Becoming successful as an unknown indie game developer is insanely difficult. It is nearly impossible. The amount of dedication and sacrifice required to even have a chance at getting established in the world of game design, and having a financially successful game, is so great that it can break a young, healthy person’s mental and physical health.
I have some inkling of this from my own experiences with attempting to create games. It’s certainly possible for just about anyone who wants to to create small, simple games as a hobby, and if this is what you aspire to, it can be rewarding. But the degree of effort required, and difficulty between doing game development at this level, and becoming a successful professional indie developer is probably more than you could imagine.
I got a little bit of validation about that from listening to this interview with Phil Fish, creator of Fez and one of the featured “stars” of Indie Game: The Movie.
Fish is remembered for creating the incredibly well-received Fez, and then canceling the planned sequel in dramatic fashion, and deleting his social media accounts, and exiting from the public eye. In the My Perfect Console interview, he talks about what he went through and what led him to make that decision, how he feels about that looking back, and what he’s been up to since then.
In this interview, he talks about how what he went through to create Fez isn’t repeatable, and not something he would recommend to other aspiring game designers.
I could see that, watching the film 10 years ago, it didn’t surprise me to hear Fish confirm that my reading at the time of what was going on was essentially correct, but it felt good. It’s also good to hear Fish in the interview, sounding more relaxed, less intense, wiser for his experience, and opening up about what the experience was like, with the benefit of hindsight. Fish was pretty tight-lipped when it came to details on what he’s been up to, so it remains to be seen whether he’ll be working on any new games. But whatever he’s doing with himself, it’s good to know that he’s in a better place mentally and emotionally these days.
Usually we hate to forget things. But one of the best things about being able to forget is that you can have a cherished experienced again as though for the first time.
REDDER was a game by indie game developer Anna Anthropy and first released on the web in 2010. I played it for the first time not long after, and it remains to this day one of my favorite puzzle platform games. Few games have made me want to design my own games as much as REDDER, and that’s perhaps the highest compliment I can think of to give it.
I’ve re-played it multiple times since then, and always enjoy it so much.
This year is the first year that Adobe has ended support for Flash, the technology that REDDER was originally built on. I have written previously on the impending death of Flash, and what that means for tens of thousands of video games that were built with it during its 25+ year history.
I feared that this would result in a vast, rich cultural legacy becoming more and more inaccessible. I still fear that. Adobe didn’t just drop support for Flash, didn’t just cease continuing development of it. They pulled the plug. Browsers stopped supporting it, so now in order to run Flash objects in a browser, one needs to keep an outdated browser. This of course has its own problems, and very few people will continue do do it. Moreover, as the userbase moves into a post-flash browser-scape, web hosts will over time have less and less incentive to continue hosting legacy Flash experiences, and in time perhaps the only ones that will persist will be deliberate historical preservation efforts.
That’s a damn shame, because REDDER belongs in the Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress, or both.
Fortunately, Anna Anthropy has re-packaged Redder, in a desktop OS format that wraps a Flash player into stand-alone application, and allows it to be enjoyed on Windows and Mac OS X. It is available for $5 on itch.io, and is worth every penny.
What a beautiful thing it is that I can forget this game just enough to be able to come back to it and experience it again, re-discovering the solutions to the maze and helping my little space explorer friend in their quest to collect all the diamonds to replenish his stranded spaceship.
The platforming is basic. You move, you jump, that’s it. There’s no wall jumps, no edge hanging, no coyote time, it’s pure basic simple. There’s no shooting, no destroying enemies. Your only tools are your brain, to figure out how to get past obstacles and get to where you need to go, and your agility, to accomplish the task. There are save points, to make the deadly obstacles a lot less annoying. There are switches to flip, which toggle special colored platforms into and out of existence, which serve as doors and platforms that block your way or create bridges to access deeper reaches of the world or traverse deadly obstacles to add an element of risk to the challenges you’ll face. When one type is on, the other type is off. And together they serve as the building block of the platform puzzles you’ll need to solve to win the game.
As you progress through the game, the graphics and music begin to glitch. It’s subtle at first, a tile here and there, and it adds an element of mystery to the game. As you continue to collect diamonds, the glitching increases, until, near the end the entire game is out of control with random tile animations. When the final diamond is collected, the entire facade is stripped bare, and everything turns into raw collision boxes, color coded — a clean, pure visual language.
There are only three types of hazard in the game: patrolling robots, which traverse horizontally and are deadly to touch but never react to your presence in any other way; “drip guns”, which shoot deadly pellets that you must duck, jump, or otherwise avoid with good timing, and electrical fields which don’t move and must be avoided.
For all its simplicity, the game provides an engaging challenge to find your way through the complex, maze-like alien world, and collect all 27 diamonds.
One thing I love about REDDER is that there are no locks. You start out with all your powers, and apart from the switch platforms that are the only real puzzles blocking your progress, there’s nothing preventing you from doing anything, going anywhere that you can go in the game, from start to finish.
What I love about this is that this forces the design to challenge you in ways other than “oh if you get the item, you can get past this”. This comes down to understanding the map — the twisting, interconnected pathways connecting the grid of screens that comprise the world of REDDER, how platforms and switches relate to one another, flipping switches in the correct order to allow passage, and having a modest desgree of skill to master the timing and agility needed to make the jumps and avoid the dangers.
It’s a casual play — I would call the vibe relaxing. The music is soothing and evokes a spirit of exploration and puzzle solving. The game provides a fun challenge without relying on fear, anxiety, or frustration. Toward the end of the game, as the graphics and background music become increasingly glitch-ified, the game does start to produce a bit of anxiety. If you’re playing the game late at night, it can almost feel like your lack of sleep is to blame for the game’s breaking down. I really like this. To me it is the “something extra” that gives the game a memorable mystery, a question left unanswered, which both frees and empowers the player to come up with their own explanation, should they choose to.
Additionally there are three secret hidden rooms off-map. These serve no purpose other than to delight you for finding them, and perhaps provide a clue or an auteur’s signature.
It seems there have been a few changes from the original in this version. I don’t remember these secret rooms having these messages — a web search reveals that the original REDDER had secret rooms with the words “ANNA” “TRAP” and “PART”. TRAP and PART are of course pairs that make a palindrome, and ANNA is a palindrome, and REDDER is a palindrome. There’s something up with palindromes in this game.
But I don’t know what ROB? OWOR and BORR mean. It makes me wonder what else may have changed, and why the changes were made.
I’ve known Zac Pierce casually for a few years now, and I gotta say, I really like the guy. I can’t say we’re friends, because we don’t hang out and do things together, and I don’t really know him all that well. But I do have an impression of him that’s been forming over the past several years since I met him, and it’s been consistent and continually reinforced every step of the way.
We first met at a meetup of the Cleveland Game Developers, and I remember him demoing an early version of his game Bombfest, now released. Even several years ahead of its eventual release, the game was really fun, and showed a ton of promise. The animation and motion were smooth and felt very, very good. The gameplay was a lot of fun, and the graphics were splendid and cute.
The game was like playing with action figures and toys that had come to life and had the ability to hurl bombs at one another. It was something like Bomberman meets Dodgeball, with realistic physics, destructible terrain, and these sweet little digital models of toy building blocks and figurines, the sort you might have played with when you were maybe 4 or 5 years old. The goal to be the last man made it an outstanding multiplayer game, and I could tell that this game would be great at parties.
Zac delivered a talk at GDEX 2019 entitled Failing to Succeed, which was a look back at four years of developing Bombfest, which he had come to regard a failure.
I’ve never enjoyed a talk so well that I disagreed with so much. Zac is a great storyteller, and he shared his story, turning it into a masochistic confessional where he beat himself up for all the things that went wrong over the course of four years that he spent pouring his heart and soul into bringing Bombfest into the world. It was entertaining, funny, and full of valuable insights. But damn if it wasn’t hard to watch a young guy who I’ve come to admire shit-talk his accomplishments so thoroughly, just because the sales performance was underwhelming.
For certain, Zac didn’t do everything perfectly. And if a few things had been different, maybe he’d have been rewarded for his hard work more like what he deserved. But I don’t think of his story as one of failure. The Making of Bombfest story had far more success in it than failure, and far more than he gave himself credit for.
Bottom line, the game didn’t end up the hit that it deserved to be, and didn’t make him all the money he hoped it would, or needed it to. And bottom line realities are important, and they are harsh. But, despite commercial success eluding him so far, Bombfest was and is a great game, and the fact is that Zac Pierce is destined for greatness.
He’s questioning it right now, and it’s only natural, when you work as hard as he did at something for as long as he did, and it doesn’t accomplish what you hoped it would, of course you question it.
But I’m certain. While I listened to Zac tear himself down for 45 minutes, I heard him rattle off success after success, and immediately dismiss each one.
He succeeded at educating and training himself in the skills and tools of game creation.
He succeeded at coming up with a really fun game prototype with excellent core mechanics and a very polished visual style.
He succeeded at raising funds to continue development through Kickstarter.
He succeeded at completing the project and released the game.
He made a lot of mistakes along the way… and he learned from all of them.
He succeeded not in just releasing the game, but getting it published and ported to the Nintendo Switch.
He did all of this during a period the industry has come to call Indiepocalypse, when even established independent game development studios struggled and went out of business and even bigger studios had a hard time staying afloat. And he did it with his first real project.
Zac Pierce put a game on the Nintendo Switch in his first at bat. Who else can say that, but Zac Fucking Pierce?
Zac, each morning when you wake up, you ought to go to the bathroom, splash some cold water on your face, look at yourself in the mirror, and loudly proclaim:
The bad news, sales were disappointing.
OK, so there’s that. So despite all the litany of success, that makes Bombfest a failure? I don’t think so.
The sales didn’t meet expectations. But the game is good. Of course sales do matter. You can’t put your life into something for four years and not have it pay off, and feel great about it.
But that’s a shame, because there’s so much about the Bombfest story that Zac deserves to feel great about.
Whether he finds success and fortune in game development or in some other area, he has a bright future, thanks to his talents as a programmer, designer, and artist, his vision, and his energy.
The fact is, the biz is brutal. Indies have it harder than anyone. And there’s a glut of product. You can do everything, or nearly everything, right, and still not end up with a hit game. For his first time out, Zac Pierce did way better with his project than a lot of people do. Maybe he didn’t succeed at the biz side of bringing Bombfest to market, but he absolutely nailed the design and development of the game, and demonstrated dedication to a project that went on for four years.
Bombfest has made Zac about $30,000 so far. It needed to be more. $60,000… $100,000… $300,000… what level of revenue would be enough to tell you that you’ve made it? Enough to be on par with an entry level salary in some “real world” job that you could have taken instead of choosing to challenge yourself? Enough to put you on firm footing to produce your next project the way you want it to be without having to worry about whether it’s a hit or not? Enough to never need to work again unless you want to?
Really, people have strange ideas of what success is, what it means, and what looks like. We think of success as someone standing in a spotlight in a packed arena playing a guitar solo and then going home to a mansion and swimming in money. We think of success as something that happens suddenly, overnight, with little apparent effort, because “when you’re good, it just comes naturally.” We think that way because we don’t see successful people being successful until their success has been at work for so long that it has made them famous enough for us to be unable to fail to notice them.
But success looks a lot different from the inside. What it looks like, most of the time, is a lot like Zac Pierce’s talk on Failing to Succeed: a long story, with hard work, struggle, mistakes, goals met, challenges overcome, and a continuing battle with crippling self doubt and anxiety.
There’s two ways to read that title, as Zac pointed out himself: One, “failing to succeed” meaning literally that success was something did not happen. The other, “failing [in order to] succeed” — the things one must do on the path to success, in order to figure it out and get there. It’s pretty clear that Zac’s story is true in both senses. But in the long run, the second meaning will eclipse the first.
Diatris is a Tetris-like falling stack game by Rob van Saaze. Released earlier this year and developed in GameMaker Studio.
I had the good fortune of catching a work-in-progress screenshot tweet, and messaged Rob, and ended up being a playtester for his game.
I like the interesting twist he put on the classic Tetris. This game is really different from its inspiration. The shapes are different, the falling pieces slide down the slopes of the stack, and the angle factor really changes the way the game feels. It’s quite challenging, and fun.
The graphical style is clean and polished, but juicy, and it looks as great as it plays. Rob has a great eye for graphical design, and it shows in his work. The attention to detail in animation and motion is