Lessons Learnt (so far)

Concealed Intent is my first game. Here are some things I wish I knew (and learnt the hard way!) before I started 2 years ago.

This post was first published on the Concealed Intent blog

A friend of mine believes that all programmers really just want to write games. Concealed Intent is my attempt to prove him right. I've started work on many games in my spare time, but never finished any. When the opportunity came to work on a personal project full-time; creating a game seemed like the perfect choice. In late 2012 I moved to Malaysia for my partner's career, but without a local job. When deciding what to do, the idea of finally writing a game greatly appealed. So began Concealed Intent, nearly two years ago.

At Unite2012, indie game devs were advised to create many simple, small games. By keeping the games simple it should be possible to produce a game or two each year - minimising the risk associated with any particular game (and increasing the chance of a big hit). Good advice, that I have ignored. Concealed Intent is the smallest idea for a game I considered. It is turn-based, so there is no need to worry about high performance; and set in space, to minimise art requirements (the background is mostly black).  As a strategy/tactical game it is also the sort of game I enjoy -  helping keep up my motivation to finish. Still the concept is far too large for a team of one! The problem is that not having completed a game before I didn't consider all the extra little things that need to be done. Two years is too long. The next game will be much smaller, and definitely 2D! 

Concealed Intent progress

After the first year of development there was a playable version. It was just a simple skirmish, and all the artwork was developer art (very ugly). A number of people tested it out and the feedback was not positive. Apparently the game was too complicated and testers did not understand what was happening. So some of the elaborate features had to go - like relativistic physics, a fully reversible timeline, and a vast array of possible actions each with various triggers (now there are exactly 5 actions possible per ship - all of which occur exactly when the player activates them). Also, the GUI is much simpler: there are many cues for position in 3D space; and no nested input screens for various options on selected actions. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Great advice for an indie dev. The game is much better now. I was too close to see that the layers of complexity didn't make the game more fun - in fact it was the reverse. 

Getting feedback early and often is a good idea. I try to do this as much as possible now. Many of the early testers commented on the poor artwork, despite a warning that it was temporary placeholder art. First impressions make a big difference. I can say to ignore the art, but human nature means that people can not easily separate core gameplay from ugly screens. If it looks bad, they are more likely to think the game is bad. So beware giving early work to people without an understanding of the game development process. Since then feedback on Concealed Intent has come largely from other local game developers or artists. Now that the art has improved, it is time to pass out test versions more widely.

While Concealed Intent has taken two years to develop (and counting), that only corresponds to two person years. Development is largely by me. This is very hard. If possible I recommend working in a small team. As a sole developer it is easy to become discouraged by the usual setbacks or problems. Coworkers help keep motivation high (for me at least). Being alone can make me glum, so interacting with the local game dev community is a must. Take a look online in your hometown - there are usually some local groups, and across two countries I've found indie devs to be friendly and welcoming. By oneself it is also easy to become distracted or become fixated on an unproductive part of the game. Whenever I find myself thinking about rewriting a bit of messy code to make the design more elegant, I have to ask myself "does this make the game more fun or bring it closer to completion?" Normally the answer is "no" and I go to work on something else for which the answer is a definite "yes". 

There are many distinct tasks required to finish a game. If the team doesn't have a necessary skill to complete any of them well, then someone with that skill needs to be found. For Concealed Intent the missing skill is anything to do with art. For a long time the game used placeholder art. I was reluctant to get someone else involved. Eventually after meeting a few artists at a local IGDA group, Amber was hired to improve the GUI. This was a decision I should have made months earlier. The basic elements of the GUI had been decided for a while, but trying to work out how to display them on the screen was absorbing nearly all my time - as I'm not very good at it. Amber quickly improved the look and feel of the game. I'm much more confident about final product now it looks good. Soon other people will improve the 3D models and the music - I can't wait. If you are working as a sole developer, don't be reluctant to bring other people in to help. 

Having someone else in the team can also help with what may be one on the largest indie game dev tasks - marketing. It seems obscurity is the largest impediment to indie success. The process of selling the game needs to start early, just so people even know it exists. I've just started, and already feel overwhelmed by all the advice on setting up blogs, landing pages, Twitter, Facebook, online reviews, online stores, YouTube let's play, and more. Prepare for selling early - I wish I did, there is so much to do! 

So what next? In the push for completion I have set myself a deadline - GDC 2015. The tickets are bought, now I just need to finish the game!

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