I’m about to release my new game Joshua’s Legs. I have been working on this game for 6 months now. I am planning to release it on June 15th, so that would be around 8 months of work. If you are considering whether you should dive into indie game development, hold your horses and read this article. I am the perfect candidate to try this experiment out for you.
I have been working as a software engineering consultant for a few years now, I usually work 3 to 4 months per year, and live on a low budget. I live in my van during the summer and do rock climbing most days. I value time over money. Accordingly, I have a lot of free time and I am well used to not living paycheck by paycheck. My indie game could fail during development or at release and I would certainly be quite disappointed, but I would survive without getting paid.
To get me started on this article, I shamelessly asked my mom (who composed the game’s OST) to come up with some interview questions.
Mom’s questions #1: Did you have your concept in mind before starting working on your game?
No. Right after I got out of school I tried my best at developing a game, but I was all over the place. I wanted my game to be too much of everything. 6 months ago, I opened up my old project just to gasp at the catastrophe I was creating. To make it short, I tried creating a platformer featuring mechanics revolving around the main character having really long arms (Literally two vault poles. Both controlled by a single joystick that you had to rotate around to swing yourself) who lives in a world controlled by an uncooperative AI living outside the game and communicating with the player using its own external Shell window, Hmph.. you could say I had Delusions of Grandeur. Over the years working in software development consultancy, the pattern I have seen the most is that people tend to forget that simple solutions already exist most of the time. I had some clients requesting some complex software which could have been replaced by a simple Excel sheet. Anyway, through this, I learned the KISS principle. I just came up with it. Keep it Simple, the last S is silent. In this mindset, I deleted the evil AI and played around with the mechanics. I added a functionality to grip to surfaces. It made it better. Then I split the legs controls so that they could be individually controlled by each joystick. The rest unfolded itself naturally and it became the crazy hard platformer it is today. You get the idea. You simply have to start working, even if you have no ideas. You could replicate a concept you like for a game and as you work on your prototype, ideas will come to you and it will transform to something else entirely. This process is what I would call a one man army brainstorm. Brainstorming alone is simply too hard to do laying in your bed at night.
Mom’s questions #2: What are the culprits of developing a game by yourself?
When it comes down to testing your game (and when you don’t have funds to pay testers), most of your friends and family will tell you how stoked they would be to test your game. But the reality is that people are busy. It is hard to face how unimportant your game is to other people since for you, your whole life revolves around it. As people get older, most will stick to a singular game for a while, instead of trying new ones every now and then. The natural tendency for humans to unconsciously look for stability as they get older. I had high hopes that my closest friends would playtest completely through my game but it did not work out that way. There are two mains problem when finding the resources to test your game:
- Most indie games are niche. Your concept will not be universal. In retrospect, I lost most of my time in the early part of my testing process. In the early testing phase, you want fewer but loyal testers because your game might be ridden with bugs. When asking people if they would be interested to test your game, start the conversation with games similar to yours. Most likely, the tester will not put the effort if he did not have crazy fun over a similar concept. Do not necessarily prioritise your closest friends because the motivation to test won’t come from helping you, but rather if they like the game genre and mechanics. Most of the people I asked did not even open the game. And since I asked them, I felt compelled to wait a few days before asking the next person. Multiply those waiting days by 2 , 3, 4 or 5 people, that quickly builds up to weeks. My most loyal early tester ended up to be the boyfriend of a college friend, who spent a lot of time playing Mount Your Friends, a game I inspired myself from to create Joshua’s Legs.
- Your early game experience will demotivate most testers. Have you ever met someone with a really annoying personality trait and asked yourself how they have not realised it by then? Well, that is metaphor for your game. When you work by yourself, you are biased in ways you would not imagine when working with a team. You make assumptions without any second guesses, until a tester opens up your game for the first 15 minutes and never touches it again. Ouch. In order to circumvent that, I came up with an evil plan. This is the opportunity to ask your close friends. In the very first play test sessions, invite some friends at your place to try out your game even if it won’t be a complete playthrough. This is the way to go for the few initial tests. By asking people to try it sitting alone at their console at a really early stage, you will end up wasting your time and losing some testing opportunities later on when your game experience has improved.
If you come from a programming or 3D background like me, you probably know nothing about marketing. Here are some things I learned through my experience:
- Kickstarter is not a marketing campaign. If you don’t have any community following your development progress (like me), you will lose what little money you might have collected.
- When it comes to choosing whether or not to use a publisher, remember that there is no way to know what you’re paying for when you have no clue about the publishing process. Let’s be honest, the chances your first game is a hit are low. Better use this opportunity to learn the process of publishing a game from A to Z by doing it yourself. There are tons of great articles out there covering this topic, and I’m still wrapping my head around this process so I will leave it at that.
There are a lot of aspects to creating a game. Game mechanics, level design, UX, UI, 2D/3D assets, programming, testing, marketing, and many more. Throughout my journey, I learned that even though it would be fulfilling to learn them all, it will probably lure a project to failure. Your motivation level when creating a game can be mapped to a bell curve. The longer it takes you, the more chances you’re going to end up on the right side of the curve before release and give up on your project. Instead you need to use your strength. As I come from a programming background, I focused on shader programming (for my lack of 2D/3D modeling skills), character mechanics (for my lack of gameplay experience skills) and difficulty (for my lack of level design skills). I only had limited knowledge with Blender, so I ended up creating my character and most of my assets directly in Unity from primitive shapes. I used free 3D models from cgtrager and turbosquid and free sound effects from zapsplat. Those restrictions will shape your game and will force you to KISS (Keep it Simple, last S is silent). Use them as a launch ramp to choose a direction.
Finally, I now realise how hard it is to release a game when you do not have a launch date. I think the best scenario would be to have an initial release date. Without a release date, it feels like there is always something you could improve a bit more. When committing to a release date, it forces you to understand that you won’t be able to fix all the bugs or improve all the aspects of your game over and over. Personally, I developed my game until it was in the prototype phase (playable from A to Z) and committed to a release date.
Mom’s questions #3: Would you do it again by yourself?
Honestly, not right now. Creating games is amazing, it gives me the ultimate freedom to work on anything I desire. But the amount of work when creating a game by yourself feels multiplied. Moreover, not having someone to brainstorm and to second guess you feels like riding a bike blindfolded. It takes a bit more effort to steer straight. I would probably do it again, but first I would like to experience what the process would be like when collaborating with a friend to design a game.
Mom’s questions #4: Final thoughts?
Do it, it’s worth a try. Most aspects of publishing a game have been done over and over, don’t reinvent the wheel and use tools and the inspirations at your dispositions. Joshua’s Legs was inspired by Downwell, Mount Your Friends, A Short Hike and The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED].