are simply boring dungeon crawlers.

Honestly I feel like the Western RPG genre is a little fallow right now, with the last great game being Skyrim (although I hear Witcher 3 is a hoot). I picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition and was quite disappointed in many ways. Their loot system was terrible, and made it very hard to see when you’d found a cool item. And the storyline was complicated and (although some of the companion romances were charming) sterile. No story, no loot ? no fun.

And so it comes back to story and the power of narrative. I’m a game writer at heart and strong writing always wins in my book. I’ve seen great JRPGs and great RPGs, and I believe you can’t do a great RPG without a great story. Even the hoary old RPGs like Wizardry had compelling stories, even if some of the narrative twists were simply delivered in the form of the arrival of some fantastical new weapon or bizarre new foe in the game interface.

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Unemployed men are wasting away playing videogames, says CSM

videogame-unemployed-menApparently the Japanese aren’t the only ones struggling with listless and purposeless young men. Who are these guys?

In Japan, as described in this aptly titled 2011 Kotaku article “The Depressing World of Unemployed Nerds,” there’s a growing problem of young males who have effectively dropped out of society and are relying on the positive feedback of videogames and paid chatgirls to satisfy their basic social needs.

And now a new academic study is being mentioned by the Christian Science Monitor as discovering a similar problem in the United States, with these slacker boys polling as generally happier and more content than their peers. I think it’s important to note here that their peers are guys with a high school diploma or less, so it’s not too surprising that they find their warehouse or Walmart jobs uninspiring.

I think you could argue this two different ways. One, it’s pretty sad that these guys are happy to game their way into total oblivion and irrelevance. This is definitely not the way you want to see people adapting to 21st Century challenges, especially when employers (many game companies among them) are seeing talent gaps in a lot of key fields. The counterpoint, two, is that perhaps these sad slackers are getting valuable therapy from their videogame exploits, keeping their minds sharp in virtual environments, like the kid from The Last Starfighter, until the right job or inspiration strikes them and they spring into action. Maybe these guys would be psychopaths or suicides without videogames.

Opposites? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

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How Do You Meet Game Writers and Designers?

meet-game-writers-designersI got an interesting question recently on Quora and thought it might be useful to repost the Q&A here:

How do I meet game developers?

(I titled this post targeting game writers and game designers because that’s a little more relevant to this blog.)

Here’s my answer:

That’s not hard.

1) Find a local meetup for game developers and attend. Be courteous and research your questions before you ask them. Never ask anything that you could’ve read on Wikipedia. (Not so easy if you’re in a remote area.)
2) Go to the Game Dev Conference in California: GDC 2016.
3) Arrange a tour or informational interview with a local game studio for your school or interest group. (Not so easy if you don’t live near a studio)
4) Find the game developer group at your local university and join or support as best you can.

And of course be wary of the wannabes. There are a lot of “developers” who are just gamers with vaporware dreams.

See the Quora thread and feel free to weigh in.

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Videogame Field of View

I came across an interesting inquiry on Quora recently, and thought I’d share it with you folks. The question: “In 1st person video games, why don’t they introduce peripheral vision? The angle of sight seems to be a lot less than our own angle of vision.”

I’ve had this complaint as well, in both first-person and third-person games (assuming we’re not talking about something exotic like a “peripheral vision mode”). Gears of War frustrates me because I feel like I can’t see the world since I’m zoomed so far in on the asses of the protagonists.

(I historically have the same complaint about Madden, although for different reasons: I find it ridiculous that I have to contort myself to see near-sideline receivers who are by default off the edge of the screen. Something tells me that Tom Brady doesn’t have this invisible receiver problem. Less of an issue in the HD era.)

This video from TotalBiscuit does a stellar job of illustrating the point. Skip to the three-minute mark to get right to the good stuff:

Here’s a shot from Gears of War. Your protagonist eats up about a sixth of the critical foreground screen real estate. If you played the game, you may remember the annoyance of larger levels where foes were shooting you from every direction while you felt like you were looking for them through a shoebox.

field of view gow

Compare GoW with this shot from Infamous 2. The avatar is smaller, the camera position is further back from the action, and you can see more of the world.

fov-screenshot

TotalBiscuit feels claustrophobic FOVs like GoW’s are due to game developers not caring enough about PC gamers. I think he’s on the right track, but IMHO studios do this extreme zoom-in/narrow field-of-view — and fail to provide options to alter it — for four reasons:

  1. Money (aka complexity). It takes a fair amount of risk for a developer to put in a feature that lets gamers change the field of view. Sure, a few lines of code could change the way the renderer works, letting you see more of the world. Sure, it’d be fairly easy to support that in the game UI. However, adding this option is a significant and fundamental alteration in a very complex system. Your game has to work equally well at all field-of-view settings, in multiplayer, on all sorts of wonky PC systems with wonky chipsets. This is kind of like making a game and a half instead of one game. And you’re doing this to satisfy PC gamers (large fraction of total market) who care about field of view and know what it is (much smaller fraction of the other fraction). Sadly, when the test department starts toying with the FOV option during crunch and filing dozens of bugs on how it crashes this mode and that mode, and causes everything on screen to look weird and skinny, and makes text in the game unreadable, your producer is going to ditch the feature like it’s covered in flaming flatulent warts. Assuming it got that far.
  2. Money (aka framerate). When you widen the field of view, more stuff renders. Guess what? This means that your hardware has to work harder and your silky-smooth framerate goes in the toilet. You can’t fit as many players into multiplayer matches. The big cinematic moments cause the game to choke. People definitely care about framerate. (People are a lot more blase about field of view.) Lousy framerates and stutters cause your game to tank.
  3. Money (aka marketing). GoW wasn’t exactly a critical or commercial failure. People loved the in-your-face action, and the screenshots look like an action blockbuster because you can see all the pimples on Marcus Fenix’s well-rendered butt. It’s annoying to those of us who are accustomed to seeing the game world, but GoW’s other innovations and high-quality graphics were enough to win over the others. Here are some reviews, emphases mine: “Huge, muscular combatants move like giant men wearing heavy gear, fine details are everywhere, and splattering blood never looked so beautiful… It just looks incredible.” – GamesRadar+. “…better than Halo… It’s a fantastic-looking, riveting, fire-first-ask-questions-never third-person shooter that manages to show you things that you’ve never seen before on a console.”- Entertainment Weekly. And, well, this one: “The camera is so good in Gears of War that I never once thought about it while playing. I can’t recall a single instance where it did not frame the action right, or hide anything I should have seen. – Electric Playground
  4. Gameplay. Grudgingly, I admit that GoW was a damned fine game, and that the tight field of view showed off those stellar graphics and made some of the action more fun, like close environments and melee attacks. A game like Infamous 2 requires a wider field of view because of the acrobatic nature of the gameplay.

That’s my take. I like to see the world in these kinds of games, and in the era of hi-def, we can have our cake and eat it in many situations. At the same time, we still see a lot of close-in cameras and narrow FOVs as new games try to out-scream the competition by putting you “in the action.” Hopefully that’s a trend that will die as we move forward.

Oh, and here’s the link to the original Quora conversation: http://www.quora.com/In-1st-person-video-games-why-dont-they-introduce-peripheral-vision

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Man Walks Miles in the Snow to Honor Qbert

See this fellow? He walks miles in deep snow, for hours, for a noble cause. To honor the arcade game Qbert.

Here’s what that snow art looks like:

I can hear Qbert jumping from cube to cube right now! Spoing spoing!

Okay, maybe it isn’t actually Qbert-themed. Simon Beck is our snow artist and apparently his work changes appearance when viewed from different angles. Find out more here.

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Free Game Rentals at Redbox, and More

free game rentalsJust a Few Days Left of Free Game Rentals

Zowie! The free game rentals deal at Redbox is no joke — all week, they’ve been letting you rent games for free if you just reserve the game online before picking it up.

At first I thought it was just a neat one-time promo. But I looked more closely at the fine print and… there isn’t any. In other words, this isn’t a “one free game rental per person” deal. This is a “free game rental Wednesday, and free game rental Thursday too” deal. There’s no silly pretending you’re two people, or using different email accounts and credit cards. Redbox wants you to have a lot of free game rentals. And that is not a bad thing. It’s just too bad I didn’t figure this out earlier so I could share it with you folks.

Unfortunately, this is only good through tomorrow (3/1) UPDATE! Redbox has extended the free game rental deal through 3/8/12! Act now, and you could get a rental tonight and another one tomorrow. You’ll need to sign up for a free Redbox account.

How Game Rentals Work at Redbox

Redbox movie and game rentals are simple: rent today, return it by 9pm tomorrow. “Today” begins at 12:01 am today, though, so if you’re crazier than I am, you could drag yourself down to the nearest kiosk at midnight on a Saturday morning and get a good 45 hours in before returning it at 9p on Sunday. The selection ain’t the most expansive, of course, but they’ve got most of the titles that everyone’s buzzing about right now.

And Check Out NBC’s New Show “Awake”

Turns out an ex-Austin resident is the brains behind this new show, which tells the story of a police detective who survives a terrible car crash that kills either his wife or his son… but he’s not sure which. In one of his realities, his wife lived, and in the other it was his son, and he can’t tell when he’s waking or dreaming.

I just watched the first episode online (embedded above; you can fullscreen it) and it’s the best thing I’ve seen from TV this year. The acting is top-notch, the puzzle-solving police work brilliant, and best of all, this thing has tremendous heart. You really feel for this guy who’s torn between two half-lives and is trying to reassemble himself in the middle. Just don’t blink, because the dialog is fast and polished and the whole thing feels cinematic. Highly recommended.

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