The first year of my life as an indie developer

Original author: Kevin Giguere
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In January 2017, I quit my job as a web application developer to fully devote myself to independent game development. This act followed almost five years of developing my first game, when I tried to balance my full-time job and the many tasks associated with building an independent gaming company. I want to tell my story of year-long hopes and failures.

I am a 35-year-old Canadian who studied at the College of Computer Science and has 13 years of professional experience. Most of my life I worked with web applications, but in the mid-2000s I was engaged in programming Flash games for three years. Before starting work on my first indie game, I never worked as a project manager and never developed games on my own.

Most likely, you have already read dull stories about indie developers who released their first games and failed on the market. Unfortunately, my story is just as bleak. While indie masterpieces like Stardew Valley and Undertale were able to create an avalanche of millions of copies sold, for an average game, selling 1000 copies in the first month is lucky.

In 2017, I released two games on Steam. The first was the retro-style JRPG Arelite Core , released on February 8 after four and a half years of development. I paid hired artists and composer over $ 85,000. The game, released only for Windows, today in all application stores has earned less than $ 5,000.

My second game was a racing runner created in more than seven months.Astral Traveler . It took him about $ 15,000 to spend on a hired 3d artist and my immediate needs. Including the share of income I shared with the second developer. The game was released on September 13th and has earned less than $ 1,000 since then. About 12% of copies were sold for Mac and 8% for Linux.

In addition, I received approximately $ 2,000 in donations during Twitch development streams , as well as from a handful of generous sponsors at Patreon . Thanks to this, my total income for 2017 amounted to approximately $ 7,000, while the annual expenses are approximately $ 13,000.

The sales figures are just awful. Fortunately, before getting fired from work, I prepared for the worst and saved some money to stay afloat for about a year, regardless of sales. But I will not deny that only 6% of the cost of developing my two released games is much less than what I expected.

To afford such a low income, I lead a rather Spartan lifestyle. I have no spouse, no children, no car. I do not smoke, do not drink alcohol and rent a cheap one-bedroom apartment. I limited myself to all the excesses, such as going to theaters and coffee houses. In grocery stores, I choose the cheapest brands and, of course, do not buy video games. And since my income is directly related to the release of games, I work 70-80 hours a week.

So, I would like to make an honest review of one of the most difficult years in my life, to explain my mistakes and errors. Hopefully this way I can help other developers avoid the pitfalls. I also want players to better understand which workflow is behind creating their favorite games, and which crises and doubts follow.

But before starting to talk in detail about my first year, I will briefly describe the development of my first game. Do not worry: in this process, too, there were a lot of expensive mistakes, delays and life lessons.

Submission transcends reality

Arelite Core was released at the wrong time, followed by a huge amount of cheap games created in RPG Maker. Despite my efforts to demonstrate her unique features, she was always perceived as yet another junk two-dimensional JRPG, and she was even mistakenly assigned the RPG Maker tag on Steam. I think that because of this note, I lost a lot of potential sales.

In fact, I created my own engine for it, which added another six to twelve months to the development time. But in the end, it made a very weak impression on the players who honored the game with a cursory glance. The engine used the Microsoft XNA Framework, which allowed it to be compatible with the XBox 360, but delays in the production process and the termination of support for the framework by Microsoft destroyed these plans.

However, my engine was capable of much more than RPG Maker, ranging from the highly customizable combat system inspired by the fighting games to the addition of more strategy variability. In addition, I added a crafting system, dynamic encounters with enemies, a unique UI and even diagonal staircases that give the world a sense of depth.

My goal, like that of many new developers, was to create a large-scale and varied gameplay with many different locations to explore and a wide range of characters and monsters. I wanted to recreate the nostalgic sensations that arose from playing the Final Fantasy series on SNES and at the same time updating the genre so that it would be perceived by a modern audience. Instead of endless monotonous battles, the game increased its duration due to the plot, emphasized by a cinematic appearance and a unique, memorable soundtrack.

It was because of such ambitious proportions that the development cost $ 85,000. This highlights one of the most difficult aspects of creating such a game: you have to assume the responsibilities of a producer because I hired and managed a team of artists who created the graphic resources necessary for the game.

At peak moments in the development of the game, I talked to at least five different groups. My task was to create detailed descriptions and provide reference materials that artists turned into static backgrounds, animation frames for characters and monsters, as well as visual effects. Then I checked each resource and tested in the game to check if it meets the specified requirements.

Over the course of four years, I hired more than twenty artists who worked on various visual elements. The work process included the publication of announcements, viewing after that dozens of resumes, interviews with candidates, signing contracts and, of course, ongoing management to ensure that the work was done correctly. It was a colossal task for one person developing games in his free time, who still needed to create his own content.

It is very easy to underestimate the complexity of the work required to manage a team. She made me realize how difficult it is to find reliable workers, even if they are paid for their work. Some of the artists that I hired were engaged in graphics as a hobby, in my spare time from work, therefore, they were releasing content inconsistently. Many of them underestimated their own production time frame, which forced them to leave the project, that is, they had to be replaced, and for this to start the whole process anew.

Initially, I wanted to release the game in 2015, but I received the final graphic resources only in mid-2016. I also underestimated my own working time, which I spent on programming the engine, creating levels, design and embedding story scenes. It could take up to a week for each scene. In the process of development, Arelite Core fell on my shoulders with an increasingly heavy burden, because in order to bring the game to completion, I had to abandon communication with friends.

Then it was time for PAX East 2016, one of the most serious tests of the reality of the entire project. I was offered a space in the mini-stand department next to the huge indie stands. This gave me the opportunity to meet with many industry veterans, which without a doubt became the most important event of the event.

However, the sluggish reaction of visitors and the press made it clear that Arelite Core might not come up. People did not criticize the game, but at the same time, it was difficult for them to evaluate retro RPGs in the context of the exhibition. Be that as it may, I did not feel the particular enthusiasm needed by the project for popularity on the game scene. A trip to the event cost $ 4,000, that is, the costs barely covered all the sales of the game.

After the event, I started streaming the development of Arelite Core at Twitch 12 hours a week. Not wanting to reveal the plot, I showed only the early stages of the game and areas not very important from the point of view of the plot. The growth of subscribers on the channel was (and remains) slow, because it was advertised little in the creative sections of Twitch. However, I managed to create a small but strong community around Dragon Slumber, which turned out to be an invaluable gift when I turned into an indie developer. However, for Arelite Core itself, it was too late.

Although I expected the failure of my first project, I still hoped for the prospects of the second game. Now that I had more experience, I expected that as the next project I would release a game that could keep itself afloat. Having a full-time job with very small prospects and not having received a promotion in twelve years of work, I decided to stake my future and become an independent developer.

I planned my life a few months in advance to secure funds for a year, mainly due to savings in the account and refusal from excesses. I also started the pre-production phase of my next game, which Turkish indie developer Bora Genel helped me do. He began to build the core of the game in Unity while I was completing the development of Arelite Core, which was scheduled for release on February 8th. The date was chosen due to the relatively small number of issues that week.

Christmas came, followed by the New Year, and in January 2017 I quit my job. And this is where the real story begins.

Go to Astral Traveler

The transition to full-time game development was instant. I increased the number of weekly development hours for Arelite Core from 40 to 80. This change was critical to complete the development and prepare for the last three weeks before release. To cope with the flow from other games fighting for media attention, I had to hone every aspect and get rid of bugs, write press releases and send assemblies for the press.

It was February 8th and I released Arelite Core live on the stream. It was the culmination of four and a half years of work, but I still could not enjoy the moment. My next project was already in the development process and it took me extra time to get rid of a few more bugs.

The players who tried Arelite Core liked it, but, as expected, the sales figures were disastrous. Almost a year later, the total sales were barely enough to offset the cost of traveling to PAX East. Fortunately, I was ready for such numbers, so they did not really affect my fighting spirit and I focused on the next game.

Astral Traveler was a direct response to the problems that affected the development of Arelite Core. To keep development costs to a minimum, I planned a short development cycle of 3-4 months and created a design that required a small amount of original resources, instead focusing on the gameplay. Due to lower costs, the game will be able to support itself taking into account sales volumes. Sharing tasks with my development partner will help make development faster and smoother.

To maintain a high level of enthusiasm, the first place was placed on the competition between the players, created using traditional leaderboards and displaying the results of friends during the race. And finally, Astral Traveler should be released at a bargain price of $ 5, able to lure players even without ads.

This time I needed to make more efforts for advertising, because due to the mysterious development of Arelite Core, it was more difficult for players to get interested in the project. The entire Astral Traveler development process has been covered from Twitter from the very beginning via Twitter and my development streams. I joined the CFN community, which helped me meet a lot of industry professionals. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time improving communications in general.

I made sure that I always had time for a small but dedicated community built around Dragon Slumber, with whom I talked through Discord, Twitch and direct contacts on Twitter. Communicating directly with players and developers improved the project and expanded our capabilities.

Access to this community helped me to get faster feedback, both through comments during streams and from direct game testers. I was lucky to receive Twitch subscriptions and donations, as well as several Patreon subscribers, which accounted for more than 25% of my annual income.

By March, Steam announced that it was phasing out the Greenlight program, without specifically telling what it would look like and how much it would cost to replace it. Not wanting to take risks, we quickly prepared a trailer and screenshots based on ready-made resources. As a result, the game turned out to be very different from what we wanted to release, both in terms of graphics and gameplay.

It is natural for a game to evolve during development, but many changes have arisen out of necessity. We wanted to give the game an abstract, radiant appearance, more reminiscent of the organic version of Tron. However, finding a suitable artist at an affordable price was more complicated than expected, and after several months of research, we decided that Bora would create a visual style and prepare various resources for the five worlds of the game.

We hired a 3D modeler to create a unique look for a spacecraft and two enemies. Although the result was amazing, the production process took a little longer and led to unexpectedly high costs. At the time of the release of this article, revenue from the game has not yet covered production costs.

By the summer, we were already several months behind schedule. Creating 47 levels of the game took longer than we expected, while Bora tried to fulfill the additional responsibilities of a leading artist that were unexpected for him. We found that our vision of game design is different. Bora was more interested in fast-paced, streaming gameplay, and I liked the complex gameplay that required a quick reaction from the player. Since the project has already exceeded its budget, we quickly decided to implement my version.

We set the release date for September 13, 2017, seven months after the start of production. Many potential game features were dropped, such as the VR version. I was hoping for a mobile version, but due to the fact that we mainly focused on PC in graphics and management, this required a significant amount of additional work. We decided to wait and release the second phase with these functions if the game is successful. Also, in case of popularity on the PC, we were thinking about releasing on consoles.

As with Arelite Core, I released Astral Traveler on the stream, broadcasting the release to people who watched the entire development process. Everything was ready for a more successful game, they knew more about us, the game attracted attention and challenged the player just at the time when complex games like Cuphead became popular.

However, it sold much, much worse.

Learning from my mistakes

The failure of the Astral Traveler hit me harder than the results of the Arelite Core. For almost a year before the release, I knew that the Arelite Core would not “take off”, and although I did not expect virality from Astral Traveler, it still seemed to us that its dynamics would be much better.

However, despite all my efforts, its release remained almost unnoticed, and I see the reason in several factors. Although Astral Traveler combined several genres, she could not stand out from other races on the platform. For the average gamer with Steam, its scale was too small, and against the background of a stream of cheap and free games constantly released on Steam Direct, it had no chance.

The next month I spent streams of development of Arelite Core: Lleana's Journey, a free add-on that used some of the resources cut from the main game. In addition, another fragment of the plot and a new difficulty mode appeared. The update brought several sales and a new review, but could not cover the development cost.

Both of my games suffered from a lack of reviews of influential gamers. I contacted several popular streamers and YouTube, but did not receive a response. Likewise, a bunch of my requests were ignored by gaming websites with large audiences, which made it difficult for us to connect with an audience that might interest my games.

I decided that my next game should avoid established genres and expected topics. And since I will work on it alone, she should have a minimalistic visual design that I can implement myself. The game should have simple graphics and fresh, in some ways even contradictory gameplay.

A month after the release of my second game, I started streaming the development of Tech Support: Error Unknown. The game, which has a Windows-style UI, allows the player to get used to the role of a technical support specialist, communicating with customers and trying to solve their telephone problems, while at the same time studying corporate compromising materials and hacktivist groups.

The gameplay consists in communicating with procedurally generated clients in chat windows using different macros to speed up the conversation process. Moving along the plot, the player could receive more answers and even hack the system using the terminal command line to open up new possibilities.

Compared to my previous games, Tech Support provides more free gameplay. Players can participate in conversations in any way they choose, choose their friends and explore their computers to reveal various story lines. The game will provide the possibility of replayability and will encourage re-passage with the help of secrets, various plot paths and multiple endings.

It will have a procedural structure rather than rigidly set levels, which speeds up testing the balance of the game and facilitates its implementation. The game will have more tools to analyze the interest and problems of the players. In a future closed alpha, I will add Unity analytics, as well as a convenient bug reporting function using the Trello API.

2018 onwards

2017 has so far been the most difficult year of my professional career. I earned only 20% of my previous salary, released two games that failed as a result, and switched from 30 to 80 hours of weekly game development without getting much more free time /

Although it’s great not to go outside in frosty Quebec weather, but also have a freer sleep schedule, I still have to work more than 12 hours, seven days a week, actively working on what, I hope, will become a new hit. I read many articles about the importance of relaxation and avoiding burnout, but today comfort is not the kind of luxury I can afford. Running your own business is not like regular work with a salary - you will not get money if there are no sales.

Veterans may not tell me how difficult it is to work in this industry. We are controlled by our passion, we are united as developers, but at the same time we compete with each other for the attention of our audience, both players and influential people. Those who work on developing their games must be prepared for the harsh reality. Great games are released constantly and often go unnoticed in the tidal wave of other games.

However, as an aspiring indie developer, I feel privileged. I have the support of my family and friends, including viewers of my streams and people who generously give me donations to Patreon. These sources allowed me to adhere to my course and became the main source of social interactions. However, I must admit - it seems to me that I disappointed people with such an unsuccessful first year, and in response to this, I can only make more efforts in 2018.

Failures are the reality of most beginner projects, as well as an opportunity for study and growth. Instead of the sales I received, I was able to meet many industry professionals who help me plan my future game, and the release of Arelite Core with Astral Traveler played an important role in this. In addition, I use new features that have appeared, for example, participation on the Brightlocker platform to additionally cover information about myself and the game.

So get ready, in 2018 my voice will be heard.

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