For the last week of May, 2D Boy’s Ron Carmel is orchestrating roughly 180 developers in an enormous sale event titled “Because We May.” The event’s website acts as a portal, allowing you to view all the offered games and link to their purchase pages. The sale features 383 games (some of which are duplicates on different platforms), including 60 games on Steam, 56 on GooglePlay, 139 for iOS, and many more for purchase from other sources or even directly from the developers. It really is quite impressive how large this sale is, so head on over to Because We May and see if there’s anything on sale that you’d like to grab.
In Erin Robinson’s latest game, Puzzle Bots, you control a team of small robots as they go on adventures in and around Dr. Hugo’s factory. It’s a spiritual sequel, or commercial upgrade ($15), to Erin’s freeware adventure game Nanobots, which comes recommended, and is being published by Dave Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Games (best known for The Shivah and The Blackwell series). This game was put together by people who love the adventure game genre and it shows.
So I was critical of Wadjet Eye’s Emerald City Confidential because I felt it pandered too much to a casual audience. Well, I do think Puzzle Bots is also aimed at a more casual crowd, too – while there are some tricky puzzles at the end, the majority of the game is pretty easy, and made easier by the lack of inventory and a generous hint system (which inexplicably has a recharge period that is very short). Also, each of the robots can only perform a single action, instead of having two like in Nanobots. That said, I wasn’t really bothered by it. Whereas ECC felt quite intrusive with its hand-holding, in Puzzle Bots it’s mostly handled within character. Makes a big difference.
And I did really like the characters in this game. The humans are cartoony and somewhat archetypal but have enough nerdy, game-informed quirks to make them endearing. The voicework is consistently good. The robots did not feel quite as fleshed out as the ones in Nanobots personality-wise, but were nonetheless cute and chirpy and pretty hard not to like.
The consistent humor, the interaction between the humans and the robots, the play on differences not only in physical scale but how humans/robots see the world, and the way the story unfolds as it’s passed between these two groups, is what really makes Puzzle Bots shine. As someone who thinks highly of challenge and mechanical depth, I’m almost loathe to say it, but I think the game’s non-intrusive casualness is actually a selling point for this game, because I was eager to watch the story unfold in a timely manner. Which isn’t to say that the puzzles aren’t interesting – there are some clever ideas (especially later on) and it’s fun to make the robots work together. It’s just easy, that’s all, and that kind of jives with the game’s pacing.
Technically, the game has some hiccups. The animation, especially for the humans, feels jerky – the number of frames used would be adequate for pixel art, but is jarring for large, hand-drawn characters (I did appreciate how large the sprites were). There also aren’t enough facial animations, so you’ll see disparity between what’s being said and how the characters are talking. The robots, which are smaller, animate more smoothly than the humans but also have some weird moments when they’ll slide across the screen in a straight line instead of hopping, flipping, or whatever else they should be doing. Finally, there are some places where characters or the environment interact in a way that is slightly counterintuitive to either reality or the puzzle at hand.
Nanobots is a really fun adventure game, and this extends on it in a lot of ways that fans of that game will appreciate. The mediocre animation, technical issues, and too-compressed story makes Puzzle Bots feel kind of rough, but the creator’s personality and enthusiasm comes through crystal clear, which is the most important thing for this indie game (and I’ll take roughness over slick-to-a-fault any day). It’s lighthearted, fun, and very charming. I hope it does well because it’d be great to see the ‘bots (who are, DAWWW, way too cute) continue their adventures.
TIGdb: Entry for Puzzle Bots
Colin Northway gave a fairly business-oriented postmortem of his game Fantastic Contraption at this year’s Independent Games Summit called (no big surprise here) Postmortem: The Design & Business Behind Fantastic Contraption. He had actually given this talk previously at the last GDC Austin, so I can link you to Brandon Boyer’s detailed Offworld coverage of that session rather than typing up all these darn notes myself! In short: Flash is good, Box2D is great, and anyone can create and publish a successful game all by themselves. (Though, backup from Andy Moore certainly doesn’t hurt!)
Okay, it was a bit more in depth than that. Read on, if you dare!
Fantastic Contraption was conceived one night when Colin awoke and scribbled down a note beginning with “Cool Shit Idea.” The majority of the game was done within a few weeks, using only notepad and a command line compiler. A bunch of user (i.e., family) testing and website work later, the game was released. After going away for a weekend, Colin returned to find the game had blown up on StumbleUpon, crushing the servers. “It was a good problem to have, but there are no good problems, only problems.” Needless to say, the game quickly became a success. Andy Moore was soon brought in to manage the rapidly growing fan community.
Apart from the stats and such, what I really took away from this talk were some great messages for independent (and wannabe independent) game developers in general. Colin built a solid game that seemed to perpetuate itself, putting no resources into press, portals, publishers, ads, or anything. Here are some of the more quotable quotes:
“Box2D is the Fire Flower of game development.” (He even kicked back some of the profit from the game to Erin Catto, which is awesome.)
“Money is dumb and lonely and just wants to be with other money.” Once the game took off, people started coming to him. But “pay attention to the slime factor” when dealing with the business end of things. (Colin was at one point offered a couple hundred bucks for the source of and full rights to the game.)
“Go into the wilderness” when deciding what to make, “make what you want, not what people say” — you will find success with your own creativity. Sometimes “everyone says no” but “you don’t need permission to make a really good game, or a successful one.” “There are no gatekeepers.” (This is my favorite!)
Embrace social networking; you don’t need to conquer it to use it. And “close the information gap, talk to other indies.”
Also, Colin casually said “fantastic” (outside the context of the game’s title) like fifty times. I wonder if he noticed. :)
All in all, pretty inspiring stuff!
Andy Moore’s SteamBirds is a Flash-based dogfighting game that’s set in alternate history versions of World War I and II, where planes are powered by nuclear power or some such. The game employs a kind of turn-based combat system that’s similar to Flotilla – the action is carried out in real-time but pauses at fixed intervals so that you can adjust your movements. Your planes will automatically shoot if they’re within range, so your main goal is to outmaneuver your opponents and use the special abilities of your planes at the right times. It’s really fun and the contributions from Danc (graphics and design), Danny Baranowsky (music), and Jordan Fehr (sound effects) make it a stand-out browser game.
My biggest complaint is that the game doesn’t go far enough. It’s a problem that I feel a lot of the Flash games I’ve played suffer from: by the time you get to the real meat of the game – the massive, knock-down drag-out battles with tons of planes – SteamBirds is already winding down toward a premature conclusion. At least there are a handful of bonus levels that extend the fun and let you play around with weapons that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the main campaign.
Still, maybe it’s best that SteamBirds leaves me thinking of possibilities and wanting more. Andy has even been kind enough to reveal the numbers behind the project: everything from how the development was split to how he chose his sponsor, Armor Games (and for how much). Nice!
TIGdb: Entry for SteamBirds
Photo courtesy of Rebekah Saltsman
The 2010 Independent Games Summit kicked off this year with a talk from Ron Carmel (of 2D Boy fame) called Indies and Publishers: Fixing a System that Never Worked, further clarifying the recently announced Indie Fund — a new investment/funding alternative created by successful indie developers for indie developers. The Fund has secretly been in action a while now, but is still not yet fully public, so this session bridged the gap somewhat between its reveal a few weeks ago and eventual open submissions.
I’ll summarize the talk (and the Q/A session) after the jump, but if you want all the details, plus high resolution versions of David Hellman‘s dope slides, head over to Brandon Boyer’s excellent article on Offworld (Boing Boing, whatever).
The Problem, as Ron put it, is mainstream publishers still treat indie development teams the same as they would any other. Old habits inherited from the retail days are still alive, not taking into account the streamlined, iterative way in which most indie games are made, nor their low budget. What this means is publishers wind up taking too big of a risk up front, and taking too much in return, effectively turning the independent developers into “tenant farmers.” Despite the fact that digital distribution means smaller games with zero manufacturing costs, and smaller teams that don’t need to make as much money, the system in place is largely unchanged from AAA game publishing. It’s generally inefficient and keeps the developer in the dark, but there isn’t a better alternative.
As an example, Ron described what he and Kyle went through trying to bring World of Goo to Games for Windows Live. The game got passed through lawyers, supervisors, engineers, QA teams, and various other managers for months and months before being approved. But when they brought the game to Steam (an admittedly more established service) the process took only a few days.
Ron defined publishing with an equation: Publishing = Funding + Distribution. But with the wide variety of distribution channels available to indies today, he concluded that traditional publishers aren’t needed at all. All that’s needed is funding. So the question became, “How do we do for publishing what Steam did for distribution?” The answer: Indie Fund.
He then went on to name some of the objectives of Indie Fund:
- A transparent, faster submission process
- A clear, publicly available deal
- A direct line of communication with the developer
- A flexible development setup for the developer
(no design docs, no milestones, just periodic builds with change lists)
- No IP ownership, no creative control over the developer
- No editorial work, putting trust in the developer
This concluded the talk. A brief Question and Answer session followed (which I will continue to heavily paraphrase):
Q: How big is the fund?
A: Size doesn’t matter. Finding the right games matters; the money will come.
Q: What about the role traditional publishers play in marketing?
A: It’s possible they help, but I haven’t seen conclusive evidence of them making a difference.
Q: When will the submission process open?
A: Currently it’s through word of mouth. We’re still ironing things out, waiting for results, etc.
Q: Are traditional publishers needed to reach all platforms?
A: We’re not handling that part of the business. But making one deal usually opens the door for others.
Q: Is Indie Fund similar to Y Combinator?
A: They seem to provide less funding and much earlier. Indie Fund will be more conservative at first, providing a significant amount of funding to more complete games.
Q: Will Indie Fund provide the developer with resources? Will you take royalties?
A: This isn’t our full time job. We won’t be doing these things. The developer should remain independent.
A group of successful indie developers have started Indie Fund, a funding source for independent developers. The 7 backers of the fund (Ron Carmel, Kyle Gabler, Jonathan Blow, Kellee Santiago, Nathan Vella, Matthew Wegner, and Aaron Isaksen) are investing in indie games and supporting their development. The primary goal is to provide a way for indies to create and sell games without having to compromise their vision or legal rights to publishers. Of course, you’d also be getting the advice of some of the community’s most experienced and successful creators.
Currently, the Fund is investing in a few undisclosed indie titles, which happened “through word of mouth within the indie community”. Eventually, though, there will be a way for developers to submit their games. You can find out more about Indie Fund in this Gamasutra Q&A with Ron Carmel of 2D Boy.
Gamerbytes, a downloadable game blog affiliated with Gamasutra, has an interesting report that reveals sales data for Xbox Live Indie Games titles in 2009. The data is heartening, and shows that the service can be lucrative. Hopefully these reports will drive more developers to XBLIG and start a positive cycle that will increase the quality and visibility of these games.
Also, please check out this thread on the XNA developers forums, where much of the data was gathered.
I haven’t been able to access the 2dBoy blog for some reason, but I trust that Rock, Paper, Shotgun has reported this accurately: Kyle and Ron have released sales stats for their birthday sale experiment. During the week-long sale you could pay whatever you wanted for World of Goo.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people paid $2 and under. But I think things worked out well for 2dBoy in the end – they made 57,000+ sales and generated $100,000+ in one week. Not a bad present for the young game (and its proud papas)!
A survey that players could take after purchasing the game reveals more interesting information.
The Austin GDC just finished up. It sounded like a lot of fun, with many indies in attendance for the first IGS in Austin. Here are write-ups of the various talks that were given by independent creators last week:
How Fantastic Contraption Became A Fantastic Hit (Gamasutra) – “Fantastic Contraption creator Colin Northway explained how he created his Flash-based physics game with no pro game experience, and “made a boatload of money” along the way."
NinjaBee’s Fox Gets Practically Indie (Gamasutra) – “NinjaBee’s Brent Fox discussed the history of the company, which was set up as a brand for original IP in 2001, and has made Xbox Live Arcade games such as Clonin’ Clyde, A Band Of Bugs and A Kingdom For Keflings, talking in human terms about creating a stable indie game company.”
Gaijin’s Roush on Bit.Trip’s Indie Construction (Gamasutra) – “The original concept of the first Bit.Trip title was ‘Pong with music,’ said Gaijin Games’ Mike Roush Roush — but ‘we all know a great game needs more than a concept.’”
Certain Affinity’s Bullard On Bootstrapping Your Indie Business (Gamasutra) – “In an intensely practical Indie Games Summit talk at GDC Austin, Certain Affinity (Age Of Booty) production manager Jennifer Bullard talked about the realities of game business for a mid-sized independent developer, spanning business to relationships and beyond.”
Wolfire On Making Indie Marketing Buzz (Gamasutra) – “Wolfire’s John Graham discussed how to get the word out about your independent game, based around successful tactics for upcoming PC action game Overgrowth.” Slides available here.
2D Boy’s Carmel On ‘Beyond The Finish Line’ (Gamasutra) – “World Of Goo co-creator Ron Carmel from indie studio 2D Boy examined the world ‘beyond the finish line’, discussing what happens after your indie game is released and how to deal with it.”
Swink, Wegner On Blurst’s Rapid Prototyping Madness (Gamasutra) – “Flashbang Studios’ Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink explained how their rapid prototyping of web-based games like Off-Road Velociraptor Safari gave them larger life lessons.”
Lost Garden’s Cook On Why Premium Flash Games Rock (Gamasutra) – “Bunni co-creator and Lost Garden blogger Daniel Cook explained why he believes charging users for more complex Flash games is the wave of the future.”
Twisted Pixel Talks ‘Splosion Man Postmortem (Gamasutra) – _"Mike Henry and Sean Riley from Austin-based indie Twisted Pixel used their Independent Games Summit talk to postmortem the six-month XBLA project ’Splosion Man, a significant indie success in the ’Summer Of Arcade’ for Microsoft’s Xbox 360."_
Storytelling Through Independent Games (Destructoid) – “Alec Holowka, formerly one half of Bit Blot (Aquaria) and currently the head of Infinite Ammo (Paper Moon), was the last speaker to go on at the Independent Games Summit of GDC Austin.”
I am so sad I’m not at GDC Austin right now. Brandon Boyer’s New Indie Hotness session alone would have been worth the trip. (Not to mention the indie love explosion that’s undoubtedly going on this very minute!)
Fortunately, the unstoppable Simon Carless is doing his best to cover the event. Keep an eye on GameSetWatch as the week goes on.
Simon has already posted his wrap-up of day one, with pretty thorough articles on many of the sessions. It’s like you’re right there!