CategoryIndie Game Dev opinion

Performance is not always important


Articles like this annoy me. I think the comments by Cliff Harris about how indies are not trying to push the envelope from a technical stand point are misguided.

Cliff Harris - Performance

Cliff Harris on indie games and performance

If you read this article and then read the comments below, you’ll notice that most people disagree with Mr. Harris, just like I do. They say that performance doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of the game itself, through narrative and good game play; not graphics or other technical aspects that make a game interesting. I wholly agree with these comments, but I would like to add an extra aspect to the discussion: history.

The good old performance days

When you look at the history of game development, technology has always been an integral part of gaming culture. Engineers (computer or otherwise) were the ones building the first games. And as technology evolved, game developers have always been on its bleeding edge, trying to squeeze out performance out of our gaming machines. I remember the race for the best 3D video card features of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I remember blast processing and other fantastical claims by first party console manufacturers. It truly was a grand age. So when some people miss the days where pursuing performance was a mission, I get it. And, it’s probably this relentless pursuit of hardware and software performance that led us to the production of high-quality graphics we have today.

The other side of that medal is that it’s this significant increase that has led us to the (relative) creative stalemate that is the AAA gaming industry. The reason for this is simple. With the improvement of technology came the obligation of creating lots of high-quality content to showcase this technology. And in order to create this content, companies needed to hire more people. And people cost lots of money.

So, as technology evolved, the number of people required to make a high quality AAA game increased tenfold, while the market for AAA games has not expanded as much throughout the years. Because of this reality, AAA companies slowly shifted towards making blockbuster titles that sell high numbers, which meant doing fewer projects but with lots more features (and people). And in order to compensate for the high risks that these mega-projects represent, large companies would take less creative risks. From a financial point of view, it makes total sense. If you invest a lot of money in a crowded market, you need to make sure that you are going to have the sales to compensate for your high costs. So, to do that, you need to reduce the risk on the creative side, which usually means reusing known intellectual property or doing the Nth sequel of a known game franchise.

The aforementioned situation we find ourselves in today is a direct consequence of this technological arms race for performance!

And let’s not forget the pressure that the first parties put on developers to deliver games that highlight their console’s performance. The oft acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was almost refused by Sony on the first Playstation because it was a 2D game and Sony was pushing for 3D games at the time!

Now, I’ll agree there are good things that come with this increase in cost. The first obvious good point is more jobs. This is usually a good thing, though some may argue that those jobs become too highly specialized. The second is that the existence of the indie scene is partly due to the risk-reducing decisions of the AAA game industry. By making games that appeal to a larger number of people, the large companies have cast aside certain genres and styles, which left some holes in the market. Some of today’s indies survive thanks to these holes.

While both these points are generally positive, I still think that indie game developers should not care about performance. Sure, a few of them might get noticed in the market through performance prowess. However, I don’t believe this is a path we indies should take lest we end up taking the same path the AAA industry took a few years back.

It is through originality and non-technological innovation that we should make our mark.


A Problem with Crowdfunding for Indie Games


Before I start this post about crowdfunding, I want to make certain points clear.

First of all, I think Kickstarter and all other othercrowdfunding platforms are one of the best things to happen to the creative industry in general. It lets anybody with a project in mind show their idea to the world and maybe get the chance to realize it.

A Crowdfunding PLatform

Kickstarter – One of the popular indie crowfunding platforms

Of course, crowdfunding is not easy, especially for games. You need to work hard to come up with a great game idea and make a decent prototype. You work hard to setup the crowd funding project. You work really hard to get your project noticed for the duration of your funding. And then, maybe, just maybe, you might succeed and get a better shot at making your project real. Backed by people who want to see you succeed and play your game.

It’s true that I never put a lot of money in crowdfunding projects (max 15-20$), but I will never be angry if a project doesn’t work out as planned, gets pushed back or even cancelled. With over 10 years of experience working in game development, I know that a lot of things can go wrong, even when you are paid full-time to work for a big company.

Finally, I do not encourage anyone to bring Kickstarter projects to court because of failure to deliver. I think it’s ridiculous. You’re giving someone, usually a nobody, the chance to do something they think is cool and that you think is cool too. Class actions to get your 10$-50$ back? If we want to see different and interesting things, and we don’t want millionaires to decide what products should or shouldn’t exist, then we need to keep encouraging these people, not hang a judicial sword of Damocles over their heads.

Now, that being said, here is what I have to say about the potential problems of crowdfunding.

My crowdfunding list

Out of the 8 projects that I’ve backed on crowdfunding sites, five have passed their due dates, including one that is almost 2 years late! I’ve yet to receive a completed game out of all the these projects. (The three remaining are still ongoing and I’m wishing them the best!) Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Like I said before, game development and software project management is hard, so it’s not surprising to see some projects having trouble finishing one time, especially if some of these people are part time. But what got me interested in this subject was that one of these projects recently announced that they were suspending the development of their game indefinitely. (A few days later, they decided to resume development, which is strange, but I still get to make my point!). This got me to looking into how this project in particular was setup.

A problem with crowdfunding: the people

Don’t get me wrong, I think it takes a certain amount of courage and determination to start and run a crowdfunding campaign. I respect both those who try and those who succeed. I also believe that anybody can try their hand at game development. However, sometimes the people behind these projects may not be the experts we make them to be.

Some of the people working on these indie game projects have no experience at all in game design, game programming and project management. I don’t want to say that this guarantees failure, but it definitely reduces the chances of success. When I decided the look deeper into the demise of the aforementioned project, I found that the project creator was a young individual who never worked in the game industry and had never completed a project before. I don’t know if the developers had been upfront about this, but I think they should have.

The problem this creates is that people who do support crowdfunding project might stop doing so because of the repeated failures of those who had little chance of succeeding in the first place. And in the end, this is bad for everyone.

Even if you are a game development veteran, sometimes you may not be an excellent business man. A few projects have failed after succeeding their crowdfunding project because they had not calculated the cost of their physical rewards. In one specific case, some people I know of ended with only 6000$ of a 30 000$ successfully funded project because of the cost of these physical goods.

Again, this is proof of lack of experience and foresight, which contributes to the potential mistrust that users could develop towards crowdfunding.

A problem with crowdfunding: the competition

Another problem with crowdfunding is competition. As I mentioned in another post, the possibility of self-publishing has created lots of competition on the market of indie and (especially) mobile games. In general, this competition made the pricing point of games go down and the quality of quality games go up. (I say quality of quality games, because there are plenty of games that are not meant to be quality titles!). These elements are good for consumers, but make game development less sustainable for the developers. And I believe the appearance of crowdfunding has created another pressure point for competition of quality.

When I look at the features that crowdfunding indie projects have listed for their projects, I freak out. There are some programming features and quantity/quality of content in those games that imply a lot more work then what people think. As great as the Unity game engine claims to be, just because it’s advertised that you can deploy to PC, Mac, Linux, WiiU, PS3, PS4 and XboxOne AND can have networked games over the internet doesn’t mean it’s going to work by simply pressing a button. When a project offers 4 player internet competition or coop a feature in their crowdfunding tier if the next tier is attained, and that tier is only an extra 20k$, it is not reasonable nor sound from a project management point of view. (Granted, if you have a network expert, maybe you can pull it off, but that’s usually not the case.)

The reason why these people are adding these features is simple. They want to show their project is going to be impressive, and they want to reach the widest possible audience. In other words, they are in competition with all the other crowdfunding projects out there. And when they fail to deliver, again, this reduces the overall credibility of the indie game projects on crowdfunding platforms.

What can we do

The solution is not easy. Indie (or would-be indie) game developers need to understand that finishing a game is hard. If your team and budget is limited, then the scope of your project should be limited, with less features and reasonable rewards in your crowdfunding packages. And evaluating the work needed to complete a project requires a good analysis and experience. If you need help doing this, then ask around.

It’s also not easy because the people developing these games want to be the best thing out there during their crowdfunding campaign. Aspiring indie developers need to understand that their games will never be perfect and they cannot have all the cool features that all the AAA games have. There is a reason why there is a slump in the creativity of AAA games, and that is cost. It costs so much to add all those bells and whistles that it’s simpler to reduce the risk by making the same game over and over again.

It’s this state of high competition in the market that makes (indie) game development unsustainable, given the business decisions that we (non-business) indie developers take. In the end, we need to understand that lowering our prices and increasing the promised features in our games increase the likelihood of failure and lower our credibility when we do fail.


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