How we Made a PC Game with (almost) no Money

So you want to make a video game. You’ll need artists, musicians, programmers, writers, and enough money to pay them all.

We didn’t have several hundred thousand dollars lying around; we had to get smart. My co-founders and I are seasoned programmers, but we’re sure as hell not artists.

We’re currently working on Squally, a PC game to teach hacking, and despite having no money to fund our game, we’ve had a successful KickStarter and are already selling early-access game copies.

Squally gameplay

1. Take Advantage of Asset Stores

The most beautiful art and music in our game were actually purchased from sites that sell quality art for dirt cheap. We’re talking $5–$20 for very high-quality pieces of art. There are websites like AudioJungle, GameDevMarket, and the Unity Asset Store where you can buy assets. For a few critical pieces of art, we paid a freelancer.

You can also look for games that used to be in development but were abandoned. There is a good chance that these companies are willing to sell the art that they already spent so much time and effort making. We got some really good art this way that nobody else has.

The art is not the focus of our game, so we were able to get away with this. If art is important to your game, this option is not as useful.

2. Your game MUST be special

There needs to be one thing that makes your game special. Just one thing. This might be a brilliant story, reviving a dead genre, or a novel game mechanic. This is pretty hard to do, and people often convince themselves that they have done this, when in fact they have not.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. — Richard Feynman

One lie people tell themselves is that they are merging two genres to create a brand new genre. “A mashup of Minecraft and Mario” might catch eye-balls, but it is likely just going to replicate both poorly.

Another lie people tell themselves is that they have a great story. If this is true, it needs to be quickly communicated. For example, in the new God of War game, the plot is “Kratos embarks on a journey to spread his wife’s ashes on the tallest mountain. He is accompanied by his son Atreus, from whom he is hiding the secrets of his dark past”. This is concise, and the reader can easily decide if they are interested from here.

Our game is special because we’re solving a real-world problem. People want to learn how to hack, but existing learning material sucks. So we’re making an educational game to fill this gap. Not everyone will be interested in this, but some users will love us. This is what you should be striving for.

When we launched our KickStarter, we had potentially the worst story on the planet. It was only 2 minutes of cut-scenes, and already it had plot-holes. Our gameplay screenshots were abysmal — we wanted to focus on releasing a playable demo of our minigame Hexus, so several of our “screenshots” were actually made in photoshop. Our video was pretty bad too.

Despite this, we ended up raising over $5,000 and have transitioned into selling early-access game copies.

If you get one thing right, you can get a lot of other things wrong.

3. Launch!

Games spend on average 1.5–3 years in development, but this is a huge gamble. If nobody likes your game, you just wasted a huge chunk of your life.

Your time is limited, don’t waste it on a game nobody is going to play. Validate interest early!

In fact, you do not even have to develop your game too much to launch. You could use photoshop to create the “screenshots” and launch on KickStarter. The KickStarter does need a video, and if you show gameplay footage, cut as many corners as possible while still keeping quality. This may mean hard coding a few things or violating a few coding practices. It’s worth it to launch faster.

Pay attention to other games on KickStarter, learn from them, and price your game accordingly. Just be honest with yourself though. If you think you can raise more money than another game because “that other game sucks”, ask yourself if that is really true. For example, I think Dating Sim games suck, but they actually raise pretty good money on KickStarter. It’s just not my taste.

For those that want to see an example, you can check out our KickStarter. We only set a goal for $420 because we actually had no idea how to price the game. This probably wasn’t wise, because if we had only raised $500, that would be a very bad sign. Leave failure open as a possibility, because it’s better to fail now than years down the line.

Assuming the KickStarter was successful, figure out a piece of your game that you can launch early. Maybe this means launching your game in chapters, splitting of mini-games, etc. With early-access game releases becoming increasingly common, it’s entirely possible to charge for the game while you build it, and there’s no reason not to.

Addendum:

We tried Indiegogo after KickStarter to see if we could get additional pre-sales. This went horribly and we ended up shutting down the campaign. Unless the landscape changes in the upcoming years, Indiegogo is probably best avoided for game developers.

We also only gave virtual rewards only to make our lives easier, but this is entirely up to you.

4. Don’t Half-Ass Things

Even though your game only needs to get one thing right, don’t neglect the other things. Do not make your own art if you are not an artist. Do not make your own music if you are not a musician. Users extrapolate what they see to the entire game. If they see a preview of a game with issues, they will expect more issues.

The art that I made vs the art that our artist made. One of us is good at this job, and it isn’t me.

Find a song that you think works for your game? Listen to it on repeat for an hour. If you hate it, you picked wrong. If you forgot it was on repeat, and two hours have passed, you found a good song. You just have to hope that your users have the same taste as you.

5. Have fun with it

This one goes without saying, but if you don’t even enjoy building your game, then why would someone enjoy playing it?

Build something fun and have fun doing it! Good luck.