Sunday, January 17, 2010

What Makes For An Expert Indie Developer?

Last month, I wrote about a hypothetical funding model for indie games development. In it, I posited the question: is there such a thing as an "expert indie developer?" I quickly answered with my belief: yes, it's possible, and there are examples all around you. This post is about what makes for an expert indie developer.

Isn't "Expert Indie" An Oxymoron?
Because, after all, indie developers are sometimes seen as being inexpert by nature -- individuals or groups who are hoping to make it into the larger AAA industry by making a home-grown product of their own as something of a calling card, or as a student project, or just to get the experience. Sure, that sort of thing happens; you do see some indies go "pro" after a successful project or two, and some indies are openly trying to leverage their success in this market in order to get an "in" to the larger industry.

But. There are others of us who are indies not because we are forced to be, or because we are trying to break our way into larger-scale development. I've had some offers to at least interview at very large and respectable AAA developers, but I kindly turned them down, saying essentially "If it weren't for Arcen, that would be a great thing for me, but right now I have to see this through and this is ultimately where I'd like to stay if I can sustain the business." I've always worked in small business, and I've been the head of my projects for years, and I'm not inclined to change those things if I don't have to. Being indie also lets me work on exactly the sort of games I am most interested in, and do it my way, on my schedule. Indie is simply a perfect fit for me.

Another example is 2D Boy, who created World of Goo. You probably already know all about them, but the basic gist is that they started out in the AAA space, and then "went indie" to use their industry-begotten expertise to make projects that they couldn't have created at their previous employers. And thus you get a game like World of Goo. There are countless other examples of small studios being set up by ex-AAA-industry folks.

Okay... So What Makes For An "Expert" Indie?
In many respects, the same things that make any small company able to be an expert software developer. And the same things, overall, that make large companies good software developers. The studio has to know how to make products that people want, know how to position them within their market, and then also know how to support those products. That's a little vague and obvious, though. Here are some specific indicators that I would look for if I were going to choose between indie development studios to invest money in:

1. Does the studio know how to formulate a vision and then stick to the broad outline of it -- while maintaining creative awareness and freedom during the process? In other words, do they (via upfront planning or iterative methods) make products that are sensibly cohesive, or are they a mess of unrelated ideas of various quality?

2. Does the studio know how to evaluate their own ideas? Do they often keep ideas that one or more team members simply love, but that don't work in practice -- despite evidence that the idea should be reworked or scrapped? (This sort of self indulgence is unacceptable in any commercial product, and highlights the need to Kill Your Darlings).

3. Conversely, does the studio know how to properly polish their product? Do they know how to go beyond the basics of simply getting the game functional into making it really feel as if it is professional -- whether the game is 2D or 3D, no matter how good or bad the production values are, some games just "feel right" and others feel shaky or worse. This problem is not limited to the indie arena, of course. Does the team know how to leave enough time to get this final polish done as it needs to be, or do they keep adding new, unpolished features right up until the end?

4. Does the studio know the target genre(s) they are working in? Are they producing designs that are in some way viable in that space. Innovation is great, but there are limits. And on the other side of it, if the studio is just interested in making indie clones of successful AAA games, that isn't very investment-worthy, either. They need to be doing something new, preferably pushing at least one new concept in some aspect of their game, but the game needs to be recognizable to players in some form or fashion to get much traction.

1. Does the studio make strong efforts to market their games and get them in front of a larger audience? Whether or not they are successful in this endeavor is irrelevant -- great games get ignored all the time, indie and AAA both. What is important is if they are attacking the marketing problem with as much interest and intent as they did the creation of the game itself, or whether they are just assuming that success will find them on its own (it won't). The type of marketing efforts vary widely, and that's great and expected, but every expert indie studio should be making some sort of effort here.

2. Does the studio know how to build and nurture a player community? Do they foster a forums or similar where there is a reasonably friendly (as far as gamers go in the specific genre) group of players? For some genres, most notably casual, this is much less relevant. But, the main question is if there is an elite clique of expert players that are semi-endorsed by the studio and who are arrogantly driving out newcomers. Most successful indie games seem to have some sort of community, or at least some sort of public following of blog commenters, youtube commenters, or something, where there is more than just caustic toxins from the experts.

1. Does the studio respond promptly, politely, and competently to support questions that arise for past released products? Do they know the answers to common questions, or are players largely left frustrated and having to find answers (or give up) on their own?

2. Does the studio have plans in place for how to support prior released products while developing new ones? Is time budgeted, for example, for making sure that at least severe bugs (but preferably everything that isn't completely trivial) are fixed within a reasonable amount of time?

Project Management
1. Does the studio know how to properly budget time? Do they spend inordinate amounts of time on low-value activities, or are they constantly reassessing their own time usage and making the best of the limited time that they do have? Specifically, are they spending a lot of time on "nice to have" features that they personally want, at the detriment of a reasonable schedule or more core aspects of the game design?

2. Does the studio know how to limit scope? At the start of a project it is great to have a ton of ideas, but past some certain point some ideas must be cut for reasons of time -- otherwise, projects tend to spiral on indefinitely without really becoming materially better from features added past some certain stage. Is there a project manager at the studio who is constantly evaluating features for potential cutting or simplification for the overall good of the project?

3. Does the studio have a method in place for evaluating their own products based on objective feedback, alpha/beta testers, or similar? In other words, do they work toward theoretical end goals based on assumed qualities of their current work? Or, do they have some method for validating that their assumptions about their current work are correct, and that their theoretical end state is in any way valid?

This Is A Living List
This list was last revised on 1/17/2010, but I may revise it some from time to time in the future. It isn't a complete list and probably never will be, and some of the items are subjective or can be bent or broken by certain studios that are nonetheless quite expert. But, in general this list is meant to be a good guide for at least defining what an "expert indie developer" would even mean.

To sum that whole thing up as briefly as I possibly can: An expert indie developer knows what they are doing, approaches their work in a professional and eyes-open manner, doesn't neglect the business side of their work or their customers post-launch, and ultimately knows how to build products that some customer segment is interested in. That's an expert indie developer, and you can find them all over the place if you look.

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