Once upon a time, I had an idea for an game. It was a fun puzzle app to teach users a new skill and no one else was doing anything like it. It was a great idea, so I made something else.
No, seriously, that’s what I did. As a single-person game studio, I knew I would make a million mistakes the first time around. I didn’t want those mistakes to ruin my original project (which I had spent a solid amount of time on already), so I decided to make something else to build my skills.
I would make a chess app. That would be easy, right? Mistake #1. Or maybe not. We’ll come back to that one.
Let’s cut to the things that I did right.
What I Did Right
Know Your Strengths
I selected projects that were roughly within my skill set. This project had minimal art requirements (I’m no artist), minimal audio requirements (not a sound engineer), and required no level design (not a level designer). Know your team and play to your strengths. Build a beautiful world with your art, create a moody atmosphere with your audio, or use your knowledge of an industry to better serve your market than anyone else. It’s your strengths that set you apart, not managing with your weaknesses.
Set Your Scope
This has a strong overlap with knowing your skill set. I chose a project I knew I could do. Small studios don’t have time to create tons of content. Rather they create a set of rules that create emerging behavior.
Examples of this are:
- computer generated levels (FTL, Binding of Isaac, or Spelunky)
- mechanics where slight variation significantly impacts play (World of Goo, Hidden in Plain Sight, Super Crate Box)
- puzzles which extend play time without significant asset generation (Braid, Closure, About Love, Hate, and the other ones)
You’ll also notice that they all have an attention grabbing art style and a unique game mechanic. This is also crucial in securing a fan-base without a large advertisement budget. You need to set yourself apart in a very memorable way.
While I won’t compare Checkmate Chess Puzzles (my game) to these greats, I did try to follow some of their lessons. I built a game around computer-generated puzzles. This meant avoiding much work in my weaker areas, required a minimum build, and allowed me to scale up the content relatively easily. On the other hand, I created a custom chess AI which is a massive scope no-no, but it’s a learning process.
One last thing. Notice how almost all successful indie games are 2D. Scope!
Realize It’s About Gaining Experience
Don’t bounce from idea to idea. Get something out as soon as possible, so you can learn from the full development process. Yes as everyone and their grandma will tell you, you need to learn marketing (and you do!), but there’s so much more to it. You need to build relationships with people in the industry (fellow game devs, reviewers, etc.), build a fanbase, understand consumers’ expectations (consumer feedback is different than friendly tester feedback), and be inspired with new ideas. There’s no better way to do that than to actually release something.
Like so much of life, it’s about gaining experience. No artist creates their masterpiece on their first attempt. Your first game won’t be the greatest. Or even worse, it will be the greatest, but you won’t have the knowledge, connections, and money to market it properly. Make something small. Heck, launch a template game. It’ll expose you to the full launch process and the difficulties of getting exposure without risking years of your life on a game that never finds an audience.
I had a rough idea of the importance of marketing. I knew just enough to know that I knew nothing at all about marketing. That’s what made me decide to pursue another app in the short term which saved me from spending years on a project I love only to completely mess up the marketing (as I did on this launch). You learn a lot of lessons the first time that will improve your next launch.
Be Empathetic with Your Player
Whether you lead your gamers through a gentle learning curve or a merciless gauntlet, be empathetic. Imagine their perspective. Then get someone else to give you feedback, because you’re likely missing something.
I spent a significant amount of time evaluating levels, eliminating redundant puzzles, and arranging them to create natural brain breaks while maintaining interest. I realized that while the hardest puzzles produced the greatest sense of triumph, facing them back to back would be exhausting, so I spread a few easier puzzles between the harder ones. It gives players a mental break, builds moral with little wins, and maintains momentum. Think about your target player and imagine how they’ll react to the various stages of your game.
Respond to Feedback
Respond to every point of feedback. This is crucial for three reasons.
First, sometimes our most ardent critics merely want to feel heard and have someone acknowledge their frustrations. Do your best to be understanding, try not to outright disagree, and show appreciation whenever possible. You may be surprised to find that the most frustrated people end up showing the most gratitude when they’ve found a friendly ear.
Second, most of us want the products we buy to be perfect, but we know that people aren’t. Responding to feedback puts a face behind the game. It presents you as someone trying to create a fun experience for players rather than a soulless corporation solely out for profit.
Finally, as much as we don’t want to admit it, they’re likely right in some way. Try not to outright dismiss critiques as too needy or outlandish, it may give you new ideas. Responding to a review on one thing may help you get deeper insight into the real issue.
All that said, I am an ardent believer that the customer is not always right (though if you hear the same thing more than once then be sure to listen). Some people want contact lens jewelry, more Jar Jar Binks, and a cheeseburger at a sushi joint. Don’t worry about those people.
I don’t want to name examples on this one, but I have experienced each of these reviewers already.
Now for the Mistakes…
This ended up going a bit longer than I thought it, so I’m going to break it up into a two parter. Next week, I’ll list all the mistakes I made with ideas on how to avoid making the same ones. Leave me a comment if you got something out of this article, disagree with a point I made, or you want feedback on a game. It’s always good to hear a kind word, constructive criticism is key to growth, and this experience has definitely given me a greater appreciation for any creative type of work. It’s a shame how negative people are toward those sharing their passion.
Have some better advice? Leave a comment!