How to Get Started as a Solo Game Developer

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Image courtesy of AwesomeTuts

Game development is probably one of the most unique things one can do.

It involves almost every creative and analytical discipline, from art and sound design to music composition, programming, and storytelling. It takes an unbelievable amount of work to finish and ship a game, and yet, there are some people who try to go at it alone.

While financial success, or even retaining your sanity isn’t guaranteed, there are some things you can do to make your life relatively easier when embarking on your game development journey. This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but simply what I have found that works for me.

Figure Out If You Really Want To Make Games

Often times what we think we want to do is not what we really want to do. Sometimes, the things that we’re most familiar with are the only things that we think we can do, therefore we try and do them. In other words, our desire to accomplish something in a particular field stems from our familiarity with that field or medium.

Video games are no different. Many budding game developers have grown up playing video games, so naturally, they hold a special place in our hearts. Someone with an urge to create things, who has a limited range of life experience, would be drawn towards the experiences that have shaped them, and if video games were a large part of that, then it is only natural that you would be drawn towards them.

That is not to say that that is the sole reason anybody would want to make video games, but it is important to realize that people tend to do what they’re familiar with. It is a very easy trap to fall into, which often leads to dissatisfaction with yourself later on.

While this is an important thought to keep at the back of your mind, don’t let it discourage you from wanting to make games. But do realize that if you have limited life experience, then you might be gravitating towards what you are the most familiar with, and over the course of your life, that can change.

Just Start

You miss every shot you don’t take. All of us have heard that saying before. Yet, a lot of us are still not taking those shots. What’s wrong?

There’s a myriad of things that can go wrong when you start anything new, not the least of which is the risk of total and complete failure. But it is important to understand that failure is only a problem if the consequences of it are enormous.

You wouldn’t be nearly as worried about scoring a basket when you’re casually shooting hoops, as you would be if you were to attempt a trick shot after running into the midst of a professional NBA game with almost no basketball experience under your belt.

Lower the stakes. Don’t quit your day job to start game development. Do it on the side and see how it goes. See if you enjoy it. See if you can start to develop an aptitude for it. Don’t put everything on the line before you’re reasonably sure that this is what you want to do seriously.

If you do that, then suddenly, failure doesn’t seem that bad.

Expect To Get Things Wrong

You won’t have the perfect game idea in the beginning. The first mechanic you develop may not be fun. The first character that you draw may not look very good. The first people that test your game may not enjoy it. They may not even give you constructive feedback.

Many things can go wrong, especially if you’re doing them all by yourself. Your brain has a limited capacity to pick up new skills at a time, and its important to be patient.

The only way we can get things right is by getting them wrong first. And that is fine, it is part of the process, and at any given moment during the development, you don’t have results, you only have the process.

Things Will Take Longer Than You Think

There is a rule of thumb in project management, that in order to get a successful estimate of the time that it would take to complete a task, one should make an initial estimate and then increase it by 50%.

You could maybe hope to finish the project in that time frame.

Estimates can be very iffy, and the bigger your project is, the further off your estimate could be. I developed the prototype for my first game in one week. How long do you think it took me to finish and ship that game?

Six months.

I barely finished it within that time frame and I had to cut several features that I wanted to include. After that, I decided to scope up and build a larger game with procedurally generated content, one that I estimated would be playable in a couple of months. That was in August of 2019.

It is now January of 2020, and I have barely scratched the surface of all the mechanics I want to implement.

Underestimating the workload is almost inevitable, but can be better managed if you account for the fact that you are going to underestimate and then relatively overestimate deadlines to make up for it.

Do Not Expect To Make A Game Of The Year

When I started work on my first commercial game, I was extremely excited. I naively believed that a simple and extremely short platformer would do extremely well. While it didn’t do very badly, it definitely wasn’t going to compete with the likes of Celeste or Hollow Knight.

This belief that it was going to blow up was further reinforced when I sent out the press release of the game’s announcement, and it got picked up by Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Eurogamer and a few other video game news websites.

Not knowing how games journalism worked, I was thrilled that I was on to something big, but when I finally released the game in February of 2019, almost none of these websites covered it on launch day. It was an unremarkable platformer, and while it was fun in its own right, it wasn’t particularly anything to write about.

Though realistically, I wasn’t expecting my game to win Game of the Year or anything even remotely close to an award, I was harboring some hope that it would do better than average, and while it did well for what it was, I had my expectations a little too high.

Basically, enjoy the process of making your game, but don’t expect it to blow up, because the chances of that happening are quite slim.

Participate In Game Jams

I cannot stress this one enough. Game jams are the lifeblood of almost every game developer. Game jams get those creative juices flowing, instill the fear of deadline in the best of teams and allow you to do something different from your regular project.

Game jams are especially useful for solo developers since they open up dozens of opportunities for you. You have a dedicated forum for showing off your work and get feedback on it. You get to really define your scope and learn how to finish games, which is honestly the most underrated skill in the industry.

Jams that happen over a weekend, i.e 48-hour game jams, have been the best in my experience. Anything longer than that, such as a week, diminishes the point of enforced deadlines a bit, and you may not feel like finishing your project after seven days. Anything shorter than 48 hours tends to be too little time to develop anything significant.

Jams are good. Do jams, often.

Enjoy Other Hobbies

Many solo game developers chose to be game developers because they enjoyed playing games, and the idea of making games really appealed to them. However, converting your hobby or interest into your career results in you having one less hobby.

Game development can be pretty stressful, so having a hobby that is not game development is crucial if you want to retain your sanity throughout the process. Try to not have that hobby be playing video games, since that tends to not be different enough to give your mind a rest, in my experience.

This ties back into expanding the range of your life experience and doing things that you have not done before since that will help you have something to fall back on when you’re eventually feeling the grind of a large project.

Developing Your First Commercial Game Will A Unique Experience

Developing and shipping your game solo won’t be the straight path that you might think it is. Especially since we work on our own, that means that a variety of tasks fall upon us to do. A solo developer routinely has to design, create artwork, code mechanics, figure out sound design and even compose music.

You can offset this workload by contracting out tasks or purchasing assets, but at the end of the day, your experience will be relatively unique. You will have to develop the game not only as a work of art but as a product and probably compromise on both of those to be able to ship the game. Marketing your game will definitely be a learning experience, especially if you haven’t done any sort of marketing before.

At the end of the day, it is extremely hard to predict how one’s game will do, and this uncertainty can be the cause of many developers feeling the stress of needing to deliver a great product. It is important to remember that while you can learn from other people’s successes or failures, they don’t dictate exactly how your game will be received.

Marketing Is More Important Than You Think

But it is equally as important to make a great game. Ethics aside, you have to be an exceptionally great salesman to sell an empty box, which most people aren’t.

On the other hand, even developers with great games often struggle to market them. This is largely because we do not have large audiences who we can talk to directly, especially if we have not shipped a game before. We need to rely on games websites and our small reach on social media to get the word out about our games.

Marketing should start well into development, and often, that means knowing what the hook of your game is. Figure that out and start selling it, building upon it and teasing bits of your game. Use the traction to build email lists and communities on discord. Get all the people who are passionate about your game into one place and listen to their feedback.

It pays to know your audience, and they pay for your game.

You Are Not Guaranteed Financial Success

Statistically speaking, that is. 9,050 games were released on Steam in 2018. That amounts to 24 games released every day. Even if you manage to finish your game, the chances of it gaining visibility are quite low.

That does not mean that you should not try. All that means is that you should think very hard before putting all your eggs in one basket. Game development is very risky and very difficult, exponentially more if you are going at it solo, so it becomes more important to have backup plans to ensure financial stability.

That said if you do happen to make it big with your game, congratulations! Most likely, if you’re at that stage, then you don’t need this article.

If your game does not do as well as you had hoped, do not despair. Hopefully, you have something to fall back on, and you can always try again.

Regardless of whichever scenario you think you fit into, do share your process and your numbers with the community. It definitely helps newer game developers to develop a realistic idea of what to expect and makes the community more positive as a whole.

About Me

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C’est moi.

Thank you for reading! I am Kabir, founder of Overcome Studios, an indie game development studio based out of New Delhi, India.

Follow me on Twitter!

If you want to keep up with development and provide feedback, then you can join our discord server and participate in the development process and chat with me!

If you’d like game development videos, I upload a semi regular devlog on my YouTube channel in which I go over the process of making and marketing my second indie game.

You can also check out my last game Overcome, a 2D platformer about beating your inner demons without attacking them.

An indie game developer based out of New Delhi, India. Developer of Overcome, an 2D platformer about beating your inner demons without attacking them.

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