So You Want to Be an Independent Game Developer…

Rick Kelly and Heroes Guard
Rick Kelly at Smithsonian’s Indie Arcade, showing Heroes Guard

Rick Kelly had a computer science degree, a strong background in C++, and a great job working on Elder Scrolls Online with ZeniMax… and a little game idea he was tossing around in his head.

Unfortunately, the big game studios often make employees sign contracts that stipulate that work done — even during personal time — is owned by the studio. So Rick Kelly took a deep breath and ventured out to start his own game company, UnderByte Studios, and program as a one-man band.

It’s an idea many programmers are tossing around in their heads, wondering what it would take to leave a well-loved job behind and bring their game to the app store. Rick Kelly is happy to tell you.

Have a Reason

It begins with having a reason to leave. The contract restrictions were obviously limiting, but the real reason Kelly opened his own company had to do with creative control. He explains, “You have to realize that in a company with hundreds of folks, you only have so much influence and involvement, especially if you are not working directly on the gameplay team.”

Think Up an Original Idea

Okay, so it’s hard to come up with a game that has never been made, but Kelly started with what he liked and looked at ways he could make it better. He liked gamebooks but found their replay value lacking.

The only real reason you would replay them is to actually try to win, because it was so easy to lose (much like CYOA books). You couldn’t necessarily take a different path to win. There were a limited set of paths that would lead you to the end of the book. So for Heroes Guard: The Journal, I set out to change all that! The game completely revolves around playing the game multiple times, multiple ways.

Be Your Own Boss

Being an independent programmer means treating your time as if you’re on the clock, because you are on the clock. It’s just that you’re answering to yourself instead of impressing your boss. Kelly recommends setting the alarm clock, pouring yourself a cup of coffee, and sitting down in your work space with the understanding that independent game making needs to be treated just like any other coding job.

Promote Yourself

Use your work time to not only create the game but start establishing yourself in the greater conversation taking place online. Kelly wasn’t active on social media before venturing out on his own, but he quickly set up accounts on the major sites and started learning the ropes, considering it all part of the job.

There’s More to Making a Game Than Making a Game

Sure, there’s the writing, art, and coding, but there is also the business end of things. You’ll need to be a quick study in marketing and the financial side of game making.

It can help to meet up with a mentor or a like-minded group of independent programmers so you can pool knowledge. Kelly is lucky that he lives in an area with an active game making community, but you can also find your people online. Going it alone shouldn’t really mean that you’re completely going it alone. You need to have a group for bouncing ideas and gathering feedback.

You’ll Wear a Lot of Hats

Kelly started out doing everything himself, but he has recently started to hire people to take tasks off his plate. At the same time, he has found this doesn’t necessarily save him time. “Instead of being the artist or writer, your job title changes to editor, director, and contracts manager.” It’s worth trying to find a business partner to pool resources, even if you make separate games.

Be Optimistic

Your first game will one day be released, and that day is coming up for Kelly.

The app literally just finished the review process and is now flagged as ready for release! I started building the community for the game at local conventions, and since I’ll be re-attending the place where I had my first convention for Heroes Guard, I’ll be launching the game this Friday, June 24th while at Too Many Games!

If you like the idea of a replayable gamebook, please like, share, retweet, rate, and comment to @UnderByteStudio and let me know!

Are you an independent game maker? What advice would you give others looking to start down this path?

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Melissa Ford writes women's fiction, but she does it while wearing a Superman shirt. A geek to the core, she is also the author of the award-winning site, Stirrup Queens which the Wall Street Journal named one of the top ten motherhood blogs. You can find her in all sorts of places around the web including Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, Google+, and Amazon. She completed her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her writer husband, Joshua, and their twins.