Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The iPhone question

In case you haven't heard, iPhone and Facebook games are, like, huge.  And whenever I am interviewed for an article or a website, or I get into a design discussion with a fellow gamedev, the question inevitably gets asked: "Dude, why don't you port your games to the iPhone or iPad or Facebook?" 

It's a reasonable question.  iPhone and iPad games are earning bagazillions of dollars.  For some, anyway.   But me?  I have no intention on going there.  At least not yet.  There are several reasons for this, which essentially boil down to:

1 - I am not a programmer by trade.  I muddle through by using middleware tools that are specifically geared to make my types of games (point-and-click adventure games) on the PC. There are no middleware tools for making these games on the iPhone.

2 - So there's no middleware.  Why don't I go and make some?  Well, yeah.  I guess I could, but that would cost quite a bit of time, effort and money. Not only that, but once the tools are made we'd have to completely program the games from scratch, which would also take quite a bit of time, effort and money.

3 - Even assuming I could manage #2, I would have to sell the game for 99 cents after spending all that time, effort and money. Which is absurd.

4 - As I said a few posts ago, I am a coward.  Even though I sell PC games, I earn enough to live on. It's asking a lot to risk everything for such an untested (for me ) market.  I like being able to pay my mortgage and eat.  I'd rather spend all that time, effort and money on something that's proven, rather than something I have no experience with.

5 - Couldn't I just make a small game to test the waters?  See #1 and #2.

So that's the gist of it. It seems perfectly logical to me, but whenever I voice these reasons I am met with skeptical looks.  Apparently I am crazy for not jumping on the bandwagon.  Do iPhone games mean instant success?  Certainly not.  Unless you are Apple, or a major developer, or extremely (extremely!) lucky, it's a gamble like everything else.

True, the PC market has been neglected while major developers move onto greener pastures, but it certainly isn't dead.  It's just hungry, and indies like us are in a good position to feed them.  The iPhone market doesn't need our help.  It is well-fed enough. 


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Context is everything

One of the great things about creating programmer art is that I can indulge my narcissistic desire to post screenshots without revealing anything at all of substance. 

What is this?  A wedge of cheese?  A network of caves?  A bad attempt at juggling?  There's no way to tell!

What is Joey so impressed by?  A blank wall?  The back of Rosa's head? Or something else?  What the heck is this room anyway? Thanks to my amazing art, THE MYSTERY REMAINS.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Coming up short?

Once in a while, a big indie game comes out to fantastic reviews but ends up being criticized for one specific something.  Then I take that specific something and talk about how it applies to my own work.  Last January I wrote about VVVVVV and how it was criticized for being $14.99, which led to my own thoughts about indie game pricing.

If you follow indie games, you might have heard of Limbo, a recent platform game available now on Xbox Live Arcade. It is deliciously atmospheric - you play a lonely little boy jumping his way through a minimalist black and white world that manages to be hauntingly beautiful without being pretentious.  Limbo has been universally praised by reviewers, but there has been one universal criticism: it's a little on the short side.

Like VVVVVV, this is a criticism that has been leveled at my own games more than once.  "The game is great - but it's too darn short!" the critics say.   To which I can only respond... "Well, you're right."  There's no denying it.  A typical Blackwell game can take you from 2-4 hours to complete if you are a hardcore adventure gamer.  Maybe 6-8 if you are more casual.  There are those who even play with a walkthrough handy on their first go-round, and they zip through it in no time at all - often faster than me!

So yeah, my internal games tend to be on the short side.  Why is that?  There are a lot of good reasons for short games - they don't overstay their welcome, people don't have as much time to play games these days, or simply because the game is better served by being a smaller experience (Portal is the game that is usually used as the best example of this).

But for me, the reason is simpler than that.  I am a trembling abject coward.

Read any indie developer blog and you'll often hear that they are "one flop away from going out of business."  As an indie developer, and an indie adventure game developer at that, I don't like those odds.  Adventure games are a tough sell even for mainstream AAA companies, and they have bigger marketing budgets than I do.  If I spend a year or more on just one game, spending lots of money and man-hours on it, only to have it sell poorly... well, that would be the last you hear of me. 

So... I tread carefully.  To make a game, a developer can spend money to pay someone to do the work, or spend time doing it him/herself.  If I spend more money, I will have to earn that money back.  If I spend more time, it's time that the game is not earning any money (which I will still have to earn back).  As a result, I tend to keep my games tight and lean - making them deep instead of broad.  So if I screw up and the game bombs, then it won't be too much of a financial burden for my little studio to bear.  I can just make another game and move on.

This is not to say that my games can't be long, epic works of grandeur..  It's just that they won't be long, epic works of grandeur yet.  As I've gained more customers and fans I have slowly increased the length of my games.  Convergence was easily longer than Unbound or Legacy, and the upcoming Deception is shaping up to be significantly longer than Convergence.  Baby steps, kids. Baby steps.

So to answer the question of "Why are my games on the short side?"  The simple answer for me is because I want to keep making games.  I love making these games. And, for some strange reason that I am eternally thankful for, enough people like them enough to spend their money on them so I can continue to do this full time and make more (even during these crazy economic times).  It's a great way to live, but there is always that little ever-present fear that it could all end if I am not smart.  I'd have to - gulp - get a real job.  And we can't have that.


This blog post is one in a series of posts for what we've called "Size Doesn't Matter Day."  For other blog posts on this topic, check out:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Placeholder art

The first placeholder art screen is a go!

Yes, this is a yacht.