Make a Successful Indie Game Using Kickstarter… Make The Game First (part 2 of 7)

So, you’ve been thinking about that game you want to make. You’ve thought about it for a long time, and you think you know exactly how you would go about doing it. You decide you’ll post your idea on Kickstarter.com so you can get funding to start making the game…

…yeah… don’t do that. Your first step for getting funding for making your game is to make the game.

Doesn’t make sense? Hear me out. Kickstarter projects often succeed on credibility, about how much backers trust that you can make what you promise you can. Also, it’s difficult to understand exactly what the game would be without seeing the game in action. Even if you think you need money to make it, you won’t get any money without making it first. It’s a classic Catch-22 scenario.

Reviewing Your Game Idea

Firstly, take a look at your idea and make sure it’s as clear as possible. You should be able to picture the game running in your head from start to finish, with no questions on level layout, gameplay concepts, visual or audio additions, etc. Put it down on paper, walk away for a few days, and come back to it to review it again.

Thousands of people have ideas every day. I know several people who have told me their ideas, which are actually really good, but then they haven’t worked out most of the details yet. Technically, I’ve also known people who wanted me to help them with projects without any ideas for the project at all (they wanted me to come up with it for them…), so having ideas is still a good first step. But to make sure the idea is easy to sell, consider the four main parts to a game, and how your game relates to them, and what your biggest selling point is.

  • Story
    • Story is important in games. It helps connect the game more strongly with the player, and helps them remember the experience after it is over. HOWEVER, try not to make the story the biggest selling point. Especially if your story is meant to be serious and meaningful… my indie game “James – Journey of Existence” was sold on having a story with a great ending, but since I didn’t want to spoil it, I left most people in the dark while promising that it would change everything you thought you knew. And it would too (gosh, I wish I could tell you the ending right now), but overselling a “meaningful” and “thought-provoking” story without revealing it was part of the many criticisms of the game and it’s failure on Kickstarter. Even the people who did back the game were confused during most of the campaign. So try to simplify your story, and prepare to use only one sentence to describe it when advertising the game. Rightfully so, the gameplay is more important to focus on. Let gamers discover the story when they actually play your finished game, and let them decide if the story is actually any good.
  • Gameplay
    • Arguably the most important part of the game. If you wanted to sell your game based on story or visuals or audio alone and haven’t even THOUGHT of the gameplay mechanics or level design or mission structure, then you got some work to do. The game should, in some way, be fun or enticing enough to play even if the visuals/audio/story didn’t exist. Don’t just leave it to yourself to make up design either… again, my indie game “James – Journey of Existence” had some really obtuse puzzles, and most people just didn’t want to sit through it. Make sure your game will capture that right balance of ease and challenge (I’ll probably just add arrow signs everywhere and focus the camera on the goal at all times…), and test it with friends to make sure it works.
  • Audio/Visual
    • You should think about what sort of visuals or audio design you need for the game. If it isn’t important, feel free to stick with pixel-graphics, or even plain polygons and colors. Some of the most successful and memorable indie games look like they were made decades ago, but that also gives them a little charm. If you do want to have something more ambitious and artistic, make sure you can actually obtain such assets. Art and music tend to take more time then the rest of the game to develop, so figure out if that time is necessary.
  • Uniqueness
    • Of course, your game needs to be different somehow. And saying that you want to make a “Call-of-Duty-like shooter” with “twice as many weapons as any other game” isn’t exactly different. For example, “James – Journey of Existence” features hand-drawn art in a 3D environment, in a way that has never yet been attempted anywhere else, and could ultimately change the way games are animated. However, make sure you can actually DO whatever your unique property is (more on that later)…

And here’s a quick tip: whether or not your idea gets made, what do you make next? You should have several ideas in the back of your mind. Consider keeping a book or portfolio to store these ideas, and refer back to them when necessary. Don’t assume your game will be the next “Minecraft” and you can just retire (it’s nice to hope, but keep your expectations low until release).

Making What You Can With What You Got

So you’ve determined EXACTLY what you want your game to be. Now, make it.

What’s that? “I can’t make a game all by myself without money,” you say? Go home, friend, give up now. Your game isn’t going to get made.

Frankly, every game in existence could have been made for free. Even the big ones. Free legal software has existed for years now for you to get started, from game engines to image and audio editors. If you have a computer, all you really need is passion and time to make a game, both of which you should have before you begin. Yes, AAA games cost a lot of money, but that’s because they hire too many people, all of which soullessly make someone else’s game when they themselves probably lost any hope for creative freedom. That shouldn’t be an issue for you, the indie dev.

(this is true for all creative-based industries, be it music, art, film, writing or other. See my previous post on “Why” you are making a game.)


“… Frankly, every game in existence could have been made for free. Even the big ones…”


I’m not saying that the final game will be made entirely by you (although it might). Very few people have the programming/design/art/music skills to make a great game entirely on their own. Actually, that’s not true… all you really need to make a game is standard programming logic, the rest you can fake. Not good at art? Stick with pixel graphics. Not good at music? Hum your music in a microphone and use that, and call it a feature. Not good at story writing? Make it silly and simple, and focus on the gameplay. Other successful indie developers follow this methodology when only small teams are available. Programming is the only thing you really need to do to make a game exist, and thankfully, that’s the easiest skill of the bunch to actually learn. In fact, you can probably learn all the programming you need for a game within a week (depending on what game engine you use, of course).

So far, I’ve made it sound like you’re making this on your own. But maybe you have friends helping you out? Don’t count on that. People have jobs and lives, and there’s a very good chance that they may leave the project at some point. I’ve seen people try to say “it’s not my game, it’s our game,” but I’ve never seen such a case where that’s true. One person came up with an idea and pitched it to the group, and that person with the idea is usually the only one certain to stick with the project till the end (hopefully, that’s you). Even if your friends like game developing as a hobby and love your idea, it’s still your idea, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay without money (which you probably don’t have yet).

So be fully prepared to stick it out and make the game on your own if you have to. Because programming logic is the one thing you need to make a game, you should be the main programmer, or at least fully understand all the code a programmer makes for you should he quit early. One guy I know encouraged me to be part of his project, and ultimately told me to do most of the work when he didn’t have time (although I consistently proved I was too busy as well), and to this day berates me to add more to “our” project when there’s nothing more to add. Another guy I know encouraged me to join his game team, and when I later backed out, I noticed he had worked on this for almost three years and still doesn’t have anything he’s willing to show off for his efforts, and it’s clear he won’t do anything until he finds someone else to replace that spot in his team. Don’t be like that, roll up your sleeves and at least make a demo.

Making A Good Demo

Making a demo is a great way to show off your game on Kickstarter or other sites. A picture is worth a thousand words, and when you have 60 fps video, you can imagine how much that says about your game.

Making a demo to help explain the game is one reason, but the second and more important reason is this:

Make a demo to prove to yourself and to others that you can actually make the game.

I like to say that making a game isn’t actually difficult, but it is a lot of hard work. And if you’ve never actually made a game before, you’ll be surprised how much worse yours might turn out compared to your initial idea. You shouldn’t be on Kickstarter if there is any doubt on you delivering on your promise. After making a demo, consider what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, and consider reshaping your game concept around that. If you can make part of your game, you know you can probably make the rest with more time, and be confident in the project.

But be careful, your demo will also prove to others what your talents are, and whether or not you can actually make the game they want to see. If your demo is poor, people will think you can’t do better, and will lose confidence. That was one of my biggest mistakes for “James – Journey of Existence:” I put up several publically available demos, but clarified that I fully intended to update the art/animation/controls/level-design. Most people didn’t see that, and instead just saw a demo that was unclear, unfinished, and un-fun. To this day, people still comment on how poor the art is, or how confusing the design is. I can (and will) do better, but talk is cheap, and I can’t really prove anything until I do it later this year.

 


“…be careful, you demo will also prove to others what your talents are, and whether or not you can actually make the game they want to see… “


 

When you do (eventually) launch on Kickstarter, backers need proof you can deliver, and talking is not proof. Although, I still think my game is fantastic to see running live on my computer, but I am biased, so putting the game out there for people to see BEFORE Kickstarter is a good idea. When you do start crowdfunding, make sure the demo is as close as possible to what you have in mind for the finished product.

But then why ask for money on Kickstarter when you have to make the game first anyway? It’s a great way to connect to fans, and to prove to yourself that the game was worth the time anyway. The money? Think of it this way: the money isn’t to make the game, it’s to make the game better. It’s to make sure that your game runs well on computers and platforms besides your own. It’s to add features and effects unavailable using your free resources. It’s to hire talented people who can improve the game in ways you can’t do yourself. If this doesn’t convince you, it is very possible to make a successful indie game without Kickstarter or funding.

Here’s something that’ll blow your mind: having no demo is better than a bad demo. On Kickstarter, several projects don’t have demos, or even gameplay images. In fact, it’s clear on some pages that no work has been done at all towards actually making the game before receiving funding. This is true on both well-known and unknown indie developers, and you’d be surprised how much is funded to those projects with nothing but a short gameplay description, or a couple pieces or concept art. These projects usually don’t do as well as the ones with good demos, but still do well considering. So if your game looks really bad upon needing funding, consider video of a couple tech-demos (like renderings of models without textures, or gameplay with debug info and no art), but don’t give access to the game yet. Make some mock-ups of screenshots of the game in MS Paint, without actually making the game playable. It’s not recommended, but this is how most professionals pitch ideas without doing too much work early on, and you might be better off. You just need to convince backers you can deliver on a great game. But prove to yourself that you can deliver that game when the time comes.

 

If you get far enough to make a demo of your game that you are proud of, then you’ll be ready for the next step: making it “official.”