The Trouble With Fan Games…

Metroid Fangame - It's No Third Derivative...

It may surprise no-one that being a nerdy sort that I have dabbled in the games creation world multiple times. I’m even dabbling now, on a project with an old friend who wants me to test the nuts off the early alpha build of his decidedly old-school RPG. Nothing gives me greater joy, because it’s nice to be able to have that kind of access to something and provide feedback as someone who likes games.

But few of the projects I dabbled in, either creatively or in a game testing capacity, have ever seen the light of day. When no-one asks me that, I wonder why that is – to which I remind myself most of these projects were fan games.

Now, I have much admiration and respect for fan projects. After all, let’s be clear here – the Sonic CD you can buy from Steam, PSN and X-Box Live started life as a fan project. Streets of Rage Remake is a serious fan project. And of course, there is The Legend of Zelda: Parallel Worlds.

But most don’t get very far – so I’ll break down what I see going wrong.

The first problem is deciding how far you plan to go down the fan road. Ideally, you want to create a co-existing storyline that is canonical to the events of the games you want to pay homage to, without directly conflicting with it. Fan Games are incredibly nerdy affairs. People CARE about conflicts in the story, they care more about plot holes and they will care most if somehow you do anything that tampers with pre-existing characters in the franchise. People will care about the mechanics you use, they will care about the graphics, the music and the controls. People will give a damn. Any hint you are going off the rails can be destructive to public support.

That is of course presuming that the company you’re paying homage to doesn’t have its say first. There are dozens of corpses scattered about of games and projects that were finished or nearly finished, but at the last minute the original owners of the IP stepped in to put a stop to it. It’s one thing to actually make an homage – but legally, getting it out there – even as a completely free object – is mired in complications. Why? Because if they allow one “free” homage, then the next one can be. And another. Eventually you dilute the franchise base, and the more diluted it gets the more it becomes an object people can steal for commercial gain. There is a REASON Square-Enix and SEGA are often quick to stomp on these projects – it’s not that they don’t want them, or admire the work that went into them. Far from it. They just have to legally cover their backs.

Another issue is how you make it.

There are multiple roads to take – there are RPG Maker games out there, most aren’t great if we’re being honest but then you do occasionally stumble over something like Castlevania: Sonata In Red, which reminds you that sometimes story and heart can conquer the technical limitations provided by a restrictive engine. Indeed, part of me wonders given better engines, more time and a budget, how much more incredible Sonata In Red could have been. Between the Final Fantasy tilesets and the Castlevania sprites, it’s a thrown together mish-mash somehow held together by way of someone who actually clearly cared how to put the game together.

Whilst RPG Maker has it’s limitations, making your own engine frees you from those constraints. But making a game on your own, or in a small group, takes time. Years in fact. I am reminded of The Legend of Zelda: Black Crown, a sort of blend between Zelda and Diablo 2. It’s nice and completely written from scratch, but that took its sole creator years. And updating it amidst having a life is slow, painstaking and most gamers won’t have that kind of patience lying around. They’ll want a finished product, and taking this road means that if it does, you can guarantee it will have taken a long time. And cost you more money, as invariably specialist tools and compilers and programs are needed for this process to be conceived.

Then comes the real killer – hubris.

You see, most people have delusions of grandeur when they get their hands on these tools and they think, “I can make a real killer game!” – they could, and probably would if they had the time, the patience, the money and the humility to work within the confines of preexisting frameworks and series. But most people don’t have the time, the money or simply the talent available for this kind of thing.

Calling in favours is all well and good – I’ve been happy to test a few games and provide some basic script spell checking (because being a writer means I am automatically better than the spellchecker that comes with MS Word and/or similar programs, right? I mean, I NEVER hvae to use it…) but ultimately if we’re going to be part of a project, it has to be achievable and stand up to a heck of a lot more scrutiny than I can offer. When the potential market is millions of people, even a free game will be subjected to the kind of criticism that Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw subjects commercial games to on a weekly basis.

When a project starts in 2D, the minute someone walks in and starts bigging up the move to 3D, I know the project will be doomed. Everyone needs to be united behind a single aim. This isn’t rocket science – it’s just the way of the world. If people are confused about the actual goal of what they’re doing, then things can quickly go out of control, especially when individuals have autonomy over their own department of a game. Graphics can be picked apart, plot can be ridiculed, the engine can be lambasted. It’s an incredibly hard and complicated process that many people simply walk into naively, without realising that making games isn’t really fun – playing them is fun. But making them is a job, and for most it’s a job they may love but it’s a job they get paid £40,000+ a year for. I’d love a job that paid that kind of scratch plus bonuses.

As I’ve mentioned, some fan games HAVE made it out there. And done very well – some get consumed by the companies and sold at pretty much pure profit to them, and commercially that’s not a stupid idea. Some are very good projects, with a lot of heart and soul put into it.

Having seen behind the curtain a lot of times, the one thing I do know is that most people who can make and finish a fan game can – and do – go on to make games that they can earn a living from. That’s the real kicker to fan projects – they’re labours of love. Dedications to some of the greatest games in the world. But if you can make a game that is a good homage to your favourite game, the real question any sane and logical person in the industry would ask is why you didn’t spend your time, money and effort making a completely original game that you could actually sell to people.

There’s no real logic in it. Love has no logic. But it is a cruel and real question sometimes these people ask themselves – and it leaves sometimes unfinished projects in its wake. It’s true after all – if you have the talent to make a game, solo or in a small group, there are better ways to use that awesome power for your own personal gain.

This is not an attack on fan games though – far from it. I’d like to see more of them, and I’d personally like to see more developers and publishers relax somewhat when fans get together for a little homage. Because they can always, if it works out to be rather good actually, step in and offer them a little something for their time and publish it cheaply, safely and meaning the franchises are preserved. I find it sometimes shocking that fans can put in the dedication for it sometimes only to be told at the very last minute their work is for nothing – Square-Enix is very guilty of this on so many occasions I’m not sure where to start. Sometimes getting in early is better, when it’s nearly done you can only make yourself look bad in the process and for a company, PR blunders like that with your own fanbase are easily avoided and hard to repair when they do happen.

But with more and more people thinking they can “do better” than the professionals, I’d say be honest with yourselves. I am a writer. I can program, I do program, but it’s a hobby and I know I don’t have the time or talent in my life to build an engine from scratch, and I’m probably not going to have the money to afford to licence an engine and spend months learning the ins and outs of it. I write poetry, I write prose and I write big articles like this.

I can’t really make games. I’m cool with that. I like being involved, I like being consulted by people and hell, I love being asked to test early code. But that doesn’t make me a games designer or a games programmer. It makes me a nerdy writer with friends in the right places, nothing more.

Sometimes it’s being honest with yourself that can stop some of these bad things happening… after all, why waste two years of evenings in the attic room only to be thwarted by some big corporate dingleberry at the last minute? What do you have to show for it then?

It’s only common sense. Fan games are a murky, dirty breed. There are gems – and they shine all the brighter for the background they are set against. But it’s such a risky world I sometimes look at people announcing fan projects and wondering… couldn’t you be doing something more productive?

Not that I’d stand in their way. If anything, I know fan projects are swept away on a swell of good ideas, love and intentions.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Some people just need to realise it needs more to really pull off a good fan game – and even then, sometimes, it just ain’t enough…

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