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E for Effort: Indie Games

When I was in high school, I was a pretty awkward guy. That’s fairly normal for generally anybody in high school, to be honest, but at the time I was convinced I was the weirdest person in the world. As an attempted outlet for my creativity, I eventually happened upon a game design creation engine called the OHRRPGCE (Original Hamster Republic Role Playing Game Creation Engine…say that five times fast!). A few years and several collaborating friends later, I had about six or seven games under my belt, had learned a programming language specifically developed for this one, Dos-based, QBASIC made engine, and was part of a huge community that encouraged game-making, sharing, and reviewing of these games.

And most of them sucked. Actually, maybe 1 in a 100, if that, was even worth considering, and of those select few I could count on one hand games that people might actually enjoy sitting down and spending time with.

But despite all that, I still loved them. And that love/hate relationship transfers directly over to indie games in general. Are they usually sub-par, bug ridden messes? Yes. But knowing what the designers had to go through makes it so I can’t just overlook them, because I experienced and put in that same level of effort myself.

Lots of people like to write about indie games, in fact, it’s spawned a veritable culture in and of itself. Anybody familiar with Destructoid will know Anthony Burch is our resident connsour of this “indie game community,” and he often posts about obscure and unknown games with ugly graphics and one engaging mechanic that most people roll their eyes at and ignore.

The game I made (titled Pitch Black, and having nothing to do with the Vin Diesel movie) was short, beating the game could take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. I think the longest someone took was two hours, but the average was around ~30 minutes. As a game player and buyer, this is not much playtime, and honestly the game was glitchy and riddled with cheap deaths. So why should we even bother?

The thing is, few people really know how much work it takes to make an indie game, even a crappy one. You don’t know until you’ve tried. Luckily, I have, and I’m going to give you a lowdown, and hopefully you’ll see how much effort it can take to make even the most basic, stupid game.

Most games start with an idea. Though the engine I worked on during High School was made predominantly for RPGs (SNES Final Fantasy style, in particular), due to the code, you could potentially (with copious tweaking and hours of your life) make any game you wanted. Pitch Black was a horror game, with first-person puzzle sections for the “rooms,” and Final Fantasy looking walk-arounds for the main areas.

After you got the main idea (for us, it was the survival-horror mixed with puzzle solving), you had to draw the graphics. I don’t know about everybody else’s experiences, but for me this was the longest portion. You had to draw, pixel by pixel, every tile, dot, and detail of the game. While the engine allowed you to create “tiles” and then place them at will, you still had to draw each individually, and make sure they all fit. Once you finished drawing your tiles, then placing them, you got to design characters. Each character had to be drawn a minimum of eight times: two up animations, two down, two left and two right. This applied to even just characters who show up, walk in for two seconds, and leave. I also had to draw the various “hand” or “use” icons that would be implemented in the puzzle-rooms.

I cheated a little for the puzzle rooms: for the first Pitch Black I simply googled images and used them. Cheap, but better then the alternative, which was to draw each by hand. This is exactly what I did in Pitch Black 2, spending around 7-8 hours a day my freshman year of college, toiling in MSPaint (a good program for pixel art; you’d be surprised) drawing backgrounds.

After you have your graphics, you have to put them together somehow. Here is where your coding comes in: you have to learn the code, take all that art, and mix it together so it doesn’t suck. A think I should point out is that each point in the design process is essential as a whole: if you mess up in one part, many people will ignore your beautiful art and zero-in on that glaring error you overlooked.

So after you code it all and put it together, you have your bugs, which I won’t get into too much detail about because I’m pretty sure anyone who has ever coded anything knows what a huge pain in the ass that is. Pitch Black had a few minor ones (as well as a few minor errors in spelling when telling our story), but it probably didn’t take more than ten hours to iron out.

So, in total, between planning, drawing the graphics, coding the beast, testing it, and fixing the bugs, we were looking at least 200 man hours each (I worked with a partner). Also, keep in mind we were doing this on an engine, most of the “hard” programming had been done for us. I can hardly imagine how long it would have taken to pull this off had we used actual code.

400 man hours, lost sleep, headaches from staring at a monitor for hours, and what do we have? A half hour experience for a player that most would consider subpar to a big-budget title from an actual developer. Was all the effort and time worth it, even knowing only a scarce few will ever experience your game?

Yes. Yes it is.

We didn’t (and still don’t) charge any money for any of our games, ever. We simply did it because we enjoyed it. As previously stated, during that time I released a considerable amount of games, some ranging in length from several hours to one that lasts maybe a minute if you know the secret. I can’t count the hours it took to even make the simplest of games. But would you be able to pull this off in “the real world?” Well, you tell me. Do you think Activision would spring for a game:

- Made completely in black and white (and not grayscale, I mean the color black and the color white. I’d like to point out I did this before Madworld did :P)

- Where the story is a person going to a diner, set in an RPG world, where you have to order food based off “food weaknesses” (placed in the game similar to where “elemental weaknesses” would appear in a traditional JRPG)?

- That was made to teach people, through an RPG setting, the concept of Locke’s Tabla Rasa?

- A game made entirely up of photographs because the game creator got a camera for Christmas
and thought it would be funny to somehow make a game based off random people at an airport?

- A dating game with horrible art and copious amounts of video game references?

- A sequel to said dating game, where the goal of the game is to break up with the girls from the previous game by being as mean as possible?

So, while most indie games are glitch-ridden, buggy messes with poor graphics and often short gameplay, I have to admit I admire them for what they’ve done. They are doing what they love: making games and having others see these ideas that they know wouldn’t ever see the light had they not been the ones to make them. So thank you, indie game developers. Your games may be messes, but you are putting in the time, the will-power, the blood, toil, sweat and tears to make something unique.

You, most certainly, deserve an “E for Effort.”
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About Shadowiiione of us since 4:19 PM on 03.02.2009