If you are confused by the title, don’t worry I will explain these indie developer tips better in a moment. I came across an article on Gamasutra this morning that focused on Michael Lyanshenko essentially copying Sid Meier’s pirate-themed strategy games Pirates! – and the real kicker? Meier himself told Lyanshenko that it was perfectly fine to do it. Except here’s the other kicker: Lyanshenko didn’t outright copy Pirates!: instead, he focused on the aspect of the game he felt was most fun and built an entirely new game around that.
For Lyanshenko, that aspect was sailing around the high seas, getting into ship battles with other pirates, and pillaging, looting, and trading to become the most feared pirate the world had ever seen. Thus, Windward was born: a game that is obviously inspired by Pirates!, but is its own beast altogether.
“I decided to remove certain things from the original Pirates! game that inspired me, such as dancing and swordfights,” said Lyanshenko. “To me, they always distracted from the real point of the game, which is sailing around, and blowing up other ships—ship to ship combat. That’s stuff that I enjoy, not necessarily what everyone else may have enjoyed, but that’s what I enjoyed.”
Eventually, Lyanshenko made the entire world procedurally generated, added in multiplayer elements, and when it finally launched last month? Windward was a massive hit – trailing behind Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3 on Steam. When Lyanshenko began developing Windward, he had no idea just how big of a success it would become.
What did Lyanshenko do that helped him succeed?
Some critics may say that Lyanshenko’s game is a blatant ripoff of Pirates!, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lyanshenko did what every indie developer does – just in a more obvious manner. He took elements from a beloved game that he enjoyed the most (in this case, trading and ship-to-ship combat), focused entirely on that, and built an entire game around it. That’s all there is to one of the most important indie developer tips you’ll ever find!
It’s proof that if you force your indie game to focus on one element of gameplay and perfect it, your game is going to benefit from it greatly. How many times have you tried to play a game that has a bunch of great ideas, but tries to shove too many of them into the game? You find that the game is subpar at best. Especially since your indie studio likely isn’t as large as Sid Meier’s Firaxis studio, this is the better route to go anyway. Focus on one element of gameplay, perfect it, build the rest of your game around it, and you’re going to find that you have a much better game (and one that’s vastly easier to market).
I urge each of you to try this with your next project. Think about some of the most enjoyable games you’ve ever played, then think about the few things you enjoyed most about them. If you think you can build an awesome game around one of these aspects of the gameplay, go for it! For example, I loved almost everything about the original Max Payne, but what I enjoyed most about the game was seeing how many enemies I could eliminate while using Bullet Time before my Bullet Time meter ran out. There’s an idea for an indie game in there somewhere, and if developed perfectly, the idea would stand on its own despite being obviously inspired by Max Payne.
It goes back to what the famous poet Ezra Pound once said: “make it new.” It doesn’t matter what ideas you are ‘borrowing’ or where you get your inspiration from: turn your ideas into an experience no one has ever had before. It worked for Lyanshenko, and it’ll work for you too.