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Indie Game Development Part 2: Set Your Goals

Indie Game Development Part 2: Set Your Goals

Last time we discussed whether or not this is a venture you wish to pursue. I cautioned you on some things to be aware of if you’re going to create a game independently. You decided, “Heck yeah I want to make a game!”. Excellent! If you’re still with me, you’re probably itching to get into it and start making something playable.

If you’ve never done something like this before, I heavily recommend you start small. It’s very exciting to plan the next Final Fantasy or BioShock, but these are games that are made by teams of hundreds of industry veterans. It took my partner and I about seven months of planning before we realized that our first game, a tactical role playing game, was going to take a good five years to finish at the rate we were going. We decided that wasn’t acceptable for our first game and started from scratch with another, simpler idea. Even that is going to take us much longer than I would recommend for a first game.

The key is to start with the absolute simplest of ideas that you can think of and see if you can pick up the skills to make it work. Don’t be concerned about the quality of this first thing. It’s a test run for you to learn about what’s involved. Be prepared to learn from your mistakes, and don’t be afraid to seek help, or advice from others. This is what game jams and prototyping are all about. You should have a working prototype as early as possible that you can gauge a: how much time the final product might take you to complete and b: whether at it’s core it’s a fun game that warrants the effort it will take to complete.

The (un)fortunate thing is, is you’ve still got a lot of planning to do at this stage. For some, planning may be the most fun part, but for others it will seem like a hassle and as though it’s just hindering you from getting your work done. But there’s a reason people make business plans, and there is a reason that you should have a Game Design Document.

A game design document is where you will figure out what type of game you want to make – This is going to involve a number of factors. Some things to consider may be:

  • figuring out the best way to get your game in front of an audience
  • Who is going to be playing your game? Note that “everyone” is not an acceptable answer. You need a target audience: All too often games are catered to the straight white male… I implore you to consider what other audiences may exist.
  • Which age group?
  • You need to figure out what platform they will be using (iOS, Android, Steam, PSN, Wii-U, XBLA, Facebook, etc)
  • Have you done any market research as to whether it would be better to release for Steam versus Good Old Games? Android versus iOS? Are you aware of things such as the Occulus Rift or Ouya?
  • Maybe you want to be truly avant-garde, and release it for a dead system. The world is your oyster.

When it comes to the genre and actual game mechanics:

  • what is popular and what isn’t? (Note that this shouldn’t be the sole basis on what you choose to do… something may not be popular due to lack of marketing… or there could be a key component to fix that would make it work.)
  • What types of things have you played that you enjoyed and would like to see more of?
  • Which mechanics exist already and were well received?
  • Which ones failed?
  • You’re going to have to come up with some ideas for mechanics that you want to create that is something you would want to play.
  • Build on ideas that have come before you, but try to bring something new to the table to set yourself apart.

best-idea-everIt’s okay to explore new things, but keep in mind that when you borrow from existing genres, the audience is going to have expectations. You can’t reinvent the wheel into a box and expect people to think you’re a genius. If you deviate from expectations, you’re going to have to be ready to convince people that this really is the best thing since sliced bread and failing that, be willing to throw out your own precious ideas to make an experience that other people will enjoy.

This is something that I see very often in postmortems, and that I’ve witnessed in film and back in school. It’s very easy for an artist to latch onto their idea and treat it as though it were their baby. This is bad. You need to step back now and then and evaluate from an outsider’s perspective. If people don’t “get it” it’s not necessarily their fault. Play testing isn’t important just to find bugs, but to figure out whether the user experience is good.

Finally, you’re going to need to put some thought into the visual style of your game. Do you want this to be a retro game that could have authentically been played on a Game Boy? How about Super Nintendo Era? PlayStation? There’s a lot of interesting things that were going on with those technical limitations, and great art can come from working within limitations. My perspective though, is that it’s okay to break some of those rules. If you really want one extra colour in your palette that couldn’t have fit on a Sega Master System sprite… it’s okay to add it. But whether you’re working in a pixel art style, a traditional animation, vector art, low polygon, or even something much more ambitious… there are going to be a whole series of technical problems that result from that work flow, and planning for this ahead of time will save you headaches in the long run. The point at this process isn’t even the specifics of “what will the main character look like?”, it’s “what methodology will I use to create the graphics?”.

financial planning 4Of course, you’re also going to have to be realistic with your time and financial budget. You need to plan ahead not only so that you can make a fun, unique, and exciting, experience that people will want to play, and not only so that you can make it work, but most importantly you need to plan so that you can actually finish it. People have to pay their bills. They need food, they need shelter. The odds of you getting money from your game before it’s finished is pretty low. So you’re either going to have to be a world class moocher, or you’re going to have savings, or a job. If you want to get this done, you need to research how much money you’re going to need to spend on licencing, hardware, and marketing. If you work with other people, you’re going to need a way of compensating people for their work.

If you have a job, (or a life) this can mean that your time is also going to be very limited. People are bad at estimating how long it takes them to get things done. I will be very surprised if you get your game done precisely when you expected to, and you should not be surprised if you are a little late. Or a lot late. You will need to budget your time just as carefully as your money. And you will need to accept that sometimes things go over budget. Prepare for that. And most importantly, track it. What’s the point of planning if you don’t attempt to stick to your plan? You’re going to have to monitor how you spend your time, and how you spend your money, and then correct for it whenever you can. Sometimes this may mean pulling a late night, but often this may mean realizing that your initial plan was off base, and you need to extend deadlines and work smarter.

Come back next time with your game plan ready: we’re going to start talking about making this game.

Written by Stephen G. Tucker

A graduate of Sheridan College's Animation program; Stephen has worked on a number of feature films around the world as a visual effects artist. Now on sabbatical, he works on creating independent video games for