About 10 years ago, PC games were strong, with such titles coming out as Age of Empires 2, the Sims, and Diablo 2, with the Dreamcast,  PS2, and Nintendo 64 fighting for console market share.   At this point, game development was a club.  There were plenty of companies trying to break in, but as the dot com bust happened, a lot of these little shops had to fight over table scraps or close their doors.  Publishers controlled the store shelves, and online services such as steam and XBox live weren’t even on paper.  With a few notable exceptions, these big publishers determined what would be available to the mass markets to play.  Indie markets were very sparse, there just wasn’t any avenues to mass market titles developed by individual developers.

The landscape is much different now.  Consoles are each allowing smaller developers to have a shot through small downloadable titles, development has become easier with new game engines and tools, and the mobile market has exploded with apps developed by small teams in their spare time.  Publishers are still powerful, determining what games are avaiable at big retail outlets, and backing the more ambitious titles, but with the prevelance of online services such as XBox live, they don’t have a stranglehold on the market as they once did.

There is value in both ends of the spectrum: the massive companies producing the biggest titles such as EA, and the single developer creating an iPhone app.  And the amount of spread between them is enormous… nowadays the 1 person shop can coexist with the 10000+ employee publishers, and there is plenty of room in between.

So what does this mean to the gaming industry?  While it is obvious that the larger companies, with their IP and resources can produce titles that are huge and cutting edge, where do the indie developers fit?

Here are a few key things indie development groups have to offer in my opinion:

Innovation: The bigger a company gets, generally the more risk adverse they become. That means they will more likely use the tried and true game formats and IP. Original titles are few and far between, and if they are original, a lot of planning and marketing need to go in. Brand names help the big studios, but can hurt as well when expectations are raised. Indie developers don’t have the same restrictions. They can try new things, because that is one way to set them out from the masses.

Rapid development: Indie developers have a much lower bar when it comes to feature set and depth of play. They sell at lower prices, so gamers are more likely to give them a pass if things aren’t completely polished. Because of this, indie developers are able to turn out games quicker and with less churn time. This situation is improved even more on mobile platforms, which have a good update story… you don’t have to have everything polished to perfection before you ship an app, as you can update it after shipping it.

Support: When it comes to game support, the indie market has only one group to answer to: their players. If they act quick on bugs that arise, they are in a good position. There is no business case to present, manager to report to, so the indie developer sinks or swims based on the support he or she gives. Also, with a possibly smaller fanbase, the chances to be heard by an indie developer is much higher. Have a feature request? Indie developers that like your idea can jump on it without having to answer to anyone else.

Shallow org charts: Already clear from the two points above, the small organization (if there is any) of an indie development group makes the group agile, ready to jump on a trend or blast something out for a new platform. Also, without a business address and batch of employees, dry spells are not fatal.

Passion: The passion of an indie developer is undiluted by beuracracy, power struggles, or market pressures. Indie developers create games because that is what they like to do. This translates to the games they generate, as they are allowed to express themselves the way they want to.

I am convinced that now is a golden age for indie developers. As long as you’re not using your titles for your only income, you have the agility to create new titles the way you want to, with only your players to answer to. You can take big risks and dig new ground. If your titles fail? So what, at least you learned something and had fun. If you succeed, great! It looks great on your resume, you get a little fame, and maybe earn a buck or two.

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Multiple Screens and the Cloud. Its a mantra that some of the big tech companies have been touting for some time now. Definitions?  The Cloud is global storage. It is where your data lives, protected from harm by redundancy, fault tolerance, and replication. What do they mean by screens? The devices that run software and can connect to the cloud: PCs, entertainment devices (gaming consoles), and mobile devices. The idea is to link these devices together so that you can use the device most appropriate for your current situation, but then access the same state you were at on a different device at a different time. Each screen has its strengths and weaknesses… the PC with its flexibility and raw power, the connection of entertainment devices to your living room and TV, and your mobile device with its ability to move and serve as a life maximizer.

How does that apply to strategy? It allows a new evolution in games. Someday soon, we will see games that will utilize each of these screens, allowing you to use the platform that bet fits your current needs. You might play a turn of a game in the morning using your entertainment device (such as an Xbox), pick up where you left off and play another game at lunch on your smartphone (such as Windows Phone 7), then use a PC to do some fine editing of details in the evening. This would work for single player games, where your game state is saved in the cloud and resumed on each device, or it could work for multiplayer games, where you conduct your turns wherever you have an internet connection.

Lets talk about an ideal turn based strategy game that maximizes these concepts. Here are a few traits it should have in my opinion:

1) Snack sized. For anyone who finds themselves busy during the day, it should be possible to play games on the road, in a bank line, or in the comfort of your home in front of your big screen TV. So much of our lives nowadays consist of snippets of information throughout the day, rather than big chunks. This game should be one that you can pick up at any point quickly, and just as quickly walk away.

2) Cloud connected. Related to being snack-sized, this strategy game should allow you to move from place to place without having to physically move files around. This can be done through the cloud, saving the state of your single or multiplayer games. From time to time, you won’t have a connection, so it will have to save locally, but then back up to the cloud when a connection is available.

3) Flexible. You should have options to play according to your style. Perhaps you have a couple hours to kill, so you want to play online. The game should allow you to do this, while enforcing that the game moves along quickly. Other times you may want a long term game that lasts over a couple weeks. The game should allow for this too.

4) Has achievements. In an era when you can find games everywhere, on your phone, on your TV through a console, on your PC, theres a lot to choose from at a given time. Many people don’t have time to complete every game they come across, so having achievements gives you goals to work towards. These are rewards that you can share, many of them socially connected through facebook, twitter, or XBox Live. I think these are important so that the games we enjoy leave a mark, while the games we Really enjoy encourage us to try out all the aspects of the game through well-targeted achievements.

5) Optimized per screen. This game should utilize the strengths of each screen. On the console, it should provide an intense experience heavy on good graphics and connections with the console’s services (such as XBox Live). On the phone, it should be quick to play, and allow you to use the phone’s “always connected” characteristics to good advantage. On the PC is where you can have level editors or other content creation tools.

Not all of the technology is quite there yet… connections between the screens are still being made, and some (like between consoles and mobile devices) are only available to those with the resources to become registered developers. However, the goal is clear, and these limitations will be overcome with time. As they are, we will get closer and closer to enabling the ideal mobile strategy game.

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I’ve been a fan of XNA for some time now. I first discovered it years ago when it was fresh and still going through growing pains, but even then it was a pleasure to use compared to other 3d development engines out there. I continued to use it for various PC based projects, one in particular a 6 player robotic simulation for high school students participating in a competition. In each case, it leveraged the strengths of C# for rapid development, while still meeting the needs for performance quite well.

I followed XNA as it became popular for the indie crowd, giving folks a chance to get on the Xbox360 with their creations. XNA was then ported to Zune. I nearly bought a Zune just because of that fact.

Come early 2010, and Microsoft announced the Windows Phone 7 platform, and lo and behold, one of the available development languages for it was XNA. I downloaded and tried the development tools immediately. Just as always, it was easy to pick up, well organized, and with my background I was able to port some of the older samples (the RPG starter kit) to WP7 with ease.

The emulator is a dream. Go through the slow launch process once, and it is ready to roll. Launch from Visual Studio, and you’re app is on the phone in no time. Made a mistake? No problem, use Visual Studio’s impressive debugging tools to track the problem down. Unfortunately, you can’t edit and continue (as is true of any device using compact .NET), but the emulator lives beyond its debugging session, and once you’ve fixed you’re problem, launch it immediately in the emulator again with just a few seconds of delay.

Performance? Astounding. The Emulator actually uses your PC’s video card to accelerate the graphics for XNA apps, so it runs great. You are comepletely within the environment the actual phone devices are in, so your code will run the same on the phone as for the emulator. Ok, not exactly… the emulator does not emulate the hardware under the hood, so it is wise to do testing on a phone. but in my experience, I have had very few problems I caught on an actual device than I couldn’t have caught in the emulator.

So here we are, a sweet set of tools, a new platform with promise, and a marketplace strategy that promises to focus on Developers, Developers, Developers.  A cross platform toolset that allows you to develop for 3 screens: PC, Windows Phone 7, and the XBox 360.  And oh, did I mention XBox Live integration?  That’s right, you can earn achievements on your phone, with the large number of
XBox Live titles planned for launch.

An Xbox Live integrated device in your pocket?  With a wi-fi or 3G connection anywhere?  With an impressive resolution screen, multitouch interface, and 3d hardware acceleration?  Oh boy do I want one.

I will be a first adopter, but I’m ready to get wet, because a wave is coming.

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  When I was young, I found a book in a library bargain bin from the late 70s. It listed and rated a large number of strategy board games based on strategic factors, replayability, and how easy they were to master.  It had listings for games ranging from WW2 miniature games to Chainmail, to Steve Jackson classics such as Ogre.  I read through the book several times, and though most of these games were past their prime, the book helped me form many of the opinions about strategy I have today.  It also gave me the vocabulary to use when describing strategy, such as deterministic outcomes, resource management, double blind movement, or tactical vs. strategic elements. 

 Since that time, I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of strategy based games, always on the lookout for a new game or system that would meet my primal desire to outwit an opponent with a surprise attack, maneuver them into making a mistake, or learn from a significant defeat.   I went through a series of addictions with various games in my quest, finding a few gems here and there.  My quest led me through Lord of the Realms, Dune, Command & Conquer, and Warcraft II in the early days.  Many evenings found me pouring over role playing books, playing Axis & Allies, or Magic: The Gathering. 

 I followed the progression from Turn-Based-Strategy to Real Time Strategy games, throwing in tactics-based role playing games along the way (Final Fantasy: Tactics was the diamond in the rough there, with the more recent Fire Emblem titles following in its wake).  Starcraft brought a whole new addiction to the table with its impressive storyline and endless multiplayer value, while Age of Empires established a new era in historical games.

 There was a time where my definition of strategy was all about lots of options to choose from, rules for every possible situation.  A game did not seem perfect until it explored all facets of the experience, and random play just added replayability.  This was all put on its head by a game I discovered in college however, an online game called Stellar Crisis.  It was here where I learned that a well-balanced game with just a few options could be simple to master, yet extremely deep in strategic choice.  In this game, you served as the commander of a space fleet, exploring a grid of planets, colonizing them, and searching out opponents.  It included diplomacy, a few select types of ships, and a simple resource system that made you choose between a large low tech fleet or a small high tech fleet.

 It was here that I discovered what I was looking for all along.  Elegant simplicity.  A game with simple and understandable options, but which got out of your way so you could use these options in innovative ways, misdirect your opponents, or escape from an opponent’s well planned trap.  This was what soured me on the path the gaming industry was taking, which was diverging in my mind from the core of strategy.  Skill at following a pre-set tech tree path as quick as possible replaced feints and small skirmishes over field control.  Individual tactical control became meaningless as the speed of your micro-management became more and more skill based.   A lot of unit choice was dictated by what the opponent used, as you memorized what units counter which opponent units.  Long term games were defined by a massive swarm at the end or ended early by a skillful player’s rush.  In other games, the plethora of options available made balance nearly impossible, forcing the designers to gimp one broken combo or another to keep things in check.   

Don’t get me wrong, I continued to cater to the strategy genre, enjoying the continuation of RTSs, establishment of the tower defense genre, and delving into the online flash/casual market.  But I missed the thoughtful strategy of the past.  The generation of wargamers had been replaced by a new generation of gamers seeking fast action and “leet skillz”, and the gaming industry followed the money.  Is the era of elegant simplicity gone?  Or is it just dormant, waiting for a new platform to emerge in which its shortcomings can be neutralized?

 I have high hopes that it is the latter.  Fortunately, the fact that indie games, flash game sites, and iPhone/Android (and soon Windows Phone) apps are on the rise have begun to set the stage.  Though games that provoke deep thought may at times be poorly rated by those that don’t get it, they can be found if you know where to look.  Mobile platforms are perfect for a new generation of games that are constantly connected and allow quick play at odd times.

 I say, bring on the apps.  And may elegant simplicity make a comeback.

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