Hello everyone! Recently, Alejandro Hitti and myself were asked to give a guest lecture to a group of junior and senior undergrads at DigiPen Institute of Technology. We had prepared the talk for GDC 2016, but it looks like we won’t be invited to present it there, after all. Instead I thought that I would upload all of the information here for those of you cannot afford to attend a private institute like DigiPen and/or a conference like GDC.
Who are we? – Ale and I actually met at DigiPen back in 2012. We were both programming students and collaborated on our second semester project, a game engine, programmed in C, that we used to create a procedurally-generated platformer. In 2013, I dropped out from DigiPen to form a company and develop independent games, full-time. 2013/2014 was a long stretch of investments, learning, and failures.
Finally, in 2015, I was running out of time and money while Ale was wrapping up his junior year at DigiPen. At that time I decided to prototype a small, simple project. Roughly three months later, that project had been released on itch.io, passed through Steam Greenlight, had its content doubled, been marketed to journalists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers, and released on Steam for PC, Mac, and Ubuntu.
INK by ZackBellGames
Are You Ready? – There are really only four questions that you need to ask yourself prior to tackling something like this. If you answer “yes” to each of the following questions, you may just be able to pull it off, too.
Have you mastered your tools? If you’re attempting to make, advertise, and ship a product in twelve weeks, you’re going to have to know your tools inside and out. You will NOT have time to build your own game engine and create other custom tools. I hear a lot of programmers and students with elitist attitudes that believe that using tools is “cheating” and that everything MUST be done from scratch. It is my belief that your time is far more valuable than your pride. I strongly suggest that people know how to build things themselves, but also know when not to (almost always).
For INK, I used Game Maker: Studio, but there are plenty of cheap/free tools at your disposal.
Are all of your roles covered? Be prepared to wear many hats! Remember that a game is not just programming and design. You also need to worry about art, animation, music composition, sound effect design, marketing, and production. If you don’t have all of these roles covered from the start, it is likely that you will not be able to hit all of your deadlines.
Ok, so all of your roles aren’t covered? That’s ok. There are ways to work around that. For example, I am not an aritist/animator type, nor do I enjoy faking it. Instead, I designed my product around that. All of the art in INK is created pragmatically and all of the animation is created via dynamic springing, tweening, and easing.
Do you have an adequate community/following? It is important for you to have some form of community and support PRIOR to releasing your product. You need to have people talking about it BEFORE it is on the market.
I always suggest that you start with Twitter. I tend to tweet progress GIFs weekly, if not daily. Find hashtags that are supported by the community that you are trying to adopt (#gamedev, #indiedev, #screenshotsaturday, #gamemaker, etc). Be proud of the tools that you are using and advertise them (YoYo Games supports me just as much and as often as I support them). Consider starting a development blog via a personal website or a forum, like TIGSource.
The larger your network, the larger your chance at having a successful launch!
Can you afford it? Lastly, you need to be able to support yourself (and potentially a team of people) for during the course of your development time. Be sure to include at least a two month buffer due to business transactions and fund transfers!
Valve pays developers on the 30th of the month AFTER each other month that you make sales. For example, if you make $20,000 in September, you will see that money being transferred on October 30th. That means that it will likely be six to eight weeks after launch when you see your first paycheck! Be sure to account for that!
Again: Master your tools, have your roles covered, build a community early, and prepare for your living expenses.
Making Your Game – The most important part is your game idea, right? I suggest keeping it simple. Very simple. Preferably one mechanic that can be used to approach 3-5 different scenarios, uniquely. You want to find a balance between your potential for content and your scope.
Typically, what I do is prototype a few mechanics with a four-hour time limit. Start to create your concept using placeholder art and STOP after the time limit. The game should be fun and should at least FEEL like the final product. If not, then examine it further for pitfalls and/or scrap it (My initial release of INK was 45-60 minutes of content and took three weeks to complete (roughly 60 hours of work)).
After your prototype is finalized, move onto a brief planning phase. Ale decided to make a complete and comprehensive list of game makers, features, levels, and assets that would be needed. From there, we could cut things that seemed unfeasible as we adjusted our timeline.
Assuming that it is your first Steam release, it would be a good idea to start by preparing a vertical slice of the game (some beginning, middle, and end) rather than just the first fifteen minutes of content. This will give you a good variety of sequences to string together for a Steam Greenlight trailer. Given a solid community and a strong trailer, the Greenlight process should take no longer than one month.
Gaining access to the Steam API and back end means that you can (for the most part) finalize your timeline. Figure out how much content you need and commit to a launch date. You WILL have to cut content. Ale and I cut 25% of our levels, hard mode, and multiplayer.
Marketing Your Game – Ok, I’m not going to go into incredible detail here (Ale does this part, not me), but I’ll leave the link to Ale’s other talk on getting your game noticed.
Anyway, your first step is to gather a press list. This is your compilation of email addresses for media outlets, specific journalists, YouTubers with an audience of a particular size, and Twitch streamers with an audience of a particular size. I say “particular size” because sending out Steam keys is a numbers game. If you send out a free copy, you want at the very least two sales in return via that outlet’s audience.
There are plenty of ways to gain access to this information. Several sites have started by compiling lists of known indie game web sites for you. To start, here’s one of the bigger ones. Ale went from page to page and noted journalists who preferred to play, share, and review platformers (particularly difficult ones). You can do the same with YouTube and Twitch.
After you have your press list, it is important to know when to contact press and more importantly, what to say. Your big push should come roughly a week prior to release. You want the articles going live a few days prior to launch up until launch and maybe a few days after, as well.
We recommend that you essentially do the journalists job for them. Your email should read like an article about your launch. A lot of writers get paid per article and are just looking for things to publish. You don’t need to be concerned about whether or not they value your effort, you just need them to copy/paste and share your work with their audience. Be sure to include a link to a press kit so that they have access to trailers, GIFs, screenshots, and all of your branding material.
Further press releases are acceptable if you have huge sales, additional DLC, ports to new hardware, or large updates (multiplayer modes, for example).
As for marketing outside of press releases, be sure to keep your community engaged. As mentioned before, I don’t like to go longer than a week without publicly sharing progress. A gameplay GIF speaks a thousand words!
Selling Your Game – Prepping for launch will take longer than you anticipate! Sending 1,200 emails will be more difficult than you anticipate! There is a lot that goes into it.
First, you must acknowledge that Steam will not pay a person. If you are a team of twenty or a solo, one-man show, you NEED a business bank account. I’d suggest starting an LLC (limited liability company), as soon as possible. Copy/paste this paragraph and place it before “Making Your Game”. Again, I did not go into business specifics in this talk.
The main thing that you’ll have to be aware of on launch day is being ready to extinguish fires. Something will go wrong and you will have people complaining on your Steam page. For us, it was WASD support. I have never played a platformer (that didn’t require the mouse) that supported WASD controls, so I didn’t add them! Our overall rating dropped to 50% positive or so due this. Within a few hours, Ale patched this up and we retain a 91% positive rating on Steam to this day.
From there, just look for opportunities to expand your audience. Accept interviews, plan your sale dates/periods, and consider updates/DLC. If you want more specifics on INK’s development, be sure to check out our post-mortem on Gamasutra.