Who was there: The "From AAA to Indie: Three Start-Up Stories" panel at this year's Game Developers Conference featured Jake Kazdal of Haunted Temple Studios, Spry Fox's Daniel Cook, and Ichiro Lambe from Dejobaan Games.
What they talked about: The panel began with Kazdal, who titled his portion of the talk "AAA to aaa." Kazdal first offered a look at his history, saying that he got his start in 1989 working in a Nintendo call center. From there, he progressed to Irem, Enix, Boss Game Studios, Sega, EA, and Zombie Studios (in that order), before landing at his current gig at Haunted Temple.
Kazdal said that he and his small team, which he met while working on Steven Spielberg's canceled LMNO project at EA, are currently working on their first project, Skulls of the Shogun. They all work from home, communicating with one another through Skype. He also said that this method works well because they work on different parts of the game. He also noted that while at EA, they had very specific roles, but now they take on a studio's worth of titles and responsibilities.
Looking at EA, Kazdal said that the big publishing houses offer both positives and negatives. EA gave financial security (until layoffs come, of course), he said, noting also that there are an extreme number of resources, relatively low responsibility, and zero fiscal responsibility. However, developers are subjected to executive (mis)management and are oppressed by the "me too" sequel-driven game design, low freedom of expression, and strict work hours.
On the indie side, he said the pros are a flexible schedule and extreme creative freedom. Plus, he said development is far more rewarding, and there's the possibility of great financial success. On the flip side, it's incredibly risky, personal hygiene becomes a low priority, there is an endless amount of work, and business development is tough.
He then went over some of the projects he has worked on, and the takeaways that resulted. At Sega, he worked on Space Channel 5 and discovered the importance of the style guide. This sheet, he said, helped him get up to speed quickly on the project, which he came to late in development. He also learned there that promoting a game is all about building a brand, and developers need to be relentless in creating awareness.
In late 1999, he began working on Rez, where he was one of five artists. Lebbeus Woods was a primary inspiration for Rez, he said, and he spent significant time creating sketches and deconstructing the artist's work. From here, he received the key lesson that teams should not design in a vacuum. Play-testing became incredibly important, he said, because "the game was just getting weirder and weirder."
Rez also taught him the importance of nailing down a visual look before adding a ton of content. He also found it very instructive to watch people play the game without having given them prior instruction.
Cook, who is a 16-year veteran and has worked for the likes of Microsoft and Epic, then took over the presentation to discuss Spry Fox. The studio is project-based, he said, where they assemble teams around what is currently being worked on. If it doesn't work out, then the team disperses. If it does work out, then they share revenue.
It's no longer just about making games, he said. It becomes, "How do you make these games profitable?" The first answer here, he said, was to develop a portfolio approach. To give an example of this, he said that SteamBirds is one of the most popular Flash games available, and Triple Town is the highest-rated game on the iPad. However, neither game has generated enough money on its own to keep Spry Fox going.
To achieve success, he said, a game needs to be great, but it also needs to be on the right platform at the right time with the right theme. It's very difficult to control all of these factors, but with a portfolio, it becomes doable.
Cook then turned his attention to Flash portals, which are a good way to distribute games and raise awareness. However, these portals can also be problematic, in that they often can't seem to comprehend that they should be paying developers for their work. Cook said that it's important for indies to release their wares only on portals that respect the developers, praising Newgrounds in particular.
Too many designers are like too many cooks, Cook's next bit of advice went. He said that a single creative director often leads to a more enjoyable game design, because it offers a clear, coherent vision. Finding the fun in a game also often comes from daily iteration and exploratory testing.
Lambe rounded out the presentation. Prior to releasing his indie hit AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity at Dejobaan Games, he worked at NovaLink beginning in 1993, before cofounding Worlds Apart (later called Sony Online Entertainment Denver). Dejobaan is currently working on 1… 2… 3… KICK IT! Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby, which will be his 14th game.
He says there are three lessons that have kept him in house and home over the years. The first of these is to think holistically. By this, he means that the various roles that Kazdal ran through in his portion of the presentation can often be combined into one task. For instance, if someone sends in a bug complaint, Lambe said that his team will respond in a clever way, in the hope that said person will talk about it. Another example of thinking holistically would be to combine press and community when possible.
Lambe also advocated the idea of tying marketing to game design. Though an unpopular sentiment, Lambe said that marketing should be viewed from the lens of people wanting to give developers money because they want to pay for an amazing product, not getting people to pay for something they don't want.
He said that it is problematic to build "the game you want," because that's only a part of the equation. It's important to find a happy medium between the games people want to make and the games people want to play. Therefore, it becomes a question of creating the game that the developer is excited about, and figuring out why it will sell for stated reasons.
Put into practice, Lambe brought up the name of AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, saying it was entirely a marketing ploy. He said that while they could have named it something banal, the name they chose got people talking.
Lambe's final lesson was to allot time for retrospection, or said another way, to perform a postmortem on the title. The postmortem should identify both strengths and weaknesses of the design process, and it will leave developers in a better position to create a better product the next time out.
Quote: "If we continue making throwaway crap, we're just making throwaway crap. Don't do that."--Daniel Cook.
Takeaway: Just because a studio is indie doesn't mean it should ignore the many lessons that big-studio game development has to offer.