3 Things I Learned While Working at an Indie Game Studio


I spent 15 months in the game industry primarily as a level designer. In that time I’ve gained a greater understanding of what goes into making an independent video game from start to finish. Along the way I picked up a few lesson from mistakes I witnessed first hand.


1. Focus On the Core Mechanics First

Concerning yourself too much with story and plot at the very beginning of production, while fun and exciting, may prove to be wasted effort. Likewise, blocking out a bunch of levels before having a fully working prototype of the core mechanics should be done with caution. In the end, so much will be informed by the core mechanics that you’ll end up throwing most of that initial work away.

You may realize that your white box levels and intricate story is at odds with the mechanics you develop later. You’re forced to decide whether or not to scrap earlier work or engage in the Herculean task of marrying fundamentally incompatible elements of the game. Getting the core mechanics down early will allow you to design levels that cater to those mechanics with more efficiency and confidence, making it much less of a shot in the dark.

Elect to produce an ugly yet functional prototype first and foremost. There’s plenty of time later to work out an intricate plot full of twists and turns and to imagine all kinds of wonderful environments for your player to explore.

Put aside the movie script, put a pin on that awesome flying fortress level, and make a game first!


2. Marketing Is An Ongoing Process

Marketing doesn’t start when you’re almost done with the game and you’re about ready to launch. It must be ongoing throughout development, dripped regularly through venues that will yield the greatest reach to your fans and target audience. Youtube videos, development blog posts, and twitter updates are a good start. Sure, devs are busy and they’d rather spend that time actually working on the game. But what’s the point of all that hard work if nobody knows that your game even exists?

Sometimes a game’s problem is not its quality but its obscurity. Audience awareness is built up over time. And it’s in your best interest to have everyone and their mom to know about your game early on. You’ll have more people looking forward to it’s release. And the more people looking forward to and counting down to the release date the more sales you can expect on that 1st day, the 1st week, the 1st month of release when most of the profits are usually gained.

Even when you get covered by major websites with lots of traffic or banner ads at the top of an online storefront, being notified of a game’s release a week prior, a day before, or the day of does not elicit any emotional investment on the product for people who never heard of your game previously. He or she is more likely to buy a product they are familiar with.

Word of mouth, going viral with no marketing – these things can happen but are not to be relied upon as a major part of your strategy. Beware of treating marketing like an afterthought and get rid of obscurity through constant hustle. No paid ads required. Just a combination of creativity and effort.


3. Be Frugal and Scope Intelligently

Making games independently typically requires working with limited financial resources. Get creative in finding ways to develop a game as economically as possible while actively minimizing cost. Hopefully this doesn’t mean hiring a bunch of interns for no pay or short-changing talented people. That’s not creative at all. Why not go with a tiny team instead and get the most mileage out of each member? With so many teams of 1-4 people that are making waves in the indie game scene, it would hardly seem necessary to staff two dozen people for your unjustifiably huge game. Unless of course you already have cash flow to comfortably pull that off.

What many successful indie game creators have in common is their frugality. They use hardcore money saving tactics like adopting the open source Blender for their 3D pipeline (Reset, Quadrilateral Cowboy), moving in with parents (Bastion, Gone Home), moving in with teammates (Routine, Octodad), excluding visible characters from the game (Stanley Parable, Gone Home), recording audio in a closet (Bastion), and recruiting a friend for voice work (Bastion), among hundreds of other examples of creative cost cutting.

Seeing the pattern here? Make do with what you have and make the most of it. Try intelligently scoping the game and refrain from needless feature creep that invariably extends development time. Be smart and make design decisions that make life easier, not excruciating. Maybe there’s a feature you think is really cool but it’s difficult to implement and requires a ton of tedious handcrafted work. Is it worth it or will it be a nightmare to develop with little payoff? And check to see if your decisions are not purely driven by the need to serve your own vanity.

Whatever you spend and whatever difficult feature you decide to implement, make sure it’s damn worth it!


In Closing

It’s easy for me or anybody to pick out the mistakes we made after the fact. I would have easily made the same mistakes, no doubt. When you’re right in the middle of the chaos of game development, it’s hard to make out what’s going to happen and how exactly things should be done.

As I continue developing my own game I look forward to many more lessons, hopefully of the painful kind. Those are the ones that teach the most.




Where I’ve been.

Straight out of college, I worked in the game industry for over a year. I initially thought of my career as a continuous trajectory of moving up to bigger, more prestigious, and well established game companies as I slowly gained seniority. However, I quickly became disenchanted with the idea of working under any company. Being told exactly what to do and repeating the same narrowly specific tasks that presented little in the way of challenges and critical thinking lost its appeal early on. So a few months ago I began brainstorming what game I wanted to make on my own.


Where I’m at.

I mucked around with UDK for month before deciding to switch to Unity 3D. If I was going to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of a software, I figured Unity 3D would be a better payoff in the long run. I conducted market research, studied successful indie games, sales figures, development techniques, read up on all the dev blogs I can find, watched every interview with every developer, and so on. Meantime, I filled my notebook with pages and pages of ideas for story and gameplay mechanics.

Needless to say, at some point much of this turns into mental masturbation. The best thing I did was to begin prototyping a game in Unity and building on it little by little everyday. I’m 2 and a half weeks into that process and so far I’m excited with the direction it’s going. I was dabbling with creating a first person exploration game but after realizing how many of those were cropping up all at once I decided to ditch it and start afresh. The prototype I’m working on now is at a very rough and primitive stage but I plan to dress it up in time for submission to Indiecade next month!