Where We’ve Been and Where we are – Part 1
First written on December 26, 2019 – 4 months into development
Being a creative lead and project manager of a small independent development team has changed my perspective on game development. No article, video essay, or GDC presentation can compare to the experience of assembling a team and seeing what they can accomplish in the span of two to three months of actual development (coding, asset creation, coordination, etc). Before I go any further, let me say that I have enjoyed the process so far, not only for the happiness and triumphs but for the stress, the anxiety, and the creative management challenges that made the effort unlike any other professional experience I am aware of.
No longer can I hold the same sympathies and criticisms toward developers as I did when I was but a simple consumer. “What the hell are they doing to take so long” has become “what the hell are they doing to take so long?” My cynicism towards development teams has evolved as well. The following question no longer means the same thing as it did when I was a player awed at the magic behind the craft: “If developer A can do X in this amount of time, then what the hell is developer B doing with all this time and money?” Documentation on development processes and the day-to-day specifics isn’t easy to come across. Even videos offering an “insider’s view” or a tour around a studio offer an idealized picture and not so much of an outline aspiring or independent developers can follow.
The purpose of this blog
I, Gabe Mulbern, creative lead, project manager, founder, and head writer at Skull Jockey, am writing these blog entries to not only share our development progress but also provide semi-regular insights into game development. Skull Jockey is a peculiar experiment in indie game development as far as I am aware. Among the many would-be game designers who pitch their idea on internet forums and message boards with little to no money to spend on paying people a regular salary, none or very few have come as far as the team at Skull Jockey and myself have. Perhaps we are an anomaly, or perhaps we’re just the usual attempt that’s destined to go down like the Hindenburg. Nonetheless, it is my hope that this blog not only generates interest and support for our game, but also serves as a thorough and unique insight (fortune be with or against us) for other aspiring developers into the process of game development from an “indie” perspective.
A Prologue to a Summary
Allow me to catch everyone up to speed who hasn’t been on the development team. Our wee origins stem from mid-summer 2019. Sometime in July, I pitched the idea of what would be later called “Residual Blood” to an artist I had known for several years going by the username, Ploobul. The pitch itself wasn’t planned but was more spontaneous, and was quite the deviation from the idea that started it all. I’ll likely go over the origins of Residual Blood in a separate entry in the future, and I’ll lay out how it’s changed from this pitch and the original, original idea I had when I started making entries in notebooks.
After hearing my pitch, Ploobul asked if I needed any help with assets.
As we started to put time and effort into the project, we realized that we would need additional outside talent. This was before any major recruitment began. I posted some recruitment messages in communities and circles I’m a part who would likely have had the talent I was looking for. These early pitches of the idea received some interest and inquiry from onlookers in those communities and circles, but no one had the talent or knew anyone looking for a game development project that didn’t offer a regular wage. I wasn’t too keen on taking out a loan for a project that could go suddenly tits up along the way having just graduated university and working in retail. Perhaps it might have helped, but the risk of development going cold (for reasons only the future would know) or even the game not selling as much as it had to was too much. The last thing I wanted was to be the creative lead of a game that treated players as simply consumers rather than patrons.
In August, we had three team members: Ploobul, myself, and toward the end of the month, “Archie”. The demo’s concept was a 2D isometric shooter, story focused, pixelated with a high-resolution style. I had developed a story for the main title and had begun laying out for my fellow team members the leading threads of a simple but ambitious demo story that would be a self-contained thematic and world-establishing prologue. I intended to do some of the coding but with assistance. My intention originated from a few reasons, the most prominent and resolute of which was putting a game that could tell the intended narrative. And by tell I don’t mean a game that forgets its a game and becomes a narrative gallery with gameplay with little thought or that exists as an after thought.
By now I had already begun coding the game in Game Maker Studio 2. I continued to familiarize myself with the GML language and the engine’s capabilities while Ploobul and Archie began contributing simple assets. Ploobul took over for conceptual work while Archie did more technical-administrative asset creation. He created several drafts for logos and banners, some of which are still used.
Life commitments limited what both could contribute and slowed my progress in learning the GML language. It became clear at that point that should this project continue, a more aggressive approach of recruitment would be necessary. Rather than shamelessly solicit the project on Discord servers and forums, I drafted and then posted several job ads on IndieDB, donating to the site as well to boost their visibility on the ad list. With the assistance of the other two team members, we made some nice IndieDB profiles for the team and the game itself. Looking back, I think the profile did help boost interest in the game not so much for what was written but simply for the appearance of taking development seriously. IndieDB has been the most effective at finding new talent, and I must thank both Ploobul and Archie for their creative work.
It was about this time that I made our first version of the player character. Joe began as a cut-out sketch (provided by Ploobul) that zipped around a grey 2D world with hidden Heelys in his boots. His posture was resolutely erect, and though he moved, he could not be shaken from standing with a straight back and an optimal load-bearing posture. Neither did his legs move, for with great strength they stood stiff as his mere force of will drove him to and fro according to the will of an invisible creator looking down from above, pushing buttons that drove his most primal of instincts: “I must scoot.” When he turned, he turned with such absolute devotion and commitment that the physicality of his corporal form moved without motion to face, face-forward, the new direction he now accelerated in.
Nothing can compare to that private call when I revealed via screen-share the fruits of the work the three of us had put in. Surely, we thought, there would have a publicly available demo by the end of October 2019 at the latest.
September was a swift month.
The month began with an ambitious recruiting initiative following a transition to Unity 2D. This decision was the result of a few discussions relating to the project’s future and what would make development quicker. Inevitably, we would need to recruit more skilled team members down the road, and more talent exists for C# and Unity than GML and Game Maker Studio 2. We also agreed that now was the time to make this transition, as from the start we intended to have development be as efficient as possible.
Not much had been added to the Medley of Scootin’ Joe at this point, making the transition to Unity easy. GML code was rewritten into C# (following the lead of some tutorials), old assets were imported, and some work was done to adjust the camera and map grid to fit an isometric view. It was at this time that we were full committed to the idea of a game simple in construction. Isometric, sprites, and a map constructed from sets of 3D tiles. I also wished for different floors and varying terrain all easily accessible in a 2D scape, and I researched ways on how to accomplish this in an isometric 2d environment. Research lead to discussion, and in turn Ploobul and Archie, while skeptical of this interest, would come to share it in their own way. Unbeknownst to us, this come desire would shape the direction of development later on.
Our choice to use Unity stemmed looking into engines open to the public and user-friendly. Few others matched the Unity and Unreal engines in these qualities. What pushed us to choose Unity over Unreal was the infamous nature of the leadership at Epic Games and their business practices. Sure, taking the chance of having more money offered to us by Epic would be nice, but I am not interested in promoting, condoning by mutual benefit, or further enabling Epic Game’s business practices (as financially benefiting Tim Sweeney would be no different from doing the same with Bobby Kotick). Likewise, the Epic Store is not as user friendly as other distribution platforms.
After transitioning engines came recruitment: we were open to recruiting beginners and entry-level recruits, and of course came across all sorts of people falling within the range of “beginner talent”: from the pleasant to the obnoxious in personality and work.
We kept our standards within a realistic ballpark for what we were asking: artists who could do higher-resolution pixelated art, coders who could program logic and were willing to figure out the systems, and sound designers who were looking for an entry gig. Still, we encountered art asset applicants with either very limited portfolios, portfolios that didn’t match the resume, and occasionally portfolios that were questionable in how they were shared. One instance that still sticks with me is one applicant who kept sending a “demonstration of work” in .zip and .exe files even after I insisted and suggested twice that he put his portfolio online either as a YouTube video or uploaded to a reputable image hosting site such as Imgur, Artstation, or even DeviantArt. I stopped responding to him after he ignored my insistence.
Less than a handful of coders who applied came not from IndieDB but on Itch.io. I was warned ahead of time that decent coders that know their worth won’t work for free unless the project really grabbed their attention. Eventually, we did find one coder, which was great as while Archie did say he was familiar with coding, nothing came to fruition on his end in terms of writing any code.
Sound Designers were an odd but interesting bunch. They kept pouring in by five or six individuals a week on average from IndieDB, and came in all “shapes and sizes”. Some demanded upwards of seventy-five British pounds for a minute of audio, and others would during the interview process become very confrontational and patronizingly cautious about the project. Even so, the amount of applicants was overwhelming and put me in a position I’d only dream of having: picking and choosing who to keep and who to let go. I’m terrible when it comes to that kind of decision as I prefer to hoard what I find to be valuable despite the risks. Eventually we whittled down a list of twenty potential applicants to ten, and then proceeded to interview the remainder. I remember telling Ploobul that if all else failed in terms of game development, at least we would have an amazing soundtrack. This little joke began to pop up in interviews and discussions with new team members. Till this day, its one of those jokes that we like to bring up whenever discussing about the success-to-failure chance our project has.
If there’s any main theme to span the game development experience (as a creative lead and project manager), its that being on the other side of the fence really changes one’s perspective. Evaluating resumes/CV’s, portfolios, answering emails, sending out letters of rejection, and conducting interviews for each applicant gave me a sense of pride as well as sympathy for those assigned into hiring and recruiting positions. One of the most prevalent issues that I kept running across was interviewees not reading the job ad, not even skimming its main points. Having interviewees ask certain questions or give answers contrary to what was asked for in the job ad at first irritated me, then frustrated me, annoyed the hell out of me, and then made me jaded about the whole “job ad” process. My expectations sunk further and further until I was brought to the state of mind where I prepared at the start of every interview to recite the job ad to make sure the applicant I was talking to who submitted a portfolio and resume wasn’t going to ask if we offered a 401k package by any chance.
Quite a few applicants paid little attention to not only what was written in the job ad, but also the job ad’s type. On IndieDB, the job ad can go in one of two categories relating to financial compensation. I posted the first salvo of job ads under “unpaid” and had several people ask what the starting salary was. A few were confused and upset when I told them nothing until we get crowdfunding. One didn’t know about this non-existent salary until he was way past the recruitment phase and the initial interview. We were several meetings into working with him when he suddenly dropped the “so when am I getting my weekly paycheck” question on us.
I told him as I had told everyone else that initially there would be no financial compensation for work, and none until we got crowdfunding/publisher support. He told Ploobul and I that he needed a paying job, and insisted that I explicitly outlined in our email correspondence paying him fifteen dollars an hour for his work. Highly skeptical and sweating bullets, I went back and checked our exchange. Lo and behold, not a single word proved his point, but rather leaned to the contrary. Everything stated or strongly implied that there is no money involved in the near future until crowdfunding.
I expected from the start of recruitment to, throughout development, have team members disappear for any reason imaginable, especially since financial compensation was a lofty goal dependent on the game’s success. This inevitability would be painful, so I assured myself, but in this case the loss was bittersweet. The 2D artist in question left us with what he had completed for the project. I wouldn’t say I was astounded, but I was definitely surprised at the work he had accomplished over the span of a few weeks. The quality and quantity were surprising, to say the least.
Even I could do better given a few minutes in MS Paint.
In hindsight, maybe it was good that few looked further into the proposal. The story background as proposed then (as still is as of writing this) on the IndieDB page does not represent what is currently being developed in terms of setting. That’s not to say that the narrative background has been discarded, but where I am now in the narrative drafting process I wouldn’t use it as an official introduction. It’s a little raw and cringy. I like it, but like a first attempt at a business card, it serves more as a conversation piece than a functional tool of business. I do plan on updating it when I get the chance (and when there’s more material to make the IndieDB page more interesting). When I do update it, I’ll make sure to keep a screenshotted copy as a piece of milestone memorabilia.
I’ll continue this small story in a later entry to keep these articles at a readable length. On a final note, these past few months have shown me that the whole formal recruitment process was one of the best decisions toward organizing the project I ever made. The interviews weeded out a lot of bad candidates whose cover letter, resume, and portfolio didn’t show the entire picture of who was applying.