This is the fourth post by independent game developer Dan Felder, who has his own indie studio and consults other game developers in his spare time.
The dragon rears back its head, eyes flashing, nostrils flaring, an earth-shattering roar ripping out of its flame-scorched throat. Massive, majestic, hellishly indomitable. A blast of fire shrieks through the air at your form…
And scorches the empty cavern floor.
Welcome, Indie Game Company. It’s good to see you’re still alive… and you brought your light armor to this battle. Knights in shining armor make an awfully good story but dragons claim they make an even better side dish. Why? Because all that armor, no matter how much you can pack onto yourself, just slows you down when you’re facing off against a dragon. They’ll tear through it like tissue paper.
If you want to survive this battle, not to mention get away with some of the dragon’s treasure, you’ve got to move as fast as possible, as efficiently as possible to make sure the dragon’s fires never touch you in the first place. Otherwise, they’ll eat you alive. Literally.
But while this lesson might be easy to employ on the battlefield, it might not immediately be apparent to all you hopeful dragonslayers out there just how to apply it to our chosen craft. Luckily, I know an article that might help. Even better, you’re reading it right now.
I love it when a plan comes together.
So let’s dig into one of the most important areas of game design, one that most game designers take for granted… And one that, by itself, has killed more indie studios than all the dragons in the world. It’s time to take on the Content Wars.
The Seven Deadly Sins of Content-Heavy Games
Over and over and over again I hear game designers of all stripes trying to figure out how to get more content into their games beyond the industry standards. They bemoan the losses of their robot factory bonus levels or yet another alternate ending. Content, content, content – the more the better.
The logic behind this belief is easy to understand. After all, game quality is difficult to measure – but the amount of content is much more straightforward. It’s reassuring to the customer, allowing the studio to say, “Hey, our game might be bad – but at least there’s a whole lot of it!” And, of course, if you like the game, you get a whole lot of bang for your buck. With these two arguments, it’s easy to see why having more content in a title is nearly always held up as better.
Well… It’s not always better. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not, it’s not, it’s not… At all. Not only does a mass of extra content weigh down a game as surely as would an iron bar around an Olympic swimmer, but the time and effort that go into producing the content can eat an indie studio alive.
In fact it’s worse than that... Here are what I like to call “The Seven Deadly Sins of Content-Heavy Games.”
Sin #1: The longer a game experience goes, the more diluted it becomes. The more simply ‘good’ content your players go through, the less the truly spectacular jewels of your creation stand out… Dulling your blade. In order to pierce a dragon’s hide, your blade needs to be sharper than the reaper’s scythe – and you can’t afford to simply have ‘good’ content. Every single moment of your finished game must be at the pinnacle of your abilities, imagination, brilliance and craftsmanship. Settling for merely adequate, or even, God help you, mediocre content will dull your blade and dilute the player’s experience. You’ll have a hard enough time taking a chunk out of a dragon’s hide (and customer base) with the sharpest blade imaginable – much less one rusty from overuse.
Sin #2: Extra content is a drain on your resources. Any hardy adventurer knows that moving around in a lot of heavy equipment is exhausting… And it’s the same for the indie companies. Each moment you spend working on adding additional content to your game is time away from making the rest of the game more fun. You’re far better off polishing the diamonds that you have rather than diving back into the ground in the hopes of unearthing more.
Sin #3: Content can kill sales. Do you know why I haven’t bought Dragon Age: Origins yet? It’s because I’m still in the midst of Mass Effect: 2! I can’t wait to play Origins, and I really want to slay that dragon, but there’s no reason for me to buy it until I’m done with the current epic BioWare adventure I’m in. If you create a hundred hours of gameplay, even if it’s somehow all unbridled brilliance, you’ll have to wait a long time for your customers to exhaust the content and get ready to purchase your next one… If they ever finish it at all. This leads to our fourth point.
Sin #4: Many gamers finish only a fraction of the titles they purchase. I count myself as very much a “completist” gamer and do copious research into each of my purchases – but even I have half a dozen games from the last year alone that I just never got through. Games I was genuinely enjoying just steadily exhausted themselves – usually around the 60-70 percent mark – in the midst of yet another mediocre section amidst all the parts I enjoyed. For many players, the rate of default is much more prolific, approaching figures closer to the subprime mortgage crisis than anything else. Keep your game slick and sweet and propel your players through it.
Sin #5: The industry has a need for speed. The more time you spend on your current title, the longer it takes you to get it to market. If your concept is in the least bit innovative or positioned for success in the current market, every moment’s delay is a perilous risk. You could suffer setbacks, a change in market interest or even an unthinkable Explodemon tragedy of another game company coming out with a nearly identical idea to yours and stealing your thunder.
Sin #6: Every piece of game content you create beyond what’s necessary for an immersive experience is a potential lost sale. If people love your game and want more of it, offer the additional content in a DLC package! They’ll gladly pay for it, and help fund the next installment of a series they obviously enjoy… Unless, of course, the game has already somehow worn out its welcome, which brings us to our final sin.
Sin #7: You put more resources at risk. We all know how ridiculously difficult it is to create a successful title. Even brilliant studios often have to try multiple times on their way to finding a title that catches the public’s interest and gets away with a noticeable amount of the dragon’s treasure. Knowing that each of your titles faces enormous odds – it’s far and away in your best interest to spend your resources wisely, creating tightly packaged titles, until one is finally recognized for the brilliant creation it is – the crowd lifting you upon their shoulders as a hero of the realm. A streamlined production approach allows you to make more titles than otherwise possible in your search for this gem, all the while preserving your resources so that you’re in a position to make the most of this well-earned success once it’s finally achieved.
Don’t be a sinner. It makes a phenomenal, almost staggering, amount of sense to keep your titles traveling light – perfecting and polishing only the most spectacular jewels of your creation. It will save time, maximize sales, preserve your resources, excite your players and get them ready for more.
Of course, content-driven production can work very well for dragons as they attempt to outmuscle the competition and enjoy the umbrella pricing margins for their titles. And hey, we can also love them for it. I love BioWare’s games. The mass of content and side adventures make for a wonderfully immersive experience. If you’re a multimillion dollar company with heavy marketing arms and an established brand name, go for it! Dragons are meant to use their size to their advantage.
But we indies, the brave adventurers, comrades in arms, must shun such a rush for content unless a studio happens to discover a way to create quality content at absurdly low cost (the last installment in this series does speak a little to that effect). Naturally, you need a certain amount of content to make your game’s experience fulfilling - but once you have the minimum necessary for your game and cutting anything else would take out a vital piece of the game’s experience… Just sit back, relax and begin working on a sequel (or some DLC). Remember to throw away your hulking content in favor of speed and flexibility… And chew the dragon to bits.
About Dan Felder: A student at Babson College in Massachusetts, Felder is studying entrepreneurship while building his own indie game studio. He has a passion for storytelling and theater, which is playing out in his studio by giving it a creative vision to advance the conversation about what games can be and how games can touch us, move us, embolden us and strengthen us. He also blogs for Gamasutra, a leading game industry news site.