On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.
There’s something from my high school days that applies rather well to game design, especially when you compare an indie product to, say, something from Activision or Electronic Arts. It all reminds me of my Economics class in junior year. That’s right; it’s time for an anecdote.
In the class, we were required to form teams and then attempt to sell an imaginary product in order to, uh, win. Something. Anyway, we even had a program that factored in our costs and how much we were producing and the like. Our immediate thought was to punch it, push production to 100% and let it run until we were raking in the dough. We lost because of it.
The reasoning behind this was simple: 80% production was the magic number. Pushing it to 100% would saturate the market, meaning you would not sell as many, and all the costs accrued for producing the extra 20% simply went to waste. Essentially, more units actually were not better in this case.
So how does this relate to game design? Well, bigger companies tend to have the outlook that bigger is better. Games that are longer, packed with features and have multiple modes are all the rage. But are they really that effective when they spend valuable assets and time on odds and ends that don’t actually end up being used?
Jim Sterling briefly touches on this kind of mainstream mentality on page 24 in the July 2010 issue of GamePro. In the article, he argues against the inclusion of multiplayer modes in games if the only reason is because it is what is expected of a studio. For example, if the company is focusing on the single-player then perhaps they should scrap the multiplayer entirely and put all the focus on what they want to do well.
The smaller, littler guys tend to have a much different outlook on things. I have touched on this before but indie companies don’t exactly have the funding that the mainstream ones do. They are required by necessity to think, plan and build smaller than they might otherwise want to do. Instead of complicated design schemes they end up producing a much, for lack of a better word, simpler plan of action.
Simpler does not equate to worse in any way. It simply means that the game has fewer moving parts to it. Less of those mean that there are fewer chances for something to go horribly, incredibly wrong. That does not mean that they won’t mess up somewhere between design and implementation but that is another story entirely.
It is probably easiest to explain this concept by taking an indie game, like Slam Bolt Scrappers, and breaking down exactly what the game attempts to accomplish as far as design goes. I’d wager that it won’t take more than a few paragraphs, max, to explain the entirety of the game and why it works as well as it does.
By now, anyone who follows the indie scene should be well aware of Fire Hose Games and Slam Bolt Scrappers. They had an impressive showing at PAX East this year and followed that up with an even better one at E3. They were even nominated by Kotaku for Best Gameplay Mechanic.
The game has Tetris-like gameplay of completing lines of blocks in order to build towers. Different color blocks make different towers. Purple, as an example, builds a laser turret. The bigger the squares of color you complete are, the bigger the towers. These towers then attempt to blow the heck out of your opponents’ towers.
It also allows up to four players, two to a team, and you can even beat directly on another player if you so choose. This almost seems like an afterthought of, “Oh, huh, they fight monsters to get their bricks. I guess they could hit each other too if they really wanted.” The only reason to beat on another player would be to attempt to kill them and steal their blocks. It’s diabolical, sure, but pretty straightforward.
That’s it, pretty much. Well, you can also put a small number of different hats on your characters, like a sombrero or Viking helmet. The game doesn’t aspire to be much more than this and, when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t need to. It is what it is because of its lack of fluff and has turned out to be an incredibly enjoyable experience.
Slam Bolt Scrappers does well for a number of reasons. Most of them are subjective but it seems that people can come to agreement on the fact that the product is just plain fun. The reason it’s so fun is because the small team, with limited funds, were able to focus on exactly what they wanted to achieve and then they did.
Some games lose sight of their original goal as time goes on. BioShock 2, for example, almost feels like two different games, one being single-player and the other multiplayer. This is partially due to the fact that two separate companies worked on either side of that line. In the end, they attempted to marry the two factions together but it still comes off as a forced fit; it resembles a square block pushed through a triangle hole.
When mainstream game designers are given a choice between doing one thing well and doing a bunch of things decently, it often seems like their response is to attempt to do a bunch of things well. It doesn’t always work out that way. They sometimes finish up with a smattering of mediocre decisions scattered throughout the final product. Indie game designers don’t have that luxury.
Titles from larger developers also run into the problem of having far too many cooks in the kitchen. At some point, they push past that 80% saturation and find themselves spoiling the broth. Between publishers, programmers, designers, producers and the marketing team, any game is liable to reach a hundred different iterations, each one further from the original vision than the last, before it ever reaches the shelves of your local Best Buy.
To return to Fire Hose Games, as of E3 they were still in single digits as to the number of people on their team. That isn’t counting all the people involved in bringing their game to the Playstation Network but it seems that Slam Bolt Scrappers has been left relatively unchanged since the announcement. There were fewer hurdles to be jumped as there were simply fewer people involved in the process.
Sometimes it really is true that less is more. With more of, well, everything, design can be bogged down and often loses focus, dilutes the vision and expands the scope to the point where nothing is clear anymore. Indie games manage to nearly constantly get this dichotomy correct simply due to their definition. It’s hard for an indie studio to lose sight of the original vision or focus when that’s all they really have the budget to do.