OXM IN­VES­TI­GATES… HOW TO MAKE AN IN­DIE GAME

Get your cre­ative caps on as we dig deep into the world of in­die game de­vel­op­ment to find out how you can make your own suc­cess­ful in­die game

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - CONTENTS - Adam Bryant

Okay, so you’ve got a killer idea for a game, but have no idea where to start. Or maybe you have a vague idea, but the sheer vol­ume of things to con­sider makes go­ing be­yond your ini­tial idea seem over­whelm­ing and stops you from get­ting past the first steps in cre­at­ing some­thing amaz­ing.

Well, we don’t want that, do we? So we de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate the de­vel­op­ment of in­die games to com­pile some prac­ti­cal ad­vice from the peo­ple who know it best. We spoke to a bunch of de­vel­op­ers who were more than happy to of­fer you their guid­ance. One thing that re­sounded above all else is that there’s never been a bet­ter time to jump into the world of game de­vel­op­ment and re­al­ize your am­bi­tions. Be warned: Mak­ing a game isn’t for ev­ery­one, and it takes a lot of hard work, but if you’re up for the chal­lenge there will be noth­ing stop­ping you from be­gin­ning your in­die game jour­ney.

We know you’re itch­ing to get go­ing, but be­fore you do there are a cou­ple of things to ac­knowl­edge. “You need to know just how much you don’t know,” ex­plains Cup­head art di­rec­tor Chad Mold­en­hauer. “You don’t know how much things are re­ally go­ing to cost, you don’t know how long things are re­ally go­ing to take to de­velop. You don’t re­ally know how in­ter­re­lated art, pro­gram­ming, and de­sign are, and how time and money lim­i­ta­tions on one will cause com­pro­mise on the other two. Once you know that you don’t know these things, you’ll re­al­ize that your scope and time scale plans are wrong, and you’ll be more re­al­is­tic with what you can do.”

You also need to be do­ing it for the right rea­sons. If you’re think­ing of do­ing it for the money, you’re go­ing to be hugely dis­ap­pointed. “Mak­ing in­die games isn’t lu­cra­tive for ev­ery­one, and it’s quite a bit more stress­ful than many other oc­cu­pa­tions,” says

Ooblets de­vel­oper Ben Wasser. “An of­fice job is a typ­i­cally eas­ier, safer, and higher-pay­ing ca­reer path. I’d still per­son­ally pre­fer to make in­die games, but peo­ple shouldn’t be un­der false im­pres­sions when they jump in.”

Get­ting started

With that clearly in mind, the next thing you need to do is take your idea and de­cide on

“Get your game as close as pos­si­ble to what you want the fi­nal game to feel like be­fore mak­ing it pretty”

which game en­gine you’ll use. There are plenty to choose from, such as Gamemaker Stu­dio 2, Un­real, or Unity to name but a few. Each al­low you to do dif­fer­ent things, and all have free ver­sions, so you can play around with them and see which one best suits the game you’re try­ing to make. Unity is the most pop­u­lar among in­die devs, as it works well with both 2D and 3D games. How­ever, it does re­quire you to learn cod­ing. But thank­fully there’s a so­lu­tion for that, too. “There are so many amaz­ing peo­ple tak­ing the time to teach oth­ers for free,” says The Last Night de­vel­oper Tim Soret. “Watch the GDC talks, YouTube videos, read 80.lv, Ga­ma­su­tra ar­ti­cles. You will learn a ton, even if you don’t get it 100% for a long time.” Fol­low­ing tu­to­ri­als is a great way to ease your way in, and ap­plies to any other dis­ci­pline within game de­vel­op­ment.

About time

Once you have your en­gine the real fun be­gins. “The best way to get started is to just start mak­ing your first sim­ple game,” says Mold­en­hauer. “If you’re a pro­gram­mer, start build­ing a core pro­to­type for the game­play. If you’re an artist, start cre­at­ing us­able as­sets for the game. If you’re a de­signer, start do­ing level lay­outs and spe­cific game­play con­cepts. If you’re a writer, start writ­ing the script. Once you start, you’ll see where your gaps in knowl­edge are, and then you can start try­ing to fill them in.” The key is to just start fill­ing your game with some­thing, any­thing.

“There are a ton of in­cred­i­ble artists you can find on Twit­ter, Tum­blr, Art Sta­tion, and Dribb­ble that you can hire free­lance or full­time,” says Wasser. “There’s also a lot of stuff on the Unity As­set Store, which is good for test­ing out ideas.” But if you’re feel­ing ex­tra con­fi­dent you may want to do this your­self. “If art isn’t your forte, you can look at hir­ing your own artist,” says Chuck­le­fish artist Lu Nasci­mento. “But if you’re in­ter­ested in mak­ing pixel art as­sets your­self there’s loads of tu­to­ri­als in fo­rums, medium ar­ti­cles, YouTube, and even Twit­ter you can check out.” This is per­fect if you’re un­able to hire any­one to help, which will be most peo­ple when first start­ing out.

Be care­ful not to get ahead of your­self. “Avoid de­vel­op­ing high qual­ity art as­sets be­fore the core of the game feels right,” says Mold­en­hauer. “Get your game play­ing as close as pos­si­ble to what you want the fi­nal game to feel like be­fore mak­ing it pretty. If you’re putting a lot of work into art while the game is still in flux, you’re go­ing to end up throw­ing out a lot of ex­pen­sive work when the core changes. Or even worse, you’ll live with sub­stan­dard game­play be­cause you don’t want to waste the art that was cre­ated for it.”

“Be­sides the tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ment skills, there are soft skills—plan­ning, team­work, and so on,” says Chuck­le­fish pro­gram­mer Tom

Coxon. “Game jams are a great way to prac­tise these, par­tic­u­larly if they are team-based, or im­pose the­matic or time-re­lated con­straints.”

What­ever you de­cide to make, fin­ish it. It sounds ob­vi­ous, but it’s no se­cret that the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who start mak­ing games don’t ac­tu­ally fin­ish them. The chances are the first game that you cre­ate won’t be a good one, but the point is to learn how to fin­ish a project and move on. You’ll learn much about game de­vel­op­ment by mak­ing more games.

To help your­self, set your own dead­lines and try to achieve some­thing every day, no mat­ter how small. It’s easy to get caught up in the de­vel­op­ment of your game, but time man­age­ment is im­por­tant, and when done well it can im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity and mo­ti­va­tion. “We use task man­age­ment apps like Trello and No­tion, to di­vide work­load into man­age­able chunks, and keep vis­i­bil­ity of each other’s tasks be­tween team mem­bers,” says Chuck­le­fish mar­ket­ing strate­gist Katy El­lis. “It’s re­ally use­ful to have a very vis­ual todo list, which you can link work­ing as­sets and doc­u­ments to, and su­per sat­is­fy­ing to drag that task into the Com­plete sec­tion at the end of the day.”

Peo­ple al­ways talk about the things you should do, but there are plenty of things you

shouldn’t do. “Ig­nor­ing the busi­ness side of game de­vel­op­ment is a com­mon mis­take,” says Chuck­le­fish pro­ducer Rosie Ball. “It may seem like a has­sle when all you want to do is think about your amaz­ing game idea, but hav­ing a few im­por­tant pro­cesses in place such as a busi­ness plan, con­tracts be­tween team mem­bers and doc­u­mented roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties within the team can help avoid ma­jor headaches fur­ther down the line, es­pe­cially if the game be­comes a suc­cess.”

“Don’t fol­low trends, and avoid crowded gen­res,” says Soret. “There are dozens of gen­res that are nearly aban­doned to­day, and dozens of au­di­ences starv­ing for more con­tent. Look at the di­ver­sity of games [in the past], you will see many of these niches to fill. Choose one, and take it to new heights with mod­ern physics, vi­su­als, and sto­ry­telling.”

“Avoid be­ing quiet,” says Wasser. “Share your work, talk to your au­di­ence, be open. Try not to bite off more than you can chew.” Get in­volved with as many in­die game com­mu­ni­ties as you pos­si­bly can. Many peo­ple are bump­ing into the same prob­lems as you, and gain­ing their in­sight is in­valu­able. It’s also a chance for you to help oth­ers by shar­ing your knowl­edge, too. Chal­lenge check­list As men­tioned be­fore, this will not be smooth sail­ing, and all the way through de­vel­op­ment you’ll come across dif­fer­ent chal­lenges. “The big­gest chal­lenge is deal­ing with the mas­sive work­load and see­ing it through to the end,” says Mold­en­hauer. “Once you get over the ini­tial hump, it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing build­ing out your game, be­ing cre­ative and solv­ing prob­lems as you go. That ex­cite­ment and pride of cre­ation can push you for a long time, but game de­vel­op­ment is so much longer than that. When you’re squash­ing your thou­sandth bug on a sub-menu sys­tem that only a frac­tion of your pos­si­bly non-ex­is­tent au­di­ence may ever see, it can be re­ally dif­fi­cult to press on.”

“I think most de­vel­op­ers strug­gle to get no­ticed among the mass of games be­ing pro­duced,” says Soret. “You have to find an orig­i­nal an­gle, to of­fer some­thing dif­fer­ent. The other very tough part is that to make a game, you don’t just make a game. You start a com­pany, you cre­ate a team, then you make a game. These three tasks are mas­sive and in­ter­de­pen­dent. You have to get your hands dirty in every as­pect of pro­duc­tion, and you

“The big­gest chal­lenge is deal­ing with the mas­sive work­load and see­ing it through to the end”

have to get good at it. It’s a lot to take on your shoul­ders. It’s tir­ing and over­whelm­ing, but it’s also ex­cit­ing in the sense that you can never be bored, there is al­ways some­thing new and in­ter­est­ing to work on.”

This is some­thing you can use to your ad­van­tage to gain vis­i­bil­ity. “Don’t shy away from your de­vel­op­ment story,” ex­plains Chuck­le­fish prod­uct man­ager Tom Katkus. “One of the best things about in­die games is that play­ers get to know who’s mak­ing

their games. This is great for get­ting play­ers in­ter­ested in your project, but you can use that same ac­ces­si­bil­ity to get a pub­lisher to know who you are.”

Gain­ing vis­i­bil­ity

Of course, hav­ing a pub­lisher is su­per handy, but if you’re mak­ing your­self vis­i­ble in all the right ways, you may not even need one. That be­ing said, if you end up find­ing your­self with a pub­lish­ing op­por­tu­nity, be­ing pre­pared will help you in the long run. “Never give up your IP, and make sure you have an exit door in the con­tract in case de­vel­op­ment goes wrong,” says Soret. “Also, con­sider look­ing for in­vestors to take a stake in your com­pany, rather than just go­ing for pub­lish­ers. Pub­lish­ers are in­ter­ested in the project they signed, while in­vestors fo­cus on grow­ing your stu­dio and long-term sus­tain­abil­ity. It’s a dif­fer­ent world, it’s in­tim­i­dat­ing, but it might be worth it.”

“With any busi­ness re­la­tion­ship, what’s specif­i­cally in the con­tract is more im­por­tant than any­thing any­one says,” ex­plains Wasser. “A lot of de­vel­op­ers don’t re­ally value, un­der­stand, or want to be both­ered with the specifics of con­tracts, since they’re sort of an­ti­thet­i­cal to the cre­ative process, but it can se­ri­ously bite them later. If it’s an im­por­tant agree­ment, get a lawyer to go over it. Also, ev­ery­thing is ne­go­tiable.”

Once you’ve earned your de­vel­op­ment chops by fin­ish­ing projects you may want to de­velop games for the Xbox One. The ID@ Xbox pro­gram is a great way of do­ing this. De­vel­op­ers ac­cepted into it will ob­tain two free de­vel­op­ment kits and ac­cess to the sys­tem’s ar­chi­tec­ture, so you can sup­port your game with things like achieve­ments.

The in­die game world is scary, but every in­die de­vel­oper is root­ing for you. “One of the good things about the game in­dus­try right now is that out­siders with limited re­sources can play at the same ta­ble as the big en­trenched play­ers with mil­lions/bil­lions of dol­lars,” says Wasser. “There’s al­ways go­ing to be a dis­ad­van­tage to indies, but it’s still bet­ter than the sit­u­a­tion in most in­dus­tries.”

So what are you wait­ing for? Make a game!

right Cup­head rep­re­sents game cre­ation at its most painstak­ing.

Above Mak­ingOoblets was more hard work than a typ­i­cal of­fice job, its de­vel­oper says.

Above The Last Night de­vel­oper Tim Soret rec­om­mends swot­ting up with videos and talks.

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