Lessons from Game Development Conference
Posted: Thu Sep 05, 2019 3:22 pm
Lava Croft had the very good idea of sending me a link to a video of Jeff Vogel at GDC 2018. He's legitimately one of the titans of the indie game development industry, doing it nearly as long as the genre has existed and being consistently successful. I wanted to post a few of his major points for those who can't watch the whole video.
Video games are young. Nobody knows anything. We're still scrambling to figure out, "How do we design these things?" "How do we create these things?" "How do we test these things?" "How do we sell these things?" "How do we market these things?" "How do we add loot boxes to our $100 million project without causing it to blow up on the launch pad?" Nobody knows anything, and if you think you know a rule, one of you out there, your fortune and your fame might be figuring out the way to break that rule.
So it doesn't take me long. I loved these games as a kid, so what I'm going to do is I'm going to go to every single game I liked as a kid and steal the single best idea from every one, and in my craftsman way, amalgamate them into what I hope is a cohesive and satisfying whole. ... I looked at what I liked to play and I copied it. That is my creative process.
If you're going to work [for 40 years] and you're going to be operating at a very peak level of efficiency (because you need to in this business), you need to create a life, a mindset, a process that is not going to rub at you, because if there's something that's rubbing at you, that's putting you off your feet, over the next 40 years it is going to rub you down to a nub.
[My first game] was massively flawed. It embarrassed me deeply, but then again every product I ever write embarrasses me deeply. ... In the end you struggle to ship the game, but at some point you've got to push the button and kick the thing out the door. If I double the amount of time I work on the game seeking perfection, I need to double the amount of sales I get from that game to justify it. Doubling your sales is hard. Time is valuable. I am always striving to be the only thing better than good, which is good enough.
You eventually are going to need a lucky break. Eventually you're going to need someone to vouch for you, and all you can do until that time is work your butt off so that, when your lucky break comes, you are fully ready to jump on it and take advantage of it.
My next bit of advice: have a quality accountant. ... Once you get in the point where you need to pay taxes, you need to do payroll, the mistakes are many and they are high-impact. If you screw up your payroll withholding, all that is going to earn you is a tiny little sympathetic shake of the head from your auditor before he destroys you.
(On demos) One of the things that's helped me sleep at night is that pretty much everyone who got my game 1. Tried it and found it worked on their computer, 2. Played it enough to know they'd enjoy it. ... One of my mottos has always been, "Look, if you don't like my game, I don't want your money." ... I've had a one-year no-questions-asked refund policy forever and I've never had problems with it because, by and large, the people who pay money for games are pretty honest.
A lot of people say, "Don't count on word of mouth. Word of mouth isn't going to get you through," And I'm like, "Good Lord. What else do I have?" My games are slow-paced. They're not good for YouTube and Twitch streaming. They're cheap. They're not good for getting press. We're never going to get a proper publishing deal. We can't afford to advertise, and even if we could advertise it almost never works. Word of mouth is all we ever got, and to be perfectly honest, you need to write a game that's good enough that someone else is going to be passionate enough about it to bug their friends and talk on the forums about it. If you don't have that then you may have a problem.
There has not hardly been a day gone by since I released Exile that I have not made money off of it, and owning your work is one of the greatest things in the world. Even back then, I knew, if I wanted to make a go of it, my whole story was going to be about two things: making a back catalogue and getting myself some fans.
I like a small company. I like to work alone. ... Most of my code is functional, so I keep re-using that. I re-use most of my assets, my graphics, my sounds. I am merciless about reusing assets. I have used the same wolf icon in like 15 different games. If it's a decent icon and it looks like a wolf, in the next game it's still going to look like a wolf. People make fun of me for it all the time, but I am also still in business. ... If you're not like that, if you need bespoke art and custom music, if that's your process, then go with it. You have to earn more sales to make up for it, but if that's what you need to do to feel happy with your life in this business that's what you've got to do. But if you find the thing where you feel it's okay to be cheap, do not let anyone shame you out of being cheap.
Whenever I release a new game, I look for the 25% of it that's the worst and I redo that.
It is a human constant that a certain number of people, let's say 10%, no matter what the demographic, you're talking about people who are left-handed, people with red hair, people who are gamers, people who wear mismatched socks, a certain percentage of those people are always going to be mean, and there's nothing you can do about it. ... Often the people who are angriest at you are not going to be completely anonymous. They're going to be the people who, five years ago, were your most devout fans. And then you changed a thing and it was their favorite thing and they don't like you anymore. And so if you're going to make it through your 40 years, shelter your brain. If there is a sort of input that puts me off my feet and slows down my work, (I have to be working at top efficiency to keep this ball rolling,) if something is keeping me from working, I cut it out mercilessly. I have no idea what my Steam reviews are. None! I never go on my forums unless I absolutely have to. If a new game is out I have to look on it and see if there's any bugs. Otherwise I never look at forums. I'm on Twitter but if people start being mean to me on Twitter, I quit, and I go back on when the coast is clear. ... The first order of business is your work, and producing it.
Don't be afraid to fire a customer. They say the customer is always right. That's not true. Customers are wrong all the time, but the truth is no one ever won an argument with a customer. There are times when you're going to have to say to someone, "Look, my thing isn't for you. I can't add that feature. I can't write that expansion. I just can't do the thing you want." Offer them a refund and send them on their way. If someone is on the forums and you can see they're just there to cause trouble, ban them! If people are making a noise and saying, "That person is screwing up your business. You shouldn't have banned them," ban them too! ... If you're on your forums and someone is just there to make trouble (you can tell, some of them are good about it. They'll just push right up to the line and push back), (BOOM). People who are nice and who support you will understand.
(On company structure) We have no regrets. If you want to build a big, real company, if you want to be a Viking, my God, go for it. You have nothing but my admiration if that's the way you need to be to live in this business, do that. But me, I'm a humble toymaker. I sit in my garage and I make little toys for all the happy boys and girls. That's my life.
I was getting really sick at this point of everyone telling me, "Your graphics suck." So I spent some actual money, I hired actual artists and got graphics that are somewhere in the same continent as the standard for graphics at the time. The result, of course, was that every day people told me, "Your graphics suck." That was the last time I ever made the mistake of making an effort.
In the indie games, pretty much every game is going to be someone's favorite game. Your goal is to make a game that is enough people's favorite game to keep you in food and shelter. And this is why you should always be very scared of someone asking for more curation on a platform, because one person or one panel of people can never, ever predict in the end what the market is going to like. The only thing that can decide what the market will like is the market.
We sell amusements. We sell things that tickle people's brains. We sell surprise, and complacency and predictability and repetition are the death of that. If you want to write a sequel, great. Sequels are awesome. But your sequel better introduce something new, and it better introduce that new thing early, because if people are going to go, "Yeah, I've done all this and I don't need to do more of this," then you're gonna start bouncing checks.
Indie games are successful because people like us. We're the little guy, the scrappy tinkerers working in our garages against the big, monolithic corporations. This is an enormously powerful and moving archetype. Whole movies are made about this. ... It is important to concentrate on staying likeable, because that likability is one of our greatest assets. If you are likeable, that is what will make people stand with you through rough times, and that's what will make people go to your Kickstarter and spend a thousand dollars for a fifteen-dollar game.
We got into a lot of the fashionable on-line stores and luck into a meeting with Steam. I'm sure a lot of people ask, "Jeff Vogel, why did he get that detail? Why is he in that place?" Well, one of the things is I always try to be the most frictionless person to work with. I only negotiate a little about contracts, but not very much. I'm not a hard-ass. I answer e-mails right away. I pay contractors right away. Someone asks for assets, they have them in their hands by the end of the day. If you're as frictionless as possible to work with, you will be amazed at what opportunities it opens for you.
We lowered our games to $10 because that's what Steam told us that's what we had to do to be on Steam. We do so, and God knows we made it up in volume.
Whenever I have a question, I follow the same north star I always have: my process is I figure out what I want to play and then I make that. If my tastes ever get so bad that I fall out of line with the market, then I will receive my just punishment and then I'll go write banking software or sell shoes.
If a game's fun, ten years later it's still going to be fun. Never go to sleep on your old products. If you believed in it once, ten years later keep believing in it.
There's more than that (it's a 50-minute presentation after all), but these are some of his great points. I didn't know he'd be this articulate and wiseDon't quit your day job until you're absolutely sure, "This is it. This game is addictive. I will bet my life on it," because you kind of are.