Indie Dev Diary: Getting what you need

August 15, 2010

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about getting what you need for your project: creating what you can and acquiring what you can’t.

Two weeks ago, I talked about the process of concepting and prototyping a video game. Now I’m going to ramble a bit about the brass tacks of game building: getting the actual work done.

First off, it’s ridiculous to go into a video game attempting to do it all yourself. Even if you are a Leonardo da Vinci-style Renaissance man/woman, it’s not worth your personal time to hand-craft every single iota of your game. Drawing on the talents of people you know (and getting to know people upon whose talents you can draw) is a major and oft-overlooked element of building a game.


As soon as I moved from “pursuing” to “developing” my game, it was time to think about budget. I don’t expect a huge, evergreen return from SPCF3–iPhone and iPad games are a hard sell in the App Store, and my previous game, Internet Defense, barely made enough to cover the artist’s commission, and nowhere near enough to cover my own time costs. Since those days, I have learned a lot, and also acquired more of a Web presence, so I decided that SPCF3 would likely do better than Internet Defense. The proposition is one that comes with a high risk. Games are a labor of love, but when you’re building games for a living (even just partially), the living has to come into consideration.

I decided that $500 would be a reasonable expense to pour into this game (as in (1) I could get it done for that price, and (2) my fiancée won’t kill me when I present the numbers to her). A $500 allocation for development seems low, but remember that I’m also my own programmer. Hiring myself to do the programming to make SPCF3 would cost roughly 200~300 hours of my time. This is time that I wouldn’t be doing commission projects, so I really have about $8,000 tied up in the development. Unless I sell $8,000 of SPCF3, I’m not going to break even on the cost of the project, and I should just go back to doing websites for furniture companies (a thankless and tiring job that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone). For reference, that’s around 2,300 copies at $5 a pop in the app store, making $3.50 per sale. Really though, your only hope to make money on a game in the App Store is to get featured by Apple.

Depending on the type of game you are doing, the varying elements of design (sound, art, programming, interfacing, etc.) will take different lengths of time. Usually programming is the most time-intensive of these, and will give you the greatest control over the final game product. So, it’s best to be a programmer, if you’re going to do any of the grunt work for your game, but it is a long, hard road to get to that point. It’s a good idea to design a game that will make more use of your own strengths.


So my budget plan allocated around $500 of other people’s work. Armed with this information, I immediately contacted an artist. A good relationship with a quality artist (and preferably several) is invaluable. As someone who does commercial projects involving art, I have a veritable roll call of artists to handle whatever project comes up.

Where do you find artists? I’ve had a lot of bad experiences hiring friends to do my artwork in the past, so I have a policy of not hiring anyone I know in person. Instead, I search portfolio sites like deviantArt to find artists whose portfolios match what I’m looking for. Once I have ten or more candidates, I pitch them the project, and have them all bid on it. Lowest bid wins the commission. With a system like that, it’s very easy to stay within your project margins. Amateur artists, musicians, and designers are all looking for a way to get noticed and put some high-quality projects in their portfolios, just like me. Because of this, I try to hire these individuals over professionals whenever I can. It’s an added bonus that they’re interested in work for the exposure rather than the money, and thus will usually be able to complete jobs within an indie-level budget. Also, as your interests increase from successful games or projects, you can come back to these individuals with larger projects, and they’ll trust you to be able to cover higher expenses or even pay them in dividends rather than up-front capital.

For SPCF3, I contacted Victoria Parker, the same artist who drew for my recent card game, Kill the Overlord. (More on that one soon.) Victoria’s style seemed perfect for this project, but most importantly, she could create the 18 characters I wanted to include in the game, all while staying within my set budget. Earlier, I said that I came up with the concept as the very first step, and then thought about resources, but that’s not entirely true. The talents of the artists that I planned to hire were a major factor in choosing ‘Chibi Fighters’, as Chibi characters are Victoria’s specialty. If I had a different artist in mind to do the work, the game might have taken on a very different look and feel.


It’s surprising how much you can get for free. Sound effects and music are all over the Internet, and many people want you to pay quite a bit for them. Luckily, if you dig, there are just as many cheap or free sound effects and even full music tracks to choose from. For Internet Defense, I used free music written by Kevin MacLeod, who also scores music for a price (a price beyond my feeble budget, so I have to stick with the free stuff). There are also plenty of royalty-free music scores that you can acquire for less than $3 at sites like Square Peach. I’ll be using a combination of these in SPCF3.

Deciding on music and sound effects is something that I do as the game development progresses. While these elements are important, they are not as title-specific as art is, and so there is no need to rush and buy a commission or decide up-front what to use throughout the whole game. You can buy as you go.

As for interface and graphical elements, there are plenty of ways to go. With Photoshop and a little practice (or Inkscape and a little practice, or GIMP and a little practice) it’s possible to create decent, stylistic graphics that bring out the feel of your game. It helps to have a background in design, be it making card games or board games or websites. It’s also good to draw all of your menus and interfaces out in advance. Rough sketches with arrows connecting different buttons to their target screens are a good starting point. If you’ve ever put together a website, a game’s menu system goes up much the same way. And don’t forget player feedback when designing your interface. Players are going to spend a lot of time looking at and using this (hopefully), and you don’t want it to be annoying or unintuitive in any way.

If you need to hire someone to put together your user interface, the rule is the same as with all commissions: someone out there will do it for your budget, or close to it, and there’s a free alternative to everything, even if free is practicing in your spare hours until you’re good enough to cover it yourself.

Playtesting is a very different kind of resource, and it is one that becomes more and more important as the game develops. Rather than a piece of the puzzle you can get and then arrange as you wish (like art files or music), playtesting is more like a compass that guides a project continually towards the ultimate goal.

My policy with playtesters is the reverse of with artists: I directly contact people I know to play test my games and products, partly because of trust, partly because people like myself and my friends are the target audience that I’m developing for, and partly because I’ve had bad experiences with anonymous playtesters in the past. Like artists, you should try to develop a relationship with your playtesters. They will understand your vision and be better able to advise you that way.

So how do you know what kind of things to create and allocate? Often times it’s an estimation, like with art. Other times, it’s a “do as you go” process, like music and sound. In the cases of commissions, you can get your hires to estimate for you, then decide how much you can afford of their services (if any at all). Ultimately, a design has to be flexible enough to cover changing budget, playtest feedback, and your own sudden inspirations. When I had the concept for SPCF3, I left enough open so that if I had cash to spare I could do more, rather than pressing the very limits of the budget from the get-go. After all, you can never plan for everything from the start. 

In the next installment, Brad will look at taking the resources that have been assembled and putting them together to form a playable game.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.