Why an indie game became number one

Launching a new app or game for that matter can be a real daunting experience. A great app or idea doesn’t just simply become successful overnight. Garnering the desired audience takes effort, and plenty of really impressive products have gotten lost in the void. It’s especially intriguing when an unlikely app becomes a big hit. Have you played A Dark Room? It’s a text based game that for a time was the #1 downloaded game in the app store. Well, how did a game like that (a text game) get there? And, what can we learn from it? The truth is, that although text based, ADR, like some other indie games out there has some innovative characteristics which make it a highly engaging and gratifying play.

The main difference between A Dark Room and a traditional text based game is the touch screen integration. We’re not typing to play this game. Some of us who have played text based games in the past might remember learning a command prompt based interface before you really started getting into a game. Yes, that’s right. In games like Zork, users had to type in commands to play: Diagnose, Inventory, Look, Wait, Time, Quit, Save, Restore, Restart, Score, Walk, ect. For more info on that visit Mr. Bill’s Adventureland

Wisely, the developers of A Dark Room did away with this structure in favor of a button based interface. Users see text, but what's happening here is a rudimentary and flat UI. It doesn't get any flatter than this folks. Also, like other RPGs, you can explore via a world map. It’s a text based map. Your character takes the form of the familiar @ symbol and you move him around with direction buttons. In addition to that major change, ADR capitalizes on a big trend in mobile games - the waiting meter. This meter has users wait on one task while completing another.

At the center of the game we’re either stoking the fire, collecting wood to burn or setting traps to snare our dinner. Bypassing metered time for level ups has become a common in-app purchase in other games - thankfully, we don’t see the purchasing aspect in ADR. Theses kinds of micro engagements keep the user busy with many things happening at once. So, even though we see simple text on screen, there is actually quite a bit going on. These small gameplay changes are really opening up the market for more conceptual games to mainstream audiences.

So, how does a game like this become a sensation? How did such an alternative style of game come to be? I reference exhibit one: the value of marketing in a competitive marketplace (app store). Dallas News has a nice little interview about this with, Amir Rajan, the iOS developer who made ADR a reality on the iPhone.

In the future, it’s the opinion of this author that users will be more willing to try and experience a variety of different and more simplistic text based games. Games that are pushing the envelope like A Dark Room or Device6 (pictured above and also largely text based) from the Swedish Design Duo Simogo are asking their audiences to question more and more what a “good” game is. Device6 for instance is like playing a highly immersive interactive crime novel. See a video here.

One final note about indie games right now: There is a whole slew of seemingly traditionalist style games like VVVVVV for instance (screenshot below), which are without a doubt designed to enrapture the hearts of all the nostalgic purist gamers everywhere. At first it seems games of this variety are not trying to do anything new.

A closer look reveals that teams like Distractionware are taking more advantage of touch screen interfaces and different screen sizes for a more responsive and advanced gaming experience. This new wave of indie games like VVVVVV, Device6 or A Dark Room have a noteworthy amount of breadth, depth and thought put into them.

Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s see you make that next big indie game. :)