I have the tremendous opportunity to be able to share in the birth of an Indie video game studio. To witness a birth is both a fearful and wonderful event. You get to experience the anticipation, the pain and the joy of the people involved. It is a rare honour. This is a story about passion, about daring to reach for your dreams and about how a simple idea combined with a bit of faith can turn the wheels of fate in your favour.
This exciting adventure is also about how a local South African game developer extended his friendship to a wandering Aussie dreamer. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me introduce you to the main characters of the story.
Meet Eben Illingworth, our aspirant video gamer developer and Travis Bulford, our local Indie studio veteran. But,“One does not simply understand the creative mind of a video game developer…” I’ve therefore asked them both a few questions regarding the series of fortunate events leading to the forming of a partnership with the potential to create unique gaming experiences.
Eben Illingworth: What value has hooking up with Travis added to your first Indie studio set up?
When I was introduced to Travis, I had been walking around with a partially-formed game design in my head for a long time. I had a fair amount of disjointed notes as well but most of it hadn’t yet been put down on paper. Within a few minutes of our first face-to-face meeting, we were both refining and adding to the design in leaps and bounds. Realising we both shared a similar vision and collaborated so well together as a creative team was a great feeling. I think we both knew we wanted to work together pretty early on and knowing the breadth of his experience in the gaming industry also gave me a lot of confidence about this project.
I’ve always dreamt of making my own game and working with Travis is bringing that dream to fruition.
Travis Bulford: This is not your first Indie rodeo so to speak, what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned in setting up a studio?
When we set up Celestial the first time, I really think we had a lot of luck. We had a dedicated group of people with the right skills and determination to build something. We messed around with two different game ideas split between two teams at first. These were later merged to finish the better of the two game ideas. Being young had its advantages; we had very little in the way of costs and could really apply ourselves. Setting up a studio now is considerably different but in a way the things that matter most stay the same. There are a few things that should be considered separately: team, tools, scope, sales channel, game (of course), budget/funding and marketing.
Most of these things interact, for example marketing and budget might have overlapping parts. It seems like a lot of business and less fun when you look at it like this, but at the end of the day making games is work unlike playing games, which is fun. It is rewarding work of course, but still requires a professional approach and dedication.
Get a dedicated team that shares your vision. It’s not good to surround yourself with people who agree with your every whim, but at the same time you can't surround yourself with people who want to do something completely different to your vision. You need hard working dedicated people that give you a good base of skills to build your game. Development, art, sound, writing, concepts, level building and web site construction are just a few of the skills you need. Essentially the more skills your team covers the fewer things you might have to outsource or go without.
When it comes to tools and I mean language modeling tools, art tools and even complete game frameworks. Would you use something like Gamemaker or Unity3D or would you create your own tool from scratch in your favorite programming language? The thing to consider is what tools are out there offering the most assistance right out the box. If you're building something that requires a unique engine you will need to build your own. If your game is all about the idea and not necessarily the mechanics then there might be a suitable engine out there for you. I don’t personally recommend rolling your own engine unless you have a very strong development team. In the past you had no choice, but with the offerings out there today I would very be surprised if there isn’t a good engine that suits both your requirements and budget.
How big is your game idea and can you build it? Is it content heavy or does it require a lot of scripted dialogue? How will your team measure up to the scope and manage the game? I think over scoping an idea is one of the greatest pitfalls of many small teams. Content scales quickly - you decide to have 20 units each with its own walk, run, stand, attack and die animation. Suddenly you have 100 animations to complete. Assuming a day each (which would be a very optimistic amount of time) you sitting on 5 month solid animation work. Take the time to scope out all the assets you will need and get an idea of whether your project can be done in the time you have in mind with the team you have. It might seem boring but it will be beneficial and also help flesh out your idea to completion.
I think most people really don’t need to have this mentioned since I have heard many an optimistic person quote something like, “When we release on iPhone we can expect about a million sales and at a dollar each we will make so much money.” These dreams are great but need to be tempered with realism. Ultimately no one needs to plan for selling a million copies, if that happens you hardly need a plan! But what about 1000 copies? What's realistic for the type of title you have in mind and how will your audience find your product. Should you go for digital sales or physical (more often than not, there is very seldom a reason to go physical or at least only physical). Consider all the available sales channels and approach them earlier in your project’s lifespan. Don’t wait until the very last moment. If you get no interest early on you might be able to see a problem with your product and resolve it before you go live.
What are you going to make and how does it stand out? Why would you play this game instead of the games you already have on your computer? It’s hard to be honest with yourself here. Often we are either too critical or too forgiving. We might take a criticism too harshly or might not listen to a repeated issue. If your game competes head to head with a triple A product you're going to have to figure out how to distinguish it from that product. If however you have something unique (noting that unique doesn't necessarily imply good) something no triple A studio would ever do, then you have a chance to stand out from the noise. Test your idea by finding a group like the makegamessa.com guys. They will look at your game and give advice and thoughts, encouragement and abuse. All of this is useful provided you learn to listen with an eye to improving the product. Ultimately when someone comments on your project the best thing to do is leave your ego outside the door.
A real issue working here in South Africa is funding. I don’t think it’s uniquely a South African issue though, but it does have its own problems here. Most of the teams I am aware of in South Africa have been self-funded. This is generally due to them having day jobs or because as part of their studio they build and develop applications or mini games for marketing. There is of course the possibility of having a rich uncle or some money saved under your mattress. If you are self-funded your plans and scope need to take into account the time lost doing commercial work. These days there are also options like crowd sourcing either from your own site or from sites like Desura, Indiegogo or Kickstarter . One good thing with these is you get an early idea if people like what you are planning. You can also sell early access to your project from your own page. Ultimately you can try all of these or just one. On a last note remember to plan your budget a few months past your release date. It can take weeks or even months before any money comes rolling in.
Online sales are great but how will people find out about your game? How do you build an audience? From reasonably early on in your project you should be out there tweeting, updating Facebook and pushing your game via as many suitable forums and locations as you can find. Don’t leave this till launch.
Eben Illingworth: What are you bringing to the party? I understand you’re not a programmer…
My background is IT and marketing. And of course, obsessive computer gaming since I could afford my first Commodore 64. I’ve always enjoyed the learning curves in good strategy games: figuring out the dynamics of a game and how it fits together and, ultimately, beating it. After playing enough of these games and constantly thinking about how I would have made them better, I realised I needed to make one of my own. I’m generally a pretty creative person and the idea of putting a game into the world for other people to explore and enjoy motivates me tremendously.
Mindfire Games (my own company) and Celestial Games (Travis’ team) are designing the game together and sharing all the creative decisions. Celestial Games is handling the development while Mindfire Games is responsible for marketing and other commercial tasks. My prior experience as a product marketer in the software industry is starting to come in handy. I’ve also done a fair amount of writing, both professionally and for pleasure, and I’m anticipating this skill being an asset in producing in-game text as well as in the marketing of the game itself.
Travis Bulford: What are the most important steps in developing a video game?
Some of the details are covered in my previous answer but to elaborate further on the steps. There are two things to consider. First is the business of running your team and second is how to proceed with development.
Building your team
Find a team, discuss the kind of project you are interested in and what tools you would prefer to use. Once you have your idea; plan your game scope - amount of code needed, graphics tools and time frame. Can you do it all part time or do you need to focus on it full time? Do you need to purchase tools or even some assets? From there work out your budget and business plan. Then start looking for ways to fund your project.
Building your game
In part this might be affected by how you went about planning your budget and release schedule. There are a few things we have seen that are always useful - have a good solid build and version control cycle and release early and often. Get as much involvement from your peers and potential players as possible. Set up a good solid art and assets pipeline. Document your games mechanics and objects. Set up regular updates between members and encourage the team to work together, not 4 or 5 individuals. We have daily stand ups and even though they hold back some peoples work it helps the team to know where everyone is and who might need assistance.
Eben Illingworth (left) and Travis Bulford (right), deep in discussion
Eben Illingworth: Any future plans you can share with us?
Obviously, we have very specific marketing and communication plans around the game we’re developing together, but I think we can safely share this little exclusive with you:
It’s a god-game with a thematic twist yet to be seen in gaming.
We’re also focusing far more on artificial intelligence than the typical “build a whole bunch of units and send them to the enemy camp” style of play you see in most of today’s Real Time Strategy titles. A lot of care is being taken to create characters and large populations of creatures that feel like independent, living things.
Although the game has a vast timeline and a tremendous amount of depth under the covers, it’s a “casual game” with an easy initial learning curve and gameplay suitable for sessions as short as a few minutes. I’m anticipating seeing a lot of casual players initially, then more hard-core fans showing up on our forums discussing the underlying mechanics and possible strategies of the game. This is our current project. If it goes as well as I suspect it will, who knows how many games we’ll make together?
Celestial Games: Website | Facebook | Twitter
After reading this interview, I cannot help but feel proudly South African. Travis’ generous heart, hand of friendship and valuable insight is a rare gift. We’d like to thank him for being a mentor in an industry where competitive behavior often times outweighs supportive behavior.
MWEB GameZone wishes Mindfire Games all the best. We will continue to keep track of the studio’s progress. We are honoured to share your journey with you! May it benefit and inspire other aspiring video game developers to pursue their dreams.
Han’s Twitter | Blog / MWEB Gamezone Twitter | Facebook
Other News from Around the 'Net:
Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd