GDC: Indies' priceless lessons from costly failure

GDC: Indies' priceless lessons from costly failure

By Rob Crossley in San Francisco

March 7th 2012 at 12:01AM

Developer 'confession box' inspires developers to learn through others' mistakes

A candid string of show-and-tell lectures at the Game Developers Conference today revealed why several indie studios tried and failed to release their high profile and well-financed games.

Jamie Cheng of Klei Entertainment explained how, after five years building the colourful MMO title Sugar Rush, he had no choice but to pull the plug.

The project had accrued about $2 million in development costs over the long development stretch that was punctuated by several art asset overhauls.

Cheng said the lesson learnt was to know what your goal is before you work towards it.

“We didn’t really know what we wanted to do, so what usually happens is you try to do everything want, which often means you do nothing,” he said.

Cheng glossed over, perhaps too briefly and modestly, how the project had been a luckless victim of circumstance. As Sugar Rush neared release the game’s publisher, Nexon Vancouver, closed down.

“Our back-end went away completely,” Cheng said. A second unnamed publisher was found, but the new partner wanted the game to be redesigned yet again. Soon later it was cancelled for good.

“We didn’t have the conviction of what we wanted to do, and we didn’t know how to work with publishers,” Cheng admitted.

“If we just stepped back and said ‘this is what we wanted to do’, I think we would have gotten somewhere. I’m really proud of the project, really, and it didn’t launch after three closed betas.”

GUT FEELING


Scott Anderson, a calmly-spoken indie developer who cancelled the promising and unique game Shadow Physics, was jarringly honest and brutal about his work.

In a rare moment for the industry, Anderson admitted that the key problem was his game wasn’t fun. He had, in fact, been told by many that it was – something which initially confused the designer.

“Shadow Physics is a great concept but not much fun,” he began.

“And when people see the game, and say it’s great, they are usually just observing how it looks and actually haven’t played it.”

Anderson’s gut feeling about his game was not as good as other people had been saying. In some circles people were hyping Shadow Physics as the next Braid.

“So as we got more press, as we got investment, as we got more backing from publishers, it felt like we were driven instead by external rewards.”

For him the external driver became money and fame, he confessed.

“When people said the game was going to be the next Braid, in turn we tried to make it too much like the next Braid.”

The game fell apart because the central mechanic – a platform game played across a landscape of moving shadows – was inherently limited by design.

Collision detection didn’t support larger levels, Anderson said. And the darkness meant there was no clear way to indicate pathways, nor was there a clear risk/reward structure.

There were financial problems too, he said. Shadow Physics was financed by Indie Fund and it was going to be an XBLA title – something Anderson described as a “fatal combination”, with breakthrough Xbox Live Arcade games usually requiring more exorbitant funding in general.

While the games press continued to eulogise Shadow Physics, its flaws became more apparent to the development team. Eventually the whole team lost faith in the project.

“I felt like the game didn’t really have a champion,” he added. “We didn’t want to kill ourselves over it.”

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