Realm of the Mad God's Daniel Cook: Facebook isn't for indies anymore [Interview]

Daniel Cook, CCO Spry Fox
Daniel Cook, CCO Spry Fox

Facebook ain't the Wild West of games it used to be. Ever since companies like Zynga and EA came along--and Facebook asserted its position as a game platform with Facebook Credits--independent (indie) developers and fans of indie games might want to look elsewhere. At least according to Daniel Cook (pictured), CCO of Spry Fox and co-creator of Realm of the Mad God, a hit Flash game that recently released to Google's Chrome Web Store.

Cook's studio is running hot off the heels of Realm of the Mad God, releasing games for the Amazon Kindle (who woulda thunk it?) like Triple Town, a game in which you build a thriving empire by matching tiles. We sat down with Cook recently to learn more about Realm of the Mad God, why indie games are always so ... retro and where the next big indie game haven will be--or is already.

Realm of the Mad God has several glaring inspirations from several retro staples. Can you say how they all came together in this game?

Sure, the history of Realm [of the Mad God] is very much the history of the indie game. It started out at the Indie Game Source competition. The competition was that people who are artists are going to make free art, and the second phase of the competition was that programmers were going to go and say, 'What can we make with this free art?' Realm got started with these two brilliant, brilliant programmers, Rob and Alex.

They said, 'Hey, we aren't great at making art, but we'll just use some of this free art.' And there happened to be a tile set by a fellow named Oryx, which are the very retro 8 by 8 pixel images. The source very came out of that indie games appreciation for retro art, but also this sort of community [effort]. 'Let's throw in some art, we got programmers, these brilliant ideas and the ability to make them. And here's the game that results. Once they had that, they just ran with it-people seemed to like it.
So, Oryx-isn't that the main villain of the game? So, I guess that's inspired by the artist? Absolutely! The artist gets a nod in the game itself.

Realm of the Mad God
Realm of the Mad God

Yeah, that's pretty cool. So, why do you think casual or independent games are more often than not homage to the old days?

Ahh! So, there are several reasons. Number one is cost. Modern triple A games have budgets that cost tens of millions of dollars, and most of the money goes to supporting complex 3D engines, art pipelines. The types of things that add a little bit to the gameplay, but they're insanely expensive. As an independent game developer, at the very least you simply cannot afford those things. So, instead you go to other models that work well, and a lot of techniques that smaller teams-back in the glory days of the Super Nintendo and those retro systems-used turn out to be very economically efficient. Now we can make art that works, and it's inexpensive.

That's sort of the economic [reason] for why that works. There's also, of course, a huge wave of nostalgia that comes with a bunch of this stuff. So, it's funny-most of the people who are playing Spry Fox games are actually younger. They never owned a Super Nintendo. There are a lot of 13 to 15-year-olds that just assume, 'Well, it's a good game, and I don't really care about the graphics,' in the same way that someone who sort of bought into the Kool-Aid PlayStation, Xbox next-gen graphics these days.

Do you have any idea why kids are gravitating to this type of game?

Well, if you think of some of the best games-you can even go back to board games-happen in the player's head. For about a decade, there was a very large amount of marketing spent by publishers, console developers to tell players, 'Hey, the most important thing in the entire world is awesome graphics, better visuals and more immersive environments.' It was basically a giant marketing spin.

If you sit down and make these prototypes, you'll find very quickly that players don't necessarily need that to have fun. Like, we were making games for the [Amazon] Kindle, which in some ways is a glorified calculator on the inside, right? It has black and white graphics; it can barely display any sort of animation. We have games on there that players love. They are absolutely passionate about them. They plays dozens of hours of these games every week-they are hardcore gamers on the Kindle of all platforms.

The reason that works is because the game is good. It's not about the graphics, it's not about the fluff. It's about the gameplay, and how the game works in the players' mind. Once you realize that that's where the real value is, then you can start saying, 'Well, look, we don't need these fancy, expensive graphics. We can still make a great game.'

Triple Town
Triple Town

How have independent hits like Minecraft affected indie game makers like yourself? Have those games raised the bar, and how do you plan to meet it?

To a degree, it gives people a goal. So, if you looked at the early days of the indie game community-I was making games back in the shareware days of the early 90s with Epic back before Unreal-a lot of the same themes would come up again and again. What happens is you have basically a group of hobbyists, people who love making games. And they're going to make games no matter what. They don't care about publishers or revenue, they just care about making games.

Over time, the technology has gotten cheaper, and the Internet has popped with all of these opportunities to connect. So, you just have this huge, wonderful community of people making games. What happens with these hit successes is they give the community something to aim for.

I think what will happen with something like Minecraft, is that you'll start hearing people say, 'Oh wait, we can make money off of these PC-based digital download games with long development cycles. These successes break out into the press, and all of this sort of unfocused, 'Dammit, I'm making games,' energy gets pointed toward those goals.

What can developers learn from Minecraft's runaway success?

You know what, I think there are so many opportunities out there for indie developers. The next opportunity will probably look absolutely nothing like Minecraft. If you look at Angry Birds-another small developer success story-it doesn't look anything like Minecraft. If something like Realm of the Mad God takes off, it's not going to look like any of those.

We forget that there's actually been another giant success story, which is Facebook games. And those don't look anything like Minecraft or Angry Birds. I think the important thing is to do something you love, figure out a way to make money off of it, and see where it leads you. That's the way to find success-not necessarily follow what's come before.

Realm of the Mad God trade
Realm of the Mad God trade

Mobile has already been established as an indie haven. Do you see potential in Facebook for independent game creators? Would you ever release a game on the platform? Why?

So, Spry Fox usually focuses on new markets, and the definition of a new market is incredibly simple. 'Is there a way we can get free customers really cheaply without paying someone a lot of money. So, Facebook is no longer in that state. For mature, closed-off markets like Facebook, after you've found success elsewhere, and you need more customers, and you know you have a game that's going to win in the marketplace no matter what, a mature marketplace is a good place to go to.

Right now you buy customers on Facebook. You advertise, you pay about a buck per person, 'Now let's see if they're willing to spend a bit of money on my game.' Otherwise, it's just a bad investment. For other people, you may want to go to-like right now, we release a lot of our games on Flash game portals. Steambirds has over 14 million people playing it. We didn't pay for any of those customers.

What, in your opinion, is the next major market for independent, casual developers and gamers?

Browser games are going to be huge. You don't have gatekeepers [like on Xbox Live or elsewhere]. With web games, you can reach all of these platforms. At a certain point, you'll be able to release a game on a browser, and someone can play that game on an iPad, their mobile phone, and they'll be able to bypass the App Store and other gatekeepers.

The indie game movement is all about people who want to make games, connecting with awesome players. It's been the developer having a direct relationship with the player. If you look at the history of game development, it's basically starts out that way and, over time, middle men arise in the form of publishers, marketing groups and platforms. They desperately try to break the connection between the developer and the players. The indie game movement, at its heart, is about keeping that connection.

[Image Credit: Daniel Cook (Twitter)]

Do you think indie game developers still have a chance on Facebook? Where do you see indie games going in the next few years? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.