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The world of indie game development: The Game Expo 2024

Updated: May 6

This March, the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) was flooded with cosplayers, gamers and artists as The Game Expo opened its doors.



(The Game Expo. Photo: Courtesy of The Game Expo)


The MCEC hall housed over 153 exhibitors, along with events and competitions being held from morning to night. Exhibitors included Keychron, Magic: The Gathering, and our very own RMIT Esport Society. Past the crowds were the competitive video game tables where competitors were playing Super Smash Bros., Halo, and more. But my eye went immediately to the string of indie game exhibitors that filled the centre of the exhibition hall.

 

Indie game development has seen a surge in recent years, with mainstream successes such as Hades, Stardew Valley and Hollow Knight being able to contend in an industry dominated by corporate publishers, not to mention the induction of game development into contemporary university curricula. And though the industry is more popular than ever, things like funding and publishing are still grey areas for a lot of people looking to break into the industry.


I had the chance to interview three stallholders about indie game development and to ask them what the industry looks like behind the curtains. First was Sean Clare, representing C02 Catcher, a mobile game about saving the environment. We chatted about game development and what makes a good game.


What are some problems you encounter during game development?

Sean: Deadlines, and refining. You don’t immediately know how to make [the game] better. That’s why you come to expos and stuff, to find out what could be better and what could be improved, constantly doing quality assurance, making sure it’s the best it can be. You need to see it through other people’s eyes.


What are some elements that make a good game?

Sean: Simply put, they [the players] have fun. It’s dangerously simple. I guess you also need a good core gameplay loop, like rewards and such. Incentives to keep playing, and ones that also broaden the game’s features in a way so there are more ways to play. Replayability is good for some [games]. They might lean heavily into that, and some games might be a one-and-done experience. But also you want it to be true to your vision so you can be happy with what you made. Games are for their developers, too. Each developer has a vision for their game. There are some gambling games out there that are just straight up gambling. People might find that fun, but I don’t know if that’s a good vision to have.


What’s more important, gameplay or story?

Sean: Some people use game media for their story. There are some story-driven games, for example, The Walking Dead and Telltale games. It was, simply put, a story in animated version, and you do quick-time events by clicking on the screen, and mainly decision-making to decide where the narrative goes. I think games can have both, and some games can just lean heavily into one. You can have some mindlessly fun games, like mobile games that generally aren’t very story-driven. Ours especially isn’t [story-driven], and is meant to just be quick fun. But there are some games out there that have excellent narratives, and there are some games out there that combine them well. The Witcher 3 has an excellent story and conveys it with gameplay. 

I have to disagree on one being better than the other.


Do you have any advice for people who want to make their own games?

Sean: Stick to what you wanted to do. Don’t change your vision.



Next was Louis Van Dyke from the Servonauts team, who talked about some of the tribulations involved in indie game development.


(Louis Van Dyke. Photo: Patrick Lyne)

What are some challenges for indie developers publishing in the same space as corporate publishers?

Louis: For us, we’re learning a lot about marketing and finding our market. It’s different for every game. Previous games I’ve worked on have had viral success early, when [indie development] was a brand new space. They had their audience first, and they were able to serve them the game they were looking for, and it was a matter of keeping that success going for as long as possible. But for [Servonauts], we’ve got the backing, we’ve got the game, we’re happy with how it is, and it’s just a matter of finding the right people and telling them about it, which is a huge challenge when you don’t necessarily have that skill set or those resources. That’s where publishers come in. They have a big reach and established audiences that are watching them and looking out for their next game.

You see a lot of blurring these days between what used to be clearly defined Triple-A games and indie games, because there are a lot of people somewhere in the middle nowadays, which is, in part, thanks to publishers, but it’s changing a lot, it’s continuing to evolve. 

Keeping up, I would say, is the biggest challenge–what’s going on and how do you achieve that success.


What are some lessons you’ve learned while developing a game?

Louis: I’ve learned a lot from the team in terms of the technical side. It’s great to work with people that know what they’re doing. I’m a jack-of-all-trades and a generalist. Being able to learn from people who are good at what they do is great. We’ve learned some lessons about pre-production and the value of spending time working out stuff like art direction and usability before you dive into prototyping, and from there going into building the game. Spending the time early figuring out what the game wants to be. That’s something we’ve learned from Servonauts for sure. It looks very different from how it looked two years ago.


Do you have any advice for people and for students who are trying to get into indie game development?

Louis: The choice of engine doesn’t matter too much, as long as you’re making stuff. If you feel like you don’t have the skills, keep looking until you find some tools that work for you. There are heaps of Unity tutorials out there but Godot is good if you don't know programming. If you're into narrative, you can use something like Twine. The main thing is you're making stuff now so you can talk to people about it. Make your communities, and if you make a community now, five years down the line those people will be in the industry, and you will already know your way around when it comes time to search for jobs.


Next was Dylan from Dungeon Hearts, who was kind enough to have a frank conversation with me about the finance side of indie game development.


(Dylan. Photo: Patrick Lyne)

How do you get funding?

Dylan: You can seek out grants from different bodies. There are state and federal bodies. Screen Victoria, a state body, gave us our first grant. After that, we were eligible to apply for Australia-wide federal funding. There are a lot of grants around and there are more now than ever because games are being pushed in Melbourne to be a big cultural asset. You have to look around for [grants] and make sure you meet all the guidelines. They will usually help you with the application. You can apply and they can say this is good but you need to fix so-and-so and resubmit it. There’s a lot of support there.


How much does it cost to make a game?

Dylan: Our first grant was $50,000. Our second, which was a federal grant, was just over $100,000. We also just received another $45,000 to finish, release and market the game. That’s a relatively good amount for an indie developer to get, and it shows the Australian government is willing to put money into games because they’ve seen the value in the industry.


Where do the majority of your funds go?

Dylan: You have to pay programmers, artists… Any visual art assets are, by far, the biggest thing, because you need so many of them for most games. And then you need programmers to make everything work. You need a game designer. Sometimes you need a producer as well. The larger your team gets, the more expensive it gets, just because you need people to organise other people’s roles. If you have ten artists in a game, you need a leader to delegate roles and responsibilities. It’s a lot of assets and a lot of code. It goes everywhere, though. It's expensive to make a game because you have to pay people fairly well, but you’re usually paying on a contract basis–by the hour–so you pay quite a lot but not a huge amount to anyone individually because most people are working on multiple games.



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