GameDev Protips: On Maximizing Your Productivity As A Solo Indie Developer

First off, write down every idea you have. Even if they’re bad, they’ll come in handy later in one way or another. Maybe they’re good enough as-is for a different game, or maybe they’ll amalgamate into something more with other “bad” ideas. The point is, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and make better games if you have a large stock of ideas to recruit from — just remember to not overload your current project with too many outlandish ideas that’ll lead to scope creep. In addition, find ways to prototype quickly. Some ideas are better than others, but you usually don’t know for sure until they’ve been playtested. Get something like Game Maker Studio or Unity that you can use to create super quick prototypes (as well as full games) and you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration later. You can also branch out and use an engine that you’re not accustomed to for things like weekend game jams that’ll help break the monotony of working on one project for ages.

Even if you’ve tested those prototypes yourself, let other people test them out too! There is something that I like to call “parent syndrome,” and it isn’t exclusive to game development. Basically, you are much less likely to notice the flaws in something you have dedicated lots of time to, such as a child or a game you developed. You’ll likely miss fundamental problems with your game if you’re the only person who takes a look at it, so get someone else to criticize your prototypes for you. Do this early, as you don’t want to discover gigantic problems late in development. I know I’ve had a ton of small games that I thought were pretty good until I showed it to a playtester or a game design colleague and they rattled a billion things that I needed to fix — if you’re working on a project, sometimes you’re way too close to it. Get external advice.

Once you’ve found something you truly feel has potential, don’t think too deeply into it! Keep things simple, as when you’re working solo it’s very easy to overwork yourself with feature creep. Go for a simple and stylish aesthetic (such as Undertale) and focus on making the game fun to play. Additionally, if you’re new, don’t try to make a masterpiece out of your first game or two! Your lack of experience will become much more obvious if you’re pursuing something you need to work incredibly hard on, so build up experience with some decent games first and focus on that masterpiece later on. Heck, even if you’re a seasoned developer working on your 24th game, focus on the day-to-day before focusing too hard on the final vision. Remember that a shipped game is worth much more than a game that’ll never get done. Focus on getting the work done every day, and the rest will take care of itself.

When you go to work on this game, try to make a plan and stick to it. Even if your estimates are wildly wrong, and they will be, you should have a general idea of how long you want development to take. Now, take that number and multiply it by at least two — this is the more realistic time for development. If this is your first game… multiply it by a factor of five. You’ll find that your game deviates from your original thoughts as you continue development, and this is fine, but be careful if that deviation causes the game to become bigger than it originally was planned to be. Feature creep can be good for a game, but often times it’ll cause the game to never be finished. Set a strict limit on how long you’ll let yourself work on a project, and plan for any port requirements in advance. It’s much more important to get a game out onto the market in a decent state than to focus way too long on a game that’ll never hit the market because it isn’t going to get finished.

My final tip for you is to not overdo it. You don’t have to be a perfectionist when you make your game, and you aren’t expected to be one. Aiming to fix every little problem in your game is a death sentence for your productivity. Obviously, you want to make sure it works well, but accept that your first few games might be below some of your standards for perfection. Also, when you get feedback on the game, don’t overreact to it. People can often tell when something is wrong, but they don’t always get the reason right. Go with your instincts and fix whatever you think is wrong personally, no matter what your testers say.

Important Takeaways: Write down every idea you have, as even the ones that you may think are “bad” may become useful at one point or another. Take your ideas and prototype them to test their quality quickly, and get others to also test them to make sure there aren’t any problems that a developer bias hides. Plan your schedule, but don’t worry too much if you can’t meet a specific self-imposed deadline. You only have to be worried if feature creep is pushing your finish date way past the deadline. Finally, don’t overdo it; don’t be a perfectionist and accept that your first few games might not meet some of your standards.

GameDev Thoughts: Tips On Starting Out When You’re A New Solo Game Developer

Being a solo indie developer is not an easy task. Before you try to even start off as a solo indie developer, I strongly advise you gain experience working for a company first. It doesn’t matter whether this company is even within the gaming industry. Just get out there and work. This company work may give you contacts that you can use whenever necessary, the funds to stay afloat long enough for you to put a game or two out, and/or lots of experience failing at your day job, which will help you know what to avoid doing in the future. Failing is incredibly important as it’ll teach you things that nothing else can; experience trumps any amount of prior learning you got from a book or some other source.

Next, it’s time to build up some connections. Even if the benefits aren’t immediately obvious to you, you need to connect with others for their potential help in the future. Perhaps they can help you solve a problem you wouldn’t solve otherwise, or perhaps they’ll help you promote your games. There are tons of ways those connections can help you, but you won’t receive that help if you don’t have the connections in the first place. You can build these connections by creating a blog, posting around on forums, attending conventions, working with other developers, and other similar activities. The point is, you need to create a presence for yourself. Additionally, while you’re searching for these connections, make sure that you’re being a decent person. People are far more likely to help if you’re genuinely interested towards them and your work. Yes, it’ll take a lot of work to be genuinely interested in other people, but this will pay dividends to your career if you’re socially inclined.

After experience and connections, we can get to tips revolving around actually doing something as a solo indie dev. First off, you should be versatile but also know your weaknesses. If you’re alone, you can’t just specialize in one field and expect to make a complete game. In order to gain this versatility, you just have to create with your own strengths and weaknesses in mind. Just create things whenever you have the time and you’ll quickly find out what you’re good at and what you need to improve in the future. For me personally, I discovered early on that game design (more specifically building strong core engagement and retention loops) was one of my strong suits, so I’ve almost completely given up on pixel art and music production when it comes to making games. However, you don’t have to give up all of your weaknesses — just don’t focus extensively on them. Remember, you can aim to make games that don’t heavily involve utilizing those weaknesses to negate their effect. The point here is to not underestimate what you can accomplish with dedication. Even if you think you’re horrible at some aspect of game design, work with it anyways! People like to see results more than they like to see the potential for results.

Important Takeaways: Beginning as a solo indie dev is a daunting task, but here are a few generally useful tips to help overcome that intimidation factor. First, gain prior experience working for a company before you even consider starting solo, or you won’t have a lot of assistance that you would otherwise have to keep you on your feet at first. Next, build up genuine connections so that you have a reliable help source for tight spots in your career. Finally, focus on figuring out what you’re good at and what you aren’t great at. From there, design games with both your strengths and weaknesses in mind, while also working on mitigating that weakness through practice if you’re so inclined. Even if you’re awful at some crucial aspect of game design, keep on trying to make games. People like seeing that you can do something rather than just having the potential to do something, even if that something is pretty bad in its current state. Just dedicate yourself to the mission of creating, and your skill will naturally evolve over time.

GameDev Thoughts: Game Design Lessons Learned From Studying Bartle’s Taxonomy

Bartle’s Taxonomy was one of the earliest attempts to have a glance at a player’s mindset when they were playing a multiplayer game with other players. This method of player classification is used extensively by game developers to know and to better understand the players’ needs for a better multiplayer environment in games. It is also used to identify the demographic the game is being aimed at in order to create the best single player experience possible for any given game.

The concept of Bartle’s Taxonomy was of course brought forward by the one and only grandfather of MUDs, Richard Bartle, who was one of the first creators of MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon, in 1978. His role in the industry allowed him to observe players’ reactions in multiplayer environments.

His observations stated ways to divide a game between players for a richer and intuitive multiplayer experience. He found out these ways by having long and detailed discussions with players who tried his MUD. All those interviewed by Bartle were asked questions about what they wanted from the game. Each of the players had their own response, which was different than that of other players. These led to arguments between the players, as each had their own justifications due to the fact that they were invested in the game for dissimilar reasons. These disagreements led Bartle to find threads of similarities in opinions between the different players. His final observations, stated that different players were a part of either of four distinct groups. These groups were Achievers, Explorers, Socializers and lastly, Killers.

Achievers. The players belonging to the group of achievers played the game to achieve the goals as defined in the game. They want to stay on top of all the leaderboards and the get the highest score imaginable. They also want to finish the game as soon as possible in order to get the achievements faster and to get the most XP from a particular level. In order to entice these forms of gamers, developers should create some special achievements which are extremely difficult to get so that these players stay hooked to the game. Initially designed as a low-cost way to attract and retain players, achievements are now an important part of the gameplay experience. If your game targets these players, make sure that the player is continually feeling challenged by continually teasing them with more goals.

Explorers. These players play games to explore new stuff, be it geographical, material or even abstract. They love to find out the ways how the game works, to reach and find places no other player has reached before. For them, the gameplay acts as a tool which aids them in their pursuit of exploration. These kinds of players are not after the top score; they are content with the minimum needed in order to move forward in the game to explore new stuff. Game developers have special items in the game in order to make explorers happy, easter eggs being the most prominent of them. These easter eggs keep these explorers addicted to the game resulting in higher engagement rates for the game as well as a literal treasure-filled experience for the player. If your game targets these players, make sure that there’s always something new to explore in the game world, whether that’s literal exploration, new mechanics, new items, or even new interactions with the game world.

Socializers. The third category of players like the game for its interpersonal aspects. These players play the game to be a part of a community or group or clan. They trade stuff amongst themselves and make use of the chat feature to stay connected while in game. They tend to heavily prefer multiplayer games due to their social aspect. The socializing aspect of the games have been given a boost by services like Twitch and YouTube which allow for a better way of social interaction among players. If your game targets these players, make sure that there’s a large social component in your game. I personally don’t have direct experience developing multiplayer games, but in every game I make I always make it a goal to have players communicate with each other about the game. Whether that’s setting up a Wiki or starting a Reddit community, it’s always paramount to get players more involved and engaged.

Killers. Last but not the least, these are those kind of players which play the game to assert dominance over their peers or other players. They gain a certain form of enjoyment by being a pest for other players by getting in the middle of their gameplay and spoiling it. The leader of any clan can also act as a killer player by imposing his will and dominance over other players. These form of players usually harass other players using mods or cheats and target players weaker than them. As a kid growing up, I was one of these players. I would constantly try to troll other players and was quite the griefer. I eventually grew out of this phase in my late teens, but having this background has allowed me to get into the psyche of this player type — these people usually like getting reactions from others. When designing your game, make it as unrewarding as possible for players to grief others, and make it as rewarding as possible for players to act in a socially positive way.

Important Takeaways: Bartle’s Taxonomy allows game developers to learn about the kind of players they want to develop the game for in a fast and efficient manner. If your game targets Achievers, make sure that the player is continually feeling challenged by continually teasing them with more goals. If your game targets Explorers, make sure that there’s always something new to explore in the game world, whether that’s literal exploration, new mechanics, new items, or even new interactions with the game world. If your game targets Socializers, make sure that there’s a large social component in your game. When trying to mitigate Killers in your multiplayer games, make it as unrewarding as possible for players to grief others, and make it as rewarding as possible for players to act in a socially positive way.

GameDev Thoughts: A Few Common Pitfalls To Avoid In Indie Game Development

First off, good controls are essential. Make sure that your button layouts are intuitive and match up with gaming norms. This means that you typically shouldn’t have your pause button on “D” or something odd like that. Similarly, make sure your controls actually feel responsive, with very few frame delays. Controls with delayed responses aren’t fun to use and will simply cause frustration. Finally, make your controls as comfortable as possible. This ties in with intuitive layouts as well, but this also involves how often you’re holding buttons or rapidly tapping them. If you’re not careful, your layout might cause cramps, so try to minimize these potential problems as much as possible. Most control problems are fixed by playtesting rigorously and figuring out what works and what doesn’t; there isn’t a magical fix for every game.

Next, consider how long your tutorials are. It’s obvious that a player needs to know how to play the game, but you’ll lose players if you have them waiting for too long. While an exceedingly long tutorial might be a sign of an overly complex game, you can minimize the problem by breaking it up into chunks and only displaying information when it becomes relevant. The best tutorials are the ones that you don’t realize you’re actually playing. Integrate your tutorials seamlessly into the game itself by properly segmenting it so that the player isn’t too overwhelmed.

Another pitfall to avoid is poor aesthetics. Gameplay is always number one when you’re reviewing a game, but poor visuals or sound will definitely leave a bad impression and may stop players from giving your game a chance in the first place. You’ll have to consider if your visuals are inside of the “Uncanny Valley.” Your art should either be fully realistic or stylized, because anything in between will just look cheap. Even though that stylized art is easier to make, it’ll appear more “complete” and leave a better impression. Don’t plan on going for realism unless you can hit the nail right on the head because it’ll just worsen your game overall otherwise.

Besides the game’s overall look, you also should pay particular attention to your game’s user interface. The UI is usually shown to your players for the entire gameplay loop, so if it looks bad, your game as a whole looks bad. This can also cause players to quit before they give your game a chance if you show this gaudy UI in trailers or screenshots, so you should do whatever you can to avoid making a bad one. Remember, when it comes to UI design, less is more.

Finally, don’t include unnecessary voice acting. Only add voice acting if it is truly professional and fits the game. Just like with the other aesthetic factors, if your voice acting is bad, your game feels cheaper as a whole and will leave a worse impression. If your actors aren’t capable or your microphone isn’t good enough, don’t even try to add any voice acting; reading plain text is oftentimes much more enjoyable than having to listen to cheesy acting.

Important Takeaways: Bad controls make the game harder to play for everyone, so make sure the controls are intuitive, ergonomic, and responsive. Avoid making long tutorials because players don’t want to have to wait through them; either make your game less complex to allow for shortening the tutorial or break the tutorial up and only show information when it’s relevant. Aesthetics are the final factor that can make or break a game’s quality from the eyes of a potential consumer. Avoid the uncanny valley by going either full realism or stylized and make sure your UI isn’t tacky since it’s usually with players for the entire game.

GameDev Thoughts: How To Continually Market Your Indie Game Via Storytelling

Many developers are going to struggle with marketing their games. The problem is a result of lack of direction, and that usually results in no idea where to start and potential anxiety whenever you have to try to do marketing without a clear sense of direction. The solution is pretty simple, albeit vague: plan ahead. Marketing is all about stories. There’s a reason why news outlets don’t cover the same story over and over again — there isn’t a new story to tell. Sure, your launch day is a big story if your game is good enough, and that story is a great one to tell, but after that, you have to keep the ball rolling. However, the key to good marketing is to create new legitimately interesting stories that have an authentic reason to be covered. Create a series of stories you can share over time — make milestones that are a case of celebration and press coverage.

Many things can count as stories. Maybe you can talk about how your team bonded over creating the game when releasing the first update. Maybe your new update warrants a unique story about it and how it came to be with some juicy lore. Perhaps you can talk about a charity donation you made that warrants a giveaway or two. Maybe you made a bug into a feature and want to talk about the reasoning behind it. Many developers fail to realize that launch day isn’t the only story surrounding their game — you need to be purposeful with weaving narratives around your game’s development, every step of the way.

Remember, creating these stories ahead of time will not only make it easier to keep doing what you need to do to get your game out onto the market, but also give your game some easy marketing when it needs it most. As long as you can consistently put out new stories, your game will never fade in the eyes of its community. Maybe you’ll plan out some weekly blog posts, or some upcoming feature streams. Maybe you’ll simply post some behind the scenes photos of your game’s development process. Plan these out and create an internal calendar. These aren’t the only benefits of planning your updates ahead of time, either. While the marketing is certainly a big part of it, it’ll also massively boost your confidence since you’ll always be prepared and know exactly what to do, before you do it. These stories will give you that sense of direction.

Important Takeaways: Newer developers often struggle marketing their games, and this is because many developers only celebrate their launch day. They don’t realize that stories are a huge part of the marketing process. People just want to know what is going on with your game. You should always plan out a bunch of stories you can tell ahead of time so that your game is constantly has a reason to be advertised. Many things count as stories, such as updates or quirks in the development cycle, and you should scrape together as many of them as you can before launch so that you can have a steady stream of content. Having these stories will give you great marketing material, keep you on track in the game’s development, and make you more confident overall. Set a content production schedule. Know exactly what stories you’re going to tell and when you’re going to tell them.

GameDev Thoughts: A Few Quick Tips On How To Become A More Productive Game Designer

Many people new to the gaming industry have a warped idea of what being a game designer actually is like. First off, game designers don’t just orchestrate the entire creation of their games. In fact, most of the time, most of the ideas that go into a game don’t even originate from game designers, but rather the others on the team. In reality, a game designer’s job is to recognize those good ideas from the team and then expand upon them. Game development is a collaborative effort, and that’s something that you need to understand.

Next, adding onto the collaborative effort point, try to be a person that’s enjoyable to debate with. Debates and iteration on ideas are healthy for development, and will greatly improve the final product with enough of it. On the contrary, if your debates just upset people, you break your team’s bond and ensure that you’ll never enjoy the benefits of debate in the future. These spirited conversations are good for your game and for your thoughts on game development in the future — try to encourage open lines of communication.

In addition to being a person open to debate, you should try to be an accepting person. If someone comes up to you with an idea and you shut them down for the idea being “stupid,” nobody is going to come to you for advice in the future and your game is going to fall short in the end due to lack of feedback. Whenever someone on your team comes at you with an idea, even if it’s an idea that you don’t particularly like, you should salvage all of the good bits and come up with something even better. Be a person who likes brainstorming, as other members of the team love to be around a source of new ideas. Even the worst ideas have good elements to them, so be open to them.

Now, it’s time for something unrelated to the previous points; get some programming experience. Game development is a slow process with lots of iterations. If you have some personal programming experience, you can immediately create iterations based on your ideas to see if they end up fun or not. Without this experience, you’d have to pass ideas along to the team first, and that middleman slows down the process substantially. With faster iterations, you can work on previous ideas instantly without being disruptive to the overall development process.

In addition to that programming experience, you should also get some design experience. A game designer with game design experience, crazy right? Well, without that experience nobody will hire you in the first place. Go create some small-scoped games in Unity or another free game engine and get that experience to secure your position in the future. With every game you make, regardless of how small, you’ll slowly acquire the skills needed to succeed in larger projects in the future. You can’t just become a great game designer without designing games. Work on some small projects in your free time, learn a new programming language, do anything! You can’t gain experience without experiencing game development. If this is something that is off-putting to you, game development might not be for you. Becoming a great game designer is a matter of dedication, practice, and learning from others.

Important Takeaways: New game designers often don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. First off, understand that you are not the conductor of an orchestra, but rather just one of the players; you don’t run the show, you work with everyone to get the job done. Next, make sure you can debate without angering others or you won’t be able to reap the benefits that debate brings when they inevitably avoid you. In addition to being a friendly debater, try to be an accepting person in general; don’t just shut down ideas, but rather try to salvage any good parts of those ideas for use in improving your game.

Find out how to program in at least one language so that you can create iterations yourself, greatly speeding up the development cycle and allowing for iterations that would otherwise be too troublesome to try and create. Also, obtain some game design experience by creating some smaller games so that you can actually find a job as a game designer in the first place; nobody wants to hire someone with no experience, even if they have great potential. Remember, it takes a lot of time, practice, and patience in make it as a game designer in this industry.