Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Indie' doesn't have to mean 'poor quality'

Again, a post for which I will probably cop some flak - a lot of games done by small companies are just not very good quality.  So they don't have the budgets - that's fine.  They don't have the expertise - okay, also, to an extent, fine.  Poor audio quality?  Uh, okay, now we're getting into the kind of territory inhabited by the series of casual games I just playtested.

One of the perks of being in the games industry is that I get to playtest games in order to make sure they work.  Sometimes it's great, especially if it's a game I wanted to play anyway.  Other times, it's a slog through the mundane, made only briefly better by the games that manage to get it right.  And, let me tell you, there are a lot that don't, especially in the casual game market.  I know Match 3 is a genre unto itself now, and time management has taken on a whole new meaning since Cake Mania, but, honestly, if you're going to emulate something that's already been successful, at least try to make it a convincing reskin.

For the sake of prudence, I'm not going to mention the games that I found to play poorly.  But there were several areas in which they consistently fell down, and I will mention them below, in the hopes that others who dare to tread in their genre-emulating footsteps might take heed, and spare me the pain of yet more sprites made of only primary colours:

1) If you're not an artist, hire one.

Hear me out, here.  I know your niece may tell you that you draw a mean wizard, and you might be pretty proud of your accomplishment, but, seriously, take a step back.  Is it of a professional standard?  Is it on par with what actual game artists can do?  If the answer is no, then it's not good enough.  Stuffing around in 3DS Max until you know enough to make a low-poly version of something that would have looked right at home in a Warcraft 2 cinematic may be a personal achievement, but it sure isn't a professional one.  Leave the art for people who can do it.  Stick to what you're good at.

You're going to notice that's a theme here.

2) Not an audio designer? Don't touch that mixer!

Have you studied audio?  Do you know the ins and outs of waveforms and which file format both compresses the most and yet retains the best playback rate, or which is the most lossless?  Despite 'most lossless' being a bit of an oxymoron, if you don't, don't touch it.  I'm not saying your average Joe can't stick decent sounds in all the right places.  Name the file correctly and call it from the code - what else is there?  Well, for a start, there are audio levels.  Many casual games are ruined by either repetitive, grating sounds, or single sounds that are far louder than anything else in the game.  Then there's the idea of 'ducking' - which sounds are the most important, and should play over the top of all others?  We haven't even gotten to music.  Sometimes royalty-free stuff can be fine, such as in the case of a game that calls for classical music, but if your game is about a medieval fantasy setting, and you've got La Cucaracha playing in the background, you're going to cause some cognitive dissonance.

3) Have you playtested on more people than just your grandma?

Don't get me wrong.  I love my grandmas, but they are not the best indicator of whether or not a game is fun to play.  For one thing, my grandma on my mum's side has never even touched a mouse, but that's beside the point.  You're trying to sell your casual game to a certain demographic, or you should be, otherwise you have a completely different problem on your hands.  Have you had people from that demographic playtest your game?  Have you listened to what they had to say?  I mean it.  Did you listen, or just pretend, then get offended because they 'didn't know what they were talking about'?  The inability to accept criticism is the first step on the road to releasing a crappy product.  They're the ones who will (hopefully) be paying you for the privilege of playing your game.  Make sure you can make them happy.

4) Is it fun?

Seriously.  These people you've had playtest - did they enjoy themselves?  Did they want to keep playing after they reached the end of the demo?  Were they smiling afterward?  If the answer to any of the above is no, you have to rethink your game.  Where could you improve?  With many casual games, I find the difficulty is either too easy, too hard, or too arbitrary.  If you have a random element in your game, make sure that it is actually random, and build in a failsafe to give the player the piece they need in an emergency.  If you're not sure about the level of difficulty you should provide, ask the player to choose - easy, medium, or hard?  In a simple game, as many casual games are, only a couple of variables such as speed of resource gathering and enemy spawn rates usually need to be affected in order to increase the difficulty.  This is probably the hardest thing to test for, but the most vital - if it's not fun, if the player doesn't get addicted, you aren't going to get their money.  Keep is short, snappy, and let the player win.  You can always release a sequel with all your extra features once you're a success.

Okay, back to it.  I know, playing casual games as part of your job is a tough life, but someone has to do it.

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