I’m walking down a long hallway in The Citadel, and I’m waved over by reporter Emily Wong. She wants some information on a local crime lord, and I’ve got some data on the guy that would give her a scoop. I hesitate at first, unsure of her motivations, but I eventually give in and I’m rewarded handsomely for the data. Not only does she transfer some credits my way, but I (Commander Shepherd) agree to giving her some juicy exclusive interviews. These interviews will put my name on the galactic map. Sweet.
Sadly, we face an almost identical ethical problem in the indie games industry, as I do in Mass Effect.
Diogo Ribeiro’s excellent article The “Indie” Challenge, if you have not read it already, presents an excellent overview of the challenges independent developers face when trying to get their games into players’ hands. Diogo singles out the all-too-cozy relationship between AAA developers, publishers and the writers/editors of large gaming networks, as a serious barrier for indie developers getting their games promoted. The article tugs at a lot of issues dear to us gamers and writers: the ‘us and them’ attitude that pervades ‘indie vs. mainstream’ industries, the ethics of game promotion and reviewing, and the perception of indie games as rarely something more than time wasting devices.
As an outsider to the games industry and journalism, I really appreciate Diogo’s strong insider knowledge of those domains. There is a lot of good information here for the indie seeking to get their newest creation out into the market:
Your first email to either should avoid looking like a typical press release. Don’t bother with terms like “cutting edge” – you’re supposed to be talking about games, not fax paper. Focus on the strengths of your game. If it sports a concept never seen before in videogames – a very rare thing, mind you – extol those virtues. If it uses traditional play mechanics with a novel twist, don’t be shy about making comparisons. “All the action of Gears of War with the ovine satisfaction of Sheep!”….
Obviously, this is critical for people trying to make a living out of game development, and I agree with everything he has to say here. But I see an extreme danger in this promotion-driven approach to game development. Herein lies the great danger:
Introversion is a case study for several reasons, but to me the most important one is they cared about one thing that most indie devs don’t – they gave as much emphasis on promoting themselves as they did creating their game. Why aren’t you doing the same, indies?
Is it true that indie developers should be spending as much time on promoting themselves as they did in creating their game? Of course there are obvious financial benefits to heavily promoting your indie game, but what kinds of costs come with a promotion-heavy approach?
The indie world depends very much upon the goodwill, honesty and free time of people who have very little financial benefit from reviewing or promoting your game. I have never received a penny from Rastek (Wither), Jenova Chen (Flower), Markus Persson (Minecraft), Anthony Flack (Cletus Clay), or Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey (The Endless Forest). None of these people asked me to write about their games. I chose to write about these little games (some of which became big games) because they were not promoted, because they were unknown, and because these creations impressed me completely on their own terms. When I get a request to review/promote a game, even if it is heartfelt and personal, my interest immediately sinks. People like me who write about games are not interested in being used as extensions of the advertising industry; asking me to promote your game is a very good way of alienating me from your creation. Real writers are their own source of inspiration; they don’t need your one-liner press kits.
There is another ethical consideration at play here. Diogo mentions fellow Canadian Phil Fish, whose game recently won a major award at the 2012 Independent Games Festival. Diogo writes,
Fez is an indie game that’s been in development for five years but continuous interaction with fans and trailers that highlighted the core gameplay, along with improvements to the game engine, went a long way to maintaining curiosity about Phil Fish’s game.
True. And it is also true that Fez precipitated a major ethical crisis at the GDC this year, when Phil Fish entered his game for a second time into the same competition purely out of self-interest (Note: I am not singling out Phil Fish – he seems like a decent enough guy, I’m just using this as a recent example). His appearance in Indie Game: The Movie similarly reveals the indie games’ industry’s sad history of shameless self-promotion, endless navel gazing and cult-of-the-celebritization. In The Competition: The Story Behind the IGF’s Critics Brendy Caldwell does a great job of summarizing the controversy here,
… in 2008, Fez won in the Excellence in Visual Arts category at the IGF. It certainly is a lovely looking game, I can personally testify to that. In 2012 it remains unreleased and subsequently re-enters the IGF for that year (and is eventually nominated for both the Technical Excellence award and the Seamus McNally Grand Prize).
Fez went on to win the Seamus McNally Grand Prize, worth $30,000 USD.
So what is the danger here? What’s wrong with a guy who shows off his little game?
- The controversy helped to fuel a new ecology for what I call ‘moral entrepreneurs’… journalists, developers and nobodies who use moral crises as ways of promoting themselves (I won’t mention any names here). There was a massive backlash to Phil Fish’s promotion strategy, and instead of focusing on the issues at hand and the games we care about, moral opportunists used this crisis as a ripe opportunity to viciously personally attack Phil Fish, and in so doing draw attention to themselves.
- I do not see the public value that is served in self-promotion. Easy-to-chew sound-bites and one-liners, hastily injected into press kits, 0nly serve to devalue gaming as a whole. When a developer encourages a game site (or magazine) to use ready-made text, this discourages independent thought. Needing to railroad a writer into a particular view of your game is, to me, evidence that your game probably sucks. Worse, videos like Anthony Carboni’s recent sycophantic interviews with indie developers do nothing to improve the perception that indie developers are in bed with the media; instead suggesting that journalists are more interested in basking in reflected glory than critical and honest evaluations of games.
- All of the work that hard-working people like Phil Fish put into their promotion strategy is time that could have been used in making a better game. Appearing at industry events like the GDC may be a requirement for AAA publishers, but I fail to see how attending the Independent Games Festival makes your game any more playable. When I attended the IGF/GDC in 2009, there was no time for developers and players to have a meaningful conversation. When you approach an IGF booth, you wait in line for 10 minutes and play for a few minutes – then you ask a few cursory questions about the game with the developer, and make room for someone else to play. The IGF is all about promotion and is not about tuning gameplay, just the Oscars don’t help people make better films.
- Aggressively promoting your game puts you personally into ethically dangerous waters. There is nothing worse than seeing a great game get shunned because its developer made a serious (or minor) error in judgement when dealing with the press. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard players promise that they’d never buy a game from ________________ because the developer accidentally said something morally questionable in an interview.
A Quality-Driven Approach to Promotion
Instead of thinking from a marketing perspective, I think that the marketing perspective needs to become the outcome of careful design and play-testing. Indie developers have to stop thinking with dollar signs in their eyes, stop thinking about how their game will serve to stroke their ego, and start thinking about whether their game even deserves to be promoted at all. This is an overgeneralization, but many games like Minecraft sold well because they were great games. We will still be talking about Minecraft in ten years, but we won’t be talking about games like Super Meat Boy in one year. Why? Because Minecraft was developed with the care and love that comes with slow and incremental design that emerged over years; it did not rely upon self-promotion. People love Minecraft because of the breadth and depth of its gameplay, not because of a superficial retroesque charm… such as the meaningless gameplay of Super Meat Boy.
Here are some lessons we might learn from a quality-driven approach:
- Your game can succeed on the basis of its expressive qualities alone; let real writers do their jobs to find you.
- Ever seen how much money it costs to attend the GDC or IGF? Aping publishers who aggressively market their games costs a lot of time and money. Perhaps that time is better spent focusing and improving on your game.
- Develop close, honest and respectful relationships with your fellow developers and community of gamers. These are the people who will give you the shirts off their backs, and do anything to see your little creation survive in the wilderness of the industry.
- As Ben Ruiz said at a recent GDC presentation, “quit being so fucking egocentric.” The whole notion of “independent” in indie games is a complete falsification of the truth. There is no such thing as independent game development – there is only interdependent game development. You need your fellow developers and gamers as much as they need you; the games industry is a very large ecology with many niches. Instead of playing your personal creation off over and against AAA developers, and cultivating your own ego, why not see how AAA developers and their games can help to improve your project?
Obviously, these are pretty polemic issues. I don’t mean to oversimplify the marketing difficulties that indie developers face, but I hope to at least point out that marketing and promotion bring up ethical problems that the industry has not addressed. And by ignoring these ethical issues, indie developers are only inviting the kinds of problems that AAA publishers are already faced with.
I’d like to hear what you’ve got to say about this, whether you’re an indie developer, AAA developer, gamer, journalist, or someone else.