12 months… It had been around 12 months since I started to work on my first project, which later turned out to be the adventure game called A Long Road Home. Funny thing is, I didn’t have any idea in my mind about creating this game when I got started, I just fiddled around with RPG Maker, getting a grip on the basics of this game engine. Since I can not make art, can not code and I’m damn sure that I can’t compose music, I needed an engine which is easy to get into, so I can use it as a stepping stone. I looked at the things RPG Maker VX Ace offered, and started to do some tutorials. Created my first map, did some eventing, basic stuff. Then I started to have all kinds of ideas. At the beginning, I was thinking about creating a role-playing game. “Yeah, that would be cool – I thought – I have a cool concept in my mind. Beware Obsidian, I will make the best RPG of the year! I’m learning the ins and outs of RPG Maker after all, it is just fitting that I startwith an RPG.”
First step: find the right tools!
WRONG! I was a toddler regarding game development, starting with one of the most complex genres would have been the most foolish things to do. So I declined the idea of an RPG quite quickly, and started to think about other things. And as I worked my way through the different tutorials, it hit me. I will make a point and click adventure game. RPG Maker is not the perfect engine for the genre, that’s for sure, but it is not impossible to do. There were similar games released in the past which were adventure games, for example the wonderful To The Moon, or the even more adventure gamey Space Pilgrim. I decided to follow in their footsteps, but I also wanted to improve them in some areas. I wanted to make my game similar to the point and click adventure games of old, with lots of item interactions, puzzles and a nice inventory system, all built around a mouse driven interface. Unfortunately pointing and clicking are not the strong sides of RPG Maker VX Ace, but thankfully the amazing community around this engine helped me out in this, with the appropriate scripts and tips.
I didn’t have a clear vision about the game, or the story at the beginning, I didn’t have the design finalised. I was just creating maps, and tried to figure out if I can make this adventure game work at all in this engine. I mostly made up the story in my head as I was creating the maps as well, which is not a good way to create your game. Since I didn’t have anything written down, the story and the characters were constantly changing, I think I had at least half a dozen different storylines in my head at some point. But the toughest part was the implementation of the item usage, and item combination mechanics. I found the item combination script Space Pilgrim used and even paid for a license to use it in my game, but as I was experimenting with it, I realized that I want something different. I want my game to be similar to the old school adventure games, where you open your inventory, examine the items, find out hidden things about them and combine them in a more natural way. In the end, I managed to get something I was comfortable with through other scripts and eventing, which meant I wasted 10 dollars for a script I never used. Another lesson learned.
A Long Road Home
After a few months, I finished the opening part of the game, which I considered to be the first act of the story. I also got a name for it: A Long Road Home. It contained at least a dozen maps, more than an hour of gameplay, and some decent puzzles. And this is the point where I hit my big creator’s block. Until this time, I have spent all my free time with the creation of my game, and honestly, I was fed up with it. I have lost my enthusiasm, I even started to doubt my project. Now I know that this being my first game, I can’t expect it to be a fan favourite, or a huge seller, I knew all of this. But I feared that after spending months and months on this project, nobody will care about it. The result: I didn’t work on A Long Road Home for at least three months. But you know what, in the end this was a good thing. I relaxed, recharged my batteries, read a few books I wanted to finish for a long time, and after these months, I said to myself: “damn it, it is time to finish that game!”
This time I started to plan things out. Shocking, I know. Wrote the basic script, drew some (terrible) maps, and started to work my way through the rest of the game. I was crunching like a motherf*%cker, but it showed. I created all the maps for the game in two or three months, and I started to implement the dialogues and the puzzles. I did much more work during that time than in the previous months altogether. The game started to make shape, it started to look like an actual videogame. But the worst part was yet to come. Testing… Oh testing, how I hate you! Keep in mind, I am a one man developer, I don’t have a testing group, I couldn’t even find people who wanted to test in a serious way and give feedback. So I played through my game again and again and again. Finding bugs, typos, design problems each time. And let me tell you, testing a linear adventure game a hundred times is like torture. Soon, I knew the dialogues, remembered every puzzle, every item, every map, but I had to replay it the nth time, because I obviously didn’t want to give a broken, messy game out of my hands. It was my first project after all.
Why would you want to playtest your game?
I would like to stress this to every aspiring developer: PLAYTEST your game! Look, I don’t want to sound like a developer genius, I’m still a nobody in this scene, but you don’t have to be a John Carmack or Sid Meier to figure out how important playtesting it. I sympathise with startup developers who are struggling to create their first game, but if you release your game in an unplayable state on Steam (or any other platforms), you give other indies a bad reputation and you also hurt your project. And don’t get me started on releasing those abominations which play with a speed of 5 frames per second on Early Access. So I’ve played A Long Road Home many many times, and fixed every bug I have found. It was hard, but I have learnt an important lesson. For my next project I must find some external help for this, because it is a stressful task, which can tear you down quickly. Also, it is always better if an outsider looks at your game, with a fresh take on it, because as a developer you might skip over things which you think are working fine, but might look like a mess for another person.
After the game was playtested to hell and back, I was ready to release it as a finished product. At first, it became available on itch.io and indegamestand.com, since these sites accepted admissions more leniently. The Steam Greenlight campaign (which I launched mid November in 2016) was still underway, and at first I didn’t have much hope to get the game greenlit anytime soon. I was very far from the Top 100, and my stats were also a bit on the short side. I decided to do some promotions, so I paid for a few Facebook, twitter and Fiverr ads. I was also present on some RPG Maker forums, where I got some positive feedbacks. But in the end, these promotions didn’t really turned into Greenlight votes unfortunately. I was also offered several targeted promotions on Steam, which could have been more successful, but they were out of my budget.
I really hated the marketing side of the project to tell the truth, since I never was a guy who was good at this. I’m not big on social media, I don’t like pushing my stuff into other people faces, overall it was quite a chore. I know it is very important, especially for an indie, but I have to find a more efficient way to do this for my next project. (Just a side note for beginners like me: there are great materials about marketing and PR on the Youtube channel of the Game Developers Conference, I recommend to check some of them out.)
Steam: Final Destination
Despite the hardships, I wasn’t too concerned about the state of my Greenlight campaign. I realized that I can’t expect to get my first project greenlit in a few weeks, and overall I considered this project as a lesson about game development. But to my surprise, Lady Luck has shined on me after I got an offer to be featured in a Groupees bundle. On one hand, this provided me with some income, but more importantly, it directed a lot of people to my Greenlight project, causing a huge influx of votes. And on the next day of the announcement of the bundle, A Long Road Home got greenlit. What a great day it was, I felt that all the hard work I have put into the game got its reward! Mind you, I was still far from the best Steam Greenlight games in terms of votes, but Valve walks a mysterious path, and selecting games on Greenlight is always a bit random. I didn’t care about that of course, it was the result which mattered. Getting featured on Steam also meant that I had a bigger responsibility now, I had to put the game in a “Steam-ready” state. I wanted to have achievements, trading cards, badges, which meant more work and more expenses. Thankfully I’ve found a talented artist of Fiverr, called Rubén Carral, who helped me a lot to create the artwork I needed for Steam.
Now, here I am on the day of the Steam release of my first videogame, and I see my game development journey in quite a positive light. I’m pretty sure I will not be the next big hit, but I think I can do this, and I enjoy doing it. I just hope I can put the experience I have gathered in the last year to good use, and my next game will be much better.