Generic Indie Advice

In my previous article, a reader asked for some advice for aspiring game creators out there, so I may as well oblige. Here are a few simple rules…and a qualifier in case you think any of it is as easy as it looks.

Use Tools

You are likely not an engineer or an artist. And even if you are, building something from scratch is probably going to bog you down before you make any progress. (That glaring light of optimism from week 1 will seem like a dimming bulb after 2 months of writing engine code, I assure you.) So use tools. Use engines like RPGMaker, BladeEngine, or GameMaker. These tools are there to help you along and let you focus on the big problem: implementing the game.

Professional game developers love tools. We beg for them if need be, because tools help us do our work faster. They help us to turn those pages of plans on the desk into an actual living, breathing game that we can play before it’s time to ship it off to stores (and before we have to put in exuberant amounts of overtime.)

Set an Achievable Goal

I would guess that the majority of all amateur game projects fail because the scope exceeds what the creator can do. Let’s face it, if you don’t make games for a living, that means you have other factors – family, job, whatever – that are taking up most of your day. The key thing to get the proverbial ball rolling is to actually finish what you start, and that means finding something you can both start and finish before moving on to your be-all-end-all of gaming.

Achieving things feels great. Maybe your game isn’t much more complicated than Pac-Man, but if you made it, if you created that gameplay from start to finish, then you’ve not only created something that can be shown off to others, but you’ll also know more about your tools and how much farther you can go next time. More importantly, you’ll be that much more motivated to make sure there is a next time.

Achieve Something First

I know it helps a lot of amateur creators to keep blogs on their progress. There’s nothing wrong with that method. However, if you compare the real to the stalled, there is one crucial difference: smart creators finish tasks first, then talk about what they did. Nobody cares if your dog was sick or the computer crashed. That’s just run-of-the-mill blogging; the sort of thing that works once or twice as an excuse before everybody leaves to read a blog with actual information. But if you talk about something you actually did – giving actual information the development process – well, that means you have added content, and by and large people like to read about that stuff.

Bite-Sized means Easy to Eat

Game creation is not designing little bits and pieces as you go. If that’s where you are in the creative process, guess what? You’re just stuck in preproduction, and really haven’t decided on what you’re making.

In professional game development, we are tasked by a schedule. There is a constant struggle to find out what we need to do, how long it takes to do it, and what the roadblocks are in getting it all done. Amateur’s don’t necessarily need to break out Microsoft Project, but what they do need are to-do lists. Something to break down those tasks into edible, bite-sized pieces. I often recommend Trello.

A general rule of thumb for professional or amateur development is to try and accomplish something small on your project as often as you can without breaking the schedule. You’ll feel better and accomplish more overall if you know that your work is actually making an impact (and that there is, in fact, a light at the end of the tunnel.)

Stick to Your Vision. Only.

Your design is inevitably going to come out half-baked at some point. Something is going to turn out to be not-fun, and you might even have a mid-project crisis.

When that happens, don’t sweat it. Think about your original vision, that core kernel of an idea, and start cutting or changing everything that doesn’t match it. Maybe you feel uncomfortable about losing the shopping system, but in the end does it really matter for your ninja platformer?

The key part of any simple indie game is to have a vision and sell that vision. Think about why Portal doesn’t have guns with bullets, or why Everyday Shooter lacks multiplayer. The reason these games shipped without those features is because they didn’t need them. The developers needed to focus on what was most important – the core vision – and dump everything that didn’t fit.

Progress = Experience

To be honest, the one thing that trumps everything on this list is experience. I can tell you every thing on this list in excruciating detail, and you know what? Most people will find their own their own way to work regardless of what they read. As designers, we need to keep trying different things and learning from those experiences if we are going to grow. Sometimes that means breaking the rules to scratch a design itch, and other times that means putting on additional rules just to make the work understandable.

There is a ton of different resources out there for pros and amateurs alike these days, but as long as you learn something, try something, accomplish something…you’ll be pretty well off regardless.

(Unless you try to use somebody’s IP. Then expect fun legal drama.)