More and more people are considering indie game development as a viable career path, rather than pursuing a career in the AAA game industry. As such, it’s essential that you know some of the basics when getting started, so as to avoid the pitfalls that aspiring developers are so susceptible to. There are four key rules to bear in mind when developing and, more specifically, releasing a game — paying even minimal heed to them should ensure that the game development process is a more successful endeavor.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when developing your first game is to be realistic in terms of scope. You will very rarely be able to compete with the AAA industry in terms of scale, so focus on something small and manageable. You almost certainly have far fewer people actively working on your game; you absolutely have a smaller budget than the large studios. But this is not, in itself, a bad thing. It means you can interact and engage with your players in a direct way, and bringing a personal edge to marketing your game is something only an indie dev can do. Keeping your project small and realistic means that you can use it to put yourself out there, generating interest so that, when your second game is done (yes, you need to be thinking about your second game), you won’t be completely unfamiliar to the world. And, luckily, it’s a virtual given that your second project will be more of a success.
Despite the romantic connotations, being an indie developer is not all creativity and game development. In fact, you’ll have to do as much marketing as development if you want your game to succeed. I know personally with SanctuaryRPG I had to pivot entirely to marketing in order to help the game gain traction after launch. Gaining visibility will be your most pressing concern, as it’s pretty easy to get lost in the sea of indie games. As this differs drastically depending on the game and situation, the most effective method here is simply to look at other successful games. You will likely find a combination of marketing strategies which are applicable to you. On top of all this, you’ll need to leave time for distribution. Six months or more is preferable, as the amount of time it takes to get your game on Steam, a practical necessity, can be unpredictable. Make sure that you have a roadmap to get on Steam, and have enough time to implement Steam features that are in-demand, such as trading cards and achievements.
No less important is your budget. While it may seem as if budgeting is a simple matter of calculating the cost of living for a given period of time, in reality the numerous licenses, legal issues and unexpected accidents you’ll encounter will drive this up by a significant margin. As we have mentioned, your main goal with your first game should simply be to establish yourself; even if your game enjoys moderate recognition, chances are you won’t earn too much in sales the first time around. Significantly, and perhaps alarmingly, many distribution platforms won’t pay the developers until 30–90 days after the launch of a game, so this should be a factor in one’s budget, as should planning for a possible second project.
This last point somewhat relates to the first one and, while it may appear basic, it is a fundamental of indie game development that many studios somehow manage to overlook. In terms of game design, the rule is quality over quantity, no matter what. There is almost no minimum length for a game, so long as the price reflects this, but there is absolutely a point at which players become bored, particularly if your game isn’t a very enthralling experience. It is therefore of paramount importance to make sure that your game is as fun and unique as possible, regardless of how long it lasts.
The common trap, into which it’s too easy to fall, is to develop some mediocre, passable mechanics and get to work building levels, because you’re making a game that way, right? The issue with this is that, when it comes time to improve those mechanics, you’ll be reluctant to do so, as it would mean repeating the effort you’ve already invested. This either leads to extra, unforeseen expenses or the release of a sub-par game, neither of which is a desirable outcome. Constant playtesting can help alleviate some of the questions surrounding the mechanics of a game, as well as ensuring that you don’t ship it with undetected bugs or glitches. While it may seem scary, at first, to expose your baby to potentially harsh criticism, in the long run you’ll be grateful for it, as will your players. Someone has to play it eventually, and you might as well make that a pleasant and memorable experience. Get playtesters early on and continually cycle through fresh batches of playtesters until the game is ready to ship.
Important Takeaways: We’ve learned many things about avoiding the traps and pitfalls of indie development, so let’s go over them one last time so as to ingrain them in our memory. Keep your scope realistic and manageable. Understand the various responsibilities you might have to assume when working on your game. Keep your budget realistic, with a comfortable buffer in the case of emergency or a follow-up game. Pick quality over quantity — no matter the circumstance. Lastly, don’t ever forget the importance of playtesting.