How We Made a PS Vita Game With Zero Budget
I’m Barry Island. I work a nine-to-five job making adverts, posters, and signs for an independent supermarket. My mate Charlie also works a nine-to-five job, but as a software programmer. We're just two ordinary guys with nothing to lose who like making video games on the side.
In 2011, we started work on our free-to-play iOS game Frutorious with our chum Graham. It was a total spare time, favour-calling, zero budget effort. It was also an absolute blast to make from start to finish. After 12 months in the App Store, zero reviews, but two TIGA award nominations later, Frutorious had made about £60. A financial failure, but as an anarchic, infamous statement of intent for our company we couldn't have asked for more. It also paid for our domain name and hosting, plasticine, felt and business cards, meaning we totally broke even!
In 2013 we started on our next game, Avoid Droid. When we had a prototype up and running, we showed it to Sony. They saw something good in it, and asked us to bring it to PS Vita as a timed exclusive. Avoid Droid was suddenly going to be the biggest thing our studio, Infinite State Games, had made.
As with Frutorious, we decided to make Avoid Droid on zero budget, in our spare time. At the time of writing this, we're three weeks from final submission, so we didn't die or get the sack or let our families starve. So if you're like us—one of the thousands of day job and family juggling developers—listen up: it’s totally possible to make a video game with no budget while holding down a day job. You don’t need an office, you don’t need a desk. All you need to do, really, is just finish your damn game.
In this article, we're going to share with you everything we've learned on our gonzo game development adventures. Don't forget, though: even if you follow these tips to the letter, the main factor in your game's success is luck. (That would be a short post, though.)
There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
Bad news, dudes: there are no free pots of money sitting about to help people make games. You might have heard there are, but there aren’t. Believe us, we looked everywhere.
Sure, there are grants, prototype funds, angel investors, and the like... but check the small print. For a start, most free money, you're supposed to pay back. Most grants have you jumping through hoops, dancing in front of a disinterested panel for each milestone payment. Other free funding initiatives require you to write business plans on how you're going to turn your game into a long term business that will employ 50 people in five years. If you just want to take a few months off work to finish your cyberpunk rogue-like, you're out of luck.
Don't forget: selling out is making the game you're told to make instead of the game you want to make. Respect the value of your ideas and talents, but accept that the world doesn't owe you a living, whoever you are and whatever your background. There’s no free money to help people sit at home making video games, just like there’s no free money to help people sit at home in a hot tub. If you believe in your game, you’ll find a way to make it without spending anything on it but skill and chutzpah.
Use the Downtime in Your Day Job
We find that Twitter is the best way to find out about opportunities, reach for help, and get our news out. I really don’t recommend using your day job hours to do this stuff; save it for the commute or the lunch break.
If your job means you can’t use Twitter at all in the day, but you still want to pimp your stuff when people aren't turning in for bed, there’s a way around this! Buffer is a free service that lets you write tweets and queue them up for publishing at a specific time of day. You can set up a timed trickle of interesting tweets the night before and let them run, leaving you to stocktake the weedkillers. No more excitedly posting your new gameplay videos to Twitter and Facebook at 2 a.m. the minute you've finished making them, and then wondering why no one seems interested.
Chances are, you’ve got plenty of moments in your job where you can legitimately stare into space and zone out for a minute. Those right there are your game mechanic visualising zen moments.
When you know you have a bit of time to do game dev in the evening, it makes sense to have a tiny plan that you stick to. Make a list in the daytime of things you need to do, along with time estimations, so that when you get home you'll know exactly what you can achieve, with no scope for procrastination.
Do Everything Yourself
There's never been an easier time to make games. There are so many engines out there, from Unity to GameMaker to Construct 2, but they all cost money if you end up wanting to publish with them. We have our own engine, which Charlie wrote, that is cross-platform between PS Vita and iOS, and also incredibly portable should we ever need it to be.
Our engine is purely 2D- and C++-based because that should be the meat and potatoes of every game developer’s diet. And as a veteran C++ coder, Charlie firmly stuck two fingers up at Apple’s insistence we adopt the god-awful Objective-C language. Unfortunately, it can't be totally avoided, but it sure can be minimised. And this minimisation just so happens to lend itself to a nice portable design, so it's win-win!
The engine has high-level interfaces in front of every aspect (sprites, audio, control, game state, system UI, and so on), so porting to a new platform simply requires certain lower level classes to be reworked, such as anything to do with rendering, file, audio or control. Once this is done, the game logic just works, as it’s built in terms of these primitives.
Personally, we’ve always used archaic trackers like ModPlug Tracker (free) to make our own music, but now, with GarageBand, NanoStudio, and the like, it’s possible for even the most cloth-eared spanner to make something listenable. If your music still sounds bad, just slap it through PaulStretch for instant ambience. If you’ve no music programs and no musical inclination, just bang some pots and pans together and record yourself wailing into your phone; you'll probably win an award for it!
Worried about translating and localising your game? Don't put any words in it! Or if you really have to, just call your levels one word names and risk using Google Translate. (This will also stop you confusing "working" with "coming up with 50 pun-based level names".)
If you can't use a 3D modeller, there are ways to get things to look they they aren't hand-drawn sprites. In Frutorious, we got round the fact that we couldn't make art very well by just making everything out of modelling clay and felt and taking photographs.
With Avoid Droid we got our confidence up a bit and made our own art with the free paint package Paint.NET. The amount of plugins for it is fantastic, and with a bit of tweaking it easily gives Photoshop a run for its money.
Look After Your Health
This could probably be the most important point. If you’re holding down a day job and making games at the same time, you’re basically crunching. For months. You're in danger of totally screwing up your social life, your family life and your health.
Make time for your loved ones. Your family might be understanding of your noble quest to make a game—they might even be really supportive—but don't forget, they'd rather you were interacting with them than swearing at a computer. Visit your friends in real life, too. You might have 3,000 followers on Twitter, but how many of them would come round your house and make you a cup of tea if you were feeling blue?
We use the free RunKeeper app to encourage us to schlep our rotten bodies on super short two-mile runs. Running sounds boring, and, in all honestly, it is pretty tiresome. But stick on the Kraftwerk, go for a short run, and half an hour after you’ve got back, drenched in sweat and coughing up your lungs, you feel great. We even find that running is a good way to clear the mind and think of solutions to development problems we’ve been having. It’s also a great de-stresser. So when the frustration of getting stuck deep in leaderboard code starts to push you over the edge, go run round the block. Sounds totally lame, but it totally works.
In the twelve months we've spent making Avoid Droid, Charlie and I have only seen each other once. And even then, we ended up sitting around chatting and watching Avatar instead of doing any work. For the rest of the time, we communicate daily with texts, phone calls, and emails. That works absolutely fine for a two-man team, especially one like ours where we've worked with each other long enough that we can anticipate each other’s moves and intentions.
We also don’t use any proper shared source control as such. Instead, we pretty much rely on Dropbox and its fantastic "revert to previous versions" feature. We don’t recommend this, however. It’s totally dangerous, and so easy to move important files instead of copying and pasting them, but this method does keep you on your toes! For our next project, we’ll be using the free online source control solution from https://bitbucket.org/
The trick to working with someone else is just to communicate. That's all.
Quality Assurance on the Cheap
You’re too good at playing your game and you have no idea how hard it is. That’s why you have to get as many other people playing your game as possible at all stages of making it.
Getting your game developer pals to play your game and give you advice is great, but everyone’s got an agenda. For instance, ask me what’s up with your game and I’ll probably tell you there’s not enough fruit in it. Absolutely meaningless advice. Ask for feedback from some neckbeard in a fedora at an expo and he’ll just describe your game to you. ‘Hmm, yes, yes, it's, it's Rainbow Islands with a bit of Robotron!’. Cheers.
The best way to get hardcore feedback, we've found, is by giving it to kids and potential non-gamers. You'll never be more motivated and inspired to fix your game than when you've got some six year old dropping your iPad and running back to his dad, crying, because your game just publicly destroyed him within five humiliating seconds.
Expos are an absolutely fantastic (and free, if you get to exhibit) place to get a massively broad swathe of different people playing your game. After Avoid Droid made several kids cry at Dundee’s DARE Indiefest, we decided on a plan. For our next show at GameCity Cardiff, we put in tweakable sliders for enemy speed, player movement, and other difficulty related things. We then live tweaked them with each player like an eye-test: ‘which do you prefer, speed one… or speed two?’ until the audience on a whole seemed happy with the feel of the game. We knew we’d cracked it when everyone who played it was reluctant to stop.
With the dials set to "accessible" and with audience pleasure levels tuned, we had our basis for balancing the rest of the game with its various permutations. For this, we used online pals with PS Vita devkits (another advantage of making chums on Twitter with like-minded independent developers) and also friends, family, and work colleagues.
"Nay Milk for Shy Bairns"
That’s something my mate Ritchie often says. My mate Gaz says it too, but phrases it "if you don’t ask, you don’t get". What I'm getting at is: just ask people for stuff. People actually like getting involved in little capers and helping a brother out. Strangers are often totally, inexplicably up for getting their hands dirty with you, just for a laugh.
In Frutorious, we were lucky enough for UK hip hop artist Chet Mega to volunteer to be the voice of Frutorious F.I.G. He was just cool, and thought it'd be a funny thing to do for ten minutes, recording his voice overs for a goof-ball iPhone game.
On Avoid Droid, however, we pulled out all the stops when it came to calling in favours. We've had local artists offer kindly to make us loading screens. We've had loads of really amazing and legendary game developers let us put characters from their games in as unlockable cameos. We even somehow got permission from Goldie Lookin’ Chain member Eggsy to have a character that looks a bit like him in a music video we hold a huge respect and affection for. None of this is going to help us sell more copies; it’s mainly to add to the legend.
Just ask people for stuff. It's fun.
Grow a Thick Skin
You’ll send an email about your upcoming game to online magazines you've read for years and they’ll not reply. Just try again later.
You'll put a gameplay video or a trailer on YouTube and your game will get torn to shreds. Put your pride aside for a minute and look at what they're saying—even the total maniacs—and take it on board. There's probably some good advice amongst the spite and angst.
When you've poured so much of your time into such a personal project as making a game, it’s tough to be able to keep the criticisms of your game separate from being criticisms of you. Just don’t forget, they're saying that your game sucks, not that you suck. Try and look at it like it's a focus test screening and you're a director. And your film sucks.
And if you're applying to get into expos but they don't reply, don't forget you can flood their public Twitter feeds with stuff about your game by wholly abusing their event hashtag.
Grow a Beard
We have noticed a rather strange phenomenon of late. For some reason, we never really got any press interest for our games while we were clean shaven. As soon as a beard was grown in the company, we began to get enquiries from people interested in writing about our game. You can see a definite correlation visible in the following graph:
As you can see, there's an optimum beard length for manifesting coverage in games media of about 22 millimetres (0.86 inches). You can go clean shaven or let yourself go full bush-man if you really want, but all I'm saying is you can't argue with facts: keep that beard neatly trimmed.
Don’t give up; don't sell out; keep on truckin’ no matter what. And finish your damn game.