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  • Truly Independent Game Development: A Case For Making Games By Yourself

    - Lindsay Grace
  •  For years the industry has focused on the increasing size of development teams. It is both a blessing and a hassle. Teams grow; the quality of games increase. Teams grow; the complexity and investment in each game increases too.

    But the industry didn't start this way. Roberta and Ken Williams made Mystery House at the kitchen table, with Ken developing the game from sketches Roberta made. Steve Wozniak developed one of the first designs for the arcade classic Breakout in four days, flying solo.

    A brief examination of some of the advantages of truly independent development may prove a plausible approach to building specific types of outlier games. What is a truly independent developer? One person designing and building a game.

    There is a little monster inside most creative people that yearns to be able to conceive every idea, from notion to production. There is the dream of coming up with an idea and having the ability to build it without the intervention of other people. The question is, why don't we do it? Does every game need to be photorealistic? Does every game need dialogue that pops and 3D graphics that amaze? Clearly, no, but much of what bloats the game development team simply bolsters these goals. In the leanest sense, if it takes two team members to develop the water effects for BioShock, why not dump the water and worry about improving gameplay?

    What I call the "independent independent" development approach is, at least, a design and development approach for affecting the creative production of games. If paper prototyping can help shape a design, independent independent development offers a few advantages in the innovative development of new games.

    To start, there is the oft dreamed of design freedom afforded by autonym. This is the advantage that the Western tradition of fine artists seems to enjoy. There is the notion of developing under a single designer's vision and worrying not about bottom-line financials, politics, audience needs, franchise equity, and other practical distractions.

    Of course, this is a romanticized notion. Solo developers still concern themselves with all the fundamentals of microeconomics, from affording enough time to eat dinner to the cost of engines and assets. Even a starving artist must eat. Yet, there is still the advantage of working under one set of priorities. The priorities set by the independent developer.

    Autonym, however marginally improved by solo development, is not the only advantage for developing independently. Independent developers have the ability to take risks that larger companies don't. Risk is the domain of those who have the least to lose. What does an independent developer risk? Reputation -- which in many circles is easily made anonymous, through company names and pseudonyms. The majority of related concerns, franchise equity, investor returns, and others are eclipsed by the solo developers' basic goals. Make a good game.

    This is perhaps the most refreshing reason to make games as an independent developer. The goal of making good games is in itself often eclipsed by all the other noise of business. In many circles games are a business center. Developing a game independently moves the endeavor toward the artistic, where ideas and creative expression reign.

    This is where it is tempting to insert quotes from the film Jerry McGuire. These quotes would herald returning to core values and getting back to some mystical purity. Wherever your sense of pure game design rests, there is the practical truth that if you put one person on a task, and that person is disciplined, remaining on task is simpler. The expression is "herding cats", not "herding a cat". Keeping a design team on task, centered on a singular goal should, in theory, be simpler with smaller groups.

    But, before we dismiss groups we have to recognize there is an obvious disadvantage to working with them. Groups help reorient projects. Second opinions refine ideas by chipping away at them. But, the question is, does the recipe get better with too many cooks or with too many tasters? Independents can always use players to refine their ideas. What opinion is more valuable than a player's?


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