Earlier this week I sent out a round of emails to various indie game sites about an update to my game (Twisty's Asylum Escapades). One of the responses that I got was from indiegamemag.com. I must admit that I was a bit surprised by what the e-mail had to say.
It began by going out of its way to explain how "unbiased" IGM is, and explains that they "will never offer or accept payment or other forms of compensation for a favorable review".
Then the next paragraph went on to solicit money for their unbiased reviews. They explained that because they are independently owned and not funded by another company, they need support from their community (and evidently their ad revenue that they get from the site is not enough). As a result they are forced to ask for a "small review fee" from the developers.
"The $50.00 will purchase a completely unbiased, in-depth review of your game"
It's important to note that they did specify that the 50 bucks was for an in-depth review and that they would be willing to provide a briefer preview of the game for no charge.
So apparently, paying them will not get you a better review of your game, just a longer and more detailed one (they also mentioned that another $50 could buy a 15 minute YouTube video review/walkthrough of your game).
While they do seem committed to unbiased reviews, this business model still presents the problem of the quality of the actual games themselves that will be receiving these in-depth reviews and whether the right games will be given the kind of attention that they deserve.
Now I'm relatively new to indie game marketing, but something seemed a little off about this to me. This isn't a practice that I'm familiar with and, after doing some searching around the Internet, I can't seem to find anything about this going on as a regular thing (if this is something that happens often, or is a normal practice, feel free to correct me).
One other thing that I'd like to point out is that this e-mail was sent "On Behalf Of Chris Newton". According to this post (http://www.indiegamemag.com/under-new-management-sort-of/) dated November 1st, 2013 on IGM, Mr. Newton only recently gained ownership of the business. Perhaps this move towards paid reviews is part of his "re-focusing" efforts?
I can understand why something like this would raise some red flags for many gamers out there. Personally, as a developer and businessman myself, I can understand why IGM would want to monetize in this way. On the surface it seems like a good symbiotic relationship between this online magazine and game developers who want their games to be covered. The thing that I was a bit offended by is the "unbiased" element of this. This sort of bizarre compromise between minor corruption and journalistic integrity is a bit inefficient. It would be best just to go one way or the other. If I'm going to pay money for a review of my game, I expect it to be horribly biased!
All of the human characters in the game are sort of exaggerated caricatures of real types of people and I thought about each character's individual body type when I was designing their attacks and how they would move. For instance, the large, almost gorilla-like Orderly isn't very quick and basically just lumbers down the halls and slams you with his oversized arms (he's also the only enemy the player can reasonably out run). Contrast this with the janitor who appears to be a lot more lean and agile and uses his broom as almost a sort of martial arts style staff weapon and is able to spin in the air. When plotting the janitor's movements, I actually held a broom myself and figured out exactly how I wanted him to move (though I wasn't actually able to pull off the midair spinning thing).
The enemy nurses, like the Orderlies, are very direct and not very graceful in their attacks. Because of the shape and size of the nurse's bodies, I figured that they wouldn't move around as much and would probably just have to use their arms in a limited way, in order to poke you with their giant syringe. I also took a lot of time figuring out the nurse's "run" animation and tried several different things with that. The Doctor's attacks are also very direct but he uses much wider sweeping motions that I felt were more inline with his tall lanky form. His attacks are designed to create a feeling of quick precision, which would seem to go well with a character in a white lab coat wielding a giant scalpel.
There were several other characters that we had originally planned to have in the game, but that we decide to scrap for various reasons. Among these was a security guard character that I decided was visually boring, and more importantly redundant, since we would already have both Orderlies and SWAT team in the game.
In addition to the human hospital staff, the asylum also has some enemy ghosts floating around certain sections of it. The original reason that I wanted to include ghost characters in the game is that I wanted something else strange in there other than Twisty himself. I wanted something to signify that to the asylum was actually haunted and that there was other weirdness going on there aside from the fierce floating brain.
The ghosts are the only enemies with a ranged attack that you encounter during the majority of the game, before the SWAT team enters the building. Their supernatural energy attacks gave us the opportunity to include more visual variety in the game, and depart from the standard melee weapons that the other enemies use.
The aggressive ghosts are not only the enemy of the player, but will also attack and do battle with any of the other human enemies that they encounter. Part of this design decision was based on the simple fact that it wouldn't make sense for them to get along with the "ordinary" human hospital staff, but it also serves as a cool gameplay feature that allows the player to pit different enemies against each other for their own strategic advantage.
When damaged, the ghosts leave a green ectoplasm like substance behind, as opposed to the red blood that is left by the more corporeal enemies. When designing the characters for the game, we felt it was important to give them each their own distinctive "personality". Not only does this include their individual appearances, but also the way that they move. If you look closely, even their individual movement patterns are unique and certain characters have a tendency to move forwards and backwards, strafe from side to side, or use a serpentine pattern during combat. They also have different patterns and intervals for their separate attacks during combat and leave different openings, providing "weaknesses" for the player to exploit.
All of these various factors and details add up to more interesting characters and richer gameplay.
Having asylum staff as the enemies seemed like an obvious choice since the game is about trying to escape an asylum. This basic decision was very intuitive, but a lot of thought went into the details of the enemies themselves.
Most of the enemies in the game are very distinctive in their appearance. They're all stylized to one extent or another. The most obvious reason for this is that I didn't want them to be boring to look at and that's the kind of style that I personally like. But there was also another, more technical reason for their somewhat cartoony appearance.
Due to the limitations of the technology that we were using and the fact that we wanted this game to be able to run on as many different types of hardware as we reasonably could, it was important that we kept the complexity of the 3D models to a certain minimum. Basically we couldn't make the characters too complex looking or it would slow down the game too much on too many people's machines. Keep in mind that we're a two man team and lacked many of the resources that an AAA title would have to go through and completely optimize their game.
In a situation like this, where you have a fairly low cap on the amount of geometry that you can include in a single character, it's best to go with a stylized look. Trying to go with something realistic would be folly under these circumstances since it couldn't really be achieved anyway and trying would just make the characters look even worse. Fortunately, the stylized look is what I wanted anyway and it works well with the other weirdness of the game.
I would say that the biggest single influence on the visual design of the enemies of the game is Gary Larson's The Far Side. This is probably most obvious with the enemy nurses, as she is very heavily based on the general look of Larson's women.
Of course one of the biggest influences on the style of the game's characters is just what I like and what comes naturally to me. Since I was responsible for creating the look of this entire world and was the sole artist on the project, I thought that the best way to make sure it was consistent was to just do what I intuitively felt would work best.
It was important that the characters work well with the world and share some of the same weird style as the environment and of course as the protagonist, Twisty. And since one of the other goals of this game is to promote the Twisted Jenius web site, I was also inclined to borrow certain ideas from that. In the case of designing the enemy characters, that usually meant taking some cues from my other somewhat cartoony work, my Villains & Heroes webcomic. If you look closely you'll notice that there is some minor overlap between certain features of the characters in the comic and in the game.
I really like villains and particularly villainous protagonists. This idea was central to the creation of Twisty's Asylum Escapades. One of mankind's oldest basic types of stories is that of a hero going down into a dark place to face a monster. Going at least as far back as Beowulf, these kinds of tales have been a staple of storytelling throughout human history.
Even some of the first, popular video games have utilized this basic premise; games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. It's the idea of a hero having to go down into a dungeon and face a monster or a threat. In fact, it's likely because of this familiar trope, that the word "dungeon" has become a common gaming term.
I consider Twisty's Asylum Escapades to be an inversion of this classic premise. Instead of playing as a hero going down into a dark place; you're the monster coming up out of it. In this game the player is forced to essentially empathize with a villainous character and the game leaves no real question as to who the bad guy is. Twisty is a true monster in every sense of the word and I imagine that this fact might cause some moral confusion on the part of some players.
Moral decisions are nothing new in video games, but in this game there is no such decision. You play as the monster or you don't play. This isn't a game where a human is going around killing monsters, or even other "evil" humans. This is a game where a monster is basically mauling hospital staff which are trying to more or less do their jobs by keeping him contained; supposedly for the good of society at large.
I'm sure that different gamers will handle this situation differently and some may jump into the part enthusiastically, while others may be completely repulsed by it. It should be noted that some effort was made to make this premise more palatable to more people by doing things like designing the characters to be cartoonier and in some cases giving them oversized weapons to make them look more threatening to the player.
One thing that we can learn from games like this is that morality is ultimately subjective. Humans seem to have a natural tendency to assume that they are in the right and history has shown that we have an almost limitless capacity to justify anything. No matter what we're doing we always assume that we're the good guys. And if we happen to find ourselves playing a game where we're represented by an avatar that is a floating murderous brain, then I'm sure that there are plenty of us who are willing to go with it.
Video games are a unique medium in that the audience member (the player) can be even more psychologically connected with the main character than in any other type of non interactive medium. It's been observed by many great storytellers that villains are often the most important and interesting characters in fiction. I think that more games should allow the player to experience the thrill of being a blatant bad guy.
I've learned to hate my game engine. Struggling with the technology has been by far the single most time consuming element of developing Twisty's Asylum Escapades. Of course it didn't help that we had quite a lot to learn about all of the tools that we were working with and neither one of us had any previous game development experience.
We used the Torque Game Engine to develop the game. Long before Unity was a viable option as a game engine, Torque was one of, if not the first 3D engine that was commercially available to indies. If I recall correctly my associate and I bought our first copy of Torque back in 2002, when we were just beginning to discuss the idea of making a game and we've been working with it ever since.
Fortunately it has been upgraded since then. Unfortunately it hasn't been upgraded enough and we've seen it fall into relative obscurity over the years in the face of the other, more currently popular engines. Despite this we continued using it because, as we learned from Duke Nukem Forever, it can be a monumental setback to change engines in the middle of a project. Indie gaming projects are delicate things as it is, and we were far along enough that we knew it would be a bad idea to do that.
Game engines can be tricky things, and the one that you choose will have a lot to do with determining how your game comes out, or even what type of game you will make. The engine that you use to create your game will also have a great influence on what platforms your game can be ported to.
Although it is possible to create your own game engine, for indie developers this is not very practical. From what I've seen, publicly available game engines seem to be getting better and better and the practice of programming your own is falling out of favor even among the larger studios.
When it comes to certain types of essential software such as game engines, I would encourage all indie developers to try to outsource this type of thing as much as possible and save yourselves some hassle. Think about it this way, if you have the programming skills to write your own engine or other piece of essential game creation software, then you probably have the skills to properly modify a preexisting one, use it as a starting point and still get it to do what you need it to do.
Giving the game away for free might be the best way to make it successful. There were several factors that led us to this conclusion. The first was the fact that we had absolutely no idea how this game would actually turn out. What we did know was that it would almost certainly be an uphill battle to try and sell this thing. Convincing people to buy a game that they had never heard, via a small two man team could be very tricky and I immediately saw the folly of trying to do that.
Since we begin developing the game for our own learning purposes, we didn't want to feel any pressure to have to sell it later. However, at the same time it seemed a shame to put all of this work into creating a full 3D game and not have any way of monetizing it.
But we realized that we did have one advantage that many other indie developers didn't, an entire web site full of other contents that we had been working on for years. It occurred to us that by giving the game out for free it could act is a promotional device for the rest of the Twisted Jenius site. We wouldn't have to charge anyone for it and it would be free to spread, receive exposure, and hopefully give us some recognition as new game developers.
This line of thinking is what went into a lot of the creative decisions that we put into Twisty's Asylum Escapades. We decided that as a promotional tool for the site, the game should reflect certain elements of the site. This worked well considering the fact that our mascot Twisty was already chosen to be the main protagonist of the game. We decided to take this idea even further and included other imagery and themes from the site in the game as well.
One of the most notable things is that distinctive diagonal user interface that can be seen towards the top left hand corner of both the site and the game. I had originally designed that for the site order to ensure that the layouts had a very distinguishing and unmistakable look. It occurred to me that if I put a similar user interface in the game, it would help to better promote the site and if someone liked one, then they would be more likely to like the other.
The method that you're going to use to distribute and monetize your game is a very important thing that requires consideration before you even get started with development. To set goals, not just for the project itself, but for how you want the world to see it and how you're going to get it to them.