Let me give a brief history in case you stumbled across this post through social media or somewhere and have no idea who I am.
I cover indie, browser-based and mobile MMORPGs for Massively.com, one of the largest MMO websites out there. If I want access to a developer, I can get it. We get exclusives and contacts from the largest developers in the business. That’s not bragging, that’s just a fact I am using to establish that I have been around the gaming press block a bit.
I have been blogging in some form for probably seven years, and have worked for Massively for a bit more than two years at the time of this writing. For an example, in one of the four columns I write, I cover a new game each week. I play the game for eight to 12 hours for that week and write up a first impression. Note I did not say “review” because we do not do reviews at Massively. We do not assign scores or give out stars. With an MMO, it would take months at least to give a proper “review.” Do the math: in that column that’s one game a week (minus a few for going back and covering games in “second look” style columns) for two years.
On top of that I also write separate, stand alone first impressions, interviews with developers, stream five games per week live on a Twitch.tv channel, and continue to look up games literally all week.
In other words, I know MMOs. I also play around with standalone games, but not as much. No, I am not seeing all of these games until the end-levels or high-level content. That does not matter. In fact, that brings me to my first tip:
Newbies are as important as oldies
OK, so I understand you want to make a game that will keep players entertained possibly for years. BUT, if you think that the newbie experience or first few levels or hours of your game are not important then you have no idea how to look up metrics or have never, ever been a new player before. While you, as a programmer or developer, might enjoy slogging through pages on a WIKI or forum just to figure out how to hand off a sword to another player, most players do not. Social or casual gaming is destroying everything because it is simple to learn. Let me emphasize this: a “learning” curve is nothing but an excuse for not explaining your game. I promise you that your game is not so complicated as to qualify as rocket science. Do not take pride in the fact that a new player cannot figure out how to learn how to play. It is a game. Explain it, consider it from a newbie perspective and document it in an easily accessible format.
This seems obvious but obviously it is not. I would say that 80 percent of the indie games I find or play come from the same tired school of design as hundreds of games before it. Don’t believe me? Watch any of those game designer school commercials…you would be hard-pressed to see anything in that commercial that was not done a million times before. My current favorite shows an animated orc walking across a hellish battlescape, talking in typical orc fashion about how his creator learned how to make the magical world we are seeing on the screen.
Stop with the same, bland sci-fi designs. Do we really need another space game with “battleships” and “cruisers” that we can outfit with different missiles? Just try this with your game: rename just five of your assets to something completely random. Take that silly “battleship” and call it a “Florgom.” Now come up with the reason it is called a Florgom. Even those few steps will help you think of your product differently. Stop being a copycat. Stop it. It’s boring.
Try your game out on different devices
I cannot tell you how many times I have played an indie game that seemed so, so cool until I tried it on a different device other than my gaming PC. Yes, I know that you as a developer might want players to play on the exact same PC loadout as your own, but remember that players have different devices. The more devices that your game can be played on, the more players you can snag. My wife works on a browser-based MMO called Illyriad. (Full disclosure: I covered this game before she was hired.) It’s a fantastic MMORTS that can be played on my phone, my iPad or my PC. They made it in HTML from the beginning to allow this to happen. When we go to somewhere like Best Buy she will load the game up on tablets, PCs and laptops to see how it might look. She doesn’t have access to a literal in-person group of playtesters, so this is a simple and effective way to see how it runs on different devices. She can also ask her community.
Ask your friends to try it on their laptops, netbooks, smartphone or whatever else. Get off of your PC. One of the reasons I cannot stand modern “AAA” MMOs is that many of them are so specifically tuned to a certain setup that there is almost no flexibility built in. Get out of your programming cave and try the game out on as many devices as possible. Take notes and adjust.
Make the game accessible for disabled players
If you do not know how colorblind players see the world, Google it. If you have no idea how someone who might only have the use of one or two fingers (trust me, it is more common than you think) then Google it. Go to sites like Ablegamers.com and figure it out. Do you really need to make the health bar in red, a common color that gives people issues? Consider putting symbols next to certain bits of information for those people who might not be able to read as well as others. Yes, I’m serious.
I get migraines. Ironically a lot of the indie games I play rely heavily on text. For the love of all things holy, take some time out on tweaking that sword to put in options for changing the font colors, size and location. Make it a priority. Just because you make everything green on black because you remember that from the olden’ days of chat rooms or dial-up conversations of ’96 does not have anything to do with even basic internet options today. Make your game easy to look at. That doesn’t necessarily mean graphics — your game can be nothing but words — but give players the option to adjust how they see your game.
Again this sounds like a no-brainer, but I cannot tell you how many indie games feature no music at all or hardly any. If sound and music is done right it can literally glue players to your game. Have you ever played a game and found yourself sightseeing or spending an hour just exploring? I guarantee you that sound design had a lot to do with that. I know that music is expensive, but only if you have no idea how to use Google. First of all, never, ever steal music or sounds or do not give credit to the person who made them. But, search for “copyright free music” and find legal sites that give away music for use in gaming or projects. Hell, go to a local show or two and ask that cool piano player afterwards if she would be interested in writing two or three tunes for your game. Reimburse her with credit, a bit of cash or whatever she agrees with. Get some sound in your game, but make sure it is as original as possible.
Get a website and a community manager
This is the one that is so easy to do but probably done the least. Your website is ugly, indie developer. It looks like, well, a programmer made it. Make it prettier. This is not hard, I promise. As I have always said, go to the local college and talk to the design professor. It might make for a good project for the students to design a site that has actual traffic and is used for business. While you’re there, ask those students what they think of your site. Take notes. Ask your grandmother. Take notes. Remember…ugly websites look dated. Sites that look dated turn people off. We left those behind in ’99.
A community manager can be someone who simply talks to your players, runs your Twitter feed (you do have a Twitter feed, right?) and lets you know what concerns are running through the community. You are more-than-likely busy programming. You do not need to spend time on the forums trying to answer every concern. Not only that, but when you cannot get to answering concerns because your were busy conquering bugs it will feel as though you are not concerned about player issues. Your CM can be a friend, a family member or someone who works remotely. Get one. This is 2012… get one.
Contact the press
I cannot tell you how many times I have found a very cool indie MMO, wanted to ask a few basic questions for use in an article (which would get thousands and thousands of views) and the developer never returns my email. Or, once they do, it’s written like it came from a 14 year old. Do your homework, indies: Google that shit. Start by finding just 10 websites of varying sizes and get to know them.
Now, here’s the important part: do not step outside of your bounds. In other words, if there is a writer on Twitter that you would love to show your game to, say “Hello” and mention your game but do not become a bother. Even smaller sites can get tons of PR contacts, and bothering their writers on their personal Twitter accounts might get you some press, but might also get you on the “annoying shits” list. Find out where to send your emails and respect the leadership. And never, ever get angry and fire off a pissy email just because they writer did not like your game. If you can, go to the comments section and talk about how you are fixing the issue or thank them for their time anyway. Correct them if they are factually wrong, but even then do it professionally. I promise you that you can get new players — even within a negative review — by responding like a grown-up.
In the meanwhile, contact the press. Send them properly written, professional updates and bits of news. Smaller sites especially are looking for news and really don’t care if it’s “AAA” or not. Give sites exclusive interviews or “first-looks” at your game, but stick to the promises you make. If you tell some blogger that they are are going to get the only look at your new patch, do not bullshit them. Build relationships. This is where a community manager or PR person comes in handy.
OK, that’s enough for now. Look, I know most indie developers (and I mean indie, as in teams under five) are usually programmers or code-monkeys. I do not mean any offense at all, but those people are generally….less than creative individuals. Get someone who is creative on your team. Ask people who are outside of your programming bubble to comment on your game. Do not just rely on your players. If you are making a space game that is essentially a spreadsheet in space, your players will probably be the same math-minded individuals that creative people like me are jealous of. (I wish I had a math-brain. Seriously…people who solve problems know that “math stuff”.) Listen to your players, but find someone (let’s say your old boyfriend from highschool) who is outside of the game-making process to look at your game. Listen to their subtle complaints and questions. They will probably not know the indie gaming vocabulary. He might say “How do I chop down that tree?” and it might seem obvious to you that he should just equip the axe, click on the tree, highlight “chop” and wait for the timer, but they asked the question for a reason. Record the session with a webcam or mic.
I don’t want to sound like I am being harsh on indie developers. I want you to know that I think the world of anyone who learns how to code and make their own game. In fact I wish I could learn to do it myself or at least team up with someone to design my own basic game. In fact I tried it with Dave Toulouse a while ago.
But here’s a general rule: if you can typically spend 10 + hours a day sitting behind your PC programming and tweaking on your game, you need someone outside of that experience to help you. I am not telling you to spend gobs of money (if any money at all) but I am asking you to recognize the player. I know it’s hard. I know you’re really busy, but find the time.
I will make another post with more complaints (I mean tips) in the future. It’s so sad for me to say, but this last year has shown me that indie gaming can be just as unoriginal and bland as multi-million dollar “AAA” gaming. That’s very sad, actually. Let’s fix that.
Now, go kick ass.