A small developer shares what making Indie games can be like
Quite the Journey
With the number of Indie Games available for the last 6+ years, the average player might think making a game is easy. You just come up with an idea and make it, just like that! What they don’t understand is that making a game can be hard. Not just hard, but really hard. And that is regardless of your experience level. You have a vision in your head of what the end product will be, but getting there can be quite the journey.
Unfortunately, there can be an infinite number of obstacles one may experience. It may even seem like there is a conspiracy out there to keep you from completing your game. You may see no reason to continue and just want to put your head down and limp away in defeat.
For me, making a game seemed like a brilliant idea! I’ve wanted to make one as far back as when the Atari 2600 was considered the most powerful console. So why not give it a try? It would be a good life experience and I also would be doing something I enjoy. What could possibly go wrong?
Indeed I discovered the answer to that question. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. My name is Tom Orden, and this is my story.
It all started back in February 2014. I had a dream that was so strange that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even days later. I kept imaging how it would make a cool video game story. So after a few more days, I decided to give it a try.
I spent the next few months working on the story. I wrote down pages of story notes trying to make a game out of my dream. I researched how I wanted the game art to look. I admired the artistic style of artists such as Zdzislaw Beksinski, Dariusz Zawadzki, and Matsui Fuyuko. Once I nailed the look and the story, I needed to figure out the technical side of things.
For the technical side, I had a lot to figure out. For starters, I needed to decide what game engine to use and who would program the game. As luck would have it, I have a friend that was working on his own game using GameMaker Studio. After we discussed my game idea, we decided to partner up. Since we were friends, he also wasn’t going to charge too much.
The next thing I needed to figure out was how things would be animated. During my research on game engines, I had come across the animation program Spine 2D. I loved what it could do, and I was very impressed with it. So I purchased Spine and decided that I would be the animator for the game.
For the games art, luckily I already knew an artist whose style was exactly like the vision I had for the game. He lives in Greece, and I had been an admirer of his art for quite a while. Needless to say, I was excited at the potential of him becoming my artist! So I shared my game idea with him and he officially became my artist. We then agreed on his pay to create all the game art. We also decided that I needed to purchase Photoshop and Illustrator. I would create concepts for him to reference. Then he would recreate them for the game using his perfect style.
For the games music and sound effects, my brother has been doing music for over 20 years. So when I asked him, he was more than happy to help out. He also offered to do the audio work for free, but I couldn’t do that. He has like 100 kids, so I had to be a good Uncle! So I offered him an amount and all was good.
We decided we would launch a Kickstarter Campaign to raise money for the game. To keep the amount needed low, I would cover some expenses out of my pocket like the art and audio. That would only leave the funds for programming to be raised from the campaign. The date I decided on to launch our campaign was October 2014. That gave us plenty of time and appeared to be a realistic goal for us to achieve.
Up to that point, things looked good. I had a solid team and we were off to a good start. I was so full of passion and totally enjoyed what I was doing. I wasn’t doing it because I thought I would sell thousands of copies and get rich. I was doing it for the ability to say “I made a game”. Things were perfect and I was happy. Little did I know that things would begin to gradually fall apart.
August 2014 came by fast. Like most programmers, mine was pretty broke. He eventually took on a second job and as you would expect, it gradually took more and more of his time away from the project. Eventually, it took all of his time. When it was apparent we would not be ready for our Kickstarter launch, we had a good talk. He admitted he just didn’t have the time, and we parted ways with no hard feelings. While I realized it was the right decision, I was still a little bummed. So to cheer myself up, I treated myself to a new $2700 computer. My old computer wasn’t cutting it, so it was time to upgrade.
Even though I had no programmer, my artist and I still cranked away on art. We had plenty to work on so we kept moving forward and stayed focused. Things kept moving along like that until “it” happened.
When October 2014 came, my new computer started leaking from a crack in the water reservoir. Not my Precious! So off it went for warranty repair and I was without it for a month. Luckily, I had completed more than enough concept art to keep my artist busy for a few months. So we still moved forward.
In November 2014 I came across a GameMaker programmer through a mutual friend. We met for dinner and discussed my game idea. He liked what I had in mind and he loved the artist I had on the team. So he agreed to join us and I had a programmer again! So we were back in business, and I decided that our Kickstarter would be in March 2015. As for his payment, he only wanted to be paid a % from the game’s sales to keep the amount needed for Kickstarter low. That meant I needed to raise less money which improved our chances of success. All was good. I just needed my computer back.
December 2014 was a slow month. My artist got married, so I gave him a month off to enjoy his Wedding and Honeymoon. My programmer had issues with GameMaker and Spine compatibility. We were trying to problem solve it but had little luck. I did get my computer back, but the joy was short-lived. After 2 weeks it started to leak from a different crack from the water reservoir. So off it went again for warranty repair.
Then along came January 2015. New Year, a new beginning, positive vibes! To begin that year with a bang, my artist’s wife asked for a divorce while they were on their Honeymoon. Yes. That happened. Ouch! Needless to say, he had a hard time ahead of him. So I gave him the month off.
On the programming side, we still couldn’t get GameMaker and Spine to play nicely. We briefly discussed switching to Unity 3D, but my programmer wasn’t ready to quit just yet. On a positive note, I did get my computer back in the middle of all that. However, it was apparent we wouldn’t make our Kickstarter goal in March. I decided to push it back a few months to May 2015.
In February 2015 my artist was back to work and highly motivated. He was in good spirits in spite of what he went through. While I was glad he was working, I was more concerned he was ok. As for our issues with GameMaker, it was apparent it was not the right engine for us. So after some more discussion, we abandoned GameMaker and welcomed Unity with arms wide open. To allow my programmer time to learn Unity, I decided to push our Kickstarter back to October 2015. That would be plenty of time and if I needed to re-evaluate that date later on, no big deal. That has been the norm.
Speaking of norms, my computer started to leak again from another crack. This time, the manufacturer refused to honor the warranty. They wouldn’t even respond to my emails, so I was on my own. It was obvious the part that kept cracking had a design flaw. I decided to buy a different part on my own and replace the entire water cooling system myself. I could’ve tried to go to court, but that would have cost money and time. I had wasted too much time on that issue. So it was well worth the money to be finally done with it.
The next couple of months were pretty quiet. My programmer was having fun taking Unity tutorials. My artist was like a factory conveyor belt, producing art with focus and purpose. Things were good. But all good things must come to an end.
I remember it well. It was a lovely June 2015. The weather was nice, birds were chirping, and my computer only displayed a black screen. Seriously. At least it wasn’t leaking, right? Since the manufacturer wouldn’t honor the warranty, I had to resolve it myself. So I tried to research that issue on my phone with some leads. I didn’t have time to mess with those various leads on the issue, so I took it to a local repair place. Luckily it was something simple not found online and it was taken care of in just a few days for just a $40 diagnostic fee. Things were back on track.
Then July 2015 made an appearance. People in the US were preparing for 4th of July celebrations, while those from Greece were preparing for the beginning of a rough year. As you know, my artist lives in Greece. He has a disability, so he is limited to what he can do for work. While I was paying him, he mostly relies on his disability from the government as income. So when the economy started to get bad, he had no idea what would happen. He said there were riots and protests against the government. He wasn’t sure if he had to flee the country. So he took the month off to see what was going to happen.
Now as for programming, he was still having fun learning Unity. He was experimenting with it and seeing what all he could do, but hadn’t actually started to build the game yet.
And of course, my computer black screened again. I took it back to the same place. They determined there were two issues going on. First, the motherboard was having issues. It was still under warranty from the motherboard manufacturer, so they sent it off to get repaired. They also determined my graphic card was bad. It had corrosion from all the leaking and it was dead. So I decided to treat myself to a nice GTX 980ti. I also decided I needed a backup computer, so I purchased a laptop so I would no longer have any more down time.
I finally got my computer back in August 2015. Now I had two computers, no more down time! My artist was also back to work on things at that point. The month was looking good. Unfortunately, my programmer told me his job had been keeping him busy. He was not able to focus on the game as much as he had wanted to, but was still trying.
September 2015 came along rather quickly. My programmer told me that learning Unity was taking longer than he had expected. His job still took up a lot of his time. So I decided to delay our Kickstarter until May 2016. I also realized that same month there were two local Game Expos going on; iFest and P.O.P. That would allow us to promote the Kickstarter while showing the game off at those shows. Made sense. Genius!
When January 2016 came along, I still hadn’t seen anything playable yet. I talked to my programmer and he assured me he could get it done by iFest and P.O.P in May. I talked to him a second time to confirm before I spent money on the shows. Based on that assurance, I started preparing for them. I bought a nice retractable banner to be displayed at the booths. I also bought 300 buttons, 1000 business cards, and 500 postcards to hand out for free at the events. I also paid for registration at iFest. P.O.P. registration was not open yet, but I was ready for that, too. Then programming work picked up, so I wasn’t worried.
In March 2016, my programmer’s contract at his job was ending soon. So he focused more on finding a job and improving his portfolio. He worked on web coding and took some training in his field. I was concerned, but I also understood his situation. I did have something playable from him then, but as expected it was buggy and only about 25% of what was needed for the demo. I also realized my computer was still working! That had me scared. It had never gone that long without issues.
In April 2016, no more progress had been made on the demo. I had a talk with my programmer and I told him I don’t think the game would be ready in a month. So I pulled out of iFest, and I don’t register for P.O.P. There was still one more local show in August I decided we would shoot for. That was S.I.X. It was the largest of those three shows. That gave us a few more months to complete the demo which was needed. I also pushed our Kickstarter back to August as well. That way we could promote the Kickstarter while showing the game off.
As for my artist, things became a bit rough for him. His father passed away unexpectedly. I gave him the month off to deal with that and to help his mother out.
At that point, I started to realize that my relationship with my programmer wasn’t working. For the amount of time we had been working together, we should have had way more progress. So in May 2016, we talked and agreed he hadn’t been able to devote the time needed on the project. So we parted ways.
I then realized having an inexperienced programmer work for cheap may save money, but it isn’t always the best direction. I decided I needed to hire a professional programmer/small studio. I would have paid them out of pocket to make a demo so I had game-play footage for Kickstarter. However, doing that also meant I needed to raise a higher amount on Kickstarter. So I met with one and he gave me a cost estimate for the project.
During that meeting, he also gave me some good advice. He recommended that I don’t hire someone to make a demo for the Kickstarter. Instead, I should use Spine to simulate game-play. That would save me out of pocket expenses. I liked that idea, as I was broke. I had spent a lot on computer issues and I was still paying my artist. So that became my plan. While I wouldn’t have a game to demo at S.I.X., the Kickstarter was still on. So for the next few months, I worked on simulating game-play. I talked to people and shared footage for feedback. And then the beginning of the end began.
In July 2016 my artist’s life had fallen apart. His father’s passing had wreaked havoc on his mother’s life. His father was her only source of income, so financially and emotionally she had a rough time. Also at the same time, Greece finally collapsed. It was a mess. He hadn’t received his disability from the government for a while. He was broke and things were looking pretty bad. He had to do something and try to find a job. He told me he didn’t know when he could work again on the project. He took the month off and tried to survive. Also, I wondered why my computer hadn’t exploded yet. I was overdue. Like seriously.
In August 2016 my artist and I talked again. He still wasn’t sure what to do. He felt helpless. He hoped he could get back to work in September. At that point, I still tried to be positive. I debated on delaying my Kickstarter again. But that was all I had done those last 2 years. I had delayed it so many times that I was frustrated and felt helpless. I had no control and was sick to my stomach. But I had to keep going. And so I launched as planned.
I have backed over 300 games on Kickstarter over the years. One thing I learned was that it is 100% unpredictable. You could have amazing art, an awesome story, and a perfectly designed campaign and still struggle with only $50.00 raised. Then you can find another game with nowhere near the quality swimming in money. So when it was my turn, I had no idea what to expect.
With all the bad luck I experienced in the past I had no playable demo. I wasn’t thrilled I had to simulate game-play, but I was honest about it. And since I had a new higher goal, my gut feeling was I would not succeed. However, I was still positive and thought I would at least get to my original goal. While that would have still been a failure, I would have considered that a personal success. So in September 2016 when it failed badly, I just wasn’t prepared for that.
Right at the same time as the failure, my artist and I talked. Things were still a mess over there and he still was not sure when he could return to work. As bad as things were going for me, they were nothing compared to what he had been going through. So I told him I understood and after some deep thought, I let him go with no hard feelings.
Those past two years had been pretty chaotic. I worked 40 hours/week at my normal job and did 15-20 on top of that working on the game. During that period I hardly saw my family and there were no girlfriends. Not a single trace of a social life. Only energy drinks and French fries. I also paid zero attention to my health or state of mind which eventually caught up with me.
There was a darkness growing in me. I wasn’t aware of its existence, but at the same time, I somehow was. I didn’t have time to face it. I just kept working as it grew. And when the Kickstarter failed, all that was left was that darkness. It stared at me as if it knew me. I stared back as if it were a person I recognized but I wasn’t sure how I knew them. Familiar, yet unknown. And so there we were, alone in a locked room yet saying nothing. I was burned out and exhausted. I no longer enjoyed what I was doing and had lost my passion for it. I just didn’t have the energy to continue. I was lost. I had spent too much money just to quit, but I also had spent too much to continue. And so I sat with the darkness, not staring directly at it, but through it. And I did just that for the next 4 months.
In February 2017 I finally looked the darkness in the eye. I finally decided to deal with it. I was barely functional. I was tired of the depression. I was tired of feeling sorry for myself. I told myself I’m done with it. So I finally got up and staggered out of that room.
Since then I started working on a different unannounced game. It’s going to be short, maybe 20 minutes long. I’ll probably put it on Itch.io for free and eventually Android/iOS. I am doing all the art, animation, and audio myself. I’ll still need a programmer eventually, but I’ll worry about that later on. I could finish this in a few months if I hustled, but I just don’t care. I’m going to take my time. I’m in no rush. No deadlines, and no stress. This time I don’t want to get lost in that room. This time I don’t want to lose my passion on the journey.