Independent game developers are the lifeblood of the gaming industry, bringing innovation through new genres, new art styles, new ideas and even new marketing methods. While large game publishers seem to take similar approaches with each new game, the independent game scene led innovation across all levels: whether through new gameplay mechanics, partnering with YouTube channels for marketing, or by fundraising for games ahead of their release.
In this series of interviews, CONSULGAMER catches up with independent game developers with the passion and the creativity to succeed. Today’s interview with Joey Andrews, the sole developer at CrunchPickle Games, provides tips for how an indie game developer can focus on building their game, how to build a marketing platform for their title, and whether it’s worth building a game on your own.
Below, we capture the top game developer tips and insights from Andrews, recorded during an interview lead by CONSULGAMER Game Developer Liaison Seori Sachs.
It Starts With a B.LAST
Andrews dedicates 60 hours a week to developing B.LAST, a 2-D platformer that’s been called “Mega Man meets Legend of Zelda.” At times, players can roam around towns talking to NPCs and purchasing items, while at other times they can roam an open world similar to Metroid.
“When you get out into that environment, you’re running, you’re jumping, you’re flying, you’re shooting your guns just like Mega Man,” said Andrews
On his blog, Andrews notes, “I’m making this game to tell a story, to be fun and whimsical, to be detailed and artful, and most importantly, to be a massively fun game that lots of people get to enjoy.”
B.LAST will include both single-player and same-screen co-op play modes.
Local Independent Game Developer Communities
Andrews highly recommends taking part in local independent game developer communities. Andrews is a member of Game Dev Lou, and CONSULGAMER recommends developers search meetup and the IGDA for their own local organizations.
“They do nothing but sit and talk about game dev,” said Andrews. “It allows you to be around like-minded people. It allows you to see what kind of projects other people in the community are working on, what other game devs are doing.”
Surrounding yourself with developers can help keep fresh ideas available for your game.
“It just opens up the mind for ideas,” said Andrews. “It provides a bouncing board for your ideas and it’s also is an opportunity to find other people to work with on your projects.”
“My group’s called Game Dev Lou and they get together every two weeks and gather in the basement of this old building downtown,” said Andrew. “They do nothing but sit there and develop games and look at each other’s projects and critique and give pointers and it’s just an excellent experience.”
Why You Need Marketing
As a one-man team, Andrews initially found himself solely dedicated to developing his game, but later found that if he wants others to play it, he will need to also focus on marketing.
“At first I was extremely obsessed with working on my game to the point where I was pushing myself extremely hard and without doing any kind of media, without doing any kind of promotion,” said Andrews. “I could create the greatest game in the world and I’d tell people I’m perfectly happy to just do that, but obviously I’m going to want people to play it at some point.”
“The end result, the ultimate satisfaction, is seeing people that actually appreciate what you’ve created,” said Andrews. “You can create a great work of art, but ultimately the goal of creating that art is for the statement, for somebody to be able to see it, for somebody to be able to play it in this case.”
Planning time for marketing ahead of a game’s release is critical, said Andrews.
“I’m setting aside a chunk of that time to try to build an audience as I go. It doesn’t make sense to me at the very end of the process to say, ‘Hey, I just did this. Here it is. Everybody, go buy it. Everybody, play it, download it, whatever.’”
“I involve the audience in the process of me making the game, which I’ve done on Twitter a whole lot,” said Andrews. “I give them sneak peeks of what I’m working on. I keep them up to date: ‘This week I’m working on enemy AI. Next week I’m working on weapons or item power-ups.’”
“If I keep leaking that information out as I have it and I keep building that audience steadily as I go towards my end of development then by the time I go to release, the people that are invested in it will already be there,” said Andrews. “The people that care about this year-long journey that they just had with me, they’re going to be the people that support it at that point.”
Twitter is a great way to find an audience of interested gamers, and Andrews has succeeded by starting early and truly interacting with like-minded gamers.
“I’ve slowly and steadily built a core of about 2,000 Twitter followers so far, and that’s just based on me finding people that are interested in the type of game that I’m making — and then talking to them about the game that I am making,” said Andrews. “They’ll follow along because at least some of them are actually interested in the project that I’m doing. I’ve had a lot of great interactions with the community.”
However, developers must remember they still have to create a finished, high quality game.
“My whole philosophy is I’m not trying to dedicate all of my time to promoting,” said Andrews. “Honestly, I could put together better videos of what I’ve been doing. I could put together better media. I’m not about that though, I’m about making this game and telling them about it as I go. “
“And so, I’m seeing down the road a year, a year-and-a-half when I finish this game, if I’m at 2,000 Twitter followers now I’ll be at 10, 15, maybe 20,000 in a year, and at that point when the game is finished and everybody’s anticipated it and they’re looking forward to the release what promotion will I need to do at that point?,” asked Andrews. “Because all of these people who have followed me along the way are going to be ready to tell everyone about it.”
Getting Your Game Covered on YouTube
Game coverage on YouTube is increasingly becoming a prime discovery tool for independent video games.
“When I have a demo, or I’m closer to a finished release, I’m going to get in contact with YouTubers,” said Andrews.
“When I’m ready to actually put that in people’s hands, the people’s hands who I’m going to put it in first will be the ones that would be in the media, with strong YouTube followings, because that’s just a smart move,” said Andrews. Those are the people that have audiences. I’ll have my own audience, but it’s going to be limited at that point to whatever I can reach.”
“You want to reach out to people wherever they are,” said Andrews. “Twitter’s my main focus because I’m using that as sort of my dev log. I’m keeping people updated to what I’m doing there.”
Steam Greenlight, the community-approval platform where consumers can vote games onto Steam’s digital distribution platform, is a popular solution for game developers.
Not only does it provide the potential for future sales, it can also provide feedback for game developers as they work through their game.
“I was extremely curious about the process,” said Andrews of Greenlight. “I wanted to figure out exactly how much traffic it generates, what the vote requirements are to actually get greenlit, and the overall process,”
“Steam has 9 million active users. That’s a huge base of users and it’s also a huge social platform, so it’s a good place to be when you want to launch your game, but it’s not the only game in town,” said Andrews. “It’s not the be all and end all.”
“By creating my greenlight I wanted a home base to start generating the interest,” said Andrews. “I can generate Twitter followers all day long, but what do I do with them after that? I can only say so much in a Twitter post. I’ve got my website, I’ve got the Green Light page, I’ve got a couple of other things going just so people can be directed to other places for information on the game at this point. “
“One thing I’m getting that I really do appreciate is a lot of people are giving me feedback on the Steam forums on my page,” said Andrews. “They’re telling me what they like about the game or maybe critiquing what they don’t like so much about it and that kind of feedback is always valuable for helping me move forward. It’s really good to hear people say what they think of the game. So far it’s been great for feedback.”
Man Over Machine
Many independent game developers are opting to have their levels procedurally generated, by using scripts that assemble level components together into randomly generated, never-the-same levels. The randomness of each level can be a positive to some players, and it also decreases the work effort needed from small development studios to build out multiple large levels per game.
“I’m not going procedurally generated with this game,” said Andrews. “I love procedurally generated games. I love Starbound. I love Terraria. I don’t know if you’ve played Don’t Starve, but that game is amazing to me.”
“But the one key thing they lack in their level design is cleverness,” said Andrews. “The machine is not as clever as the man.”
“Think about Legend of Zelda — the way those puzzles click together, the way every little piece is designed so that it fits together like two hands holding each other, that’s what I want to accomplish with my level design.”
Going it Alone or Partnering
While Andrews is developing B.LAST on his own, he recommends partnering with others when additional team members can compliment each person’s weaknesses.
“If you don’t have the time and the capability to learn what you need to learn you’ve got to know your limitations and weaknesses,” said Andrews. “If you’re not an artist and you haven’t trained at that for years then it’s going to be just a really difficult road to hoe if you’re trying to create art assets, say, whether it be pixel art or background images.”
“I would recommend partnering,” said Andrews. “If you have the resources available to be able to collaborate with somebody that can complement your skills, say you’re strictly a programmer, or you’re strictly an artist if you can partner with somebody that can complement that then do so.”
Developing a game in solitude can take years of self-training, but sometimes a person’s career history can enable self-development.
“I don’t want to give contrary advice because I’m trying to do it all, but that’s because I come from a design background, I come from an artistry background but I also started out with programming with QBasic back in high school and I’ve done web development work, so I’ve kind of built up both tiers as I’ve gone,” said Andrews. “That took me a long time to get to where I was comfortable in both aspects to be able to put it all together myself. I’m 37-years-old now, perhaps you don’t have much time or you haven’t had that much experience then there’s no shame in partnering with somebody that complements what you can do.”
Controls Come First
“Every Super Mario Bros. game you’ve ever played has a core set of controls that feels the same every time,” said Andrews. “Mario jumps the same; he walks the same speed. All of the mechanics, the physics, are familiar and they’re comfortable. You could pick it up and play it, a two year-old could pick it up and play it, and that’s what I’ve been focusing on. “
“That’s hard to recreate,” said Andrews. “To generate a control set from scratch that’s at the same time familiar and a little bit unique and easy to pick up right away that is really hard to accomplish and that’s what I’ve been working on. “
“When people play test my game for the first time a light bulb goes off in their heads, it’s an ah-ha moment: ‘I already know how to play this. This is amazing.’”
“I spent a year working on that, fine-tuning it, getting it perfect. The next year or so is going to be me concentrating on the look and the design,” said Andrews. “Being a designer at heart — a sign artist, a logo creator, a designer by trade — it’s going to be like unleashing the beast from here on out.”
“What I’ve done so far is to put the pieces in place for what I want to do,” said Andrews. “From here on out now I’m going to really do what I want do which is design the game.”
Advice to Others
CONSULGAMER’s discussion with Andrews was insightful and honest. As our interview came to a close, he shared a message to start making games as soon as it’s feasible.
“I would’ve started this 10 years ago to be honest,” said Andrews. “When I was 17-years-old getting ready to graduate high school and applying for colleges, I applied to a school in Vancouver called DigiPen. It was the only video game design school that existed in 1995 and I got accepted and I couldn’t afford to go because here I am some boy from Kentucky who literally came from a place called Ball Hollow. I had no money. I grew up in a trailer my whole life and I just couldn’t afford to do it.”
“And so being that creative person, seeking that creative outlet I kind of set that love aside and I did the next best thing,” said Andrew. “I went to the nearest college that was within driving distance and I got an art degree and I became a graphic designer.”
“But all along, basically my entire life since I could hold a controller in my hand, I wanted to make games,” said Andrews. “I always let other things get in my way either self-doubt, my ideas aren’t good enough, my art is not good enough, or it’s too time consuming, or I’ve got to go to work and put in 60 hours doing this to make my living.”
“Finally I grew enough maturity to say I’m only going to live once and this has always been my dream there’s no excuse for not doing it,” said Andrews, finally an official game developer.
Learn more about B.LAST:
Read more about independent game developers, including tips on monetization, tools and platforms on CONSULGAMER’s Game Developer channel.
This interview was led by Seori Sachs and edited by Bryan Cashman.