Editor – Ryan Brolley may not have been making games for very long with his studio Alchemedium, but his game design roots are planted much earlier in his life. From a childhood spent designing level maps for existing games on paper, he’s now joint game designer, programmer and artist for a small indie studio whose first game, A Tofu Tail, will be launching alongside the Ouya later this year.

In this series of Developer Blogs, hosted exclusively here on IndieHaven.com, Ryan talks to us about a series of topics that he feels are important to either the Indie scene, or sometimes just to himself, starting with an exploration of the journey that led him to where he is now and the lessons he learnt along the way.

Our Journey

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.“

~Winston Churchill

I remember back when I was younger, maybe 8-9 years old, having my first experiences in the joy of game design. I loved creating my own Super Mario 3 stages and worlds with marker and blank sheets of paper. I enjoyed being a cartographer and loremaster for the imaginary worlds in which my “Make Up Your Guy And Play Him” personas resided. I take to heart my career as a shop-owner for my roomful of stuffed animals, each with their own unique personalities and abilities. Yes, each one had their own abilities, taught to them by a mysterious wizard, who totally was not me wrapped in a blanket-cape. >.>

I will be the first to admit that I may have had an overactive imagination as a child; however, I do not regret it. I don’t regret any of the experiences and setbacks, good and bad decisions, successes and failures that have led me to where I am today. I am here today because of this imagination; this passion to create. The best advice I can give? Well, in the words of Galaxy Quest’s Jason Nesmith: “Never give up! Never Surrender!”

Of course! We should make a video game!

Over the years, I have designed many games, with various people. When we were children, myself, my brother Justin, and my friend Mike created much of what you read about above. Looking back on this, I cherish every second of this carefree time of my life.

Then my family moved to a new house, I made different friends, and after a while we also actively began to design games. Card games, tactical RPG’s, even some crazy, nowhere-near-possible, alchemy-based, action role-playing game with gesture controls. I had recorded notes and created spreadsheets and… never actually did anything productive with these ideas. All became scrapped projects with a good bit of work sunk into them.

Graduation from high school came, then from college, and I found myself about to finish grad school. Everything in my life was moving along and things were good. Not great, and not bad, but I was happy enough. But then one of my high school friends, Ryan, mentioned a new game creation software called Indie Game Maker and its ease of integration with XBLIG, and the possibility that we could make our own video games. One thing rang out in my brain:  “Of course! We should make a video game!” We discussed the possibilities here and did research on the tools available for a couple of weeks.

We took the plunge, ready to create fantastical worlds akin to the ones that we had grown up with: Hyrule, 200X, Midgar, and many more. Building the team was easy. Over a few years we had met many people who loved video games and had a variety of talents. We were good to go! Collectively, we started on a design for an old school, top-down, action-RPG and began to learn how to use this new software we had purchased. We had a definite plan, a seemingly easy-to-use visual software tool, and a bunch of friends who loved video games. What could go wrong?

I’ve made a terrible mistake…

The answer to that question was: “just about everything.”

The group had made a month of scattered progress in the game design and world creation. I had learned a little about the software and debugging to the Xbox 360. Our musician had created a couple of songs. Our graphical designer created… nothing? Why was this guy not producing anything? Why did he eventually just stop responding to any post or email we sent him?

After a couple of months of this, our enthusiasm for the project started to dwindle. Work, school, and life started catching up to us. I believe that the fact that we no longer had an artist working on the project really cut some of us deep in the morale department.

A good bit of time passed, and eventually we came to another misfortune. Our software tool, limited in support as it already was, no longer worked with the XNA framework on XBLIG. How were we supposed to continue forward now? None of us had programming skills past what we had learned in high school which, needless to say, was very basic (pun intended). What were we to do now that we had drained this time and money into the project?

With no visual assets, very little software skills, and skydiving morale and motivation for the project, all I could think was: “I’ve made a terrible mistake…”

Light my fire

Eventually, I finished my masters program and found a job back near my hometown. I worked there for almost a year, building my programming skills (I was brought into the job as a programmer / engineer after all) and sort of started drifting along. Ryan and I had begun discussing again the desire to make a game, this time a simple strategic card game, vastly less ambitious in scope.

This went well. Simple game mechanics, very little art was needed and no programming was involved (though my capabilities in this area had greatly improved). It wasn’t a huge accomplishment and we still yearned for a larger, more involved project but it was something. One thing we lacked before was considering project scope; our last attempt was apparently a common failure of many indie developers: biting off so much more than we could possibly chew. (Ed. Check out Our Indie Dev Roundtable on When is an Indie Game Sucessful here to read about this very pitfall and why it’s so common). That past failure left a pretty bad taste in our mouths (yes, another pun), and this new accomplishment helped lessen it a little, but it was still lingering.

Gratefully, one day at work, one of my coworkers, Doug, who had gone to high school with both Ryan and me, said something that ignited the true game development flame in me once more: “We should make a video game.” It was at this moment that we started on the next part of our journey to creating our game development company Alchemedium and our first video game A Tofu Tail.

A look to the past

Looking back on our attempts at game development a few years prior, I can safely say that we still had a lot to learn; we had been naive and over-ambitious. Most of us were still in school at the time, spread across multiple states. This would have been fine once the group was on a defined path in the project, but trying to start up game development with a vague idea of design, little to no money and scattered levels of commitment was near impossible. We had no real plan of attack; no process set in stone. We set ourselves up for failure by not putting the effort forward to see what obstacles lay ahead of us.

The second big mistake we committed involved the art assets. Our group was frustrated and downright angry that our graphic designer just skipped out on us. I blamed him for our failed game project for quite a while. In reality, however, it was all of us who were all at fault. As the game designers, we gave him no motivation to work on the project other than any inherent personal passion of his. He was pulled on too early to create art for a game with no coding completed, let alone a concept.

We didn’t understand the time commitment art design for a video game requires on an artist and how a lack of anything to show programming-wise both hinders the artist’s ability to work with it and motivation to work on the project. If the artist thinks that they are wasting effort, it becomes very hard to get them to buy in. People doing this for a living cannot spend time working on a project that may fail and leave them with no income. Yes, he could have better handled the situation that we placed him in, but this was mostly our fault for not providing the proper motivation, not to mention that he was working and still in school at the time.

Lastly, we jumped head first into the project, with little to no understanding of the tools being used and the environment in which we were entering. Collectively, we had limited programming background, so we chose to use a software package that was affordable and seemed easy to use. We did not do our research, which unfortunately resulted in essentially losing all the work that we did put into the project because the tools were eventually no longer supported.

Thinking about this now on the other hand, had we actually succeeded in all of these other failures, I believe that we still would have considered the project a failure. There is one very important aspect that was required to be considered in more detail. Marketing. Had we completed development of the game, who would have known about our game to play it? We went into this with the attitude: “We are making a video game! Yeah! Awesome!” We didn’t consider how in-depth marketing, public relations, and networking was in reality.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

So much has been learned from these experiences. We are now in a much better position to succeed than before. In the time following the failed project, we began to expand our skill sets.

I now have drastically better programming skills and a greater understanding of the current, related technology. Although it is not entirely necessary to know complex programming languages with the tools that are now available to aspiring game developers, it can be immensely beneficial to have someone on the team that has that knowledge. It lets you know your limitations and time requirements to implement some functionality into your game, as well as the limitations of your particular platform.

Things that helped me become a better programmer:

  • reading game development blogs and articles
  • researching what tools were available and knowing what will best fit with the task at hand
  • programming tutorials found on the internet and in books
  • reading and running source code from open source games
  • prototyping, and iterating upon those prototypes
  • learning the basics in multiple languages, and trying to get identical output when programming the same thing in each language
  • Google searches on how to do a particular aspect — this assisted in the majority of my learning
  • researching game development frameworks and how they work to streamline assets, input, output, etc
  • C# and XNA — were a great starting point; XNA takes care of most of the more advanced stuff, making it easy to learn the basics
  • learning how the targeted platforms work (I read books on Android, XNA/Xbox, OpenGL and how they are designed to function)

Programming resources that helped me the most:

Though my programming skills contributed most to my personal growth, as a group we collectively improved in a number of other important areas. We now have more marketing and business sense, as a result of taking the time and effort to study and read articles/blogs on the topics. Our new understanding of the marketing would allow us to raise awareness of our game so that people would actually play it.

Another important piece of game development is a clear plan of attack. Our project management and organization skills, as well as our approach to the design process, have greatly improved as a result of our effort. I believe that we needed to have a basic understanding of how these worked. We should keep our passion for game development at the foundation, but strengthen that foundation with this understanding of marketing/business.

Good resources I have found relating to indie game marketing and business:

Our musical talents have expanded, both in skill and variety. Over the past couple of years we have all started listening to game soundtracks and added various electronic and chiptune musicians to our libraries. Tom, our music guy, has been playing and writing his own music pretty much on a daily basis for years now, providing him with more experience and vision than he had at our last attempt. As a side note: if anyone wants to talk music, it is one of the favorite things in the universe for us all. This is probably why we place so much emphasis and focus on getting the music correct. It is something that we believe is a core part of the video game experience.

No regrets

Again I reiterate: I do not regret this journey one bit. I have learned so much and grown so much through my failures. All I can do now is work forward with these experiences, trying to help others as much as I can so that they will hopefully learn from my mistakes. If you do fail, though, do not lose hope in your abilities. Embrace the failure and use it as fuel for your next attempt.

The one thing we never lost through our failed attempts was the passion. Yes, it hid itself away for a little over a year and a half, but it was still there in some form. I always knew that I wanted to again create these fantastic worlds that I had visited in my childhood. I am sure that the others had this in the back of their minds as well. We still have an enormous amount of work ahead of us, but I know we can succeed. Our passion will always be there and, though we will fail at times, we will pick ourselves back up and try again, having learned fantastic lessons along the way.

Good luck and happy development!

Editor – If you’re an Indie Dev of any size that would like to take part in a future Developer Blog, please email Laurak@IndieHaven.com and let us know a little about yourself. The more the merrier.

About The Author

Founding Member

Laura’s gaming journey began in the 90′s when she was given a SNES by her older brother with Mario paint. From that day video games were all she thought about day or night, be it playing them, designing them, discussing them or writing about them. Why does she want to write about indie games? Because indie devs are awesome and she wants to be their new best friend by telling them how terrible their games are. That’s how it works right? Twitter: @LauraKBuzz Email: Laurak@indiehaven.com

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