Thanks for checking out this article. My intention is to give insight into the process of making an indie game and perspective about game development. This won't be a quick bullet point write up. This is going to be a journey with backstory and a look at the making of Boss 101; why and how it was done and its result on Steam.
I wanted to collect my prior thoughts and add new data to give new game devs and old game devs something to dive into. Hopefully you enjoy the ride so let's get going shall we?
For the TL;DR crowd
Those looking for quick summaries of the right and wrong way to make a game, you can just keep on browsing Gamasutra. There are few sound bites here. I liken making a game to raising a kid. You might have a plan going in but the kid has their own personality and way about them. You can fight it or you can encourage it. Boss 101 was our kid and though the game came out differently than our plans I'm incredibly proud of the team and our result. We did indeed live our dreams.
For those wondering about making games themselves
If you are looking at making games and wonder if you should, I ask you this... is it your passion? Do you feel a drive to do this even if you aren't getting paid? Do you work on games in your spare time? If you do or even feel the urge to create games for the love of games then do it. JUST DO IT! Don't listen to the naysayers. Find supporters. Work hard and be dedicated. You can do it. You will do it. No one can tell you different.
For those wondering about "should I use this or that engine" or "this or that application for graphics, programming or sound"
Listen very carefully, there are no magic bullets in game development. Read that again please.
Everything worth two craps on this planet is the result of a lot of hard work, dedication and sweat. Games are no different. There are plenty of apps and engines out there. You need to do your own research. Do the legwork yourself and make decisions based on your talent and ambitions. What works for one might not work for you. We can talk about why things worked for us but you might be different. Remember that.
Boss 101 Overview
In one form or another I have been working in video games around 30 years. My background is from larger game studios. I was the lead artist on Planescape Torment way back when. I worked on titles like Fallout 1 and 2 as well as the Icewind Dale series. I worked as a cinematic artist on the first Bioware game Shattered Steel (oh yah, I’ve been around a while). I’ve worked at Sony, Obsidian and Vigil games. Some of my recent credits include the Darksiders 1 & 2 and back a little from there I was on Neverwinter Nights 2. My point in saying all this is not to impress you with a resume but to say “I’ve seen a lot of game development in my time”. This all lead me to working for myself on games I have a passion for with people who feel likewise.
Boss 101 is the product of three and a half years of self-funded development. No publisher, no Kickstarter. Just three people working to live their dreams. We did it our way and made it as fun and value packed as we could. This was the first time in my nearly 30 years of working as a professional I felt a game was ‘done’ when we shipped. It’s a great feeling we hope to pass to our friends and fans.
I embarked on this journey to work at a pace I could control and on subjects I found personally interesting. Thankfully I was able to team up with two incredibly talented people and together we started on Boss 101.
The Origin of Boss 101
I was working at Vigil Games when the studio went defunct with the rest of THQ. Some of the team splintered off to do their own thing and others went their way looking for opportunities. For me, I considered moving back to my hometown Los Angeles to work in games there. After interviewing a few places and getting offers I got the idea to go it alone and make a game myself. I ended up turning down several job offers from great studios. Inside I felt this was the right thing to do.
I proceeded to create a series of Flash games over the course of a year. One of those was called Boss 101 where you could roll your own boss from an assortment of parts. It seemed like a cool idea and little did I know I would be expanding on it.
The Flash game market was crowded and my games were taking longer and longer to make. I felt it was time to move to another game engine and make something a little bigger and grander. Something for PC's and consoles. The game of choice was to be Boss 101, except bigger, better and with many new features. First though - I needed a crew.
Picking a team that's right for you
If you got this far then heed my advice. I'm an an old vet who has managed and worked with many, many teams. The advice is....
Work with people you like.
This will make your journey a LOT easier and much more fun.
When looking for people to help with Boss 101 my only thought was "Who would I get in a foxhole with if the bullets were flying?" I put out ads on a bunch of art and programming sites. I ended up being fortunate to find two people who were not only talented but incredibly fun to work with. We shared many of the same gaming passions and complimented each other in our skill sets.
I have a theory about people on teams and it boils down to this chart:
I know what you might be thinking "Hey, we need TALENTED people even if they aren't 100% onboard, they will still make a difference!". Yeah they will. They will sink your ship faster than a torpedo. You do not want talented people who aren't onboard with your project or company. Those people are leaders and if they don't like your project they will poison the studio in more ways than I can list here. You are far better hiring passionate people and training them up. They will go farther and do more. The other two quadrants speak for themselves I think.
I was fortunate with Boss 101 when I found two talented people who also believed in the project. From there it was a matter of making the game.
The Boss 101 Development Blog
From the get go it was incredibly important to have a development blog documenting the process we went through for ourselves as much as our fans. We kept it in several places and posted at least two and sometimes three times a week. The two main locations were our Steam store page and TiGForums. You can check out our three plus years of work in glorious detail here if you like!
The Development Process of Boss 101
A common question we asked was "Is this fun?" about everything. We added fun where needed and subtracted or adjusted un-fun items. I'll list tenets of the game and explain each as we go along.
Entertain always - Every screen, round and aspect of the game was there to entertain in every way we could make happen. All game screens have at least some animations to prevent static or still moments. All screens contain items which relate to the world. Every time you play a minigame or sit on kite hill things are meant to fold back into the main Boss 101 narrative in interesting ways. As much as possible there were two or more bits of info, story or data in any player interaction with the game.
Tell a story - Boss 101 has a story and characters that exist in their world. We created a large narrative for the world and while parts might be unseen, it was all there when we made the game. This is what informed design decisions and ideas. It sounds absurd to say there is a reason for Make-A-Boss in any universe but we did come up with a reason and used it in the game. Things like this helped us make sense of the wacky nature of our game universe and lead to a lot of new ideas that fit well with everything else.
An example would be our BERL tutorials. These were done at the end of development. When coming up with how tutorials should look and function we referred to all the prior things in the game (story and visuals). We ended up creating a new jetpack character (BERL) who was a lonely janitor type. It made sense and gave the game a new person to play things off in the main game.
Give the player stories too! - We wanted to create a situation where players have stories to tell their friends and family. This could be from having an amazing game round, discovering a secret or maybe learning a fun bit of story from the main campaign.
Do things which make sense - this is an obvious thing but it might be one of the reasons the game took so long to complete. We regularly added time to development to do things that made sense. Adding in features like nice options sliders, difficulty modes, tutorials and a good amount of weapons and abilities for the player. Boss 101 started small and grew in organic ways. We didn't let the game get hampered by a deadline. We played, assessed and adjusted all the way through. A lot of times the discussion started with "Hey, this isn't Boss 101 enough!" haha
Make it right versus hitting a date - one huge thing we committed to early was making the game we wanted versus hitting a date. It seemed some of our favorite game companies favored this model too (Valve and Nintendo for example). It meant the game ran longer than estimated but it made Boss 101 something very unique and in our opinion - high quality. It's not a luxury everyone has but we felt we had to differentiate ourselves in some way and this was it. We took our time. To put this in perspective we had three people full time for much of our three and a half years.
Feature creep versus connective tissue - very much related to the above is the idea of feature creep versus connective tissue. Connective tissue for us were features that we did not plan for but upon testing a new system we would realize we needed something to bridge it into the main game. Maybe an interface, a sound, etc. It could be anything but we worked to make sure all the connective tissue was there.
General Development Notes
These are my overall thoughts on some pitfalls we faced and avoided. Perhaps this helps you too!
Game asset folders and hierarchy will ideally be the SAME inside and outside your development engine – what I mean is you store art assets in a Windows (or your OS) folder structure that you duplicate inside your game engine's structure. Believe me, it will be MUCH easier to find things down the line. Forget about laying crap all over your OS desktop and shoving it in folders called “Good Stuff from November” or something like that.
Get a game loop running quickly – a game loop is the most basic playable unit of your game. It’s a round, or a level. Something the player does and loops back into a main screen. Our game has a shooter core mechanic so we made a game loop were you shoot enemies and return to our Command Center. Everything evolved from there and it’s a good place to start if you want to make a game. Getting the thing people will spend the most time with up and running early means it gets the most testing and polish.
Use tools you feel comfortable with – get the right programs for the job. Free stuff can work very well but if you have to toss down some ducats then do it. Still, it’s your decision and if it helps – we tend to choose programs still in active development or with large communities around them. Doing this helps us if we hit a roadblock and need help or advice.
Work as much as you can “in-engine” – by this I mean you should look at assets in game and using any appropriate controls as much as possible. Doing this will force you to see the game as your customer and help you figure out things like options screens, game pausing, scoring and the like.
Put core features in first – “first things first” is the best policy for features. Important or key features of your game should go in first. This varies from game to game but for us it was our Make a Boss. We allow the player to roll bosses procedurally. To do that we had to make over forty boss ‘sets’ for the game to use. Guess what we did first? Yep, that was in during the first three months of development and I’m so glad we did this. The next three years saw this area evolve and grow into a really neat centerpiece.
In short – do all the hard/core systems first. It will make your lead up to launch a much nicer affair.
Do it to a finish – As much as possible do EVERYTHING to a finish. By this I mean avoid too much placeholder art and rough stuff as you go. This is a complicated subject so allow me to explain. The idea here is you want to try and finish things since that will help you understand what you REALLY need to do. Read that again. I believe in the finish or attempt to finish you will discover what you need to do next.
It’s always tempting to grey box in a million things and say “Now I only have to art it up and code a few things”. Trust me that NEVER happens. Ever. Not in all my years have I ever seen or heard of any one dropping a few art assets in after a grey box room and shipping a million selling blockbuster. Taking the time to do things to completion (or near completion) is your best bet.
Hang in there – I’ll leave you with this one. games are awesomely fun to make and if you have a passion for it - HANG IN THERE. Making anything good takes time and more so for a game with big ambitions. Work on your project as much as you can and let it guide and draw you along for the ride. Keep time in perspective too – you probably don’t pick up a new instrument and expect mastery with a few YouTube lessons. You get better over time with practice.
Mostly dream as big as you want and just remember the bigger the dream the bigger your commitment to your dream will have to be.
Lead up to release
Let’s quickly cover this again – we are three people, working full time as we head into the last stretch. Our main goals for the game are met and we are nearing release. We have no publisher and are hinging the quality and uniqueness of the game to catch hold of people and spread from there by positive word of mouth. Still, we wanted to stack the odds in our favor as much as we could.
We sent out hundreds of Steam keys to Let’s Players, YouTubers and various review sites. Some played and reviewed the game before launch. The reviews and feedback we got were positive. We now had a bit of hope heading into the final stretch. YouTubers like Katherine of Sky played a pre-release version and really enjoy themselves! HURRAH!
We priced the game at $9.99. We felt that was the best price and value for the customer as well as for ensuring the best bang for the buck all around.
We released on November 2nd, 2017. The morning of our release our good friend Matt Fitzgerald did a live stream of a Boss 101 playthrough to generate excitement and give people a preview of things to come. It was awesome and very generous.
We hit 'Publish' on Steam then sat back with excitement and nervousness! So, how did it do you ask?
Hmmm, not too well really. You might even call it a poor showing. We blipped on the Steam front page for about two hours and made most of the sales we’ve seen over the last month in that short time.
This my friends is why it pays to do your very best. We hit this point, looked at the results and felt it was more likely we didn’t find our audience versus we made a crappy game. That’s not an excuse for slow sales but more of an assessment of the situation. Of course, we’re biased and think the game is good!
We did our best, reached out to people who we felt would be interested and most of all – made a game we felt was of high quality. It may sound ludicrous but we were aiming for Nintendo level quality. Boss 101 was made with Valve, Nintendo and Blizzard development models in the back of our heads. Do it to a finish and do it as well as you possibly can. If it doesn’t feel right then re-work it.
This is where the story gets a little weird. Reviews started coming in for Boss 101. Strangely – people who were exposed to Boss 101 and just played it with no preconception were scoring the game high – really highly in fact. People who came in looking for a hard core shooter were coming away frustrated.
We were called out by a few over the shooter aspects of the game. Some felt the game wasn’t difficult enough and things were getting in the way of the experience. One person said they were annoyed they had to skip so many cutscenes and deal wth so much story telling. That was odd. The story was one of the things we spoke about from the beginning - highlighted it in fact. We never hid it and most of the blogs, videos and ads we made focused on the idea we were making and action adventure game with a narrative.
The people who made our day were ones who seemed to enjoy the game for what it is. A fun action adventure that goes beyond convention in a lot of fun ways. They loved kite hill and called it a “Calvin and Hobbes-esque” moment in the game. The arcade games we put in just for fun were praised. The pets you can adopt, visitors who stop by the Command Center, the Professor’s WIKI. Even the special gopher rescue moments! All these little touches were admired and many enjoyed the love and care we put in them.
The Cost of Making Boss 101
I made a comment the other day about the cost of Boss 101 in terms of labor. If all three of us had worked at Starbucks for three and a half years at $11.50/hr we would have made a roughly $240,000 dollars total (all salaries totaled over all that time). You may have guessed Boss 101 has not made that amount of money for us yet. Still, there is hope!
So, where to go?
Well, we immediately looked into moving Boss 101 to consoles. To be clear, with our team size a multi-platform release was a nice idea but not in the cards. It was always Steam first and then move to consoles.
That’s in process now and things are looking up in terms of possibilities. We’ll have to keep you posted when we have concrete news.
Publishers for Boss 102 or help with Boss 101
We also started reaching out the various indie publishers and marketing groups for a possible look at a Boss 102 project or even help with our move to consoles. We figured we had a finished game that looks good and plays well. Getting interest in a move to the consoles should be doable.
Though we are still looking to hear back from some most have passed on Boss 101/102 assistance. Those who are interested are taking a wait and see approach. They will watch to see if the game is popular and sells well and THEN they will likely be ready to help us out. It’s hard not to see a possible logic flaw in that approach. You know, if we are popular and have money we may not need any help... but I digress.
I spoke with a few publishers who put forth theories about Boss 101. I was told pixel art isn’t really popular anymore, that the game was too different from other games. I get it, many publishers want safe or solid bets or new ideas from proven sources. These people want to bank on stuff they feel comfortable about. Perhaps a few will see the Boss 101 universe as a worthwhile investment but we will have to wait for that moment.
We are also looking at development options which leverage what we have created in a smart fashion. Those are also under discussion and we hope to announce something soon, suffice to say – we want to keep the team together and continue to make games.
Down the line
This isn’t meant to be another indie cautionary tale. We are picking ourselves up and doing what we can. We make no excuses for Boss 101 and believe it does have an audience out there waiting to play it. We feel that audience will support us if we find them. It comes down to our belief doing something of highest quality and following through means something. It always has and always will.
I imagine some might read the above as delusional. For us, we believe nothing great was ever achieved by placing safe bets and following the leaders. You have to go it your own way, put your money where your mouth is and believe you are doing something special. You might not get your reward immediately but the reward will come.
We believed that when we started and we believe it now.
Here we are three and a half years later. A lot of time for sure and it caps one of my most satisfying and fun experiences in games. Let’s be clear — I’ve had the privilege of working with many talented people over my career. I learned my craft from far smarter folk who saw fit to give me a break when I needed one. I wouldn’t be here or anywhere unless I stood on the shoulders of giants who took pity on me when I needed it most. From those people and my sainted parents, I stand before you now.
I am telling you right this instant you CAN live your dreams. Anything is possible if you are willing to put in the effort. That’s not mumbo jumbo claptrap, that’s the TRUTH.
Boss 101 is a project of pure creation. Myself along with my friends Manon and Joshua managed to make something I personally never thought I’d see. A game without any apologies or compromise. The game we released is basically the game we wanted. That release was based on nothing except two questions we asked ourselves over and over. “Is it fun?” and “Is it done?”
That’s it. That got this game finished. When we started, the project was small and the scale was limited. The framework went up quickly and we started asking “Is this fun?” If the answer was no then we worked to add things to make it fun. Adding features we felt had value. From there we iterated and played the game. At every step the same question was asked “Is this fun?” This was coming out of our own time and effort.
At one point the game pretty well hit all the story beats and we felt the value was there for anyone who would buy it. So, we released it.
And you know what? When I hit “Publish” on Steam I felt something strange. I felt no urge to apologize for the game. No sense of “Well, if we only had a few more months” or “You know, you should have seen the ideas we LEFT OUT! OH BOY you would not believe how awesome they were!” It was strange as we got past the first few hours of release and early buyers were playing and commenting on the game. Most all were getting the vibe and liking what they saw.
Really though, and I mean this — the game was already a huge success before I hit that publish button. It was a success because it proved something I long imagined possible. You can live your dreams. It’s doable. You can even do it with other people. Heck it’s BETTER when you journey with other people. Friends. Family. People you trust and can laugh with. Makes the whole shebang a lot easier.
In fact, you might learn something important about yourself while you’re on this journey. I pretty much guarantee it. I can’t tell you what that lesson is since it varies from person to person but I can tell you one thing. If you live your dreams, one day — at the end of your grand life, as you lay there thinking to yourself during your final moments on this magnificent planet — you won’t wonder “Well, if I only had a few more months” or “You should have seen the things I WANTED to do! OH BOY you would not believe how awesome they were!” No ma’am. No sir. You’re going to feel right 'cause you didn’t compromise.
Be true to yourself everyone. . . and live your dreams.