Full Indie Meetup Report – February 2014

Once a month, on a Thursday, one hundred and fifty of Vancouver’s most dedicated indie developers head up to the top floor of an Irish pub off Granville Street to drink, mingle and talk shop.  The guest list for each meetup is full within an hour, and the wait list usually runs a hundred deep. You’ve got to be quick with your emails if you want to get in, and last Thursday was my first time back in months. The room is always crowded and humming with creative energy as developers rave about their latest projects, hopeful talent seeks employment, and nerds of all stripes drunkenly celebrate their favorite things. It’s hardly what you’d call a quiet event, but without fail the noise dies down when it’s time for the presentations.

Each month, before all but the quickest indies have a chance to get plastered, a few accomplished developers (or other industry professionals) stand at the front of the room and talk. The topics vary greatly month to month – from lessons learned developing a feature, to tips about marketing tactics, to business management – but there’s always something valuable to take away. So far as these presentations go, February’s gathering was a fine one indeed.

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The first presenters were Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman of Red Hook games. Red Hook is in the midst of a rather successful Kickstarter campaign for their Lovecraftian Roguelike Darkest Dungeon (to the tune of $232,644 and counting), and they came up to talk about their PR strategy leading in to the campaign’s launch. They made a concerted effort to build a fanbase before starting their campaign, and it worked wonders.

In the fall of last year, after PAX but before the annual deluge of Christmas-targeted games, Red Hook released a concept trailer for Darkest Dungeon. They started work on the trailer at the same time as the game and developed them concurrently, hoping to use the trailer as a visual target and proof of concept. They stressed in their presentation that you should take this approach to TEST an idea, not to try a new one out. Trailers are expensive and time-consuming to produce, so they’re best used to see if there’s an audience for the vision you already have.

In Darkest Dungeon’s case, that vision is a slow, measured experience with dense atmosphere. They broke a lot of conventions by matching that tone with their trailer, but the end result was a total success. They ended up with 1500 fans following them, which, at an average of 30 dollars per backer, worked out to a 45 thousand dollar head start. If the trailer had flopped, they would have gone back to the drawing board, which would theoretically have kept them from burning resources on an unsuccessful campaign.

They didn’t just take away money from the experience, though. They learned that it’s really difficult and time consuming to fake UI for a trailer, a lesson that they didn’t take to heart with their second trailer (reasoning “hey, now they know, right?”). In the weeks leading up to the kickstarter, making that second trailer took a lot of resources and energy away from actual game development. On the bright side, they formed a lot of valuable production partnerships in putting together the trailer, which should help in making the final product match that vision.  If they can manage that, I think we’ll be in for a real treat.

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The second speaker was Kellen Voyer, of the Voyer Law Corporation, a law firm that helps indies cover their legal bases. He talked about when, exactly, developers should start thinking about legal issues. The gist of the talk was “from the beginning, and all throughout production.” He stressed the importance of incorporating early, so that the liability for the game falls on your company, team management is made easier, and you have the tax benefits of all your assets being owned by a single entity. It’s also vital to think about formal agreements, first with independent contractors (to make it clear who owns what intellectual property), then with users in the form of EULAs and Privacy Policies. I learned a lot that I didn’t know, but it isn’t all that relevant if you’re not currently making a game.

The last speaker of the night was Josh Long from Team Sharkeye, whose game, Oscar, I mentioned the other day. This turned out to be a follow-up to a previous month’s presentation about experience design. That talk had been a little broader and more general, so Josh was revisiting the topic with a low-level practical example from the development of Oscar. The example shown was a level from the game wherein Oscar is lost and searching for someone. The experiential goal for the sequence was to make the player empathize with her.

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Naturally, they started with the question “what does it mean to be lost?” In an attempt to answer it, they populated a grimy urban environment with faded black silhouettes, and had the player walk through the crowd. In the first pass, it turned out the scene wasn’t crowded enough. Playtesters were creeped out, but didn’t feel lost. The obvious solution was to add more people. This did the trick, and left players feeling lost and a little overwhelmed.

Next they asked was what it’s like to look for someone, and more importantly, how to convey that without giving the player any overt direction. They chose to focus on distinguishing features, and boiled that down to a female silhouette wearing red. In the next build, as the player walked around, red dresses and other clothing items randomly faded in and out of view. With that done, they brought in an artist and a sound designer to try out the scene. The artist found it to be too busy and confusing with the random fading, and the sound designer thought it was too quiet.

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Taking the team’s suggestions into account, Josh told us they made a few more adjustments to the scene. In the final build, the red color was restricted to shoes, which only faded in when the player approached them. The sound team gave the red shoes footsteps, further highlighting them. With this the scene worked – players could tell the women were important, and felt a little sad as they passed and faded away. It goes to show how a few little changes can drastically alter the feeling of a scene, but Josh says these are changes he never would have thought up on his own. Collaborating with other people allowed Josh to get outside his own head and understand things none of them would have grasped on their own.

The fascinating thing about these evenings is all of the different methodologies and ideas that are put on display. You certainly take away a lot if you’re making a game of your own, but there are valuable concepts expressed that can help guide work in any creative field. As the chatter picks up again, and people start drinking and playing each other’s demos, I always feel as though I’ve learned things. With this and future reports on the meetups, I hope I can pass those things along to you.