Indie Developers: Pain and Satisfaction behind the art

Video games are not an easy thing to make and usually require large groups of people to produce one. So what about those who take on the task of doing it alone or with small groups?

Games on the cover (left to right): The Devil Haunts Me, Hollow Knight, Inscryption, Hades.

Versión en español: aquí.

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Rodrigo (Alekhold) and Liam (GamesByLUM) are two independent video game developers among hundreds of others who use their free time, invest a large part of their income and put their health at risk to produce and develop video games that depend not only on effort and passion, but also marketing, income, and sometimes sheer luck.


It is widely known in the video game community how difficult it is to develop a game on your own. A single person needs to know how to program, how to draw or make assets, know how to make music and sounds or where to get them, promote themselves, among others. While there are many independent games that are generally created in very short periods of time, there are several developers who feel an invisible pressure when they embark on this hard but rewarding journey.


No matter the length or complexity of a game, every developer deserves recognition for their originality, creativity, and effort. In this article, Rodrigo and Liam tell their stories about their journeys as they develop or have developed different games on their own, their inspirations, how they did it, the pros and cons, and many other topics.


PROLOGUE: HISTORY OF VIDEO GAMES


Video games have evolved a lot in their gameplay style and today there is a wide variety such as beat'em up, visual novels, platformers, first-person games, simulators, and so many others. Just like books and movies, video games also have a wide range of genres that players can choose from according to their style and preference.



Video games have had an extensive history over the years. Starting as very simple but entertaining games that focused more on demonstrating new mechanics and software capabilities, to the games we know today with hyper-realistic graphics, complex but surprising stories, and completely new experiences.


This evolution came about thanks to the various entertainment companies such as Nintendo and Sony Interactive Entertainment who spent several years developing different types of consoles and software. They paved the way for many independent developers, from facilitating game development to creating stories that inspired many of them. Below is a timeline showing several important events in the history of video games up to the year 2000.


ACT 1: THEIR STORIES


Here are the two sides of the coin of the independent videogame community. On one side is Rodrigo (Alekhold), a university student from Guatemala who is in the process of developing his first game.


"My goal with this game is to prove to myself and to be able to include it in my curriculum that I can develop a video game and show what the results of what I have worked on have been," Rodrigo mentions.

The project he is developing is a 2D game in which the player opens a restaurant where they sell a variety of products (teas, cakes, and other foods). To obtain materials, the player must also venture into the forest to collect ingredients and after returning from the adventure, cook a variety of dishes and sell them for money. The income the player earns is intended to be used to upgrade the restaurant and unlock new dishes.


On the other hand, there is Liam, who works under the pseudonym LUM (or Games By Lum) for the publication of his games. He has been freelancing for about 6 years and lives in Ontario, Canada.


“I primarily make horror games, as the horror genre has been a big inspiration for me. I’m most well known for making The Devil Haunts Me, and Search Party, which are both available for PC on Steam. I also do work for Puppet Combo, another fellow indie-developer. I did the console ports for his games Murder House, and Nun Massacre”, Liam explains.

He has developed several games, in total there are five available on his Itch.io, the most recent is called "Search Party" and, according to the description, it is "a survival horror game inspired by the cat and mouse gameplay of Clock Tower and the resource management of the classic Resident Evil".


These two developers share the same path and several qualities, both work independently to develop more games in the future or use their creations to learn new ways to produce video games and what aspects should be strengthened when undertaking another project. Another aspect they share is their love and inspiration from other video games.


Rodrigo was inspired by Kingdom: New Lands for its incredible art and mesmerizing backgrounds, various cooking games such as Good Pizza, Great Pizza, and A Tavern for Tea for their gameplay, art style, and the way the stories are told. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a big inspiration for Liam when he was around five or six years old, which fostered his love for creating video games.


But now, the bigger question has arisen, why is developing video games independently so difficult but at the same time so rewarding or exciting?


ACT 2: WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT?


There are many advantages and disadvantages to developing games independently. One of the biggest advantages of creating video games is being able to take creative freedom in the project. "I think it will be different for every independent developer, but for me, the biggest advantage is that I make the games I want to make. Every game feels like an honest expression of myself, whether I intend to or not," comments Liam.


Another advantage is that developers can involve other people in the project. Rodrigo started developing the game by himself, but as he progressed, he involved close friends and several university classmates who helped him create art and music, plus he is part of a community of Guatemalan independent developers known as "GameDevGT". Still, Rodrigo does most of the work himself and learns to use new tools to facilitate the process.


GameDev promoted several video games from Guatemala.


He stated that creating games is a good way for a developer to learn from their mistakes and strengthen their talents. "It motivates you to stick with the game and forces you to improve various skills that you didn't master at first," he mentions.


However, there are many disadvantages when it comes to self-development. Rodrigo comments that one of the disadvantages is that it is difficult for several developers to handle several things at the same time. This refers to the fact that independent developers need to know how to code, draw or create assets, make music and sounds, or get them, and many other things. And while many developers love being able to do all of these things, it can be overwhelming.


"I don't really have adequate funding, so all my development happens in my spare time! As a result, I feel my development process is quite slow," adds Liam.

There are many hurdles that independent developers have to go through in order to produce a video game. The following subheadings address various problems that these developers must face along their journey.


ACT 3: HEALTH PROBLEMS


Rodrigo and Liam face several situations that can put both their physical and mental health at risk. As mentioned above, Rodrigo is a university student, so working on a game while studying creates quite a heavy burden for him and can lead to high levels of stress and burnout.


"I usually work at my computer for many hours at a time and as a result, I've had some pretty bad back pain," Liam detailed, "I suppose another issue is having to deal with depression, which can happen when I get “hyped focused” on work and isolate myself from others. It’s an unhealthy habit about myself that I’m trying to improve, to varying degrees of success".

It is not uncommon for many freelance developers, especially those who spend most of the day in front of the computer, to experience various health problems. "Whether due to lack of movement or pressure from various situations, many people who now work from home or spend almost all day in front of the computer put their health at risk," said Dr. Hugo Balcárcel, who has been working in the medical field for more than 35 years.


There are a lot of aspects that can present a risk to the developer's health and depending on the severity of the danger, they can affect their daily life for a long time or for the rest of their life if the problem is not taken care of. Here are some health problems and their consequences.

Dr. Balcárcel has recommended some tips for developers to take care of their health during working hours in order to make their game development experience much safer and more rewarding.


Taking care of your physical health

Here are some tips that developers should follow to take care of their physical health.


Stretching and change of position


"No matter how important a job is, the person doing it needs to take a break. Especially if they are sitting," Dr. Balcárcel specified. "Sitting for long periods of time constantly causes bones to weaken or thin which can lead to diseases such as osteoporosis."


After some time of work has passed, they should stand up and do some stretching exercises. It is also recommended that when the person has time off they maintain an active exercise lifestyle so that bones and muscles do not weaken. Another recommendation is to invest in a standing desk, although for many it may be out of budget.


Image taken from: Fitbit

Set alarms for different activities.


For resting, stretching, showering, eating, and sleeping. It is important for the developer to maintain a healthy lifestyle and one way to do this is by setting a schedule or setting alarms, this helps make the development process much less dangerous. In addition, they should ensure that they get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep and that they maintain a healthy diet, avoiding eating junk foods and drinks.

"It can be a little tedious but after a while, the person gets used to it, however, that is better than skipping meals and sleeping which causes damage to the body and lower productivity levels," states Dr. Balcárcel.

Blue light filtering glasses and minimize the time in front of a monitor


There are several tactics to avoid eyestrain, the most common of which can be somewhat expensive is to invest in glasses that filter out blue light. If that is out of a person's budget, there are other solutions, such as turning on the blue light feature that many computers provide, or minimizing the amount of time spent in front of a monitor, which can be done by taking breaks, tracking screen time and so on.


Caring for mental health

Take This is a non-profit organization whose primary mission is to "decrease stigma and increase support for mental health in the gaming enthusiast community and within the industry itself," a major issue faced by many developers throughout their careers.


Their website has a large section of articles that talk about various issues that affect mental health, such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, and others. They also have a "self-care" section that details various tips that are geared toward helping you develop a more productive and healthy career. Here are several tips provided by the organization.


Mental Health Tracking


Sometimes people can feel overwhelmed, either by a difficult situation that has just occurred or by many emotions coming to the surface. This feeling of being overwhelmed can cause a person to forget to take care of themselves, such as forgetting to eat, clean up, or allowing themselves to take a short break.


Nissa Campbell, an author, editor, and game developer who writes for Take This, wrote an article in which she recommended Jace Harr, a freelance mental health writer, who created an interactive page for maintaining a basic self-care routine. The page asks the user a series of questions about their environment, how they are feeling right now, and various other activities they should be doing to take care of themselves. It is recommended that people take this series of questions every day to establish a routine.


Photo by Madison Inouye

Clean work environment


A cluttered desk or space can cause distractions and loss of concentration. A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine talks about how a cluttered space can make it difficult to allocate attention and complete set tasks efficiently. Clutter can also affect your own mental health. Catherine Roster published a study in which she found that clutter has a negative impact on well-being, feelings of safety, and self-assurance. So be sure to keep your desk clean and your environment tidy.


Taking breaks


Taking breaks allows the mind to relax and can increase productivity and energy. If the developer keeps working and pushing breaks more and more, they will most likely get frustrated with their work, do more damage to their mind and body or get worse results than before. You can do activities such as walking, showering, eating, napping, meditating, and many more. An important thing to keep in mind is that social networking does not count as a break, as it will most likely bring more negative emotions (see this study for more information).


ACT 4: COPYRIGHT


For many developers and content creators, this is a big part that many need to pay attention to. Words like copyright, public domain, fair use, and infringement may sound like complete gibberish, however, for those who are still learning or wish to use a different creative style, it is an important part to know how they work.


The U.S. Copyright Office defines it as: “a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression”.

Copyright protects a range of artistic works such as books, songs, recordings, drawings, maps, and, of course, video games. How authors can register for copyright writing will depend on the laws of the country, but it is generally recommended that authors who are working on original projects claim their copyright once the work is published. There are different reasons why copyright is so important, such as the author can protect their work, prohibits it from being plagiarized, among others.


For developers, there are several parts of a video game that can be copyrighted, among which are the assets (sounds, 3D models, artistic backgrounds, and others) and these have several rules on how they should be used.


In the case of many assets, developers can find websites that specialize in offering sounds, music, and videos that are free for commercial and non-commercial use, such as Pexels (for videos) and Pixabay (for music). Other sites such as Itch.io and Unity Asset Store will have 3D models that developers can use for free or for a fee. They usually have one condition, which is that proper credit is given, consisting of the name of the asset, the author and/or the website where it was downloaded and the link to access it.


An example of crediting in the game Chilla's Art called: "The Caregiver | 終焉介護".

For more information on this topic, see the GBGames article "What an indie should know about copyright".


ACT 5: PROMOTION


It's a tough business for many developers to make their games known to the public and other companies. For the vast majority, it can be another hard boss to beat and conquer, it requires a lot of patience, contacting several people, finding the right hashtags on social networks, and sometimes it depends on fate and luck, as cheesy as it may sound. This can be the downfall of many games, as no matter how much effort someone puts into the project, no one will buy or play it if no one knows of its existence.


"To be completely honest, I found that the best promotion I got for my games was pure luck; some big YouTubers played it on their channels without me even contacting them," says Liam.

So what are some ways indie developers can promote themselves? The first way to promote themselves is to have the game reviewed, channels like MikeB and Indie Games Searchlight specialize in reviewing indie games. Feedback from various users helps to improve the game, as well as point out various bugs that may be present. If you want to look for more reviewers, you can check out this list put together by PixelProspector of YouTubers who review indie games.


Expanding on this theme is recommended to contact YouTubers and streamers to play the game. There are several YouTubers who play and review a wide variety of indie games and have a large audience, such as ManlyBadassHero, who consistently uploads various indie and mainstream games.


People like Markiplier occasionally play various indie games and has a dedicated series called "3 Scary Games" where he plays mostly indie horror titles. Other YouTubers like CoryxKenshin and T9 play various horror games.


Photo by Alexander Kovalev

Another way to promote yourself is through social media. This is the easiest way, it doesn't require contacting people and many developers use their accounts to show their progress to users and engage them as they can provide criticism and advice. GetSocial in their post "The only guide you need for effective indie game marketing" put it best:


"You can start with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. For example, use Twitter for short news stories, Facebook for longer posts, and Instagram for concept art or screenshots".

Developers should not be afraid or ashamed to use hashtags and get involved in discussion forums. The success of their games depends not only on how much effort goes into them but also on how they get the word out.


ACT 6: ECONOMIC GAIN


You have to reap the rewards of what you produce. Earning money from games is an important part of an indie developer's job that will help keep him motivated to create other projects and, of course, as compensation for the amount of effort and hours invested in the product. Similar to promotion, there are many ways to earn money.


The first option is to put a price on the game. This is the easiest way to have a monetary reward. Developers must remember to read the policies and guidelines of the website where the game will be uploaded, as they keep a percentage of the profit. Also, an important thing to keep in mind is to place a reasonable price on the game.


The second option is to earn income by donation. It is more difficult to obtain rewards, as it will depend on whether the user wants to donate, how much they will donate, and how popular the game is. Sites like Itch.io allow users to donate a certain amount of money to the developer when they are about to download the game. This option requires a lot of patience from the developer's perspective, as many gamers don't have the financial options to be able to donate.


Liam also mentions another way to earn money is to belong to an independent game publisher. "One big thing that has been really helpful is partnering with Torture Star Video, which is an independent publishing house. My game 'Search Party' is part of a package with other (excellent) horror games (Horror of Salazar House, Bloodwash, Murder House), which is where most of my sales are generated from".


FINAL ACT: THE FAREWELL


All of the above may be a lot to take in. However, these are just a few of the problems that indie developers must go through on their journey to successfully publish a game. They are under constant work/study pressure, personal struggles, difficult situations, and progressing with the development of a video game.


This type of work is full of passion and indie developers feel the greatest satisfaction in finishing and publishing a game.


"I remember being very proud of myself when I finished my first game and was inspired to make more. It was quite magical to create something; I felt like my drawings came to life," Liam added.

Independent developers deserve as much support as possible. No matter the size of the project they are working on, they still go through many difficulties that jeopardize their health and work life. After all, creating a game is not just putting together a code and a couple of images, it is a methodical process that involves documentation, hiring voice actors and artists, finding financial backing, and putting in many hours to perfect a game.


"Although this is my first game, I want it to be a learning experience. One in which I can perfect my weaknesses," expressed Rodrigo.

"Use whatever you want to make games and approach development as playful. Experiment and make short, weird experiences. I found that when I was a kid, just working on what was the most fun and making lots of mistakes is how I learned the most," Liam concluded.




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