February 4, 2008 4:07 PM |
[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]
The gaming press is conflating two trends in game development into a single category that they label the Independent Game. The first is commercial oriented, casual, independently produced games by people attempting to make a living from writing and designing games without committing to a publisher. These I'm happy to call Indie Games, and they operate much in the same way that the independent labels in the music industry, or independent studios in Hollywood.
The second is subversive, modded, copycat, patched together from pre-built parts, non-commercial or anti-commercial. Amateur game development is done by people who are scratching an itch, who can't not write computer games, who want to see their ideas in pixel form ahead of trying to generate a return.
It might be because their favourite game or game genre has been abandoned as a commercial enterprise. Or because they have an idea so out there, so unachievable, so unplayable that no attempt to commercialise the game could possibly succeed. Or just because the creators have no expectation of, or actively avoid financial reward. Amateur games are in the same head space as fan made movies, ad free blogging and jamming in the garage with your friends.
I've tolerated the crowning of Dwarf Fortress as indie game par excellence in the popular press, on the assumption that it'd encourage people to look long and hard at the amateur game development scene and discover the other hidden treasures. But what is happening instead is that the gaming press is stealing amateur game successes and claiming them for their own. With no disrespect to indie game developers, I want to claim some of these amateur games back.
In my musings below, I'll identify a number of indie game characteristics, and contrast them with amateur games to make my point that these are very much two different mediums. Not every amateur game will have all these features - there is very much a continuum in game development between three corners of a triangle: Commercial, Independent and Amateur. The relationship between commercial and independent games appears to be evolving into the relationship of big brother and little brother. If this is the case, and the development of digital distribution models such as Xbox Live and game-based web portals such as Pop Cap suggest it is, then the amateur game is the guy standing outside the window without his pants on.
Indies graduated from the university Comp Sci department; Amateurs graduated from Earth B
The sure sign of an indie game is that it required maths, physics or engineering skills beyond that taught in high school algebra. Generally an indie game will have an 'innovative' central mechanic that has been developed by rapid prototyping in a class project - perhaps with an accompanying dissertation - or over a weekend in a code jam. The indie game interface is usually clean and well-considered, and has gone through multiple iterations guided by user testing, with earlier code being thrown away and test cases written if the developers have had time and opportunity.
The indie game user interface is well thought out with the minimum different commands interacting in interesting ways. An indie game may leverage existing game libraries, such as SDL, an open physics engine, and a scripting environment like Lua. Art assets will be scalable and in SVGL and/or transparent 24 bit PNGs generated by someone with more than a passing familiarity to Photoshop and colour palettes. You know you are playing a good indie game because the game design attunes you to the way the developers think and the constant feelings of delight you discover looking at every new screen of play.
An amateur game will typically appear to have required the patient coding of an autistic savant who has encyclopedic knowledge of 13th century Russian genealogy but no understanding of type safety or other elementary computer science concepts. This is not always the case: but if the amateur game developer has any computer science training you can be sure that they will have implemented their own hand-written script parser with lots of unnecessary syntactic decoration, preferably featuring upper case type, full colons and square brackets. A classic indication of an amateur game is using a game maker tool of some kind, such as Neverwinter Nights, Adventure Construction Set or RPG Maker.
Amateur developers rapidly add features without considering their impact and loath to throw them away. This results of lots of code cruft, half-implemented features, spaghetti code and bugs. The amateur game user interface is obtuse, with a vertical learning curve and commands and command interactions that defy logic until you experiment enough with them. An amateur coder may have heard of testing before release if you're lucky, but any test cases that they'll have written will be hopelessly out of date. Amateur art assets will be in ANSI and 16 colour pixel art, if the game uses graphics at all. You can tell if you play a good amateur game because you are constantly worried you're going to end up thinking like the developer and the mild feeling of insanity left behind when you look up from the game.
Indies rely on word of mouth publicity and playing the media game; Amateurs publicly complain that they should have written the game in C# when they picked C instead and may not have played their own game.
The Indie game developer will have a portfolio of games and game design concepts that they can show any commercial publisher who inquires. They'll use smart guerrilla marketing with an appointed community manager (unpaid) and forum moderators to wrangle the herd who are following the game design blogs. They'll have read Kieron Gillen's 'How to Use and Abuse the Gaming Press' and be developing contacts on Kotaku and Joystiq to get the game mentioned at least once per week. They'll subscribe to game development magazines.
Amateur game developers are likely to have books full of game designs but nothing implemented - if they are disciplined enough to code consistently, they'll have directories full of partially implemented games but nothing released - if they are confident enough to release they'll have to do lists full of partially implemented features but nothing completed to their satisfaction.
Instead of building a community, an amateur will start with insecurity. This will result in a complete coding paralysis, a bizarre step beyond procrastination which appears to be a uniquely amateur game developer phenomena. This often takes the form of publicly berating themselves for not producing anything, threatening to rewrite the code in a completely different language, refactoring the code more frequently than writing new code and consistently shifting intentions to different projects without starting any of them.
Amateur game developers have a lot to learn from indie game developers in this regard. Luckily, some have. Events like the Interactive Fiction Competition and the 7 Day Roguelike Challenge provide incentives to just get coding done, in return for community recognition and praise.
The other downside to the amateur developer, is that once they start coding, they are less likely to stop and play the game. This is because playing the game in a partial state becomes painful, and limited to only minimal testing of new features to sanity check the code. As a result, many bugs lurk beyond the confines of simple play, and many game balance issues and exploits exist to be resolved. It becomes an unwritten contract between the amateur developer and the community built up around the game that the developer releases and the community tests.
Indies release when they're ready for a private beta; Amateurs release when the game compiles
The greatest strength of the amateur developer is the community and feedback that builds up when they (finally) release a prototype of the game. This occurs through some kind of unholy osmosis in which like-minded individuals are attracted to a flawed product with a seed of potential and a whole lot of hand waving.
In these early, delicate stages, even just one email from a brave tester can spur the amateur to new heights of creativity. Expect amateur developers to promise the world and deliver a 80x24 console screen for the first few years of development. Then you'll realise they've delivered a world and hidden it behind the amber glow of the self-same console screen.
Indies are planning on releasing on Xbox Live as soon as the game is certified; Amateurs are planning on releasing on AmigaDOS as soon as the game is open source.
The corollary of a strong community around an amateur game, is that real developers with much better coding skills than the original developer will end up offering to contribute to the game. These real developers need to be held at arms length, just like any other rabid fan. They are likely to provide a much needed re-design of a critical game component and then disappear half-way through the rewrite. Therefore, they should be assigned to non-critical tasks like user interface design and platform porting, where they can safely implement a full-typing system and message passing model in C without impacting on anything that the amateur developer cares about.
Indies avoid death-march by enjoying working 24 hours a day for no money; Amateurs avoid death-march by having to put the kids to bed first
The first indie game from an indie game studio is typically developed by students or graduates who have no steady income, but are writing the game for their resume or the expectation of leveraging a small commercial success into the opportunity for further work. In order to write their dream game, the indie game studio may turn to releasing a 'guaranteed hit' in the form of a casual game which they can quickly turnaround and develop a revenue model for. This makes Facebook and Pop-Cap, or a home brewed equivalent, an attractive proposition.
The amateur usually holds down a full-time real job and then codes in evenings, weekends or quiet days at work. Adam Foster freely admits to developing his Half-Life mod Minerva during the downtime of the European parliament summer. This conflict of development and real life leaves many amateur games as unfinished symphonies or the authors vanishing into the anonymity of the Internet. Setting the source free can sometimes mitigate this loss - but there is undoubtedly more abandoned amateur games, often deleted by the author, than all the commercial abandonware put together. This makes a Source Forge or Google Code repository essential - not for the developers - but for those trying to archive amateur games.
Indies try to create buzz by launching a Flash-based website with game media releases; Amateurs try to create buzz by launching a Geocities site with lots of flashing blink tags
Interactive fiction is the province of amateur games, platform games are moving into the amateur game space as the platform genre all but dies as a commercial success, roguelikes have been there almost from the beginning. Most modding efforts are amateur games although their creators may deny it. But modding efforts are different from typical amateur games because of the 'professional' nature of their content.
The mod team is built up from like minded individuals who are drawn to a single vision. This may be the recreation of earlier game content in a newer engine, or taking another media property and implementing it in a game engine. Over ambitious mod teams are much more likely to fail, as they lack the cohesive vision and drive of a single amateur author. This results in longer lead times to release, diversion of development resources into designing a professional looking game site or 're-launching' the mod with a newer look. Successful mod developers may be hired by commercial game developers and otherwise drawn away to newer or more interesting projects.
Interactive fiction and games developed using game development tool kits are usually smaller in scope and ambition than a typical amateur game developer. This is usually driven by the different needs of the interactive fiction author: to tell a particular narrative, as opposed to create a game space. The lack of control over the underlying rules lead these types of games to focus on content creation which is the most expensive use of time for an amateur. But the same common tool set allows communities of amateur developers to share resources and skills that make multiple authorship and content reuse a more viable option than a typical programmer led amateur game.
Mods and tool kit based games are common to amateur games in that they are usually derivative, poorly made, and the first step for someone exploring the possibilities of game development. The truly innovate mods and tool kit games play to the indie game strengths, while the rest play to the amateur game weaknesses.
Indie games are patched once they hit version 1.0; Amateur games are no longer played once they hit version 1.0
In a sense, amateur games are constantly in beta. Even if the source code is not open, there is no definite point of release, no point of sale, that fixes the amateur game in time. And the reaction to a version 1.0 of an amateur game seems to be the drifting away of a significant part of the player base, as they are no longer involved in the development process. Part of the attraction of amateur games is the positive feedback loop between developer and player. The same highs and lows of getting a suggested feature implemented and having a class nerfed are common to both amateur games and MMORPGs.
Indies try to 'make it' by coming up with a business plan and looking for venture capital; Amateurs try to 'make it' by coming up with a company name and looking for website hosting
The lure of commercialisation constantly plays at the back of the amateur developer's mind. But the strong amateur knows that his love of game development is a greater reward than money. In fact tying development to monetary return can sap the amateur game developer of motivation - suddenly the pressure of success destroys the pleasure of programming. This suggests a Pay Pal tip jar and feedback from a forum are the best means of motivating the amateur.
Every odd numbered Introversion title (Hacker, Defcon) is indie; every even numbered one (Darwinia, Subversion) amateur
There are commercial games that have been developed with an amateur game mind set. Every game that over promises and under delivers is amateur in this sense - suggesting Duke Nukem Forever and Peter Molyneux are perhaps amateur games greatest icons. GSC, developers of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, look to have the amateur obsession that demands that they constantly release the same game over and over, in an ever improving form. Bethesda with Daggerfall have attempted this feat, but with each subsequent RPG release, commercial demands and the destructive forces of user testing have worn down the amateur template they developed to. Time will tell which way Deep Shadows, developers of the equally amateur Boiling Point, tumble - will they constantly overreach and fail in true amateur fashion, or will they numb themselves with success and lose their burning amateur spirit.
Indies produce casual games; Amateurs produce inkblots
Bill Harris at Dubious Quality uses the analogy of the inkblot to discuss the development of three breakout independent games of the last year, at least one of which I've called an amateur game. These games have seeped into the consciousness of the wider game community from an extended development period and public beta. But behind this sudden influx of black fluid, amateur games are constantly writhing below the surface of what the gaming media reports, a nightmarish remixing of commercial gaming pleasures and independent game innovations.
Amateur gaming has the ability to disrupt the gaming industry. While an indie game has new and innovative ideas, the amateur game developer can spend literally years developing a game. Nethack has been 'in development' for longer than Starcraft has been played. Probably the only way now to out-Wow World of Warcraft will be with an amateur game, because only the open source development model could develop faster and with more resources than Blizzard has. Though amateur games will never have their Linux, because the most successful amateur games are driven by a single developer's vision.
Indies go to GDC, Amateurs go to IRC
Don't confuse the amateur with the indie. They come from different mind sets, with different motivations, means and methods. 2007 has undoubtedly been the year of the indie. Make 2008 and beyond the lifetime of the amateur.
Categories: Column: The Amateur