Making games by yourself is hard — but it's totally worth it.
I read somewhere that indie game devs who work alone typically make a lot less money (like, basically nothing) from their work than do teams. So basically, lone-wolfs can keep day-dreaming in their cubicles until they find some devs to work with. While this may be true, my experience has taught me that going solo can result in unique, cohesive pieces of art.
Several years ago, as a Freshman In college, I made a game called "Coma". It was during the final glory days of Flash game development, and as a result I found myself smiling for photographers at GDC 2010 in Austin, TX. I felt super cool, but soon began to wonder if it was all a fluke. That feeling of accomplishment began to fade in the days, weeks, and years of working late into the night on my current adventure game, Pinstripe. As of now, I’m hopeful I’m doing the right thing: pursuing my passion, year after year. But most of the time I feel like doing this thing completely alone was a big mistake. It’s those kinds of moments where it’s easy to look back at the last few years and wonder, "Why didn’t I just form a small team of devs, and crank out a couple more games, and become a millionaire?" (Sarcasm).
The answer for me is in one word: cohesiveness. When I talk about cohesiveness, I'm speaking in terms of all artistic elements working together effectively. Great games tend to have cohesive music, style, gameplay, and story. Ultimately, these elements work together to create an engaging atmosphere. It’s a bit like how a person’s voice, bearing, mannerisms, clothes, and eye-color all play a key role in building a distinct personality. I feel a game is very similar, and should be treated as such in development.
While all of this is wonderful in theory, I’m often tempted to give-up on the whole lone-wolf thing. To be sure, I have a folder full of unsent emails to potential artists, musicians, etc. But in the end, the benefit of being sure my vision is carried out has always been a priority. In my case, this is most easily achieved by just biting the bullet and doing it alone. By way of example, I tend to think music is the life-blood of a game. If the music doesn't fit the artistic style and mood of a game, the experience can become disorienting. The illustrations in Pinstripe are distinct, and having to communicate how the music should correlate to this style would have been very difficult for me. Not impossible — communicating ideas is how the video game industry works — but difficult, especially for me. My concern for budget, time, and my picky personality meant it would be best to take a couple months and just write the music alone. I realize this comes across as egocentric, but the end goal has always been to make a cohesive game that connects on an emotional level with the player.
Edge Wood is a prime example of this process. Edge Wood is the first level in Pinstripe — it’s cozy and snowy, but also in the middle of Hell. I’m not quite sure if this setting will jive with players, but I like to think that with the right music, art-style, and atmosphere, any setting, no matter how bizarre, can work. After four totally different songs written for Edge Wood, three art-styles, and varying sets of characters that were eventually nixed, I feel Edge Wood has reached a point where it emotionally clicks. It was a lengthy process, but the outcome was worth it, and I feel pretty good about it. I imagine this directionless back-and-forth would cost a lot with contractors, and a lot more when working with close friends. I’m sure this is one of the major reasons indie dev teams tend to fizzle — some starving artist is trying to change the world with a video game, and can’t seem to make up his mind about the first level of a game. Conversely, without a team, the work-load is heavy, but the burden is often light, leaving room for creativity and personality.
When it’s just me, a cup of coffee, and a couple ideas in the early morning before I head off to my day-job, a personal game like Pinstripe has the opportunity to become something more than just me. Sure, my small two hour game has taken almost three years to make, but I'm hopeful players will someday thank me for it. Stylistically, musically, and narratively, Pinstripe is from my heart. It has a distinct beat that I think is much more likely to influence players on an emotional level than if I had asked for help. If the statistics are accurate, I'm doomed to make around five dollars on Steam, but at least my game is out there. My little beating heart will soon be represented by a tiny thumbnail on the Steam store-front, and I like to think that's pretty cool.