Whilst Ben Chandler and the like are consistently getting game development just right, there is the rest of us, me included, getting it just about completely wrong – or are we? And are we that different from Mr Chandler?

This article, in short, will try to explain why trying to make your first project huge and exciting is indeed a bad idea, but why I’m sticking to it and why you should never give up.

I read an article the other week on IndieGameMag titled Your Game Idea Ain’t so Great. Their idea is, essentially: you’re not a genius so dump your grand idea and clone something for now. Lovely. This isn’t a critique of that article – it was done a lot better than I could manage, over at Mersey Remakes – but it did get me thinking. I have been developing a freeware adventure game for near-as-damn-it five years now because it’s huge(ish). Am I doing it all wrong?

I was 15 or so when I started designing my game. I had been reading the How to make a game articles in PCZone and I wanted to learn to code. Incidentally, I had just finished playing through Beneath a Steel Sky and had watched Star Wars again and so I had ideas of a grand adventure, in space, with spaceships. And an evil Empire.

I wrote the first chapter of the game as a script for a text adventure with pictures, sort of Triby’s Notes without the arrow keys and like a true fanboy I sent it to Dan Marshall, the writer behind How to make a game to get some critique. All credit to Dan, he humoured the naïve 16 year old boy and read it through, suggesting some great ideas.

a side-project in a very different style

For the story I was thinking Bioware in terms of complexity. So far, so ambitious. Admittedly, the story was rubbish, but I was only 16 by then and I did get some critique. I think what I did do completely right at this point was send it off to Dan, because although what I sent was rubbish, the forum I joined shortly after, which is now the Zombie Cow Forum has been a real asset. The people there are great and from them I have basically learnt how to write, pixel and to some extent be a competent designer.

If I’d started small, I don’t think I’d have sought that advice. I was excited about my project, it was big and everything I ever wanted to make. I wanted to show it off. What I did next however was a bad move: after I discovered Adventure Game Studio (the tool that has made all my game making dreams come true) instead of investigating the software first and working out what was actually possible, I jumped straight in and started building my game. This put pressure on me to learn to draw in pixels, something I knew nothing about. I made a quick sketch of my character and starting throwing some brown pixels together in Paintshop Pro. I was advised by the forum community however to look at some samples (i.e. Guybrush) and go back to the drawing board. And that I did, I painted over Guybrush and made him all sci-fi. In the wrong resolution. Without realising I had set myself up to develop an adventure game in a high resolution when I couldn’t draw.

This was the first big mistake I made, and it was big because it damaged the whole project.

Guybrush among his older brothers (nah, just the progress of the hero sprite)

It tied my down to a level of detail I couldn’t handle as an amateur artist. The backgrounds looked empty and the animations took forever. If I had been working on a small experimental project or a clone I’d have given up. I could have started again on something else and done it better. But I’d have lost the project forever, potentially. Instead, I ploughed on and ended up with even more bad design choices.

This is when it becomes important to consider why I’m making my game. I’m not working for anyone, I haven’t got a deadline and I don’t have to sell it. I’m making the game for me and the more people besides that who enjoy it, the better. I’m an Independent Games Developer. I may not have my own company or studio but I can call myself one, because it’s free. Anyone can develop an indie game. And it was for this very reason that, when I got a bit older and wiser, I rebooted my game. I didn’t forget it and move on or resign to it being Not so Great because it was making it for the love of doing so.

Ben said in a previous post that “reworking is a major motivation killer” and I have to disagree; it was the one thing that got me going again. Was the reworking a bad idea? Maybe it was, maybe if I had started again with a different project I could have properly planned it and got rid of every bad decision once and for all. On the other hand, progress has been incredible. I’m now more than two times further into development with the rework than I got with the original one, and I’ve only been working on it a year compared to the four years on the other.

an in-game location before/after re-working

So what can we learn? Firstly, you have freedom. As an indie you don’t work for anyone. Obviously if you are making money from your games, you have to consider that aspect, but why go indie if you can’t develop what you want to develop? The decisions I made were the decisions of an inexperienced gamer but without them I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t be part of several invaluable indie communities and I wouldn’t be developing my dream game. I have indeed learnt from my mistakes, and I have the same experience under my belt than if I’d produced several small clones. More, in fact. And I haven’t lost anything in the process, my first project – the one that got me excited about games development – still exists alongside the newer ones, and I haven’t forced myself to work on anything that doesn’t always drive me to do so.

What’s also important is I am not really disagreeing with Ben. Take his advice, he is better at making games than I am but although his projects are small and well planned, he still makes what he wants to make. The dimension of experimentation is still there and that is what defines a good indie developer, whether you do it through short games experiments or your grand game idea, which in time, I assure you will be great.

About The Author

Mark Richards is a physics undergraduate, making games with AGS in spare time (not easy by the way). His big project is called The Longevity Gene (a dystopian sci-fi game) and he has a couple of collaborations lined up that will happen with a bit of luck. The Longevity Gene‘s progress, vids, screenshots & other goodies can be followed here.