Published on November 2nd, 2016 | by Cactus
The Plight of the PAX Indie Developer
PAX is a great time to a nerd; it’s a time where all developers great and small get together to not only show off the new projects but also to meet and interact with like-minded individuals about the joys that gaming provides. While for Microsoft and Bethesda this opportunity isn’t particularly novel, for smaller Independent Developers PAX presents a great opportunity to show off the hard work that’s gone into their games. With PAX conventions now spreading all over the globe, it allows an easy way for Indie Devs to present their work, without having to fly overseas and spend exorbitant amounts. Recently I spoke with Indie Developer Nick London of Ironwork games about his experience at PAX Australia 2015 in order to get a better view of the challenges this presents.
Nick has been in the games industry for some time, working in the past for larger companies like EA and Krome. In late 2014 Nick left the world of AAA games development and formed his own studio. At PAX Australia 2015 he demonstrated the first game of his new studio, Mystery, a rogue-like which from initial impressions appeared like a take on Agatha Christy novels, but which would slowly descend into Lovecraftian madness. Even in the early stages of development, the game showed definite promise. Set in a mansion, the player as a detective would search the house and interrogate the guests in order to discover who killed the host – à la And then there were none. The game would randomly generate mansion layouts, guests, and of course the circumstances of the murder. For anyone who has tried to write a murder mystery before, you can understand how awe inspiring it is this game could construct these plausible scenarios on the fly. Unfortunately even with all this promise, after its debut, Mystery was put on indefinite hiatus. Inspired by Nick’s work, I donned my dear stalker and set out to understand why.
No, that’s not me, but I do wear a similar hat whilst writing.
While PAX may be an incredible experience for patrons of the convention, an event that large requires a lot of effort to organise, and not just from Penny Arcade’s perspective. Before the event, developers have to create a version of their game that is ready to be displayed, a demo, as well as preparing everything that is required for the demonstration. To a corporation like Microsoft, who have thousands of employees, a lot of the difficulty of this work is mitigated. Someone working on the game is unlikely to have much in the way of booth preparation. However, for Nick and other Indie Devs, PAX is very time-consuming and can put a lot of the actual game development on hold.
Added to this is constructing what Nick referred to as his ‘PAX build’. Most of the time what you see from a developer showing off an unfinished game isn’t actually the build of the game they are currently working on, but rather an independent version made solely for demonstration. Games development is a process that is often very misunderstood. Take Super Mario Bros. for instance. If asked to make that game, you might initially imagine that if it were going to take you a year to make all 20 levels, then if asked to make just one level first it would only take one-twentieth of that time. The assumption being that game development is someone what linear. However, of course, this isn’t the case. Even with something as basic as Super Mario Bros., there is a lot of work that has to be done before levels can even start to be built. Mario needs to jump, Goombas need to hurt you, Koopas need to be able to go into their shells. In fact, this work can take up the majority of the time making the game. While every game is different, Nick estimated that with something like Super Mario Bros, the time it takes to just make one level could be well over 50% of the time it takes you to make the whole game. Even at that point a lot of assets and mechanics may still be unfinished.
That is unless you’re using Mario Maker.
This is where the PAX build comes into things. For Nick to be able to display a working product at PAX, he needed an unfinished game that looked like a finished one. In order to accomplish this, he not only needed to polish up a lot of unfinished areas of the game, but also remove a lot of aspects that didn’t have time to be completed. If a mechanic isn’t working or is buggy and likely to give off a bad impression, then all a developer can do is either invest time into fixing said problems, or remove them from the build entirely. With PAX being such a serious deadline, a lot of developers will tend to the latter. This causes a divide over time between the two games. While your actual game may have loads of mechanics, albeit a lot of unfinished ones, and mainly placeholder artwork, the PAX build ends up being exactly the opposite, a finely polished, yet shallow product.
To some regard, this can lead to further problems down the line. Once PAX is over, even more work is required just to get the full game up to scratch with the work in the PAX build. In an industry already so time demanding, PAX can definitely add a lot of unnecessary stress. In turn, this leads to a ‘post-PAX burnout’. After all the work required just getting ready for PAX, it’s not uncommon for a developer to take a break the week proceeding. To work in a creative field takes a lot of time and mental willpower, and though many developers do get back to work on their projects, other can just as easily fall away from it, the amount of work required to get back on track just being too demanding. Things like this happen to everyone, projects we have that end up on the wayside after periods of stress and overwork. I personally have an unfinished game sitting in my task bar, left abandoned after 4 months of work. In fact, a surprising amount of games the debut at PAX simply disappears after the events conclusion.
‘Hey! Who left this nice, freshly fired gun in the bin!? Ooohhhh…’
Nick still makes games and continues with his small projects, and has attested that he is still interested in finishing Mystery. Even from my small time playing it, the game shows definite signs of promise. In a world where more and more I worry that games are all becoming a little too similar, here is something that is unlike almost everything else I’ve played. The work of an Indie Developer is difficult, and it requires a lot of bravery to risk everything on getting a project to PAX. So if you go to PAX Australia this weekend, keep that in mind, and support your local Indies. The League of Legends booth will still be there, pinky swear!
Stick around on GameBug for more insights into the world of gaming. Come back next week for our coverage of PAX Australia 2016