From Big Studio To Little Indie
I’ve just dropped my game, Captain Kaon, on Greenlight (vote here, you know you want to), and it seems like a good time to take stock of where I am. It’s been a little over two years of near ceaseless work to get to this point and my life now is very different to when I was working in a big studio.
I used to work at The Creative Assembly as Lead Tester on Total War. After 12 years there, it was time for something different, so I left to work on my own little game.
In my experience, a lot of devs like the idea of being indie and making their own games, everyone has a little project they wish they could make. But it can be a big daunting step. I’m hoping if I write about the things I’ve learnt and would have liked to know at the start, it will help other people who want to make that leap. Finger’s crossed it isn’t a bunch of rambling nonsense (or tl;dr).
Working from home
One of the common things I’ve been asked about is how I handle working from home. There is this fear people have that they will just end up sitting around watching Netflix, or otherwise being distracted by the infinite depths of the internet. It’s easy to think that this will be the case when you work in an office, but I’ve mostly found that it isn’t. We make games because we enjoy making games. At home you’re in a more comfortable environment, more relaxed, less stressed and pressured. It’s easy to stay focused and throw yourself into the thing you enjoy.
People also think they’ll just end up sleeping until noon. It was certainly tough for me to begin with, I’m more of a night-owl than a morning person. I kept trying to get up and start work by 9, every time I over slept I would stress out about it. I’d end up working later to get enough done, which would lead to going to bed later. This would then spiral out of control until I’m getting up at noon and going to bed at 3, which lead to stress and worry and problems sleeping.
Then I realised that the 9-5 paradigm is something rigidly enforced by the corporate environment, and I was no longer in this environment. It didn’t matter when I started or when I stopped, all that mattered was the amount of work I got done during the day. As long as I kept track and did about 8 hours, it didn’t matter when I started.
Because I use Gamemaker for my game I have my usage hours tracked by Steam. With this I’ve been able to estimate that I work at least 40 hours a week. Or course, if I’m creating art in photoshop, or working on my website, these hours aren’t logged, so the true figure is probably a little higher. Whilst they might not have been the same hours every day, and they might have been broken up and spread about, it was still a solid amount of work that was getting done. Once I realised this I became more relaxed.
I also realised that I’d effectively spent the last two years in a ‘light crunch’, without really noticing. I hadn’t been feeling any of the stress or pressure normally associated with crunch.
There is still a downside to these high working hours, I’ve got no reserve when I have a lot to do in a little amount of time. I can’t work much more hours than I do at the moment. If I have a deadline and I’m falling behind, there’s not a lot I can do about it.
Doing everything yourself.
Large studios have highly talented people; one’s who can do specific tasks with a high level of skill. They have teams of coders for the Ai, UI, or graphics. Smaller studios might only have people with a broader skillset. They will have to take care of several areas of the game. Everyone is a cog in a machine that works together.
I’m doing everything myself, I’m every cog, and it’s a lot to juggle. I can’t just focus on what I’m good at and make that area of the game great. I also have to do the things I’m not good at, simply because there is no one else.
You have to be smart with your design and play to your strengths. I’m better at 2D pixel art and not so good at texturing 3D objects, so a 2D game was an obvious choice. But, there’s only so far this can take you. Sooner or later you need to do something you struggle with or something new, you don’t necessarily need to master it but you will need to reach a certain level of competency.
I’ve had to learn animation in the past year, which was fun. I’ve had to learn how to make music and sound effects, which has been taxing.
I’m fortunate that I’ve always had an interest in learning every aspect of making games, and I spent many years learning and practicing. If you want to be an indie you need to learn to be flexible too. Broaden your skillset, everything you learn makes you better.
No-one to bounce ideas off, no-one to help with problems.
This is a really useful thing at a studio, instant feedback from the people around you or help when you hit a brick wall. Any time you have an idea you can bounce it off any number of people around you. Anytime you’re stuck finding a solution to a problem you can ask someone for help. If you’ve added a new feature and you want to know how it plays, there are people there to do it. Even in a very small team there are a couple of other sets of eyes to spot problems and mistakes that you have missed.
When you’re in a team of one you’re relying entirely on yourself. There have been so many occasions when I’ve been sat at home, I’ve finished a level or feature and I need someone to playtest it. I need to observe someone playing it and see what they do, but there’s just me.
I’m fortunate that my QA background makes me better than most at spotting problems, but it’s not so helpful with solutions. If there’s one thing that I find helps, it’s giving yourself time. When you have an idea, write it down. I always have a pad handy to scribble down ideas or keep a ‘to do’ list. A couple of days after writing something down, go back and look at it again, trying to be objective, and ask yourself if you still think it’s a good idea.
You can do the same with problems. Take a break and have a cup of tea, or work on something else for a couple of days. Usually I find the answer pops into my head, suddenly, without me thinking about it. Sometimes at 2 a.m. when I’m trying to go to sleep. This is always better than staring at the problem and getting yourself stressed.
As an indie you need to find a source of feedback. There are several internet forums available, TIGforums is a good one, but you need people you can sit down with and observe.
I resorted to keeping the android version of the latest build with me on my phone. I’m fortunate that I socialise with a lot of developers and gamers so there is always someone to show it to and get some feedback. You always need to be looking for the answer to the most important question, is your game fun?
Some friends of mine found another solution to this problem by forming the Brighton Indie Collective.
How does marketing work exactly?
This was a problem I knew I’d have right at the start. How do you market a game? How do you get people to read about it? It’s also pretty important, I’d go so far as to say that it’s more important to market your game well than it is to make a good game. Think of it like this, would you rather have a great game that no-one plays or an ‘ok’ game that lots of people play?
It’s easy, as a developer, to be singularly focused on making the best game you can. We’re passionate about games, it’s the thing that drives us. It can make marketing the game seem like a secondary concern, something to do later, a little job you’ll have to get around to. But it’s not.
You should be thinking about it right from the start. I’ve heard, and agreed with, lots of people who criticise marketing being involved in the initial concept level of design.
Often, when games are pitched to publishers they have to go through a process where the marketing team decides if they think they can sell it. This always seemed a little backward to me, surely they are there to take the great game you have made and find a way to get people to buy it. Not cherry pick their way through games and select only the ones that are easy for them to sell. The ones that already fit within the current market trends. Doing it this way would just lead to a stagnant industry, a lack of innovation, and a whole load of games that imitate the latest hot gaming property.
I’ve recently been gaining a better appreciation for why it works this way. If your concept isn’t compelling or interesting enough, you will struggle to get people to engage with it. In your head the game is a great idea, but to other people, it may not be. If I could go back and start my project again I would think about how compelling a concept it was, maybe I would have made a different game, maybe I would have made Captain Kaon slightly differently.
When I worked in a studio I’d been around marketing people, many of whom were friends who started out as one of my testers. I picked up the odd things here and there, nowhere near enough to be ready for my own game, but enough to know I needed to think about and learn how to market games.
There’s lots of websites out there with tips and guides, pixel prospector is excellent, so I followed some of these as best I could. But reading about it and doing it are two very different things.
Until you’ve actually gone through this process it’s hard to picture just how hard and time consuming it really is. I’ve certainly learnt a new appreciation for my former PR colleagues. Promoting Captain Kaon is the most mentally draining thing I’ve had to do.
One of the most important skills I’ve had to develop, which I hadn’t given much thought to beforehand, is writing about my game and making it sound exciting. You need to be able to write a short paragraph about your game that gets people hooked.
Standing in front of someone and enthusing on your latest project is easy, your excitement for the project you’re passionate about will be contagious. But writing it down in a way that isn’t stilted or forced, this is hard.
There were two things I did to get the hang of this and produce useful text. Firstly, I got a pen and paper and wrote, continuously, about the game and why I liked it. When you do this you have to pour every thought you have onto the paper, non-stop, for ten minutes. No planning, just a pure outpouring. When you’re done you underline key phrases, little bits that are interesting, and you use them to form your descriptions.
Secondly, think in terms of interesting verbs. What verbs can you use to describe you game, write a list of them. Once you have this you can look through them and switch out any boring ones for more interesting ones. You don’t ‘run’ you ‘sprint’. You don’t ‘shoot’ you ‘blast’. Some verbs are more evocative than others, build a vocabulary of these to use when describing your game.
Money, money, money.
Probably the biggest problem you have is supporting yourself. To go from employed to self-employed is the massive step that stops most people from being indie. You need to have a good look at your finances and know you can support yourself. You should also double how long you think it will take you to make your game when you figure out the budget. No matter how simply you think your game is it will take twice as long as you expect.
I haven’t had any kind of income now for 2 years. I’m fortunate, my monthly outgoings are low and I’m able to survive on my savings.
If you switch to indie on a whim, without any financial plan in place, you’ll rapidly find yourself broke.
It seems like scope is a problem no matter what the size or experience of a team. Estimating the work required for a project is generally hard to do, especially when there can be so many hidden factors that pop up along the way. The human mind is actually pretty rubbish at estimating stuff, the less we know about something, the less time we estimate it will take.
Everyone has little dream projects that they really wish they could make, if only they had time. Trouble is, these ideas are only constrained by our imaginations, not the limited resources of reality. If you plan to go indie, try to pick as small a project as you can to begin with. Refine to down to a simple, pure, concept and execute that.
You’re probably thinking that’s obvious. But when I sat down to figure out my first project I tried to think small. To pick something that wouldn’t take long to do. I thought I had, but it didn’t really work out that way though, Captain Kaon has taken me two years so far. Everything just starts to spiral away from you. To begin with it took me a day to design and build a single level. Then I started to add more gameplay features, the day became two. I realised I needed to add little bits of polish and detail to make the levels pop. Then there’s play testing and balancing. Now the levels take about 4 days to do.
Whatever your starting point is, your project will only get bigger from there. If you start with something that pushes your resources, you’re going to struggle.
Hopefully you made it this far, hopefully this was useful to you, or at least interesting.
If you have any questions, ask them in the comments.
If you’d like to support my indie journey, vote for my game on Greenlight, after all, it won’t cost you anything.