Two years ago, after many years working in the industry as a game developer, I decided to quit my job, setup my business and become an indie developer.
During that time many things happened, and a lot of plans changed. I’ve finished two games, worked on many more as a freelancer in the meanwhile, moved to another country, etc etc.
Here, I’d like to share my thoughts on my first game, An Oath to the Stars, what I learned, and what it is like to be an indie developer. I'll try to focus more on the actual process than the game itself, so I won't describe the game in details, but you can check out the trailer and buy it on the Steam page: http://store.steampowered.com/app/594820/An_Oath_to_the_Stars/
The game was completely self-funded and published by me. I decided not to try and look for funding or a publisher at the beginning to retain complete creative freedom, and be flexible.
In hindsight, while being able to avoid funding is nice, I believe working with a publisher is really a necessity nowadays, so I'll definitely keep that in mind with my next game. The amount of time it takes to write emails, presskits, and try to get people interested in your game is huge, and it's time you won't be able to spend making your game better.
During development I kept a dev-blog, which I felt really helped especially during the first months of development. Making games take a long time, more than you probably think, so it's good to still be able to show something to the outside world, even if it's just some rough screenshots of your prototype or insights on a cool technique you used in your game. It also contributes to build a community and followers around your game. And it's really cool to be able to go back and see how the game went from nothing to a finished product. If you're interested, you can check it out here: http://himekigames.tumblr.com/
Targeting a niche of players, in this case SHMUP fans, it’s a good strategy when you’re a small indie dev on a low budget, as it allows you to connect with the community and avoid competition from all the big studios. On the other hand, it also means that most of your players will be experts of the genre, possibly more than you, and will expect the highest quality.
I grew up playing Death Smiles, Dodonpachi, and Ikaruga is still in my Top 10 of favourite games, so I always wanted to try and make one.
That brought my first lesson. The fact that you enjoy playing a certain genre does not necessarily mean that you’ll also enjoy working on it. Somewhere along the line I realised that I didn’t love SHMUPs as much as I thought, and spending months designing bullet and enemies pattern is not as fun as I thought it would be. The general game quality probably suffered a bit as a result of this.
SHMUPs are very complex games with esoteric scoring systems that will take years to learn and master, and their players will expect nothing less from your game.
Getting on with your first indie game will teach you, more than anything, how much you don’t know. I’ve been making all kind of games games professionally for many years before going indie, and it really felt like starting again from zero. I underestimated how long it takes to form a good team for example. Being an indie developer is really 10% game dev, and 90% everything else.
When starting out, you really think it's going to be something like this:
You'll quickly realise it's more like this:
Honestly, I feel like I’ve learned more in any month of the last two years, than during my last years of full-time employment.
Making a game from scratch requires you not only to learn a lot of skills you never had to use, but to get a deeper look at yourself and realise what you really enjoy, what you’re good at. For example, I can honestly say that I suck at Level Design and don’t enjoy it at all, while I’m pretty good at team management and planning, and of course programming, but I already knew that.
You'll also find stuff you really enjoy, but feel you need to get better at. For me, it's probably UX. Oath has an interesting mechanic where the damage dealt by your laser is inversely proportional to the distance between you and the enemy. So you would have to get closer to deal more damages, but then also increase the likelyhood of getting killed. I had a very hard time finding ways to communicate this to the player and make it clear, and it's still not optimal.
If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that finishing a game is REALLY hard. I’m sure you heard that before, as I did too, but you really have to be there to realise how true this is. You spend months working on your game and you’re crushing your task lists like a pro, and then for the last 6 months you’re just testing, playing, bug-fixing and tweaking stuff and you feel like you’re not making any progress at all.
Never understimate the amount of work and time it will take to get your published game to the stores. Each one of them will require their own SDK integration to have stuff like Achievements, Online Leaderboards and Cloud Saves. This quickly adds up to a lot of work.
You'll need to prepare a lot of promo and storefront materials such as banners, icons and screenshots. And of course every store will require them in different format, ratio and resolution.
Then you'll need to promote it. In my case, we had to go through Greenlight so I already had some experience with it, but it's still very tough.
Most importantly, what you really need to understand and always keep in mind, is that nobody cares about your game. I thought that, having worked in famous game studios and having a lot of cool promo art would ensure coverage, and I was wrong.
You'll need to chase people and journalist, create an amazing presskit and a lot of social media work just to get them to look at your page for 10 seconds. It's exhausting, so as I mentioned before, I feel today having someone to take care of all of this is really vital if you want to spend your time making games.
The reality is, the amount of games published today is staggering, and on top of that, most of them are incredibly good. I went to the EGX in London earlier this year, and it felt overwhelming to see so many good games that you'll really never have time to play. The bar is incredibly high, and making indie games is getting riskier day after day. If you're in it for the money, you're in the wrong line of work and it would be a much safer bet to work for any of the major companies.
While reading all those gloomy articles, you tend to think that those don’t really apply to you. Most likely they do, and while you may become the new indie superstar, it’s good to keep your feet on the ground and realise that you may fail. And that is totally fine. As in everything in life, you’ll keep failing until you succeed.
Learning to get feedback is a vital skill if you want to get far in game development, especially when it’s criticism towards your game. While it’s harsh to read someone tearing your game apart, if it’s done with respect and professionalism it will go a long way to make you understand your shortcomings and show you a different perspective on your game.
The game has received mixed reviews in general. Some users really liked it, and I’m happy for that, while others have criticised the balancing or found the scoring system too simplistic.
I’m planning to keep releasing updates to address user feedback and add more content to the game. It’s a very nice feeling to think that those players have decided that the best use of their money would be to buy your game, and I definitely want to support them.
My verdict? The game does some things really well, and it also has some real shortcomings. It will also get better with time.
I’m proud of the result. I’ve designed a game from scratch, built up a team to create it, and made it all the way to the store. As a first attempt to make an indie game, I would say it’s not bad at all.
What's in the future? I'll keep making games of course, probably doing contracting for a while, and then start a new project at some point.
If I were to go back in time, I would do it all again. I’m very happy to have taken this path 2 years ago. As always, there may be things I could have done better, but the amount of knowledge, skills and experience I gathered is invaluable, and I also know I will do better with the next game.
I hope you enjoyed the article and got a better idea of what it takes to make an indie game. Making games is hard but incredibly rewarding.
If you'd like to more about me, you can check my website at www.attiliocarotenuto.com
There you can see what games I've worked on, talks etc. You can also follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/attilioHimeki
Please feel free to get in touch to share your opinions, if you would like more info, or just to say hi!