I have a real treat for you today, which is an amazing set of tips from the talented Dan Wakefield who in my interview with him, tells us a bit more about himself, the many many games he’s worked on and what to look out for and do in order to be successful as a game developer! Let’s check it out now…
Please tell us who you are and how long you’ve been in game development
‘Hello! I’m Dan Wakefield (@dantagonism) and I’m based in Oslo, Norway and I co-own two small game studios. In 2014, I started working with Antagonist on a game called Through the Woods, which is now out on PC and consoles. After the game was released I started a new company called Corvid Studio with my friend Torstein where we’re currently working part-time on several unannounced original games.’
What games have you worked on?
‘I worked full time on the Norse horror game called Through the Woods, which released in 2016 and I co-designed and released a mobile VR game with my new company, Corvid Studio, for NRK, Norway’s national broadcaster, (like Norway’s BBC) which was a very exciting project for us.
Other released games include an educational reading game called Poio (the Norwegian and Swedish versions) and a small game called Deflector, which I created with my friend Thomas (available on itch.io).
Unreleased games I’m working on, which I don’t think are secret include: Mørkredd, Vaesen, Poio (UK, US and Danish versions), Monsterminds, Capeesh, Seas of Fortune, BABY BASH!, Norse Noir: Loki’s Exile and Mari’s Road Home. There are also 10 games I’m working on that I don’t think I can talk about at the moment. Luckily these games are all spread out over the next year or two, so I’m not too stressed right now.’
What are your best top 5 tips for fellow indie game developers? For example, what do you wish you knew before you started and/or what are some of the trickiest things you’ve had to learn or overcome?
‘Tough questions! I’ve been doing this for a few years but I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on game development. Some things I’ve learned that could possibly be useful to someone out there:
1. Make sure you’re making games for the right reasons.
I think it’s common knowledge that more games fail financially than succeed. I don’t have the figures, but I suppose it’s the same kind of thing with writers and bands. Success is rare and very hard to achieve. A game failing to sell or find an audience, almost by definition, is something you don’t hear much about. So if you’re making indie games because you want to be rich, you would be much better off getting a job at a company with a salary.
It’s a balancing act. Ideally you should make sure you can make a game without putting yourself into too much financial jeopardy. You hear about teams that quit their jobs, use all their money and remortgage their houses to pay for their game and their game becomes a huge success, but this is not normal or likely. So be careful and be sensible.
If, however, you love to make games and are more or less financially stable, or live in a place with a good social safety net, then it’s a lot less likely you’ll become homeless. In Corvid, my friend Torstein and I talk about games a lot, and when we keep talking about the same game all the time, we work on it in our spare time and see if it seems fun. If not, we either drop it or put it on hold and work on something else. Obviously it would be great if any of our games made a little money, but really we just like making stuff and like working with each other.’
2. Being helpful and nice will pay dividends in the long run.
‘Perhaps this sounds obvious, but I think it’s important. I think being open and helping people out with things is a great way to make strong connections in the industry. If you give advice or suggestions or share contacts freely, you don’t always need to think about what you gain from it short term; just know you’re putting good out into the world and it can often return to you in interesting ways. You don’t need to be secretive about everything you’re doing.’
3. Write blogs and post-mortems about things you’ve learned.
‘This also comes under being helpful, I guess. I used to do this a lot at Antagonist but struggle to find the time now. I wrote a couple of pieces that got featured on Gamasutra about our Kickstarter and our first trip to GDC, etc. You don’t have to be a pro, you only need to have done something one more time than someone else for you to be able to potentially help them a lot.
I’m bad at proactively putting things out there now but if anyone asks me about how I created a certain sound or how it was negotiating with our publisher and potential pitfalls to look out for, I’m happy to try to help.’
4. Learn a little about marketing and social media.
‘It’s hard to know what will work for your game and the road to success will be different for every title. It’s never too early to try to start to get an understanding of what makes people interested in a certain post and the psychology of what makes people want to share your posts, for example. People like to share things that make them seem funny or clever, or if they think something might be useful to others. Posts with images often get shared more than those without. That’s oversimplified, but it’s basically what often happens to get the ball rolling.
It’s hard to make every tweet or Facebook post work this way. I’ve tweeted about releasing a soundtrack on Bandcamp and no one really cared. I’ve tweeted an image once of my first little pixel art person and it got a lot of attention. I’m not an artist, but it’s a nice image and I guess people thought it was fun that it was my first attempt at something.
Some developers tweet rarely and cryptically, some tweet about every little aspect of development. I’ve seen both be really successful. But there’s almost always a consistency to it that works for them.’
5. Try for a marathon, not a sprint.
‘Games often take a long time to make and development can be incredibly taxing in terms of health, motivation and family life. Burnout is common. I personally was at the point of burnout in the run up to the release of Through the Woods, where I was trying to manage everything, finish and implement the audio and dialogue, write the story and deal with publishers. I also bought a house and had a baby! I felt like I wasn’t in control of anything and that I was being pulled in ten directions at once and there wasn’t enough of me to go around. It was essentially an extended period of crunch for all of us with too few employees to do the necessary jobs.
In a perfect world, development would be like a steady walk and things like milestones and costs should be meticulously planned. Someone should be responsible for making sure that the team can hit those milestones at a steady pace, without subjecting people to overly long hours. Bad planning can ruin all motivation and enthusiasm.
If you don’t absolutely have to, try to avoid painting yourself into a corner by announcing a too-ambitious release date, or revealing it too early. Lots of studios I know of don’t build enough time in the cycle for proper testing or for console certification, etc. This can lead to unhealthy crunch, or, if you end up having to delay, often you lose in terms of goodwill, enthusiasm and momentum from staff, fans and press.
Talk to other developers who have made similar games and try to get a real sense for how long your game is going to take and what it’s going to cost, and get advice on things you may not have thought about.’
What final tip can you offer that you think will really help a fellow indie game developer?
‘I’m almost out of sage advice, but have fun and challenge yourself! Really, if you don’t love what you’re doing, there are probably other things you could do with similar skills.
Thanks so much for having me! Hopefully someone finds something useful here. Good luck to everyone making awesome games out there.’
That’s awesome advice from Dan there which I hope everyone can find something useful from! A few follow up articles that could help build on some of Dan’s insights:
About the interviewer: Ninichi is a freelance composer who creates music for indie games, films and media. She is a great supporter of indie projects and runs this blog in the hope that it offers useful insights for the game development community.
She is open for commissions and would be happy to help you with the music to your game should you need it. Contact her now to discuss your project with her.