In Part 1, you learned why we decided to close Golden Moose Studios. In this article, we discuss our shift in focus from “dream projects” to our new mantra “just ship something.”
Since starting Golden Moose Studios in 2016, we learned a lot more about ourselves as developers and what we wanted out of indie development.
Our goals as developers changed. We learned the important lessons that every indie developer learns at some point. We just learned them the hard way!
For too long, I was married to the idea that there was no point in being independent if I wasn’t trying to do something different – experimenting with some new mechanic, message, or theme that I hadn’t seen explored in other games.
The problem is, this amps up the difficulty level immensely of actually shipping something in a “reasonable” amount of time. (“Reasonable” in quotes because the meaning of this word varies between developers.)
We eventually got to the point where we scoped down our projects enough to where Manne and I are both truly independent developers. We give feedback on each other’s games and help out where needed, but we are largely working on our own projects at this point – this time, with the intent to ship!
What’s Next: The Art of Actually Shipping Something
By focusing on creating a sustainable, independent career, this doesn’t mean we’re stifling our creativity or making games with questionable monetization models. All it means is that we are instead channeling our creativity into projects with more focused and manageable scopes.
El Taco Diablo – A Stand-In Place, Taco Shooter
Manne got this memo a couple months back and began building a game smaller in scope, with the intention to ship this year. He’s taking advantage of this opportunity to challenge himself design-wise – to see what interesting design ideas he can push in a game where the player doesn’t move.
In the Heart of Borneo – A Jungle Adventure Simulator
In my case, I took inspiration from my environment. Currently, we happen to be on the island of Borneo, in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, an incredible place with diverse wildlife and landscapes, including beaches and multiple islands with snorkeling and diving, and just over an hour’s drive from the beaches – mountains and national parks with both thick jungle, and rolling hills that strongly resemble parts of New Zealand.
I was inspired by local scenery and wildlife (hornbills, multiple species of monkeys, including orangutans and the very strange proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards, etc.), so I decided to create a systems-based game, based on a photographer traveling and surviving in the jungle – In the Heart of Borneo.
I’m still making a game that matters to me but with a clearly defined design and scope, as I want to share the awe of being in this incredible place with others who may not know much about Borneo or Malaysia.
Indie Development: Perfection & “Dream Projects”
It took a while, but we eventually realized our first project was too big in scope (a common pitfall of first time indies!) and decided to pull back on scope for our next prototype, meaning that we no longer had work for external collaborators. (We made a lot of mistakes during our first year, mostly related to scope and pursuing “dream projects” too early. We pretty much made every mistake you see on the “Top 10 Don’ts of Game Development!”)
It’s hard to fully explain, but when you’re developing a game with the mindset of – this is going to tackle something in a new way or a subject that’s hard to express in words – it’s so easy, too easy, to spend too much time making sure those aspects that make your game different, are as perfect as they can be. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it does make it difficult to get to the point of actually shipping something…and that’s fine, if you’re prepared to wait a few years potentially before shipping.
My Dream Game: A Narrative Platformer
With my last “dream game” I was working on – a narrative platformer – I had a lot of the game well-defined – the backstory, the character, the story. I was well on my way to delivering a short vertical slice, which I planned to submit to an indie-friendly publisher, in hopes of funding the art and production for the next couple of years.
The problem was, I kept doing a complete overhaul of the game’s outline and reconsidering mechanics.
You see, I discovered the joy of the many ways you can express a narrative in a game (oh so many ways!), and I wanted to marry the narrative and mechanics together as closely as I could (in a different way than Edith Finch, but a loosely similar line of thought). I didn’t want to present the game to a publisher without entirely nailing down the game’s outline and mechanics because it somehow feels unfair to ask someone else to wait until some elusive day when I am finally happy with the game outline and mechanics (although these aspects change frequently in AAA development as well).
I was fairly close to achieving an outline I was happy with (with an achievable scope), and I absolutely could have kept working on it, signed on with a publisher and gotten the support of an artist.
I thought more about the long term. Was making my dream project so important that I would be okay spending years of my life in a state of limbo – creating something with no guarantees that it would achieve a decent sized audience? I believe it would achieve a strong, niche audience (due to the personal and relatable nature of narrative-driven, indie games), but even so…there is a strange disconnect when you’ve technically been an independent developer for over a year, year and a half, and haven’t yet released a game.
Even though I believe this narrative game will have a market and sell okay, it would mean at least another few years before I actually ship something as an indie. If I think about where I want to be in the long term – yes, I absolutely want to release a game that is exceptionally meaningful to me, but first and foremost, I want to create a sustainable career as an independent developer.
This means actually shipping something…preferably a few somethings!, to create a long tail I can live off of.
Unlocked: “Indie Producer”
In shifting my mindset from “this game and its features have to be interesting and different enough to warrant spending years of my life on,” to “just ship something,” I feel like I’ve unlocked this mysterious, hidden skill on a skill tree called “Indie Producer.”
To be clear, I’ve worked in a Producer capacity before – I’ve managed teams of people and delivered completed games on time, but it’s entirely different to manage your own work (this is something that’s been talked about by indies before, such as this former CD Projekt Red developer who went indie).
The beauty of building a small game with the intent of shipping something as soon as possible is that you learn what’s important in development and what isn’t necessary. In AAA, you have a producer to help you identify what’s important to work on. In indie, you’re on your own.
I’m using In the Heart of Borneo to learn more about creating systems-driven games and level up skills that will later serve me in future “dream projects,” skills such as:
- Breaking tasks up into small milestones,
- Balancing systems programming with creating gameplay (making the game in different, playable chunks at a time, rather than making a bunch of non-playable systems all at once),
- Estimating my time for each individual task and timing myself (to learn how long it actually takes me to create a new system or UI element, in order to better estimate how long each larger milestone will take).
I was practicing some of these skills in my previous projects and delivering on the milestones I set for myself. However, I wasn’t estimating time in previous projects, because, again, I was in the mindset of “it takes as long as it takes because my primary focus is to deliver on a unique vision” – which isn’t necessarily the best mindset for your first indie game!
However, with this project, I am designing my milestones specifically so I feel like I’m constantly making progress and keeping myself motivated.
I’m 2.5 weeks into this project, continuously hitting my milestones (often earlier than anticipated), and I have employed a useful self-evaluation process where I frequently re-evaluate what is most important to work on, and little by little, the game is coming together.
Applying Lessons Learned from “Failure”
Through last year’s graveyard of abandoned prototypes (basically, a crash course in learning what keeps developers from making visible progress on their games), I leveled up in:
- Cutting out unnecessary features and
- Only working on tasks that will bring me closer to my next milestone (the next iteration of a playable game loop or a playable build for fellow developers).
It feels good to put to practice the new skills I acquired through “failure” and making a more focused design because of it. (I’ll probably write a blog post at some point about how my process changed and improved, to help other indie developers who are struggling with staying on top of milestones and shipping something.)
In creating a systems-focused game, I also rediscovered the joy of programming (while practicing the skills involved in programming systems), which is a gift in and of itself (talk about intrinsic motivation!).
In previous projects, I focused more on the design and, in the case of narrative-focused games, I saw the programming more as an obstacle, which isn’t a healthy relationship to have when you’re creating a game! Now that I’m solely focusing on systems design and coding, I see it in the opposite light – I go to bed and wake up excited to code, not for the sole purpose of making a game but for the act of coding itself.
A Long & Windy RoadI do want to return to dream projects (such as my narrative platformer game) in the future, but I plan to have at least 1 shipped indie game to my name before that point. I don’t see it as a failure to abandon my narrative platformer, for the time being, because with In the Heart of Borneo, I can practice skills that support future development work as an indie developer.
It’s been a long and windy road – starting a game studio, experimenting with different prototypes, eventually discovering an idea that resonated strongly with me (the narrative platformer), to now starting a new journey in (hopefully!) developing a sustainable indie development career.
Indie development is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but absolutely one of the most rewarding!