Saturday, October 7, 2017

An Indie Game Designer Survivial Guide

Uncommon Journalism speaks with two software developers about the trials and tribulations of making - and monetizing - independently-produced video games in the iPhone era.

THE NEW GATEKEEPER Steam, the world's largest PC gaming digital distribution platform, is praised for allowing indie developers an opportunity to market their software - and condemned for its laissez-faire approach to quality control and lack of support for up-and-coming developers and publishers.

By: James Swift

Back in the 1980s, if you wanted to play a video game you'd just hop on down to the local arcade with a roll of quarters and blast away Space Invaders to your heart's content. In the 1990s, practically every major retailer in America sold some kind of video game, be it home console cartridges, CD-ROM discs or portable units. And if you wanted to get your game on in the 2000s, GameStops were about as ubiquitous as Starbucks. 

But in the wake of the iPhone's release in 2009, how people play - and purchase - video games has radically changed. According to Newzoo's 2017 Global Games Market Report, mobile gaming now represents 42 percent of the entire video gaming market, with its annual segment revenue of $46.1 billion eclipsing both the total PC video game sales ($29.4 billion) and traditional dedicated console sales ($33.5 billion) anticipated for this year.

However, the type of hardware most consumers are using to get their game on isn't the only paradigm shift over the last decade. Today, digital game revenues now account for roughly 87 percent of all video game sales - a projected sum that comes out to about $94 billion. 

Alas, despite the monumental uptick in video game sales, the great leap to mobile gaming and digital downloads hasn't exactly been a boon for game designers and publishers. While the direct download route certainly saves money on physical distribution costs, many companies large and small have struggled to turn a profit in the digital realm. Case in point? While about 370 million games were downloaded via Valve Corporation's Steam digital distribution platform last year, the median sales volume averaged out to a little more than 6,000 sales per game. In the end, the average game released on Steam generated just $25,000  - not exactly stellar numbers when the aggregate mobile casual game costs at least $50,000 to develop.

But that hasn't deterred many small-time developers - including some one-person teams - from trying their hand at independent gaming greatness. Recently, Uncommon Journalism spoke with two indie game developers about what it takes to finance, create and ultimately distribute their own software in today's digital download economy - and what casual players and up-and-coming game designers alike can expect (and learn) from their latest product launches.

KICKING IT OLD SCHOOL Esperware Interactive's Anathema, targeted for a 2019 release, is a loving tribute to the heavies of late '80s and early 90's action-platforming, such as Castlevania and Ghouls 'n Ghosts. (Photo courtesy Esperware Interactive)

Castlevania, Alabama

When most people dwell upon video gaming hotbeds, the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., probably aren't the first thing that comes to mind. But Esperware Interactive is looking to put The Magic City on the gaming map with their latest project, Anathema, which pays homage to one of the most beloved old-school arcade-action franchises of all-time.

"When we first started development at the end of 2014, it was very much a straight to the point Castlevania clone," said lead project designer and developer Matthew Lucas. "You had the slow, trudgey movement, everything to the 'T' pretty much was Castlevania."

Fan feedback on Steam, however, convinced Esperware to make some alterations. "We revamped it, we tried to make it faster and we looked at inspiration from other games," Lucas said. "It feels familiar, hopefully, but it hopefully feels like its own thing at times, or most of the time."

The current incarnation of Esperware has been around for about three years. Earlier, Lucas' crew produced a handful of games under a different company name, including a puzzle game for mobile platforms. Before that, Lucas produced a full-fledged fan game titled Castlevania: The Bloodletting, itself inspired by a cancelled Konami game planned for the ill-fated Sega 32X platform.

Although inspired by titles like Symphony of the Night, Lucas said Anathema - which revolves around antagonist Aurora Delacroix, who is graced with "the divine powers" of Death itself - isn't just another pixel art MetroidVania imitator. "We're more level by level based, similar to Super Castlevania IV, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, the old Ninja Gaiden games on the NES," he said. "We're going for a more arcade game type of game, rather than the game where you explore and power-up and adventure through."

Lucas said both the pre-rendered graphics and voice acting - which includes talents like Aimee Smith of Freedom Planet fame and video game voiceover veteran Duffy Webber - help differentiate Anathema from similar titles. He anticipates the final product - slated for a 2019 release - to include about a dozen levels and offer roughly two hours' worth of gameplay.

Counting testers and additional freelancers, Lucas said about 10 people are working or have worked on the game (which, as of summer 2017, he said was around 25 percent complete.) "Since we're mostly just three people on the main development, it's a little slower than we would like," he said, "but we would rather take our time and do it right than just rush it out."

Lucas described the process of getting the game listed through Steam's Greenlight program, the predecessor to the Steam Direct developer program that went live in June 2017. "You had to pay $100 and list your game and get enough community support and votes that people would be interested in buying your game," he said. "There's not really a set amount of votes you have to have, though, it's always been a big grey area." 

Being an indie developer has its pros, Lucas said, providing the freedom to go against the grain of industry trends and conventions. "We can make the game the kind of game we want to make without having to answer to a publisher," he said. "You can see your visions come to life and I feel like there's more reward that comes with the risk." 

Still, Lucas said money constrains "every aspect" of the game development process. "It makes you keep your projects a little bit smaller in scale," he said, "and generally, less people are willing to give you a chance." 

As far as funding streams go, Lucas said Esperware is targeting a hard $14.99 price point. If they choose to go the downloadable content route, he said the extra levels will be provided gratis"We do not believe in microtransactions, subscriptions, season passes, ads, any of that," he said. "We like the old-school way of 'you pay for a game, you own it, you play it.'"

Lucas said the company also plans on selling a game soundtrack to subsidize development costs. And while Esperware hasn't committed to a crowdfunding campaign yet, he said he does believe it will be utilized as the game draws nearer to completion. 

"We have talked about Kickstarter, but that's in the distant future," he said. "Right now, we're just funding it out of our own pockets, from our day jobs."

LIGHTING IT UP The recently released Glyph's Apprentice isn't just the first offering from inSPIRE Games, it's the first game ever designed, developed and produced by Scott Kingdon - who was also the lone programmer to work on the title. (Photo courtesy inSPIRE Games)

A One-Man Show in Canada

When Scott Kingdon says Glyph's Apprentice is "his game," he means it - not only did his own imprint, inSPIRE Games, produce it, he was the sole employee to work on the project.

"This is my first foray into the video game market," he said. "It was just me, and occasionally my stepfather, who's also a programmer, would help out with some of the more technical details."

The one-player PC title, which was released in early 2017, is the first full-length game Kingdon has developed. "I was a website developer before, and I did that working on various contracts, mostly for the government, in different departments," he said. "I've always had a passion for telling stories and technology, and I just thought video games are the perfect fit for that ... I just knew I couldn't ignore my desires anymore, I had to make that leap."

Kingdon certainly aimed high in his first outing as video game designer. His debut title is a complex puzzle game in which players have to transform "raw energy" into specific patterns using a wide array of in-game tools. Kingdon describes the gameplay as similar to coding, albeit with a less perplexing interface. "It's a deeply engrossing solving game, using simple programming to animate game objects," one inSPIRE Games Facebook post describes it. "There are over 70 levels, each with a near infinite number of solutions."

Kingdon said he spent about seven months working on the core elements of the game. Perhaps indicating just how complex and intricate Glyphs' Apprentice is, Kingdon said it took him even longer - a full year - to complete the game's tutorial.

In sharp contrast to the genre's routine Tetris-inspired components, players in Glyph's Apprentice are tasked with assembling virtual energy-mining contraptions, which closely resemble cybernetic arms. In action, the game takes on a unique rhythmic quality - representing, perhaps, what automated assembly lines in the world of Tron might resemble.

Whereas other puzzle games are mostly about twitch action and pure reflex skills, Kingdon said Glyph's Apprentice is more cerebrally demanding - indeed, he imagines some players sinking hours into solving just one of the game's almost six dozen stages.

"I think a lot of people like that you have to use your creativity and your intelligence," he said. "It's a visually interesting game, and [players] really like how the game challenges you."

Like Lucas and his Esperware compatriots, Kingdon launched the game via Steam's Greenlight program. He hasn't turned to crowdfunding or downloadable content as a revenue stream, but he said he is open to possibly porting the title to mobile platforms.

Kingdon, however, isn't content with resting on his virtual laurels. Indeed, he's already started the groundwork on his next game, which he described as a more ambitious space adventure. "There's a steep learning curve," Kingdon said. "Making video games on your own is extremely hard, [but] Glyph's Apprentice taught me a lot, and that was what it was meant for."

While the advent of digital download gaming and online distribution networks like Steam has been a boon for developers like Kingdon, simply being able to sell games directly to consumers hasn't solved one of the most difficult aspects of indie game publishing - garnering publicity.

Although designing and developing Glyph's Apprentice was a daunting task, Kingdon said advertising the title is where the real challenge kicks in. "It's hard to make a game," he said, "but the marketing is even harder."

Game Over?

The data provided by digital download watchdog Steam Spy doesn't paint a rosy portrait for small-time developers. 

From 2015 to 2017, the volume of titles classified as "indie games" released on Steam exploded from 450 to 1,107. Alas, while overall sales have increased by nearly 50 percent (going from 1.9 million downloads in 2015 to 2.8 million in 2017), median sales have dropped from 229 to 155 per title, while median revenue has plummeted by nearly three-fourths. While the aggregate indie game publisher could expect to net around $1,248 in Steam revenue two years ago, the median projection today is a paltry $341.

With more than 12 million users purchasing more than $3 billion worth of software each year, Steam is far and away the largest digital distribution channel for PC gaming, with some estimates giving it north of a 75 percent market share of all PC gaming sales. In a rather ironic twist of fate, some industry analysts have likened the high volume of software flooding through Steam to the avalanche of "shovelware" that buried the Atari 2600 in the early 1980s. And much the same way a surfeit of subpar titles crippled that platform, many video game insiders are now fearful that a glut of lackluster games on Valve's platform is lessening the likelihood that quality independent games will find an audience

Still, Steam Spy founder Sergey Galyonkin says the Steam Direct program is a marginal improvement over Greenlight. "In my opinion, the intent here is good: let anyone publish the game and have a chance to succeed," he said. "The issues arise from the slow process of post-moderation. I think Valve should focus on better tools for users to report bad agent (fake games and so on.)"

Although Galyonkin considers Steam's the most accessible platform for indie developers, he also said fledgling game designers and publishers would be wise to diversify their distribution plans. "Small-time developers are already in a disadvantageous position," he said, "so it makes sense for them to hedge their bets and think about mobile platforms and consoles."

But there are certainly many Steam-powered success stories, such as Stardew Valley, a farming-RPG developed by a sole programmer who invested four years into the project, and Cuphead, a 2D action-shooter passion project brought to life by two Canadian siblings who worked on the title for almost seven years.

"Cuphead might not be the best bullet-hell/platformer but it sure stands out thanks to amazing visuals," Galyonkin said. "Stardew Valley looks bland at best, but its deep gameplay and author's dedication to the community are what made the game successful."

Designers don't necessarily have to strive for a perfect balance between style and substance, Galyonkin said. The critical and financial success of the aforementioned games, he said, is proof that indie games don't have to be all-around technical masterpieces to earn rave reviews - or rake in tremendous sales.  

"I think it's vital to nail one thing perfect than many things just good," he concluded. "Would Cuphead do as well with 8-bit retro-graphics? Would Stardew Valley succeed with slightly less good gameplay? I don't think so."
Uncommon Journalism, 2017.

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