9 tips for creating indie games from a single developer

Original author: Steven Large
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Game development alone provides amazing creative freedom and poses incredibly complex tasks . Anyone who worked in solo on a project (of their own choice or for some other reason) knows how difficult it is to do all the work yourself. Planning everything and making sure that every little piece is combined with each other in order to translate the vision at the “Idea” stage into reality is a huge stress - and when there is a problem, there is no one to blame but yourself.

Eric Nevala ( @slayemin ), the founder of Wobbly Duck Studios , knows about developing the game from scratch firsthand. He has been working on his Spellbound game for more than five years, and it has not always been easy ...

His experience as a solo developer allows him to share many tips on how this will look for those who are thinking about creating their own video game or any other type of product.

Tip number 1. Pump up the basics: you need some knowledge and experience

You cannot draw a good portrait without understanding how colors work, just like you cannot make a good video game without understanding anything in programming.

Nevala first wanted to become a software developer back in 14. He played Commander Keen, an old-school platformer, where you collect all kinds of candies and jump on monsters with the help of a stick.

“Once in the summer it dawned on me,” says Nevala, “I thought something like ..." Nichrome myself! Someone made my favorite game! ”, And also wanted to make a game. I found that you need to be a programmer if you want to make games. Whatever is needed to create the games, I am going to do it. ”

It was back in those days when the Internet was not something special, then there were no YouTube or technical forums that could be used for training. Nevala said that he was trying to learn QBasic, a programming language for beginners, using a useless help file.

“It was really difficult, and I almost gave up,” Nevala says.

In high school, there were courses in visual programming, he took them and studied well, because he was extremely motivated. However, he did not keep up with the program. However, he did not give up his dream and continued to move forward.

After graduating from high school and having studied a little at college, Nevala began working in the field of software development as a freelancer, mainly creating websites. He then served in the Marine Corps in reserve at the Civil Affairs Department. As the webmasters of this unit, his task was to create tools for use in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure after the 2003 invasion.

“We had all these various projects carried out by all these different parts, such as the engineering corps and the building battalion of the Navy, and no one was following anything,” said Nevala, “all of this was pretty much just Excel spreadsheets. Therefore, I spent about three months creating the tool from scratch. ”

Three months of 18 hours a day and 20,000 lines of code later, Nevala provided a tool that simplified project management. He said the incentive for such hard work was the desire to help the people of Iraq.

“The idea was that the faster I complete this project, the faster we can bring peace to the country,” said Nevala, “that was my motivation.”

After serving for 18 months, he worked as a contractor in Afghanistan, putting aside everything he could to create his own studio. He founded Wobbly Duck Studios in 2013.

Tip number 2. You must have a goal

Having something that you want to achieve with the product you are doing will be of great importance for your motivation when working on it. When Nevala created the necessary instrument in Iraq, he wanted to help establish peace in the region. With Spellbound, he wants to make people better through storytelling.

“I think people are fighting each other because of misunderstandings and differences in values,” Nevala said. “My idea is that people get information to shape their values ​​in part thanks to the media they consume, including video games, so that maybe I can use games to help people become better by telling them some ideas ".

Nevala believes that stories in any media are a way to instill values ​​in people. With Spellbound, he wants to tell fascinating stories so that people stop and take a step back to think about other worldviews and give people a better way to understand each other.

“My goal with Spellbound is to tell stories that give people a better idea of ​​how they act and the nature of evil.”

Tip number 3. Your plans will change more than once

Spellbound did not start as an exciting virtual role-playing game . Like many other projects, the game began its life as something completely different. In fact, Spellbound began as a turn-based strategy. The only similarity between the first version and what it is now was that it was oriented towards wizards.

“It was supposed to be a game that I thought would be fun to play,” Nevala said. “I felt that so far no one has fought wizards correctly, so I wanted to change that.” I wanted to bring a new dimension to the battlefield. ”

Then Nevala got some VR equipment after trying Oculus Rift in a bar, and development went a different way. With a new market he could enter, he had new ideas.

“Steam has a lot of competition, especially for independent developers,” Nevala said. - I looked at it and thought it was terrible. If I released something that would be lost in the ocean of games before someone even started playing, it would be a huge disappointment. "

VR just appeared, and Nevala thought it could take him a niche in the market.

“Being a big fish in a small pond is much easier than a small fish in a large ocean,” he says.

Tip number 4. You will need help

Even if you are a jack of all trades, you are probably just a master at some things. You will need outside help for everything that you cannot do yourself at a good enough level.

When Nevala opened Wobbly Duck Studios, he worked alone for a year, and Spellbound is a game he originally created alone. However, the game is not a game without visual effects, and he needed an artist. So he hired Dan Lane.

“Dan is one of the few who also made a significant contribution to this project,” Nevala said. “I say that this is my game, but there are others who worked on Spellbound with me, but, nevertheless, Dan and I made a greater contribution to the project.”

Sometimes you need to look for help, sometimes it comes from where you are not expecting. In 2015, Nevala began to demonstrate its game. He had visual effects, gameplay, but lacked music.

Frantz Widmaier , an independent composer, saw the game on Reddit and suggested making music for it.

“The coolest thing about writing music for VR is that you look at the stage when you look at the level,” Widmeier said. “I plunged into the world to create a more exciting soundtrack.”

Sometimes, when independent artists work together, everything happens right away, and it's a good experience for everyone.

“It was great to work for Nevala,” said Widmeier. - It always seems to him that he is working on something advanced. Usually I'm the one who wants to try this or that, but this time it was him.

The other side: the art of bargaining

Help from outside does not have to be expensive. Sometimes the one you know can become a source of new talent. Nevala works in a common office space, and one of the other tenants, Cody Cannell, who worked there in 2015, turned out to be a musician who wanted to learn about game development.

Therefore, Nevala offered him a deal. If Cannell makes some sound effects for Spellbound, Neval will teach him programming.

The project was simple, just a little game similar to ping pong. But that was enough to push Cannell to seek specialized education in software development.

Nevala also got what he needed. Cannell used his own voice to create sound effects for zombies and ghostly enemies in Spellbound.

Tip number 5. To be able to admit if something is not worth it.

Despite the fact that Nevala still had initial savings, in addition to earning from consulting work on the side, he quickly realized that game development is expensive. He went to an event where he wanted to present his product to a group of investors, hoping that they would invest in his game, but all this turned out to be a failure.

“It was just a bunch of old people with lots of money who were sitting idle and drinking wine,” Nevala said. “Theoretically, the winner would have been given some money, but in reality no one received the money, and the investors just got drunk.”

Trying to introduce a VR game to a group of older people who really don't know what a video game is, not to mention virtual reality, is doomed to failure.

“It's like talking to them in Greek,” Nevala said. “If I could turn back the clock, I wouldn't even go there.” I had to pay $ 500 for the “privilege” of communicating with them. It was a waste of time and money.

The biggest lesson Nevala learned from communicating with investors was the following: firstly, software development and its sale are two different things, and secondly, he still has to hear “no”.

“I learned from this all that you need to hit 50 times and hear“ no ”50 times until you pump it,” he said. “But you have to go through this to get the long-awaited yes.”

However, losing money is normal for a business. At another event, Nevala spoke to a CEO named Archie Gupta, who told him that he should be prepared to lose 50% of his money.

“When he told me to look at the situation of his company, I realized that he was telling the truth,” said Nevala. “When you first start, you are like a blind person walking from one end of the maze to the other.” To reach the end, you have to go through many dead ends, but you will not know that this is a dead end until you reach the end, and you will have to return to try a different path. ”

Tip number 6. Learn to do what you have

In 2015, Nevala had a working demo of Spellbound, it just needed a way to show it, and PAX, a massive gaming event taking place in several U.S. cities, including Seattle, seemed like a great way to find people who would appreciate its game.

“If you wanted a booth at PAX, you had to pay a ridiculous amount,” Nevala said. - Another option is to become part of MEGABOOTH. I tried, but they did not accept me because they thought that my game was not up to standard, or I was not active enough in the community. ”

Thus, he was not really at PAX, but he wanted the audience to play his game, and his office was across the street from Benny Royal Hall, directly in accordance with the law of universal gravitation. He could use PAX's attraction to chop off a few participants for himself, using several home-made sandwich boards, laminated posters and his girlfriend, asking people to come and play his game.

“About 100 people came to us on this day,” Nevala said. “The feedback we received was pretty good.”

He said that the confirmation he received from people made him feel that he was on the right track, and all he needed to do was continue to improve the game and improve it.

Tip number 7. Inspiration is everywhere

During a demonstration in an office adjacent to PAX, a little girl of about 8 wanted to play this game.

“Are there fairies there?” She asked.
“No, no fairies,” Nevala replied.
“What about unicorns?”
“No, there are no unicorns either. This is a rather dark and scary game, ”he said.

However, the girl wanted to try the game. She put on her virtual helmet and connected. Like everything that day, she was struck by the virtual world that surrounded her. She joyfully looked at the starry sky and the atmospheric forest.

Until she saw the first zombie heading towards her. Then she cried, tore off the (expensive) headset and ran to her mother.

For some, this was an unpleasant moment, but Nevala thought about the need to rethink some aspects of the game.

“It was supposed that the original game was about this red wizard using elemental magic, but for this little girl I want to create a game that she would be happy to play,” he said. “Something completely non-violent.” So the next episode, if I go this far, will be dedicated to the witch of the world, who uses diplomacy and peaceful magic to establish world peace. ”

Even game mechanics can be inspired by everyday events. One of Spellbound's most innovative features is movement. Instead of using teleportation, the player controls the wizard, waving his arms back and forth.

“I can’t teleport the player away from the zombies,” Nevala said. - This completely negates the fear factor. I needed something natural and not violating game mechanics. ”

After a month of brainstorming on the Neval’s movement system, going to work, he noticed that he was waving his arms when he was walking.

“This was a moment of revelation for me,” he said. “I spent about a month trying to get this to work.” It was not easy, because people go forward based on where their hips are, not their head. It was difficult to get the system to work in VR, I spent about 3 weeks developing and overcoming the difficulties. ”

Tip number 8. You probably fail with a bang

Due to the lack of investors and the lack of motivation to find at least some, Nevala's money began to dry up. In 2016, Dan Lane, the artist Nevala worked with for so long, left the project. The increasing financial pressure hindered the development of Spellbound, and Neval managed the business, renting out rooms and its car in order to be able to work in the office.

The situation with debts, the absence of a permanent artist and periodic temporary employees continued for several years, until in November 2018 Neval reached the bottom.

“I had no money at all,” he said. - I didn’t eat for several days, and if I did, it was just oatmeal. Just a minimum to stretch out until the next day. I urgently needed to find the money. It was a really scary time. ”

He was angry with himself for allowing the process to reach this point.

“I should not have done this,” said Nevala. “I needed to make sure that I had enough money to fill my stomach.”

Tip number 9. Do not give up! Always remember what you are trying to create

To earn money for food, Nevala tried to sell several openers on the farmer's market. It was terrible to watch people try the product but buy nothing.

But by the end of the day he managed to get a little cash, so that was enough for food.

“It was a good experience,” Nevala said. - It showed me that when I am pressed against the wall, I can still sell. I'm still in business. ”

Even with all these money problems and a huge amount of work and the uncertainty associated with a single game development, Neval continues to work on it, slowly but surely.

“I put so much effort into it because I think it's my greatest work,” he said. - This is a masterpiece of art that expresses my personality. If it takes me 10 years to create this game, so be it.

For Nevala, Spellbound is a work of art that will live after it.

“If you look at the artists of the Renaissance, they survived the era through their creations,” he said. “They are remembered for what they did.” I hope this will not only be part of who I am, but also that will change how people look at the world. ”

Nevala said his problems are by no means unique. The struggle to create your own game is something almost all indie developers face.

“[These challenges] are something every indie developer will face, especially a loner,” he said. - There are very, very few survivors. It’s the same as winning the lottery, but the survivors receive all the attention, and this serves as a source of inspiration for us all. ”

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