“Artificial Intelligence is my profession,
Animation is my hobby,
Storytelling is my pastime.”
How can a game developer find a unique style and, more importantly, stay focused enough to keep perfecting it?
In August of 2015 Andrew Hlynka, a university student (with some help from a teammate) released his third game called “Unfinished - An Artist’s Lament.” We spoke with Andrew to learn about his approach, motivation, challenges and insights on indie game development on a shoestring.
A Game Studio of One*
Unfinished is not a follow-up, but rather a refinement of a unique concept game of discovery with hand-drawn 2D character animation in a 3D environment adventure game, with improved gameplay and better reviews.
Andrew spent approximately six months programming and designing the game part-time (!). The game development “team” consisted almost entirely of Andrew, who did the programming, animation, level design and story, with a fellow student providing the music score and the sound effects during one month of this process. In the end of the day, Andrew created a beautiful world where sophisticated narrative and surrealistic surrounding tease curiosity and imagination:
Finding a Unique Voice
Andrew’s interest in this style began as an experiment in combining 2D character art with a 3D environment. It worked, and Andrew’s first game called Drew and the Floating Labyrinth has achieved a seamless blend of the two without negatively impacting the gameplay. The style was further refined in Unfinished.
“My game's concept was short and simple. It was thematically interesting to an audience, but my schedule kept me from working on it, causing development time to be longer than anticipated. And like any large scale project, other ideas would overtake my desire to stay with the game after the first few months of development. So yes, I did consider leaving "Unfinished - An Artist's Lament" as an unfinished game, but I'm glad I stuck with it,” says Andrew.
Just like with the invention of the telephone, there were a few games close to his thematically, with a similar art style and concept and released a bit earlier, but that didn’t impact Andrew’s game. The storytelling aspect was almost entirely from narrative from a voice belonging to an artist not seen in the game. The player controls a character the artist did not complete, with the goal being moving forward with the hope that the drawing will be completed.
Andrew confesses: “I think this story is simple but inspired and easy for many people to relate to. As a game, I should have added more to allow the player to affect the story (the artist's narrative is mostly independent of the player's actions), and added more animations to the drawing to portray this point of view. But most of the people who have played it so far found the story worth playing through, so I am satisfied with how it turned out”.
He is convinced that intuitive controls and gameplay are very important. It can be difficult to make a game that feels satisfying without being awkward to play. For PC systems, customizable controls are a huge factor for many people, and even they alone can be difficult to implement correctly. As for the game design, while he personally prefers not showing too much and trusting the player to learn how to play, Andrew is well aware that a bad first level can turn away gamers in frustration.
Although currently a student, Andrew seems very mature when it comes to gameplay approach: “I think learning how to play a game is part of the experience, so there is no correct way to have perfect control options: every game is different, and gamers get used to each game as they play. But there has to be incentive for them to keep playing, and the designer should do everything he can to make the player want to stay a little longer”
The Ultimate Choice: Unity3D
Andrew used the Unity3D game engine, in spite of the issues that he has been experiencing, such as physics control and texture rendering, and not being able to easily rewrite parts of the game's engine. Although Unity3D is not perfect, Andrew is convinced that it is still a great choice not only because he prefers using its scripting language (C#) over other engines but also because it feels very intuitive.
“When I first learned it years ago, I made a basic 3D platformer within an hour, something which would have taken days or weeks with other engines or frameworks. Its porting options also allow me to make games for Mac and Linux almost effortlessly”.
There is one ability in the game that allows you to "carry" a platform with you as you move. Using the Unity3D engine, there are many ways to detect and avoid collision, but he kept running into situations where the player could forcibly push the box through walls and the floor. "This was the biggest game-breaking bug,” says Andrew.
However, he did found a solution to this problem which involved using a different physics option, then temporarily turning off the player's physics when calculating the box's movement at every frame, and will update the game soon. “This bug probably looked unprofessional to many people, and I don't like having to update a game like this after its release,” Andrew continues.
He regularly updates a developer blog which you can read here with articles relating to his experiences in game development every couple of months. Some articles are updates on progress, but he tries to write about tricks he has learned to make the article informative to other people.
The Art of Networking
Andrew did not intend to hire talent for this game: it was intended to be short and simple enough for him to complete alone. But he does regularly receive a couple emails a month of eager talent looking for projects to be part of. The musician/composer he hired met Andrew at a gaming event where he was promoting the project, and after sending some samples they agreed to work together on improving the game's sound.
One special part of the game used concept art of unfinished drawings from dozens of artists around the world. Most of these artists he met personally at a gaming event in Toronto, where they agreed to provide a drawing for credit and a future copy of the game. Afterwards, the opportunity was given to anyone online who was interested.
“The art was used in one specific level, which many people agree is the most impressive level of the game, and I am very happy to have had people contribute.”
Andrew went to multiple gaming events to show off "Unfinished" to the public at different stages of development. Some feedback, such as ability to understand what to do or where to go, plus a few minor bugs were resolved by watching people and hearing their feedback.
We asked Andrew what was the main difficulty while working alone and he complained that the scope and quality of the game was reduced dramatically, and this had to be accepted early in pre-production stage when the idea was just being developed. He completed most of the game's programming and art himself, which saves a lot of money and some time, because communication is no longer an issue, and this can be a complicated process for elements that are closely tied together.
The Winning Strategy
Andrew attempted crowdfunding for his first game, but it was unsuccessful, thus reducing the scope of the game tremendously. But by keeping the development costs for that game low, he was able to fund Unfinished out of the income made from that game since this new game's scope was small from the start. Combined, the development costs for both games were under $5,000 - small enough to be able to make back money for future projects of a similar size.
“Unfinished has quickly gained the right type of audience, which I think helped. Aside from that, my games are the only games to use 2D animation in a unrestricted 3D environment, which I think remains their biggest factor for standing out.”
As a student, he was eager to release the game quickly, but he understands that elements of the UI, controls and certain bugs could have been improved with more time. He intends to further improve his use of 2D animation in 3D games. Otherwise, he thinks a third game would focus on standard gameplay over story, and use a more interesting environment to look at.
Andrew is convinced that it is almost impossible let alone a studio with full-time workers if you are making money to sustain yourself. However, If a developer starts when money is not the objective, then it is more likely for them to build their portfolio and find the resources and audience they need to succeed down the road.
Andrew is very passionate about what he’s doing: “As a graduating University student, I am eager to begin my professional career. Whether or not it relates to any jobs I hold, I will continue to make games.”
About Dust Scratch Games
Dust Scratch Games is a one-man Canadian company officially founded in 2014 in Windsor, Ontario, focused on developing computer and video games. Contact Andrew Hlynka for job opportunities and PR enquiries here.
Outsoft is a software development service provider serving a variety of industry verticals, but with a passion for cross-platform mobile game development. The company is based in Tennessee, United States and operates a research and development center in Kyiv, Ukraine.