2/6/2002 -- Being an Indie Developer
Doesn't Always Suck
It's no big secret that Pyrogon is a
small developer. We have two full time “employees”, living off savings,
and we have a couple contractors that do the odd porting work for us.
We're a far cry from the teams you might see at big companies such as
Electronic Arts or Sony On-line.
While being small and under-funded does kind of suck at times, it has its
advantages. For example, we can work on whatever the hell we feel like. We
don't have to worry about appeasing a publisher or senior manager that has
their own idea of what's “hot”. And because we're small, we don't have to
sell nearly as many copies of something in order to break even. If we ever
sold ten thousand copies of anything, we'd be dancing little jigs of joy
in the streets of Rancho Bernardo.
Point being: if we want to do a puzzle game, we'll write a puzzle game. If
we want to do an MMOG, well, we'll write an MMOG.
Oh, wait. That seems stupid. Teams of thirty people are having problems
shipping MMOGs after three or more years of development, so how is a
self-funded team of two people supposed to make a cool, on-line game in
First, a little background – Rosie and I are neither naïve nor ignorant of
the perils that commercial game development encounters. I've worked on
some fairly successful titles, and Rosie was the art director on
Everquest, so she's not exactly clueless about this kind of thing either.
Second – and this is the key – is that there's a big secret that
publishers and developers don't want you to know about: writing games is
easy. Seriously. Sitting down and developing a game really isn't that
difficult. Writing code, making art, designing stuff, no big deal.
It's the mundane crap that kicks a game's ass. While it's nice to think
that most of a game's development time is spent making cool art, lots of
content and mind-boggling technology, that's just not the cold reality of
Most of the time spent making a game is wasted, no two ways about it.
Mismanagement, aimless wandering, lack of vision, making pointless
milestone demos or, sadly enough, just screwing off, all contribute to the
alarming delays we see in games. But developers whitewash this aspect of
the development process because they can't martyr themselves nearly as
effectively when their 90 hours “at work” last week were spent...playing
Dark Ages of Camelot.
Entire days, weeks and months can be spent arguing about game design,
system requirements, technology, box art, operating systems, and whether
the company you work for is screwed up because they don't provide free
bagels anymore. For every hour some programmer claims he spent “working
late at night”, you can go ahead and assume he spent another two hours
playing Everquest, M:TG or hanging out in IRC/cruising Web forums.
So now that the cat's out of the bag, how does it help us? Rosie and I
don't work long hours, primarily because we don't feel a need to
compensate for screwing off all day long. In addition, we spend close to
zero percent of our time arguing about “stuff”. When we want to do
something, we just do it. We don't call a meeting and run it by a staff of
twenty people, reach consensus, then get the idea shot down by someone
above us. If we don't want to implement a feature, we don't do it. We
don't have feature requests shoved down our throats by a manager two
layers above the product. We don't have to make a cost justification for
porting to the Macintosh or Linux or PocketPC, we can just do it because
Having only two people working on a project greatly reduces the
inefficiency of “decision friction”, which basically affects any project
with more than one person – it just gets worse the more people you have on
Stellar Deep, our on-line science fiction RPG, benefits from this lack of
decision friction. We can implement features and ideas very quickly, and
we can avoid implementing stuff just because someone else is doing it.
Because we have such a low headcount, we don't have to make a game that
will sell 100K copies or have at least 50K subscribers to break even.
Because we have a certain degree of self-determination, Stellar Deep can
be a much simpler game than something that would cost $49.95 at retail and
that would be expected to use the latest and greatest pixel and vertex
shader doo hickeys in the latest graphics cards. In other words, we can
compete on gameplay – not number of CDs and graphics gee whiz effects.
In addition to concentrating on gameplay, we're going to architect things
from the ground up so that we don't have to have a staff of forty artists
cranking out every pixel for the world. We'll design broad swaths of the
universe, such as the races, home worlds, and basic equipment, but we'll
use procedural generation to fill in the blanks. Because maintaining a
minimal download size is also important, procedural generation helps us
out quite a bit by removing the requirement of a CD distribution or, even
worse, a 600MB download.
We know this can be done, because we've seen other companies doing it –
companies like Ambrosia Software, Pangaea and StarDock have made great
games that do well without competing on technology and content size. They
concentrate on making things fun, not huge. But on-line? Sure -- there is
a small but successful industry of text MUDS (the inspiration for games
like UO and Everquest) run by two or three people. We're modeling Stellar
Deep more as a "text MUD with graphics" than "Earth and Beyond made by two
people". The latter is insane, the former makes a lot of sense.
Finally, we're going to release the game in pieces. I hesitate to call it
“episodic”, because that implies that you're seeing episodes in a story.
For Stellar Deep we're going to add functionality every month or two. The
first release might be real simple and sparse, but each new release should
add a major feature. For example, the initial release may not have trade
skills, but the second or third update may add that system. Some players
will balk at this on the grounds that they're paying for an unfinished
game – and that's a completely valid stance. But what we hope to do is
find gamers that are really into this game genre, and as we build the game
we'll take their suggestions and try to make Stellar Deep into something
that its hardcore following will just love. They'll have a sense of
belonging that would be difficult to achieve just by being in the universe
– they will have participated in its construction as well.
So being an independent gaming company isn't quite as horrible as some
people might imagine. Sure, lack of steady income is always something to
be concerned about, but getting to make any game you want is worth a lot,
especially when you're a developer that's already had a hand in many
The Whys and Hows of Porting