Monday, August 16, 2010

Coming up short?

Once in a while, a big indie game comes out to fantastic reviews but ends up being criticized for one specific something.  Then I take that specific something and talk about how it applies to my own work.  Last January I wrote about VVVVVV and how it was criticized for being $14.99, which led to my own thoughts about indie game pricing.

If you follow indie games, you might have heard of Limbo, a recent platform game available now on Xbox Live Arcade. It is deliciously atmospheric - you play a lonely little boy jumping his way through a minimalist black and white world that manages to be hauntingly beautiful without being pretentious.  Limbo has been universally praised by reviewers, but there has been one universal criticism: it's a little on the short side.

Like VVVVVV, this is a criticism that has been leveled at my own games more than once.  "The game is great - but it's too darn short!" the critics say.   To which I can only respond... "Well, you're right."  There's no denying it.  A typical Blackwell game can take you from 2-4 hours to complete if you are a hardcore adventure gamer.  Maybe 6-8 if you are more casual.  There are those who even play with a walkthrough handy on their first go-round, and they zip through it in no time at all - often faster than me!

So yeah, my internal games tend to be on the short side.  Why is that?  There are a lot of good reasons for short games - they don't overstay their welcome, people don't have as much time to play games these days, or simply because the game is better served by being a smaller experience (Portal is the game that is usually used as the best example of this).

But for me, the reason is simpler than that.  I am a trembling abject coward.

Read any indie developer blog and you'll often hear that they are "one flop away from going out of business."  As an indie developer, and an indie adventure game developer at that, I don't like those odds.  Adventure games are a tough sell even for mainstream AAA companies, and they have bigger marketing budgets than I do.  If I spend a year or more on just one game, spending lots of money and man-hours on it, only to have it sell poorly... well, that would be the last you hear of me. 

So... I tread carefully.  To make a game, a developer can spend money to pay someone to do the work, or spend time doing it him/herself.  If I spend more money, I will have to earn that money back.  If I spend more time, it's time that the game is not earning any money (which I will still have to earn back).  As a result, I tend to keep my games tight and lean - making them deep instead of broad.  So if I screw up and the game bombs, then it won't be too much of a financial burden for my little studio to bear.  I can just make another game and move on.

This is not to say that my games can't be long, epic works of grandeur..  It's just that they won't be long, epic works of grandeur yet.  As I've gained more customers and fans I have slowly increased the length of my games.  Convergence was easily longer than Unbound or Legacy, and the upcoming Deception is shaping up to be significantly longer than Convergence.  Baby steps, kids. Baby steps.

So to answer the question of "Why are my games on the short side?"  The simple answer for me is because I want to keep making games.  I love making these games. And, for some strange reason that I am eternally thankful for, enough people like them enough to spend their money on them so I can continue to do this full time and make more (even during these crazy economic times).  It's a great way to live, but there is always that little ever-present fear that it could all end if I am not smart.  I'd have to - gulp - get a real job.  And we can't have that.


This blog post is one in a series of posts for what we've called "Size Doesn't Matter Day."  For other blog posts on this topic, check out:


  1. Great article, Dave. I couldn't agree more. (Although I do think there is an untapped demographic market for shorter games that cellphone apps have filled to some degree. We will see this expand I believe) There is room in the gaming world for many types and lengths--the key is marketing them successfully so that the audience doesn't get confused or feel misled. Think of the supermarket over the years...

  2. The only Blackwell game that felt a bit shortish to me was Unbound. However, I don't think it was a direct result of the game's actual length, just that the storyline felt less epic and complete than in Legacy and Convergence and more like a TV series episode.

    I'd say Convergence has an excellent length and provides several solid hours of fun, but I definitely wouldn't mind a Gabriel Knight scale in future installments either.

  3. Good advice Dave, I should really make smaller games =0).

    I want to do this full time too, and at the moment I seem to be spending quite a significant amount of time working for other people while I wait for Jolly Rover sales to allow me to make another game, and this is quite difficult after experiencing the sheer joy of creation that I felt during Jolly Rover.

  4. @Igor Hardy:
    Well, you might remember that Unbound and Convergence were originally supposed to be one game! Taken together, it might have been the epic game people were looking for.

    Hah, well to be fair you didn't have to make a small game since you got some funding for Jolly Rover, which took a bit of the risk out for you. With less risk comes greater flexibility! But look how it's paid off! Dude, you're all over the place. It's pretty amazing. Although... I still have to play the game. :-x

  5. I do wonder how much pricing of (short) indie games could be based on an understanding of its audience; some middle class academics who are pretentious and consume artsy games could maybe be open for the idea of paying more than the regular customer because it makes them feel even more singled-out, elitist. I do think I remember the creator of "Spider and Web" and "A Change in the Weather" saying something about pricing and that applications for iphone who are very cheap aren't appreciated by the audience simply because the application doesn't warrant och necessitate much time to be spent with in order for the consumtion to feel "good" and justified for the customer. Definitely some cognitive dissonance going on here:

  6. I wouldn't say that Blackwell customers are elitist or academic, or even indie game customers in general. Although I think that the cheap prices on iPhones and other devices are indicative of a larger problem - that games are fast becoming quickly consumable items. Since iPhone games are cheaper than a street hot dog, it's easy to play around with one, get tired of it, and then move onto the next. When people ask me why I don't make games for the iPhone or iPad, that's the main reason why.

  7. Just saw this and all I could think of was Blackwell -

  8. Dear Wadjet Eye
    how many Applications you have made ?

    iphone apps developer