Before I get on with part 2, I'd like to introduce a new development video I've put together.
You can see lots of new goodies in this video, including updated tank and shield models, an updated particle system for the projectiles, new explosions, and a bunch of other little tweaks and updates since the last video. The game is starting to look like a real game now! I have much further to go before the competition, but I love how it's starting to come together. Also, did you know that we have a Steam group and a Facebook page? Well now you do, and you have no excuse not to join both. And now back to our regularly scheduled feature, "5 Ways To Make Your Game Better, Part 2"
3. Make the game more pretty
Flash back to the year 2000. There were these new graphics cards called Voodoo3's. Everybody was screaming about "hardware acceleration" because it was this new thing that everybody was excited about. I on the other hand wasn't excited at all, I was still playing Zelda and Scorched Earth. I couldn't figure out what everybody was all excited about. Who cares what the game looks like? I only cared about how fun it was. I didn't understand why everybody was so excited about graphics this and graphics that when I was having tons of fun playing Duke Nukem (the original sidescroller) and using my imagination to fill in the gaps.
Oh, how wrong I was. I completely missed one of the most important parts of the video game experience. (Give me a break though, I was only 15!) Not only did the new advances in graphics give us prettiness but they gave us something more important - immersion. There's no better way to convey an attractiveness to a title. While I could lament at length about the loss of imagination in recent video games, there's definitely something to be said about the power of production quality. The brain may be the most important organ in the human body, but the eye I think takes a close second place, we receive most of our information through our vision. A pleasing visual stimulus is one of the biggest favors you can do to your players.
This doesn't have to be a time consuming process. Good-looking games can be made on the cheap. You don't have to invest a huge amount of time into making every pore in your character's face. Especially as an indie game developer, you need to go by the 80-20 rule. That is, you need to do 20% of the work to net you 80% of the gain. You need to realize the power of a wave of the magic wand and sleight of hand. I can't tell you how many times I've been walking in a first person shooter and come across a room that has a wall with a grate and some pipes behind it. Why? Because it's damn easy to make, a grate and some pipes, and it goes a long way towards making that hallway look interesting. If you want a good example, look at Dead Space. You never walk through the same hallway that entire game, and yet every hallway is built from the same set of simple geometry, grates and pipes. This is the stuff sci-fi movies are made of. Event Horizon, Alien, Serenity, it doesn't matter, they all have grates and pipes. Why? Because they're stupid easy to make and they keep people from saying, "That wall looks boring." Grates and pipes people, I'm telling you. That's where it's at.
It also doesn't stop with the ocular senses. Good storytelling, good writing, good audio, these all play a huge role in shoving the player deeper into your game's world. Some time in 2006 or 2007, (Maybe before?) Erik Wolpaw and Chet Falizsek somehow got a job at Valve. (Was it sorcery? Did they summon the dark magicks of HR witchcraft? Or did they invent a mind-influencing contraption to impose their will on the hiring part of Gabe's brain? I can't seem to pull off the same trick.) Before that time, the Half-Life series had dialogue that put it on par with most video games. That is, it was mediocre. The plot was good, but I still remember Barney's first words in Half-Life 2, "Now... about that beer I owed you! It's me Gordon! Barney, from Black Mesa!" Wow... thanks for the exposition, Barney, but I never did get that beer. I ignored it though, because playing with the Zero-Point Energy Field Manipulator was a blast. I nickamed it "The Mabipulator" and we had many fun times together, just me and him, alone with the physics simulation. Good times. With Chet and Erik though, things began to change. You have to admit you chuckled when Alyx called that combine zombie a "zombine" in Episode 1. There's also a part that requires you to go duct-crawling to open up a way for Alyx, but you take a wrong turn only to find yourself fallen through the ceiling, standing right in front of Alyx again, victim to her snarky comments about your orientational prowess. Things get even better in Valve's next game, the Orange Box, which features spectacular writing on all accords. Team Fortress's characters are each unique and hilarious. ("Cry some more!" "Gentlemen.") To this day I still smirk when I watch "Meet the Soldier" and hear Soldier rant on about his confusion between the ancient war strategist Sun Tzu and the Noah's Ark story. ("And from that day forward any time a bunch of animals are together in one place it's called a 'Tzu!' ... unless it's a farm.") And then of course, Portal takes the notorious cake, which in fact is fabrication, in case you didn't already know. Good writing is at the core of most of my favorite games: Final Fantasy 7 had you pitted against one of the greatest villains ever to devise an evil plan, which in this case was to destroy the world in order to merge with its life force and become a demigod. I mean, damn that's cold. In System Shock 2 the only data logs you found from a sane crew member were from Delacroix, and upon discovering she was still alive I rushed halfway across the ship to find her, as my emotional investment in her had grown to abnormal levels. (I can't relate what happened after that, the emotional scars still run deep.) These games would have been fine with just gameplay and graphics, but fantastic writing topped it off.
Moral of the story: Games are sweeter when served with eye candy.
4. Make the game more easy to use
I've already spoken at length about usability so I'll keep it short here. Games are more fun when they're easy to understand and use. Always keep the player's learning curve in mind.
Moral of the story: It made sense when it was in my head.
5. Make the game more popular
This is the crux of many an indie game developer's career. Success is dependent on accumulating a throng of fans, willing to shell out their hard earned shells in exchange for your interactive entertainment wares. The major publishers have large marketing teams that saturate the marketplace with well-calculated campaigns intended to convince you that what you really want isn't life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but rather a large high-definition television screaming the bright colorful pixels of whatever the latest instant gratification fantasy is. You as an indie game developer, on the other hand, have really only one simple cheap tool at your disposal, your mouth.
I can't really say I'm the resident expert. Digitanks is my first real attempt at an indie game, and I'm only just starting trying to build an interest in it. I can't really relate anything in this category as an expect, but I can relate what other experts have told me. Hopefully it's accurate! I'm still poor and obscure though so I suppose you should take it with a grain of salt. Your call.
» The first people who buy your game will be the ones who played the free demo. Release a free demo as soon as you can. Get something out there that's fun and that people enjoy, and use that to build a community. Once people are playing the free version then you can use it to see how successful the pay version will be.
» Tell everybody you can about your idea. Maybe they don't want to hear it, but tell them anyway. Don't worry about them stealing it, they have their own ideas to worry about. I've never heard of a stolen video game idea. (I have heard of stolen games that were already made though, but that's a different story.)
» Show everything. Release screenshots. Release videos. Show of all of your features and progress. Don't worry about releasing unfinished stuff making you look unprofessional, nobody expects you to be Activision.
» You can't tell everybody in the world about your game. What you need is a throng of people who are excited enough about your game to tell their friends. Social and viral media help, if you can wield them authentically.
Moral of the story: Modesty and obscurity go hand in hand.
Thanks for reading! As always, please drop me a line if you have any thoughts, I love to hear from people! I don't bite! My dog does, but he's young and only going through a phase. It means he likes you!