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Thoughts about indie game development through an actual project, USC: Counterforce.

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Mind you, I am only a junior game designer.

We are a two-person game studio in a company that has a different main profile. My partner in development is a real genius. Her name is Aliza Wenders. Our one-woman army. She has been working in programming and game development for almost thirty years now. As a child, she started learning to program on Commodore 64, then designing maps for countless games on PC, modding them, and with the development of technology, she was always introduced to and experimented with new programming languages ​​and other computer tools. With the Unity engine, in C#, she has been the lead developer of several successful projects in the last 6-7 years, and she also has qualifications and experience in the field of informatics as a science.

In terms of my role, any questions you may have are correct. What is this guy actually doing? There is no short answer for that. As we are indie game devs, we have to take on roles of development that are actually done by hundreds in bigger companies, or by at least ten times more dudes than we. Not to mention that they have their own job and they do not need to work in an unknown field as we do sometimes. I won't specify all the above-mentioned roles, everyone knows what this is about.

Yeah, I know. Always the same old thing.

Whining. But it is true. (As true as to miss a shot in some TBS games with a well-trained soldier from a few feet, no obstacles, no fog, and with a 95% hit chance. And those are AAA games.) Indie struggle, some might say. Until you faced the problems we had to solve each day, you would never understand this thing. Sorry, this is not about the hundreds of so-called “games” flooding Steam every week. It's about game devs who try to make sufficiently polished games. It's not about tech demos, asset fiestas, copy-paste things. It's about us, who are working our arses off to create something that is worth playing by gamers. Of course, I am not against those whose hobby is to make tech demos or any kind of project that they love to do.

After I have watched Aliza's workflow, I told her that I would like to help her more. During the past years, besides my regular job, I tried to help with some of her tasks. But this time, I wanted more, more than only testing and playing. I wanted more of this kind of knowledge. She already showed me this and that during the development cycles in previous projects. I am still amazed at the knowledge she acquired on her own during the years. Of course, I threw myself into the topic. That was the point I got totally lost. After checking dozens of blogs and videos, I really asked myself: is this the thing I really want to do? Am I smart enough to achieve anything in this unknown area? Ok. Let's do the pro and contra thing. The result was grinding. Even with working like hell, the chance to get noticed in this industry is as "easy" as to win the lottery... So we all know the cons, I am not here to bring anybody down; on the contrary, I am here to inspire, to empathize with other, real indies. And to be one more voice from the crowd.

What about the pros? For example, I love doing this game dev thing. As a hobby. Part-time. If only I had more time... Suddenly, a question arose in me: Do I love to play games or do I really want to make games? The overwhelming recognition of cons and of our chances I have mentioned before told my brain to stop. But I won't. We won't stop. In the last couple of years, I tried to help. In testing, marketing, brainstorming, planning, and so on. Now it is time to take this endeavor to a more serious level. I'm not saying I wasn't doing my best before, but now it is time to put more effort into this dream in order to make it a reality. Many indies failed and will fail. Who knows what will be the outcome of any of their attempts? It depends on us and on some things beyond our control. In our case, I have no control over the owners of this company. I can suggest, ask and talk. They support us, as they acknowledge and honor our work. Putting money in our indie dev thing is also a thing why both of us (Aliza and me) are thankful towards them. We achieved some success that most indies will never achieve. Our first game, Ultimate Space Commando (USC) made quite good sales numbers. More than 6000 copies sold during its lifetime (6 years) on Steam. We are the first indie devs in our country who could port a game (Mimic Hunter) to Nintendo Switch. And among the top 3 in the country, bigger companies included. Some of our discount sales were also OK. If there's one thing I learned from a friend of mine who is pretty successful in the start-up business, is that we have to push the thing that we are good at. So, after some promising prototypes, we made a decision with Aliza to change the focus back to a genre we were already successful at. She'd already made the foundations for the sequel to USC.

After we were through some projects together, we have learned a lot.

This time, we didn't wait too long to show our stuff to our target audience. To be precise, to the audience we have. Erm... On social media. Posting on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram regularly is important. But about what? About everything we have! About our struggle. About success, failure, bugs, and about the project that we truly believe in. Personally, I hate that we have to fight for scraps in a medium full of million-dollar projects and their paid ads. I also still have to work on this “Reddit thing.” It's not so popular in our region. As I am not a native speaker, I do not use that medium as often as I should. The good thing is that we are not alone. We are in the same boat with thousands. They have the same thoughts. I bet. Building an audience is one of the most painful tasks as an indie. We have over 2k followers on Twitter now, and a couple of hundreds on Instagram and on Facebook. No mailing list, yet. Despite it is a tough job, I am putting more and more effort to increase the number of our followers. Today this is crucial and mandatory. But let's get back to our actual project.

Aliza told me that it would be very useful to help her plan the UI. I said, OK, it's easy. Well, it wasn't that easy. We have a saying in Hungary: "I was sweating blood." Literally, I was. Pen, paper, ruler. I read all the written materials on the topic we had, and also I double-checked the prequel's UI. My side: after days of planning, drawing, phone calls, brainstorming (yes, again), I thought I was ready. She "only" needs to put our plan into the right place in Unity. Her side: countless hours of preparing the UI with coding and editing in Unity. Testing, coding, making the menu, testing, coding, changing resolutions, teaching me, checking my work, measuring, and so on. A couple of days later the UI was almost ready. I felt that I did nothing. But I did, so she reminded me. Helping her by thinking together over and over again, she could plan the whole thing much easier, than if she had to do it by herself, alone.

UI 01

Also, this was the first time I had to work with Unity.

Nothing serious. Just prepping some props. Sounds easy, right? Many dudes out there think that you just buy some assets, click twice, and everything's ready to go. I tell you a secret! It's a bit more complicated than that. In my case, handling Unity was not that hard. (But to be honest, I still don't know what the other 90% of the engine is good for.) Aliza taught me how to do the process. We made a video, I made notes. Ohh, before I forget! A piece of rock knows better to program in C# than me. I've never written a single line of code in my life. Clicking around in a program like Unity is different. The basics are simple. It becomes hard if you wanted to do something that you hadn't seen how to do before. Yet, I am able to help with small things. But as a two-person studio, any help to Aliza helps her a lot. She could continue to grow the million character code, implement new features, make builds, etc. During the process of preparing the props, I had learnt a lot. And precision is only one thing out of the hundred other little details that you should keep in mind.

On other hand, I was able to help by picking out some icons and sifting through thousands of sound clips and music tracks. It is unbelievable how many sounds we need already, though the game itself is in the early alpha stage. I had to find sound effects for each and every step, action, aliens, weapons, etc., and also for the environment. Hours became days when you have to chew yourself through that many gigabytes of sound samples. Even to find out if something needs a sound, and if yes, what, is tough. Then, all these files had to be arranged into folders. On top of that, the quality of these samples was different. In the end, I could save a lot of time for Aliza, while she was working on the sound system, where she was finally able to put some of my hand-picked files. If I made a mistake, or the sound sample wasn't a good choice, she had to search for another sample to put into the game. It is irrelevant that how hard this was for me because we could save time, so all the other features, fixes, and tasks could have been finished faster by her.


Me, as a tester.

Many guys think about testing the same way I thought of it before. Using the software. Playing with a game. It's simple, isn't it? Hell no! In our previous projects, it was enough if I told her the bug, sent a video or wrote a mail about the actual problem. This time it didn't seem enough. As this turn- and squad-based, top-down view, RPG-lite sci-fi strategy/tactics game (USC: Counterforce) is like a board game with complex calculations and rules behind it, a more effective testing method was needed to be used. Aliza told me that the best way is to use a spreadsheet to make the right notes. We made a Google Sheet. And shared folders. I also learned how to make a bug report that helps her address the root of the problem faster, so she was able to get rid of the bug, and she made a new build for me to test. Also, she had to test the same bugs that I have reported. Double-checking is always safe. (And I also learned that this “spreadsheet” of ours is called a backlog.)

As for smart ideas, you may find many on the internet in connection with development or marketing.

No matter if it is on Youtube or on a blog. It also doesn't matter if it was written/said by an industry veteran or by any of the speakers of the famous, related events. I am tired of reading/listening to things like: “Make an outstanding game!”, “Get the attention of the press!,” and so on. Yes, what they say is true, and I really appreciate their help, but it's hard for indies, like us. You really need to have good connections, luck, or the perfect recipe of the "waiting to be discovered" game to get into the spotlight. One in a million. That is a good average. I have heard that Rovio's 30th, 40th, or whichever game was their success story. Was it unique? Sure, it was. There are millions of such ideas dying every day because smart guys cannot reach the surface. They are clever, talented, with good hearts, but without any connections or luck. There are some who are “lucky” -- we all know these games. Many individuals in this industry are working so that these fellow devs may have the chance to show their games. 10 years ago making a game was harder than today. But if one was able to do it, then reaching the relevant medium was definitely easier. Today, thanks to the modern engines, like Unity, Unreal, etc., making games that took years for bigger game dev companies before can be done with fewer people.

USC: Counterforce Alpha Demo Trailer:

What really works from the million things that we have already tried?

Let's take a quick look. Many things. It's well worth to write another article on this topic. Online events and contests are good because you have to force yourself to give a clear picture of your project. Not only to show a video or some screenshots. It's about clear and concise wording. If you have limited time to pitch your project, you need to be effective. I know that it is not easy to speak about anything before judges and other developers. It really helps you to expand your comfort zone! :)

A bit more about communication. We have sent tons of emails to YouTubers, and to relevant press contacts. Only a few of them replied. I understand this because they receive hundreds of emails each day. It doesn't matter. We will continue to send mails because sooner or later one of these letters will find the right person! You should also keep up this work!

Our advice is to ride the popular hashtags on Twitter, like, #screenshotsaturday, #followfriday, #indiedevhour, #wishlistwednesday, and whatever hashtag you find for the genre of your game. We have realized that if we post regularly, it brings more followers and triggers more interactions. If you have a game that has stunning visuals then you are lucky. It's easier to promote. In our case, it's much harder to show the strategy or the tactical choices you can make. At the moment, we do not have a graphic artist. All the visuals that we are able to show are from the engine or photoshopped by Aliza. Her proficiency with PS is lightyears before mine. I can do some basic editing, but the visual composition and the way she prepares such materials to make these things look much more professional. And the first reaction of players is based on graphics. So, by having better quality pictures, videos, and other stuff you are able to bring in more likes, followers, retweets, shares, and so on. The biggest enemy (and fear) for most indies is that they remain unnoticed. That all the hard work, their love, the passion, their time, and all the sacrifice they made will be like a grain of sand in the desert.

Being an indie dev is not as easy as it seems from the outside.

Of course, you are your own boss, right? You do not need to tolerate the stupidity of others. There is no overtime. (Don't lie to yourself!) Really? Do you drink enough? Do you exercise? Run? Walk? Rest? Sleep? What do you do against burnout? Watch out for your health, your friends, or your family. Of course, it is hard to let go of your dreams. You shouldn't let them go, nor the other important things in your life.

No doubt, being an indie game dev means choosing the hard way instead of the easy one. (The latter being not making games at all :D!) A one-man army or a small group of devs are going to struggle like we have, like many of you have. Helping each other by wishlisting, sharing solutions, or spreading the word on social media makes me really happy. Despite our way is tough, it's also full of kindness, and you are able to meet with many good people online and in offline events, on forums, and so on. Don't be egotistic, don't be harsh with fellow game devs. We should help each other, as we are traveling together on this road.

Have a great day! ;)

— Csaba Bak, a.k.a. Lev

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