Thursday, 14 May 2015

Swords & Soldiers II introduction trailer

Our awesome introduction trailer for Swords & Soldiers II just went live! Koen made a really nice trailer for our new game, with help from Ralph and Gijs. Swords & Soldiers II is launching on Wii U next week (on Thursday 21 May), exciting times! :D

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Making gameplay stand out against rich backgrounds

Good game graphics are not just about being pretty. Equally important is that they communicate well. The richer and more detailed a visual style becomes, the more difficult it is to communicate gameplay clearly. With the amount of detail and variation we wanted in Swords & Soldiers II it was a challenge to make the units, spells and other gameplay objects pop out against the colourful backgrounds. Today I would like to show the tricks our artists used to make this work.

The reason this is important is that otherwise it would not be clear which objects are interactive and which are not. For example, is a tree a wall that I cannot pass through, or just a backdrop that has no effect on the gameplay? Ideally these kinds of things are immediately and intuitively clear to the player, without requiring any explanation.

Our new game Swords & Soldiers II launches on Wii U on May 21st.

The easiest way to achieve visual clarity is to not have any backgrounds or effects. Just a flat-coloured background with the gameplay objects. This looks horrible of course, so we want to add more art to the game. In general, the more you add to the world, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish gameplay objects from graphical fluff. In truly rich visual styles achieving clarity is a challenging balancing act. Objects should look like they belong in the world but at the same time pop out. The creators of a game can even choose to let go of visual clarity if they value visual beauty more.

At Ronimo gameplay always come first, especially when creating highly tactical games like Swords & Soldiers II and Awesomenauts. This means our artists had to employ a lot of clever tricks to combine the lush visual style with gameplay readability.

Our art director Gijs Hermans is responsible for maintaining a consistent style throughout the game. For this blogpost I interviewed Gijs about the tricks used in Swords & Soldiers II. Our level artist Ralph Rademakers showed me some additional tricks. Below I will be showing the clever techniques they used to make the gameplay stand out.

To make characters, spells and towers stand out against background objects they are drawn in a different style: with outlines and cell shading. The backgrounds are more painterly, lacking outlines and with more brushy and subtle lighting.

In many Disney classics, like Jungle Book (top), animated objects are in a different style than non-animated objects. Our artists love this combination so they even combined the animated and non-animated styles within the Viking base for its different parts. Note the difference in outlines and shading between the animated caterpillar and the ship itself.

(Click for high resolution)
The first version of the Viking base was more in the style of the backgrounds. To make it stand out more the final design was pulled more towards the gameplay style.

Early in development characters had hardly any shading (top), making their shapes less readable. Their final designs (bottom) have deeper shading and more saturated colours.

(Click for high resolution)
Our artists tried a lot of different shading and outline styles for gameplay objects. This image shows a series of early experiments with the goldmine. All the way to the right is the final design. Be sure to click this image for full resolution, since this scale does not show the differences well.

Background graphics are less saturated. Our level artist Ralph even used such atmospheric perspective on objects very close: the house here is directly behind the playground and thus too close for 'real' atmospheric perspective. Ralph desaturated it anyway to make gameplay stand out more.

Sheep are sometimes gameplay objects and sometimes background objects. To make this clearer they are blended a bit towards a single colour when they are in the background or foreground.

Background brightness is often changed to make gameplay stand out more. In both of these images the background is brighter near the gameplay layer, adding contrast. Higher up in the screen no gameplay happens, so there 'normal' colours are used in the background.

Gradients are not the only way to make the playground stand out: here the bushes directly behind the playground don't have snow, turning them into a green border between the snowy playground and the snowy trees. It would be weird if only these objects lacked snow, so snow is also removed from other objects like the rooftop in the background on the left.

Corpses have gameplay functionality but having lots of them really clutters the view. We therefore desaturate corpses to make soldiers walking in front of them stand out more.

Depth of field blur on the background not only adds depth but also makes the foreground pop. We use this trick in both Swords & Soldiers II and Awesomenauts to make gameplay more readable.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Why indies should care less about financial independence

Many people in the games industry think the word "indie" stands for "financially independent", and indeed this is something that a lot of indie game developers care about a lot. Although it is an important topic, I think we should care about it less: being indie should be about creative independence, not about financial independence.

You might argue that one is impossible without the other: if someone is funding your game then of course that someone is also influencing your creative decisions. However, what a lot of people don't seem to realize is that no one funding your game is also a big influence on your creative freedom. You will need some way to get food and pay the rent if you want to spend a significant amount of time making your game the best you can.

Disclaimer: this post is only targeted at those who want to make a living making games. If you are making games as a hobby in your spare time, then please ignore this post and do whatever you want! ^_^

Without enough money to make a game you will often have to cut back on the quality and size of the game. You might even have to choose a different game concept altogether. In many cases this influence might be much bigger than that of a publisher or investor. Game development is always about compromises between time and budget on one side, and the quality of the game on the other side. Having an investor might open up a lot of creative options, even if the influence of the investor also closes some.

Of course you can work around all of this by just making really small games. Nothing wrong with that, but being constrained to making small games only is just as much a creative limitation as a pushy publisher would be.

The ultimate solution is to just have a hit. Then your next game will have a big budget and you will have complete financial independence. But few people have a hit and you cannot just force yourself into one. Until you have that hit, you will have to work with your real situation.

A common solution is to do work-for-hire half the time and spend the other half of the time on your own indie games. This can of course work, but it also means spending half as much time on your own game, or taking twice as long to build it. Often this simply results in spending most of your time on work-for-hire to make ends meet while making a mediocre game of your own on the side. Doing work-for-hire is often more limiting to development than any publisher would ever be.

Another reason it might sometimes be a good idea to let go of your financial independence is that you can focus more on your actual game. The business and marketing of releasing games takes a lot of time, so working with a financial partner who takes care of these things can free up valuable time to make your game better.

Note that actually getting financing from a publisher, investor, platform holder or other kind of partner is really difficult. In that sense it is not a simple choice of yes or no. What I am saying here is that indies should consider this option more often, not that it is an automatic win.

The solution that is all the rage right now is to avoid publishers and investors and go for crowdfunding instead. Crowdfunding is often praised as the ultimate freedom for an indie developer: if you successfully get funded you won't have a pushy publisher and you can make whatever you want with the help of the crowd. If only this were true...

In reality being crowdfunded is an incredibly limiting form of funding. You will have to make a lot of promises of how awesome the game will be to entice players to fund it, especially if you look for funding early in development. But what if during development some of those planned features turn out to not actually be fun? In practice there is a good chance that your backers turn out to be extremely exacting and will demand that you deliver exactly what you promised, even if you have already figured out that what you promised was just a really bad idea. Game development is inherently iterative, so you cannot know what features work until you've built and tried them.

It gets even worse if during development you get a better idea. For example, let's say that during the crowdfunding campaign you promised that the game would feature villages that grow as you progress through the game. What if during development you get some great new ideas for wildlife hunting mechanics that would be much better for the game than those villages. You cannot do everything and during normal development you would be able to just cancel the whole concept of the villages altogether and build the hunting instead. When being crowdfunded there is a good chance that doing such a thing would raise an angry mob. The so-called "financial independence" of crowdfunding might turn out to be very limiting to your creative independence!

A good example of this was recently seen in the rage over Godus. During their Kickstarter campaign they promised all kinds of things that turned out differently or not at all during development. Basically, the game just evolved as 22 Cans worked on it, and maybe it turned out to not be as much fun as was imagined at the beginning. The community reacted so aggressively that they even started threatening Peter Molyneux's family. I happen to also be a backer of Godus and all I ever expected from 22 Cans was to make the best game they could within the spirit of their Kickstarter. But this is not what the majority of the community expects. A specific feature set was promised and that feature set needs to be delivered or Peter Molyneux's family gets it. It is a sad example of the crowd stifling development, not supporting it.

My point here is not that crowdfunding is bad. The community funded the big Starstorm expansion for our game Awesomenauts on Kickstarter. This allowed us to grow the game way bigger and better than we otherwise could have. We are extremely thankful for that and really happy with how the collaboration with the community has been going so far. ^_^ I am just saying that the creative freedom that crowdfunding would give is extremely overrated and you should realise this before starting a crowdfunding campaign. Good communication and choosing the correct wording (like avoiding "promises") might also help a lot.

Of course my point in this post is not that every indie should start looking for a publisher or investor. There are a million ways to get your gig going. For example, I kept living with my mom during the first four years of Ronimo. This way hardly any budget was needed and we could spend as much time as needed to make the best games we could. There are many other ways to make things happen. Some concepts, like my crazy live-performance-art-game Cello Fortress, are just so impossible to make money with that no business would ever want to invest in it, so a different way of 'funding' is needed. My solution there was to just make the game in my spare time and not expect to make any money at all (note that I did get some funding for it from the Gamefonds government fund once I had a basic version running).

An obvious reaction to this post would be that I am "telling indies to be less indie". If your definition of "indie" is "financially independent" then yes, that is exactly what I am saying. And honestly, if that is your definition of indie, then I don't care about indie anyway. The only thing that really matters to me is the creative freedom to make the games I want to make, and that is what I consider "indie". I don't care what financial constructions are needed for that and I definitely don't care whether anyone else wants to call that "indie" or not. The only thing that really matters is to make awesome games.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

The level art tools for Swords & Soldiers II

For our new game Swords & Soldiers II (coming to Wii U on May 21st!) we wanted to create detailed and varied levels. Because of the number of maps and their large size we needed art tools that provide a lot of automation to be able to populate them quickly. At the same time we wanted to allow customisation and control over the details to create unique, designed places. Today I would like to show the tools that Ronimo programmer Machiel van Hooren developed for our artists. Check especially the awesome demo video at the end!

Our starting point was the level editing tools we made for Awesomenauts. Those are very flexible and not tied to a single game, so we could pretty much use all of them directly in Swords & Soldiers II. However, the shape of the levels in Swords & Soldiers II is very different: the Awesomenauts tools are built around rectangular boxes, not curving landscapes. Nevertheless they provided a really strong beginning. I made a short video montage about the Awesomenauts tools for a blogpost a couple of years ago, here it is again for those who hadn't seen it before:

The first thing we needed to add for Swords & soldiers II was curving terrain. The core gameplay takes place on a single line with little slopes and hills. So we made a new feature with which our artists place TerrainNodes in the level, and then the engine automatically generates a smooth terrain that goes through those TerrainNodes.

To calculate a smooth line through those points we use standard bezier splines. We also tried using slightly simpler Hermite splines, but we didn't like the look of those. Bezier splines usually come with additional control points for more control over the curvature. To simplify things we calculate the control points automatically based on the previous and next TerrainNode. This gives slightly less control, but that turned out to be fine for our artists and it makes the tools simpler and faster to use.

The next step is terrain layers. We wanted to add as much depth to our 2D art as possible. Having more terrain layers in the foreground and background is a good way to accomplish this.

The most obvious method is to just allow our artists to create more terrain layers by hand at different parallax depths. However, efficiency was also a goal, so we wanted to avoid creating all those layers by hand. Therefore we made it so that the parallax layers are copies of the main terrain. To be able to create some diversity we added settings for things like random noise, different textures and colour modifications. Not only is it faster to create levels with these copied terrain layers, it also means that if the main terrain is edited (and it often is), then the background and foreground layers automatically change with it. This makes iteration and modification much quicker.

The big limitation this creates is that the hills in the background are the same as those on the playground. Sometimes our artists wanted to break free from this pattern. We could have tried making the terrain tools more flexible to accommodate for this, but often the big background objects aren't hills, but an inn, or a wall, or something else. The solution was simple: the artists just placed a big texture of a hill in the background and that's it.

Plants, small vegetation and other props are all tied to the landscape. To help place those quickly we created ObjectDroppers. An ObjectDropper attaches one or more objects to a terrain layer, allowing an artist to drop a bunch of bushes or flowers on the landscape quickly. Props are dropped using a random seed and the artist can try different seeds to look for one that he likes. With a bunch of prop types a level can have its basic setting in place really quickly, after which the artist can focus on adding the unique flavours. Since the dropped props are tied to the landscape, modifying the terrain also automatically modifies the props, making tweaking the terrain that much faster.

Our level artist Ralph Rademakers even used ObjectDroppers to place bigger objects like trees. By working efficiently with these tools Ralph was able to dress up the simpler levels in just a few days per level, using the textures drawn bij Adam Daroszewski and Gijs Hermans.

The other main tools used for the level art are things we inherited from Awesomenauts: placing textures and animations in levels and recolouring them. You can find some good examples of the power of in-engine recolouring in this blogpost: Using 2D daylight assets to create a night level.

Now that I have discussed the tools, let's have a look at them in action in this little video:

I think the main lesson that can be learned from the Swords & Soldiers II level art tools, is that it's sometimes a good idea to limit control to make the workflow faster. The ObjectDroppers create a lot of objects at once, giving much less control than placing them by hand, but also being much, much faster. Similarly, the background and foreground terrain layers being copies of the main layer is limiting, but also very efficient. Where required our artists had enough other tools to break through the limitations by hand, resulting in a good balance between automation and old fashioned handwork.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What many indies are doing wrong

The indie explosion has finally happened. New indie companies and teams appear every day. At the same time a lot of pessimism has entered the scene: so few indies are actually making money! This is mostly because the market simply isn't big enough to support us all. But I believe another cause is that a lot of indies are all making the same mistakes. Here is what I think many indies are doing wrong.

Before I continue, a little disclaimer: this post is about what I think gives indies the best chance at making a reasonable income from their games. If you don't care about that and just want to have fun making games, then none of this applies.

Too small games

Every day dozens of indie games are released. During big game jams this can even be hundreds during a single weekend. To stand out from this crowd more indies should focus on making larger games. If you and your team spend dozens of man-months on a single game, then that game is much bigger than most competing games. This way you aren't being compared to a dozen games per day, but 'only' a few games per week.

Too many gimmick-games

Lots of indie games are based on a super unique idea that is fun... for exactly five minutes. There are tons of games that purely resolve around some weird gimmick. This trend is fuelled by game jams, since it is often impossible to make more than that in just 48 hours. Such gimmicks can be fun and exciting, and can sometimes grow into larger products like the excellent World Of Goo. But too often they don't grow beyond a simple gimmick.

The true skill of the game designer isn't in coming up with something original, but in turning that original idea into a substantial game that is enjoyable for hours. And no, adding a highscore list to your gimmick-game doesn't solve this: very few people will be triggered enough by that to play longer (even if it does work for a few people who might play your game for dozens of hours to get the best score).

Not enough polish, depth and quality

Very few indie games seem to execute on all fronts. Looking at trailers it is rare to see a game that has interesting, original gameplay and a cool visual style and good animation and good audio and etc. A game can't be excellent if not all aspects are at the very least acceptable. Especially animation seems to be something that few indies get right.

Too many bugs

Many indie games launch with a lot of bugs. Early Access seems to have triggered a trend where bug fixing and polish isn't valued as much any more. It seems like many developers think we only need more features and more content. You might want to reply that Minecraft and DayZ were huge successes despite being really buggy, but this isn't the norm and not an example that should be followed. In general, good games sell better than bad games. Don't make a bad game.

Too small teams

All of the points above have one thing in common: you need to spend more time on a game. This is easier said than done of course. What if a lot of indies joined forces and formed larger teams? Ten people all making a game on their own could combine into ten people making one big game together. Not only does this allow making bigger and better games, but it also fixes the problem that one person can't be good at everything. With a larger team it is possible to have specialists on board, instead of only generalists.

We made our first big release Swords & Soldiers 1 with a team of seven people and spent a whole year on it, full-time. Yes, we were lucky that we released that game in a time when there was hardly any indie competition, but that isn't the only factor. With around 100 man-months spent on it (including interns), Swords & Soldiers 1 was much bigger than most indie releases today. So even in today's crowded market it would stand out at least a little.

To avoid confusion: by "bigger teams" I don't mean 50 people. I mean 5 to 15 people who work on a game full-time for something like 1 to 3 years. That is big for an indie studio but still minuscule compared to triple-A.

Too many side-jobs

A lot of the indies I meet make money through work-for-hire and then spend the remaining time on their indie games. I understand the necessity of this of course, but often it doesn't work. If you work on your game part-time, how are you ever going to spend enough time to make a truly polished game? It is possible of course, but not focussing fully on your main game makes it really difficult.

How to fund development then? For me personally the funding was really simple: I kept living with my mom until Ronimo made enough money to live on. This took a whopping four years! I wasn't the only one living cheaply back then: three of the other founders of Ronimo rented a single apartment together. Had we sought a normal job, each of us would have made enough to get a decent apartment of his own right away. If you really really really want to make it as an indie, you have to be willing to make serious personal sacrifices. (Note that my mom is great, so not being able to move out until I was 26 wasn't that bad.)

Too little focus on the craft

Making games is hard. Programming complex systems is hard, drawing anatomy is hard, designing puzzles is hard. To make good games, you need to hone your craft. This seems obvious yet in the indie scene there is very little emphasis on hardcore creation skills. I saw this recently at the Screenshake indie festival in Belgium: hardly any of the talks were about actual development. Of course there should be room for a conference that focusses on other aspects of indie games, but I do think it exemplifies a trend that the only indie conference of Belgium ignores the craft of making games altogether.

Unity and GameMaker are a big part of this: they have made it possible to make games without serious technical skills. This is great but if you don't have those skills then it is also extremely limiting. Many indies wouldn't be able to make tech that isn't available as a standard Unity plug-in. This limits your possibilities and makes it more likely that you will make something similar to what others are making. Our own game Awesomenauts and my hobby project Cello Fortress wouldn't have been possible without serious tech knowledge of respectively multiplayer and sound programming. Having the skills to make whatever you want opens up enormous possibilities to stand out from all of those who are limited by the standard features of Unity and GameMaker.

No originality

This point pains me greatly. Five years ago being indie was all about being original, expanding what games can be and delivering unique experiences. Today so many people are making pixel-art rogue-likes, voxel sandbox games and platformers-with-a-twist that it seems like 90% of al indie games fall under one of these very specific categories. Not to mention zombies... I think it is super lame that 'indie' is now often the equivalent of unoriginal me-too games. This also means that you are competing with lots of very similar games, decreasing your chances of success greatly.

Of course not everyone is doing the same thing, but too many indies are. There are opportunities elsewhere. For example, Reus and Banished each brought a unique twist to the god-game/management genre, and both sold really well. For some reason hardly any other indies were doing this genre so Reus and Banished easily stood out.

Stand out from the crowd

Luck is always involved in success, but my impression is that if you want to stand a decent chance, you need to have at least one of these:
  • A better game than the competition
  • A game that does something truly new
  • Appeal to an underserved niche audience
  • More marketing budget than the rest (and being pro at using it effectively)

That last one only really applies to big companies with big budgets. I think a company like Supercell simply bought the success of Hay Day and Boom Beach through the massive marketing budget they earned with Clash Of Clans. For an indie, the other three are the reasonable alternatives.

A great example of this is Ori And The Blind Forest, currently a big hit on Steam. Not only is it incredibly polished and beautiful, and thus simply better than most other games, it also serves an underserved niche: big metroidvania 2D platformers are rare. Luck is always involved, but this game had really good chances at becoming the hit it is now.

Don't blindly follow my advice! Instead, figure out your own path and find an original way of doing things. There are a million ways to be an indie and many can work. But please stop all making the exact same games and mistakes, and consider what I have explained here. Some of these things are really difficult to achieve, for reasons of budget, skill or inspiration, but that shouldn't be an excuse to not strive for them!

Special thanks to Ronimo producer Robin Meijer for discussing these topics with me and coming up with most of that list at the end. This is the second part in a short series on the state of indie. The first part was about luck and in a few weeks I will write about why I think indies should care less about financial independence.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The downsides of gameplay variety

An important goal in the game design of Swords & Soldiers, Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers II is gameplay variety. We try to make all the classes, units and factions play and feel as differently is possible. This makes it more fun to try them all and allows for much more interesting and varied tactics than if everything feels the same. It seems quite obvious that a game gets better if more diversity is added, as long as you have the budget to do so and it does not take away from the core vision. However, there are some serious downsides that are not as obvious. Adding more diversity can hurt many different aspects of a game, as I will explain in this blogpost.

When striving for variety it is important to be aware of the trade-offs. It does not mean that you should avoid diverse mechanics, far from it: it is a key element of the games we make at Ronimo! But consider the consequences before blindly adding variety.

A great example of such trade-offs can be found in the movement mechanics of Awesomenauts. We try to make every character feel different, not only their combat skills, but also their basic movement. Some characters can jump, others can fly, float, make little hops in the air or double jump. There is also variation in walking speed, acceleration and sliding time. Not all of the 21 characters we have so far are completely unique in their movement, but there certainly is a lot of variety. As the interplay between the different classes in Awesomenauts is a key part of the game, this diversity is really important to us.

So where is the trade-off? The problem is that there is such a thing as the ultimate jump. If a jump has the right duration, height and speed, it just feels excellent. Make it a little bit faster or slower and it is instantly less glorious. The jumps in the old Mario games are a great example of this. They strike a perfect balance and it feels awesome just to hop around.

This is where variety bumps its beautiful head. If every jump is to feel different, they cannot all hit that sweet spot. They can feel good in their own way, but it is practically impossible to make them all feel equally super. My colleague Fabian Akker, currently lead game designer on Awesomenauts, recently voiced this very clearly during an internal meeting: "Yes I can make this character faster and yes he will play better then, but I can't make them all be Mario because they will all feel the same." Adding variety will often make the individual parts feel slightly less good than possible, because there is only one "best thing in the game" and not everything can be that thing.

Another example where movement diversity can hurt a game is in graphics. In early prototypes of Awesomenauts we had a skill to walk on ceilings and another to walk on walls. For various reasons both were removed, and one of those reasons was how limiting this would have been to the graphics. To communicate clearly where the player can walk, floors need to be mostly straight and clear. If characters can also walk on ceilings and walls, they would have to be straight and clear too. That would have been a huge limitation to our art style! In this case adding diversity to the gameplay would have removed diversity from the graphics because of the restrictions imposed by the necessities of walkable surfaces.

Diversity is also a problem for balance. The easiest way to make a game perfectly balanced is to have but a single character. Boring, but definitely 'balanced'. As soon as you add more characters, balance quickly becomes infinitely complex and often practically impossible to achieve perfectly. In a previous blogpost I discussed how there are many sides to balance. Even if you manage making all the characters equally strong for pro players, they might still be imbalanced for beginners, in specific team compositions, or in some other way.

A great example of this can be found in map design. It is fun to have a bunch of maps that all play differently. But even the smallest difference can cause problems. If one map is larger than the rest, slow characters will be at a disadvantage. You might try to solve this by giving slow heroes buffs suited to large maps, but that probably introduces other problems. The simple truth: the more diversity, the more impossible it becomes to achieve perfect balance.

And yet balance is so important! How to handle this then? In Awesomenauts we had the problem that one map (AI Station 404) had a single lane at the centre, bunching up everyone. This gave characters with strong area-of-effect attacks (like Raelynn) too much of a benefit. We ended up modifying this map (into AI Station 205) and removing the old version from ranked matchmaking. The downside to this solution is that we lose some diversity in map layouts.

This is just one solution. Another would have been to show the players which map they were getting, so they could avoid certain characters when they feel they are underpowered on a specific map. This would allow us to keep the maps diverse, but at the cost of character diversity, since each map would probably see a more limited set of characters being used. In an ideal world one would find balance tweaks that influence only specific characters on specific maps. However, balance is so complex that such solutions do not always exist, or cannot be found.

Variety can also make a game too complex. I recently finished Advanced Warfare, my very first Call of Duty experience. At the beginning I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of guns, grenades, dashes and options. This is likely due to the series' yearly updates, which force them to add something every time to make it fresh again. At the end of the campaign I still couldn't remember the buttons for half the things I could do. This increase in possibilities adds burdensome complexity, requiring more explanations and tutorials.

We also see this in Awesomenauts: with every character we add it becomes more difficult for beginners to get into the game. In every match they encounter another new Naut they don't know how to fight yet. Having more characters adds longevity and depth, but might make the experience during the first few hours worse for some players.

As a final example I would like to discuss my own hobby project Cello Fortress. Cello Fortress is a hybrid between game and live performance, which means that players only play it for ten minutes each during an event (have a look at this trailer to see how it works). In such a short playsession I can hardly explain anything, so the game needs to be extremely simple. Sometimes players come to me afterwards and ask why I didn't add more diverse weapon. The answer is really simple: because there already is so much I need to explain and communicate during those ten minutes. Variety often adds complexity and there is a limit to how much a player can stomach in such a short session.

I love gameplay variety. My favourite game of 2014 is Far Cry 4, exactly because there is such a big open world where I can do all of these different things. Variety is also super important in our own games Awesomenauts and Swords & Soldiers. But it is important to keep in mind that adding diversity almost always comes with a cost somewhere, so you shouldn't be reckless with it. Add variety, but do it deliberately and take into account the trade-offs it always brings.

Special thanks to Roderick, founder of Leeuwenhart Publishing, for helping me improve my English writing skills. Roderick is the writer of the young adult book Pindakaas & Sushi (in Dutch) and did some freelance writing for Awesomenauts.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Luck and success in the indie business

Luck is an important part in the success or failure of any game studio. Why do some studios succeed while so many others never make a significant amount of money? Regardless of how good your theories are on what makes a successful business, you can never know for sure which games are going to be a hit. Games are entertainment and hit-driven and thus their success is inherently unpredictable. Luck cannot be controlled, but you can help it a bit by making the right choices. Looking at what many starting indies are doing right now, I think a lot of them don't think about luck enough. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

The success of a game is determined pretty much equally by three factors: the game, marketing and luck. Marketing and luck are just as important as the game you are making. If you do not market your game, then no one will know it and thus only a LOT of luck can make it a success. Similarly, if your game is not good enough, then it is also very unlikely to sell well.

While luck cannot be controlled, you can make such decisions that you need as little luck as possible. If you make an awesome game, do really good marketing and release it on the right platforms, then your chances are actually pretty good. But luck always remains a factor. Even the very best games can sometimes fail, and even the worst games sometimes become a hit. Anyone remember Psychonauts? It is considered a classic now, but sold hardly any copies at the time. On the other hand Flappy Bird was an enormous success, despite how crappy that game actually is.

When making your business decisions it is of course a good idea to look at what other companies are doing. What games sell, and why? However, it is a big mistake to attach too much importance to the outliers. Lots of people look at Minecraft and try to copy what it did, hoping to achieve similar success. But Minecraft is a one-in-a-million outlier. Of course Minecraft has some great mechanics, but it also required an enormous amount of luck to become that successful. The chances that you can achieve something even remotely similar are practically zero.

The same goes for Angry Birds and Candy Crush. It is not because of great talent that these games became such huge successes: they are well-made for sure, but there are tons of other games of similar type and quality that somehow did not become such hits. Before Angry Birds and Candy Crush became a success, there was no way anyone could have guessed that these would be the titles to become such big hits.

A strategy some studios use is to not make one big game, but instead make lots of small games and then hope one of those becomes as successful as Angry Birds. The reasoning behind this strategy seems to make sense: every game you release is a roll of the dice. Releasing more games gets you more rolls of the dice, increasing your chance at success.

I do not believe this really works. I think a single really good game has a much bigger chance at becoming a success than dozens of lesser games combined. Of course it is impossible to prove a theory like this, but I believe that a better game has an enormously larger chance of becoming a hit. If you can raise your game's quality from a 7 to an 8, or from an 8 to a 9, then you stand a much, much, much better chance. If you can somehow make a game that scores a 9.5 on Metacritic, then you can be almost certain it will sell like crazy. Even then you can never be sure though!

For this same reason I also do not believe in the 'fail early' strategy that some companies use, especially in combination with Early Access or free to play. The idea of 'fail early' is to release your game when it is only half of what it could be, and then see how well it does. If it does well, then you continue development and make it better. Otherwise you just drop the game and make something else. Like above, this allows a company to make more games and thus get more rolls of the dice. I do not believe that this works: the chance of the game becoming a success is infinitely better if the game itself is much better. That game that is dropped because the half-finished version did not sell well might have become a hit if it were actually developed into a good game, instead of a buggy or too small one.

(Note that I do think Early Access and soft launches can sometimes work, but for other reasons: they provide tons of testing and user feedback and it might also help fund the rest of development.)

'Chance' is also why big publishers can be relatively stable over time: they release a lot of big games, so the chance of them all failing is really small. This is the benefit of size, and it is a benefit that indie companies generally cannot have.

A good way to get more rolls of the dice is porting. If your game failed on one platform, it might still do really well on another, especially if that other platform has a different audience.

We have experienced this ourselves: Swords & Soldiers was a hit on WiiWare back in 2009. A year later we released an HD version of the game on Playstation 3, with added online multiplayer, but this sold very poorly. Then we released the game on Steam, and there it again sold really well. In hindsight one can come up with theories on why it failed on Playstation 3, but beforehand we had no idea. Every port is a new roll of the dice. Ports are much cheaper and faster to develop than completely new games, so porting is in general a good idea.

Luck cannot be controlled, but you can influence it. I would like to finish this blogpost with a great example of this: our own Awesomenauts. Awesomenauts is a big hit with around two million copies sold. Its success is partially due to its excellent release timing, which was pure luck.

Awesomenauts is a complex game to communicate. During the three years it took us to make the game, League of Legends appeared and became a gigantic hit. Suddenly our marketing became really simple: Awesomenauts is platforming League of Legends! This is a message everyone understood and that immediately had people intrigued with this interesting combination of elements. This helped our sales enormously.

There is no way we could have planned for this: the game took three years to develop so at the beginning we had no idea what would happen in the meanwhile. This might make one think that the success of Awesomenauts was all luck no skill, but this not the case at all. More like the opposite! Awesomenauts has a unique concept, is large for an indie game and is high quality. We spent a lot of time on marketing and have so far released the game on four different platforms, giving us four rolls of the dice. All of these combined mean that our chances were pretty good to begin with. Still the game could have failed, and luck was the final push that we needed.

There are two ways to improve your luck: get more rolls of the dice by having more releases, or improve the chance of each roll by having better releases. I personally think each release should be the best possible, by making a remarkable game with good marketing, a fitting payment model and on the right platforms. You can also handle luck by finding an investor who is willing to invest enough to make several games, so that you get more rolls of the dice. There are many possible approaches and it is important to think about luck and make sure your chances are as good as possible.

This is the first post in a short series on the state of the indie business. Part 2 is more controversial and will hopefully stir up some discussion, as it is about what I think many indies are doing wrong.