This will be my last post on PAX South, and rather than a discussion of what I experienced I intend to write a more traditional article. A bit of unsolicited advice I have for indie game developers, as well as (hopefully) a good point of discussion.
So there are a lot of video games out there. A lot of good ideas have already been taken! Naturally, this means that developers have a marketing challenge ahead of them- how do they make their game stand out among the other similar games out there? Well, you’ve got to do it in two ways- flavor, and execution. Using some games I played at PAX South as a guide, let me give some examples of games that both did well and poorly setting themselves apart.
I hate writing negative things about specific games, so let me begin be saying what I liked about Headup Games’ Super Blackjack Battle II Turbo: the animations were well done, the art style was great, and it really just nails the overall presentation. The idea of making a Blackjack game into a Street Fighter parody is neat, but... that’s all it is. For starters, making a versus Blackjack game is kind of awkward, because unlike other card games you really aren’t playing against the other players in Blackjack- you’re all against the dealer, and the other players at the table only matter in terms of what cards you get (which, in a properly shuffled deck, could equally work for or against you). So that makes the fighting-game style set-up work against you. The other thing that disappointed me was... it’s just Blackjack. Yeah, I have a wide cast of characters to choose from, but the characters didn’t actually seem to matter. At the end of the day, I was still just playing Blackjack, and the humorous appeal of the title and presentation didn’t mesh with the gameplay at all.
The game I want to compare this to is Lords of New York from Lunchtime Studios. I didn’t get a picture of their booth, sadly, as I played their game last year and didn’t think I’d be writing about it at the time. But LONY is a poker game set in prohibition-era America. There’s a story mode and a multiplayer mode. What made this game stand out to me, and why I contrast it with SBJB2T, is that the characters are more than unique avatars for the player, and LONY is different than a generic poker game on a more than superficial level.
See, Lords of New York lets you cheat. And each character cheats in different ways- one might be able to peek at cards, another can manipulate their hand, and one in particular can sneak some of her bet back when she folds. This both makes the characters themselves an aspect of the game, and sets the game mechanically apart from other, similar games. And it fits the flavor of the game as well- the theme of the game puts you in the shoes of some underworld, legally dubious characters, so cheating at poker is a mechanic that actually helps you get into their shoes. It’s a stand-out game that manages to be unique in its presentation, and tie that uniqueness into its mechanics. The game is still in development but I’m very excited to see where it goes.
There’s a third game I want to talk about today, and that’s Freedom Planet, from GalaxyTrail.
If you spend 15 seconds playing (or even watching someone play) Freedom Planet, the immediate comparison is to Sonic the Hedgehog. There’s just no getting around it- anyone at PAX I talked to, when I brought up this game, Sonic got mentioned immediately afterward. That’s both a good and bad thing for Freedom Planet: good because it provides a baseline for discussing the game, bad because it immediately casts the game as a clone or knock-off. But what Freedom Planet does well is be better than Sonic at Sonic’s own game (please hold your pitchforks and torches for the end of the show, thank you). FP has better action controls than Sonic, putting a slightly heavier emphasis on combat than Mr. the Hedgehog’s games. It also gives the individual characters more room to stand out on their own.
(You may have noticed by now that, when a game allows me to select a character, I expect there to be compelling differences between those characters while still feeling like I’m making a valid choice. It’s not something I expected to write about all three games, but I guess I’m learning things about myself here too.)
It also probably helps that Sonic has been trying to recapture the feeling of its old games recently, with mixed results. Freedom Planet both captures that feeling and manages to put a unique enough spin on it to stand out on its own. The hook of Sonic nostalgia is enough to draw you in, but the game does a great job of making you walk away feeling like you’ve experienced something fresh.
Also, the people who make it are super-nice. I just had to bring that up somewhere- several of the game’s voice actors (and this year, the game’s composer) have been to PAX, along with the game’s developer, and they’ve always been a joy to talk to. Does that flavor my impression of the game? Probably. But if we’re talking about how to get attention for your game, positive fan interactions are worth a mention.