I often hear Indies talk about their self-employment providing unlimited capacity for creative freedom. The fairly logical thought is that, since they have no boss, they can do whatever they want. This is only partially true. Creative Freedom is not the freedom to do whatever you want. It’s the freedom to pick your restraints.
That Game Company thrives because it restrains itself to a specific thematic pallet.
Let me explain. All truly great people live with purpose. Their actions are goal-oriented and pursue a specific theme. Those who don’t stick with anything very long live scattered lives and are often forgotten. Think of Michelangelo, Beethoven, Einstein, Plato—even the Beetles. These people really took time to flesh out what they were doing. They used heuristic progression, which means that the previous project informed the next. There’s a reason Frank Sinatra is almost his own genre. In an economic sense, creating a genre for yourself creates a supply which will generate its own demand. People come to you because they want another piece of the pie you’re offering—not someone else’s pie.
So what does this have to do with indie game developers? New developers are often so enamored by freedom that they try to do everything. Yes, having no boss means no one is telling you what to do. However, if you lose all discipline and are not self-directed, you will never create your own genre. People will see your portfolio and have no idea what you’re about. They likely came to your website interested in a certain kind of game you developed and want more like it. When they see you are inconsistent, they’ll likely leave. If your portfolio is disjointed and random they might as well go to a generic flash portal–which is just are random but has a greater selection.
Kyle Gabler of 2D Boy and Tomorrow Corporation has a unified portfolio. If you’ve played any of his previous work, you know what you’re getting into when you play a game he’s worked on.
This does not mean that each game should be a clone of the last. In fact you’re likely to make everyone (including yourself) unhappy that way. Instead, choose a theme or two and commit to making at least three games in that vein. Themes could include a mechanic category (platformer, first person, top-down, turn based), a gameplay category (strategy, arcade, shooter, puzzle), an art style, ideas explored, a narrative focus, etc. Whatever you choose, be intentional about what you make. That includes picking your limits. You’ll find that those limits propel your work lightyears beyond the diffusion of unrestrained freedom.
What themes are you working with? How are you accomplishing that? Are there themes you’d really like to start exploring? Maybe we can share some ideas and enrich each other. Lately, I have been exploring the concept of “beautiful danger.” I have aimed for a soft, gentle art style dotted with dark forests, minor music, and shadowy unknown. I also appreciate the power of silhouette and gentle blurring. I want to explore simple game mechanics which are used to create deep gameplay. How about you?