Friday, February 24, 2017

10 Things I've Learned After 8-Months of Indie Games

I launched at the beginning of July 2016 and in the eight months or so of playing mostly indie games since then, I’ve learned a few things about indie games as well as the industry as a whole that I thought would be fun to share. Pull up a chair.  Grab a snack. It’s story time with Eric.

  • #1. The console indie game market is nowhere near the mess it is on Steam or mobile platforms. I think indie games get a bit of a bad rap because of the overwhelming number of half-assed, copycat, worthless garbage-tier games that get released by the hundreds on Steam and iOS/Android, but it is unfair that that stigma also gets attached to console indie games. Microsoft (not sure about Sony these days “cough”Life of Black Tiger”cough”) doesn’t usually just let a flood of broken terrible crap onto its platform.  Sure, not every game is a winner, and there are definitely some genuinely bad indies on XONE (Soda Drinker Pro), but it isn’t nearly as bad as on Steam. This is a big part of the reason why I have focused from day one on console indie games only – there’s a lot less muck to filter through.

  • #2. Great art doesn’t make up for bad gameplay. There are a lot of indie devs out there that put a ton of effort into character design and artwork and make some truly beautiful games that, unfortunately, play like absolute poopy garbage. I don’t care how great your game looks or how amazing the music is. If it plays bad, it’s just plain bad. 

  • #3. Great gameplay DOES make up for mediocre art. On the flip side, your game can look ugly as hell and still be great as long as it plays well. You obviously want your game to both look good and play good, but gameplay should be your first priority. 
  • #4. European devs are generally friendlier than U.S.A. devs. In my experience of reaching out to devs and PR reps to try to get review codes or extras to give away on Twitter for #FreeCodeFriday, I’ve noticed a definite pattern when it comes to how easy people are to work with. Indie devs in the US are a little more stuck up and selective on who they talk to / give codes to while European devs are happy to get their game in the hands of as many people as possible and are genuinely excited to work with me. I’ve spent my own money to buy and review most of the biggest US-developed indie games (because they ignored me …), but haven’t had to spend a dime on games from Europe. Get your act together, USA snobs.
  • #5. Most indie devs are surprisingly open and accepting of criticism. One thing about reviewing indie games is that you oftentimes get review codes directly from the same guys and gals who actually made the game rather than going through a separate PR person. Regardless of who sent the code, it is basic courtesy to send them a link to your review of their game when it gets published. Sometimes this is fun because you loved the game and can’t wait to gush about it. And other times this is a somber experience because you have to tell the people that have spent months or years making something that it sucks.   

  • Here’s the key, though – Most devs are already fully aware that their game may be sub-par but they had to release it anyway just to make back a little money so they can start making something new that will be better. Very, very few devs are so oblivious that they are totally blindsided when negative reviews start coming in (PR people can be oblivious, but devs usually aren’t). And even when they might be surprised by your criticisms, they accept them and learn from them. Not all indie devs are like Digital Homicide or BadFly Interactive who don’t know how to take criticism without resorting to threats. Most indie devs want to learn and get better, and that’s awesome.
  • #6. Mobile ports suck. I’m sorry indie devs, but with very few exceptions console gamers really don’t want ports of your crappy free-to-play mobile games. Or your crappy premium mobile games that cost more on console than they do on mobile, for that matter. Games that were made with touch screens in mind usually don’t translate to a controller very well. And, for the love of crap, if you are going to port your crappy mobile game to consoles, at least update the UI a little bit so it isn’t so obvious that it was originally a crappy mobile game.
  • #7. I’ve discovered a couple of more personal things, too, such as the fact I hate 2D platformers. Don’t misunderstand, I like GOOD platformers, and most Metroidvania-style games (Axiom Verge, Slain), and clever puzzle platformers like INSIDE, but the fact is that 95% of 2D platformers – both retro games from back in the day and modern indies – are utter trash. I’m an old man in my 30’s and I grew up with NES and SNES, so 2D platformers are not just some relics of the past I was never properly exposed to. I played them. I just don’t like them.
  • It always astounds me that so many indie devs see 2D platformers as some easy genre to get their feet wet with. Making a good 2D platformer is extremely hard, as evidenced by the fact very few games have really topped Mario and Mega Man and a handful of other true classics in the last 30-years. I also don’t like the approach so many indie 2D platformers take in being all hardcore and difficult and extreme and unfair. Every time a new review pitch shows up in my e-mail and it’s for a 2D platformer I die a little inside.
  • #8. On the other hand, I’ve also discovered that I really love walking simulators and try to review any that come out. Yes, the genre that hardcore gamers and even many games journalists seem to hate because they aren’t “real games” has become one of my favorites. I enjoy the more relaxed pace and focus on storytelling. I genuinely like walking around and looking at pretty scenery. And I love playing a game where my objective isn’t to shoot and kill and destroy everything. Give me Abzu and Firewatch any day of the week over Generic 2D Platformer #23495673.
  • #9. The only negative experience I had working with a dev / PR person was …  Usually the fact that I have been a games journalist for 15+ years and the quality of the site and writing, plus the promise that we’ll be on GameRankings and MetaCritic eventually, is enough to convince folks to toss us a code or two. The PR rep working with The Turing Test (not Bulkhead Interactive themselves, a separate PR agency), however, asked I send a request from a “real” email address rather than the Gmail account I use (which, by the way, is the same account I used the last couple of years at and when I said I preferred Gmail because of convenience reasons they promptly cut off all communication. That’s why I never reviewed The Turing Test even though it was a 2016 GOTY candidate on other sites. No, I’m not bitter and totally don’t hold a grudge.
  • #10. I’ve never had more fun playing games than I am right now. One thing I can say with all sincerity and honesty is that I’ve had way more fun playing games since I shifted my focus from “AAA” to indies. I don’t have to review sports games or every dudebro shooter anymore and that has given me more time to play everything else. I’ve beaten more games in the last year than ever before and I’ve played so many good and memorable ones that it really has been a joy. Videogames are super fun you guys.