In the AAA world, the question of how to follow up a hit game has largely been answered. You make a sequel with some new stuff, some improved stuff, and some old stuff. Generally speaking, you iterate on the idea and concepts and gameplay and produce something that can outperform its predecessor and grow the brand.
In the indie world, that's not always an option. Games like Gone Home and Papers, Please seem to defy the very idea of a sequel. Even indie hits that don't have the same conceptual restraints around a sequel--think Braid or Cave Story--don't often get them. And when they do (Super Meat Boy Forever), there's a good chance it inhabits an entirely different genre.
When we spoke with Subset Games' Justin Ma about the topic, he explained why that might be.
"I feel like the reason why we don't see a lot of sequels from small studios is because of the way we approach it," he said. "What is making a game to us? For us, it's this creative expression of really wanting to pursue an idea, as opposed to a normal studio where a lot of jobs are on the line, people have families, and you need to have regularity. For us, we don't have a lot of employees we have to be worrying about. If we were in that [AAA] space, we'd probably strongly consider the prospect of something that could certainly sell. It's just a result of the position we're in that we could just do something entirely new for ourselves."
Subset's first game, FTL, was a hit, but it followed that up four years later with Into the Breach, a very different sort of strategy game.
"We did know we didn't want to do FTL 2, just because I don't have that much more to say about FTL in terms of some sort of dramatic shift," Ma said. "The things that are interesting to us are like gameplay and mechanics-based dramatic shifts, and I don't have a great idea [for FTL 2]. Theoretically we could go back to FTL 2 if we come up with something that is that compelling to us, but right now I don't have that."
"The appeal of indie games isn't the same as the next Marvel movie. It's not 'We know what we're going to get. Is it good and would I like to do it again?'"
The problem for indies is that often times the value created by their original hit often doesn't transfer to the team itself. Lots of people know FTL, but Subset Games isn't necessarily a household name, even among people who follow the industry closely.
"Yeah, it doesn't carry over," Ma admits. "Everything's based on their own individual merit. And I think that's because the appeal of indie games isn't the same as the next Marvel movie. It's not 'We know what we're going to get. Is it good and would I like to do it again?' It's more, 'This is a new experience that makes me think in different ways' so it's very unlikely for like, a Gone Home sequel, or an FTL sequel, to impact the same way as the first one. People who say they want FTL 2? There are certainly people who sincerely just want more of the same, but I feel for a lot of people who say they want FTL 2, what they're saying is they want to feel the same way they did when they first played FTL. And I think a big part of that is discovery, new mechanics, and being put in a situation you're not accustomed to. So in that way, in my mind, me making another game that's really something new is kind of a way of trying to appease the fans who wanted a sequel to that game."
So what can indies do to make sure the value created by their hits goes into the people who created them, rather than onto a brand that's unlikely to receive a sequel? Ma said hits often come down to luck, a fluke, or just the right collection of circumstances. He estimated even the smartest developers would be hard pressed to expect a hit more than once out of every four games.
"So maybe people are not accustomed to a certain group being able to hit it every single time," Ma said, "so they don't think of it as, 'That's the studio that does that.'"
Between FTL and Into the Breach, Subset Games is two for two, so it might have a good head start on that. Ken Wong is another name that might be associated with a track record like that, as the lead designer of the mobile hit Monument Valley followed it up with the critically acclaimed Florence from his new studio, Mountains. But he's not terribly optimistic about it happening.
"A lot of people don't know who film directors are," Wong said when we discussed the issue. "They know who stars are, because they're on the screen. You go see the new Tom Cruise movie, but I'm struggling now to remember who's the director of Mission Impossible 6. I think it's a similar thing where people remember what's on the screen. Unless you're really into games and you know who the people are who are making this, it's hard to know that.
"And that's OK. I think the audience and how it behaves is very organic. It's human behavior. And you can sort of manipulate it a little bit with PR, but I don't know if making them fall in love with the developers is necessarily the end goal. I'm actually OK with saying, as I did with Florence, that it's 'from the lead designer of Monument Valley.' And hopefully there's a trust there that it's not going to be the same as Monument Valley, but there's going to be some sort of holdover of an artistic hand, the eye, the taste that it took to make Monument Valley has been brought over to this new product."
As for what the 2014 puzzle game built around Escher-esque abstractions has in common with this year's narrative game about a young woman's growth through a failed relationship, Wong elaborated.
"Some people join the dots and some don't," he said. "It's interesting. Most people don't see the connections between the projects, but I do. They're kind of in terms of positioning, and values. Both Monument Valley and Florence are not about winning. And they're not about skill. It's about giving players a really good, valuable time. A short time, but a good use of their time. And every scene, there's something new to see. You're not really repeating things. So in that sense, I think they're very similar."
One developer I spoke with at the show had a proven method of handling this problem. Dylan Cuthbert's Q-Games has been an independent developer since the early 2000s, and in that time it has produced a number of high-profile games including Star Fox Command and Star Fox 64 3D. However, it is best known as the studio behind PixelJunk, a label that spans more than a dozen releases from about half as many genres.
"That was really the point of making that label," Cuthbert said. "I saw that if we wanted to do a vast range of different types of games, there was no way to connect them in the consumer's mind. They wouldn't know it was the same people making it. What I thought was, I'll put it right in the title. It's on the store. You wouldn't write Q-Games Monsters. It doesn't work. So I tried to make a key word that people would remember. That's why when you look at the PSN store for Pixeljunk Shooter, it's there as Pixeljunk Shooter. And that title is everywhere. It's in text form. It's in graphic form. So it becomes a brand. You can't really do that with a company name."
Fortunately, even without a label like PixelJunk to grow, indie hits have upsides beyond their initial sales figures. As What Remains of Edith Finch creative director Ian Dallas pointed out, hit games aren't just good for bringing in future customers; they're good for bringing in future collaborators.
"For me, I feel like one of the more tangible benefits is who we are able to hire for the next game," Dallas said. "Because we've put our name out there and created something that is kind of a lightning rod for people who like that kind of experience--even though the next game is going to be different it will have perhaps some similarities--it's much easier for us to find people to hire in the future. They will look for us, and they will know the name a little bit.
"My interest is really just in being able to make the next one. I don't really have any long-term [aspirations] of wanting to have a franchise and a theme park and all those things. I don't know how anyone parlays success other than with sequels. I guess it's more a question for fans. How do you make something that sticks in people's minds long enough?"