Bootstrapper’s Guide to Game Development

[This is the first installment in a series of articles on Bootstrapping Game Development that has had me going through skinny mochas and moleskin notebooks at an alarming rate. It’s going to be a profitable year for Newtown cafes and newsagents 8P. This post will serve as a landing page for the series as I update it with links to the new content!]

Oh how we dream of unfettered creativity: game development without the restraints of budgets or deadlines.

In our dream a game is finished when it’s finished! We are free to follow the exhilarating and surprising paths of iterative whimsy.

Constantly enamored with developers living the dream, we eat up stories of game design liberation. From the heroic redesign of Bioshock a year into production to the languid and luxurious Half Life development cycles.

Then our reality sinks in. And our reality is sinking in rent, bills and a time guzzling day job.

How do you court the muse and create the games you dream of making when you’re living paycheck to paycheck?

Developing on Pennies (image via iStockphoto)

boot-strap-ping

  1. Relying entirely on one’s efforts and resources
  2. Being or relating to a process that is self-initiating or self-sustaining

The goal of the bootstrapping game developer is to work as lean as possible while generating great games that people will pay to experience. Supported with cash flow at each stage of development, engaged with an enthusiastic core player community and funding the next project from the success of the last.

With limited source of income from personal savings or a day job, counting precious pennies, you want confidence in the work you’re doing. To know that what you’re creating will be successful.

You can’t afford to gamble with the traditional build it, ship it and pray business model. Nor can you afford to figure it out as you go along (there goes the dream of purely iterative development).

But if you’re too strict about which ideas you develop you could strangle any possibility of stumbling on the unique experiences  that could be key to making your game a success with a niche market!

So how do you develop on a lean or nothing budget yet give yourself the opportunity to discover and invent great gameplay experiences for a core community of players?

 

Embrace Limitations

Design within restraints and let limited resources, skills and availability challenge your creativity. Rather than scrambling to find the right people, money and resources to fit a game design document; design a game with your current skills and circumstances in mind.

Examples

  • Great 2D art skills but no programming? Learn Flash. Edmund McMillen made a name for himself developing flash games for Newgrounds for years before teaming up with Tommy Refenes to create Super Meat Boy.
  • Budding writer with a passion for The Heroes Journey and a background in database programming? Explore procedural narrative content (which would be so cool!)
  • Team of friends committed to making nostalgic games but everyone works full-time? Move in together, save on rent and host weekend speed prototyping parties!

 

Launch in Stages

Treat each stage of development as its own distinct project to be scoped, budgeted and monetised separately. Narrowly focus your resourcing and problem solving on one stage at a time and fuel the next stage with data and revenue from the previous.

Examples

  • Create a prototyping blog, sharing development insights and building a community around your journey from zero to indie. You can monetise the blog with google ads and affiliate marketing programs while connecting with a core base of devoted fans.
  • Take on creative contracts to fund development tools and pipeline development. Developing advergames or training simulations for other companies will bring in revenue while giving you the opportunity to build the core framework for your own games.
  • Sell the byproducts of production. Level kits, design tools, concept art; each of these can be monetised to fund the final push to finish your game. Frogames does this really well, selling assets as content packs for other developers.

Recycle, Borrow and Reuse

Identify when you can use previous work, recycle resources and build on the work other’s have started. It’s expensive and time-consuming to start from scratch when you can find much of what you need already out there and ready to use.

Examples

  • Most middleware communities post free scripts, plugins, asset packs, animations etc. The Unity Asset store is an amazing resource for developers using the Unity 3D engine.
  • Look for open source code or tech demos you can modify and build on top of.
  • Use classic folk stories and fairy tales in the public domain to enrich the player experience.
  • Take an established brand or genre into a new direction. Put a dramatic new twist on an old favourite. Recreate the magic of your youth (without the bugs). Bit.Trip.Beat is my favorite example of this done well!

 

Test Everything

From day one you can test the player experience of each aspect of your game design and business model, creating a feedback loop to let you know if you’re on the right track. Quickly identify popular features and scrap bad ideas before they suck up limited time and resources

Examples

  • Host monthly play-testing parties with friends, coworkers and the local development community
  • For larger projects, release mini games of individual core mechanics to test player engagement
  • Post weekly builds on your website and create a space for players to discuss changes and provide feedback
  • Run short Google AdWords campaigns for different positioning statements to track click-throughs

 

Recruit Your Players

Engage the community early, create a tribe around your brand and turn players into an extended development team. When you make it easy for people to connect with you and share your story you’ll find yourself working with the players, media and publishers that want to see more of the kind of games you want to create. The Wolfire team are masters of this technique.

Examples

  • Share your story, why you got into game development and the games you want to create.
  • Speak at conventions, take us behind the scenes of your projects in progress
  • Invite frequent posters and commentors to contribute ideas and play-test exclusive content
  • Release development tools and encourage contribution and creativity

 

Go back to the start of our industry and you’ll find no blueprint, no business plan, no rule book for making great games. The formula for success wasn’t: X funding + Y skills * Z business model = hit games.

You needed a theory, friends to help and the desire to craft a great player experience.

And the possibility of what games can be in a cultural context is getting even more interesting! The historical bias of what game design “is” has been lifted and the medium is once more undefined. Creators everywhere are stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a game: from the haunting promise of thatgamecompany’s Journey to the implications of The Stanely Parable.

It’s easier than ever to find and collaborate with people who share your passions; time zones and location are no barrier. We have more ways to distribute what we create to players and can focus on =value over the life of the relationship over initial box sales.

Limitations are opportunities. Problems inspire innovations. Adversity encourages growth.

 

How have you bootstrapped your game development?

About Epona

Epona Schweer wants to figure out what "switches on" creativity in people. Researching, experimenting and sharing results here. Writing books, making games and coaching folks all over the interwebs. Shoot me an email, follow me on twitter (@EponaSchweer) or drop me a comment and say "Hi"!

Comments

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  2. Luke Kellett says:

    Great article Epona, it’s really rings home. Especially since I’ve just ventured into this industry full time and streamlining the game development is essential for startups and AAA’s alike.

    Keep up the good work, and if you’re interested check out an article I wrote on how to become a more efficient iPhone games developer (it’s not too disimilar to your own :-) http://www.rumastudios.com/blog/becoming-an-efficient-iphone-games-developer/

    • Thank you Luke! Streamlining game development is something I get really nerdy about – I’ve got a series in queue that I’m itching to start writing on lean game development. Looking forward to your thoughts on that!

      Really good points in your article. Email is the killer!! I limit myself to checking email only at lunch and at the end of the work day. The minutes lost as a result of clicking refresh add up way too quickly 8P

  3. Heya, thanks for the bit about the Unity store. I havnt got to Unity in my studies yet but now I’m itching like crazy to get access to that Assets store. Especially the Game Components. While I love building a Camera system from scratch, I’d much prefer to experiment with someones elses. Considering what I’m doing now, C# XNA, just does not quite make it easy for the developer in that department.

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