"A lot of indies don't really talk about what polish is because it's not that part of the conversation we think is cool," Mike Bithell said early on in his Game Developers Conference session on polish today.
The concept of polish is often associated with the AAA industry, Bithell said. At the same time, he noted a common misconception that games that deliberately run against the AAA aesthetic, titles with "punk" leanings, are sloppily thrown together efforts without much iteration or deliberate thought.
"It's very important that as creators we never make the mistake of thinking that punk work is without intent," Bithell said. "The person who sits down and makes a game that breaks the rules, that does something different, if they're just doing it because they didn't bother to check what the rules were, or to see how players reacted to what they were doing and just went for it anyway, then they're not punks. They're just people who haven't invested the time and effort in their design."
Whether the intended audience is fans of free-to-play farming games or a small circle of cool friends, Bithell said the process for successfully hitting the mark with that target audience is rooted in the traditional concept of polish.
"We are making a choice to do something. We're testing the water, be it through playtesting, through releasing screenshots, making videos, whatever, and we're seeing if it has the results for players that we want."
Bithell is a fan of playtesting in particular. Though he said it seems to go in and out of fashion depending on how much Valve is talking about it, playtesting is an essential part of his game design process.
"Generally, I'm more of the slightly arrogant auteur type," Bithell said. "I have a vision and an objective with my games, and playtesting's really useful to find out how badly I'm achieving that. It's good at pointing me in the right direction of achieving my goals as a creator. Usually I'm miles and miles off."
Bithell has been demoing his upcoming game Volume to the press for about a year and a half, but he said it's only now getting to the point where people really get what he's trying to do with it. And even then, that wouldn't have been possible without the steady stream of feedback from others.
"I think polish is important," Bithell stressed. "It's crucial to game development, whether or not you're going for a punk aesthetic. I'm absolutely certain every successful punk in history has been intentional in their practice. They have tried to do the thing they wanted to do, and they used every tool at their disposal to do it."