Why indiedev creativity is stagnant and how to fix it

Why indiedev creativity is stagnant and how to fix it

03/04/2022
indiedev, psychology

April Fool’s Day is a great example of how agreeableness acts as a blocker on creativity. Only on the day where wild and silly things are socially accepted do companies try aggressive changes to their products that might make them a lot better, as the social cost of change becomes lower.

For instance, Path of Exile’s battle royale mode started out as an April Fool’s joke. People liked it so much they constantly asked for it to be brought back over 3 years. Eventually the devs gave in and implemented a full version… that no one ended up liking.

In this case it didn’t work out, but that’s how experiments should go. You try out a bunch of stuff and eventually you get somewhere good. The more different the thing you try is, the higher the chances that it will eventually take you from a locally optimal solution to a more globally optimal one.

If the social cost of experimentation is high, there are only two ways around it: you either don’t experiment, or you don’t care about social costs.

Indiedev creativity #

When Jonathan blow said that indiedevs didn’t progress the medium as much as was expected 10+ years ago, he was kinda right and kinda wrong:

We can break down the merit or success of indie games into 3 rough categories: thematic (theme, story, mood), technical (art, programming, juice) and creative (design). Blow’s argument can be steelmanned to say that:

  1. While the technical dimension has seen the most progress, followed by the thematic one, the creative dimension has been moving quite a lot slower.
  2. While the thematic and technical dimensions are important, the creative dimension is the one that provides the most value for the medium.

I’ll assume 2 as true because while I am a gameplay maximalist, I somewhat disagree with it, but it’s a fairly nuanced discussion that happens to not really be relevant to this post. With that in mind, we should try to see if 1 is true.

Thematically indie games have progressed. While maybe there are too many indie games being made about depression, overall I think everyone agrees that the variety and quality of themes, stories, moods and so on have been consistently increasing.

For pretty much every niche topic you could think of there’s at least one game - even if it’s just a low effort shitpost - made about it. Part of this is due to Steam’s fairly lax game acceptance policy and overall success as a platform, which has made indie gamedev more viable as a career and thus attracts more developers who will go on to make more games about more subjects.

Technically indie games have also progressed. It’s now easier than ever to make games, and increasingly it takes less effort to make something that looks good and runs well on multiple platforms. You can also clearly see the group’s technical progress.

If you look at the quality of technical discourse around indie gamedev (for artists and programmers alike) it has definitely increased, as a result of both more experienced developers sharing their advice, but also people just having had more time to converge on better solutions for common problems. This has naturally led to an increase in technical quality for indie games as a whole. There are still lots of areas that remain largely unconquered, like say RTSs or MMOs for indie programmers, but eventually those will become easier as well.

Creatively, however, indie games have not progressed that much. One way to look at this is to consider the types of games that succeed on the technical vs. creative categories.

Most games currently succeed on technical ability. They’re games that look good, that are programmed well, that feel good to interact with, and that have lots of attention, effort and time (generally 3+ years) spent on making sure that these elements are executed well. Gamers generally reward games that are produced with a certain standard of quality, and achieving this standard is hard, so this is the safest category to be in.

If you make games that have high technical quality, it’s very likely that you will see success. For instance, there doesn’t exist a world where a game that looks like Cuphead doesn’t see some sizable amount of success. There aren’t many games that look good like that, and so it just stands out on its technical quality alone.

Games that succeed on creativity alone are generally the opposite. They’re likely made by amateurs, and thus will have low technical quality. They won’t look that good, maybe they won’t run that well, maybe they will even be lacking on juice, but something about their design will grip people despite all those faults.

By its nature you would expect that those games would exist in lower numbers than successful games in the technical category, which is largely what happens in reality. But what you wouldn’t expect, if the creative category was being properly explored by indie devs, would be for these creatively successful games to succeed on fairly small creative contributions.

What I mean by this is the following: look at a game like Vampire Survivors, or even my own SNKRX. These are games that have succeeded on the creative category - their technical merits are partly dubious, but they’re definitely addicting. However, their creative contribution is not actually that involved. Both games can be summarized as “auto-attacking + build-making” games, which is just putting two things that already existed together.

There’s a lot to how exactly you put two things together, but it really shouldn’t be this easy to succeed on creativity alone after 10+ years of experimentation, if indiedevs had been properly exploring the creative dimension. You can repeat this exercise for quite a few types of games and find the same results. Which can only mean one thing: indiedevs haven’t actually been exploring the creative dimension properly. What have they been doing instead? Well, the answer to that has a lot to do with

Agreeableness #

The main reason for the slow progress of the creativity dimension is the fact that most indiedevs are too agreeable. They care too much about other people’s opinions, and this deep caring dooms them, as it means they care about social costs, and as previously stated, caring about social costs means that you can’t experiment.

If you care too much about reviews, likes, your reputation, and all the other status oriented things that come with making indie games, you are inherently tying yourself down to other people, and this will have a negative effect on your creativity. Games that win on creativity tend to come from amateurs because haven’t won yet, they have no status to lose, so they will more easily take chances on wild and silly ideas.

The video below explains this argument very well. The main difference is that this guy is talking about geniuses, but for the context of this discussion you can swap “genius” for “creative indiedev”, as you don’t really need outlier high IQ to make meaningful contributions to indie games (although it probably helps). Everything else he says though applies perfectly:

So the solution to creative stagnation is simple: become more disagreeable. This is easier said than done for people who are naturally agreeable, but being aware of it at least is a first step. Below are a series of things you should consider:

Status #

As an indiedev you should not care about reviews, likes, your reputation and basically anything having to do with maintaining your status. Not caring doesn’t mean you have to ignore everything, quite the contrary, you should expose yourself to as many comments around your games as possible, but it means that your emotions have to be neutral.

A negative review shouldn’t make you feel sad for a day or multiple days. A positive review shouldn’t make you feel happy for a day or multiple days. If you feel anything at all, your emotions should be punctual and brief. Other people’s opinions should have no real, long lasting sway over you.

For instance, if someone you kinda like and respect on twitter follows you and that makes you feel really good, it means you should probably turn the retarded schizoposting up to 11 for a while because if they can’t handle that it means they’ll unfollow you eventually, and better they unfollow now than later. That’s the kind of disagreeable instinct you need to have. Become ungovernable

Development time #

The development cycles for your games should be short. Creative games win on creativity, not on their technical ability. If what you want to do is explore the space of games creatively then spending too much time on the thematic or technical categories is a mistake.

Not only will it obfuscate which category is responsible for one of your game’s eventual success, most types of games made in 3-4 months can get their gameplay ideas across very well, so there’s no real reason to spend that much more time on it. This also has the additional benefit that you can iterate and try out more ideas at a much faster pace.

Post-authorship #

You should believe in and practice the idea of post-authorship:

One of the most common things I see among indiedevs, and this is especially true for artists, is that they view their games as extensions of themselves. They tie themselves emotionally to their games, such that criticism aimed at their game feels, emotionally, like criticism aimed at them.

Similarly, artists are much more likely to feel envious of others. If they see someone else with a cool and creative game their instinctive reaction is not “wow, that’s a cool idea”, but one of envy. This comes from a place of deep insecurity and from the misguided notion that games are a reflection of their creators. Seeing a cool game makes them think about how uncool their games are, which makes them think about how uncool they are, and so on.

The way to solve this is very simple: don’t emotionally attach yourself to your games. Again, easier said than done, but you should be aware that this is a bad pattern of behavior if your goal is being more creative.

By achieving this you will naturally be able to experiment more and take more risks because a game failing will not emotionally reflect poorly on you, just like a game succeeding will not emotionally reflect well on you. All games, both yours and other people’s, will just be the artifacts that they are, and you will be able to look at them in a more truthful way, unclouded by the poor judgement that comes with tying your identity to them.

You are the being that makes games, you are not any individual game. One exercise that encapsulates all these ideas neatly is the

Anonymous dev reset #

You stop making games and posting under your current identity, be it your real name or a nickname, and you start a new, anonymous one, from scratch. You only take your skills with you, you can’t use any money or connections you made with your previous persona. Think of it as a new roguelike run.

If you are ready to kill your current persona, and start producing things under a new one anonymously, then it means you truly don’t care about status and that you genuinely want to try being more creative.

As this new persona, you can now try becoming more disagreeable without the social costs attached to it. If you speak your mind more, what’s really going to happen? You only have 4 followers on twitter from your first post on the #gamedev tag about the new game you’re making, right? So it’s fine.

You can also join more disagreeable gamedev communities, such as AGDG, and start getting more into this mindset. For instance, you might find that the threads have quite a lot of low quality posts as it’s a fairly unfiltered place. But your ability to be emotionally unbothered by those posts is the exact same ability needed to be emotionally unbothered by negative reviews. So practicing this is a good way to actually become more emotionally detached from pixels on your screen.

Similarly, you might find that as you grow your account and release more games (with low dev duration) that those games are succeeding or not based on their creative qualities above all else. And as some of these games may find big successes, maybe even higher than anything you’ve made before, you’ll realize that things like luck and other excuses people use are just not real. Another very disagreeable belief that naturally spirals out into more disagreeable ideas which I covered in previous posts.

Because your games have short dev cycles, you’ll also naturally feel less attached to them. If you do things like releasing all their source code + art + maybe even IP on permissive licenses, that will only increase the detachment.

As you experiment more and eventually succeed more you will also gain more confidence in your abilities, which will make you a less insecure person in general. Envy comes from insecurity, so as you become more secure, you should also becomes less envious, which feeds back into attaching yourself less to your games, which leads to better decision making, and so on.

This way you can get into a very good and virtuous cycle where you’re experimenting more, increasing your creative skills, releasing more and more games, caring less and less about other people’s opinions…

And eventually you will reach an enlightened state of creativity where you become a being of pure light, zeroes and ones flowing in and out of your chakras, visions of a dead and ancient past flashing incessantly, an alien energy enveloping and devouring the earth, constantly sucking out of it a stream of life into itself, into existence, exhausting, poising and destroying it. Life, in every form, cries from mercy from it; in man for freedom from it, yet none can resist its irresistible pull to live and to live again… Ah, yes. You have finally become one with the collective unconscious. So what are you waiting for?

END #

There’s this japanese indiedev/musician who didn’t want his songs to be too well known. He always named them something weird and unsearchable, but eventually they became popular anyway because they were so good. He couldn’t handle it due to apparent mental issues, and then he just disappeared.

There’s something really appealing to me about this story and this path. Not the mental issues, but the disappearing. The constant rebuilding from zero and trying something new again and again.

As the anime girl below says:

Destruction is not the antithesis of creation. Rather, it’s the prerequisite, and its ultimatum. We give birth to the new by a self-destructive act.

So start anew, become more disagreeable, become less focused on status and more focused on truth, and more creativity will naturally follow.

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