My newest game experiment is up.
It's TurboGarbageTruck... a name and concept stolen entirely from my son. So... not really my idea.
I have a theory that feedback on a game (or quite probably any other media) can't be gathered too early. I suppose it isn't much of a theory, and it really isn't my theory either, since every major developer employs, or keeps employed, dedicated testing staff. Feedback is what these people do. It's all they do. It's less of a theory and more of an imperative. And again, not my idea.
I've talked about "open kimono" development before. I've also seen this referred to as "open door" or "transparent" development. The basic idea is that you let your potential players in on the development of your game as much as possible, while you are making it. Demos, tests, concepts, design documents... they are all on the table. I posted up builds of my last project while I was working on it, but I really didn't commit to open development. I think I know why very few developers even attempt it.
It's scary as shit.
There is that old chestnut "you never get a second chance to make a first impression". So I could go ahead and post up all my dev builds, any concept art, any design docs, knowing that the first version of any or all of those things will probably be garbage. Going by the first impression rule, that would sour anyone who saw it on all future versions of the game. The damage would have been done with the first broken play test. A trend toward development secrecy almost goes without saying, if this first impression rule has any merit. It does and it doesn't.
Everyone brings up Minecraft. Constantly. For good reason. It's a goddamn phenomenon. When it was first released, no one would have guessed that it would be a phenomenon. No one. Because it sorta sucked. Mojang didn't catch lightning in a bottle. They built steam slowly, one beta version at a time. Only thing is, slowly in internet time is anything longer than six months. To those not acquainted with internet time, this is pretty much the same as instant. Had they toiled in secrecy for that same amount of time and released the current version of Minecraft whole hog, to an unsuspecting internet, I suspect it would be met, initially, with a collective meh.
Minecraft isn't some strange exception to the rule either. Kickstarter is a funding and business model pretty much built around showing your work. Offering updates and "making of" style information to the people who will fund your project is pretty much a requirement. I doubt that there are any successful projects on Kickstarter that say "Fund my project. It's a super great idea that I can't tell you about."
I only chose these two examples because they are current and relevant to indie game development. There is a long history of "patrons of the arts" which is short for "I will pay you to let me look over your shoulder while you work". That's exactly where the first impression rule breaks down. If you are meeting someone face to face and you know that they will be judging you, as a person, by all means, bring your A game. When it comes to "things" the rule no longer holds up. In fact the exact opposite is true. Everyone likes to watch things being built. Skyscrapers, houses, cars, paintings, movies, and yes games. As long as you don't have to do the work yourself, watching it get done is fascinating. I've lost count of the amount of people who stood around to watch me apply decals to their car. Where things that people are building are concerned, it would probably be more accurate to say that the final impression is what matters. If the final work resonates, any problems during the making are forgiven. People have died while making movies. Died! Making movies! Successful ones. As a first impression, I can't think of much worse.
So transparent development shouldn't really be all that scary. I understand the need to withhold some details. Plot twists, puzzle solutions, easter eggs, etc. Most players have such an aversion to anything that would spoil their fun, and rightly so, that they would likely cry foul if you released that stuff anyway. Any other development details really don't need any protection. In fact, I think a lot of the best big budget titles could benefit from transparent development. Patrons of the arts love to look over the shoulder of their heroes at work.
I'm starting TurboGarbageTruck in the most transparent way I can think of. I'll let you play it. I'll be adding a method for you to play all the previous builds and experiments too. As I get to scanning them I'll be posting up concept art and maybe even design docs (though this game sort of speaks for itself). I'll definitely be posting up my road maps and upcoming features. Please feel free to ask me if you want to know more about anything I'm working on, or if you just want to call me out on anything I'm doing that you think is bullshit. I'm good with that.
Update: When I wrote this I hadn't read the Game Developer article where John Graham of Wolfire Games pretty much breaks down how and why open development works. If you're looking for an example they seem to be the current masters.