|At-Home Game Development: Thank you, coffee.|
My first “I bet I could do that for a living!” moment was an exciting revelation, and the fact that it concerned my childhood obsession made it all the more powerful. Ultimately it led to two things, with one being slightly more important than the other: becoming an indie game developer, and the writing of this blog post!
Though I had experience in the industry, I had never “gone it on my own”, and despite my experience I was setting out with absolutely no resources (…nor one of those things called a “budget”). It was obvious that I needed some sort of development gateway. Oddly enough, the solution to my problem, the very springboard for this great endeavor, was sitting in my pocket all along.
The explosion of the iPhone “App Store” market has been well documented, and getting one of these Indie/Garage/Mom’s Basement projects out there in front of real people is undoubtedly easier and more attainable than ever before. And the best part: this enticing new market was no longer just a gold-rush -- it was home to many innovative and high-quality games! I was stoked. The feasibility was there, the appeal was there… this was the way to publish and distribute my game. But, even with a plan set and all these things in place, the task of actually making the game still lay before me. And not just making it… making it good.
I thought it’d be fun to share my experiences with my first game, Wispin, from conception to development, to finally getting that puppy up on the App Store itself (and, of course, the results that followed). I’ve learned a lot along the way, and hopefully it’ll be useful and interesting to fellow developers and creatives out there, much like the various dev blogs and diaries I devoured along the way helped push me.
I’d love to say Wispin all began with one amazing idea that came to me in a dream, or perhaps after falling and hitting my head on the toilet (Great Scott!) , but it’s more accurate to say that I had dozens of ideas… and no clue which to pursue or where to begin. Some ideas I’d carried with me since childhood, many inspired by that original gaming obsession I mentioned, but ultimately I decided to start with a blank slate and work from the ground up.
What would fit the iDevice platform well? What would be unlike anything else on the app store? And finally... what would be something I’d love to play? Cliché or not, it’s clearly the most important question.
Being an artist by trade, my brainstorming was fueled by doodles and concept drawings, and I knew from the beginning that I wanted the game to revolve around a title character. Character design is something I’ve always been drawn to in particular. I’m fascinated by the way simple shapes and flourishes can bring so much personality, perceived narrative, and life to something that doesn’t exist in the real world. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the characters and art direction arrived before the game idea itself was fully formed.
I can say that color was one of the first ideas for a central theme that occurred to me. I’m not sure how it arrived; it could be that I’ve always been a fan of color-matching puzzle games, or maybe it’s my obsessive-compulsive relation with color as an artist. In my old studio job I was quite often perceived as overly picky (a nice way to put it) when it came to the use of color. “Hmm, what if we made this 0.005% more saturated?”
With my character concepts heading in a spirit/fantasy-world direction that I found interesting, and with the decision to use “color” as a potential gameplay focus and mechanic, the rest began to come together quite easily. My original idea for the game was to have all characters stand out with bright colors and placed against a stylized monochromatic or sepia-toned world (or maybe even black and white… think Sin City). I played around with this direction and even thought about a gameplay mechanic where your actions gradually painted the world in color, but ultimately this was abandoned for looking too dreary. I occurred to me that I had already made the subconscious decision to make the game bright and inviting, which would be more immediately appealing.
Another decision that came early on was the game’s genre. Using the characters I had already grown attached to, I wanted to make something arcade-y, something that required quick “twitch-based” reactions to fast-paced action and begged the player to keep trying just one more time to beat their high score. The desire to create a game of that type, like the ones I was addicted to growing up, was always in the back of my mind -- even when thinking about the potential of puzzle games on the platform and the use of color-matching as my gameplay focus. I can’t remember a specific moment when I decided to combine the two ideas and make a puzzle-arcade hybrid, but as soon as that idea popped into my head I ran with it.
These gameplay decisions (and the questions and details they lead to, such as controls, difficulty progression, etc) represented a common game-development fork in the road: one of demographics. Do you make something that would appeal more to the casual market, or something for gamers? Obviously the ‘holy grail’ is something that appeals to everyone, which I feel we've accomplished to some degree, but you’re always going to lean in one direction. The idea of a supremely vast and diverse group of people experiencing my work and getting immersed in a world I create is overwhelmingly exciting, but for my first-ever game project I knew I needed to boil it all down to my original modest goal: to make a game that would have captivated me back in the prime of my youthful addiction.
Collaboration… Over The Interweb?
We all know the internet’s a wonderful and amazing resource like no other, and there are countless cases of people collaborating on amazing projects without ever meeting in “real life”… but still, how did that work? I feared whether or not it could be realistically attainable, or how much pure luck was a necessary part of the equation. Could a complete game come together this way, one that could go on to compete in a commercial market? Could you ultimately trust crazy-internet people, and how could you entice them to dedicate countless time and effort with little to no budget available? One thing was for sure: I had a unique game design idea, and I could create nice looking artwork... but you can’t play a picture. Pictures, or even animations, aren’t a game. I needed to find a programmer.