As a fledgling two person indie studio, SYNTH7 is always thinking about how to make our games appealing, and one of the early questions we struggled with is how to shape our game for the audience it will appeal to most. We don’t have all the answers, but below are some of the directions we’re moving in right now – we welcome feedback and healthy discussion!

Mingling with our need to build a game that delights a specific audience is a creative direction that’s inspired by something we’re passionate about. So while we’re trying to hold true to that vision, there are numerous smaller decisions that will change the resulting gameplay in notable ways. Even in these early stages, we’ve noticed that it’s tempting to appeal to everyone as a well rounded game, and do so poorly versus delivering a really powerful experience to a specific segment. If that’s something you’re struggling with as an indie developer or have an opinion about as a gamer then read on.

Some Indie Gamers Require Specific Features, Period

We’ve quickly realized that almost every building block of a game helps set the tone of its play experience and appeal to specific segments. For example the ability to pause or save a game enables a casual gamer to start and stop as they please, but it also makes a game more forgiving and therefore could appeal less to hardcore gamers who want to show their prowess in some sort of leaderboard or community.

Building a complex set of point and achievement awards may attract the perfectionist player, but what if that is at the expense of complex and variegated game lore? In that scenario we could turn off someone who’s mainly interested in a deep storyline and connecting with characters.

The main point here we’re keeping in mind is to be aware of how each building block affects existing and future community members.

Fun is the Life of a Game

If you’ve thought about the parts of a game that are most important to your expected audience then this part probably will be easier. The most alluring part about playing a game is having fun. That means the core game engine had better appeal to gamers in a powerful way, and in a way that adapts and requires more skill over time.

It’s an elusive balance we and likely other indie developers have to look at, for example challenge vs. wider accessibility, or recognizing lots of events with achievement splashes vs. handing them out only after completing a truly difficult set of obstacles.

Players Have to Know Their Purpose

Some games are eminently discoverable. Most gamers can sit down and immediately understand a bit of what they’re supposed to be doing. Take Tetris for example, you’re presented with falling shapes that move and rotate according to button presses. That’s fairly easy for most people to figure out. Throw a player into a game space with two vibrating lines and a pulsating beat that changes according to their button presses and they could get frustrated, unless they have a musical background. And indie developers that have targeted a musical audience with the rest of their building blocks, great! If the intention was to attract people who like to listen to music but don’t know how to play it then maybe a few instructions or on-screen instructions would help.

We’re still thinking hard on this part because our game has a lot of moving parts even on the first level. Just like on web sites, the first few seconds are critical in making an impression with a player.

Idea for a New Kind of Game? Create it and Relate It!

This is a sweet spot for indie developers because they’re more agile, more willing to experiment, and have less to lose when it comes to taking risks. We all know that sequels work (how many Halos or Marios are there now?), but if you have an idea for something new, maybe it’s even a combination of two concepts that are already popular, go for it! To market it after that though it’s important to relate it back to easily understandable terms.

So for example if we made a game that’s a hybrid puzzle/racing game make sure that in conversation with potential and existing community members we could mention something like “it’s a cross between Dr. Mario and F-Zero, you have to solve puzzles to unlock upgrades for your race car.” It’s a much easier for people to grasp, though we’re wary of any other expectations using analogies like that can create.

We’ll Endure Many Micro-Failures, and That’s Ok

Our experience in the space is just beginning, but we’re already recognizing that as we build new features and even talk about the progress of our project there are things we’re failing at every day. And that’s ok.

Just like in building strong relationships with people where conflict and heated debate generally happens eventually, building a strong game that people want to play will demand an openness to feedback, lots of learning, and tenaciousness.

As always, we welcome your feedback, do you think indie games need to be well rounded?

photo credit: Kevin Labianco via photopin cc