The Golden Rule of Indie Game Dev

Every indie game you’ve played is a survivor. For each success there are a hundred failures, and for every failure, another thousand left unfinished. Maybe 10,000. The reason: everyone who loves games wants to make one, but they are the hardest art form to make well. They are interactive and interdisciplinary and asymptotic. They are deeply engaging and endlessly frustrating, to build and to play. Players are unforgiving and the market is saturated. And yet we keep trying, because our love for games blinds us to the odds, the logistics, the costs, and the doubts.

The lucky few that launched…

So, you’ve been working on that dream project but launch seems impossibly far away. Forget a success; how can you escape the fate of the countless that never even finish? I generally eschew one-size-fits all advice, but there is one golden rule that I believe every successful game developer follows:

Play your game, all the time, every day.

Play it constantly. Play it to the point of exhaustion. Play it until your friends and family intervene. Play it some more.

Play until your eyes bleed. Figuratively.

There are three big questions that explain why:

1. Is it fun?

You’ll know based on how much you want to play. If you’re spending hours playing and it’s not fun, you’ll be motivated to keep tweaking or pivot. Are you running out of things to do? So will your players. Are you getting bored? Your players are asleep. Hoping to get friends to help to build, test, launch, or share it? Good luck, unless you have a serious bankroll. The truth is, if it’s not fun, you won’t even want to finish it yourself. You need to keep iterating on your gameplay until you want to play it all the time, every day. The only way to know that you’ve arrived is by playing it again, and again, and again.

2. What should I build next?

The more you play, the more you’ll focus on what works and what doesn’t, and the better ideas you’ll have. Play the game for a few hours and you will find yourself wanting a few specific things. Those things should be the top of your priority list. Skip playtime for a few days and you’ll find yourself wasting time on non-essential work that derails the project.

3. Is it working?

You can’t rely on others for deep testing. Any tester can tell you if something works, but only you will know if the game works as intended. Of course, the best way to test is to play the game, all the time, every day. You need to know the quirks, the bugs, the rough patches, and the holes so that you can prioritize your work and (probably) cut scope down to what is essential for a launch-able product.

Suggestions

So, how do you follow the golden rule? A few suggestions based on my experience over the last decade in both game and non-game software development. (Note: these generally apply to any type of product development, but I’m focused on game dev.)

Ease of Access: Make sure your game is accessible to you. Whatever your target platforms, you should be set up for easy and frequent deploys of your latest work. There should be no friction for you to play your game any time.

When working on Ready Set Goat, we used Unity’s Cloud Build to push the game directly to our phones multiple times daily.

We also prioritized offline play early so that we could pick up the game any time/anywhere.

Schedule Play: It’s not a break or a luxury, it’s a necessity. Expect to have several hours of playtime built in to every full day of work, for everyone on the team.

For Ready Set Goat, we started and ended every day with rounds of play. We also took the game on vacations where we’d have no cell service, ensuring we’d play the game for lack of anything else to do. When addiction to the game started really eating into dev progress, we knew we’d hit on something.

Prioritize Fun: When choosing what to build each day, focus on things that are going to make you want to play more. Forget platform support, art pipeline, optimizations, matchmaking, tutorials, or anything else that isn’t going to make your daily play more fun. All that will come later once you’ve got the fun part down and you’re hooked on the gameplay.

On Ready Set Goat, hours of play revealed too many unexpected deaths for our goat-agonist. The feeling of the game being “unfair” was really frustrating, so we scrapped feature additions and platform expansion to focus on something specific: the hitboxes. My dev partner Jimmie detailed the solution here, and without that investment we’d have wasted time expanding a sub-par game to multiple platforms, surely to fail on all of them.

Following this golden rule won’t guarantee you a good game, but I do believe this is the safest guiding principle for getting a game finished. For those who made it this far, I’d love your thoughts and feedback at eric@subpixel.net.

 

Eric Saar

 

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