Friday, June 21, 2013

You should have the choice to buy a used game, but you should also choose not to.

(This is the longer version of the post ran on Edge Online.  It's a bit wordier, but makes some more specific points worth covering)

I wrote a series of tweets earlier with some thoughts on used games, but as anyone can tell you who has tried to say anything meaningful on Twitter, it’s a recipe for misconstrued points and a format devoid of subtlety.  People get immediately heated about the topic of used games, and motive fallacies and heated accusations flare.  It’s only slightly less touchy than telling someone the FBI is coming to seize their guns.

Regardless, I’m a developer asking you (not telling you) to hear me out and make an informed decision on the issue.

First, as is my habit, a couple disclaimers to frame my points and focus the discussion.

1) This isn’t ‘about’ Xbox One, or Sony, or anyone specifically - these are points about used games in general, formed loooong before the new console wars began.

2) I’m an outright enemy of “always on”.  If Blizzard (with all the experience from being the leading massively MP online developer) botched the launch of Diablo III, and EA (with countless online titles, their own competitor to Steam) catastrophically fumbled the Sim City launch... surely it’s understandable why people would be nervous at best at the idea of an entire console being hamstrung with the same limitations.  “Always on” and “used games” are not the same discussion.

3) I believe AAA games are too expensive.  I don’t care about history adjusted for inflation arguments... the bottom line is $60 is not an impulse buy for nearly anyone, solid income or not.  I don’t often by a AAA game unless it’s recommended by a couple trusted opinions.  So, I completely get why people want to buy a used copy of a game for a couple bucks cheaper.

4) There’s few ‘right answers’ and no ‘good guys and bad guys’ with this issue.  Despite the hyperbole from many sides of the issue, it’s all part of one very large and complicated equation.  Used games, piracy, DRM, DLC, microtransactions, etc are not 100% responsible for anything, they’re all just factors... players on the field of how people stay in business or fire everyone and go home.


Buying new or used is a personal choice.  That said, here’s a pretty unavoidable truth for consumers.  When someone buys a used game, that specific transaction does not support the artists, designers, programmers, musicians, etc... the people who created that game.  100% of the money they hand over the counter for a used game goes to the people they just handed their money to.

When someone purchases a new game the funds are divided equitably between the studio that made the game, the publishers that created and marketed the product, the distributors who put it into your hands, the creator of the console gets a portion, and of course with the store for selling you the new game.  Everyone gets their agreed upon cut for playing their part.  The gamer just voted with their dollars to support what a group of people created.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, nobody is calling anyone a jerk for purchasing a used game.  It makes a lot of sense on the consumer end.  But used purchasers do need to be aware that they’re completely cutting out the developers who created that game, and consider if that’s what they really intended.

An online comment... “But don't the developers get paid to do the work? and only certain devs even get a cut of the retail money, so I've heard”.

Generally AAA developers get paid salaries while they are creating a game in the form of a loan from a publisher, it’s an advance on future sales.  When those sales numbers aren’t recouped, when income from a game’s sales aren’t reaching the studio that employs people, those studios fail.  There’s nothing victimless about it in terms of the individual artist and developer.  It matters to them.  They’re not free and clear while ‘evil businessmen’ absorb the sales hit... it’s usually the opposite.


Often in these discussions there are these dark undertones of gamers distrusting developers.  Never is that more apparent than the argument of “make better games and we wouldn’t trade them in”.  When I read those comments, I just want to crumple at my desk.  Look at a rack of used games and ask yourself if those are all ‘bad’ games’.

For starters, I know there are bad games... oh God I know.  It is ‘buyer beware’ out there.  We’ve all dropped $50 on a game and excitedly ripped into it only to decide instantly we thought it was horrible.  But that mistrust is about as productive as guys assuming all women are going to rip your heart out because of a previous bad relationship.

The issue with “make better games” is simply that it’s not true, and it’s actually shaping the games available to you in a very distinguishable way.  Most games have ‘an ending’, even fantastically polished 10/10 games.  The Last of Us, by nearly all accounts is a stunning game... but it has an ending, and millions of happy users will sell it back.  Constantly we see articles about wanting games with great characters and stories and interesting narratives... but in nearly any case that means a game that you experience once and ‘complete’.

If “we only trade them because they’re too short” was true, there wouldn’t be a used copy of Skyrim to be found.  Regardless of campaign length, often when people are done with a game, they’re simply done with it.  The average consumer isn’t deciding if they should trade it in based on the game being “good” or not, it’s based on them being “done” or not.

“So, make games that don’t end”.  I have sat in many meetings at several companies and witnessed firsthand the destructive power rentals and used games have on AAA creative decisions.  If you don’t gamble a large portion of your budget on multiplayer, your game won’t be considered by nearly any publisher out there.  It’s also a catch 22 that will sink most projects.  You’re spreading your team out to add features that don’t actually fit the project theme (Ico, Journey, Heavy Rain), and at the end you’re left with a game that people are comparing unfavorably to projects like Battlefield or Halo with 100+ developers on the multiplayer aspects alone.

Making ‘better games that don’t end’ is counter to the cries of making games with lower budgets, not charging as much, looking next gen, and being more creative.

The alternate methods of making games not end are equally disdained by consumers, the dreaded DLC and expansions debate.  For ~7 years I’ve heard the term among developers of keeping “disk in tray” (a term that predates mobile and freemium games more than 4 years, it’s a response to used games) as a method of drying up the used game supply and making “games that people won’t sell when they’re done”... but honestly everything that comes out of those discussions are the features currently lamented by gamers.

Here’s what developers are up against:  Every game design, every concept, and every execution can’t fit under the umbrella of “make games that don’t end”.  It’s disappointing as a developer to be forced into that predicament, and it’s a factor in why gamers get a lot of “same-old” experiences.


“What about used cars, and movies?  Why are they ok?” is a time honored argument in this discussion.

Movies make at least half of their money in the narrow window when they launch.  Why do game studios ‘selfishly’ demand to be treated differently?  For movies, that opening window is protected by the fact that it’s exclusively in theaters.  On day one, you can’t swing by Best Buy, grab the new Superman movie, watch it, and sell it back.  It’s not freely sold in private form for a couple months.
With games initial sales is even more important.  Most of the units move in the first month or two, and stores decide if they want to reorder stocks of a game based on those sales.  Honestly, if games were protected from being rented or sold for 2 months after launch, game studios and publishers would almost certainly call it even and go home happy.

Comparing games to cars is a pointless metaphor game.  Cars depreciate, data doesn’t.  When you buy a new car it’s because it’s quantifiably better and less ‘used’ than the one with 50K miles on it.  Cars eventually fail, and people must be buying new ones.  Cars always need replacement parts and service from the dealers (think DLC and microtrans).  If cars were as timeless as data, this would be a good analogy, but it’s not.


“But I trade in games to buy new ones” is a common point, and it’s not without merit.  However, if you completed a game, especially if you enjoyed a game, know that what you’re trading in goes on a shelf and then serves to undercut the future purchase of the game you enjoyed.  It’s all part of the same economy.

Personally, I’m in the habit of finishing a game and never going back to it.  I eject it... it’s done.  I actually give most of my games to neighbors who are way more casual about gaming than me.  These are generally people who would not have bought the games I loaned them, but I’ve made them fans of genres and done what I could to turn them into “gamer gamers”.  I love that people especially kids loan and trade games organically and expose people to what they think is cool.

You can say I’m a hypocrite, but here’s one big distinction.  When a person goes into a store and carries a new game up to the counter, they have the intent of purchasing that game.  It’s at that point when a salesperson intercepts the sale and says something like “that’s $5 cheaper if you buy used”, that they’re actively interfering with the process.  Everything that made that person walk into the store... word of mouth, ads, reviews, demos, E3 shows, box art, the creation of the game itself... the expensive and risky ballet that led up to that purchase decision goes unrewarded and becomes rerouted to the guy at the final step of the chain.

It’s destructive and parasitic by nearly any measure, and it baffles me to this day when I hear ‘developers’ are perceived as being selfish in this equation.


In closing, again... it’s not wrong, but it’s certainly not right either.

All I’m asking for consumers is to give the decision at the counter the same amount of consideration they would if they were at a restaurant.  If you spent the $50 price of a used game at a restaurant you would tip the waiter at least the difference between a new and used game; consider giving the equivalent of a tip towards the writers, artists, AI coders, network guy, animators, etc...  The studios that make these games deserve that consideration, even if you’re not legally “obligated” to them for that disc.

(If you’re the type who doesn’t tip because “the waiter gets paid a little hourly”... well... so be it, I’m not in that camp)

We don’t really need creative analogies and metaphors about waiters and cars and movies though.  There’s only one reality to any situation.

Consumers, ask yourself if you’re buying the disc, or the game... and decide consciously if you choose to support the people who created what you’re buying.  If you consider yourself a fan of game developers and if you want to support the people who create what you’re playing... splurge the extra $4, do what supports the people creating your hobby.

If you honestly don’t care if the developers are rewarded for their work, well, you’re still not ‘the bad guy’ here.  I would say though, you have no ground to stand on when interacting with those developers, complaining about something in their game, or lamenting that they offer DLC.  You’re not really “their” customer and fan... you’re just fans of the used game store.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Space Hulk is the best damn boardgame ever.

And now, an exciting episode of hyperbole theatre!  Take your seats and enjoy the show!

I love boardgames, and a broad variety thereof.  Settlers, Lost Cities, Battletech, Balderdash, Robo Rally, Pandemic... masterpieces all.  I'm just as happy to play Apples to Apples (or Cards Against Humanity) as I am to play the awesomely complex 'Up Front'.

I hosted a weekly boardgame night while at Epic for most of a decade.  Sometimes 10 people showed up, sometimes 4.  But every once in a while, a conflict would arise and we'd find ourselves with only 2 or 3 players.  That moment of cancelled plans and frustration would then turn into the brightest silver lining a geek could hope for.  Where you might expect a pouty frown, an evil grin would spread instead... because that night, those who showed up were in for a round of the greatest damn boardgame on the face of the planet.


Space Hulk is a boardgame (with three fairly different editions) from Games Workshop, creators of Warhammer and all manner of material you expect to see when you walk into a hardcore game shop and see "odd people apparently tape measuring model train terrain" in the back of a store.  I'll go on the heretic record and admit I don't actually think their hardcore tabletop miniature warfare games are... well... fun.  They're a hell of a hobby and an amazing creative outlet, but frankly, I would rather spend an evening scratch building Warhammer terrain models than actually playing the game.

It's the association with other Games Workshop titles that has turned off several people from wanting to even try Space Hulk for fear of it being too fiddly or complicated.  If Games Workshop and Warhammer and tabletop gaming is just 'not your bag'... cool, I get it, but Space Hulk is an entirely different stand-alone beast.

In all my years of playing it, I have yet to introduce it to someone who didn't quickly grasp the rules, and after their first game rave about the game and demand later matches.  Barring rules introduction disasters, nobody walks away from Space Hulk and says "yeah, I guess that was OK".


At it's heart, Space Hulk is the classic conflict between "Aliens and Space Marines" taking place in highly cramped space ship corridors and rooms.  Combat is highly asymmetrical.  The Marines (called Terminators) are humans in powered armor the size of an industrial refrigerator, and generally able to blow the head off anything and everything that moves.  The Aliens (called Genestealers) are horrible flesh and claw abominations, vast in number and capable of tearing open a can of Marine ass and pulling their victim's lips over their head in a grotesque face wedgie if they are lucky enough to get close.

In good hands, a single Terminator can chalk up dozens of Genestealer kills as long as he can avoid ever having to get face to face with one.  The bad news for the Space Marine player is that, well, he's expected to.  In most cases the Genestealers just keep coming and piling up.

Here's the crux of what I love about Space Hulk gameplay:

You. Are. Screwed.

The pressure on a Space Marine player up against a good Genestealer player is palpable, the atmosphere is downright thick with tension.  You're powerful, but every single troop you lose is like a stab to the chest.  In most mission setups you have a goal with a time limit (and in some editions actually dealing with real world hourglasses) and every turn more Genestealers are flowing onto the board and upping the ante.  You want nothing more than to sit at the end of a long corridor and dump clip after clip into the horrible beasts flinging their corpses at you like so many garbage bags.  But rest assured, you will eventually die.  You will not outpace the rate that enemies are being reinforced.  Moving is extremely dangerous and every corner can spell death, but move you must if you're to accomplish your objectives and survive. 

Every enemy is a peon, easily killed... right up until you misjudge something and get ripped in half.  Dig in, get surrounded and you're trash eventually.

Cramped combat with a walking appliance.

For the 'alien' player, the game is just as excruciating, just in a different flavor.  You toss dozens of your single-minded beasts at a group of Terminators and see them cut down mercilessly.  Every step closer means that Marine bastard is rolling dice, and the odds are pretty good that every roll means yet another of your Genestealers gets sprayed across the hallway in chunks and mist.

But dice are cruel mistresses.

At some point while you sit there, demoralized, flinging meat down the hallway like a wood-chipper, enduring the giggles and laughs of the Marine player as he removes Genestealer figure after figure from the board (sometimes two with a single shot!), taunting you and grinning and making little machine gun noises...  at some point... one heroic little Genestealer peon endures the fire and survives roll after roll after roll and manages to walk right up to that poor son of a bitch, tear into his armor, and pulp his head like an overripe peach.  On some occasions the Marine rolls very badly and his weapon jams, leaving the avenue clear for your minions to pile in and exact some hellacious revenge.  When defenses collapse, they collapse hard... and it's glorious.

There is, in my opinion, no game to match Space Hulk for the intensity of watching a series of simple die rolls; each roll making some major impact on the game.  Shouts, howls of pure angst, and passionate middle fingers are utterly common.  Space Hulk is some of the most dramatic gaming on any medium you could ask for.

While Space Marines can play it careful or aggressive, Genestealers have one more trick up their sleeve.  They're tricky.  When Genestealers move around the board, they often do so in the form of a "blip", a flat face-down counter that represents a secret number of the aliens.  When a Marine sees a blip moving towards him, it could be a pack of up to six enemies, and depending on the edition... it could actually be a bluff and represent 0 aliens.  This adds immensely to the sense of atmosphere in the game, and makes being the Genestealers a much more entertaining role.  Play the bluffs right and a single blip can hold down a major area of the map with implied troop strength.


There's something else golden about the way Space Hulk plays out for the Space Marine side.  Even though you're controlling one or two squads, each with five different miniatures on the board, it doesn't quite feel that way.  Guys who run off on their own get isolated and torn apart, so it doesn't feel as if you're moving around 10 individuals.  Right off the bat you get the sense that a squad of five actually controls more like one single unit, like you're controlling individual limbs of a greater being.  I've often said it feels almost like you're moving an amoeba through the tight halls, with your ranks contracting and expanding to fill areas in different ways.

Better hold that hallway, Brother Jammius!

When a path branches, the guy at the front of a group steps into one branch, and sets up a defense in the corridor.  Meanwhile the others train through behind him, and when they're safe he'll take up his position at the end of the line, sometimes facing backwards so every route to reach your squad is protected.  Even though the rules for moving each unit around is very simple and accessible, you add lots of those simple moves together and feel like it's one complex tactical whole.

Efficiency at moving around and never missing an opportunity to save an action point is a critical skill in the game.  It's enjoyable when you feel more and more skilled at a game as you play, and not like you're advancing a number in a stat and simulating improvement.


At a higher philosophical gameplay level, what Space Hulk generally gets right is that it strives to avoid ambiguity.  You're not breaking out a tape measure, debating if one guy can see another, or pointing out that someone nudged their troop an extra inch on the board.  Even the layout of the board is crystal clear.  Hallways are one unit wide, meaning a troop literally fills it from wall to wall.  You're not arguing about hit locations, or tracking hit points or damage modifiers for your units.

You know what things do... These guys shoot things... these guys bite things.  You're 100% alive and blowing shit to pieces, or you're 100% dead and removed from the board.

As a game developer, at some point you learn to appreciate the meat of your design not getting too watered down with exceptions and modifiers.  That's a hard task to pull off.  A great side effect is that it helps create a game that is easier to teach to new players.

I'm a bit of a purist and think extra expansions and modules for games rarely actually make the game more FUN, too often they simply add complexity and blur those lines of "this is what the game is about".  Depending on what edition of Space Hulk you've seen, that can apply here too.

There were aliens suddenly wielding pistols, and getting psychic ranged abilities, and several Space Marines that excelled at close quarters combat (ok, even though they LOOKED unbelievably cool).

Lightning Claws, baby.  Complicating game roles, stylishly.

My advice is avoid the add-ons and simply play the pure out-of-box experiences.


There's luck in the game, no doubt.

Often, when things go badly, you blame choices you made in how you moved through the world and where you set up attacks.  Other times of course, the dice utterly betray you... but it's not without amusement when that happens.

I've seen a single Marine (completely out of ammunition and heroically holding a corridor so his squad could escape) against all odds beat down six Genestealers in a row with bare hands.  I was the unlucky one in that scenario but recall it to this day, years later as an amazing moment around the table.  It's often those dice rolls that leave you reading all kinds of personality into otherwise lifeless little plastic avatars.  "Best watch your ass against Brother Snipus over there, he doesn't miss!" etc...

I've known gamers who insist anything with dice rolling is a flaw, and they automatically hate the game.  I believe that element of uncertainty is a prime component to the tension in a game like this.

Ask any professional poker player if there's no skill involved in a game where luck plays into it.




Welcome Back!


There have been two digital official Space Hulk games, both from EA, and both were pretty decent for an existing fan at least.  Both try to balance playing first person as a marine, while also ordering your squad around in some sort of time pressure management mode.

The 2nd version "Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels" did something I have never seen another digital game do, and it blew my mind at the time.  When you start off, you are simply a single peon in a squad.  You don't get typical "video game objectives" like fetching a thing or hunting someone down... rather they're incredibly specific and frequent orders.

"Go stand here"
"Clear this room"
"Wait here until told otherwise"
"Flame this space"
"Follow this guy"

You get the sense that an AI player is actually playing the game, and you're merely a piece on his board.  Actually, that's exactly what's happening.  With each mission of the game you get more control, and eventually you're in the map blasting stuff, and at the same time commanding your squadmates.  It's a testament to multi-tasking.  You swap to an overhead map and tell some guys to move somewhere, clear a room, wait there, flame that space, follow that guy... etc, and every time there's a verbal order that is just like the ones you were hearing when you were a lowly peon.  It's oddly powerful when you realize that a game was truly "playing you" for once, in a genuinely dynamic unscripted way.

I get little tingles...

There is a 3rd digital Space Hulk iOS version coming soon actually (screenshot above).  I know very little about it other than having seen a teaser and this one screen somewhere.  At a glance it appears to be a very 1-to-1 adaptation of the boardgame.  I hope it's brilliant and I hope they read my first blog post about "best advice I can give, related to good feedback", and find they do that aspect justice.

I have to be honest, as much as I love boardgames, and as much as I love video games... often completely 1-to-1 digital adaptations fall short of capturing what a table session pulls off in a more social way. Notable exceptions being Settlers on XBLA, Ticket to Ride on iOS, and Small World on iOS.  Waiting for your opponent to take a turn can be torturous, I play Ticket to Ride games with a group of 5 people and our games take about a month.  Regardless though, all my fingers are crossed on this one.  So far the production quality looks top notch, and the devs behind it have done a solid run of other turn based tactical games.


I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the excellent Space Hulk stand alone cardgame "Space Hulk: Death Angel", which is available all over the place including Barnes and Nobles and such.

Great co-op 2 player OR solo!

This adaptation was actually done by Corey Konieczka, who also did the unbelievably good Battlestar Galactica boardgame,  and I had the great fortune of working with Corey as the main contact for the Gears of War boardgame.  He's good people!

I can't judge what his adaptation is like for someone who is unfamiliar with actually playing Space Hulk, but for those who are fans, I think he really delivered on the "Space Hulk in your pocket" concept pretty well.  He really abstracted down a couple key components of the game into different forms and kept the flavor there.

Also of note, you can play single player, in a sort of high end geekery solitaire... and it is DAMN challenging in a very fun way.  It definitely delivers on the "You. Are. Screwed." nature of the boardgame.  Those I know that have played it solo, all have admitted cheating... just a little.


As we approach the last act of this raging love fest... I leave you with a tragedy.

Space Hulk is a complete bitch to find.

First edition, basically impossible to find.  Although several would kill me for saying so, it's not my favorite edition anyway, and the components have really not aged well.  But yes, it started it all, and there are more along the lines of expansions for this, if that's your thing.

Second edition, not impossible, but expensive and challenging no doubt.  Counter to many who are even more hardcore than I, the second edition is actually my favorite (and the one I introduced many to the game with).  They upped the ante on the quality of the figures, rules were simplified in some great ways IMO, 0 blips and bluffing gameplay, and above all they kept the 'clarity' of gameplay very high.  I ended up buying a very expensive version with no miniatures and had to replace the minis with the counterparts for Warhammer, haha.

Third edition is the most recent limited run to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first game, and they certainly did it justice.  The third edition is... for lack of a classier way to put it... fucking balls to the wall STUNNING with regards to its components.  The miniatures included are, IMO some of the most incredibly well sculpted and detailed models I've ever seen for any purpose, and the other board components are absurdly comically high quality.  They merged in some of the fiddlier roles, but they're just so incredibly cool it's hard to complain.  The 3rd edition is fairly simple to find on eBay... BUT... it's also stupid expensive at around $300.

My personal paint job, thanks...

Note that the miniatures included in the game are NOT painted.  Many people, me included, really enjoy painting minis.  What I don't enjoy is the idea of painting 1500 troops for a little army, getting carpal tunnel and murdering everyone in my 3rd year of working on completing the task.  Space Hulk though, unlike Warhammer to me, is a manageable and enjoyable task.  There are about 12 drop dead amazing Terminator marines, and about 25 alien Genestealers which typically get a very simple process driven paint sequence on them.  Regardless though, if you're never going to paint them, and it's a deal breaker for you to play with unpainted minis... you're out of luck, or you need to outsource getting them painted, haha.


Yes, Space Hulk has a dose of "meathead" to it... you might scoff at it as less intellectual than something like Dvonn or Puerto Rico.

I've often said that Gears of War had a major coating of meathead to it.  You're chainsawing people in half and giggling and limbs are flying and dudes are high fiving... but you can't make a successful game out of pure meathead.  Under the hood there has to be substance and mechanics that offer decisions worth making.  Strip away the meat from Gears and you had a damn fine tactical game about cover and timing and flanking and serious quick decision making.  Space Hulk fits right in that slot as well.  Under the violent veneer is one of the most unique and inspired games you could ask for.

It's unfortunate that there's a barrier to entry, and that every session can't include a knowledgable teacher to go over the rules in a couple minutes  (hmmmm... maybe I'll youtube a "how to play" quick guide at some point), but regardless, I hope you get a chance to give it a shot sometime and avoid filing it under "bleh, another souless violent shooty shooty blah blah game".

I've had some of the highest high points of gaming playing Space Hulk with close friends like my buddy Josh Jay, super senior artist over at Bethesda now.  This was our lunchtime jam for many years, and it never grew old.

So yes, you may have your favs and counter arguments... but for my money, the game I most itch to play time and again at the drop of a hat... Space Hulk is my go-to.

Thanks for reading this, a completely gratuitous and frivolous bit of bloggery!  Be glad it's not ten times as long :)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Where is the perfect indie platform?

(Disclaimer:  This is a post littered with personal opinions and almost certainly a couple factual errors as the landscape changes frequently.  Many of these points are based on my perceptions, and I truly welcome both corrections, and thoughtful advice from those with their own working experiences.)

Not long ago, someone let the genie out of the bottle.  Some say it was Apple, some say Steam, some might say XBLA, but it became clear after more than a decade of large publishers and soaring budgets that it was possible once again to do the unthinkable... to simply make your own damn game.

For years now, as small titles repeatedly made huge splashes with gamers everywhere, I've assumed that there wasn't a power in the 'verse that could put that cork back in that bottle.  Small empowered developers were here to stay.  They tasted success and legitimacy and clearly they were a force for innovation and change.  Surely the decision makers behind the platforms could see that?

I'm not sure anymore.  Though there's an unprecedented array of opportunities out there, it seems every avenue for indies is critically flawed in at least one dramatic way.  It's almost comically so.

I often ask other small developers what platforms they're considering for future projects.  I assume there must be some obvious 'promised land' destination for small teams.  Sadly what I hear is, no, right now there's no clear platform to target as a small dev.  There is no 'easy' call.

One baffling aspect is that there's a huge group of players up for grabs.  I've heard a couple high profile visionaries say that whoever grabs the indie crowd wins the next platform wars, others often bring up 'Minecraft Factor' as a deciding factor for platforms, and I can see some truth in that.

Sony, Microsoft, Valve, Apple, Nintendo, Android... any one of those could emerge as the de-facto homeland for the next wave of great indie games , but all have some work to do.


These are some of the random debate points I hear when a discussion arises about platforms:

Steam - Valve... the visionaries that made PC gaming viable again... they're so close to being our big green pasture.  People actually pay for games on Steam, like, up front!  The race for the bottom hasn't spread there.  From interviews we hear they're in the process of revamping the Greenlight process.  I pray that's true.  Imagine what it's like as a couple developers to sit in a room and decide on a platform for a future project.  Imagine them saying "lets make a game for Steam, it'll be awesome... but we're going to have to roll the dice when we're done and hope our game makes the cut and actually gets launched".  There are some quality games not making it through the filters, some due to being more niche or eccentric, which it could be argued is the goal.  Devs with livelihoods at stake can't take that risk lightly, there's so much curated 'black box' uncertainly to deal with.  I look forward to the future of the platform, but it's not a defacto "go-to" indie target right now for everyone... but it could be.

Apple - They ignited a generation of mobile developers!  They threw yet another hammer through the giant TV screen and all kinds of amazing hell broke loose.  By all objective standards they deserve so much credit for the indie movement and sidestepping publishers.  Right now though (and it's hard to fault them for trends) the lure of the charts means it's more and more improbable to be truly successful unless you're backed by someone burning a couple Ferraris a day on user acquisition.  The big screen is reestablishing itself quickly.  Concrete suggestions for improving the app store are common, but our biggest hopes rest with rumors of the store getting overhauled with the new OS... some have theorized perhaps we'll have a new store area to encourage more premium games so we don't all have to feel like hucksters.  Right now though, as a small developer, it's frustrating to stare at the top charts and know the amount of manipulation and raw resources that goes into being visible.  It's eerily like the unhealthy console market where only the top 10 games are viable financially, the result of which was loads of people leaving console development.  If they can find a way to allow games to be visible that aren't simply paying for it, they too could be the motherland.

Android - They have their advocates and those advocates love their statistics.  I see respected developers saying they make as much or more off Android than iOS... for F2P games.  Many small studios don't buy into F2P though, they want to make games like Sword and Sworcery or FTL and premium gaming is off the table on Android.  When we hear anecdotal piracy figures in the 9-to-1 ballparks, it's terrifying.  Not only that, it reduces any pitches for games that depend heavily on servers and backends, small shops can't push pricey data to 9 pirates for every legit user.  Factor in the challenges with splintered hardware (although being handled admirably by some middleware) and it's more clear why there aren't many Android exclusives.  Success stories abound in Asian android markets, assuming you have a publisher in your behalf and don't mind managing a dozen different store fronts.  There's a billion amazing Android devices out there, but they're sadly relegated to a porting option for many.

Sony - Perhaps the toughest to criticize, although I'm ignorant of what it's like to work with them.  There's a lot to love with their seeming commitment to artistic games, self published or not.  I was seriously miffed after the PS4 reveal.  I was hoping for some huge announcements related to indie gaming and store restructuring.  But, it seems to have clicked for them in the following weeks.  Submissions no longer have a concept approval filtering stage, and they recently rolled out an Indie Games category on the Playstation Store.  Working on the games are supposedly much like working with a PC.  Right now though, the unfortunate issue for developers pivots around being at the end of a console life cycle, and the inevitable challenges of embracing a new generation soon.  New tech, dev kits, smaller initial install base, so much to learn...  I know they're working on it, but there's not a broader perception of the PS3 being "the" place to take an indie game quite yet.  Kudos for at least having Jonathon Blow on stage at the reveal though.  I sincerely hope they maintain their trajectory, they genuinely seem to care.  Maybe they'll give us our amazing promised land?

Microsoft - To many, XBLA was an earthshaking step forward.  It was revolutionary to sit on a couch, with a bigscreen, and play a game like Geometry Wars with a real controller.  So many developers started thinking 'dangerous thoughts' then.  But XBLA has always had its challenges.  There's walled garden syndrome, lack of developer control for much of anything, widely publicized rants from high profile indies (not just Phil Fish) about $40K developer costs for updates, quarterly payouts, a dogged determination to make sure we all have a proper publisher taking their additional ~30 percent, etc.  For the XBox One, hearing from developers on various forums and social outlets... man.  It's been a rough couple weeks.  Talk of removing the 'indie' area of XBLA is harsh, but losing Arcade entirely is the end of an era.  Lumping everything together into one online store, Braid beside Madden, Fez buried under CoD?  They say we should all just chill and await news of silver linings though... so, I await E3 eagerly to see if they roll out an indie promised land.

Wii U - I'll admit I don't own a Wii U and have only played with it at a couple conferences.  My perceptions are that it has a very specific target market and your game needs to fit those players if you want to succeed.  The console needs to become widespread and well supported with 3rd party games to be worth targeting for many.  The degree to which their controls are unique means games that truly utilize the hardware are harder to be multiplatform.  I frequently hear negative comments about the quality of the "tablet" portion of the hardware so it's not a slam dunk multi-platform pair with other mobile tablets.  Again though, I admit ignorance in many ways with this option, although I don't see people flocking to the Wii U as a haven for experimental awesome indie-ness.  Bottom line is I'm hard pressed to see myself staking a company or larger project on succeeding there.  Personal perceptions disclaimer applies.


Regardless, two things are undeniably true:

1) Games are evolving unbelievably quickly.  In the time we made a single sequel to a game like Gears of War, an entire industry evolved into a different beast.  Think about life just THREE years ago.  Doodle Jump was a novelty, Free to Play was basically nonexistent, the number one games earned a ridiculously tiny fraction of current earnings, mobile games were all going for one-button simplicity.  We're comparing fish to primates within a span of time typically used to make one iteration of a game.

2) Small developers without publishers are willing to quickly adapt.  If you give us THE place to bring you amazing games, we will flock there overnight!  We're all motivated and willing to.

Right now the solution for many is to release on as many platforms as possible.  Unfortunately that also means dealing with as many platform eccentricities as possible... often simultaneously.  Even if you're up for that, there still isn't a golden "primary" sku to aim for with many game concepts.

Maybe it's unrealistic to expect a single platform to offer so much when 'games' cover such a broad range of definitions and players.  I remain naive and optimistic about that possibility though, considering a couple of these are so close to that achievement already.  Yes, some limitations are due to practical hardware issues or usage patterns (people might not ever want large console games on a phone sized device), but often these limitations seem to revolve around conscious decisions.  I believe someone can get it near enough to 100% right that they attract the majority of indie devs, and can attract a large cross section of gamers as a result.

In closing, I fear this could all come off as whining and criticizing.  I apologize if so.  I give all of the platforms I mentioned major props for their immense contributions to what we have right now.  In truth all I really want is to give a little constructive perspective from someone who regularly has to look at all the options out there.  If you're not an indie dev already, put yourself in the position of a couple indies and ask yourself which platform you would consider your "primary" target.  It's far more of a quandary than it should be.

As always, thanks so much for reading.