There Is No Honor Here

Lately I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with the concept of honor in indie game development.  Perhaps the term “honor” seems a bit antiquated what with seppuku being out of fashion and honor killings being outright worst-thing-ever-and-not-in-a-funny-way, but I think honor–or the lack thereof–is precisely the concept that irks the heck out of hardworking indie game developers who are, you know, doing things the hard way.

There’s this spectrum in my head.  I tried to draw a nice looking graph, but as it turns out I’m no good with graphs, so I compensated by making it cute or something: did not agree with me, but I feel like a perfect antonym for opportunism is idealism.  Which is a perfect fit for this: idealistic game making is all about following some artistic vision of yours to completion.  And it’s painfully cliché to say this, but idealistic game making is about staying true to yourself, which is honorable, while compromising your dreams for quick cash is not.

The guy on the left is Archibald Wintersfield.  He sells children to sweatshops, acts as middleman for blood diamond sales, and just put Avatar Zombie Massage Online 2 into peer review.  He’s an opportunist.

The guy on the right is Kip Skyler.  He’s inventor who hopes that technology will solve everything, ever, and makes up for his small stature with ingenuity, even though his inventions typically lack mass appeal.  He’s an idealist.

Idealistic game development is when you say to yourself “jeez, I’d love to play a game like this.”  And then you make it.  Opportunistic game development is making games solely to make the most amount of money possible.  A more common phrase for opportunist game development is “cash grab.”

Since Xbox Live Indie Games has launched, there have been a few waves of cash grabs.  Before the first massage game launched, XBLIG (then XBLCG) seemed very innocent and promising!  It was a fresh platform with plenty of promise; developers were pouring their blood, sweat and tears into their awesome artistic visions.  Unfortunately, the first game to attract a lot of attention for financial success was a massage game.

So the opportunism commenced.  When Avatars support launched, the platform got hit by a rash of embarrassingly bad me-too Avatar games.  Word got out that zombie game sold well (cough) so now the embarrassingly bad me-too Avatar games actually got to look pretty good next to the obscenely more embarrassingly bad zombie games that were hitting the service, while a smattering of uninteresting games with stock photos of hot girls (it’s like headsethotties on your Xbox360!) and uninteresting apps turned up.

No open[ish] platform is safe.  The iPhone app store is always inundated with this stuff; the latest trend I’ve been seeing are those locate-a-phone-number “prank” apps.  Facebook is so strangled with Mafia Pirate Who Cares Wars apps created by a developer that epitomizes opportunism that I may be tempted to forcibly confiscate the throat of the next person who invites me to grow radishes with them.

Why do so many idealistic games fail?

Idealistic games have far more complex visions than opportunistic games.  Usually the visions are too complex, so fledgling developers give up or turn to the dark side of dishonorable game development.  In XBLIG playtest it’s very common to see ambitious, idealistic games where some aspect of the execution is just not there.

Another common trap of idealistic game development is for developers to lose track of the gamer experience.  The more deeply you get mired in obsessing over in clean, scalable program organization (which is a good thing) or optimizing performance (also a good thing) the farther you get from focusing on the big-picture gamer experience.  Bugs aside, what’s under the hood doesn’t matter a bit next to what the gamer gets to play.

Why do so many opportunistic games succeed?

Opportunistic games are opportunistic because they are easy to make.  The whole concept of the cash grab is that a relatively untalented person with relatively little effort can grab all of the cash.  There is no honor there!

A little fact I haven’t put much emphasis on (partly because I mostly don’t know if this is always true or have any data other than a bit of chatter to support this) is that the me-too cash grabs stop working once the market gets saturated, which, in a world of dishonorable devs, is pretty rapid.  So, if you make yet another opportunistic abomination hoping for a piece of the cash grab (like these guys) you’ll more likely than not find yourself in a state of abject dishonor (the vernacular is “sold out”) with nothing to show for it.

What if I’m a shameless opportunist at heart?  I stay true to myself while making opportunistic games!

Then you probably have no soul and are just a bag of meat and neurons (I have a theory about this, teleportation, and the end of the world).  Convince me you’re normal all you want, but I know you’re just going to turn into the bad guy from Event Horizon.

Z0MB1ES is a Crimsonland ripoff, and Dishwasher rips off SOMETHING I’m sure, aren’t you a dishonorable opportunist as well?

That can be argued, but those games were hard to make, I made them from one of those crazy idealistic visions I’ve been ranting so often about, and if they were truly shameless, opportunistic ripoffs, gamers would eschew them in favor of the originals.

How do I make sure my idealistic, creative, and honorable game doesn’t fail?

The most common pitfall that I see ambitious, idealistic games fall into is scope trumping execution.  It’s fairly easy (trust me, I’ve had my fair share of personal experiences with this) for a developer to get married to the epic vision that’s impossible to fully realize, where a scaled down (tightened!) game concept would let that dev put way more effort into fine tuning and perfecting the gameplay.  Tighten up the vision and spend some time on perfecting the overall experience; if the result causes gamers to get excited about your vision, the satisfaction you’ll receive will be just… yeah.  Amazazing.

There’s honor out there.  It’s not easily achieved, but if you stick to the path, the rewards are awesome.