Although life as an indie is not for the faint of heart, there lies a kingdom of creativity in all of us

May 18, 2020 — Just an anecdotal piece of what it means to be an independent game developer. Every developer, of course, has their own story to tell, and here’s mine. When I was younger, I always felt a strong urge to create. I knew in my heart that I wanted to work in games, but I had no idea how to realize my life dream. Games are expensive to make (or so I thought) and my daytime occupation as a business software “programmer” was stable, safe, and well-paid.

About a decade ago, I decided this was it. I was done with business software. I had a calling that needed me to heed it. When I first sat down at my kitchen table, a notebook laid out before me, I did so with the intent of creating a bestseller. All around me, in the industry and beyond, I watched as people followed their dreams and designed a video game. They were good, too. Many of them launched to satisfied masses. But me? I was working on the same old programming job. What did I know about game artwork and creative direction?

But focusing on making it big and pulling in droves of cash with a first-time game launch is unrealistic and, more often than not, stifling to the creative process. You’re focused on the money, not on the creativity of the game. That was my first mistake.

Know Your Game Inside and Out

A game is creative because of its creator. You pour your heart and soul into the design process. Every character on-screen for the player to enjoy is a creation of your imagination. Don’t let it be a walking dollar sign. Let it shine as a unique, captivating, and memorable character.

Personally, I started with what I thought to be an authentic knight. I always enjoyed medieval history and, therefore, thought it made sense to focus my game on a period I knew quite well. He wore the regalia, donned a two-handed sword, and swung it with such might. But, boy, was I wrong.

You see, what began as a simple knight clad in period armor quickly escalated. I felt confined by the setting as I began to jot down design notes. After all, how much could be done in a medieval village? What about that setting was entertaining for the players? Admittedly, it was not enough. It was trite.

Eventually, my knight transformed. He blossomed into a dual-wielding alien menace capable of ripping open the fabric of space and time to get the jump on enemies in a fully-realized side-scroller. Now we’re talking!

Sure, a knight can be fun to the right crowd. But it can also be quite stale.

My point is, as a game director, it is your job to know the game and its direction inside and out. I didn’t know a thing when I sat down. I was blinded by the prospects of immediate success. After a while, my creative juices began to flow, and the notebook filled with game mechanics, settings, characters, tidbits of dialogue, and so much more. I had a game in my hands!

Your Game’s Tone and Style Matters — More Than You Think

I found myself stumbling at one point. A game must have a fleshed-out tone. Is it silly? Is it serious? Both have their own scene, their own dedicated player bases. A game about a knight? Such a title could easily fall into the ‘serious’ category. But a fast-moving alien? Well, your options are a little more open-ended.

And that is, of course, where my predicament arose. Do I make a serious or goofy title?
An argument can be made for either one. You see, the gaming community is as varied as you and me and even my neighbor down the block. One may thoroughly enjoy a serious romp through a historical setting. Or, they may detest realism and refund their purchase.

Early on in the design process, I knew that nailing down the tone mattered. It would set the stage for the entire project. Of course, you cannot design and market a video game unless you know your audience. The game’s tone helps determine which demographic is ideal. For me, with my cartoonish alien, a lighthearted crowd seeking a quick stroll through picturesque vistas was best.

Game Development is Rarely a Solo Endeavour

Okay, sure, some forms of game development are solo adventures. Look at the fellow who designed, developed, and released Stardew Valley. Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone is a wonder of the world in the indie development scene. His solo project has become one of the most popular titles on Steam since launch.

But I don’t need to be the next ConcernedApe. I need to be unique. The thing about game development is that it’s tough. If you’re going at the design and development alone, you might find yourself boxed into a corner. Your design and feature choices become stale. In your head, they’re fantastic. Mine were too. Or, so I thought.

Then, after a time, I brought in some outside help. A contracted artist here, a programmer there; these experts helped narrow down the scope and creative direction of the entire project. They were my development team. We sat down for hours, late into the night, to discuss features, characters, dialogue options, and storylines. Each iteration was better than the last. With their input, my project prospered and branched out from a stale, overdone experience. It becomes a life all its own.

Community

Continuing with the idea that game development is not a solo experience, my project benefitted greatly from the community I focused on. Without the tone and creative direction I had found early on, I would never have known the type of player I wanted.

The good thing about the Internet is you can find people everywhere. Many forums, social media, and video comment sections are loaded with your ideal player. Ask them for feedback.

While my project is still under development and has been taken offline, for the time being, I cannot help but imagine how little progress would have been made should I not have developed my creative direction and tone early on. The game may never see the light of day, but the experience I garnered from trying to build and commercialize a game with no knowledge of the games business is priceless.

James Thor
Associate Producer at Legendo Games. Now working on Serpents in the Mist and Dracula Twins R2: School's Out. Englishman born in Sweden living life as a digital nomad. Two games I'll never forget is Might & Magic VI and Heart of Darkness. Contemporary favorites include Dead Cells, Magicka, Mortal Kombat, and Flying Tigers: Shadows Over China. Occasionally, I lose my mind and login to my Twitter account.





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