Transparent development tales from three indies baring it all online

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Transparent development tales from three indies baring it all online
With crowd-sourced development practices on the rise, indies are taking steps to more deeply entrench their fans in the game-creation process: Transparent development means pulling back the curtain and giving the audience a close look at the minutiae of making a game, including failed ideas, bad choices and awkward conversations – and hopefully some good moves, too.

By opening up the development process, indies are molding the way players view the games they play. Game ideas change drastically throughout development; mechanics get cut and evolve; art styles waver; sounds shift from joyful to moody to dark and back to joyful again. Everything changes. Rather than a static, final product, players now have the option to see what a living, in-development game really looks like – and they're lining up around the digital block.

Vlambeer, the team behind Ridiculous Fishing and Super Crate Box, draws in 25,000 to 30,000 viewers twice a week with live development streams of its next-gen roguelike-like (roguelove?), Nuclear Throne. Dejobaan shares its live design document for Drop that Beat Like an Ugly Baby, and months into it, random players still pop into the page's chat to ask questions about development. The ex-Zynga team at Proletariat Inc. streams its World Zombination review meetings every Friday and has learned that its audience is interested in some weird stuff.

These are three stories of three different approaches to transparent development, from three different indie teams, but the audience, it turns out, is roughly the same: curious, nosy and extremely intrigued.

Dejobaan Games, sharing the design document for Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby
Ichiro Lambe, President and Creative Director

How did the idea to share your design document come about?

Sharing that much about our upcoming games seemed counterintuitive, unusual, and utterly frightening. So: Why not try it? Many first-time developers are so guarded about their ideas that they won't even talk about them – I've literally had people come up to me at conferences and say, "I don't want to spill the beans on my game concept; people might steal it." Fuck it; let's try the other direction. Radical openness. What's the worst that could happen?

What kind of feedback have you gotten from sharing the design doc?

People love it. Swarms of gamers will flock to the (Google Docs) document when I tweet that I'm live-writing the design. And months later, there are still people lingering around it (I'm not sure what they're doing there, but bless 'em). They'll pop into the doc chat and start asking questions about various design choices – "What's the level layout on Finnegan Arena going to look like?" "Why's this powerup loadout like that?" "What if you did X instead of Y?"

What are the benefits of transparent development?

It's forced me to commit concrete designs to paper in a form that's clear and detailed enough so that a non-developer can understand it. I have to think more deeply about gameplay elements rather than handwaving them.

The connection to players also becomes stronger; with the chat, it becomes a multi-way conversation rather than me prescribing things from on high. If something's really compelling, they'll let me know; and if I'm about to do something boneheaded, they'll really let me know. If they're fans, they'll also help me solve problems ("The enemy patterns are too monotonous on level 12. What if you just took them all out for 20 seconds and had them come back in after that?").

What are the cons of transparent development?

There's extra overhead in interfacing with players – I'm no longer just talking to my team about a project, but to everyone interested enough in what we're doing to peek in. That communication takes time. It's also sometimes necessary to ignore everyone ("Why would you add player death to Ugly Baby? That's going to ruin it! THIS SUCKS!") to get something good ("Oh yeah. Turns out I like that after all. Nice job.").

And I have to be careful about spoilers (I'd still like players to be surprised when they progress through the storyline) and confidential stuff. I'll write "Alexander Sliwinski can't grow a tomato to save his life" in the margins of an internal design doc, and that kinda stuff needs to be kept out of public docs.

What about indie culture makes transparent development a viable option?

We're pretty open with each other about everything (sales figures, partnerships, game concepts), which larger studios aren't. Also, let's face it – who's going to fire me if I try something new and interesting?

Nobody's going to fire me, Jess. They can't fire me.

Should AAA studios engage in transparent development?

Absolutely. It's not appropriate for all projects, but larger companies frequently find value in what indies are doing (take, for example, Sony's small-studio initiatives), so for certain games, I'm sure they could do all this a hundred times more visibly than I do.

Proletariat Inc., streaming weekly review meetings for World Zombination
Seth Sivak, Co-founder and CEO

How did the idea to stream development meetings come about?

We get so many questions from curious players and aspiring developers that it seemed natural to invite them into our development process. We used Kickstarter as an example because of how great it is for backers to get a "backstage pass" and updates throughout development, especially when it comes to supporting an indie game.

It also just makes sense for us as a company and what we're trying to achieve. We want feedback as early as possible. We want to hear from fans and we want to give our players a chance to be invested. We're free of publishers, so we can share whatever we want at any stage, without hoops to jump through or shareholders to protect, even if what we're sharing is imperfect. We have this unique freedom, so why not use it?

What are the benefits of transparent development?

Getting early feedback is definitely the best part. It gives us a chance to hear straight from players about what they think of the concept, the art, the gameplay, and what they want to see in the game. We're also breaking down the barriers that we have put up in the past where we were unwilling to share something that's unfinished because it's probably not good yet.

The second advantage is related to community. Building a play base is hard, but now that we're no longer tossing a game over the wall to a publisher so they can stick it on an end-cap at Target, it's our responsibility as a game studio to cultivate our own fans. Being open with them sets a precedent for the relationship between players and Proletariat, and that's a good thing.

What are the cons of transparent development?

There's a risk if we decide to cancel the game or a major feature that we've effectively "announced" because we were simply trying it out. We had some fear of this early on, but we felt like the opportunity outweighed the risk and that fans would give us the benefit of the doubt if we were honest the whole way through.

Another problem is that we're showing a game in progress, unfinished and unpolished. First impressions are important, so if a player sees broken textures or bad frame rate, it's easy to write it off as a bad game. It's very encouraging, however, that the tolerance for raw products seems to be going up, with players savvy enough to see the potential in a game, even when it's far from finished.

What about indie culture makes transparent development a viable option?

Fans of indie games are especially interested in the process and the personalities behind the titles, because indie companies are so approachable. It's awesome when people who watch our streams, especially the weekly reviews, know who everyone in the room is, and we recognize the viewers, too. The community is extremely supportive, so the feedback we get is genuinely helpful and constructive.

Should AAA studios engage in transparent development?

Taking a more transparent approach is already becoming a trend, especially with the popularity of Twitch, and I think we'll see more of this happening in the next 6 to 12 months – but I don't think AAA will ever be able to go completely transparent. It would be unfair to say that AAA studios aren't willing to take risks. That's not true. Their process is just too slow and convoluted for transparency to work. AAA studios are already catching onto the trend and taking some cues, but any transparency they offer will be filtered through a marketing department and levels of management first.

All the founders of Proletariat have worked at established studios before, and we know how it works. The ability to be transparent with our friends and players now is a huge benefit of us going indie. We can be honest and we can be ourselves. After all, that's what the players deserve.

Vlambeer, live-streaming development of Nuclear Throne
Rami Ismail, Co-founder

How have the streams been going? How many viewers do you generally have?

Our streams attract about 25,000 to 30,000 viewers per episode of our stream. We've got a pretty consistent schedule, streaming development or gameplay every Tuesday and Thursday, and in combination with Steam Early Access it's been great.

We get to fund the game a bit while building a great community that we can communicate with directly. On top of that, seeing how people play is really helpful for our development process and super motivating. And then there's the things the community do for us: the fanart, the videos, the amazing wiki. It's all really uplifting – which is such a great departure from our previous projects. It's exciting.

Is anyone trying to clone Nuclear Throne yet?

We guess we also hope that openness will stop people from cloning our game. It seems to work.

What's the weirdest thing to come out of the live streams so far?

We had a time where the microphone didn't turn off at the end of the livestream while I was visiting Helsinki. Our musician and sound effects guy are both from FInland, so we'd done a joint stream and after we shut down we congratulated each other and let our guard down talking about the stream. We noticed the comments that we were still live and had a rather hilarious fight with our computer trying to get rid of the mic feed.

What about indie culture makes transparent development a viable option?

We're not risking 400 mortgages on the back of a game, I guess. Indies have also been way closer to their players than AAA because we're responsible for ourselves only.

Should AAA studios engage in transparent development?

AAA studios are hidden behind layers of PR and marketing, and that makes being transparent a lot harder. They should definitely try and help to demystify the creation of games. Not only because it's important that people understand that people make games, but also to show that if somebody puts in time and effort, they can make games too.
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