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Slaying the Dragon: Think Small

This is the third post by independent game developer Dan Felder, who has his own indie studio and consults other game developers in his spare time.


The dragon rears its head, roaring loud enough to shake the stony walls of its mountain home - fire shrieking through the air to blast in at you. You duck, you dodge, your desperately roll - heat searing your cheek red. And now the dragon itself is barreling toward you, its long serpentine neck, each shining scale a tiny reflection of your imminent death, rushing out with its longsword-sized teeth eager to rip and tear through your screaming flesh.

There is a sickening, shattering crunch...

And its teeth taste stone.

Welcome, Indie Game Company, and congratulations on your quick thinking. You managed to survive by ducking into a tiny passage in the cavern's side - enough for you to fit inside but nowhere near large enough for the massive beast to follow you through.

There are times when it pays to be small.

Now, you probably hear this all the time - people saying that being small is an advantage to an indie company... But usually their reasons ring a little hollow, and you're left feeling that they themselves don't quite believe it. The best reasons they can offer up are that being small makes you quicker, faster, more agile and more able to explore. If they say more, it's hard to hear over the silent cries of 'bulls@!#' echoing in everyone's mind. After all, bigger companies have far more resources to explore new projects with. They can power titles to market much faster due to their manpower and while they might be less agile at times, agility doesn't do you much good when you're so cramped for resources that you can barely stand up, much less turn a somersault.

However, there is one way that you can leverage being small and turn it into a fearsome weapon indeed in your battle against the dragon... And it just so happens that that's what this article is all about.

Isn't it nice when things work out?

So, grab your adventurer's pack and your trusty longsword because we've got a dragon to slay.

First, a shortage of resources is nothing more or less than a creative limitation. You don't have the budget to make glorious AAA graphics or a millennium of fully scripted content. It's easy to bemoan our losses and just accept that our graphics and such will be worse than our competitors... But 'worse' is a very tangled term. Our graphics might not be as fancy or lifelike as our competitors... But does that make them worse?


Only if you allow it.


For example, take a look at Calvin and Hobbes. No, it's not a game - it's a comic strip by Bill Watterson that was featured in newspapers once upon a time. It was pure comedic gold as well as being exceptionally meaningful and wise... And look at the art style. It's simple, cartoonish and absolutely perfect for the strip.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Would Calvin and Hobbes have been more enjoyable if it were drawn in a much more difficult, hyper-realistic style? No, not at all. The comic strip's creator was an eminently talented artist and was very capable of creating much more 'high-end' illustrations, but he wisely chose not to. The cartoonish style served Calvin and Hobbes far, far better. Even though he had the resources to produce highly realistic and fancy drawings, he stuck with a much simpler style that suited the strip better.

See a parallel here?

If not, then let's set sail to Tales of Monkey Island, Telltale Games' most successful title to date. The game has garnered high praise for its art style, one that suits the game absolutely perfectly... And yet, it's nothing near what something Square Enix might spin into being. Ask yourself, would Tales of Monkey Island be better off for having FFXIV's graphics at their disposal? Hardly! The game is meant to be silly and fun, something the graphics provide with grace. If the game used the fanciest of high-end graphics, it might well hurt the title and be vastly more expensive overall. That's something that no game company should want.

 Tales of Monkey Island by Telltale Games

Limitations on resources are a little like street signs. Just because you can't cross the street on red doesn't mean that it's a bad thing! If you can figure out a way to get where you want to go on time, by following the proper street signs, you'll still be there and you won't get nailed by passing cars on the way. If you can figure out how to make your limitations work FOR you... You're way ahead of the lumbering dragons still trying to chew their way through a stone wall.


A title that I'm currently working on has been conceived from the ground up by this principle. Directly going into the earliest design stages I was planning the title to use the least expensive resources to its advantage. I knew I didn't want to worry about a high art budget, so I decided to create a lost-in-wonderland style based on creating a sense of childlike wonder in the player. Even now the main line in the design document for art style still reads, "The graphics should look like something out of a seven-year-old's sketchbook." By adopting such a simple style and tying it to a strong theme, we can make the most out of our limited resources. If someone came to me today and offered me a hundred million dollars to give this title the best graphics money could buy, I'd turn them down in a heartbeat. And that is a wonderful place to be in.


There is a catch, though. If you're a tiny game company who wants to make a title in the style of Mass Effect... You're in trouble. Mass Effect benefits enormously from a sense of hyperrealism. The more lifelike the aliens look, the more plausible the technology, the more a sense of belief in its universe is created - something needed for a serious Sci-Fi title. Less realistic art styles aren't always better, you need to find ways to make them the best choice in your particular situation. Give Monkey Island's graphics to Mass Effect and you'll end up with a lot of disappointed gamers. You'll be fighting fire with a much smaller fire... And we all know how inefficient that is, right? If not, take a look at the second installment in this series for a little reminder.

 Mass Effect 2 by BioWare

But when you scope the battle with your size in mind, you can make extraordinary use of it - diving into tiny caves, tunnels and holes the dragon cannot follow you through, running between the dragon's legs to hack at its ankles and remembering, always, the simple truth:


The bigger they are, the harder they fall.


Dan Felder


About Dan Felder: A student at Babson College in Massachusetts, Felder is studying entrepreneurship while building his own indie game studio. He has a passion for storytelling and theater, which is playing out in his studio by giving it a creative vision to advance the conversation about what games can be and how games can touch us, move us, embolden us and strengthen us. He also blogs for Gamasutra, a leading game industry news site.


Comments  2

  • Emma Enriquez 24 Nov

    Great article!  Creativity comes in many forms.  If we parallel with the movie industry, many camera techniques in the noir genre were created due to limited resources.  Film markers were forced to think up new ways to express ideas.  Good luck with your new title.
  • Dan Felder 29 Nov

    Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. And great point about the noir genre inspiring new camera techniques. As Robert Frost said, creativity without limitations is like playing tennis with the net down.
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