Indie Games Rockstardom: A How-To Guide
The world of independent game development is exploding. There have never been more people making more games with more tools or for more platforms than at this point in history. If you want in on that action, there’s good and bad news: The bad news is that the market has been saturated with content, most of it entirely unremarkable. Your interactive fiction “game”Â built in Twine is going to have a real hard time standing out among all the other interactive fiction “games.”Â Your hastily crafted $1 iPhone distraction? It’s going to have an even harder go in a marketplace with over a million apps.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to ensure your project stands out. While not a guarantee of success by any means, these seven steps represent your best chance to have your indie game become a critic’s darling and financial success story.
Step 1: If you wear glasses, BE SERIOUS in photos.
This step won’t apply to everyone, but if it applies to you, it is in your best interests not to skip it. While it is generally good form for indie developers to be super serious about their projects and themselves at all times, if you have glasses, they serve as a sort of bonus amplifier: A serious public persona is good for photographs, but glasses + seriousness gives you the best chance at being fawned over by game journalists, which is a very necessary step if you are to reach the big time. (Examples will follow through the rest of this post.)
Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness)
Step 2: Ensure your project is not fun.
When we think of “video games,”Â we generally think of things that are fun to interact with and fun to play. But never you mind that the word “game”Â is in the name of the medium, we’re dealing in artgames now, and that means it’s time to get stuffy and serious.
One might reasonably believe that even a game tackling serious issues should be enjoyable to interact with, much as bleak films usually aim to be well shot and acted, or bleak stories aim to be well written. This is not so, and one of the best reasons to do your navel-gazing in a game instead of on paper or film: There’s an entire community of players willing to embrace your amateur sloppiness as “charming,”Â dozens of actual, paid reviewers waiting to grade the product of your self-absorbed, intellectual wanking on the steepest of curves. Truly, if you want your scrappy pile of janky, half-finished code to be placed on the same level as ballet, classic literature, and other assorted things that aren’t 1/1000 as enjoyable as a single round of Bulletstorm, make sure the mechanics, the ways in which a user actually interacts with your software, are as miserable as they can get. The good news for you, the aspiring indie developer, is that there’s more than one way to accomplish this. (There are two.)
Option A: Give your project shitty mechanics.
Perhaps the default option, as making a video game with a strong player feedback loop is a very difficult thing to do, something even AAA shops with bloated budgets regularly fail spectacularly at. By the by, did you read that last sentence and find yourself asking, “what on Earth is a player feedback loop?” Never you mind: The less you actually know about what goes into compelling game design or mechanics, the more the hipsters will fellate (*) you for bringing “fresh perspectives” to the medium. You’re on your way!
(*) If blowjobs are your end goal, don’t make a video game. Instead, learn to play the guitar, or have Vistaprint whip up a bunch of business cards for your newly incorporated modeling agency and hie thee to LA. Even if they like what you’re about and you personally, nobody in the games press is ever going to actually suck you off, because everyone in the games press would appear to practice an extremely rigid brand of sex-negative feminism where anything that might be pleasurable to a straight male is considered an atrocity on par with female circumcision.
Option B: Fail to include any mechanics at all
Yes, we’ve reached a point where games press hipsters will give non-games, artgames, and antigames very high scores, despite the player’s interaction with the software being limited to walking around, and perhaps clicking on an item or two. Great news for you on the face of it, but this is a trickier option, because it will require you to compensate for the lack of mechanics or skill element with something else, usually a twee art style or self-important narrative. Which brings us to…
Anna Anthropy (dys4ia, professional lunatic)
Step 3: Give your game a twee art style.
Games hipsters love to bemoan the fact that military and sci-fi shooters have a different, darker color pallet than Sonic the Hedgehog. This means they’ll love whatever stupid motif you come up with, no matter how far up its own derivative ass it is, or how incompetent the mechanics it masks (always be remembering step 1: you want the game to not be fun. You are living your own real life version of The Producers).
While many awful indie titles shamelessly pander to 8/16 bit nostalgia, the extent of flowery garbage you can get away with in this department is incredibly open-ended. Be adventurous! If you’re feeling lucky, you might even fail to create final art assets at all. Choose this path, however, and you’d be well served to…
Kellee Santiago (Journey, Flower, Flow)
Step 4: Make your project “about”Â something.
Here we have the most important step on the list. Any idiot with a trust fund can pound out a subpar twin-stick shooter or smartphone cash grab, but that’s not for you. You’re an idiot with a trust fund and a master’s in creative writing/gender studies/latte husbandry! Remember, you’re making art. Art has to have a message; it has to be about something. Therefore, make sure when the games press comes calling for an interview, you link your project to one or more of the following topics. Think of this hype-building stage as a metagame! The more unrelated things you link your game to, the larger your hipster hype multiplier will grow!
“Deconstructing what it means to be a game”
Needing to vomit and poo at the same time
Price of rice in China
…or any vague, generally desirable ideal of your choosing.
Zoe Quinn (Depression Quest)
Step 5: Be a victim!
Though it’s largely irrelevant to the actual quality of your end product, your personal baggage and life experience is to criticism of your project what the Endor shield generator was for those wishing to mount an assault on the second Death Star. The more emotional your trauma, the worse your childhood, and the more severe your particular brand of crazy, the gentler your opus will be judged by self-styled “critics”Â who never saw a sob story they didn’t love.
So then, if your alcoholic father beat you, if you’re a manic flake who cleaned up a series of increasingly poor life decisions by abandoning your spouse to flee to Japan and lick things, or if you’re just a caustic personality with froth at the mouth and blood in the eyes who won’t rest until the LGBTQXYZOMGBBQ1111 acronym obtains two of each letter and a couple of semicolons, then congrats! You are hereby excused from having any classical skill whatsoever as a developer! Anyone who trashes you or your work for any reason shall be promptly labeled as an intolerable bigot by those who matter (that is to say, degree mill hipsters located in overpriced cities, working for peanuts as they delude themselves into the belief they’re lobbying for a Pulitzer with their scathing contrarian review of Grand Theft Auto V.)
Phil Fish (Fez, cancelled Fez 2 because a blogger was mean to him on Twitter)
Step 6: Be a jerk!
Being a jerk isn’t just good advice for aspiring indies, it’s a solid idea for anyone in the industry who hasn’t been relevant for more than a decade. The hipsters have to keep those ad impressions rolling throughout the day, so they’ll be more than happy to take whatever inane thing you say, slap on a byline, and put it on the web.
Advertising yourself and your project is expensive, so to be a true indie games savant, it isn’t enough to just make awful, precious, pretentious software. You have to smugly trash other games; especially if they’re well designed AAA titles and/or have guns in them. Going on the offense like this will prepare you to ridicule your own critics down the line: If someone dares to suggest your “game”Â is better labeled as interactive fiction or interactive art (in the same way that a book is not a magazine is not an instruction manual), helpfully remind them they’re just agents of the corporatist patriarchy attempting to marginalize new voices for change in a medium dominated for decades by cis scum oppressors.
Of course, by the time you finish reminding your detractors of this, they’ll have likely tuned you out or fallen asleep, so if ranting and raving like this truly appeals to you, perhaps it’s time to…
Steve Gaynor & Karla Zimonja (Gone Home)
Step 7: Consider a career in games criticism!
Let’s face the facts: Making things is hard. You’ve got life traumas, emotional baggage, and an agenda. You could try to spread your message in an effective and enjoyable way through the new century’s most exciting and relevant medium, but that would require you to spend time working at your craft, which would in turn require you to spend less time changing the world, one Tumblr repost at a time.
Luckily, there’s another way to combine your abrasive personality and perpetual victim complex with video games: Why not cross the divide and become a games journalist yourself? The standards for the profession are at an all time low, and all your assorted pet social justice issues are unofficial parts of the review rubric at many publications. Ultimately, we know you’re less interested in video games than you are in shoehorning political activism into the only multibillion dollar medium to be almost entirely built for (and funded by) a male audience.
As a game journalist, you’ll do your part to change all that. Whether it’s by docking fantastic games for daring to have sex appeal, or by whining loudly about things nobody cared about the first hundred times the pearls were clutched, you too can make a difference in the world by preaching insufferable nonsense to a choir that will gladly receive it. And if anyone speaks against you in the comments? Well, that’s what moderators are for!