Top 9 tips for indie game developers

Two years ago I started prototyping a html5 game as a side-project while I was in between jobs. Today that project has evolved into a complete game and now it’s roughly […hopefully] about a month away from app store submission. Over that time I’ve come up with a lot of advice that I wish my past self knew when I started and I want to share that information with new and experienced indie developers alike.

1. Don’t design everything at once, play-test early and often

This is really something that tripped me up. This may have not happened to everyone, but I’m sure others have encountered it too. I spent a long time designing my levels up front without properly play-testing them one-by-one first. I found that once I had become familiar with the game mechanic and difficulty of one level, the other levels were a little tedious and I had to design all of the levels again, causing a lot of wasted time and effort. Play-test your level the minute you’ve finished designing it, it may influence how the rest of the game evolves.

2. Ask for feedback

I’ve seen some great games that have been shared on Reddit and IndieDB (I mean, what the hell is this?). Some of which started as a rough concept and then evolved into a great idea by user suggestions. We’re not all product managers or professional game designers - ask the public what they want, don’t tell them what they want.

3. Be humble

This is a follow up on the previous point. I posted a few images of my game on Imgur and Reddit a while back to get some public response. Some people criticised a few of the backgrounds saying that they were too simple or boring. Initially I was a bit annoyed because I’m not a sprite artist and it was the best I could do, but I had to really take a step back and put myself in the mind of the consumer. Are people really going to pay money for a game that is sub-standard given everything else on the market right now? Get feedback, but try not to rubbish people’s opinions simply because they’re negative or not constructive. Try to take something out of it and don’t take it too personally.

4. Decrease your scope

It’s great to have so many ideas that you want to implement but that doesn’t really matter if you have nothing on any app store to show for it. Start with a minimum viable product and iterate on new ideas later. Chances are that someone playing your game might even suggest a better improvement than your original ideas.

5. Give yourself some time off

I’m just going to go ahead and make the assumption that the majority of people reading this will be indie developers working on a personal project outside of their daytime job. Setting goals and deadlines for your game is important, but so is the need to re-energise. I’ve rage quit a couple of times and then ditched my game development from a period of weeks to months, simply because I never took a break. Chances are that extra two hours you spent awake last night didn’t take much of a chunk off your work. You probably even may have introduced bugs because you were burt out. Watch TV, take your dog for a walk, or just go to the pub for a pint. The work will still be there tomorrow.

6. Ask for help

When I started working on my game I had an stubborn sense of pride regarding doing absolutely everything and being able to claim the credit for it, but we can’t be good at everything. If you know a someone that’s good at making sprites then ask them if they can help improve on what you have, ask someone to make music for your game or make a trailer for your app store.

7. Estimate work for each task and then multiply it by five

This isn’t really an indie dev problem but a software dev problem. Have you ever said that some new feature was easy to implement and would only take a few hours only to still be swearing at it a week later? I remember telling my work colleagues last September that there were roughly three weeks before I was ready for release. It’s now February and I still have bugs to fix and marketing to do before submitting to the app store. Moral of the story, be realistic with effort involved and how much free time you’ll actually have on weekends/evenings.

8. Give feedback and engage with the community

Some people might feel like they’re fighting an up-hill battle with so much competition out there, but the way I see it is that there’s AAA game studios and then there’s us. We’re not really in competition with each other and there’s so many awesome ideas out there that just need a little re-enforcement. Engage with other indie devs on Reddit or any other forums. Tell them how they can improve their idea/gameplay/trailer/marketing, or just tell them that you like what they’re doing and to stick with it. You’d be surprised how far it goes, it may even give someone the motivation to keep going when they’re doubting their own work.

9. Know when to call it a day

I think that most developers can relate to the fact that there’s always something that still needs to go into their game, but if it’s playable now and it’s actually a game now then why not just release it and push the update later? Great things happen in the arena, not when you’re in the stands.

That’s just a few things that resonated the most for me. Can you relate to any of them? What advice can you give from your own experiences?