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September 24, 2017
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How I Failed as an Indie Dev

by Jonathan Powell on 09/05/14 02:32:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

A brief preface - this is a long form reflection on my entry into the indie game space. Hopefully you will find it honest, sentimental, tepidly funny, and revealing.

***

Games have always been captivating to me. My first memory (at least the one I’ve retained throughout my libation inclinations) is seeing Gauntlet on a NES at an in-home preschool. I was four at the time and recall an instant sense of bewilderment and fascination.† There was something enthralling about not just the pixilated fantasy world taking shape on the tube, but its interactivity. Clearly at the time I couldn’t have articulated that exact sentiment – more likely just a “wow!” as I crammed an Oreo in my face – but that feeling of utter captivation has been ever present throughout my life.

Fast-forward about twenty years and you’d see a relatively familiar scene for a twenty something kid from the eighties. I was in college and at the focal point of my apartment was all the shiny new game systems (Xbox 360 and PS3 at the time) and in the prime real estate next to them sat my dusty old Super Nintendo, controllers meticulously rolled up and at the ready for any given moment of beer inspired Mario Kart battles. Even after all those years and generations of games, the SNES I received for Christmas when I was 7 years old still held a special place figuratively and literally in my life.

There are likely many reasons why the entertainment of your formative years sticks with you. Even so, there’s something about the 16 bit era of games that sets them apart from the generations to follow. There was an exuberant youth to the games industry in general and the tech was evolving to a point where half of the difficulty in a game wasn’t the struggle against its controls or visuals. Designers, particularly Japanese designers, were hitting a stride that’s rarely been seen in any entertainment industry. The games they were producing weren’t cobbled quarter munching arcade ports or 8 bit prototypes – they were experiences, and you controlled them! Story, emersion, music, responsiveness – these were all things that I first experienced in a polished way on the SNES. So much so that many of them still hold up, which is why after countless moves and personal possession purging you’ll still find my SNES right there beside whatever new system is out. This is also what inspired me to make a game.

It wasn’t until my mid twenties that the idea of actually making a game seemed like an achievable reality. The games industry was always a passion of mine, and as an avid writer my attention fell mostly to the press end of the spectrum. But as the landscape of games was changing, particularly with the indie movement, my attention shifted. With the end of college rapidly approaching and the real world rearing its responsibility-riddled head, it dawned on me: If there was ever a time to take a stab at something this was it. But where to begin?

I’d had ideas bouncing around for a few different games, but it wasn’t until a cherished but distant childhood experience flew into my life that my first project was cemented in my mind. The game was UN Squadron, a tight and relentless sidescroller shooter that occupied more than a couple of my childhood hours. The thing was, I never actually owned the game. In the days before Amazon (and any type of personal disposable income) you had to rely on your buddy down the street for all the games absent from your library. Turns out this long lost cartridge had a plethora of components I love about games. Its action was complimented by an interesting leveling system and the ability to save up and buy better planes and equipment. It was then the core of PaintScape was born.

But there’s a ton of ways to approach a game, and the first version I had rolling around in my head was a scattered cacophony of mechanics and art styles. It wasn’t until a cool summers night in July 2011 at a backyard bbq in Wyoming that the nebulous cloud of ideas coalesced into reality droplets. I was deeply enthralled in conversation with my longtime friend and outstanding artist Meghan Meier about street art and screen prints. I’d been collecting screen prints from artists like Emek and Aaron Hortkey for a few years and really enjoyed how evocative they were. Meghan had shown me some equally compelling pictures of street art she’d amassed from colleagues and as we discussed our joint bewilderment of those mediums it hit me. Beer likely flew from my cup as I gesticulated wildly at my game artwork epiphany. From that point on it had to be hand-painted, and it had to be unique.

It was half passed mid-rant when my friend Jeff inquired about my platform of choice. How was I to regale the world with my art house wonder shooter? Seeming how I’d been primarily a console gamer my entire life, the current consoles were naturally where my mind went. Jeff was quick to point out that perhaps a smaller mobile version was a better way to go at first. You know, test the waters. He made a valid point as I had zero experience, zero industry contacts, and zero dollars. Luckily Apple didn’t mind.

Two months later Meghan and I were in her living room with giant sketchpads and even more giant coffees coming up with the world of PaintScape. Each level had its own distinct scenery and baddies, and we laughed as the absurd creatures crawled from our creative collaboration. Yet it wasn’t really until a week or two later when she first showed me the level one prototype artwork masterfully painted on what was ostensibly paper bag material with game elements hand cut and layered throughout that it dawned on me just how special this world would be. It was stunning, and I knew the bank would think so too.

But banks, as it turns out, want to see more than some artwork if they’re going to fork over the cash. They want a loan proposal, and a very detailed one at that. So I set out crafting a formal game design document using a template I found online. After fleshing out all the mechanics and systems on paper it was time for the financial component. I cobbled together what seemed like a reasonable budget based on my research and a nice little spreadsheet that had three tiers of performance – worst, middle, and best case scenarios. Proudly I showed my dad my financial handiwork, and although pleased at my initiative, he proudly pointed out some oversights. Ok, a lot of oversights. Luckily with his help and loads of caffeine I was off to the bank, loan proposal in one hand, artwork in the other.

The hard work paid off, quite literally, as the bank approved my loan of $10,000 – the most money I’d ever had in my possession – and I had 18 months to make a game and pay it back. So it was off to the races. Meghan was passionately slaving away at the artwork while I was splitting my time between my last semester of college and making a six hour drive to work with Dennie. He was the programmer I’d hired whom for some reason I can only assume is zombie related lived in the middle of nowhere. As the art trickled in I’d truck it down the photo studio where I’d worked and have my former boss shoot the pieces.† From there it was into Photoshop and the painstaking process of digitally cutting out each individual art asset. As I’d size and slap the shiny new art assets onto sprite sheets they were whisked away to Dennie’s mountain compound, and as the weeks progressed, PaintScape took form.

But much like every project, problems arose. Since the team was split both geographically and with other jobs, time became an issue. There were two to three week spans where I’d hear nothing from Dennie as he was busy with other higher paying clients, which left me with all too much time to think of new things to put in the game. What was supposed to be a small and simple foray into the game world was becoming a massive undertaking. If you had looked up the term “feature creep” you’d see a giant picture of my face with a question mark above my head where the light bulb should have been.

At one point after a particularly long stretch of inactivity I snapped. I’d graduated college months ago and had no job. The only thing in my life was PaintScape, and it was stalling out. The money dried up and the payment due date was ever nearing. So like a rational person I wrote a scathing email to the one person who’s hands were on the wheel of the project. Dennie replied calmly informing me that for the amount of money we’d agreed on PaintScape couldn’t take priority. And to be fair, it made sense. The project had grown way out of the original scope. So there I was with a choice to make. Drop the whole thing and get a job at Starbucks to pay off the loan, or get even further into debt to pay for the additional programming. Guess which one I chose. What’s another ten thousand dollars anyway?

The following three months were spent in a development blur. It was driving, coding, driving, testing, driving, driving, driving ad infinitum. At one point I had a semi permanent bed set up in Dennie’s home office. But the game was finally coming together, and it was indeed gorgeous. We created a level editor that allowed me to draw all the individual enemy paths adding to the games hand-drawn feel. There were seven times as many enemies in the game that was cited in the original design document. We added two different control modes, auto fire options, trophies, and expanded the leveling system exponentially. It was a full-on indie game that just happened to be on a phone. And after 13 months, twenty thousand dollars, and ten thousand miles of drive time it was finished.

Robert Ashley once said that the best part of creating something as an artist is right before you put it out. This is likely because at that moment your project has infinite potential before the cold competitive reality of the marketplace decides its fate. In the wait as PaintScape was being approved by Apple, I was elated. It had been a bumpy ride, but there in my pocket was a vivid breathing world that I’d painstakingly manifested into reality. It was affirming in and of itself and a feeling I’ll never forget.† Then a tiny message on my phone informed me that PaintScape was up on the App Store and ready for sale.

This was just the beginning I thought as my grass roots marketing effort took effect. PaintScape was out and it was getting attention. The unique art style and process of translating it into the game was something no one had seen before. It was featured on blogs and game sites. I even had the opportunity to be a guest on the geekbox podcast, which I’d been listening to for years. It was amazing and although the sales seemed low when compared to the amount of head turning taking place, I was optimistic. Things would pick up.

Things did not pick up. In fact, after the first week PaintScape sales had fallen to zero. After the first month of constant pushing, selling, shilling, screaming about PaintScape to whoever would listen, we hadn’t made enough to even cover my gas expenses during development. What was going on? Was a dollar really too much to ask?

In an attempt to find out I changed the game’s price to free and watched bewildered as the downloads poured in. A few hundred the first day. A few thousand the next. The third day PaintScape was free it had over 12,000 downloads from around the world. All of a sudden emails were appearing in my inbox of ad platform developers telling me that my game was climbing the charts and to implement their app sharing software. In haste I quickly turned the app back to paid thinking now I had the ball rolling.

Crickets.

So free was the answer? Another month of working with Dennie on a free version that offered shiny new in-app purchases came and went. It went live with the last of my hopes to recoup any of the development costs. Five to ten downloads a day and no money later I was frantically paging through Craigslist looking for freelance design jobs. My twenty thousand dollar trip into the games industry had failed, and now I had to pay the tab.

The next few months were frantic, but between copious Photoshop lessons, small freelance jobs, and at the very end some much appreciated help from my parents, the bank got their money. I felt defeated, but lucky. I’d learned a great deal about making games, talking to press, and the industry in general without having to declare bankruptcy or sell a kidney. They were harsh lessons to learn, but what a rare and interesting experience.

It’s been a little over two years since PaintScape came out, and after putting out my sophomore game effort StarTapper and now my biggest title to date Star Clash, I've realized looking back that my first game simply wasn't that fun. It was ambitious and beautiful and unique and all of these things I thought were just swell, but it was tedious to play. StarTapper, and particularly Star Clash, are results of lessons learned in designing for a specific platform with the goal of engaging interactivity and fun in mind. Have any of these succeeded? That depends on your definition of success. Entertainment and fun-wise, yes. Absolutely. There's been nothing but really positive feedback from both of these last efforts. Monetarily? No. Not even close, but that’s why I have a day job. And now that I’ve made my games free they’ve actually garnered some decent downloads. Go figure.

What I’ve come to realize through my experience is creating something that even just one person truly enjoys interacting with is worth all of the effort and more. That sentiment can’t pay my rent, but it will definitely keep me making games. Of course, PaintScape will always be a little bitter sweet to me, but there’s nothing quite like your first.

***

If you're interested in checking out Star Clash click on the links below!

Star Clash on the iTunes App Store

Star Clash on Google Play

Star Clash awesome free soundtrack on Bandcamp


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