More than two years ago, we decided to take a video game jam project and turn it into a commercial game. It’s something that will not come as a surprise to you: it has happened a lot lately, with varying degrees of success.
It was around the end of 2015. We were between 19 and 23 years old and studying at the time. First thing we did was setting a goal: the game development would last less than six months. We had a plan. It seemed fine. Reasonable. Next thing we know, in the year 2018 and countless refurbished plans later, is that we’re starting to see the light. And it’s the fourth or fifth time that we are convinced to be seeing it. It looked so real before, too.
The good part is that we have now over two years of experience in indie game development. The bad part is that we have now zero games on the market. But what we do have is four small personal learning outcomes (we’ll dub them Four Little Noble Truths for marketing purposes) that we’ve put at the end of each part so you don’t say that we’re not doing anything for you. Yay, gamification.
They may not be new. They may even look cheap to you. But they are sincere.
To end with the foreword: this is not a story about success, failure or anything in between. For that, you have cool stories from people much better than us. This is some people (six, at the moment, but we’ve been more and less) reflecting on trying to make and sell a game. Call it a premortem if you like. Think of it as a B-series, premature Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Because it’s not triumphant (yet), nor done. It’s a honest answer to the question “Hey, how’s it going” if we were ever honest when someone asks us “Hey, how’s it going.”
Enough talk. we’re seeing the light, we think about it, we tell it in a way that will look familiar to you. It’s nice to meet you, by the way. We are Little Miracles Games. We’re about to release a one-button 2D platformer called Rest in Jelly.
Little noble truth 1: Time and experience make you wise. Failure makes you wiser.
If this journey is being anything for us, it is educating. Don’t squander the opportunity to fail if you can afford it. You’ll earn your right to grow a majestic white beard.
Our main character, Jack, knows a little something about trying hard and failing.
Excuses and Impressions
“How did you end up here, now?” was the question. Here are the excuses.
We are inexperienced. Like, four years ago half of us had just a vague idea of what a game engine was. Flash-forward to when we started Rest in Jelly (or Jelly is Life, as it was back then) and we at least know a thing or two. We have created a couple non-commercial games and prototypes, but that doesn’t quite save us from still being at the start of our careers.
So we start so serious, with production schedules and agile methodologies and nice plans. Soon, it all explodes because we just don’t think that much of all the things needed to create a decent video game. We decide we need good music. Spend time to find an amazing composer. We start with bad pixel art, then switch to acceptable pixel art, then to good pixel art, then to illustration. Find amazingartists. That’s time. We scale from 20 to 200 levels in the game. That’s time. We go from 1 to 5 then to 4 different game modes. That’s… you know. And thank sweet Teapot our multiplayer is local and we’re just releasing on PC first.
We can also talk about needing good programming so the game won’t break when we implement any change, working on animation, on promotion, on needing to coordinate working remotely, needing other jobs to earn money, etc. All combined make the production plan explode. And the plan collapsing means not reaching milestones, so maybe the producer, if he knows anything besides giving orders, will be more inclined to create than to manage and delegate. And this, our beloved friends, is chaos.
It’s worth noting at this point that we did have a publisher for some time. It was their idea to change the art for something better, because we really didn’t know how bad it was. They told us that our game looked like crap, and crap doesn’t sell (usually). Hadn’t been for them, we would probably have a commercial game on the street. A hideous piece of rubbish, though. So, in the two following years, we promised them four (at the very least) different expected release dates. We missed all of them, and we felt bad each and every time. Not achieving something doesn’t mean not being responsible. We parted ways in the end, but we’re grateful for all they’ve done.
A word on crunch. We’ve had some stressful and crunchy moments but we try to learn from them. We believe, based on our short experience and countless evidence (find good examples in this recent article) that crunch is wrong. We praise hard work, but we won’t enslave ourselves if we can help it. Watching any of those grand-scheme-of-things videos helps to regain some perspective.
Little noble truth 2: Behave like an adult, especially when facing a challenge.
Being indie means being human. What you do is what your company does. Bad things will happen during a game project. You’ll make mistakes and collide with ideas, things, people. Act right when it happens. Here are some principles. As Groucho Marx said, if you don’t like them, there are others just as valid. Just be responsible. But don’t crunch.
A lightning bomb is about to explode over Jack. Since he can’t do anything about it, he ducks and hopes for the best. Jack is an adult.
Perfectionism, Context and Knowing Better
We know games must catch the public’s eyes, as our former publisher said. But it won’t surprise anyone here that, beyond that, one can be too perfectionist for one’s own good. It can happen in art, it programming, in design… And it can happen in everything at once. Here’s an interesting ongoing story from someone we’ve been following lately who talks a lot about it.
We’re still convinced that a good piece of work implies a certain degree of perfectionism. But, at the moment and in the future, we are much more wary of it. When reading and listening to others, we’ve interiorized concepts like fail faster, that we don’t stand a chance and that we’re spendingtoo long making our game—unless we had The Next Stardew Valley TM in our hands.
We still know nothing, but we know a bit less nothing. We have folders full with business articles and fancy graphics, and we try to learn something out of them. We know Galyonkin, Vogelet al. We understand a bit better the notion of hook and the things that motivate players. We have learned that there’s much to explore beyond the western world. You get the idea. Pre-production is a sacred word for us now.
To sum up, we would do things differently because the market has changed. We started in 2015. It’s 2018 now. The situation was challenging back then for a product like ours, now it’s even more. Indiepocalypse? Saturated markets? Discoverability problems in a wild Attention Economy? We’d approach these problems in a different way today.
We would because time passes for us, too: we have more obligations in real life now, so optimizing our time has been a must for a while. Instead of devoting effort to tasks we’re not experts in, or spend time reinventing the wheel instead of letting go of a few euros, we just bring people in the team or buy from the Unity Asset Store. This looked like a sacrilege not so long ago.
Little noble truth 3: Read and move.
A lot. Now. It’s not just for business. In fact, screw business. Just try to understand the context, the world. Be curious, think critically, overcome biases, enrich your worldview. Learn from others. Play, love, whatever. You’ll do that by reading and moving. Yeah, it looks almost like something that Will Smith would say.
Jack can’t move. Don’t be like Jack.
Closing With Us
It is good advice that the most intelligent career option today may be not developing an indie video game at all. Given that, you may think that us persevering in finishing our game can be a product of…
Sunk cost fallacy. We’ve invested too much in this, therefore we’ll keep going on.
Worse, self-delusion. We think we’ll rack everything we’ve spent so far.
Even worse, we still know nothing at all. Despite talking about it here we’re still over-perfectionists and such.
We like to think it’s none of those three. We’re still working hard to bring our game to as many people as possible. We recognize the vital value of going through the complete process of conceptualizing, developing and releasing a game. The inner hunger of finishing a game. We could even talk about the non-economic values behind doing and sharing art. We can afford it, or we have been able to up until now, so let’s rock. We’re lucky nobody remortgaged their home—we probably don’t have The Next Cuphead TM in our hands either.
So what’s our expectation with Rest in Jelly, you may think if you’ve made it to here. Having gone through all of the above, our expectation is to release it. We want to entertain many different people with it, so we intend to bring it to as many platforms as possible after the PC release. We also want it to keep teaching us until the end: that’s our ambition. Oh, and earning the money to buy a yacht or two.
Meditate, examine your thoughts, think about your purpose. If quitting is aligned with your purpose, do so. If fighting is, endure. Ask yourself a simple question, always: “Why am I doing this?” Go download this free app and look at the last card. It’s no coincidence.
Jack knows he can’t swim, but he likes to play with the water nonetheless.
We hope our four more-or-less arbitrary little noble truths, learned through this journey, will resonate with you through yours: