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"People wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."
Paraphrasing Shakleton's recruiting notice for Antarctic exploration works surprisingly well for indiedevs too.
Today is the culmination (but not termination) of nearly four years of effort. My game, Concealed Intent, is now out of Early Access and fully released on Steam (Steam store page and Humble store page). It has easily been the largest project I have ever undertaken and required intense effort to reach this point. Working largely alone in a foreign country I often found myself questioning what I was doing. However, in retrospect, I would still do it over again - but with a few changes (see the "What went not so well" list below).
After a brief (and shameless) video interlude for Concealed Intent itself, I will detail the things I think went right and not so well during the development process. I have tried to think back to my state of mind four years ago, just before starting and offer advice to that naive and optimistic person. A later post, some time after the release, will look at the business and financial side of the game - was it profitable: stay tuned to find out!
Concealed Intent is a simultaneous turn-based game of tactical stealth space combat, strongly influenced by games such as Homeworld and Frozen Synapse. Players control their ships in a fully 3D world - hunting down their enemies, just as they are being hunted themselves. In Concealed Intent you know your enemies are out there, but not exactly where, or even what they are. Concealed Intent includes a single-player campaign, an instant skirmish generator and multiplayer options.
Let's start with the positives.
What went well:
Luck (or not going broke) - I am immensely lucky the opportunity to make any game came my way. I spent 15 years in software development and was reasonably confident I could handle the coding side of game development (which was lucky). Cheap or even free game engines and assets have lowered the barriers to entry (luckily for me). Then my girlfriend got a job in Malaysia where our basic expenses would be covered by her employer (even more luck!). This is what allowed me the financial freedom to work on a project of my choice - and I chose game development. Concealed Intent would never have been started without this safety net. Based on Early Access sales, this game is unlikely to be a big success. I am lucky to be in a position not to worry about a small loss, and still know I will eat well and have a roof over my head. It is hard for me to advise people to create a game on the basis of profitability. Potential indiedevs, please consider this carefully.
Finished (or stubbornness) - So many days started with questions: why am I doing this; is there a bad bug; will today be the day I fail? However, I just kept going. Many times I wanted to give up, but I didn't have a good excuse other than it was hard (money problems would be a good excuse, just not for me, see above). I learnt to create a list of tasks looking only a week or two ahead and focus solely on them. Eventually, I managed to get on top of the project, and then the thought of actually completing a game motivated me to finish. You have to really want to finish.
Professional help with art - I did every element of the game that I could myself, largely due to my incredibly low budget (not counting my time). This worked fine with all the coding tasks, but not so well in other areas. One of the best decisions I made was to hire a local freelancer to create the 2D art and provide advice on the GUI 's graphic design. After adding her work into the game, the difference in player feedback was instant and massively positive. Now I regularly get compliments on the GUI. People often call the game pretty. This never happened in earlier versions despite all the 3D art remaining largely unchanged. Small things can make a big difference, so pay close attention to everything. There are some things you do well, and some things you don't. Try to find people to help you. Unfortunately, this advice will be repeated in the "what went wrong" section.
Hold the core, let the periphery change - Concealed Intent has massively changed over its development cycle. Not just in the graphics. The game has also become much simpler. Originally the game had a more real-world physics simulation model and vastly more configurable ship controls. Playtesting suggested this was overly complex. Various playtesters also suggested changing the game to be 2D, or real-time or ditching the stealth/detection mechanic to make it more like other games they enjoyed. At this point I used a simple rule. If something was central to the concept of Concealed Intent, then I would not compromise on it - everything else would be considered. To me the game would not be Concealed Intent if it wasn't completely 3D, turn-based and using a submarine-inspired detection system. If these things changed, it would someone else's game. I may have backed myself into a small market niche, but despite all the gameplay improvements and simplifications, the original vision of Concealed Intent is intact. The current version is recognisably the same game as the early prototypes - only much better!
Early Access works (if you know what you want from it) - There are many stories about Steam's Early Access program, both positive and negative. For me the experience has definitely been positive. It has not made me much money, but that was never my goal. Instead, the game has received the feedback it desperately required. Also, just knowing that some people have paid their hard earned money for the game is huge motivation to make it the best game I can (admittedly not many people, but even one is enough). Lastly, almost everything I know about game marketing I have learnt the hard way through my time in Early Access. There is no doubt that if the game went straight to full release without having passed through EA, then it would have been worse and pathetically marketed (instead it will just be poorly marketed - still an improvement).
Revenge is best served by a hot heavy beam
What went not so well:
Too big, too long - Making a game is hard! Way harder than I expected. The original plan for Concealed Intent was 18 months - that was soon shown to be inadequate. Every system in the game has been reworked multiple times. There were numerous tasks not considered or even known about at the start. Everything took longer than expected. Worst of all, the largest expense on a project will be the time of the dev team (that is, me). By taking four years to finish the game I have likely condemned it to unprofitability after my living costs are considered (even in relatively cheap Malaysia). The fault here lays entirely with me; I simply dreamed too big at the start. Come up with the smallest decent idea you can, then try to make it smaller.
Forever alone, and inexperienced - As well as being hard work, game development requires many different skills and can take a toll emotionally. Working alone just multiplies the difficulties. With a proper dev team, tasks can be split up, different abilities used and hopefully development time reduced. The benefits of companionship should not be underestimated either. I know (from experience) some publishers refuse to accept solo game developers. At first I thought that was short-sighted, now I think it is wise. For most of Concealed Intent's development, I was alone, and it was hard. There was no one to fall back on. Try to find people to help you, both for their skills and company (remember that from above, it is repeated as it is important!).
Marketing! - Obscurity is indie death. Did anyone who is reading this know about Concealed Intent beforehand? I doubt it. I have not done a good job with marketing. Lots of emails and review copies have been sent out. I try to stay active on social media. There have been some website articles and more Let's Plays, but not really enough. When the game went into Early Access I discovered that it was not possible to do both development and marketing at the same time. I couldn't do all the things indie devs are supposed to do. It was just too much, and too time consuming. I chose to prioritise finishing the game. Over the last month I have reversed this and focussed on marketing, but really it is an overwhelming job for a solo dev, with a niche game, no contacts and far from any large indie scene. My emails largely go ignored, probably in a pile of emails from other indies in the same situation. I have no idea how to solve this other than to keep going, do as much as you can, and keep looking for opportunities. A good game helps too.
Lack of focus - Concealed Intent has a single-player campaign, procedural skirmishes and online multiplayer. This is too much, it would have been best to focus on one mode, at least at first. During development I didn't know which was best. Early Access feedback suggested that procedural skirmishes were the most popular aspect, and luckily that plays to my strengths. Unfortunately, a great deal of effort went into the other game modes. They are still work well and remain in the game, but are less than I hoped. Creating a compelling (or even just acceptable) game story and online communities is exceptionally hard. Keep the game's scope down by focussing on one type of gameplay and polishing it. It would have been best to start with one gameplay mode and then add the others later (as long as the code is designed to keep those options available).
Niche and complex gameplay - Concealed Intent is much simpler now than originally envisioned, but it is still complex. There is a lot happening "under the hood". I have found it hard to explain this to players. It is also a niche within a niche - space, turn-based, tactical. Think about this when designing games. Who are your players? I made the job of selling this game hard for myself by my choice of mechanics and setting. Although, this is the game I wanted to make.
Taking damage while saving civilians
As a parting gift, here are some other things I learnt that might be useful:
Don't use the first version of a game engine's major releases, wait for the patches (yeah, I'm looking at you large Danish game engine)
Write a game you enjoy playing, because you will play it an extraordinary amount
Music copyright is a minefield - upload any music you use as a private video on YouTube ASAP to see if anyone claims it
Key scammers are common, and will not care how small your game is - be wary!
Good feedback is hard to find and harder to accept/use. Be thankful for all the feedback you get (as long as it's not ad hominem)
There are a surprisingly large number of non-English purchasers on Steam (at least surprising to me). Strongly consider localisation from the start. It is probably too late for Concealed Intent, but I'll definitely be doing this in future.
The IGF competition doesn't provide feedback anymore (at least not last year). If you have been advised to enter mainly for the feedback - check first!