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Bringing High-Budget Game Development Best Practices to Your Indie Studio

I walk through some of the stumbles and successes we experienced when developing our recently released title, Legacy Quest, highlighting lessons learned and the benefits of bringing triple-A practices to indie development.

Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking game developers are a lazy bunch. These are the folks — we are the folks — that live and breath our life’s passion, often sacrificing family, food, and sleep in the process.

Because we at Socialspiel just launched “Legacy Quest” worldwide on August 1, we’re still riding out that giddy feeling of hope and anticipation you get at the end of a big project. And we’re still letting out a sigh of relief. As in, that went much smoother than it could have. We still haven’t achieved the level of world dominance we had hoped for, but our team didn’t have to pull any crazy all-nighters or give up all of their hard-earned weekends to fulfill our vision for the game.

It helps that almost all of our developers came to us with extensive experience working at tech giants like Rockstar Games and Facebook. We had already released an award-winning title, “Asterix & Friends.” Most importantly, we had an amazing partnership with one of the industry’s leaders in free-to-play online games, Nexon Co. Ltd. (Nexon).

But at our core, we’re still an indie studio, developers who built Socialspiel from the ground up. We didn’t lock our employees in a dungeon befit for the fantasy world they were creating or leave them to suffer through grueling crunch cycles. This is how we used our collective experience in the triple-A gaming world to continually evaluate our team processes and optimize our production pipeline.

Turn Around

Instead of starting a project by calculating crunch into the schedule like many indie studios, we focus on shortening turnaround cycles. This is possible thanks to our data-oriented approach to game design.

For example, when developers want to make a change to a bundle, or component of the game, they can quickly edit or add formulas in a Google spreadsheet to determine if the new parameters make sense. If all goes well, they export the spreadsheet to a JSON document and  rebuild the asset bundle. Developers save up to an hour and a half in the process and don’t have to submit another rebuild to the app store, annoying players in the process. Instead, they upload changes directly into the live game.

Tap into Tech

Call us geeks, but when we get roped into doing something repetitive and monotonous, we usually figure out a way to get around doing it ourselves. We tinker with technology until boring equals automated. It’s also another key component to enhancing productivity and shortening turnaround times. We commit to getting each and every contributor the tools they need to fulfill their jobs.

Programmers don’t usually seem to have any trouble with this one, however designers and artists usually need a little coaxing to get used to the idea. We encourage them to be on the lookout for ways that programmers can automate pesky, repetitive tasks that keep them from fully unleashing their creativity. In turn, programmers are asked to prioritize those requests. Once everyone gets into that mindset, the pace picks up.

One example of this is our level editor. Instead of painfully redesigning the same things over and over again, the team created an add-on to Unity so that artists could quickly create the layout of a room. Once someone brings up a basic room structure, they can seamlessly change its style and settings.

Perhaps the single most-used tool in our company is version control, and for that we use the Perforce server and versioning engine almost religiously to power automated builds and continuous delivery. To do that, we have separate servers for our development builds, staging builds, and live builds. When we run daily automated builds, those hook directly into the Perforce repository and the daily development build to sync with the mainline and build the latest version of the game for each platform. If we want to run a staging build or a live build, we simply tell the build parts to take various pieces from Perforce and everything else just automatically executes, sends, and completes the builds.  If we didn’t have separate servers for different builds, every time someone from the team needed to review something, they would either fail miserably or wreak havoc on the rest of development.

It’s a Trap!

More than one indie studio has fallen into the trap of thinking that procedural design will speed up level design, but we caution studios to think twice before ditching manually-designed systems. At its worst, relying on procedural design can cause major issues in player progression, even generating unplayable worlds. It’s a lesson we learned the hard way, but we quickly came to realize that we don’t want to rely on the randomness of procedural design to create core game space elements. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time or a place to use procedural design, just that the only way you’ll see any value from it is if you have the overhead to do it extremely well.

First Impressions Are Harder Than They Look

You might be your own biggest critic, but you’re probably also your biggest fan. The reality of the mobile gaming industry is that you don’t get hours to grab someone’s attention, you get seconds, minutes if you’re lucky. During the playtesting of “Legacy Quest”, players had overwhelmingly positive feedback surrounding its concept, aesthetic and gameplay, so we were confident that we would release the game and the downloads would roll in as players got hooked. We were definitely surprised to see high numbers of people dropping out of the game by the end of what we thought was a fairly standard tutorial. If people don’t like the first impression of your game, you probably won’t get a second chance. Ultimately, we went back in and gave “Legacy Quest” a little extra TLC, paying particular attention to the first 30 minutes of game play.

Conclusion

Five and a half years ago, five former Rockstar Games colleagues got together and started Socialspiel. It could have been a nightmarish experience full of harried crunch cycles, beleaguered and bitter employees, or even bankruptcy, but I think our saving grace was that we understood the challenges of creating high-quality games for corporate studios. We simply applied what the triple-A gaming industry had taught us as we completed our first projects and tried to stay flexible to change.

The gaming industry is undergoing a major transition as games become more sophisticated and complex, even on mobile devices. You no longer need a triple-A budget to create a successful game, but indie gaming creation is not a hobby, it’s a business. If independent studios can embrace agile development best practices and change throughout the game’s lifecycle, there is still room for success on the market and you might just be one of the lucky ones.

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