How to make the best indie game ever: Lessons from J-Force Games

When J-Force Games released Avatar Massage Online in 2010, they were clear about their intentions -- they wanted to make money. Avatar Massage wasn't a genre-shattering revelation of graphics or gameplay; it was a mindless yet entertaining time-waster, or a clever way to buy a vibrator without worrying your mom would come over and find your secret stash. The J-Force team had dreams of developing the "best indie game ever," and to do that they needed money. What better way to fund an indie game, than with an indie game?

"We just saw a bunch of mini-games and little apps in the top-sellers on XBLIG and said hey, we could do that too," Jeremy Eden of J-Force said. "Since we needed money it was a no-brainer."

The 16,000 people who bought Avatar Massage seemed to agree with this sentiment. But a slew of other people did not -- many argued that releasing a "crappy" game to make quick money and fund a more ambitious project was "immoral" on a deep level, according to the (very secret) Rules of Gaming Ethics and Morality.

J-Force didn't expect a violent backlash, but they were prepared with a response regardless.

"The nutshell argument is this: There's no difference in making a game for the money versus working any other job for the money -- most people hate their jobs, but they put up with them just for that paycheck," Eden said. "People then argue, 'But you're releasing crap for money!' And by 'crap' they mean basically any type of game that doesn't suit their superior taste. If Avatar Massage Online was crap, why have 16,000 people bought it?"

Indeed, why? J-Force's Ty Dauster offered one answer: "Personally, when I carve out some 'scarce' time in my schedule to watch a movie or play a game, I'm not looking to quench my thirst for an artistically meaningful, soul-riveting exposé on the meaning of life (I prefer to utilize books when I make time for such)," Dauster said. "Most of the time I'm only looking to have some mindless fun and/or laughs with friends, and that's a perfectly legitimate reason to play games or watch movies."

Besides, argued Eden, J-Force didn't make Avatar Massage solely for the money -- they had fun developing it, and they did it to fund Unstoppable, "a game we're really passionate about; a game that's going to be the best it can be."

Despite the drama, J-Force's funding scheme worked, generating enough money to convince the team they could take Unstoppable to the next level of gameplay, animation and legend. After entering indie-game development full-time and hiring Egoraptor to re-do their graphics, the dream started to blur. Egoraptor quit with months of expensive animation work remaining and the funding started to thin.

In October, J-Force turned to Kickstarter to help fund Unstoppable.
"I'm not going to let lack of money stop us from making Unstoppable everything we want it to be."
- Jeremy Eden, J-Force Games

"So we definitely need more money, and even if we reach our Kickstarter goal it probably won't be enough, which is why we have a few more 'funding games' in the works and why I've gone back to pizza delivery part-time," Eden said. "I'm not going to let lack of money stop us from making Unstoppable everything we want it to be."

On Kickstarter, the J-Force boys are selling their game, their vision and, most importantly, themselves -- they have a history of using humorous videos to generate buzz for their games, and Unstoppable is no different. Their current pitch video was picked up by Invader Zim creator and Hot Topic messiah Jhonen Vasquez early in the campaign. However, they still need $9,000 to reach their Kickstarter goal, and there's just one week left.

"So far Kickstarter is obviously much more difficult for us," Eden said. "It's some combination of people not having enough interest in the game, or not trusting or liking us, or just not enough awareness."

Whether people hate it, love it, fund it or are aware of it, Unstoppable is still the "best indie game ever, as promised," Dauster said. To explain its rank as indie-game champion, Dauster said much more than that in a paragraph of metaphorical expressionism that began with an obese female and ended with "spicy poo" and blood clots. You'll just have to trust us that it was extremely convincing.

J-Force aren't going to give up on Unstoppable, no matter how many haters or how little money they have at the end of the week, and Dauster and Eden think all indie devs should share their determination.

"If your game fails, it's because you failed," Dauster said. "Stop scapegoating and take responsibility."

"Indies need to stop limiting themselves with their self-imposed standards," Eden said. "Make some little games that people actually want. Freakin' make money."

Which is exactly what J-Force are trying to do now.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.