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Opinion: Indie Game Design Do-s and Don't-s: A Manifesto
Opinion: Indie Game Design Do-s and Don't-s: A Manifesto
December 30, 2009 | By Edmund McMillen

December 30, 2009 | By Edmund McMillen
More: Console/PC

[Veteran indie game creator Edmund McMillen, known for his work on 2005 IGF Grand Prize winner Gish, Time Fcuk, and Super Meat Boy for WiiWare, shares his opinions and manifesto on making indie games, with 24 clear do-s and don't-s to make your art thrive.]

One of the most common questions I'm asked in interviews is, "Do you have any advice for independent game developers who are new to the scene, or tips for developers in general?" Well, I actually answered it this time: I came up with this list of indie do-s and don't-s.

Now, I'm going to make clear that I'm not perfect and I'm sure as the years go by this list will change. But from where I stand right now, having made independent art/games for a living for the past 10 years, the advice below is crucial to all indie game designers, and all artists for that matter.

Also note that when I refer to a "designer" or "artist," I include programmers. All aspects of art have a fine balance of the technical and creative; just because programming is viewed as a technical field does not mean it is void of creativity.

The creative is visible in the work as a whole rather than in the specifics. Light and shadow are vital technical aspects of illustration, but without creativity the piece is nothing more then a photocopy of the subject, void of any personal touch or presence.

This is a list for the creative designer who strives to be independent. This isn't advice on how to monetize your Flash game or survive financially by copying existing trends and juicing the public for their cash. This is a list for artists who are driven by the desire for creative freedom and/or to "just make some cool shit people will love."

Anyway, here's the list. Take what works for you and leave what doesn't:

1. Be honest.
When I say "be honest" I mean to speak from your heart. Don't be manipulative or condescending in your work; treat the player how you'd wanted to be treated. Honesty is extremely valuable when making art.

2. Realize you're making art.
Game designers are artists and have advantages over non-creative jobs; think about what they are and exploit them. Your goal shouldn't be to make tons of money. If it were, you would have gone to business school or become a doctor. This is a creative field and should be treated as such first and foremost. Financing your art comes later. This is probably your greatest advantage as an indie designer.

3. Design from the heart.
Write / design around things you're passionate about. Put yourself into your work and show the world who you are. What do you love? What do you hate? Why? All notable film makers have a stamp, something that appears in their work and speaks to who they are. These themes will always come through to your audience, giving your work a sense of your self.

4. Take big risks.
Try to innovate the hell out of anything you make. From how your game plays to how it looks, be unique and you'll stand out. Push your personal limits, try new genres, mechanics and aesthetics. Experimentation and risk are the keys to growing as an artist. Don't be scared of failure; you don't have much to lose and you'll only learn from your mistakes.

5. Donít bite off more then you can chew.
If you're just starting out, think small, then think smaller. If you start on something big you won't finish it and if you do you'll be burnt out and probably won't make another. A filmmaker never starts his career with a blockbuster movie. One of the easiest mistakes to make starting out is letting ambition drive you down a path you're not ready to travel. Slow down, take your time and start simple. Prototyping is crucial for all designers.

6. Practice (make lots of small games).
Make lots of small ideas quickly; build on the ones that work. If you look at any successful or "fully realized" game in the indie scene you'll note that it began as a simple prototype. If you get an idea that feels right, simplify it. Strip it to its core element; this element will become the glue that holds your work together. The stronger the glue the more you can add. On the opposite end, if the glue isn't holding, move on. Don't waste your time trying to fix something that won't work. If it's not interesting or fun in its primitive form, it's not going to be when it's finished.

7. Make the games YOU want to make.
Go with what moves you. If you're no longer feeling something, put it down and work on what you want. I've found that all of my best games were ones I made quickly and felt passionate about. The ones that sucked were ones I lost interest in but forced myself to finish. If things have gone sour and you feel yourself losing interest in a project, try looking at it differently. A simple change of perspective or reinvention of an existing mechanic can make all the difference when you're losing motivation.

8. Stand out.
Donít make something that looks or feels exactly like an existing work. When people experience something new they're more forgiving of its design, and in the end your creation will get more attention. This should be obvious, but somehow goes over the heads of most designers. If you notice a trend in aesthetics or play mechanics: DON'T DO THAT. Avoid trends; innovate and break new ground. Stop making goddamn ninja and zombie games and if you're making a shooter don't put it in space. Seriously.

9. Think critically.
99% of game design is critical thinking. Try to find holes in your designs: if you can't fill them, move on to something else. Before you set out to work on your project you should have already given plenty of thought to how it might NOT work. Start asking how these core elements cpi;d be exploited and how might things come back to haunt you in the future. Thinking critically is the key to avoiding later conflict; always look before you leap. Take a step back from your project. Consider it the same way you would someone else's work. If you hadn't made it, what would you see as its strengths and weaknesses?

10. Play games.
You can't expect to learn anything if you aren't playing what's out. Even if they suck, games that sell well in the mainstream do it for a reason: pick them apart and find out why. If you don't play them, you won't know what NOT to do when you make your own.

11. Dissect existing formulas.
All game "genres" are formulas. Level design, teaching rules, jumping patterns: it's all according to a formula. Pick apart those formulas and see how they work. Play a shit load of games: find out what elements you like, decide why you like them, then redesign them. It's as vital to be able to deconstruct a game's formula as it is to be able construct one. In most cases you'll learn much more from deconstruction. You already have thousands of existing formulas at your disposal.

12. Grow up.
Chances are you're not a fucking kid anymore, so if you feel like making a more adult game, do so. When youíre indie you donít have to answer to anyone, so stop designing games like you have to have to pass ESRB. I'm not saying everyone should make porn games, but why do all video games seem to have immature themes? People aren't stupid: stop treating them like they are. Speak through your work like you would to your friends, design for yourself and don't censor your ideas.

13. Go outside.
The world outside your room is important. It can also be very inspiring. Go take an adventure, then come home and write a game about it. Thatís what Miyamoto did. I believe that you can't be inspired without living. Life is what every artist pulls from; how could you pull from something that wasn't there? We all strive to be great, and most of us tend to obsess over our work, but it's important to have balance. Go do things that don't involve video games and computers. Don't become stagnant.

14. Stay balanced.
Many designers are prone to depression or other mental disorders. Take care of your brain and, most importantly, yourself.

15. Stay Grounded.
No matter how good you think you are there'll always be someone better. stay humble and accept that you're not perfect. A designer's ego can easily put up walls that will stunt his growth just because he doesn't want to admit he might be wrong. The moment you think you have nothing to learn is the moment you should quit. Be honest with yourself, admit your flaws and shortcomings and accept that you're probably wrong.

16. Be open to feedback.
If a bunch of people say your game is lacking in some area, but you insist it's perfect, chances are you're wrong. It's hard to take critical feedback, especially when it's right. Loosen up, stay humble, remember you're not as great as you think you are. If players agree that something's wrong, you should probably take a step back to reconsider what you're doing. But don't make the mistake of just doing what your audience expects. If they have an issue with something, figure out why. If people don't like how your game controls, this could mean one of hundreds of things, from how things move in the game to what buttons it uses. When responding to feedback, ask specific questions and try to find the root of the problem. Don't attempt a quick fix by just cutting out the problem.

17. Work with people.
People are nice. Some are good at things you arenít. Game design uses your whole brain; chances are youíre lacking in some area. Find someone who can fill your hole. In my experience, there's a yin/yang dynamic between a person with a technical mind and one with a creative mind. I've found in this a perfect marriage of ideas and approaches. That's not to say this will be everyone's experience. But I do think it's important to work with at least one other person. The indie game designer can easily become a hermit and having someone else in the room to validate an idea can be the one thing that stops you from becoming that recluse who bathes with bleach.

18. Network.
Talk to other designers, fans, the media about what you're doing. You might gain some perspective on how others view your work, maybe even make a few friends. There's no shame about wanting to talk to people about your work. The biggest misconception is to assume that people don't want to hear about creative folks. They do. Writers love to write about you, fans want to know about your next project, and designers want to share their ideas and experiences with you. Talk!

19. Be excited about your work.
If you can't get excited about something youíve done, how can you expect others to be? Talk about your work and sell yourself as well as your game. If your work doesn't excite you, why are you doing it? If you're not happy doing what you do, stop. It's impossible to be properly motivated unless you love what you're doing; don't be scared to let that passion spill into the press. Being indie means making your own rules: if your own rules don't excite you, rethink them.

20. Join communities.
Indie game communities are booming: join one. You donít have to post anything, but reading them will give you an understanding of the dos and don'ts of beginning game development, as well as insight and opinions about design in general.

21. Learn a little about business.
Business sucks ass, but it's important to know something about it so you'll know if you're getting fucked over. This goes hand-in-hand with networking: ask like-minded people about business situations they've been in. Find out how much things go for, percentage cuts, sales numbers and the best places to sell your wares. It's easy to get caught up in a seemingly amazing publishing deal if you have no perspective on how things work, and just as easy to get totally fucked over and lose your intellectual property in the process.

22. Don't worry about being poor.
Indie game designers are starving artists. Be frugal and humble. Again, your goal shouldn't be financial gain first and foremost, If it is, you will most likely fail. A profitable indie game designer is a rare thing. If you value money over "a job well done" then this isn't the field for you.

23. Try to make money.
Selling your work, getting your games sponsored, using online ads or asking for donations are all means of making money from your work. You need money to eat, so try to make some.

24. Have fun.
If you're not having fun then quit. You only live once; thereís no reason to keep doing something if it's not making you happy.

[Edmund McMillen is an independent game designer & illustrator based in Santa Cruz, CA. Best known for his work on Gish, Braid and the upcoming Super Meat Boy. Edmund has also spent the past 6 years working on honing his craft by releasing smaller, more personal online projects like Coil, Aether and Time Fcuk.]

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Kenneth Barber
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Add don't forget to get some sleep every now and then!

I have almost driven myself mad on a few separate occasions

by denying myself sleep.

Anthony Merrill
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I'm right there with Kenneth, without a proper nights sleep there is no point in working the next day...atleast in my case thats how it works...

Jonathon Walsh
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I'd say that falls under #14. Along with sleep I'd also recommend diet and exercise. The better you feel the better you can stay motivated and code.

A great list by the way.

Martijn Zandvliet
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Really great list! I've just started out as an indie, and I really recognise all of the points mentioned. I guess my biggest pitfall is point 5, but I find that even really ambitious projects can be manageable if you take your time and break things up into loads of prototypes. Iterative, agile development is crucial.

Tim Carter
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25: Understand your rights as a creator, then stand up for them. That means understanding how to negotiate contract terms.

Ian Morrison
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Excellent list, great advice. I'll definitly be referencing this in the future. :)

Prakash Angappan
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Awesome article!

Daniel Fernandez
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Great list. Thanks Edmund and congrats for your great Super Meat Boy!

Benjamin Marchand
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Yeah, I admit too : a sleep part would be necessary in the list ;)

Martin Pichlmair
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Great article, Edmund. I'd add one more point to the list: Share. (While I'm not too good at that myself) I think it's very important to share your insights, experiences, maybe even sometimes code, with the community. Just like you perfectly demonstrate with this article.

Glenn Storm
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Thank you for this great breakdown, Edmund. I'd agree with Martin that sharing might belong on the list as well. ... But, sleep's for wimps. Great list!

Luis Guimaraes
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Sleep hell yeah. I remember overnighting to work, it just doesn't work by any means.

Also, a mix of too big projects and motivation, I'm now trying to drive parallel small projects to work on when I'm stuck in the big one. Things come harder when you have a day job, with already is done on computers, design and technical work. Brain needs rest.

The "Play Games" part is one of the most time consuming and expensive to do. Hey do anybody really cares to hear about what we're doing? lol

Tadhg Kelly
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25. Change the World

Edmund McMillen
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Thanks guys, i appreciate the positive words.

I do think that Sleeping would be covered in #14(balance), i try to talk about taking care of your mind and "self" but yes, sleeping is something i also have issues with.

I believe Sharing falls into #18(networking), trying to encourage you to put yourself and your ideas out there for the press as well as like minded developers. in a way me writing this is a means of networking, i wrote something, we are talking about it and now i know a few more people.



Robert Lou
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Incidentally, not only are these excellent points for an Indie game developer, but are excellent points to live by no matter what profession your in.

The only one I would add some personal input in is #4. While their is nothing wrong with innovation and thinking big, in fact, it should be hugely encouraged, I think when developing games, you should stay away from from "Innovation for innovations sake". Any innovation you implement should be cohesive towards the entire project, and towards the project as a piece of Art. Too much unguided innovation can just detract from the quality of the overall project, both as a game meant to be played, and as a creative work of art.

Edmund McMillen
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Good point Robert, But the point i was trying to make when i said "innovate the hell out of everything" was to simply do your best to stand out and be different when it comes to the look, feel and sound of your game.

Forced innovation is a horrible thing, anything forced will come back to haunt you and remove the "honesty" factor of your project.

So yes, its not good to just attempt to make everything about your game totally fresh and new for the sake of just being different, but if you can do it, and it helps your piece, then by all means do it.

Tobias Rau
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...and by the way, pretty nice icons!

Arno Buruma
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My problem is that I always have large ideas... and I want to make profit haha. The iPhone came out. There is the app store - a type of simple market that I've been waiting for for years. I've got itchy fingers. I want, so bad, to have some of my first games on the iPhone (and they wouldn't be cheapo pos's either, they'd be quality). I'm making small games and will continue to practice like you say as one of your tips and then move on to larger projects... I just hope that patience will reward.

Joel Blackwell
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You don't *need* to start small. It's good advice for most people, but don't get stuck in a rut of, "I can't continue because I haven't made a bunch of small games or a prototype yet." If you feel like a challenge, there's nothing wrong with aiming for the sky. Sometimes failure from difficult development is a better teacher than small successes. If you're realistic about what you're getting into, you'll be fine.

Ciro Continisio
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A very good list indeed... if only it was easy to follow the points now that they're written down... :)

tarik kaya
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I am a new indie, and this list will be my bible =) Thanks for sharing!

Lex Allen
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"Make the games YOU want to make."

"If you're no longer feeling something, put it down and work on what you want."

I think that this is not the best advice. You need to finish your projects and throughout the project it is normal to lose motivation several times. If you don't finish anything, then you will have nothing.

Jason Carter
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This list is awesome.

I'm quitting my day job, moving to Boston with my wife and striking it out as an indie dev... in about a month!

I'm eating these articles up. It's like I'm walking up to a cliff to skydive off of. It's scary, very exciting and one of the biggest leaps of faith I'll probably take in my life ha, so I'm reading everything I can about people who have done it successfully.

Thanks for writing this!

Frank Washburn
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Let me know if you start going to the Boston Unity Group meetings or Boston Post Mortem! I'll buy you a beer :D Good luck!

Lisa Brown
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This is a fine list! I know several people who will benefit from its inspiration. Although if someone wanted to make money I would *not* recommend they become a doctor :)

I think I might replace "if you're not having fun then quit" with "if you don't feel like what you're doing is meaningful," since not all fulfilling work is necessarily fun.

Matt Mirrorfish
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Great piece Edmund. I think you strike a good balance here. I also love the icons.

The small project thing is hard. I'm also new and the things that get me motivated to work tend to be a little grandiose. Maybe it's just my personality but it's hard to get pumped to work on something small and achievable. It's true though that I am probably at a much higher risk of not finishing. Because I'm early in the learning process and learning so much I am kind of thinking of my learning as a parallel product. If I come out of it with no finished game I will have learned a ton. I aim to finish though!

Also, Binding of Isaac is incredible. I beat Mom last night for the first time and had a hands in the air moment at my desk. It's an awesome balance of difficulty, randomness, high stakes and payoff. And obviously awesome art and music. Great work!

Thanks again!