REALLY Open Development

I’m Matt Gilgenbach, and I’m a failure. Wait. That’s a terrible intro! Let me do that over. I’m Matt Gilgenbach, and I’m one of the developers of the reverse rhythm’up game, Retro/Grade. Haven’t heard of it? Not many people have. Even fewer still have bought it. (If you are curious, it is currently on sale as part of Steam’s summer sale for less than the price of a coffee at Starbucks. I will be eternally grateful if you pick it up!)
Retro/Grade was nominated for two IGF awards in 2009 as well as won the IndieCade Audience Award in 2010. While that sounds like a title that might be successful, it wasn’t. Why wasn’t it? Because I’m a failure! Well, hopefully not, but I suffer from mental illness (OCD and depression) and that’s what my brain tells me is the reason.

I really don’t know the real reason, but I discussed my theories as well as my battle to release the game at GDC. If you haven’t seen the talk, it’s probably worth checking out. I don’t like to toot my own horn (and rarely have the confidence to do so), but it was extremely well received. It was in the 98 percentile of all GDC talks! (I’m just as surprised by that as you are! Possibly more so…) I get an email every few weeks from someone who thought that the talk was really helpful to them. That really means a lot to me! I was seriously worried that my talk would be a failure just like my game.

As time passes and I continue to torture myself by focusing on all the mistakes we made on Retro/Grade, I’m beginning to think that we really missed an opportunity for being open during the development. I was so busy worrying about vertices and performance optimizations that I didn’t take the time to foster a community by telling people what I was doing and how I was doing it. I think this was a mistake.

Why is open development so important? Because it is the cheapest and easiest way to get people interested in your game and to KEEP them interested. Retro/Grade was in development for 4 years. We originally showed the game at the IGF in spring of 2009, and the game wasn’t available until the fall of 2012. It is extremely unlikely that anyone interested in the game at the IGF even REMEMBERED the game by the time it came out. This is a huge problem! We managed to get a lot of people interested in the game by showing at PAXes, but at PAX after the game was actually released, fans from previous years were surprised the game was out. That’s an epic fail on my part. How many gamers who enjoyed the game in previous years, didn’t stop by in 2012 and are still in the dark that the game is released? Probably quite a few.

Open development solves this by not only indicating where you are in development but also keeps people interested by feeding them content. Getting someone interested in your game is like catching a fish. You can toss it back, but you may never catch it again. If you continue to feed the fish, then it’ll stick around. (While I think the fishing metaphor is a good one, it was very hard for me to phrase such that it wasn’t about eating your fans)

Open development has other advantages. With a community built around your game, they can help you shape the game in a positive manner. It’s dangerous to go alone! Why should you when there are so many gamers out there that would be willing to offer advice, test your game, and give you feedback? If you get stuck on a decision, and you have a community built around you game, you can ask them. I’m not suggesting that you design your game by committee, but it’s always great to use others as a sounding board. Making people feel like part of the development is a great thing for them because they will be committed to the game, and it’s a great thing for you because – let’s face it – as an indie, you need all the help you can get.

So how am I embracing open development? Perhaps I have a tendency to move towards extremes (which is sometimes a side effect of mental illness), but I’m trying to be the most open developer ever. I’m trying to put all my thoughts, fears, and everything out there for everyone to see. I’ve been putting together a series of developer diary videos chronicling the development of my current project (which we will be announcing soon). If you haven’t seen them, I think they are worth checking out. They are REALLY open and some are quite personal similar to my GDC talk. In particular, I thought the second was quite good because I talked about all my anxieties with the act of doing a developer diary. (Who would have thought clicking the upload button on youtube would be so difficult?)

While I personally prefer to get my developer updates in text form, I have a lot of difficulty blogging. When I write anything, I read it over, add a bunch more stuff, read it over again, add some more content, read it over, rewrite a section, and so on. My obsessive compulsive disorder makes it difficult for me to do the simple task of blogging, and I don’t think it serves me well because usually I end up with insanely long-winded posts that take me forever to write. (For an example, you could view my old blog or just note the length of this post)

I ask for your understanding of my preference for video posts to text. With video, I force myself to do one take and then be satisfied with the outcome. That’s impossible for me to do with text! I know I’m not much to look at, but perhaps there is some benefit to seeing my face as I discuss things that are painful and difficult for me. If I struggle through a blog post (and I struggle though many), that’s genuine emotion that couldn’t be conveyed through text.

As well, my next project will be on kickstarter. What could possibly be more open than that? I’m in an unfortunate financial situation and need to raise funds for the game soon, so it’s a good fit. Even before I decided to do a kickstarter for our project, I loved it. I love being a backer and helping make cool new games possible. I love being part of the community and feeling like I’m a part of exciting projects.

Getting kickstarter funding is not for everyone, and if you are going that route, you have to embrace open development. You have to put yourself out there, put out your budget, your scope, what you hope the game to be, and it’s up to the audience to decide if they support you. If you are fortunate enough to get funded, you walk away with the money to complete your project, but possibly even more valuable is the community you have gained that has a vested interest in your project.

Once you have a successful kickstarter, it’s very important not to waste that audience. Many kickstarters that have raised money have received a lot of ire for not being open. I spent $100 funding Tim Schafer’s Broken Age, which managed to raise over 8 times what they asked for. When Tim honestly confessed that they wouldn’t be able to complete the game with the money they had, I wasn’t upset about backing it because they had been very open about the development until then. I knew they were still making the game I believed in. My next project is quite ambitious, so that is the kind of community I need to be able to create my next project. I hope I can find it through embracing REALLY open development.

Thanks for reading, and if you want to join the community, follow me on twitter or bookmark my new blog.

7 Comments on “REALLY Open Development

  1. Don’t get so discouraged! I’m sure it will pick up soon! I bought myself a copy early today. Perhaps you might get some sales because today is the last day of Steam sales

  2. I heard of Retro/Grade long before your GDC talk. I was under the impression that it was popular! At least in an underground, sleeper hit sort of way that I could never confirm. Admittedly, the two genres it represented, SHMUP and rhythm, were far outside my interests. Even then, I never actually knew what the gameplay was until your GDC talk.

    But Neverending Nightmares looks like it’s right up my alley! If you don’t mind my saying, compared to Retro/Grade, I think it looks more immediately identifiable as to what kind of game it represents and who the target audience would be.

  3. Thanks for the words of encouragement! I agree that Retro/Grade suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. It looked like a shmup but played like a rhythm game, so some people ended up being disappointed or surprised when they played the actual game.

    I think Neverending Nightmares is much easier to explain (a psychological horror game) and through video and screenshots, it’s easy to convey that, so I think that’s a big plus for marketing the game.

  4. I loved Retro/Grade and my girlfriend too! Don’t give up! You have too much talent to give up! Also, if you need a volunteer writer, I’m here (for a second opinion, for example)! I am a writer and I have endless love for the video game. I am French, but I’ll be bilingual. In short, don’t hesitate ! 🙂

  5. I love Retro/Grade. I bought it on PSN, finished the campaign on all difficulties and am about 2/3 through the challenges. The music just suits it so well, and that artwork! Good luck with the Neverending Nightmares. I hope you’ll consider releasing it on the PS4.

  6. I reviewed Retro/Grade when it came out giving it 85% overall (review available here – file:///C:/Future_Gamez/ps3gameso/retrograde/review.html)… It was a great game, and it’s a little sad to hear it not meet your expectations for sales. Still, I’m certainly keen to keep an eye on your follow-up project Neverending Nightmares.