Hello Indie Game world!
I’m Max from Lappi Soft, a one-man (and a dog?) indie game studio located in the French Alps. With the release of my first title Breaking Lockdown, I decided make a lessons learned article on this short but intense experience.
Disclaimer: this is not a post-mortem. The game has only been released a few days ago and the post-release period will probably teach me a lot of things.
But before this, let’s talk a bit about the game.
Breaking Lockdown is described as a short, first-person, survival game. Basically, it’s a dye/retry walking-simulator where you have to run!
After receiving a desperate phone call from one of their friends, players have no choice but to break the lockdown instructions. They will have to find their way through a hostile urban environment, avoid getting killed by authorities and get prepared for anything, even corpses coming back to life!
The game idea emerged in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, while starting the Game Dev Unlocked course from David Wehle, creator of The First Tree. What was supposed to be a “game-in-a-week challenge” finally became a real title.
But let’s go back to our topic and see what I’ve learnt!
1. Focus on delivery
It may be due to my past experiences as C# Developer, Release & Environment Manager or Integration Specialist but this is clearly the most important point. There are so many people who don’t know how to deliver, who waste a huge amount of time on projects that will never be released.
Since end of 2019, I was working part-time (around 50-60% of my time) as an indie game dev. I wanted to ship Rage of the Sleeper, my first project, after 6 months. When COVID-19 lockdown started in France, I used this opportunity to work full-time on it. But I was starting to have issue maintaining Rage codebase. Maybe was it too big for a first project?
On 7th April, I got this mail saying Game Dev Unlocked seats were open. I started the course right away. I played Home is where one starts and realized what should have been my first-game. When you don’t know how long finishing a project will take, it’s sometimes better to start a smaller one you’ll be able to deliver faster.
On 11th April, I announced in the GDU Discord server I would try to make a game in a week. After a few days, thanks to David and GDU students’ feedback, I decided to turn this into a real (and published game). The course was called “Start, Finish and Market your Indie Game”, so I had to do it from start to finish.
Shelving Rage was not a failure. It was the fastest way to deliver something!
2. Do not work for free
People implicitly think artists should work for (almost) free. I know quite a few published authors and for the “lucky” ones who earn a living from their pen, life is hard. When your job is considered as a passion by other people, your work is always too costly!
If I’m working on a 30 minutes first-person game, I cannot sell it more than $2.99. I have a mortgage and I am the only one who brings money in the household. Based on a low average sales estimates, I knew I couldn’t spend more than 3 months on it.
Longer than this, I was wasting money!
But that was a good motivation for keeping the deadline. And when your deadline is short, you have to keep it small. Below are a few features I did not implemented:
- Azerty layout
- Audio mixer
- Save variables across scenes (to add conditions to the endings)
- Save progression
- End credits where you play a zombie in the streets
And, as the release manager who had to endure (and support) plenty of crappy releases, here are some defects I categorized as “not blocking”:
- Pointer stuck when entering pause menu for the first time
- A missile that sometimes passes through walls
- Unable to change language in main menu when back on it after playing
Breaking Lockdown would not have been a better game with these points fixed and I really wanted Simplified Chinese localization, that I delivered one prior to release date. To keep a deadline, you have to make choices. And if you release with no issues, it just means you released too late!
3. Be ambitious
Ok, there are too many new indie game dev that want to make the next Skyrim so this advice may be misinterpreted. I think the problem with Rage is that it was not “shiny” enough. As it was my first project, I unconsciously refrained myself.
I realized this when I worked on the teaser. Each month I was publishing a small checkpoint video on my Facebook page, and honestly, it wasn’t enticing. The visual style is quite important for indie game and I have no idea why I decided to ignore this, while that’s not the worst part of our job.
Which lead us to the next point…
4. Don’t think like a developer!
For Rage, I wanted to be able to switch from orthographic view to first-person view, using the same controller. So, I coded my own first-person controller (thanks to a great Udemy course by Fahir, from Awesome Tuts) that I mixed with the top-down controller from the survival-shooter Unity project.
There was not a week where I was not coming back to this part of the code. I was never satisfied with it. To compensate this “time lost”, I was descoping a lot of features, which would not have been a bad thing if I had focused on the visual style first.
Coding my own controller was a game designer mistake. With GDU, David made me realize I have to stop thinking like a coder. Coders make greats programs; they don’t make great games.
5. Avoid creating your company during lockdown
I had not created my company yet. I made sure it would be registered on 1st May but for the Steam Onboarding process I needed a Tax Identification Number, which was not automatically provided for this company form.
I received it on 15th May but the Onboarding form was not accepting it. It was clearly not the best period for admin stuff, but I had to chase French Tax Services to be able to fill this IRS form.
I used this latency to polish my games. My store page became public on 2nd June, which meant I could release on 17th June. It was giving me a week of exposure before Steam Sales starts.
Just in time!
6. Menu and localization first
If you know you will need a real menu and you’re planning localization, do it at the beginning. First, once completed you will only have to do the fun part. And second, believe me, if Breaking Lockdown was just a slightly bigger project, localization would have killed me.
Released June 17th, 2020
20-30 minutes play time (around 1 hour for completionists)
$2.99 list price
1 developer full-time
12 weeks of development at launch day (more languages may be added)
Game engine: Unity
Thanks for reading!