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PAX 2009: Designing Indie Games With a Team of One

I spent the past weekend at Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle. It was a fantastic, packed event and definitely felt more like a gamer convention than a developer convention. The gamer enthusiasm ran the gamut from complex D&D games featuring 20-sided dice, card games like Magic, to XBLA games and hardcore console games. This year, PAX was huge with an estimated count of 75,000 attendees.

Designing indie games with a team of one

One of the most interesting talks I attended was “Designing indie games with a team of one” given by Michael Todd, the creator of several cool games and most recently a neat RTS game with a distinctive visual style called Broken Brothers. You can visit his site to check out his games at

The biggest point in Todd’s talk was the idea that a one-person indie developer should focus on making games that take short periods of time. In specific, he advocates that developers focus on creating short, 7-day games to flex their muscles and get better at game design and development. He says, “Try not to make games that take years, there are lots of penalties to doing it alone and more advantages.” He goes on to outline the advantages and disadvantages of the one-person development team.

Todd started off by describing his first game project, which was an 8-month standard game that cost him $5,000 to publish. The budget for his game was spent on an artist and marketing, but discovered that it is truly difficult to stay motivated and in the law of averages, there are lots of ways to fail in a larger project. According to Todd, working solo is not well suited to long-term projects but works well with short term projects. It’s easy to get depressed, bored, and distracted. Despite the strength of your work ethic, the lack of deadlines and the office environment with others to buoy you up often make it harder to complete games. He advocates the idea of a “game in 7 days” where the idea is to make a game in under a week, forcing you to adapt to a time limit. His games Garden, Beekeeper and Broken Brothers were all 7-day games.

Benefits of making games in 7 days:

  • Some game design scales, while some doesn’t. Lessons learned for small projects are often the exact same learnings as for a larger project but you learn them faster.
  • Game in 7 days forces you to make simple choices and creates a clear success/failure feedback loop so you can learn how to do it better each time.
  • Building experience — you’re creating actual games, not mods/game docs. This is a great way to get games onto your resume to get into a gaming career.
  • Understanding the need for simplicity in design because you have to plan and time-manage closely to complete a game in 7 days.
  • Game in 7 days allows you to try crazy ideas that you wouldn’t risk for a larger project. Afterall, it’s only a weeks worth of time!
  • Petri Purho did 10 games per week until he got crayon physics. Compare this to warcraft 3 or spore and it’s a lifetime to get 10 games out.

Todd candidly admits that small free indie games don’t make any money, and cautions the audience not to have the expectation of becoming millionaires overnight — “statistically, it’s not going to happen”. However, creating many small games does increase the chance of succeeding and being turned into a large game that does make money. Making games in a week over a few months is a great way to increase your ability to properly design, build and finish a game and this teaches you the discipline to finish a game with a limited amount of resources.

The Pros of Working Solo

  • Perfect team communication and high efficiency. Two people is the worst team size for games because there’s a cost to communication and everything has to be verbalized.
  • Passion — get to make the game you want to make (idea method style)
  • Money — You get all (most) of the money. Even a decent sized check split between 3 people quickly becomes a small amount for each person.
  • Doing whatever you want

The Cons of Working Solo

  • Less total labor available.
  • Multi-tasking and dealing with art, programming, design & business on your own.
  • Prone to failure over long time periods because it’s hard to stay motivated.
  • You pay for everything (even if you get to keep all the money that comes in)
  • Doing whatever you want can bite you, because it can be hard to maintain a good work ethic.

Development in Practice

If you’re trying to work successfully as a solo developer, Todd recommends that you get rid of your TV and other distractions and try to connect with a community. To actually get this done, he cited a couple things: using easy tools like Flash, Gamemaker and Unity to get started building games quickly; learning colour theory (“If you don’t know it, learn it, it’s awesome”); and combining several easy cool art styles if you’re not great at art — e.g., combined circles, lines, shapes, tiny art. He emphasizes avoiding programmer OCD and getting bogged down in the small details (perfect spacing, comments, etc.) and focusing on getting the game out while staying motivated. Having a good relationship with other indie developers in town can be be crucial for this. “Don’t get ground down into making a dull game,” he cautions, “Get your game out early and get feedback so it’s fun.”

This is a re-post of an article I wrote last week on MochiLand. Original post linked here.