Is making games solo still possible after surviving the industry downturn?

Pressure comes from all sides, but the key is what kind of game you want to make.

As an unprecedented wave of layoffs sweeps the gaming industry, more and more developers are considering leaving the company and starting their own businesses. In the eyes of many developers, making games alone is definitely better than working hard for an employer, because no matter which company they work for, they may be fired every time the project is completed.


Is this really the case? Do independent developers feel lonely without the support of a team? What artistic and financial compromises would they have to make? Is it worth the risk for independent developers to take control of their own destiny? To find answers to these questions, four individual developers chatted about their experiences.

“Chaotic elements” fleeing the corporate world

Years ago, Tomas Sala left the company he co-founded in order to make The Falconeer. “I hate Scrum, Trello, and Jira, these damn project management tools,” Sara complained. “It’s maddening.”

In 2001, Sara, his brother and two other partners founded Little Chicken Game Company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The company mainly undertook OEM projects and developed steadily in the following ten years. At its largest scale, it employed about 30 employees. Sarah's skills improved by working on a variety of projects, but he didn't enjoy being a boss or going into management. He thought, “I'm just a chaotic person.”


At first glance, “Falcon Combat” may be mistaken for a magical version of “Ace Combat”, but it is actually an open-world flight game.

Sara began to relieve stress by making mods. In 2017, she launched Moonpath To Elsweyr, a mod based on “The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim”, which unexpectedly received widespread praise from players. He was so inspired that he decided to create his first original game, “Oberon's Court.” Sara's wife, Camille, said the game's dark atmosphere reflected the burnout he was experiencing at the time.

Sarah also realized this, so she gave up decisively and used those materials to build another completely different game-that is, the aerial combat adventure game “Falcon” inspired by “Crimson Skies”. In a sense, “Falcon” can be seen as Sarah's flight out of the corporate prison.

Sara enjoys the freedom of being an independent developer. He believes that using project management tools like Jira simplifies development into a series of tasks, which is likely to make subsequent creation a painful journey. On the contrary, he prefers to explore and pursue subconscious flows, without being bound by various tool templates. He insists that he is very disciplined and writes down what he needs to do every week, but he also allows himself to deviate from the planned path when inspiration strikes. For example, one morning, he woke up with the idea of ​​adding flying fish with guns to the game, and he immediately started creating it. “I like this divergent extension, that’s my design philosophy.”

According to Sara, the new city-building game Bulwark: Falconeer Chronicles reflects his chaotic nature. In this game, the various buildings are not arranged in a neat grid, but sprout and grow like flowers. At the same time, it will give players a more relaxed experience than previous games he has worked on. “I wanted to be free, away from conflict or anything that bothers people. I felt safe enough to be creative while working on this game.”

However, this sense of security is hard-won. For a long time before “Falcon Combat” came out, he was afraid, worried that he would fail and not be able to support his family.

The “three-dimensional construction” mechanism in “Fortress: Falcon Chronicle” allows players to freely combine various architectural elements like Lego to create a unique urban style.

“Falcon Combat” was released in 2020, but because he pursued perfection so much, he suffered from imposter syndrome (a psychological phenomenon in which he is unable to attribute success to his own abilities and believes that he will be denied by others). “That left me completely trapped by the negative reviews and then working like an animal for a year, just trying to make the game better and deliver the best version possible.”

Sarah admits that she is a workaholic. “When I feel pressure, my only reaction is to work harder.” But he also realizes that it is impossible to work as hard as he did when developing “Falcon Combat” forever, and he will try to avoid it in the future. For him, the fear had not completely disappeared. “I was worried about losing my sense of security, not being able to support my family, and also having a strong sense of self that I wanted to make a good game. Deep inside you, the art critic often says: This is garbage.”

From mobile game practitioner to independent developer

Shortly after graduating from university, Lucy Blundell joined the British mobile game publisher Chillingo as a graphic designer, responsible for the production of in-game art and promotional graphics. “At that time, they were releasing one or two mobile games every week, which was crazy. In the first year after joining the company, I couldn't go on vacation, otherwise a lot of things wouldn't be able to move forward.”

After EA acquired Chillingo in 2010, she quickly encountered another problem as the mobile game market underwent tremendous changes. “EA decided to change direction and wanted us to develop towards a F2P model. By that time, I no longer liked mobile games, and I even hated them.”

At the same time, it was difficult for Blundell to get promotion opportunities within the company – if he wanted to get a higher salary, he could only work in the marketing department. “I really don't want to do that. Compared with making money, creating and learning can bring me greater motivation.” Blundell considered applying for a job at other large game studios, but was worried that his art skills would not meet the requirements. . “My 2D and 3D art skills are only 'okay', not good enough.” Faced with a dilemma, she chose to resign.

In the acquisition deal between EA and Chillingo, Blundell received a cash and stock return, and she began to use her personal savings to develop independent games under the name Kinmoku. Since her programming skills were not good enough, she decided to make visual novels and lived a frugal life. At the same time, she would take on some part-time projects to ensure income, such as drawing background art, doing proofreading, and even making wedding invitations.

“It was really lonely at the beginning. I had made a lot of friends in the office before, but now I have to leave. It was sad.” When Brundell moved to Germany with her husband, who worked at Nintendo, life in a foreign country further expanded. This feeling of loneliness is exacerbated.

Visual novel “One Night Stand”

Blundell said that as a shy and introverted person, she thought she could work well alone, but she did not expect to be greatly affected by loneliness. Fortunately, social media and industry conferences like GDC provide some of her networking needs. “I hardly talk to anyone, but during the entire week at the conference, I could chat with everyone I saw. I do enjoy social events, but I always end up exhausted because the experience is so different. Talking to colleagues in the office is completely different.” She also admits that when an industry event is coming up, she always practices talking to people in advance to get used to the feeling of communicating offline.

“Love IRL” was Blundell's first large-scale project after becoming an independent developer, but she chose to give up after one year. At that time, she had completed the first half of the game (about a 3-hour process), and then asked the player to choose 4 branching plots. “These branch routes are almost as long as the beginning of the game.” Brendel realized that it might take about four years to complete these branches. “It was like, Oh my god, I can't do this.”

After shelving Love IRL, Brendel used a game jam as an opportunity to create her first game, One Night Stand. “I finished the development in a month and released it. No promotion, no contact with anyone, just put it on website and then went on vacation. During that time, it attracted the attention of some anchors. The free version of “One Night Stand” received about 250,000 downloads, so she began optimizing and updating the game, and then released a $2.99 ​​paid version on the Steam store.

“To this day, it’s crazy to think that most of my income still comes from that game. I remember doing the craziest thing after I was nominated for an IGF award, which was walking into a store and buying the new model. Screen iPad and stylus. “

Blundell's next project followed a similar trajectory to Love IRL. After three years of development, she realized she would never finish it, so she gave up and started working on Videoverse instead. She thought it could be completed quickly within 1 year, but the entire cycle still took 3 years.

“Videoverse” is more like a social simulator that simulates the early Internet environment than a visual novel.

“One Night Stand's revenue started to drop in the past few years, so I thought, I have to finish Videoverse as soon as possible. It was scary. I was under a lot of pressure. It felt like there was someone behind me urging me to hurry up.” During the development of Videoverse, Brendel cut many elements from the original plan. “That's one of the benefits of developing a game alone, when decisions like this are made, I'm only hurting myself and not letting down the artists, writers, or other members of the team involved in the project.”

Of course, not all work is wasted. Blundell revealed that she put some elements of Love IRL into the Videoverse and also saves any unused art material so that she can use it one day. In addition, she has complete control over the game. If she encounters any setbacks in the development of a new game, she can always make money by discounting old games or working part-time.

For those of his peers who are considering a career in indie game development, Blundell has a pragmatic piece of advice: Always keep your feet on the ground and don't blindly try to make a big game. “Try to make a game that you think you can make in six months, and it'll probably end up taking you two years.”

It’s not impossible to switch careers to gaming

Not all indie developers come from the gaming industry. The creator of the hand-drawn adventure puzzle game Birth, Madison Karrh has worked for construction equipment maker Caterpillar and made games used to train doctors. The major I studied has nothing to do with game development.

“Before, all I wanted to do was teach kindergarten.” While studying for a degree in education, Carl found a new passion in a teaching class. “I loved math so much that I wanted to be a mathematician. After that, I learned programming and changed my major to computer science.”

After graduating from college, Carl joined Caterpillar in software development. She thought that any programming job would bring interesting challenges, but found that this was not the case. Faced with an unfulfilling day job, she decided to channel her creative inspiration by making games. “I grew up playing video games, then stopped playing them for a while and just decided they weren’t for me, but fell in love with gaming again in my twenties.”

The painting style of “Birth” is strange but warm, and it exudes a slight sense of loneliness.

In 2019, Carl released his debut project, Whimsy. “It wasn't a good game, the puzzles were terrible and the UI was terrible.” Still, she loved it and was proud of it. “It's like a little diary that I can read at any time to see where I was at that time.”

New opportunities came from Level Ex, a Chicago company that provides doctors with “very crude medical simulation software,” according to Carr. After joining, she finally had the opportunity to work with a group of smart developers in her daily work to develop games using Unity. On the other hand, despite not being interested in developing a “gamified” version of a medical procedure like knee surgery, she still admits that the experience had a big influence on the creation of Birth. “Working on Level Ex helped me stop being upset about human body parts. Birth had a lot of very crude depictions of body parts, but the game will present them in a gentler way.”

“Birth” is the third independent game produced by Carl after “Landlord Of The Woods”. During the development, she resigned from her job to focus on game production. She also received funding from WINGS Interactive, an organization that invests in developers of female and marginalized genders.

Carr admits she knew next to nothing about the gaming industry, so she was delighted when she found an organization willing to pay developers to make games. “I thought developers would only get income when the game is released.” Carl received enough funds from that organization to sustain his life for a year, and calmly quit his job at Level Ex.

“Woodland Landlord”: Stay away from the hustle and bustle of the city, return to the tranquility of the countryside, and feel the kindness of strangers

Still, it took her a while to get used to the feeling of developing a game single-handedly. “You have to keep pushing the project forward, and you can't rely on other people.” Karl enjoys writing code and creating art for “Brith”, but as a solo developer, she must do everything by herself, including things she doesn't like. marketing. Karl added that music is her weakest link. The musical material of “Birth” comes from classical songs in the public domain. She hopes to have the opportunity to collaborate with composers in the future.

Coincidentally, Carl could not completely shake off his fear. “The initial sales of Birth were disappointing. For the first two months after release, I often thought I would have to find a new job within a month. That was until a few TikTok users made a few videos about Birth. Things just started to look up, and now the game is selling beyond my expectations.”

Carr also pointed out that the barriers to success for individual developers are much lower than for larger companies or teams. “I feel less scared now, probably because I've accepted the fact that if I do need to find a job again, it's not that scary. I also know that I can make games while working a full-time job. Of course, I may be less stressed because I don’t have children yet and my life is very casual.”

The pressure to “provide for the family”

The situation is different for Joe Richardson, who has two children to support.

Richardson is the developer of The Procession To Calvary, but he's been making games since he was about 25, while still in art school.

During college, he worked part-time at a screen printing studio, but his main job was not printing, but cleaning equipment. From college to after graduation, he spent several years working part-time while completing the development of “The Preposterous Awesomeness Of Everything” – “I lived as frugally as possible in London, relying on student loans. “Make some money and survive.” Richardson envisioned that if Ridiculously Charmed became a hit, he could continue to develop the game. “If the sales weren't good, you'd have to get a 'real' job. But in reality, it was abysmal and only sold 15 copies on the first day.”

“The Four Ends of Ten Thousand Peoples” has a ridiculous sense of humor, which reveals the author's ridicule, sadness and disdain for the real world.

Interestingly, Richardson is confident about the game's prospects because it attracted the attention of YouTube star PewDiePie. “I knew nothing about the game industry, and my thought was, I've made it. I put PewDiePie and Kickstarter backers' portraits into the game, assuming that once the game was released, he would tweet about it and I would be famous. After all, he had posted several tweets about the game before that… I was prepared for the game to become popular overnight, but he was silent, and the whole world was silent.”

According to the agreement between Richardson and his girlfriend, as long as “Absurd Charm” failed, he had to find a job. So, he submitted his resume to several small studios, but he was not willing to accept it. “Secretly, I just wanted to make another game.” Then he spent a year making the point-and-click adventure puzzle game “Four Last Things”. Looking back now, it's hard for Richardson to believe that he was able to complete the development of a game in such a short period of time. For comparison, the development cycle of the new game “Death Of The Reprobate” has exceeded 3 and a half years, and it is still not completed.

In the last few months of making “The End of Ten Thousand People”, he had to ask his girlfriend to help pay the rent because funds were so tight. But he has always been reluctant to find a “real job” because of his tendency to be embarrassed and anxious in social situations. “Of course, this is also because I feel that I should fully realize my personal value and do something that belongs to me, rather than working for other people.” Like Sarah, Richardson likes to do what he wants to do: “I have to do it I want to do something because I have the ability to create great work. In my opinion, a large part of what makes artists become artists is that they all have this pride.”

However, when it comes to talking about his own work, Richardson is particularly low-key. “I don’t think I’m creating great art, but I believe I have the ability. My expectations of my own abilities are ridiculously high, so I feel that other people’s work and my own work are substandard, or even trash. ”

“The Passion of the Cross”: a black humorous work made of oil painting art collage

Although The End of Ten Thousand People did not become a blockbuster, the revenue it brought in was enough for Richardson to continue working on independent developments. Today, he still works shifts at the screen printing studio and occasionally stops working. “One day I realized I hadn't been working for six months straight, and I was like, oh wait, I'm a full-time game developer now,” said Richardson, the creator of “The End of the World” Sales have been stable. “I think the long tail is really important for adventure games.”

Richardson's other game, The Passion of the Cross, achieved greater commercial success than The End of the World. “Two years after The Passion was released, I became rich,” he said. “That’s a joke, if that was my salary, it wasn’t that small, but it was two full years of income. If you think about the past 10 years and the future, the situation is not very optimistic.”

“It's hard to tell whether my next game will be a success or a flop.” As a father of two, Richardson realized he needed a safety net, a sense of stability. Richardson might have been able to earn a more stable income if he signed with a publisher, but that would have meant giving up control of the game. So, at least for now, he just wants to keep doing what he does best. “Make a game and sell it, that's my plan.”

This article is compiled from: four-solodevs-weigh-up-the-risks-and-rewards-of-creating-games-as-a-team-of-one/

Original title: “Four solodevs weigh up the risks and rewards of creating games as a team of one”

Original author: Lewis Packwood