HEY! YOU! Make your indie game properly

Indie dev extraordinaire Dan Marshall spills the tea
20/7/2022

There’s a worrying trend I’ve seen in indie game dev bubbles over the last couple of years. It’s great that the likes of Twitter and Reddit allow us to see snippets of games in development, but I’m frequently concerned that people are making games the wrong way round.

It goes like this. There’s a top-rated post on some subreddit or other: 'Hey guys, check out the wall jumping animations for my upcoming side-scrolling RPG ‘Miscreants of the Scythe’', and there in all its glory is an astonishing world-class gif of some pixel art wizard or whatever clambering up and over walls. The sort of animation you’d love to see in a video game. The sort of quality that makes me feel deep (deep) shame and disappointment in my own piss-poor animating skills.

So you have a bit of a google, to find out a little more about this ‘Miscreants of the Scythe’ only to find… that it. That’s all there is to the game, a bunch of astonishing animations, because they only started development a month ago and so far most of the time has been pumped into wall jumping animations.

Look, I’m not here to tell anyone how to make a game. You need to do it in a way you find fun, it’s absolutely critical that for a game to be followed through to completion that the development process is not a slog.

But if you’re planning on actually releasing a game, you really need to be doing it the right way round. Games take absolutely ages to make, and a lot of that is endless back-and-forth on mechanics, and that fine-tuning is not time wasted. But mechanics change. Graphical styles change. Stuff that played out well in your head or on paper turns out to suck once it’s in. Games find their own feet during development, they feel themselves out over time, and it’s entirely possible you might realise a year into development that the game is so much better if the lead wizard can’t wall jump, and you’ve wasted a month fine-tuning your wall-jumping animations.

So, that’s pretty much SALIENT POINT NUMBER ONE: don’t do any graphics until you absolutely have to. Your entire game should ideally be little squares jumping around, throwing little yellow squares at some red squares until the red squares disappear. In time, you can replace those squares with heroes, bullets and baddies, but until that prototype is fun, until there’s an actual game loop in place, you need to stay away from the graphics.

Dan's own portfolio highlights the point that graphics don't matter all that much, and no this isn't a sly dig - Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen Please are wonderful point-and-click adventures

The more of your game that can be in place with shoddy programmer art and iffy effects the better: if the game can be playable from start to finish without a single final asset in place then congratulations: you have won game development. It’s not really practical, for a number of reasons, but it boils down to the fact that you’re not wasting time and money on stuff that won’t be in the launched game. If you suddenly decide 'you know what, Level 3 isn’t working, let’s scrap it' then that needs to be a jolly, consequence-free decision, not a complete nightmare because now you’ve blown a sizeable chunk of your meagre budget on all these beautiful spaceship graphics (level three was the spaceship level) and nowhere to put them.

And as a quick note, this all goes for cutscenes, too. Please please please DO NOT make your introductory cutscene until the game is done. What if your main character’s hair colour changes, or you rewrite your plot? I get that having an intro sorted is a huge ego boost, and I understand that chronologically it’s the first thing the player sees, but it absolutely positively needs doing right at the end.

SALIENT POINT NUMBER TWO: don’t leave it too long before you put graphics in. I am aware that this is pretty much a direct contradiction to point one, but in some instances graphics are a critical part of the game’s juice and feel. Your main character(s) need to lead the game’s visual style, they’re the constant and they’re what the player’s going to be looking at for the sweeping majority of  the time, so they’ve got to be good and tight. Once the game’s hit a certain benchmark, mainly that it’s fun, you’re allowed to gingerly start tinkering with the player character’s graphics and animation, but only insofar as to get a feel for how they’re going to handle in this environment - again, timings will change, animations will need tweaking endlessly over the course of development - even more so as you reach Alpha and start getting feedback from Other People.

There’s another important point to be had here and it’s this: fucking hell making games can be a depressing slog. Day-in day-out it can just be wall-to-wall bugs and hard code and stuff that makes your brain feel like it’s sloshing around between your ears. The absolute best bit of making games, however, is when all the hard work is done and you’re just ‘polishing’. Tweaking particle effects so they look just so, or fiddling with the lighting in the boss room; it’s fun and it’s what propels you through development. When things get tough, you must allow yourself the luxury of just making something look pretty - it’s critical for your mental health, but it can not be the core focus of your development time.

What’s more, showing stuff off on social media is hugely important, it lets you know whether or not people like the look of your game, and it’s a huge boost to your motivation when people love what you’re making. There’s also an argument that it’s so hard selling games these days that you need to start building a fanbase from Day One, but please don’t do that by wasting your time making assets that might get cut. Get a game running, get it fun, then start making stuff people can see.

The Swindle's look ended up being one of the key things that made people curious about it to begin with, so yes - graphics do matter. But not *that* much

SALIENT POINT NUMBER THREE: Know your scope, and halve it. I’m serious, that ‘finished product’ you have in your head? The mental image of how your game is going to play out for other people? Take out 50% of your dream game, and throw it in an imaginary bin. Games take a lot longer to make than you realise, and if you’re not careful you’ll run out of money or patience or both. Again, it’s something you see on Reddit and Twitter all the time: 'Miscreants of the Scythe is going to be a fully-voiced epic RPG taking place across 14 different realms, with five playable wizards each with their own unique wall-jumping animatio-' STOP. Stop pretending to yourself and lying to your potential customers.

Maybe this is a by-product of the sort of game dev who does all their animations first, but again get those mechanics in first and see how they sit and have a hard conversation with yourself about whether they all gel beautifully together, and whether you have the luxury of adding them all in. The answer is probably no: these days, to get a game to the quality level where it’ll be financially successful (and by ‘successful’, I mean it’ll earn you the exact same amount of money as you spent on it), you’re going to have to throw your all at it. You’ll be drained and exhausted and you’ll hate the game you’re making but pure blind determination will power you through… and extraneous features will eventually feel entirely unnecessary, and need dropping.

New mechanics should be a reaction to your game, not a thing you put in because you think it’ll 'be cool'. Deciding to add multiple characters should be a reaction to your existing mechanics, it should be a solution to a problem. It should be a thing that will lift the game way beyond the effort required to implement, not something you think you need to have to tick boxes on an imaginary checklist.

Look, making games is a pain in the arse, and I’m concerned that some devs out there are wrapping themselves in knots and making things even more arse-painy for themselves. It’s your game, and it’s absolutely wildly important you have THE BEST TIME making it, because the fun stuff will motivate you through the boring bits.

But please, be ultra-sensible about when you’re making your pretty stuff, and doubly so when you’re showing it off. I get that it’s helpful to have feedback and it’s nice to see your work do the rounds on social media but the absolute worst-case scenario at all times in the back of your mind whenever you’re spending ages on something in game development should be 'what if I have to cut this?'

It’s always better to cheap out, make something rough and ready and barely-functional and improve it over time, than go all-in from the start and wind up with it as a costly mistake.

Dan Marshall
BAFTA award-winning developer heading up Size Five Games. Ben There, Dan That! | Time Gentlemen, Please! | Privates | Gun Monkeys | The Swindle | Behold the Kickmen | Lair of the Clockwork God.

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