DLC Quest and the Opposite Approach to Indie Development

(also posted to Gamasutra)

“If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right” – Jerry Seinfeld

Last week, I launched DLC Quest. It’s my third release for the Xbox LIVE Indie Game Marketplace and it’s already outsold my other two titles. This isn’t quite a post-mortem, but I do have some thoughts to share about how I switched up my approach making the game. Enjoy!

First off, here’s a trailer so you know what I’m talking about.

Back? Good.

Last time I wrote here, I described how I spent six months on Lair of the Evildoer with minimal results. I decided that if I was to have any real success on the indie marketplace, I would have to change something about how I was doing things. I had a lot of ideas for experiments, so in true scientific fashion I decided to try out a bunch of them at once thereby preventing me from attributing any change in success to any one thing. Wait, that doesn’t sound right… In truth, you can never vary just one thing at a time since every game will be different anyway. Might as well mix it all up and see if anything sticks.

Dev time: One month instead of six months
This is probably the least controversial change to my approach. Spending six months on a game, especially without a ton of experience, is a big risk to take as someone trying to make a full-time job out of indie game development. It makes sense on a lot of levels to make smaller, more focused games. I didn’t hit my goal of one month development time, which was probably a bit optimistic, but I did manage to start and finish DLC Quest in under two months.

Make a press kit
Okay, this is a strong contender for the least controversial change. I had prepared press releases, box arts, trailers and screenshots before, but I never took the extra step of bundling everything up along with a basic fact sheet and some company info. You might not think you’ll catch the attention of a big journalist, but you better be ready if you do. My press kit has been downloaded about 30 times, which is 30 more times than my previous “nah, nobody will bother downloading this” estimate.

What’s better than being at the top of a dashboard list? Being on three of them.
Last time, I said that the ideal situation (as far as the dashboard is concerned) is to be at the top of the New Releases list during the Friday/Saturday rush. To do so, I released early on a Friday. One big downside was that it was incredibly difficult to get the attention of the press before everyone went home for the weekend.

So rather than releasing during the high point of the week, I released during a lowpoint – Wednesday. This gave my game chance to get some ratings and squeak onto the Top Downloaded list. So now instead of great placement on one list, my game had decent placement on New Releases, Top Rated and Top Downloaded. Not too shabby! It also gave me a chance to try and get some coverage, which peaked on Friday with an article on Kotaku.

Build on past efforts. Or don’t.
After spending six months making Lair of the Evildoer, I had a relatively robust twin-stick shooter slash RPG engine. The “wrong” thing to do would be to walk away from that and make a platformer instead. Which is what I did.
Now while this sounds a bit silly, it was driven partly by burnout. Sure, churning out a sequel or a spin-off would have been a safe and easy approach but being an indie developer is all about flexibility. I wanted to do something different, so I did. This kept me motivated throughout the project and was key factor in being able to be productive for a solid two months.

Games should have enemies, health bars and ways to fail
At one point in development, I realized that there was no real adversarial challenge in the game. The player had no enemies to defeat, no pits to fall in, and no spikes to impale themselves upon. As I started to think up ideas for enemies to add, health bar displays, and continue/retry mechanics, I realized that I was only going through the motions because those are aspects of similar games. They’re expected, they’re intuitive, but they’re not necessarily fun. DLC Quest was never meant to be a “normal” platformer – there would be nothing to gain by throwing in ways for the player to fail. I hesitate to say the game is more cerebral than others, but the driving force is really the desire to see the next obstacle and the next joke that comes with it. In the end, I simply chose not to add in mechanics that weren’t needed and I think it’s a better game for it.

If you can’t sell the game for what it’s worth, make it worth what it sells for
The Xbox Indie marketplace is notorious for having a big barrier to success at its $3 and $5 price points. Most games get a disproportionately small number of trials and conversions at anything above the lowest $1 price point. In Evildoer, I created a game that had a few hours of gameplay, along with enough random and procedural elements to give the game some honest replay value. But I was afraid to charge anything more than the bare minimum out of fear that it would be ignored entirely. Getting a few (or potentially “many”) hours of entertainment for one dollar is essentially unheard in most markets – with a notable exception of mobile markets. Even then, many of the larger games now sell for more than just 99 cents.
So if customers ignore games above 80 MS points, why not make the game worth what you can successfully charge? The plan from the beginning was to make a game that delivered a half hour to an hour long experience, nothing more. Obviously you can’t get away with making a paper-thin product, but you can deliver value that’s more in line with what you get in return. It’s tough to nail a short experience without leaving players feeling ripped off, but quality can make up for quantity. Feedback thus far has been very positive. Players have expressed a desire for more content while still saying that it was absolutely worth the price of admission.

Don’t talk about it
Last time, I devoted a fair amount of effort to blogging about development and making videos about how things were progressing. This time around, I didn’t even mention the game until it was essentially finished and ready to be reviewed. Surely this was madness! Perhaps, but I wanted to test the theory that titles on the Xbox indie marketplace are essentially unaffected by the buzz they garner on the internet. It goes against all intuition, but it felt like there was a grain of truth to it. Many XBLIG titles succeed by virtue of their boxart and ratings alone, prospering on the lists of the dashboard and remaining essentially unknown to the rest of the world.

Make a funny trailer
I almost made a bog-standard “gameplay and music, with features called out between cuts” trailer for DLC Quest. I caught myself starting to plan out the trailer without really thinking about what I was doing. I realized that if my game was meant to be funny, the trailer should be as well. In the end, I was really nervous about releasing it because of the approach I took. I still cringe whenever I see it, but the amount of positive feedback has been fantastic.

You can find check out my company Going Loud Studios at www.goingloudstudios.com and follow us @WeAreGoingLoud. I also keep a blog and a development twitter account of my own @benkane.

And now I’m going to go have a chicken salad sandwich and a cup of tea.