Zero Hour - Exploring Indie Development After 11 Years in AAA - First Month

A month ago I left my job in the AAA game development space. Looking for greater challenge and more creative freedom I decided to go indie. This blog post chronicles the first month.

I wasn’t expecting to be in this situation.  My plan had always been to settle into AAA and just live out my life there happy as a clam.  But after over a decade working in AAA development, it became clear to be that if I was going to really thrive at my craft I was going to have to go it alone and get into this whole-entire indie scene. So, after some planning and a reaching out to some people in my social network for advice I hit the eject button and we’ll see where I land.

I wanted to share the first month of this process with you.

Deciding to go Independent

I consider myself to be very lucky to have had such a long career in the AAA gaming space.  I’ve always had a lifelong passion for videogaming so I’m eternally grateful I was able to pivot it into something that also puts a roof over my head.  It’s not easy to say ‘farewell’ to the safety net and to established patterns.  The people you work with become close friends and you’re setting off to do something you have no solid proof will work out.

Before leaving my place of employment I sat down, budgeted out our monthly expenses in a spreadsheet, looked at how long savings would last us if we cut out work related costs (transportation mostly) and then tightened our belts by 20% (rough number there).  I then met with a bank I had a long standing relationship with and consulted with them about budgeting for 2 years.  

From there I was referred to an accountant who helped with developing a business plan (really just advise on the technical aspects).  After that I consulted a lawyer to ensure that I wasn’t going to step on anyone’s toes and get any additional advice I might not be aware of.

After all of them was sorted, it was time to strike out on my own.

Setting up for Work Outside of Work

My wife and I setup a home office so I’d have a place to work.  I also researched other areas surrounding me that would work as temporary office space (Libraries, coffee shops etc).  So far all development has happened from home, but it’s nice to have other options should I need them.  I’m leaning towards the library since at a coffee shop I know I couldn’t resist a cup of coffee to two...and those expenses add up.  (If you do a budget, pay careful attention to how much you spend on snacks and eating out, those numbers add up extremely quickly).

One of the best parts of this experience so far has been finding what my natural working rhythm is.  I’m finding I tend to have my peek productivity from 3:00 PM till about 11:00 PM. So I’m trying to use mornings for errands and exercise.  

I also setup a weekly meetup with a friend of mine who is an indie so I know that every week I need to have something new on screen to show.  It’s been wonderful for keeping me motivated and focused.

But...what about the game?

I decided to work on an idea I had a while back, combining traditional JRPG gameplay against a backdrop of the aggressive capitalism of the 1980’s.  (Think Dragon Warrior meets Wolf of Wallstreet).

This had a few benefits:

  • The gameplay basics of a JRPG have been largely codified so there’s lots of support out there on how to make them.  
  • The project lent itself to something that would be doable in a year on an aggressively modest budget.  Everything is 3D and ‘retro’ which reduces our animation needs and keeps the art assets simple.  No pathfinding to worry about, no network code.  I can put together the basics of gameplay in 2 months and then focus on design.
  • The design is very scalable.  It’s possible to reduce ped variations or to go ‘more retro’ to simplify the asset pipeline.  I’m aiming for roughly 30 environments but we can shave that number down if need be since environments get used multiple times in the game.  EG. Having 5 business research locations is great, but the game isn’t impacted much if we reduce that number to 2.

What we’re doing that’s different

One of my real impulses to go indie was it was a chance to try out much more experimental things and see if my hunches on certain systems and approaches to gameplay would pan out.

I’m using a lot of cognitive sciences in the game’s development….no...not as in nickel and diming micro-transactions or ‘play session length optimization’.  More using cognitive sciences as a way of simplifying gameplay down to it’s essentials and making sure the story and experience is coming through loud and clear.  If it doesn’t add to the player’s experience it doesn’t go into the game.  

I’m also attempting to do a very close marriage of gameplay and story, where the narrative of the title influences the gameplay itself.  I’m hoping this kind of connection between the narrative and gameplay will help the two to feel less like the two threads are pulling in different directions.

It’s Been at it for a Month...Where Are We At?

We’ve been making the game in Unity, the platform support and robustness tipped the scales in it’s favor.  Currently I’ve been focusing as much as I can on system side implementation.  So it’s lots of data systems talking to other data systems right now.  But, we’ve got basic test environments, NPC waypoint pathfinding, basic player control, world object interaction and the start of our combat and inventory systems in place.  I was hoping to be further along...but I think this is a good start nonetheless.

Personally though, this has been incredibly gratifying.  I'm enjoying getting to be self-directed and delve into tough challenges.  Being able to just go ahead and design/implement something without having to run it up a hierarchy is fantastic.  I've been much more productive now than I think I've ever been, but I need to keep on top of myself to keep it that way.

Looking Forwards

There’s lots of work to do in regards to finding talent for things like art and music (I have some leads though).  There’s also lots to do in regards to marketing.  Since our budget is ‘frugal’ I’m doing as much marketing as I can myself.  Pretty much community outreach and then a Kickstarter once we have enough working to form a reasonable demo (the game has been designed with this in mind).  That’ll be a big challenge, but it’s something I’m pretty confident we can get up and running and from there it’s up to the Kickstarter gods!

In Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this little update and found it useful.  I’m planning on writing these once a week from here on out.  I look forward to keeping you posted and please let me know if you have any questions.

Matt F




PS. The refridgerator is working just fine.

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