THE DARK TRIAD: DRAGON’S DEATH – AND INDIE DEV DECALOGUE + 2
(This excerpt was written before last Xmas, I’ve updated certain parts wherever necessary)
I had been long meditating the decision of leaving my job to dedicate more time to work on The Dark Triad: Dragon’s Death, my first real foray into indie professional development. As an indie team, we have some clear limitations, both human resources and budget-wise. My partner Miguel A.L.Morillo and myself have been able to pay our coder Jose Manuel and GFX artist Rafater in a monthly basis. Miguel has his own small business and puts aside some money for the project. In my case, I do the same with what I earn from my daily job. Even leaving my current job, I can still manage to put my part for the coming months, but it’s obvious that sooner or later we’ll need to go crowdfunding to finish the latest stages of the game, as the need for 3D assets, animations, engine rendering, lightning and overall polishing increases.
Today has been my last day as QA Manager for a well-known social games company in Barcelona. When I started working there we were 17 people, and after a year and a half, the company has grown to about 130 employees. During this time I’ve learned plenty of things. With things so unstable out there, should I keep living in a position of comfort but certain dullness and lack of creativity for the rest of my professional career, or should I take the risk to pursue my lifedream, making an cRPG?
First and foremost, I love the media, I’ve always loved games and I’ll always do. I still believe in the power of our craft. I’m a core gamer and I have been playing computer games during 30 years. At a personal level, I’ve mingled with programming and 3D without much success, and wrote my first game design sketches when I was 14. At a professional level, I started as QA tester, then shifted to Games Translator, Game Customer Support, Community Manager, QA Manager and also I’ve been working on some Game Design duties the last year. In our current indie project, I’m the game Writer and also do some Level Design, besides coordination and promotion duties.
(note: Even I design the storyboard for the game chapters, it’s now David Lopez, a 3D artitst that worked 10 years at Ubisoft, the one that will take care of it from now on, unless I can have some free time, which I doubt!).
With the experience gathered and being 35 years old, I feel it’s time now to go entrepreneur to fulfill my dream: making the games I want from scratch. But for that, one needs the shared vision and passion of a team. Going in the same direction is key to success. We are a 4-man team, and you might be wondering how such small number of people is attempting to make a single-player 3D-isometric, turn-based, story driven crept (that was long).
(mote: since the last time I wrote this a couple of months ago, two more members have joined the team, David Lopez, 3D artist, and Carlos Mangas, a coder, so we are a 6-man team)
First of all, Miguel and me have been working together in… let me count: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…7, 8 projects, both ranging from a first disproportionatedly unrealistic attempt of multiplayer game to some finished casual browser games. All of them were a complete failure commercially speaking. But experience-wise, all these failures have taught us some very important lessons that we’ve been trying to apply steadily since the preplanning stage. Of course we are learning many new things as they unexpectedly come to us, but we always try to be very pragmatic and relentlessly critic about what we do, which we didn’t with our first games. This autocritic is crucial not to repeat the same mistakes again and to be able to make better games, and most important… to finish their development!
Having reached the same conclusions due to our past failures has made our communication robust enough to always reach a consensus on every decision taken. I think this is key to have been working during 10 months on the game and that, for the first time, we have the certainty that this time we’ll take it to completion. I wouldn’t say it’s an epiphany but I’m sure some of you have had the same feeling when things get successfully done past a point.
All this rambling was just to put into context this Indie Decalogue + 2 that, you being an aspiring indie dev, may help you if you are in the same position we were a couple of years before.
INDIE DECALOGUE + 2
1- At the preplanning stage, the excitement will initially blind you, and you will think of features that are impossible to implement with a limited time and budget.
2- After the excitement has gradually faded and turned into a realization of the hard task ahead, make a list of features, from best to worst.
3- Crop out the worst ones.
4- Of the best features, think of the ones completely indispensable. Then, try to think on the complexity of implementation of the so-so features. Can they be left out if you feel they won’t add much to the overall gameplay? If so, also cut them. It’s better to do less things with more quality than trying to attempt too much and completing nothing.
You can talk with your coder to see if he can prepare the code for an eventual addition of these features in a future expansion or DLC. But for now focus on the core game elements.
5- The technology. That’s an important point and depends on many factors, specially on the type of game you want to make. Do an extensive research of all the engines out there, check the frequency of updates, if community support is active or stale, etc.
6- Now write a game design doc and try to refine your ideas a bit more. You must have a really clear idea of what you want/can do, and most importantly, what you can’t do.
7- Now that you have your game defined at a high level, it’s time to find the right people… but people won’t work for you for free. Do you have saved some money? if not, it will be near to impossible that you complete your project. A bunch of people working on their free time will go nowhere in the 90% of the cases if the project is a bit complex and requires many months of development, being optimistic (inference based on experience).
8- Okay, so you have some money. You can afford to pay a coder and a gfx artist, even if it’s part time. Now it’s time to look for the right people.
9- Finding the right people is a mix of logic, intuition and experience. It’ll help if you have some technical background or experience in the aspects the position is supposed to cover. If you do not, ask some experienced mate to help you understand what profile is most suitable for that specific area.
10- So now that you have the right people, you must share with them what you want to do. Both the coder and the GFX artist will need as much info as possible to do their job with efficiency. In our case, even everybody works from their homes, we at least meet one hour a day via Skype to update on our individual and collective progress. And by God’s shake, don’t ask your coder or artist to do impossible things. Try to understand how hard and time-consuming it is for them to create from scratch the stuff you are asking for and which are they technical and performance limitations. If the team doesn’t have near and achievable deadlines, lack of proper planification could lead to unnecessary tension, misunderstandings and lack of motivation. Worst of all, it could put the the team in a situation where most members might feel like giving up the project. React before this happens!
(+1 bonus) So even if your lack of experience with planning features equals to initially unrealistic estimations, if you keep making the the effort to quantify those features you’ll eventually get better at sensing when they take reasonable amount time or, on the con side, too much to be completed. Why this is so important? to take important decisions in advance before it's too late, as hiring more people to join the project so the dev time doesn't skyrocket.
(+2 bonus) Use the right tools. I’m not talking about the technology per se (aka the engine, editors, etc.), but PM or bugtracking tool like Assembla or Jira, Dropbox, Tortoise SVN or other filesharing tools. As an example, to do all things related with game writing (dialogues, lore, missions, journal, etc.) Onenote was a kind of revelation to me, a program that I long ago despised ended up being the best tool for my organizational purposes.
I hope some of what I said here can help somebody to achieve their goals and avoid the same mistakes we made!
Once our game is realeased I’ll write a postmortem and share with you the many things that happened during the development of the game. You can follow the development of The Dark Triad: Dragon's Death at www.the-dark-triad.com