From indies to indies: A talk with the dev of Solar 2
I always like to peek a bit into the life of another indie game dev. Sometimes it’s just to confirm that we go through the same difficulties but often it’s to get some motivation boost. I’m not really interested by advice giving. I just enjoy reading stories about how people got stuff done without having them trying to “fix” what you might be doing wrong. It’s usually a lot more helpful than having someone tell you “you should do this but not that”.
Since I don’t find nearly as much indie stories as much as I’d like to I decided that I should hunt those stories myself. I’m no journalist and my goal is really to share with other indie devs so I’ll be trying to make those “From indies to indies” interviews different from what we usually read elsewhere. I’ll try to do this kind of post from time to time and will also try to not ask the same 10-15 questions to each dev. I don’t want this to become a generic “answer these questions and I’ll post the answers” type of thing so I’ll do my best to come up with questions that are relevant to each dev I’m interviewing. Of course this is the first one so I’ll try to improve from here.
So the first dev who accepted to answer my questions is Jay Watts the creator of Solar and Solar 2. I immediately felt under the charm of Solar 2 when trying the demo on Steam and go figure that’s when I decided I should start this “From indies to indies” thing. Some emails later here’s the result. Hope you’ll enjoy!
First I’d like to know a bit about you in general. That’s to put into context what will follow so other indie devs can relate to your situation.
I’m Australian, 22 years old. Bachelor I guess, straight out of Uni.
For how many years have you been creating games? How did you start? Just for the fun of it or with a clear objective to create your own job?
I’ve been developing games for about 3-4 years now. I started just with Flash as sort of hobby while I was at University (where I was studying biology, nothing to do with games or programming). I thoroughly enjoyed it though so I kept at it and over the years things just kept getting better and better, until eventually I decided that I could actually make it into a job.
Is it your full-time job or you need to keep another job?
Yup, it’s my full-time job. Worth noting though that being fresh out of Uni means I don’t have things like mortgages or families to pay for, so keeping living expenses low is part of the reason I can do this full-time.
Can you take us through a typical day of development? Any “ritual” or specific self-imposed discipline?
A typical day of development is just getting up, eating, working all day then going to bed, nothing too special. I’ve been working on various massive creative projects on my own for nearly a decade now and self-discipline just comes naturally to me.
How is doing Solar 2 currently? Does it match your expectations?
Solar 2 has definitely exceeded my expectations. Reaction on Steam was very positive, which took me a little by surprise. It has done fairly well on XBLIG as well, and has been a finalist in every competition I’ve submitted it in so far, so I’d call that a great success!
Beside some collaborators for music and the splash screen you did everything yourself. Ever felt lonely or you don’t mind being a loner? Any tricks you use to avoid becoming too isolated or you don’t have any issue on that level?
Ha. I didn’t feel lonely when I was developing the game itself, but now that I’m done it would be nice to celebrate with co-workers. I don’t mind working alone, as long as there are people in other aspects of my life then I don’t get lonely. Although ask me this question again in a few years once I’ve settled into this career a bit more and see if I feel any differently!
You wrote on your blog that Solar took 4 months to develop while Solar 2 took 10 months. Was the decision to go on with Solar 2 based on the success of Solar or was it always the plan no matter the results?
I was never really planning a Solar 2. It was largely due to the success of Solar 1 and also that I thought I could do a much better job of developing the concept than what I did with Solar 1.
While some games can take years to develop 10 months is quite considerable when you’re working alone. Did you had any doubts during those 10 months? Felt like maybe you had gone the wrong way and felt like giving up? Or was is just a breeze to go through?
My thoughts on how well Solar 2 was going to do while I was developing it tended to range from “total flop” to “greatest game ever made” on a weekly basis. For the most part, that just prompted me to work harder on it. The success of Solar 1 and later the approval from Steam certainly kept the project from ever reaching a “giving up” stage, but regardless there was never a point where I thought it wouldn’t pay off the time I spent on it.
A big problem for indies can be to get a tiny bit of press/public attention. Did you struggle with that? All successful indie devs have their own recipe they like to share when it gets to get some public attention. What worked for you and what didn’t?
One advantage of Solar was that it is original and different enough for media to take notice and want to talk about it. That’s really the greatest trick Indies have, they can make unusual games that media can turn into interesting articles, so will talk about it without prompting. If someone has made a game that media doesn’t really want to talk about, then consumers probably aren’t going to be interested in buying it anyway, even if they got media attention. It all comes down to the game (at least when you don’t have millions of dollars of marketing budget). Another bit of good advice is to submit to lots of competitions, as there is always press for the finalists/winners.
Game development no matter what or freedom of being indie? If someone offers you an interesting position in the game industry would you consider it or there’s no doubt in your mind that you wouldn’t be interested?
Depends on the job. I wouldn’t be interested in just a simple code monkey job, but if I could get a design or management position then that would certainly qualify as “interesting”. I’d accept the job just because I’d like to try something new and see how the mainstream industry is, as I’ve never actually worked in the industry before. I have my whole life ahead of me and at the moment I don’t really have anything tying me down so if it doesn’t work out I could just quit and go back to Indie, no harm done.
Luck. When you’re successful you don’t use that much that word and when you’re not you might be tempted to blame it. Any thought on that?
More than anything luck just acts as a multiplier on the money the game will earn. Factors like release date, competing games, media, word of mouth and other things can just line up perfectly and really propel a game to more successful than expected (only 1 other indie game was released on Steam in the month after Solar 2’s release, and that was certainly luck). I’m yet to see a good game fail so hard financially that the only possible justification is “bad luck”.
You wrote on your blog that you are completely self-taught. Do you feel you lack anything to achieve what you desire (programming, design, marketing, anything else)? Any person you consider as mentors or maybe people who guide your inspiration?
Well, there’s always more programming knowledge that would be nice, but I’m at a point where I can program pretty much make any game I want to make. Not counting of course games I want to make that would require an entire studio to develop! I didn’t have any mentors really, I never involved myself with the game development community until after I was doing well. I wouldn’t really say there were any specific inspirations, but just seeing all the successful indies able to develop and release Steam games alongside the major AAA titles certainly helped me believe that it was possible for me to do it as well!
I noticed that you don’t sell your games from your website and that there’s not much promotion (no screenshot, trailer) either. Often successful indies (or pretty much anyone looking to give advice) are telling us that having a good website is often an essential part of being successful. Now obviously it worked pretty well for you anyway but is there any particular reason for going that way? Is it something you plan to work on in the future?
I’m leaving it up to Steam and the retailers to do the screenshot/trailer/sell-the-game type stuff. Having a good website is hardly essential to being successful, but it never hurts. It’s more important when you want to drum up pre-release hype and media, which isn’t something I did much of with Solar 2. I’m not much of a “website” sort of person, but in the future if the game I’m making would benefit from a great site then I’ll find a way to do it!
Do you have an active relationship with your fans even though they must buy your games through Steam, GamerGates or Xbox LIVE Indie Games? Any plans to get closer to fans or you are just fine the way it is by using third parties?
Well, I have hundreds of comments on my website from fans asking questions or just general things about my work, so I’m definitely interacting with my fans a lot! Not to mention all the emails I’ve got and responded to. It doesn’t matter where they buy it from, if they want to say things about the game they’ll use Google to find my site and comment away!
Solar 2 has a page on Indie DB. Did its presence there played a big role on establishing a relationship with fans and to promote the game?
It helped, but I’m not sure I’d say ‘big role’ as most of the interactions with fans have either been on my site, via email or on the Solar 2 Steam forums. But there are plenty of games that use Indie DB as their primary fan interaction, and the site has all the features setup to allow that.
Steam is becoming a major actor for indie games. Does your experience match what is said in this article? Any particular problem you had with XBLIG? Are you part of those that might consider releasing only on Steam (and possibly iOS) in the future?
Zeboyd seems to be leading this recent charge for XBLIG developers to go to Steam, but I’ve known that for ages. PC, and especially Steam was always the target for Solar 2, right from when I first started the project. Heck, I even remember mentioning that on a Newgrounds news post I made over a year ago http://murudai.newgrounds.com/news/post/519005!
So of course I completely agree, it is the place to be for small indie teams right now. Valve are a pleasure to deal with, Steam has a massive userbase and just enough quality control to keep out the flood of crap that has plagued XBLIG. I might make some small games for XBLIG, but for my serious large games they’ll be made with Steam as the primary market.
And finally anything you wish someone would have told you an as indie game dev that you’d like to say to others now? A valuable lesson learned the hard way or maybe just something you think is important to remember as an indie dev?
The best advice I like to give to indies trying to be successful doing their own thing (ie; not looking to get a mainstream job) is to play to their strengths and know their weaknesses. Good at programming? Then make a complex game with deep gameplay mechanics. Terrible at artwork? Then don’t try to make an artistic game! Or just work with an artist instead. More of a specialist than a multi-talented individual? Then mainstream industry might be better suited than indies, which have small teams and really need people who are good at multiple things.