So two froody dudes, Dan “Gibbage” Marshall and Ben Ward, decide to stop piddling about with their own pathetic projects and team up, creating Size Five Games (previously Zombie Cow Studios) in the process.
And to celebrate, they decided to give away a game for free – an adventure game called Ben There, Dan That!, which stars…um, them. That’s right, you control Ben and Dan as they bumble through a loving homage to the classic Lucasarts Adventure games, doing things like smacking priests with bibles, visiting alternate dimensions, and…um…climbing out of a cow’s rear end. Hey, they’re British.
Now, even given the fact that they used Adventure Game Studio to create the game, that’s a heck of a lot of work to just give away. But I heartily, heartily approve of the process, and not just because I’m cheap. I think it’s the right thing to do because it helps them grow their community, and I believe that community is the solution to all of gaming’s problems.
Does your game stink? Get people interested in the potential your game might have and they can help you fix it. And you don’t have to do it all before you ship. Feedback after you ship is just as vital – but those lines of communication must be open.
Are you having trouble marketing your game? Again, community can help. Bungie‘s testers sang the praises of Myth: The Fallen Lords to all their friends once their NDAs were lifted, which helped Bungie as they took their first steps into the PC market.
Are you having trouble keeping people interested in your game? Once again, community to the rescue. The most popular online first-person shooter in the world is still Counter-Strike, which kept copies of the original Half-Life on store shelves for years. The incredible response of the Korean community means that you can still walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a copy of StarCraft – a game that was released in 1998! Caravel Games goes even farther with their Deadly Rooms of Death series. The DRoD games consist of a layout of rooms, each containing a puzzle. The DRoD website gives you an overall map of the game – and clicking any room on the map takes you to a forum thread discussing that room. It’s an excellent way to provide player-based support, in addition to player-created content.
Are you having trouble funding your game? Yes, this is the iffiest one, but it’s been done. Lots of people have started by creating a small, well-supported game and then rolling the profits from that into something much larger. I think my favorite story of this nature is that of Jeff Minter, who was saved from having to get a real job by the incredible response to Llamatron, which Minter released for free along with a README.TXT file that included this paragraph:
Here’s the deal. You play Llamatron and check out the hook. If it gets you (and I reckon it will if you like mayhem), then send us a fiver and, as a reward for being so honest, we will send you an ace poster of our gun-toting llama, a newsletter, and a complete copy of Andes Attack, originally released in 1988 to considerable critical acclaim. Two games for a fiver – can’t be bad. And if the response is good, there will be more Shareware. And better.
This is the kind of thing Jeff Vogel is talking about when he says, “Shareware is a force for good.”
And finally, the big one.
Are you having trouble with people pirating your game?
Well, of course you are. People pirate stuff. They’re going to do it. You can’t do much about it.
If you want to come to terms with piracy, you need to come to understand that you’re not trying to eliminate it. You’re trying to reduce its impact to the point where you can still make the money you need to make on your game to stay in business. I wish I could tell you to just ignore piracy but I can’t – you should be going onto those download sites and demanding that they remove your game, because you do want pirating your game to be more complicated than just doing a Google search.
How can community help here?
Well, it’s harder to steal from somebody when you feel like you know them personally. It’s also harder to steal from somebody when they are trying to be the good guys.
The seminal example of using community to beat piracy is Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations 2. Absolutely no anti-piracy stuff on the disc. No CD key. No CD check. No phoning home. No refusing to run if there’s a compiler on the same system. No installing low-level drivers that monitor all data traffic without the user’s knowledge. Nothing. The only thing it uses is a unique account key that allows you to create a support account on Stardock’s digital distribution network, so that you can redownload the game if you lose your discs.
And yet it sold a bazillion copies and was a huge moneymaker for Stardock. And as I’ve mentioned before, one of those copies was sold to me. Even though I’ll never have time to play such an involved game. Why did I buy it? Because they were doing it right.
I have said that game design is a conversation between the developer and the player. But now I’ve come to realize that the metagame of game development is the same thing.
If you want to succeed in game development, don’t just make games. Help people have fun. And that means getting personally involved, with all the risks that carries.