Michael Brough, creator of the great indie hit, Vertex Dispenser was able to step away from supporting the game to answer a few questions in this e-mail interview. You will read about the creation of Vertex Dispenser, thoughts on Steam, DRM, piracy, digital distribution and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Vertex Dispenser.
I made the game as a hobby project, on and off over the last few years.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’ve been making up games since I was quite young – I made up variants of Chess and other board games, and got started programming in BASIC when I was maybe ten years old. It’s just been a hobby ever since then.
Where did the idea for Vertex Dispenser come from?
Lots of different places, but mostly my own head! In terms of games; Starcraft, Darwinia and Gate88 were big influences. The basic idea for the colouring mechanic came from a maths course.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Vertex Dispenser?
Multiplayer is a lot of work from a technical perspective, and then not worth the effort for an indie because hardly anyone will ever play it anyway. In the future I’ll stick with singleplayer games, or else make multiplayer games that are either local (two players on the same computer, or non-digital) or asynchronous (e.g. turn-based).
In its current form, how close is Vertex Dispenser to your initial vision?
Very close. The idea kind of started out as a conventional RTS, so it’s quite different to that, but once I had the concept for how it is now, I pretty much just implemented it as I’d imagined it. Of course I was wrong about lots of things and it took a lot of development to get there, but the core mechanics are as envisioned.
Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Vertex Dispenser and if you faced a similar challenge.
Yeah, certainly I’m unreasonably good at the game and it’s impossible for me to judge its difficulty anymore. The levels were definitely too hard at first. But I playtested the hell out of them and dropped the difficulty over and over again, and I think what I ended up with is okay. I wasn’t prepared to make fundamental changes to the core game mechanics – for example, a few people suggested removing the colouring rule, which would be like ripping out the heart of the game. But the whole point of the singleplayer campaign levels was to introduce the game in an accessible way, so I was happy to make any changes necessary to those.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Vertex Dispenser would run on the various PC system configurations?
Porting to Mac was a major headache; I hadn’t developed anything for Mac before.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Trying to balance it with the rest of life – I’m doing this part-time at the moment (and am nowhere near a level of success where I could go full-time), but it’s really time-consuming and has the tendency to take over every spare moment if I let it.
Tell us about your relationship with Valve. How did making Vertex Dispenser available via Steam come about? Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.
I just sent the game to them through their standard submission process. I wasn’t expecting much because I wasn’t known and hadn’t had any buzz about the game, but they liked it.
Achievements were something I was pretty reluctant to add – they’re a bit of a fad and often don’t add any value to a game. But a few of my friends and testers talked me into it, so I spent a few hours adding some, and I’m happy with them.
How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
I have no idea what the price of something “should” be – in a way indie games should probably cost more than mainstream games because we can’t reach nearly as large an audience, but that’s not really practical. I just asked some friends and allies what price they’d recommend for it, and went with their suggestions. It’s unfortunate that the expected price for indie games is so low these days, but I’m not in a position to do anything about that.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Retail is pretty much dead as far as I’m concerned. However, mainstream devs are continuing to create games that take up more and more gigabytes.. this is okay if you have unlimited bandwidth, but lots people in the world (like me) have to deal with caps on how much they can download per month. This doesn’t bother me usually since I haven’t played a mainstream videogame for years, but when I next do I guess I’ll have to order the disc by post. For reasonably-sized games like Vertex Dispenser, digital distribution is ideal.
Were there any plans to take Vertex Dispenser to retail stores?
No. As above, retail is dead to me. There’s also a huge financial risk involved in making physical objects when you don’t know how much you’ll sell; digital distribution scales much better.
You released a PC demo for Vertex Dispenser in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
Demos are essential for videogames because there’s really no other way to tell people what they’re like than to let them try them out. You can show videos and describe the rules, but that can’t get across the ‘feel’ of playing it, or answer practical questions like “how well will this run on my machine”.
That said, I think I messed up a bit with the demo – I tried to give a vertical slice to get across the feel of the game without getting bogged down in tutorial. I got some feedback from people who’d tried it found it too hard and confusing, and others who’d found it really easy and were concerned that there wasn’t any depth to the game – I think both groups would have been better served by there being more tutorial in there. I’ve subsequently updated the demo, hopefully this will help.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Vertex Dispenser from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
I haven’t found it to be of very much use so far. I have been able to pick up on a few things people were having trouble with and fix them, but it’s not clear yet whether that’s helped at all. Mostly there’s a lot of noise and it’s hard to filter out anything meaningful.
I think it’s especially hard for this game because it’s not something that appeals to everyone, but it’s new and inventive and so doesn’t have a predefined audience. If you make, say, a turn-based RPG, then mostly people who like that genre will play it and give relevant feedback about it, and people who don’t like the genre won’t bother with it. Since Vertex Dispenser doesn’t fit cleanly into a “genre”, the potential fans don’t necessarily know that it’s something they will like, and haters spout a lot of negativity because they had to actually try it to find out it wasn’t for them – the equivalent of someone saying the turn-based RPG should be faster-paced and have more shooting; it’s not meaningful feedback.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Vertex Dispenser professionally?
I’m not quite sure I understand the question. Certainly I’d like them to say nice things because they have influence over how many people play my game – and more people playing would be great! But unless they’re someone whose work I’m familiar with and have respect for, I don’t have any reason to place any special value on their opinions over anyone else’s.
How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
I’m really interested to see where this type of thing goes! From a business perspective, given the vast differences in wealth in the world, some form of variable pricing is the optimal solution. People have different amounts of money to spend, and place different values on different things, so it makes sense to expect them to pay different amounts. You see this in a rudimentary form all over the place – supermarkets have “budget”, “finest”, “organic” versions of each food item; clothing comes branded for a much higher price; DLC for games. These systems aren’t perfect; customers have to pick the tier that best approximates what they’re willing to pay, so there are inefficiencies when this approximation is imperfect.
Full PWYW could be perfectly efficient, but I think our culture isn’t ready for it yet. Most people end up using it as an excuse to pay almost nothing. I think we don’t have much of a sense of what things are really worth – many of the prices we see are driven way down by exploiting economic differentials between countries and selling to a mass market. The Humble Indie Bundle has been successful so far despite many people underpaying because that’s been balanced by a few people overpaying, but I wouldn’t expect this to necessarily continue long term once it’s not a new and exciting thing. So I’m glad people are experimenting with it, and I may well try it myself at some point, but I don’t have great hopes for it.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Like I said, I don’t play mainstream games very often, but it sounds like the situation there is getting pretty bad. Punishing paying customers is not a rational way to deal with piracy.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I don’t have any strong feelings about it. It’s just a different name for “expansions”, just another form of tiered pricing. Not a big deal?
What are some of the games or genres you like to play? Are you a fan of other indie developers?
I mostly play board games these days – Dominion and Race for the Galaxy are the main ones recently, but I love a variety of things. It feels weird to talk about being a “fan” of other indies, since they’re my friends and community! But here are a few games I like: Solium Infernum, Proteus, Spelunky, Spacechem, Super Crate Box.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Heh, I wouldn’t say I’ve really broken in yet. So I guess my advice would be: don’t do what I’m doing, don’t try to innovate too much. Make something familiar, something that’s easy to describe in terms of other games, that fits cleanly into an established genre, that has a clear target audience (preferably one that isn’t been targeted by mainstream developers anymore). Make sure the graphics use as much tech as possible (regardless of whether it hurts the gameplay or even looks aesthetically good), and don’t even think about multiplayer.
No, that’s too pessimistic. Forget about business and just make something amazing, don’t care whether it pays off as long as you’ve made something you’re proud of. But I’m serious about multiplayer, just don’t bother.
We would like to thank Mike for allowing into the mind of a fantastic indie developer. You can pick up Vertex Dispenser via Steam.