While it might seem unusual these days, the idea of one person developing a video game by themselves is nothing new. In fact, the first video game of all time, a simulation of the board game draughts, was created by the computer scientist Christopher Strachey working alone in his spare time. Nor is it uncommon for such titles to receive commercial success; two of the best-selling video games of all time – Minecraft and Tetris – both owe their existence to a single creator. Solo video game development is a practice that has a long history.
Now, however, in the days of large, international studios and a gaming industry worth over $90 billion, the idea of a single person sitting down at their computer to develop a video game seems a lot more unusual than it might have done in the past. When you’re competing in a market that also includes companies with vastly greater manpower and resources, it can be hard to see how one person on their own can make an impact.
That, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying – and from succeeding in a major way. As the tools of game development become ever more accessible with engines like Unity being free to access, more and more people are getting to work on their own unique IPs. But how does someone get into solo game development in the first place? And what does it take to be successful?
Making the leap
There are many reasons why someone may wish to start working on games on their own, and a few routes for them to do so.
Some developers choose to get straight into it, with no prior experience within the industry. This is often part of building a portfolio to increase the chances of getting a job at a larger studio; the games industry is incredibly competitive after all. And while this approach may sound doomed to failure, some solo developers’ first games have seen phenomenal success. One of the most notable examples is that of Eric Barone, who initially planned to spend six months building a game to help build up his computer programming skills. Five years later, he released his first game, Stardew Valley, which has now sold over 10 million copies.
The alternative route into solo game development is to spend some time working at a larger studio and then breaking off to do your own thing. Building up skills at a larger company before switching to something smaller isn’t entirely unusual, although many of those who do so form their own company instead of working solo. That isn’t an approach that works for everyone, however. For some, going solo is the more suitable option.
“When you’re just starting out, it’s difficult to be taken seriously. Everyone wants to build a team and make a game, and many people tag along without putting in the commitment and effort,” said Armaan Sandhu, who created and released the games Rainswept and Forgotten Fields as a solo developer. “When I decided to go solo, it was very freeing.”
Even if you decide that becoming a solo developer is the right option for you, it’s completely normal to still have doubts. Taking that initial leap can be a daunting prospect. Without a studio or team to fall back on, going solo can be a substantial financial risk. There are undeniable advantages to working on a game by yourself, as it puts you in total control of every aspect of your project, but that also means you become responsible for all those same aspects.
“Of course I had worries,” said Joe Bauer, who shipped his first solo game, The Fabled Woods, earlier this year without any prior experience at a games studio. “How do I get funding? How do I make a game for commercial release? It’s very tough being an indie developer. It’s lonely and you give up a lot of social time to make the game.”
Having a clear plan in place before you start can help to allay some of those concerns. With a set goal and a route to get there, the process starts to become a bit less vague and you can make much more informed decisions.
“I’d done my research and I knew that the game would make enough to at least earn the same amount of money that I was earning at the time in my day job,” said Sandhu.
Becoming a solo developer can definitely be a scary step, but that’s not necessarily a reason not to do it.
“I think it’s good to go into it at least a little bit worried,” joked Nate Purkeypile, formerly a Lead Artist at Bethesda Game Studios, who went solo earlier this year to work on an as-yet-unannounced open-world, horror heavy metal game. “If you’re not worried, that’s probably a red flag.”
Finding Your Balance
When you’re working alone, there’s a lot of pressure on you to get things done. With that sort of mindset, overworking yourself to try to get as much done as possible is an easy trap to fall into. As with any job, being a solo game developer requires you to establish a balance between the time spent working on your project and the time spent relaxing and recharging. Trying to continue without that balance is going to take a lot out of your mental health.
“I experienced burnout twice during The Fabled Woods development,” explained Bauer. “I was putting way too much time into the game and not thinking about my mental health. I’ve now made it a point to take weekends off and find a hobby that is completely different from game development.”
There are tools available to help anyone struggling with time management to keep track of what they’re working on and for how long. These may not work for everyone, but they can help you to establish how you’re distributing your working day.
“I’m kind of an obsessive time tracker. I keep track of exactly what I’m working on and for how long,” said Purkeypile. “There’s this program called Toggl that lets you see the metrics of how much time you’re spending on each aspect of the game. It makes it obvious when I’ve spent eleven hours or so working in a single day, so I know to work a bit less the next day.”
It’s also important to remember that game development, even when it involves teams of hundreds, can take years to achieve a finished product. In the beginning it might be tempting to throw everything into it in order to get as close as possible to your goal quickly, but that’s not a sustainable approach. Working at a steady pace is almost certainly going to lead to a better payoff in the long run.
“Small, consistent steps taken daily, add up to create great things over a long period of time,” said Sandhu. “It’s like climbing the top of a mountain or a tall building and looking down. It’s dizzying, and you almost don’t know how you got up so high.”
Finding and maintaining a healthy working pattern is going to be a vital activity for any solo game developer. Production timelines can drag out over years. If you’re working yourself to the bone every day, you’re not going to be able to maintain that energy or passion to see the project through.
As Bauer says, “Simply making sure that you and your mental state are taken care of is imperative.”
Setting Your Scope
Something important to consider while trying to find that work-life balance is the scope of the game you are trying to make. In the absence of co-workers to compromise with, you might assume that solo developers are free to create their ‘perfect game’. The reality of the situation, however, is a little different. In order to ensure the game actually gets completed within a reasonable timeframe, some compromises are going to be needed. One person alone can’t compete with a major studio when it comes to scale.
“Keep your scope small,” advises Bauer. “I feel everyone (including myself) has this grand idea for a game, go to make it, and realize just how much work it would take. You hear this a lot, but it’s so true.”
Aside from time allowances, you also need to consider what will be of interest to consumers. The game you want to create may not be something that appeals to a broad enough audience to make it a viable product.
“Once you have an idea you love, take a cold, hard look at whether it’s a sellable idea,” said Sandhu. “This way, there’s a balance between passion and practicality. Any idea you love can be moulded and transformed into something that will also appeal to an audience beyond just yourself.”
The Business Practicalities
Besides game content, that same concept can be applied to all aspects of the development process. It can be easy to forget that the people who develop games on their own are not just game developers; they have to act as a whole studio by themselves. That means they’re also in charge of things like marketing, public relations, licensing agreements, and so on.
“I think a big piece of advice is definitely to view all aspects of the game, because I see a lot of games that don’t take the marketing, in particular, into consideration enough,” said Purkeypile. “I’m trying to dedicate a certain amount of time to that every single week and not just saying I can worry about it later. It’s sort of core to how you’re making the game and how you think about it.”
So, I have said I am doing an "open world horror game"
I have one more bit to add to that
It's an Open World Heavy Metal Horror game
m/ Get ready
— Nate Purkeypile (@NPurkeypile) August 24, 2021
To produce a game that goes to market, developers need to become businesses in their own right. This can be a substantial challenge for everyone. Even those who have previously worked at a games studio typically only have experience that relates to their specific field of work. Someone who worked in the art department isn’t likely to have experience with the legal team, and so on.
“I had never touched any of that,” continued Purkeypile. “So that’s another piece of advice: get a lawyer.”
The best solution, especially for legal matters, is to seek help. Solo developers already have a wide breadth of things to focus on to get their game ready to ship. They likely don’t have time to learn some of the highly specialised skills necessary to play every role. Being a solo developer means that all the work is already on your shoulders; knowing when and how to ask for help is a vital skill to learn.
A Labour of Love
It is clear that designing, programming, marketing, and shipping a game all by yourself is going to be a huge amount of work. It requires a lot of dedication and time, and can give rise to a lot of stress along the way. Certainly, this isn’t a career path for anyone who isn’t sure that this is what they want to do. Building a game without a studio behind you might give you freedom, but it comes at a high price. So why do people do it?
“In order to be a solo developer you have to love it all,” said Bauer. “There’s always parts when the game is not working, your code is failing, etc., etc… But then, you press play, the intro comes up, and you get this smile on your face.”
The vast majority of game developers are, understandably, going to be avid gamers themselves. With how competitive the industry has become, it is not a field that most people just fall into. That is doubly true for anyone who decides to strike out on their own as a solo developer. Using that passion and excitement to fuel your commitment to your project is going to be what ultimately keeps you working when your motivation fails or you encounter problems.
“The best advice I can give is: create something that truly inspires you,” said Sandhu. “That is what will keep you glued to your project out of love when the excitement begins to die down a year or so into development.”
I wanted to thank Armaan Sandhu, Joe Bauer, and Nate Purkeypile for their time and their advice in putting together this article.