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From Steam to Self: Tether Director Reflects on the Issues Facing Indie Development

Tether

A recurring—but often overlooked—refrain among game developers on their social media channels and personal blogs is that development is hard. The products that millions of gamers enjoy every day come with the sacrifice of blood, sweat, and tears, yet those tales of trial and tribulation are oft untold.

For Mark Gregory, creative director on the indefinitely postponed sci-fi narrative adventure Tether, those difficulties were even greater than many creators face. Not only was his team, Freesphere Entertainment, pouring its own money into the project, most members, including Gregory himself, were working on it in their spare time alongside full-time employment.

Indeed, the director says that he was often working on the game for up to five hours in his evenings, and the process was made more intense by the complexity of the game. Given Tether’s time manipulation mechanics and high level of environmental interactivity, Gregory felt beholden to “come up with scenarios where players are able to use all of these skills,” which was exceedingly demanding.

He burned out during development—twice.

He also says that between the heavy workload and his increasingly hands-off role, he lost sight of his passion. He says that he was determined to put the needs of his team and the project ahead of his own.

Now that Tether has been set aside and the team is engaged in work of a very different kind, Gregory says that he will be turning his hand towards smaller projects that will enable him to be involved directly in production. Although he offers no hints as the direction of those projects, he says that the lengthy development period of Tether brought with it an awareness of how to build games more effectively, and he provides salient advice to first-time developers: “understand your workflow and think small; more grandiose projects can come later. Get something to market.”

Early during Tether’s production, Freesphere was creating levels and environments to near-final quality, but Gregory says that this model was unsustainable, especially without external funding support. The team has since streamlined its process, preparing more in the greybox phase because “if it plays well in greybox, then once 2D and 3D art and sound are implemented, this only enhances the experience.”

However, an uncertain developmental approach and lack of funding were not the only issues faced during the torturous development of Tether. Other problems emerged from trends within the industry. For example, Freesphere took the game to Steam Greenlight in October 2016, and says that that program, as beneficial as it was for raising the exposure of Tether, was the beginning of a decline in the quality of games on Steam, which has contributed to the erosion of general consumer trust in the indie endeavour.

During the Greenlight period, groups were contacting the studio asking for payment in exchange for approvals, but Gregory refutes the suggestion that he accepted any such offers.

By outsourcing the assessment process—first to users via Greenlight and now to algorithms via Direct—Steam has given up its once-vaunted position as a bastion of quality. GOG.com and Humble Bundle have since usurped its position as they continue to vet the games they allow onto their storefronts, and Gregory is one of the users who considers those platforms to be more curated.

However, Valve has done even more unintentional damage to the prospects of indie projects by the much publicised decision to revoke public access to the data used to power SteamSpy and its ilk.

The site may not have been entirely accurate in its estimates, but it gave developers insight into the popularity of the types of games they are trying to attract funding for. The lack of accuracy and hard data means that indie developers are now more likely than ever to struggle to make a case for their projects to investors and other parties. Furthermore, although sources such as GFK Chart-Track and NPD provide estimates for games sold, they exclude certain data points, making them unreliable.

Without SteamSpy or a similarly trustworthy estimate, says Gregory, indie developers are unable to provide prospective investors with even approximations of a possible return. “We might be able to say this game sold between 500,000 and 1,000,000 copies, but that’s a gap that could be worth millions of pounds.”

In this fraught environment, even the most seasoned of developers are almost destined to struggle. The issues facing survival in the modern industry are legion, having given rise to trends often called ‘anti-consumer,’ such as microtransactions and day-one DLC. For a debut, self-funded team, these problems are compounded, and perhaps the ambition powering Tether meant that it was destined not to arrive at the present time.

Nonetheless, the videos and images available show the talent of the Freesphere team, so, although it has now shifted its focus, it is sure to return at some point with a new project to enrapture.

More details about team are available on its official website, while any further announcements about Tether and future projects will be available via Gregory’s and the studio’s Twitter feeds.

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