In this episode, we finish re-imagining the indie dev cycle from the perspective of developing a new product in the business world. We also take a look at our inbox, and at a listener’s request, tackle one of the greatest game dev debates of our time: Unity vs. Unreal Engine.
I first heard about the PixelPop Festival last year. It was of particular interest to me as I was making killer progress on The Path of Dissent (sadly unfinished for now) and I was thinking seriously about trying to demo it at the event. It was about that time that I had to accept that my recent transition to work-at-home dad status wasn’t conducive to steady game development progress and I switched to games journalism almost exclusively for most of a year. I didn’t get to the event and I didn’t think about it at all for another good year.
After discovering game development in college, Philip Devine wanted to give other content creators a head start on the unique career opportunities available in gaming. He set out to create a club for programmers, musicians, and artists, that grew to about 25 members in its first year. He credits this experience with building the confidence he needed to start his own major development project.
Now a Chicago-based IT professional, Devine is leading his team at Riveted Games through the last stages of development on Falling Stars: War of Empires, a 4X PC strategy game already greenlit on Steam that he expects to release within the next few months.
For those unfamiliar, 4X is a genre of complex strategy games in which players control an empire by eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating.
Falling Stars: War of Empires is likely to please a diverse crowd. 4X strategy players beg for games with substance from anyone who will listen. Space games and board game-like experiences requiring diplomacy and intellect rarely have trouble finding an audience. The game also follows on the heels of a movement in the gaming community that recognizes and celebrates a game smart enough to offer new and different experiences to long-term players.
“That feeling when you lay out a really intricate plan and try to carry it out against your friends is something that is totally missing in video games right now,” Devine says. “It just doesn’t exist in a format that is conducive to multiplayer. My goal was to make a challenging multiplayer game that rests on the same intellectual and diplomatic skills as modern board games, and what we have now is way better than I’d ever imagined it would be.”
Based on the concepts Devine demonstrated to me in the most recent build, Falling Stars will give many of these players what they’re looking for.
Development for Falling Stars began in earnest in October of 2012, when Devine started devoting his travel time on Chicago’s public transportation system to working on his game. He says that he developed 90% of the game on his work commute. Though the workspace wasn’t ideal, he says there was an unexpected benefit from working in this setting.
“Kind of a cramped development environment,” Devine says. ” But it got lots of ‘organic marketing’ that way by talking to people who have never seen a game being actively developed.”
This grit has served him well in the years that followed. Falling Stars was almost completely redeveloped on two occasions, his first child was born (now two years old, with a second on the way), and he now manages one full-time developer, two artists, one composer, and conducts business with his new publisher, Lock ‘n Load Publishing. Thanks to the help of industry friends like The Foundry’s Simon Pickles and Hungarian developer Daniel Karsai, Riveted Games now boasts all the benefits of a AAA development workflow without the time constraints that hurt products.
Devine’s refusal to rush Falling Stars and his unending communication with players has led to a positive relationship with the community. The game has been in private beta since December and he says testers have helped make big positive changes and contributions to the game. Devine has also reached players during several promotional campaigns.
“Steam Greenlight went great, given my game and company were relatively unknown, and working in a niche genre,” Devine says. “We laid out a strategy ahead of time and timed a bunch of campaigns all at once. I had a fairly active twitter account that I built up a few hundred followers on, I had a Facebook page with about 100 people, and I posted about the game everywhere people were talking about games in my genre. The ‘kicker’ was I also launched a Kickstarter campaign the same day and put my link at the top. That’s what helped give that huge spike in the beginning. After that, I focused a lot more attention on development and the game was greenlit on its own after about 3 months.”
To other indies working on their first big projects, Devine suggests putting one’s focus on the true finish line. He says the core mechanics and a playable game are far from all you need to plan for.
“You spend all of this time developing the game you want, so why settle just to release it when things get hard?” Devine asks. “I’m a runner, so I think of it like running the first 20 miles of a marathon, and then quitting right when it gets hard. Don’t quit when it gets hard, and the end result will be worth it…Finishing the game is the first 20 miles, and thorough testing cycles are the last 6. Make as many fixes/optimizations/user experience enhancements as you can, break down core mechanics if you have to…you’ll know you’re done when you’re happy with the feedback. It doesn’t have to be perfect, no game is, but you’ll know when the game feels right.”
Update 1/15/16: Want your indie project to be considered for this series? Here’s more info!
Update 1/13/16: The first installment of this series is up!
Just a quick post to announce the Inside Indie Dev interview series! In these posts you’ll get a look at new and upcoming independent projects and interviews with the creative minds behind the games.
Later this week you’ll hear about the upcoming shooter RPG Push for Emor. I chatted with creator Garry Hamer and gathered his thoughts on the great sci-fi influences of our time, developing for PC and VR simultaneously, and balancing life and game development when you’re already working full time. You won’t want to miss it!
As a developer myself, I’m often lured into trying to become a ninja in native iOS game development. I say “often” because there’s always something new to deal with: iPads, taller iPhone screens, SpriteKit, Swift, Metal, the list goes on.