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  1. This interview was conducted by Indie Ranger. Check out their interviews and indie games coverage at https://indieranger.com. Also learn more and read about the progress of Something Ate My Alien from @RoKabium Games on their GameDev.net blog. Looking at the credits for a AAA title can give an idea about how many people it takes to make a video game. With that in mind, it’s easy to think video games require a huge staff and budget to get produced. However, indie games often prove it can take only one or two people to create amazing games. Rob Donovan and Kat Langwagen are two such people. They founded RoKabium Games and began their project, Something Ate My Alien, simply because they wanted to create it. “We wanted something to call our own,” Donovan said. “I worked most of my career at huge international companies. When we felt we broke away from that contracting market and had a pause we thought we should try doing something ourselves.” Kat Langwagen (left) and Rob Donovan (right). The duo dev team and founders of RoKabium Games. (Photo: Courtesy of RoKabium Games) Something Ate My Alien is RoKabium Games’ first project. Donovan says he had little experience designing games besides a level he made for Portal,but he has been coding his entire career. Kat Langwagen went to school for a teaching degree but says she was always drawn to artistic projects. First she became interested in digital art after reading about it in 2005. “I was absolutely blown away with what you could do with art on a computer,” she says. “From that point on I knew I wanted to focus on digital art.” After she felt confident enough in her abilities as a digital artist, Langwagen began working on videogame assets. “From there on it just went forward,” she said. “I started picking up more and more work on games and getting a bigger and bigger interest in it. I really enjoyed it.” After brainstorming some other ideas—including a much larger, 3D sci-fi mmo—RoKabium Games settled on creating Something Ate My Alien, a digging game inspired by games such as Terraria and Spelunky. Digging up the Dirt on a Digging Game Along with the more contemporary titles, Something Ate My Alien was also inspired by the retro Boulder Dash series. Langwagen said the decision was largely based on the style of games she liked playing. Langwagen said she wanted the gameplay of digging for treasure and fighting monsters of the retro game but done in a modern style. “For me, digging and finding stuff as you fought through enemies is something I haven’t seen a lot of since Boulder Dash,” she said. “There are a few, and when we found Terraria, I really loved that style. It reminded me of those retro games.” A look at one of the later levels. Complete with particle and lighting effects. (Photo: Courtesy of RoKabium Games) The simple execution but super fun gameplay of the digging game is what Langwagen said she really likes. “It has something to do with the gathering in a 2D-fashion,” she said. “You don’t need anything complicated. The simplicity, I think, is what really attracted us to this style of games.” Donovan said he thinks he spent about one-thousand hours playing Terraria, which may be the reason he likes digging games. The Duo on Game Design Other than a few sound and visual effects, Something Ate My Alien is 100 percent developed by Donovan and Langwagen. “Because he can code and she can do the artwork and assets,” Donovan said. “We started the project without realizing we could manage to do everything,” he said. “Of course, it would be way easier with more people, but there are other problems with bigger team.” Donovan described the workload as about 50/50 and Langwagen agreed. “I think we compliment each other well,” she said. “We have the two major parts of the game sorted. It’s worked really well with just the two of us.” Something Ate My Alien is developed with the Unity engine. Donovan said they chose it because it was free, downloadable and user friendly. “[Unity] is probably the reason we’re able to produce the game,” he said. “Although I would like to build my own engine, that would probably add another three or four years to making a game.” A game engine is the software framework a video game is built around. The engine renders graphics and make the game’s AI work. Doing All the Art Solo Coding a game can be complex, and art and asset design is a tough task as well. Langwagen said she loves making art and designing things for the game, but it’s a lot of work. “I think the most difficult thing about making the art is the scope of it,” she said. “There are so much art and assets in a game.” Langwagen has worked with a larger studio before. On a team, she said, you get divided into groups and you work on a smaller part. However, doing all the artwork solo for a game from start to finish is a massive challenge. “It’s not just the tiles in the game,” she said. “It’s also the enemy designs, the logos and promotional stuff. It’s everything that’s seen. There’s such a wide variety of artwork.” Langwagen said her folder of art and assets has over 6,000 different files. Even after an asset is created, getting it into the game is also a challenge. Donovan said lighting effects often change the colors and he needs to tweak it to get things looking right. “The lighting is one of the hardest areas,” he said. “It can be quite frustrating at times getting the lighting exactly right to get the art how Kat wanted the actual colors to be in the game.” Donovan and Langwagen also spent a lot of time getting the HUD and GUI looking and working well. The HUD menu in Something Ate My Alien. Designing these things is harder than it seems. (Photo: Courtesy of RoKabium Games) Art is Langwagen’s passion. She loves painting and drawing and says if you love what you do, it hardly feels like work. “Doing [this] everyday—no matter what it is—it’s fun,” she said. “I have fun everyday at work. If you’re going to pull off a project like this, you have to have fun.” The Duo on Being a Two-Person Team Bigger games have bigger teams so they can be released within a certain time frame—usually under a publisher’s deadline. On the other hand, indie games are worked on at the developer’s discretion. RoKabium Games and other small indie teams show the secret to creating a great game is the time and dedication put into it. Something Ate My Alien is a lot more work than Donovan and Langwagen were expecting. “We were working easily seven days a week,” Donovan said. “From nine in the morning to 11 at night. It’s been a continuous slog for two-and-a-half years.” Even devoting so much time into the game, it’s a lot of work for just two people to do. “If you’re going to do a project like this with so few people, you have to be able to work well with each other,” Langwagen said. The work is divided fairly evenly between the two. Since Donovan does the coding and Langwagen does the artwork, the two stay somewhat segmented and, according to Donovan, the system works well. “It’s good we don’t interject too much on each other’s side,” he said. “We don’t have too many disagreements because we’re each our own department.” The two developers said time management is one of the most important things needed to make a video game. With all the time and effort need to create Something Ate My Alien, the thing that drives them forward is seeing people enjoy what they made. Sometimes, things aren’t going to go well. Langwagen said using social media and promoting the game can be like a roller coaster. They don’t always get the reaction they were hoping for. “You get days when you get very little feedback and you feel down,” she said. “Then you get very good days and it evens all that out. But we know, as long as we keep doing the work, we will get there.” This interview was conducted by Indie Ranger. Check out the rest of their developer interviews and indie games coverage at https://indieranger.com.
  2. IndieRanger

    9 Tips on Making an Indie Game from a Solo Developer

    Thanks, @slayemin! We're glad you liked it. We hope you get what you need to finish it up
  3. Contributed by Steven Large from Indie Ranger. Check out their coverage of up-and-coming indie games and developers! Developing a video game solo offers amazing creative freedom and incredibly difficult challenges. Anyone who's worked solo on any kind of project — by choice or otherwise — knows how difficult it is to do all the work by themselves. Managing all the planning and making sure every little piece fits together to make the vision from back in the “Ideas” stage a reality is a stressful endeavor — and when there’s a problem, there’s no one to blame but yourself. Eric Nevala (@slayemin), the founder of Wobbly Duck Studios in Seattle, Washington, knows the struggle of solo developing a game from scratch. He’s been working on his game Spellbound for more than five years now and it has not always been easy, even before he started on the game. His experience in being a solo developer allows him to offer a lot of tips on what it will be like for anyone thinking of creating their own video game, or any other kind of product. Tip #1: Get a foundation: you’ll need some knowledge and experience You can’t paint a good portrait without understanding how colors work, nor can you make a good video game without understanding how coding works. Nevala first wanted to become a software developer back when he was 14 years old. He was playing Commander Keen, an old-school platformer where you collect all sorts of different candy and jump on monsters with a pogo stick, when he had an epiphany. “One day over the summer, it dawned on me,” he said. “I was like ‘holy crap! Somebody made my favorite game!’ I want to make a game too. I discovered you have to be a programmer if you want to make games. Whatever it takes to make games, I’m going to [do] that.” This was back in the days before the internet had really become a thing, so there was no YouTube or tech forums to use as a learning tool. Nevala said he tried to teach himself QBasic, a beginners programming language, using an unhelpful help file. “It was really challenging and I almost gave up,” he said. His high school offered introductory classes in visual programming, so he took them and did well because he was extremely motivated. However, as the classes became more advanced, he started to do less well. Still, his dream of making a video game was in his grasp, so he kept pushing forward. After finishing high school and some college, Nevala started working in software development as an independent contractor, mostly building HTML websites. He then served in the Marine Corps as a reservist in the civil affairs unit. As a webmaster for the unit, it was his job to build a reconstruction management tool that would be used to help rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure after the initial invasion in 2003. “We had all these different projects being done by all these different units, like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy Construction Battalion and no one was really tracking anything,” Nevala said. “It was all pretty much just Excel spreadsheets. So I spent about three months building a tool from the ground up.” Three months worth of consecutive 18-hour days and 20,000 lines of code later and Nevala had given the reconstruction effort a better way to manage its projects. He said the impetus for working so hard was to help the people of Iraq. “The idea was the faster I get this project done, the faster we can bring peace to the country,” Nevala said. “That was my motivation behind it.” After serving, Nevala worked as a contractor in Afghanistan for 18 months, saving everything he could to get his company started. He founded Wobbly Duck Studios in 2013. Tip #2: Have a goal in mind Having something you want to accomplish with the product you’re making will go a long way in keeping you motivated to work on it. When Nevala built the management tool in Iraq, he wanted to help bring peace to the region. With Spellbound, he wants to make people better through storytelling. “I think people fight each other because of misunderstandings and misalignments in values,” Nevala said. “My idea is the way people get their values in partially informed by the media they consume — and that includes video games — so maybe I can use games to help people become better by informing some ideas in them.” Nevala believes storytelling in any media is a way of instilling values in people. With Spellbound, he wants to tell engaging stories and make people take a step back to think about other worldviews and give people a better way of understanding of one another. “My goal with Spellbound is to tell stories which give people a better idea on how they act and what the nature of evil is,” he said. “The hope is through all these different stories and morals, people become better.” Tip #3: Your plans are going to change Spellbound didn’t start out as an immersive VR roleplaying game. Like many others before it, the project began its life as something completely different. In fact, Spellbound started out as a turn-based strategy game. The only similarity between how the first version and what it is now was that it focused on wizards. “It was supposed to be game that I thought would be fun to play,” Nevala said. “I felt like no one up to the point had done battle with wizards correctly, so I wanted to change that. I wanted to bring a new scale of combat to the battlefield.” Then Nevala got hold of some VR equipment after checking out the Oculus Rift in a bar and the development went onto a different course. With a brand new market to tap into, he had some brand new ideas. “The market on Steam is super competitive, especially for indie developers,” Nevala said. “I was looking at that and thinking it was terrifying. If I released something that got lost in the ocean of games out there before anyone got to play it, that would be a massive disappointment.” VR had just come out and Nevala thought it was a way he could differentiate himself and thrive in the market. “It’s a lot easier to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big ocean,” he said. Tip #4: You’re going to need help It would be something else if you developed a game completely on your own but even if you are a jack-of-all-trades, you are probably only a master of some. You will need outside help for all the things you can’t do. When Nevala opened Wobbly Duck Studios he worked alone for about a year and Spellbound is a game initiated and built by him. Still, a game isn’t a game without visuals and he needed an artist. So he hired one named Dan Lane. “Dan is one of the only people who also contributed significantly into this project,” Nevala said. “I say it’s my game but there are others who worked on it with me, and for the most part the bulk of the effort has been Dan and [me].” Sometimes you have to look for help, sometimes it might reach out to you. In 2015 Nevala was beginning to show off his game. It had the visuals, it had the gameplay but it was lacking in music. Frantz Widmaier, an independent composer, saw the game on Reddit and offered to make the music for it. “The cool thing about writing music for VR is you’re looking at a scene when you’re looking at a level,” Widmaier said. “You’re immersed in the environment so I could create a more engaged soundtrack.” Sometimes when independent artists work together things click just right and it’s a good experience for everyone. “It was really great working for [Nevala],” Widmaier said. “He always seems like he’s working on something cutting-edge. I’m usually the one looking to try this or try that but this time it was him.” Sidebar: The art of the trade Getting outside help doesn’t have to cost a lot. Sometimes, who you know can be a source of new talent. Nevala works in a shared office space and one of the other tenants, Cody Cannell who was working there in 2015, happened to be a musician who wanted to learn about game development. So Nevala reached out and offered him a trade. If Cannell made some sound effects for Spellbound, Nevala would teach him how to program a video game. The project was simple, just a small Pong-like game. But that was enough to spur Cannell on to seek a more formal education in software development. Nevala got something he needed as well. Cannell used his own voice to make the sound effects for the zombie and wraith enemies in Spellbound. Tip #5: Recognize when something just isn’t worth it. Even though Nevala had some seed money saved up and some consulting jobs going on the side, he quickly learned game development is expensive. He went to an event where he would pitch his product to a group of investors hoping they would invest in him and his game but the whole thing turned out to be a bust. “It was really just a bunch of old people with a lot of money sitting around and drinking wine,” Nevala said. “We took turns pitching our ideas and were ranked based on our performance. Theoretically, the winner would have been given some money but the reality is no one got any money and the investors just got drunk.” In terms of performance, Nevala was dead last. Trying to pitch a VR game to a bunch of old people who don’t really know what a video game is, let alone VR, is a tough thing to sell. “It’s like speaking Greek to them,” Nevala said. “If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn’t do it in the first place. I had to pay $500 for the ‘privilege’ of speaking to them. It was a waste of time and money.” The biggest lessons Nevala learned from dealing with investors were one: developing software and selling it are two different things entirely and two: he was going to hear the word ‘no’ a lot. “One of my biggest takeaways is that you need to do 50 pitches before you get good at it and you’re going to hear no 50 times,” he said. “But you have to get through those 50 to get the yes.” However, losing money is the way of business. At a different event, Nevala spoke to a CEO named Archie Gupta who told him he needed to be prepared to lose 50% of his money. “When he told me that I looked at where I was with my company and I realized he was telling the truth,” Nevala said. “When you’re a startup, you’re like a blind person walking from one end of a maze to the other. To get to the end, your going to walk down a bunch of paths that are dead ends, but you won’t know it’s a dead end until you reach the end and you have to turn around and try a different path.” Tip #6: Learn to make do with what you have In 2015, Nevala had a working demo for Spellbound, he just needed a way to show it off and PAX, a massive gaming convention held in several cities in the US — including Seattle — seemed like a great way to get people playing his game. “If you wanted a booth at PAX you needed to pay a ridiculous amount of money,” Nevala said. “The other option was to be part of the Indie MEGABOOTH. I had put myself in but they didn’t accept me because they thought my game wasn’t up to par or I wasn’t active enough in the community.” So, he wasn’t actually in PAX, but he wanted the public to play his game and his office is across the street from Benny Royal Hall, right in the conventions gravity well. He was able to use the PAX pull to grab a few of the attendees for himself using some homemade sandwich boards, laminated posters and his girlfriend asking people to come up and play his game. “We had about 100 people come in that day,” Nevala said. “The feedback that we got was pretty good.” He said the validation he got from people made him feel like he was on the right track and all he needed to do was keep polishing the game and making it better. Tip #7: Inspiration is Everywhere During the PAX-adjacent showcase in his office, a little girl about 8-years old wanted to play the game. “Does it have fairies?” She asked. “No, no fairies,” Nevala told her. “What about unicorns?” “No, no unicorns either. It’s kind of a dark and scary game,” he said. Still, the girl wanted to try it. She put on the VR headset and loaded in. Like everyone else that day, she was awestruck by the virtual world that surrounded her. She gleefully looked around the star-filled sky and atmospheric forest. Until she saw the first zombie come shambling toward her. That’s when she started crying and ripped the (expensive) headset off and ran to her mom. An embarrassing moment for some but Nevala thought it was a moment to rethink how he was going to make his game. “The original game was supposed to be about this red wizard using elemental magic but for this little girl, I want to make a game that she would be happy playing,” he said. “Something totally not violent. So the next series, if I get that far, is going to be about a sorceress of light who uses diplomacy and peaceful magic to bring peace to the world.” Even gameplay mechanics can be inspired by everyday events. One of Spellbound’s more innovative features is locomotion. Instead of using teleportation or a trackpad, the wizard is controlled by the player swinging their arms back and forth. “I can’t have people teleporting away from the zombies,” Nevala said. “That would completely negate the fear factor. I needed something that felt natural and didn’t break the game mechanics.” After about a month of brainstorming a locomotion system, Nevala was walking to work and he noticed he was swinging his arms as he walked. “That became the stroke of genius moment for me,” he said. “I spent about a month trying to make that work. It was challenging because people walk forward based on where their hips are facing, not their heads. It was difficult making the system work in VR, about 3 weeks of design challenge to discover and overcome.” Tip #8: You Might Fail, and Fail Hard With a lack of investors and no motivation to find any, Nevala’s money started to run out. In 2016 Dan Lane, the artist Nevala had worked with on so much of the game had to quit. Mounting financial pressure had stymied Spellbound’s development and Nevala was running side businesses renting out rooms and his car so he could keep his office. Debt and a starving-artist diet continued in and out for a few years with an occasional contracting job to help keep things going, but in November of 2018, Nevala hit what he called a “rock bottom” moment. “I had zero money, nothing,” he said. “I hadn’t eaten in a few days or if I had it was just oatmeal. Just enough to get me through to the next day. I needed to make money as fast as I could. It was a really scary time.” He was mad at himself for letting it get to this point. Not because he was doing poorly in his earnings, but because he had paid off a debt entirely. “I shouldn’t have done that,” Nevala said. “I needed to make sure I had enough money to fill my belly.” Tip #9: Don’t Give Up! Remember What You’re Trying to Make In order to make some grocery money, Nevala tried selling some wine-openers at a farmers market using what he calls the ugliest tent. It was grueling to watch people go by and do demo after demo without making a sale. But at the end of the day, he managed to make a little cash. Enough to buy some food. “It was a good experience,” Nevala said. “It showed me when my back is against the wall I can still sell. I can make things happen.” Even with the money troubles and the sheer amount of work and uncertainty involved with solo developing a game, Nevala keeps working on it, little by little. “I’m putting so much effort into it because I think it’s my magnum opus,” he said. “It’s the masterpiece of art that’s an expression of my identity. If it takes me 10 years to produce this game than so be it. It’s going to be what speaks to who I am. For Nevala, Spellbound is the work of art that will live on after him. “If you look at the painters from the Renaissance, they are outlived by the art they created,” he said. “They are remembered for what they made. Hopefully, this will be not only a part of who I am but something that will change the way people look at the world.” Nevala said his challenges are in no way unique. The struggle he faces to make his game is something almost all indie developers deal with. "[These challenges] are something every indie dev, especially a solo dev will face," he said. "The ones that survive are very few and far between. It's like winning the lottery but the ones that survive get all the visibility and that turns into inspiration for the rest of us." "Indie Ranger is a niche website dedicated to covering independently made video games. Our coverage spans reviews, previews, interviews, profiles, showcases and more. At Indie Ranger, we want to show you the greatest games that you've never heard of!" Check out more indie game reviews and interviews at Indie Ranger. Twitter: @indieranger Instagram: @indieranger Facebook: theindieranger
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