Putting Polish on Simple Games
Often the charm of an indie game comes from its simplicity. Not having access to huge teams, and running with the occasional necessity of tapering your vision to your abilities can accent the unique gameplay and style of an indie game. An artist is often the most creative when he is forced to act within strict limits. This is one of the things I love about indie games. I assume it is a fun challenge for our favorite indie developers to try and find ways to use their limited resources to transcend audience expectations.
Unfortunately, too often games fall short due to what I expect is an opposing attitude: the game doesn’t have to look good or work perfectly, after all it’s just an indie game. Lazy developers sometimes think their audience won’t be bothered by minor flaws because the game was free. But overlooking these things makes a huge difference to gamers like me. Many simple games could’ve been a lot better by (believe it or not) making them even simpler.
A distractive soundtrack is not preferable to no soundtrack at all. I quit a lot of flash games not because of their obnoxiously primitive visuals but because of a 5-second drum loop playing in the background over and over again. Don’t make the even worse mistake of making a game that looks like it was drawn in paint but has a high-fidelity MP3 playing in the background. Dealing with the cognitive dissonance is intensely abrasive. And if a developer isn’t actually spending time on the music, it’s best he offer a mute feature.
Some developers attempt to create visual styles that they can’t achieve. Polarity uses high-resolution sprites and backgrounds with 2.5D effects, but it just doesn’t come together right, and in consequence the game looks terrible. The shame is that it is terribly fun to play. Coming to terms with graphics limitations would’ve made this one more successful. Consider the visual style of Plasma Warrior. The designer seems to settle on something that he knows he can handle. The simple but effective black-and-neon liney look doesn’t jar the player and in fact adds to the game’s novelty.
If you’re going to put time into something, make it boundary detection. Playing a game with poor attention to boundary detection is insanely frustrating. Playing through the opening levels in Nifflas’s recommendation Seiklus, I watched my character fall when I thought I should land, and land when I thought I should fall. The player’s fingers and feelings draw a very solid mental map of a game’s surroundings, and poor boundary detection disturbs that mental map in a way that makes a game feel almost unplayable to me despite its noted merits. If you have to make the game more graphically simple to have effective boundary detection, by all means do it. In the end, the compromise will be well worth it.
Characters and Dialogue
Especially true in platformers, good characters keep a player interested for longer. I often find myself playing, thinking “Where did this guy come from? Why is he doing this?” In A Game With A Kitty from origamihero, the gameplay was solid enough that I got through a few levels. But the main character was detestable. You play as a cat, presumably one who has had too much catnip, who for some unexplained reason has to run through obstacle-laden levels with (for some other unexplained reason) monsters. Other characters? It seems like the other cats in the starting town were put there out of some feeling of obligation. Even worse is the dialogue. It’s as if origamihero was thinking, “Gee, I better put some other cats in this village. And gee, they better say stuff.”
For advanced developers, it’s feasible to put a new face on a weathered concept by applying a unique visual style and dynamic game mechanics and so forth. If it’s simple it better be new, otherwise it’s not only simple but boring as well. And nobody wants to play a simple, boring game. Within A Deep Forest is a platformer, but with with challenging ball physics as the central element of the gameplay. WADF isn’t all that beautiful, especially compared to its successors, but its novelty in gameplay keeps the player interested long enough that he becomes immersed in the story and the quest of finding all the balls, and once hooked on that he’ll play it to the end. I also love when developers explore uncommon genres, and nobody does that better while bringing all of the other elements together than Robin Allen (the foon) with Hapland.
Too many games have levels that are seemingly without purpose. A game like Deo Dorant feels so pointless, throwing the player in a dungeon and asking him to pick up a bunch of yellow crosses. Why? A more satisfying game demands a point, so that the gamer feels a sense of accomplishment as opposed to an aimless lost feeling. This sense of purpose in each level is perhaps more important than the level design itself, though, I don’t believe it asks much that developers put time into creating environments that are cohesive, clean, and interesting. You remember how much we loved Flywrench.