We asked nine respected indie game developers and studios the very loaded question: what challenges they faced as a team, throughout all stages of their game(s) development?
Each game, and every developer are likely to have their own unique list of trials and tribulations they had faced while creating their own indie game. We thought why not reach out to them, and allow them to share those experiences with the rest of indie game developers out there?
We hope this helps give new and aspiring developers some greater perspective about the whole development process. From the initial concept, all the way through release of the game. There are always going to be major obstacles along the way, and these developers were kind enough to share exactly what they, and their teams each experienced along the way.
Studio Wumpus – Sumer Game
A game that’s too niche
One of the greatest and hardest things about the development of Sumer is how incredibly niche and different it is. The most similar game to it is M.U.L.E. and that came out in 1983. Sumer was designed like a board game but has real time elements that would be impossible in an actual board game. This made it difficult for us to reach our core audience. It’s hard to immediately clear what kind of game Sumer is since there are so few references of other games to point to. We’ve kind of had to fight for the attention of board gamers, because Sumer doesn’t look like a board game at first glance.
Another problem with the lack of references was that for a long time we had a hard time communicating what the game was all about. As we improved the design, visuals, and clarity we got to the place where we have a strong community of active players and even new people are intrigued and are drawn to the game because it’s so visually appealing and different.
Being niche is an interesting problem to have. The uniqueness of Sumer is also the reason we are so in love with our game. It’s something completely different and everyone that gets a chance to play it falls in love with it.
Figuring out company overhead with different levels of commitment.
We started development of the game in graduate school without worrying about publishing, marketing, company overhead and all of that stuff. We were four friends on equal footing, all equally invested in the game. Fresh and wide eyed out of school we thought we could finish the game in 6 months or we’d be able to get investment into the game and make this a full time job. As we ran out of money and it became clear that we weren’t going to get funding anytime soon we had to do a sort of reality check.
Some of us moved away from New York and began working remotely, others picked up a little freelance work or started teaching on the side. At that point being four equal partners became a more difficult dynamic to sustain and we had to figure out a fair system for all of us on how different commitment levels to Studio Wumpus was rewarded. We did in the end but it’s something that we continually have to adjust and maintain.
I had a daughter and moved back to Iceland to raise her and Josh moved to Baltimore for a new job. Communicating on a professional but especially personal level is always hard to do remotely. We are very thankful for Slack and keep in touch every day through that, but working in different time zones and mindsets can definitely be a challenge. We have a meeting once a week and sometimes more often, but we don’t really have time to add personal banter to that.
During stressful times it’s always super easy to misunderstand something written in text and be resentful. But as soon as we talk on Skype it’s clear that thing didn’t mean what we thought and then we’re back on a good track.
Graphite Lab – Hive Jump
It’s everyone’s problem. I wrote about it in an article posted in Gamasutra. Hive Jump took 3 long years of development and when it comes to funding it, we went through it all: Moonlighting, crowdfunding, publisher negotiation, salary cuts, equity division, bank loans, family investments – it’s all gone into Hive Jump. Funding is an issue because planning for your first original property is an awful lot of guesswork. Imagine trying to estimate how long online multiplayer support will take if you’ve never implemented online multiplayer before. Even if you have implemented the feature in a past game, the experience is always slightly different in a new project. So if your schedule is always changing based on those problems then your costs are going to fluctuate as well or your timeline will have to crunch to make up for the lack of funding.
Taking on MAJOR features
Online Multiplayer was our most ambitious feature in Hive Jump. We went through 3 different engineers to spearhead this effort with each helping move it forward slightly until we finally found an engineer to carry it through to the end. However, despite the determination and the time invested, this feature depends on so many factors that are in the user’s control (computer & network reliability to name two) that it made it very hard to tell when the feature was “done”. Lucky for us, we chose to go through early access and were able to find and fix many issue which lead to poor multiplayer performance. Even then, we were still met with many issues upon release.
Many developers focus on the GAME, which is what they SHOULD be doing. However, if they don’t have the resources to hire a marketing team or the clout to lure a publisher then many teams are left to tackle this task on their own without the experience necessary to be successful. We faced this task, but felt like we were pretty well aware of the challenges. Even so, we didn’t get the coverage we were looking for and in hindsight, having a publisher or marketing team in our corner would have likely gotten some better results.
Ghost Ship Games – Deep Rock Galactic
Funding / Cash flow
We are veteran developers with families and mortgages, so finding funding has been a top priority for us. By spending a lot of time on this, we have managed to be invested in twice, get a substantial government grant and a publishing deal within 10 months. But it has still been a major challenge as none of us had done this part of the business before founding Ghost Ship Games.
Balancing time on Development vs Everything Else
We can all agree that the goal is to create awesome games. But in order to do so, you need to also spend time on building a company and a team, find funding and do PR and tons of other non-game-dev issues. Deciding on how to spend team resources between the actual game development and everything else is super hard. We’ve tried to always keep some people fully engaged with development to keep momentum. Also, we are very agile on planning and never spend time on anything too far into the future (unless it’s about funding!).
PR and Marketing
Going into this, none of us knew anything about PR and Marketing, but we knew we had solve it. Or risk dying shortly after launch. Figuring out social media is very hard and the only approach seems to be trial and error. Same with the streamers, the influencers of Youtube and Twitch – how do you approach them, how do you engage them? We are still learning a lot here, but we also decided to get help. In our case by making a publishing deal with Coffee Stain (of Goat Simulator fame)
Matthijs van de Laar
Twirlbound – Pine
Being an indie studio, we have to try and stand out. With our game we’re taking a few experimental approaches and we’re trying to make something unique, but that sometimes means people get the wildest ideas about what you’re making. It’s sometimes a fine line between selling a game and giving clear representations of the product!
Working anywhere, anytime
As opposed to working in a large studio, we’re constantly working. We’re a bunch of friends too, so it’s always about work. Luckily it’s one of the best jobs in life, but still – we gotta strictly keep ourselves to a certain schedule and working hours!
Sometimes ideas run wild, but you gotta stick to a doable scope. Always dangerous!
Christoph Schnackenberg and Marcel Hampel
Team Nory – Nory’s Escape
We developed Nory’s Escape based on an existing prototype Marcel created years ago (2007). So when we started the project we knew the concept works and we also knew how to realize it from the technical point of view (art + programming). We thought that it’ll take us less than six month. In June 2017, it is three years now. So, a big challenge was to accept that everything needs way more time than we thought.
Marcel and me are both professionals in our areas and do have “day jobs” which we both love and which keep our financial life in balance. That plus other obligations caused us to work in separated areas the whole time and we rarely saw us in person. Slack and GIT helped a lot to keep our work in sync. Still, it was like playing a super complicated chess game with a pen pal where you sometimes had to wait days for the next move. It was very challenging to always get back into the world of Nory and to build the mental environment that is required for the creative work we did.
Last but not least, finding our “own path”. We played and loved games for years and we both participated in large projects in that area. However, when we really started to dig into the indie scene we realized that there are lot of “Do’s and Don’ts” and many people have different but strong opinions about various aspects of indie game development. Questions like “shall we use Unity?”, “Do we offer InApp payment?”, “Will we integrate ads?” or “How hard can we make the game?” can get very complicated when you actually have to make them. We read a lot of blogs and talked with other developers. In many ways it felt like trying to build an opinion about a moral topic. Normally building an opinion is not a hard thing. However changing an opinion like “Do we offer InApp payment? yes/no” can have huge impact on your project design and throw your time schedule all over board if you are not careful and if you do care about the nature and integrity of your game.
All in all we are very close to release Nory’s Escape and even though the mobile stores are crowded we are really looking forward to the release. Marketing wise we count on our strong new game play concept, which feels untouched and fits perfectly into the mobile game area. We are looking forward to put Nory into smaller spotlights and then go bigger from there. Regardless of the numbers we are going to achieve with Nory’s Escape, for us it is already a hit.
NOWWA – Bullet Ville
Discovery. It’s hard to get people to know about your game, or in other words, the way it is now it requires connections and money. Tons of them. If you’re working on your first game and don’t have an existing following – acquiring it will take a long time and perseverance, posting on different sites, social media, maybe paying for advertising.
Working with people. Finding the right team to get things done is an art of itself, and managing a team is a completely different beast. The only reason I’m able to get Bullet Ville going is because I’ve been already doing games for clients for about 15 years and been in many positions on the chain of command. The larger the team the more difficult it becomes, and the less you know about a specific area the more likely it is you end up working with somebody who is not suited for the job.
Working on the right game and idea. The game you start is not the game you finish – and sometimes you don’t finish the game at all because a shinier idea pops in. That and scope creep – the fact that it’s easy to add more and more features with no clear direction on what the game is ultimately be like. Too many games get started and fail because of this.
So with these 3 laid down here’s what I would advise a newcomer:
– Find a simple game idea, come up with simple features, then slice that in half, come up with a minimum viable product that can be done by a small team of 2 or 3 people, preferably one programmer, one artist and one utilities guy.
– Find the perfect person for each task. This means you look into their portfolio and history, and their past work is exactly what you’re looking for. Not potential, not promises – but exactly what you need. If you’re doing a puzzle game, a programmer with a shooter background wont work. If you need country music, a composer with a classical background wont work. I can’t stress this enough. Get the perfect person for the task. The way to measure this is finding people who have excelled in the past at what you need currently.
– Create a website and spam every social media with every tiny progress you make on the game, so you start having a following. Post on twitter, facebook and youtube, cartridge, vine, instagram etc. Eventually contact the press. Once you have a working demo, send it to publishers. The feedback while this goes along is invaluable as it keeps you grounded, gives you a measure of what works and what doesn’t.
Akjoman Entertainment – The Secret of Gillwood
The top 3 challenges for my game have been keeping the focus up and stay motivated during the course of the development! It´s so easy to move away and start thinking about new projects. There is not much new stuff that happens to the game when you been working on a game for 2.5 years!
Then it comes down to economy! It´s hard for me as the only
developer to do work full time because i have 0 budget for my game and that means that i have a part time job so i have to work with the game on my spare time! My goal is to be working full-time with Game development.
The last big challenge for me and the development have been my skills! I´m a Level Designer so i do not have the best programming skills and that have put the mechanics a bit back in the game but I do not think this game needs much mechanics to become a great game!
MoltenCore Games – Neon Drifter
Balancing the gamedev time on our lives. On our team we all have day jobs that are not related to game development and some of us also study, so, it was hard to keep in line all of this and add the game development there. But if you have passion and drive to make games, you can make time everyday to develop.
Gaining visibility without a publisher or being a known studio (the team is composed by just two people). We launched our game, published on social media and told our friends. I also wrote some mails to different android and mobile game pages and I am waiting their answer on the following days. And that’s pretty much it regarding our marketing and promotion methods.
Developing a simple and fun game, with our current technical knowledge (we just started a year ago as game developers), and on mobile platform, which is a market we do not know very well. It was hard for us to come up with an idea of game that could be made in 4 or 5 months, for mobile devices. Mainly because we at the studio are more PC gamers than mobile gamers.
My current project project is Dead City, which is a third person zombie shooter, and the first game I am developing for PC. I am having a blast working on this game, and I try not to think about the challenges in the development process (it becomes very tempting to say “Forget it, there is too much to do.”) But the helpful folks at RenGen Marketing have asked for the three biggest challenges that I have while working on Dead City. So here it goes:
When I say marketing I mean everything not development related, for example: twitter posts, blog posts, and sharing new videos. Honestly, I enjoy getting the word out about Dead City, but it is hard to tell if the marketing efforts are paying off (or if I am even doing it correctly). Spreading the word about my game is a challenge, and if it is not done correctly then I will feel like I just painted a picture and threw it away after finishing.
My current project is expensive, not just in terms of budget, but also in terms of actual time spent. On average I spend about 30 hours a week developing Dead City. Spending the time is not the problem, rather, finding the time is. The dilemma I always face is: should I get some sleep, or should I play some more Fallout.
It is easy to get carried away with ideas and end up with a game that will take years to make. I originally wanted to make a survival shooter, but that eventually morphed into wanting to make a story based game. I think that is fine, however, making the world for the story is a challenge of its own. For example, making the world for a story based game means spending two weeks (at the very least) to develop a part of a world that the player might not spend two minutes exploring. As a result, I have decided to go back to a survival shooter — something like a third person Black Ops Zombies and Borderlands crossover.
Are you ready to develop you next, or even first indie game?
We hope that this provides you some valuable insight into the indie game development process, and how each studio, or individual developer faces some of the same, as well as some very different obstacles along their challenging journey.
A huge thank you to all of the developers that participated in this roundup, and for those that took the time to read it all. Please share if you enjoyed!
Contact us, RenGen Marketing for Indie Games, if you would like to share your own experiences from developing your very own indie game.