Free for All: A few tips for the indie developer

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Free for All: A few tips for the indie developer
I am no developer, nor do I have dreams of one day becoming one. I absolutely love having the ability to write about what I like and to interact with those who enjoy (or hate) what I write. Developers have their hands and tongues tied much of the time, and often the indie developer gets no credit whatsoever. Granted, if artistic release or programming is your thing, I say go for it. But I will absolutely admit to wanting attention most of all -- it's what I like to do.

Over the years, I have visited more independent MMO sites and played more independent MMOs than I care to recount. Still, not a week goes by when I do not find a new one to look at, and so I file it away for future use. I am often amazed at some of the mistakes indie developers make -- such obvious ones, too. I try to remind myself that the garage-coder is not always the best choice for graphic designer, so sometimes the websites and logos of these tiny companies look like they were hosted on Geocities.

I decided to have some fun and throw down some general rules that I apply to indie developers. Take them or leave them, but I think that they are based on quite a bit of observation. Feel free to add any of your own. Click past the cut and let's get to them!

Make a good website. I cannot tell you how many times I have come across a recommended link only to find a website that not only looked old and outdated but did not work. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how such a basic thing happens... developers can simply visit their own site at least once or twice a week and test for issues. I have said this before at the risk of sounding like I am trying to be a smart-alec, but I'll say it again: Any indie developer can go to the local college and ask the graphic design professor to offer his students the chance to redesign the website for a very small amount of money. They will try their best in the hopes of getting some cash and a piece for their portfolios, and you will get a site that doesn't look like trash. If you cannot afford even a couple hundred dollars, pay five dollars a month for some webspace, install Wordpress, and go find a cool theme. If you cannot make that work, you need to reconsider making a game in the first place.

Update your game files. One of the most common mysteries in the world of MMO gaming (indie or not) is why aren't downloadable game files updated and replaced? Wouldn't it save time to simply update the main file rather than download an older one and spend hours patching? Of course, I am no designer, so I know that there must be a reason for the lengthy patching sessions, but I also know that games have avoided them before. Also, if you have a client that is obviously from three years ago, people will assume your game is just as dated. It looks like you do not care. At the very least, update the launcher with current news or just communications from the team. Speaking of communications...

Talk to your community. OK, I get it. Making a game takes time. Here's the real deal, though, and you will never be able to convince me I am wrong: Everyone has a spare 10 minutes a day to send out a couple of tweets, Facebook updates, or forum posts. Trust me, there is no developer of any size who cannot squeeze out a simple message or two to show he is actually al alive and kicking. A simple "Hello, here's what we are doing today" is easy to send out, and it makes players feel they are playing a game that is being developed by people who actually care. Make all the excuses you want about being busy, but avoiding basic communication with your players is just stupid. If you do not have a Facebook or Twitter account, get one. Oh, and that reminds me...

Get a community manager. The funny thing about titles or jobs is that once you say it is, it is. If you nominate someone as your community manager, even if that person is just your current boyfriend, then he is that job. Having nominated someone as a CM means that you have someone whom you can ask to send out those few tweets per day, someone who can host a couple of contests. It's not rocket science, I promise you. A good community manager makes it look like rocket science, though. A CM gives your company -- tiny or not -- a face and a personality. It's ridiculous in these days of mass, cheap, and widely available communication that some indie companies do not have a CM. Get one, now. You won't regret it.

Play your own game. Yes, we know that making a game for 10 hours a day usually means that you do not want to play it when you get home. If this is the case, once again you need to be creative and find someone to play it. Find a few people at least and test the game across several different setups and platforms. Try it on that old netbook of yours and see whether it will run on that beat-up desktop. If not, make it work or at least get it to run in some way. The more systems your game can run on, the more customers you will have access to (ask KingsIsle, maker of the hugely successful Wizard101, about accessibility). If you are not actually playing the game, though, and you tweet stuff like "I can't wait to get home to play Mass Effect for the third time," then do not wonder why your players go to a different game that seems to have developers who are obsessed with their title.

Keep the negativity to a minimum. If you want to gripe about your players, go for it. Just keep it to the self-contained environment of your bedroom or car. No one wants to hear how much you were steamed about that last patch's reception. Don't be fake, but don't be a constant whiner. Then again...

Take care of the trolls. I love Derek Smart, truly. My fandom has never had anything to do with any of his past history or reputation as a troublemaker back in the day. Frankly, I couldn't care less about how mad he made you 10 years ago. All I care about is that he is now showing that he knows how to help a game go forward and has more projects on the way. Also, he takes care of trolls. If they cause trouble on the Alganon forums, he takes care of it, sometimes letting the troll know exactly how he or she is wrong. Gamers are great at dishing out mounds of hate at their favorite enemy developers, but as soon as they are silenced or booted out of the conversation, they claim victimhood. Do your community a favor and take care of the trolls who are ruining your forums. If you are that afraid of losing one player, you might consider how many you have lost because you let that troll control your boards.

Contact the media. I am the media. Contact me if you are making some kind of tiny MMO. I will try all kinds and give an honest opinion about the product. I cannot tell you how many developers will simply not answer emails or will take literally months to do so. Most game writers I know want to know about new products or want to tell their readers about updates and patches. Unfortunately, we cannot read minds, so we need those indie (and mainstream) developers to send us an email or tweet.

Take yourself seriously. You are a game-maker, a crafter of worlds. You are a storyteller, a lore-writer, and a spinner of tales. It doesn't matter where or how you are making your game, but always remember that you will only be taken seriously if you are proud of what you do. You didn't work three jobs to pay for that new program or spend all those hours tweaking those pixels just to be used as an example of why indie gaming sucks. Stand up, work hard, and communicate. Let us know why you take your game seriously, but be honest about your mistakes or status.

I hope some of my tips are not off-base. I base them on years of communicating with developers, playing indie games and visiting more sites than I can remember. I can honestly say that I have seen tiny developers with rougher products become more respected simply because they followed certain basic rules. I've also seen amazing games trashed by the public because the developer didn't take the time to simply update their website.

Good luck, indie developers -- you're going to need it.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
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