To sum up, if it’s your first game, it’s going to be crap. So don’t expect a rapturous reception from anyone except your mum. And even then she’ll be lying. By the same token, second game: crap as well.”
– Graham Goring, The Arsecast
All right. Time to face the music.
I think I’m going to invert the usual Game Developer/Gamasutra format and do “What Went Wrong” first.
1. I should not have made this game.
Or at the very least, I shouldn’t have made it right now. This is the premier game for Viridian Games. The premier game should have been flashy, punchy, and most importantly, unique. From a business perspective, this is the worst game I could have made – a generic-looking game in a genre already well-covered by at least two other companies. But I really, really wanted to make it, and I felt I’d have a leg up because I was starting with the codebase from Inaria Original, but that ended up not helping me at all as I rewrote everything about the game. Which leads to…
2. Lack of middleware.
I’ve got this really, really, really bad habit of wanting to write every line of code that goes into my games. I don’t have to do that. Indeed, I shouldn’t do that. Using a middleware system like Gamemaker or Ogre3D would have shaved tons of dev time off, cost me absolutely nothing and almost certainly improved the game. I’ll be finding appropriate middleware for everything I make from now on.
To emphasize this, here’s Arkiruthis‘ prototype of Powermonger, “lots of dots” version, from March 19:
Then he installed Ogre3D. And here’s the April 17 version:
If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ll know that I worked on Planitia for years…and here’s the best it ever looked:
To sum up, I think the quality of my future games will be in direct inverse proportion to the percentage of my own code in them.
3. Lack. Of. Content.
This killed me. I am a programmer/designer, but on Inaria I spent way too much time programming and not nearly enough designing. I had legacy maps from Original Inaria and the (now defunct) iPhone version and I thought I could just punch them up and be done with them…but in the end, my entire game design caused the maps to play a lot faster than I expected. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d had twenty or so of them, but I only ended up with nine…making Inaria a really fast game to blow through. I also didn’t use the traps and secret doors I made nearly enough – because I coded them so late in the project!
Exacerbating this, players are hitting their stat caps and getting all skills in the game really fast; I should probably have made the abilities things you had to buy with points instead of things that automagically unlocked as your stats went up. That one change, plus at least five more maps that properly used the engine’s abilities, would have made Inaria so much better.
I couldn’t have released this game any worse. I thought once I uploaded the completed game to Files Forever that I could start talking about it; this proved disastrous when people tried to link to the Viridian Games website…only to discover it unfinished, without even a link to buy the game. After getting a very nice trailer for Inaria, I uploaded it to YouTube three times…and made the video public all three times, requiring me to delete the previous video and its associated comments when I uploaded a new, better version. Basically, I undermined any attempt anyone else made to help me get the word out about this game.
I also didn’t realize that you need to participate in the various indie communities in order to get a build-up going for your game before release so that people will be anticipating it. Being an indie developer requires a lot more than just making games.
Whew. Enough of that. Let’s talk about the good stuff.
What Went Right:
Inaria would never have been finished if I hadn’t put the game up on 8BitFunding.com. For two reason: First, people actually donated money, suggesting that they might be interested in this game. Second, I felt it was much more important to get the game out once money became involved. Lesson learned – money is an excellent motivator, even if you’ve already got it. I could have taken the contributor’s money and ran; the site makes clear that you’re donating money and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a return on your investment so I had no obligation whatsoever…except that I’m not a jackass. I felt that the people who had helped me out deserved something in return, prompting me to spend a lot of spare time completing this game.
(8BitFunding still needs to fix about a hundred different things on their site, but their hearts are in the right place. Hopefully they’ll get their stuff together soon.)
2. Best. Testers. EVAR.
Once the beta started, I discovered that I had some of the best testers I’d ever seen. They quickly found problems I never would have, tried crazy things that broke the game in interesting ways, and made suggestions that made the game so much better. Frankly, my game was not worthy of their attentions, but I hope they all come back for the next one!
3. H. Arnold Jones.
With the money I got from 8BitFunding I was able to look around for a musician. I found the perfect one in the person of H. Arnold Jones. I’ve lauded superlatives upon him before, but I’ll do it again – the music is actually the best part of the game, and frankly you may just want to cut out the middleman and buy the soundtrack from his store
4. A chance to start building a rep for good service.
So far I’ve had exactly two people have a problem with Inaria. But I took both problems very seriously and was able to resolve the problems quickly. This is important because all indie game developers need to build a reputation for having good service; it’s one of our few advantages over big studios.
5. I actually did it.
This is weak sauce, but the truth is…you wouldn’t think there’s a big difference between the moment before you publish your first game and the moment after. But there is. Publishing Inaria was a huge learning experience from me, and I hope I’ll be able to use that information in the future.
In summation, Inaria didn’t turn out the way I wanted it. It’s sad that I had to make so many learning mistakes on Inaria, since I love it so much…but again, I felt like I needed to make that game. It wasn’t a business-oriented decision, it was (forgive me) an artistic decision.
And speaking of artistry…it’s said that every creative person has ten thousand bad projects in them that they have to get through before they can actually start doing good work. I hope that number isn’t literal, because if it is…frankly, I don’t have the strength.
I’ve always had this “if you build it, they will come” idea about indie games. I guess that isn’t so.
Yeah, it’ll take a little more effort than that. But now you know what not to do!
Hey Viridian! I’ve been a follower of your blog for several years now, I honestly think that making this game was the real first step in order to become a true indie developer… and I think you succeeded, not in the way you thought, but in a way, that in the near future, you will realize…that’s my humble opinion, aaaannddd, I strongly believe you should start working asap in Inaria 2, add party based gaming, etc etc. Cheers!!!!
Aw, thanks! Though my next game won’t be Inaria II.
Just wanted to point out I’ve spent the best part of a week putting flippin’ BIRDS into the remake. If that’s not a massive waste of developer time, I’m not sure what is. 😉
All that glitters… is most definately not gold. 😀
Also, (as will be posted soon), I’m facing a massive problem, that will inevitably face those who take graphics over game. Content. I’m still using hand-me-down models etc, and the fact is I can’t create the game content on my own. So, I’ll probably be getting that Github (or public SVN repository) up and running soon and considering a back seat for a while and begging for alternatives to my ‘programmer art’.
With Inaria, you have a *finished game* and this is massively important. Part of me feels that exposure is simply what it needs (and I’d hoped to assist in that but my own blog posting has been help back by… *dun-dun-DAAAA!* real life). I picked up Dungeon Keeper on GOG a few days ago and I’m immediately addicted again. It runs really badly, and the graphics don’t impress like they once did, but it doesn’t matter because the game has such a winning formula. Part of me thinks that it would still work in a Facebook isometric Flash format, completely devoid of 3D. Point being, style over substance.
One of the problems I have with my current build is that it’s immensely boring. Something is missing from the original dynamic so far and no amount of graphical loveliness is going to change that. I sometimes feel it’s the reason certain games never made a final appearance (Damocles – PC DOS, Into the Shadows – PC DOS, Duster – ST/Amiga (Mirrorsoft)) despite looking so gorgeous in previews.
So keep at it, keep to the spirit of gameplay and don’t lose faith!
(as an aside, did you mention it on Retro Remakes at all? I know it’s not a remake as such, but the game style must surely be golddust over there?)
Urgh… that previous phrase should’ve read “substance over style”… haha, oh well that’s embarrassing.
Also, that Power Monger remake is looking crazy awesome.
Great job! Now go make another one 😉
Great write-up. I (in large part) agree with your take on lessons-learned, especially “the good stuff” point 5. The shout-out is totally awesome of you too.
I would love to help out in the future, be it content, testing, or just being a fan.
[…] Salter of Viridian Games has posted a post-mortem for his recently-released RPG, […]
Dude, don’t give up on it just yet, no one knows the game exists, pull the game make the changes you need add the new content, get the sites ready and relaunch the bitch! My game Legends Arcana is way diffent from when I launched it.
[…] be found here. I can say that I faced all listed problems in the past, even without going in full-production. But […]
I would definitely be in support of an update/expansion.
Great + very honest review. I, for one, enjoyed the game a lot and I think with a bit more spit + polish it could be significantly improved. This is certainly not the time for giving up, it’s the time for post-gamedev cherry popping iteration + maturation. I look forward to your next game + any updates to inaria. 🙂
Honestly, I think the three biggest problems, just from the face of things are:
(1) The core gameplay (exploring, fighting, etc.) was simply a degraded version of *very old* previous games in the same genre (e.g., Ultima IV, Exile series, etc.). It was also just not very fun.
(2) There was nothing on the face of it that was better than any aspect of those older games. The graphics were comparable or worse, etc., etc. I gather the music was good, but music is a tertiary consideration at best (after gameplay and graphics) for most gamers.
(3) You seemingly missed the idea of comparative advantage: even if professional (or established indie) developers are better than you at everything, the thing they’re the *least* better than you is an area where you can conceivably outproduce them by the dint of effort. This is what Vogel realized (that he could do open-ended exploration / world-building better than his competitors because they couldn’t put the same resources into their engines) and it is what allowed his games to fare reasonably well even though they were uglier to look at and listen to and considerably less user-friendly than his competitors. Rather than trying to be “Ultima IV, only worse in every respect (but not so, so much worse in any respect)” you should’ve aimed to be “Ultima IV, much worse is most respects, but slightly better in a couple of ways.” That would’ve drawn people to your game more.
I bought Inaria the other day so I’d have a game to play when I’m in situations where I need a quick break from work. After having played through a fair bit of it, the game seems to have fit that need perfectly. I agree with the criticisms, both your own and others (particularly the content and specialization, the latter from Ebraxus), but let me say that I am enjoying the game – it scratches a casual RPG itch that is basically non-existent on the PC (unless you play flash games…which is hard to do when you’re trapped somewhere without a solid internet connection). So, basically, while it may not be the game that you wanted or expected it to be, it’s fun for this one paying customer. That counts for something, right?
Thank you for the kind words, mk2net. It’s always nice to hear from people who like the game.