Developer Stories: Regolith Games
From Indie to Indie
Andrew Docking reflects on how a mildly successful games developer can achieve a long-held ambition of programming while wearing pyjamas.
My latest game KrissX is a fantastically sparkly and addictive word puzzle game which launched recently on Xbox LIVE Arcade, PC, Mac and Facebook. For our purposes it’s an indie game, although it’s best if you don’t ask me specifically what indie means. The vague and rambling answer that would result would be uncomfortable and dull for both of us. Still, it was my idea; I created it, paid for it, at least at the beginning, occasionally regretted it but eventually squeezed it out onto the market.
The departure from the now standard person-makes-indie-game-fuelled-only-by-passion
story is that I should’ve known better. After almost 15 years making games it begins to sink in that the games business is a risky and often difficult one. I started out making indie games when I didn’t know better, which slid smoothly and pleasingly quickly into something I did for money.
I had both an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to make video games ever since I was in school. I co-opted and cajoled a selection of school friends to help me with ambitious game projects throughout secondary school, often attracting the attention of teachers and, on occasion, the local newspaper. The results were invariably awful and incomplete, which was only to be expected when my solar-scale ambitions came up against my quantum-scale skills.
Fast-forward a relatively short time and I’d secured a publishing deal for my very own little-known game for a little-known platform. I very quickly became acquainted with the onrushing freight train of approaching deadlines which is the backbone of making games. Still, I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by (Credit where credit is due, the much lamented Douglas Adams).
Fast-forward again and I’d spent the best part of a decade in a responsible role in a very productive and ever-growing games company. There probably isn’t a game genre we didn’t touch. Some games were award-winning and critically acclaimed, some were massive best sellers. There were games simulating cities, games simulating people, games featuring both genders of Pac-person. Games with pirate ships and yet others featuring evolving creatures. Sports games with bikes, motorbikes, skates and skateboards. Games featuring comic superheroes and famous cartoon characters, kids’ toys and board games. It was ideal in many ways, so why change it?
It comes back to the desire to program while wearing pyjamas. It has to be said, I didn’t really need to leave my previous company to do that. It wouldn’t have been the strangest outfit at large in the office. No, what I really wanted was to scratch that entrepreneurial itch, to succeed or fail with my game
on my own terms
Leaving productive employment at the top of my particular shrub was a long considered and calculated risk but the growth of the so-called casual games business presented a slow-enough moving train that I could heroically jump onto.
Still, how hard could it be? I had a thorough understanding of the games business and game design. I knew exactly how to make games and, more importantly, finish them to schedule. I also confidently knew that overconfidence is a real pitfall. So like a good chap I set about preparing some solid ground rules. What’s more, I haven’t broken all
of these rules yet. I present them here for your amusement. They’re not recommendations if you’re planning to do something similar. You can break your own rules.
Pompous rule #1: If you can’t afford to lose it, don’t spend it.
I was prepared to invest my hard-earned-and-stashed money into the endeavour but I really couldn’t bet the whole farm. Besides, I didn’t have a farm.
Pompous rule #2: Fit the game design to the resources available.
There wasn’t much point in making half an epic and breaking the first rule enroute to bringing nothing to market. It’d be like taking a swan dive into an empty swimming pool - spectacular yet painful.
There’s only so far money can stretch when making a game, it’s generally not very far. There aren’t any prizes for a game that feels unfinished and unpolished. I needed a simple but engaging concept that would preferably generate its own content and replay value. KrissX
was the resulting game design. Happily, people are enjoying it, with a good number investing upwards of 50 hours playing it.
At this point I feel you’ve earned a bit of a break from this narrative. You are now permitted to play KrissX
, perhaps buy several copies and of course come back. I’ll be waiting.
Pompous rule #3: Create solid foundations on which to build a company, even if there may be no opportunity to use it.
Having built a lot of technology and tools on a range of platforms in the past, I learned repeatedly that just being able to do the basics really, really well
was the key to gaining more opportunities and then being able to capitalise on them.
was only ever intended as a PC game. Why spend so long making sure it was built with a solid foundation and more platforms in mind? I didn’t know what was going to come up, but it was better to stand in the correct queue and be prepared for it if it did. As it turned out, Xbox 360 was the launch platform.
So, programming in pyjamas has worked out pretty well, wouldn’t you say? In many ways it has. I was expecting to have a few problems actually making the game but that part was almost entirely trouble-free. A few problems did crop up though which my standard-issue and often foggy brain failed to anticipate. I’ll elaborate.
A good idea is a good idea. It should still be a good idea whether it’s just popped up or you’ve been thinking about it for several weeks. It can however be a different story when you’ve been thinking about it constantly and working on it for over six months. This ebbing of confidence is especially acute when you’re staring at the paltry remains of a previously generous-looking budget. Was this really such a great idea? Having a set of friendly colleagues around you serves to smooth out any dips in confidence. And, it has to be said, when you’re an employee it’s a great deal easier on the nerves spending company money.
Getting the finished product onto the market presented no small barrier. At the outset I felt the game needed a partner that would get behind the concept, see its potential and give it the best chance to succeed in a crowded market. A couple of casual games publishers did show interest in taking the game exclusively and putting some energy into promotion, but the rest were more than happy to take the game on a non-exclusive basis. Eventually, I simply settled on a release with any and all publishers who would take it and sitting back to see how it did. Further plans shelved, time to find a job.
Rather by accident through ex-colleagues and mutual friends, KrissX
found its way to Blitz Games Studios
– a large, established, well-known and well-respected game development studio. To their credit they saw potential in the game and in partnership we made improvements to the design and gave KrissX
a chance at life on the popular console download platforms. In fact, the arrangement seemed to be working well enough for both KrissX
and another indie title, Buccaneer
, that Blitz formalised the programme into what is now known as Blitz 1UP
Fast forward a short time to the launch of KrissX
on Xbox LIVE Arcade in partnership with Konami, on PC, Mac and Facebook with more likely to follow. It’s definitely a case of so far, so good.
In all honesty, this recent period of game development hasn’t really been that much different day to day than the games I’ve worked on in the past. I always work hard, work to deadlines, I work standard office hours with occasional slabs of overtime, I have a set of friendly colleagues at Blitz 1UP. I just happen to work for a smaller company than I have done previously, but it’s my company
this time. So, is this whole indie game development thing really what I hoped it would be? In short, yes, especially if you can get the backing of a good partner like Blitz 1UP
After all that, I’ve discovered I don’t like programming in pyjamas anyway. It’s too draughty.
About Regolith Games
Regolith Games is a small developer dedicated to making games that anyone and everyone can enjoy playing. Regolith was founded in 2007 by Andrew Docking, an experienced game maker with an extensive background of well over 30 titles across a wide range of platforms. http://www.regolithgames.com
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