How To Realistically Scope Your First Indie Game

By Tom Safarov [02.12.19]

Hi! I'm working in a small indie studio where we are making our first PC game at the moment. Today I'd like to talk about the importance of rescaling your gaming project to make it manageable and make sure it will ever see the light of the day.

My story begins with this post on Reddit where the author looks for a publisher willing to pay $70k per month to his team during the period of 1.5 years to develop a 3D first-person horror game for 14-20 hours of gameplay. The total sum of the investment sought for approaches to $1.25 million. My first reaction on this was: dude, are you cereal?

First, if you're not the figure of Hideo Kojima scale having at least one successful and known game behind, you will most likely never find an investor ready to throw millions of dollars into your team's very first project. There's simply not enough credibility to secure any significant financing at this point. Development of BF-like game (3D, FPS, 20 hours of gameplay etc.) will require hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to invest. Where will you take that much money being a small indie dev with no successful background in the industry? The most tragic part here is that some enthusiasts use to be misled by their fantasies so bad, they sell their houses and borrow money from their families and friends, who rarely understand what they are going into. Even if you do that, you will most likely secure enough money to upkeep your development for the next 5-6 months. Then what?

Solution #1: Re-scale and do as much as you can with the available resources

Well, you better be realistic here. The first solution is re-scaling and re-evaluating your project. If you estimate your upcoming game development in $300k and realize you're gonna need a team of at least 12 members to finish it, why don't you re-scale it? Change 3D to 2D, and suddenly you don't need the most expensive 3D-modellers and top-notch working rigs anymore. Suddenly you discover that the total cost of your project drops ten times or even more, giving you the numbers you can really work with. Re-scaling grants you the opportunity to complete the development and release your game to the market, instead of inevitably exhausting all the scarce resources you may have and go bankrupt - both financially and emotionally.

Thinking big is great, thinking rational is better. ©

Every time you encounter a problem with insufficiency of resources think how can I adjust my project to complete it with current resources? Don't try to sell your mom's house to finance another petty month of the expensive 3D development. Because you're gonna need more. And then more again. Remember that your goal is not making a clone of Destiny-2 with blackjack and dazzling VFX, but to release a completed and working game to the market. Even if it is smaller and does not have burning tornadoes and exploding dreadnoughts falling from the skies.

Solution #2: Give people something to play right now

Focus on creating a working demo showcasing your game's killer-features. Create something you can shamelessly demonstrate to your potential investor, publisher or just your regular gaming crowd. Keep in mind that everyone you approach will anticipate something to play right now at the moment of contact, not sometime in the indefinite future. Having a demo reflecting all your game's key features, makes your team look professionally no matter who you approach at the moment.

If you're still going to ask the investor to finance your very first project, be sure having a detailed plan of development with the budget containing upcoming expenses and resources that it will require.


Solution #3: Crowdfunding

Actually, this is a working scheme of making a successful indie project these days.

1. Complete as much as you can on your own, while keeping the lowest possible expenses;

2. Create a working and visually attractive demo showcasing your game's key features;

4. Build the community around your game starting as early as you can;

5. Go on Kickstarter and (luckily) get your development financed;

6. Complete the development and release your game;

7. Use this game's positive outcome to build the hype around your next project, as now you're having the name and credibility in the industry.

This is what many indies trying to do these days, including the one I bumped into recently. It's a game in development named Frogvale that you can see on the preview to this post. The guy was making this bus-driver simulator demo for 3 years (!) before going on Kickstarter. At this moment his campaign is 30% financed with 25 days to go. Despite its raw look, the game was also warmly accepted on Reddit. Something to think about, right?

The more vivid example of how you make your very first project on your own is Omno.

The solo dev from Germany Jonas Manke made this visually-driven demo for 2 years (all on his own, including art, design and code). Then he literally nailed Kickstarter campaign beating his initial goal more than 3 times and securing about $110k of financing to complete the development! Instead of going for the full-scale project which would most likely have drained his resources, he focused on making the visually impressive demo, that allowed him to secure the financing. Now I think he will calmly complete the development until the end of the next year, having no impending debts or ruined lives behind. This is not just a story of a crowdfunding success. It is a story about adequate planning and rational approach.

I hope these recommendations may help the other indie teams to rationalize their projects in development and adjust them accordingly to the available resources. The teams who fail, use to ignore those solutions aiming too damn high right from the very beginning. My advice is: don't go that big, go small and manageable. When you complete and release your first game to the market, you will get valuable experience which will be a natural aid for your next upcoming project. Instead, aiming for a huge project can ruin your life and lives of people who you drag with you. Good luck everyone!

P.S. As for our studio, we use this approach on a daily basis, eliminating things which implementation will require more resources than we have. Instead, we focus on the features we can do keeping the targeted quality of the game. Hope to share my story about our project in one of the upcoming posts. Cheers!

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