Once it was niche, but one Minecraft, Super Meat Boy and Fez later, indie games have quickly become the innovative heart of the gaming industry. A similar trend can be seen emerging in the tabletop gaming sector. Every day there are new, talented designers that are throwing their hat into the ring to make a name for themselves. This indie spirit is not only what invigorates the video game and tabletop markets, it’s what keeps them alive and reminds major publishers that it’s okay to take risks.
We asked our community to celebrate this movement with us and discuss projects that excited them. These are a selected few of many superb articles that were submitted.
Independent board game design is a grueling process: brainstorming, creating, playtesting, prototyping, playtesting, finding a publisher, more playtesting, finalizing, and one more round of playtesting; then finally ship it out for sale. Can you identify the biggest part of the design process? Playtesting!
Jay Semerad — cultivator of Indie Spirit, founder of Apotheosis Games, and creator of the Kickstarter-funded board game Foretold: Rise of a God — knows a lot about playtesting. For the base game alone Jay spent over 100 hours playtesting, and later produced an expansion. We sat down to talk about lessons learned and how effective playtesting produces better games.
In order to playtest, naturally you need a game. How polished does a game have to look to be effectively tested?
To help attract my players, I wanted to make my prototype look kind of like a game, so I spent more time than usual on my prototype than other game designers would probably have done. I printed off new series of cards each time I made a few revisions. That would mean cutting out 100 cards, sleeving them up, and tracking the version number on each card. Not a lot of people do that.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just quickly mark changes up with a Sharpie?
Sure, it’s faster to just grab a pen and cross out text and write in new text. But my playgroup would show up and ask why things were all scribbled out instead of understanding the testing process. If you’re going to force someone to step into this lengthy experience – especially if your game is an hour or two long – you don’t want them to spend the time struggling to read the cards and not being involved in the world. I wanted to give them whatever I could in terms of the prototype to help motivate the testing phase. If you need a big change right away though, don’t be afraid to take a Sharpie and write on that brand new $50 game board you had printed from Kinkos. You’ll need another one made in a few months anyway.
Once you have your first prototype made, what is your main goal in those initial playtesting sessions?
This Is The Police is an unusual game for many reasons. Technically, the game is a straightforward real-time resource management game. The player plays as Jack Boyd, the police chief of Freeburg. And the game mechanic is pretty simple: crimes pop up throughout the city, and you send your officers to deal with them.
On the narrative level, This Is the Police is far less straightforward. The game opens up with Jack Boyd’s deputy losing his job in the wake of a corruption scandal. Boyd has lived his professional life on the straight and narrow. He’s tried to be a good cop, even if he couldn’t be a good man.
But Boyd is sick of the corruption that has infested his city. He has lived his life watching people around him get rich from doing the wrong thing. So, with six months left until retirement, Boyd has decided that he wants to put away a $500,000 nest egg. And if that means committing crimes, then Boyd is ready to break bad.
That is the best way to understand the game. Weappy Studio, an indie game company, based in Minsk, Belarus, draws more on The Wire or Breaking Bad than on any video game I’ve ever played. The game features beautiful cutscenes that drive home the point that Jack Boyd tries his hardest to be a good man. Then the game turns around and asks us to turn Boyd towards the opposite end of the moral spectrum.
In the most extreme play-through of the game, this means getting into bed with the mob. It also means calling in hits on officers in your employ, paying officers to rat on each other, or turning a blind eye to certain crimes. It’s true that most video games ask the player to commit to some level of moral duplicity. But it just feels especially evil to push a man who has spent his entire professional life enforcing the law into a life of crime and corruption.
Then there’s also the other extreme, in which the player can attempt to make it through Jack’s final 180 days without breaking the law. Though, honestly, good luck with that. It wouldn’t be much of a game if the player could just skirt through without any tough decisions. Only a few days into the job, a white supremacist group begins threatening all black police officers. The mayor instructs you to fire all black officers “For their own safety.” That is just the first of dozens of hard choices This Is the Police puts to the player over the course of the game.
I had an opportunity to interview game developer Nathanael Weiss on creating his dream game Songbringer, and on what it takes to empower a solo creator.
Awaken an ancient evil as Roq Epimetheos when you stumble upon the hidden nanosword in the cave of Ekzerra whilst partying and pumping tunes. Then embark on 9 procedurally generated, sci-fi, Zelda-esque dungeons with your skybot Jib aboard your ship Songbringer.
All you need to do is follow Nathanael Weiss on Twitter to know that he's been working hard to produce a special game. Whether he's on Twitch live streaming his process, sharing his game development skills with the masses, or spreading the generous vibes that are Wizard Fu; it becomes obvious that Songbringer is much more than we expected.
After touring coast to coast at GDC and PAX East, Nathanael spared me some time to talk more about his dream project. Needless to say, we covered a lot of ground.
So, you're coming off a busy couple of weeks after exhibiting Songbringer at both GDC and PAX. How was it?
It was great! I was lucky enough to be a part of The Mix Showcase, an event where a bunch of indie game developers and press come together to play upcoming indie games. There was also a live stream with Danny O'Ddwyer and the team from Area 5 which was really fun to be a part of. The following day I was fortunate enough to be at the Microsoft [email protected] showing off Songbringer once again. All around, I was very humbled to be a part of these awesome events...Oh, and I got to dress as a wizard.
Yes! Now, let's take a step back. Can you tell me a little about yourself and how you got into game development?
Well, in the late 80's, when I was in grade school, the Nintendo came out and a friend of mine got one. We played Mario Brothers and Zelda and right away I loved video games. I was like, "Wow! These things are so cool." I especially loved the secrets. For instance, in Mario how you could go from world one all the way to world three. This was when I got interested in video games. At this point I began to think, "wouldn’t it be cool to make my own" and lo and behold, a few years later, I learned how to program and I made my first video game when I was a freshman in high school. Those were the fun days back in DOS.