Starting from Scratch
Published 3 years ago
Our crash course in indie game development
At the start of 2013, we as a team of five quit our jobs, leaving that typical, entertainment-media "big data" oriented start-up to do something that we all truly loved, "Lets build something we are proud of and interested in, for ourselves this time!" The only problem being, we had too many ideas; too many passion projects and opportunities for such a small team. Our grand vision was to create interesting, sellable products, and keep some contracts going to help fund everyone's Great Idea.
Might sound familiar to some. And it worked for awhile. We called it our Collaboration Laboratory. Small contracts and one-off projects helped bring in a trickle of money on which to survive until our Next Big Thing could be figured out.
One of our two longterm projects became HEVN, a first-person adventure sci-fi mystery game. For the first year and a half, Larry was the only team member focused solely on its development. The rest of the team was there as a sounding board and for moral support.
It didn't take long for the small contracts and odd jobs to run out, and the team whittled down to two remaining members. That was a tough, emotional change. HEVN was then and now the only priority, however, it unexpectedly became reinvigorating. 
The vision and mission of our little studio centered on game development only, and specifically HEVN.
We were starting from scratch.
The only experience we had at building a game was Larry's solo 18 months experimenting with Unity, different prototype games, and early versions of HEVN. He chose Unity because it looked really well suited to mobile releases and the learning curve looked a little less steep. Instead of learning every application on its own, like Photoshop, Blender, etc.. he focused on building the game and the workflow needed to actually get stuff done.
My name is Mat, and unlike Larry I didn't have a passion for games. My background was solidly rooted in automation and video. The last game I played to completion was Star Wars - Shadows of the Empire on N64. Though it was fun, it didn't pique my interest enough to continue playing games, or consider becoming a game developer. Well, things have certainly changed now. 
Our remaining cash evaporated. We were unsure of our future. But thanks to the tremendous family support we received we were able to take that leap.... to try and release something we cared about. We worked remotely (co-working space was impossible, even being able to afford living in the same city was a no-go) spending at least 2 hours everyday in video conferencing and coding the rest. 
Although we were motivated and full of, "We can do this!", there were some challenges immediately ahead of us. Without any extra money, Larry had to continue using his cramped 13" Early 2011 MacBook with Intel HD 3000 graphics. And though HEVN had a basic structure and layout, there wasn't any real gameplay or story. Financial ruin was just around the bend. And lastly, I didn't know anything about game development.
The low target hardware spec of Larry's laptop dictated many things about HEVN's design in the beginning, and forced the creation of some custom tech; a fast real-time culling manager for both indoors and outdoor scenes, a custom audio manager to handle filtering, and a custom lighting manager to handle real-time lights and shadows as efficiently as possible. We were forced to deal with performance and efficiency very early on.
After some early (mixed) feedback, these last 8 months had us creating new robotic NPCs with flexible dialog, a deep backstory, and an emotional foundation for the main character, Sebastian Mar... our intrepid adventurer. We built more complex challenges, more dangerous AI critters to defeat, and widened the scope of the experience while attempting to tighten gameplay, the mystery, and the fun-factor.
As our hopes for HEVN rose, the story and its characters started to take shape, evolving through countless hours spent each day going through their details and motivations again and again.  The narrative approach we adopted pushed our mechanics, and new gameplay possibilities opened up new storyline opportunities. It was a vicious cycle of feature creep that we tried hard to control, failing miserably, but feel the game is better for it.
Story is very important in HEVN. Its also an aspect of the game untouched by performance concerns, we really got a chance to let loose. I brought some of my previous skills to bear, creating an automated tool chain for dialog and metadata creation, handling, and translation. This encouraged rapid iterations of the whole narrative, letting us experiment and build on each other's ideas, weaving story interactions throughout the entire player experience. 
Larry's had a year and a half head start on me using Unity, learning from the ground up on his own. I've benefited by learning on the job and avoiding early mistakes. We read about game development veraciously, 4-layer narrative design, game mechanics, keeping players engaged and in flow, and all those frightful postmortems...  Could we really do this? Could the two of us create a decent first-person game? 
We hope so. I personally can't think of doing anything else this interesting. This will be our first game, hopefully some folks will like it enough to springboard us onto our second.... where we won't have to start from scratch!
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Larry Johnson