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Reflection on Indie Dev

Over the past year and a half I made my first game. I'm far from a seasoned indie dev after one game, but I've realized more than a few mistakes I made along the way. If you're starting out and want to avoid the same pitfalls I suggest reading this.

Eric Hammann

September 25, 2017

9 Min Read

Game development is a very hard thing to pin down.  About a year and a half ago I started my first attempt to get into the industry as an indie dev.  A year and a half later I finished my first game, Guardian.  I started a company, comprised of only myself which makes me wonder if I should even call it that.  I put the game on Steam and so far at least, nothing much has happened.

I decided a few days after release that I needed to make a much larger effort, or more accurately any effort, to interact with the community and get my ideas seen by people.  That idea is how I came to this blog.  It’s an idea that you read about in plenty of places, but I was never sure I’d have much of anything to say.  I decided that I have to try something however and so here we are.  The hope is that I will post here regularly about the development of my current projects or if I have some odd revelation relating to the industry.  I don’t plan to elaborate or go into my personal life or have commentary on the sales of my games etc.  I’d like to keep this strictly about the games I am in the progress of making to hopefully generate some amount of interest in them, as well as maybe give people a, however brief, look into the world of indie game dev.  The plan is in the future to also sprinkle in some pictures or gifs because who doesn’t like pictures, also game dev progress is far easier to show via photos, and let’s face it code is boring to look at.

All that said this first post will actually be dedicated not to a current project, but to the one I just finished.  It’s far too late for any sort of marketing angle, but I feel that this project was a learning experience.  There are plenty of posts around the internet that warn of the dangers of being an indie dev and the pitfalls you can hit but I’d like to throw my two cents in the hopes that maybe it will save someone else a bit of trouble. If you are an indie dev and you are making your first game or just getting your feet wet I suggest you keep reading.  I blatantly ignored articles like this and I feel I’m far worse off for it.

The most important thing to remember is time, it’s at the core of everything you will do as a dev.  That’s a broad idea but to put it simply game dev takes a lot of time.  If you are just getting started get ready because it’s a long arduous task from idea to completed product.  If you are in the middle of development stick with it, you’ll be happy you did when it all comes together.

As any game takes a sizable amount of time you are likely going to hit problems. I had multiple instances while working on my game where I was just sick of it and wanted to be done.  The best advice I can give is to work consistently, but not to the point of exhaustion.  Take breaks but keep them short, a day, maybe two to decompress. If you work endless on your project you will burn out, which will lead to a long break where you tell yourself things like “I got so much done earlier, I can afford this”.  It’s far better to work at a moderate pace, if a bit slower, pace. Maybe more importantly, if you work yourself to the bone you are far more likely to make mistakes and not fully comprehend the systems you are putting in place, which leads to my next, and probably most painstaking, point.

When I look back at the creation process behind Guardian there are many things I can point to as problems, but the biggest was sweeping changes to the game’s systems.  When I started making it the game was set to be something akin to Metroid or Castlevania. A few months in I decided this would be hard to do, maybe too hard for one person, so I changed gears and decided to simplify the game down to something like Megaman X.  The games are somewhat similar in concept, but the more linear level design of a Megaman game seemed easier to create.  Several more months went by and my game took another turn as I realized a Megaman clone wasn’t really what I wanted, instead I wanted to make a modern take on the Metroidvania genre, making the combat quicker and adding dodge rolls and dashes.

All of these were terrible ideas and I should have stuck with the original.  I would get excited to add new systems and start down this new path without thinking about what the long-term effects were. As I said before it’s good to give yourself time to breathe, and really think about what you are doing.  To make an analogy game programming is like constructing a building, the foundation is the most important part.  Without it everything will topple over.  I’ve seen many devs, myself included, get very focused on an idea and it leads them to create entire systems before they even have the basics squared away.  In short, look at the big picture and have a solid plan before you get into the details, it’s probably the most important programming tip you could take from this post.

The next thing to say is something that many probably won’t consider because it’s taken more as a given.  I was the only one doing the programming behind Guardian, but I needed two others to help me, one to make art assets, and another to make music and SFX.  To do this I hired two freelancers to fill the roles. My musician was fine, but before I found the artist who is credited in the game I hired a different person.  At the time, I’d never hired anyone so I didn’t think too much about what I was signing on for.  As an indie dev, and really any dev, you have to remember that money is probably your most valuable and scarce resource.  

The first artist I hired abruptly quit after a little less than a month, claiming he didn’t have the time to continue the project.  This caused me to have to hire someone else and start entirely over since the art I already had wouldn’t match the style the new artist.  In short it was a waste because I was eager to get started and I didn’t fully look into and vet my first artist.  If I had I would have realized there was very little chance he would finish the project.  I wasted time and money doing this.  The thing to take away here is before you hire anyone, be it into your company or just a freelancer, make sure they are as dedicated to the project as you are.  In the grand scheme of things, I got off easy, a months’ worth of time and money, but imagine if he had worked with me for half a year before quitting.  The cost would have been astronomical.

I could go on but this post is already long so I’ll close with one last thing relating to time.  It’s very common for any indie dev to program first and advertise later.  After all I imagine you got into game dev to make a game not advertise it.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is the worst possible way to think.  In a sense, a game is only as good as its marketing. It is an unfortunate truth but in the world today there are countless things trying to grab your attention. Even over the course of reading this you have probably been interrupted at least once by an ad, text, snap, tweet, email, or who knows what.  In a world filled to the brim with content that is readily available you have to make an impression.

Personally, I made a twitter account and tweeted four times about my game over the course of development.  Aside from that I made the typical Steam trailer and screenshots, and my game was on the Steam store for two weeks before release, as it has to be. I sent out a tweet on release day as well as some free keys to streamers and figured it would gain traction somewhere, probably.  This might have been my biggest blunder.  The fact is no one knows you or your game exists unless you tell them, or happen to already be well known on the internet.  Even if you made a masterpiece no one will care unless you tell them about it.  Like I said you didn’t get into game dev to advertise, but you have to otherwise your game, bar a miracle, will just be lost amongst everything else.

Do anything, tweet (more often than 4 times), make a blog (but not after the fact), post on reddit, post on indie forums, whatever.  Talk about your game to the point of being obnoxious.  I think many people myself included think most people don’t care what they have to say, or they are embarrassed to show what they have been working on and afraid of criticism, my fear was the latter.  In many ways putting your creation out there is like asking out a girl (or guy) you have to put yourself out there if you want to ever have a shot.

Alright I’ve made way too long a post, if you made it this far, kudos. Assuming you have enjoyed this at all I plan to start rambling on here about the next game I am making soon.  I’d consider doing more posts like this in the future if people wanted more insight into this sort of thing but the plan is for this blog to be more dedicated to talking about the dev process and what I am doing.

The link below goes to the Store page of Guardian in case any are interested. #ShamelessSelfPlug


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