So, you want to become an indie game developer?


You’ve heard the stories. Some guy, sitting alone in his darkened room, spends a month or so putting together a game. He polishes it up, decides it should involve a bird or candy of some sort, nixes the idea for the candy, and then launches his game on the App Store.

And then it happens. People start to buy it. And buy it some more. Or better yet, they don’t have to buy anything, because maybe it is free. Suddenly, this guy’s bird is on iPhones and iPads and iPods everywhere. And this guy? Well, he has more money than he knows what to do with. All because of his little bird.

I am not that guy. But, like you if you are reading this, I would very much like to be that guy. It is a goal of mine.

Now, the sad news. It doesn’t just happen like that. That’s the dirty little secret of this whole app marketplace. Maybe for one or two people, very early on, before everybody and their little sister were making games. But not anymore.

Now, if you’ve read that paragraph and are thinking, “You are an idiot, Alan Thomas! I can and will be that guy!” then good for you, kid. You got gumption. I like that. You’re going to need it.

This is the first in a series of articles about the trials and tribulations of being an indie game developer. Some of it may come across as pessimistic at times, but I assure you that that is not the case. If you read something and I say, “That is not likely to happen,” that is just a tiny dash of realism. I encourage you, wholeheartedly, to defy the odds.

I want you to be that little bird guy as much as I want to be him.

I plan to cover a lot of material on this very broad topic, from programming environments (like Stencyl and Corona SDK) to design in Photoshop to marketing.

The first piece of advice that I am going to offer here is to get yourself a new hatrack – you are going to be doing a lot a different jobs (and wearing a lot of different hats, so to speak, hence the hatrack).

A Good Idea

This is the first thing you’ll need.  It’s pretty much safe to say that you probably already have a dream game in mind that you want to make.  And that is awesome.

Now, come up with something else.  Something simple to start.  I don’t even care if your first effort is to try to do something that is already done with your own twist.  But, keep it as simple as you can for your first endeavor.  Remember!  You are going to have to build this thing!

As a rule of thumb, try to describe your game in one sentence.  It can be a long sentence, but only one.  Think of your favorite games.  I promise you that the best of them can adhere to this rule.  Write that sentence down.  Does it still sound like something you would want to play?  Awesome.

“Drive, walk, run and otherwise explore a fictionalized Los Angeles as one of three characters completing missions, earning money, and causing mayhem.”  Sound familiar?  I love that game.

“Match three pieces of candy to clear score big, earn power-ups, beat your friends and explore further.”  Yep.  I was on that candy crack for a while.

Odds are that you’re obviously not going to take on Grand Theft Auto or Candy Crush as your first project.  My point is that as intricate as these games are, you really can sum them up in one sentence.  If you can’t sum up your idea like that and have it sound enticing, I have bad news for you – it’s probably not a good idea.

There is plenty of inspiration to be found for your first project on the App Store.  Remember that game “Flappy Bird”?  You should.  I don’t know the exact statistics, but I think that something like 97% of the games on the App Store are Flappy Bird clones (but don’t quote me on that).  There is a reason for that.  The game is simple beyond belief.  So simple that just about anyone with the tiniest bit of programming skill can clone it.  And they have.

While I am not one of those people, there is something to be said from what can be learned from sitting down and trying to remake that game from scratch.  You’ll pick up on things like getting graphics on screen, learning how to implement touch controls, scoring mechanisms and putting a menu structure in place and finally getting it on to the App Store.  Yes, it will be yet another Flappy Bird, but think of everything that you learn in the process.

Now, remember that idea I told you not to make in the beginning?  Look at it after you’ve made your first game and decide if you are ready to tackle it.  Think about spending months not being able to make that game, and then think of spending that time making a bunch of smaller games and learning everything that you need for the dream project.  You will feel a much greater sense of accomplishment having a few small projects under your belt.  Even more importantly, you’ll get some mistakes out of the way.

Yes.  You will make mistakes.  And that is a good thing.  Hopefully you’ll only make them once.

So, think of that game.  Write it down and keep it someplace safe.  I promise that you can make it when the time is right.

Next time, I’m going to talk about two of the development packages that are out there and the pros and cons of both.  Hopefully that can help you decide the best way to dig your heels in and get on the road to becoming that little bird guy.

And, as always, if you have any questions or comments, fire away!