My first advice is to go watch the series on Film Courage where they interview Jack Grapes. He explains his philosophy on Method Writing, on which he teaches courses and has written many books. There is not a 1:1 analogue with game development, but as he himself notes, his concepts apply to any field of work. He explains the role of failure and authenticity in leading to future success far more succinctly than I can.
Now, to your question in specifics. I find that the question is broad enough that you’re likely to get very poor quality or very contradictory answers. “Here is the method I used to make a game” is certainly something a first-time indie can tell you, and “here is the formula I use for this series” is another answer that a repeat indie with a series (“spiritually” connected like what Supergiant Games does, or literally connected with proper numerals).
If you are looking to mimic the success of some other game, but you have a twist, then that also has its own process.
I have been making indie games longer than all but a score or two of other folks in the world, so my perspective is a bit different. My observation is that most people pour their soul into a first game, and then if it does well or poorly, they are probably pretty wrung out by the end of it. Most people do not make a second game, and if they do make a second game, it’s rare that that one does as well.
My own experience over the last 12 years has been that I’ve made I think about ten released titles, and something like twenty released products (so that includes DLCs). I have had to recall one game from Early Access and refund players because its prospects were so poor because of decisions I made (In Case of Emergency, Release Raptor), and I’ve had half more than a dozen projects that got some way through production or preproduction and then were scrapped for some reason, or transformed into something else entirely than what I set out to make at the start. Stars Beyond Reach is the one with the most publicity, but even my title A Valley Without Wind (the first one) started out top-down and was in magazines, and then went sidescroller before release. I got a lot of flack for that, and people questioning loudly in comments sections if I knew what I was doing.
The answer? NO.
I have no idea what I’m doing on the one hand, but on the other there is a method to the madness. So let’s zoom out to the phases of understanding a project, personally, as you create it. At the very start of a project, you have some sort of core idea. I have long referred to these as “Immutable Design Goals.” In other words, these are the core things about your game that must be true at the end for it to be the game you set out to make. When I was making my first commercial game, AI War: Fleet Command, which in all has generated more than $2m USD for my company, I had a few: 1) “I want to feel like Ender Wiggin.” 2) “I want to be able to play multiplayer in this with my dad and uncle.” 3) “I want all of the feelings of power and scale that Supreme Commander gave me.”
From that point, once you know your immutable design goals, you can set out on actually doing preproduction on a game. The way I did this for my entire career is wrong and backwards, though, I am now convinced. You can use a suboptimal process for making a game and still make a masterpiece, by the way — you just won’t understand, not truly, how you did it. And you’ll always wonder “how can I do that again?” My suggestion is to use a process that actually process that you can understand why things work. With our game Starward Rogue, and our other title Tidalis, both of which were devestating commercial flops but quite popular with players and critics, this is the process I used. Clearly a good process is not tied to commercial success. Luck plays a role, but so does how you communicate about the game, and how you onboard players.
What’s the most straightforward way to onboard players to a complex game? The unfortunate answer is… there is not one. A very complicated game will typically require understanding many interlocking concepts in order to truly play it and have fun. In other words, with a sufficiently complex game, you as a player can’t understand the complexities of the late game (and all the majesty and fun that might be found there) until you understand not only the mechanics of the many subsystems of the game, but also how the expression of those mechanics plays out over time and experience. Most people will not stick around that long, especially in today’s market.
A better approach is to stick with games that have core central systems that are fun in under five minutes. I don’t care if you’re making the next Crusader Kings or if you’re making a casual puzzle game or a “brainless” action brawler. If you can give players something that they understand in five minutes, that they enjoy for its own sake, then you’re on the right path to onboarding them. Because it doesn’t matter how amazing your game is when you finish it — if it takes players 30 minutes or 5 hours to really “get it,” then you’re playing with fire. You may find success with that, as I have multiple times, but you may also find that the market gives you a miss, which has also happened to me multiple times.
I bring this up, because this is the second phase of game development. You need to develop some sort of “vertical slice” of your game that gives 5 minutes that is enjoyable. Again, let’s assume you want to build the next super-complicated RPG, 4X, or MMO. I don’t care what it is. You need to have an absolutely rock solid 5 minute experience for people before you go beyond the basics. As noted, this is backwards from how I have actually developed most of my games in the past, but I have come to believe that it’s imperative to mitigate risk in today’s market. Attention spans are not long, and if people are not hooked in some fashion very fast, then they will move on. This of course applies to press demos and conventions, but also just people organically trying your game on Steam and deciding if they want to refund it. If you can’t give them some fulfillment in five minutes, you’ve made a terrible mistake.
It is going to take you a long time to get a compelling five minutes. With an individual or team working full-time, it’s likely going to take you months unless you get very lucky. I strongly suggest that any art or music that is happening during this time be of the pre-production variety, because what you are creating at this stage is not something that should have integrated art or music yet. If it’s not engaging without music and without stock ugly graphics, then it’s not going to be truly engaging with gorgeous graphics and a wonderful score, either. Pretty graphics and beautiful music and perfect sound design can elevate a game for sure — but that’s for later. At the moment, all it can do is distract you, or make your game seem more fun than it is (others, later, often won’t share your sentiment, but you’ll find out too late).
So, during this early period where you know what the general goals of the game are, and where you are working on that 5-minute vertical slice with placeholder graphics, you can also be conceptualizing what the graphics pipeline is going to be like, and what the sound design might be like, and what the visual style would be, and so on. But keep these separate. Don’t put the pretty graphics and sound onto your naked game skeleton yet. Wait until that 5 minutes is fun.
You are going to fail, and this is expected. Your very clever ideas on paper will never work in practice — again, unless you are very lucky. Even if you have made half a dozen games before, even if you are a veteran of 30 years, THIS new project is new, and you don’t know what you are doing. You know how you made something else in that scenario, but you still don’t know how you will make THIS new game. So you will fail. Over and over. You will be very frustrated, and think that maybe my idea of the 5 minutes of compelling gameplay is not a good one. “If only people could play the late game, this would be fun, I bet.” But don’t listen to that voice!
When you have failed at this enough, eventually something unexpected will happen and it will be fun all of a sudden. Some combination of ideas that you never would have come to while staring at a design document suddenly coalesce and are fun in PRACTICE, not just in the hypothetical.
I am of the opinion that traditional design documents are a great evil for new projects. I have written extremely detailed design documents for a number of projects, and every one of them suffered for it. What you need is a general idea of your goals, and then to get a prototype of a vertical slice. AFTER you have a working vertical slice that is fun, then it’s time to start working on a design document. You need a roadmap for the rest of the project now that you have a central core that is fun. But you can’t even start this until you have a working core. Design documents are an amazing tool for revising a project, or adding onto it (DLC), or expanding from that central working core. But having any sort of design document prior to having a fun core is a profoundly dangerous thing. It gives you a sense of security that you should not have: “Well, this game is not any fun yet, but this is just the start of it. When I finish implementing the design document that is so brilliant, it will be fun.” Trust me: it will not. Or if it is — in that event that you are incredibly lucky — then you now are back to that same problem of onboarding new players, because they have to play much longer than 5 minutes to find the fun game you made. That’s the absolute best-case of that sort of design style, and it’s not a very good one.
Once you have a core vertical slice that is engaging to play (I keep saying fun, but not all games are meant to be fun — some are emotionally affecting instead, or intellectually compelling, or just pique curiosity to no end), then you have to start being creative in a new way. Games are not five minutes long. In order to give 5 minutes of fun, you had to create some sort of systems and controls to let the player interact with your game, and probably to let the game interact back. Now it’s time to start thinking up variations on this, and how you can layer on new rules, new complexities, new antagonists, new scenarios, new powers or abilities, in order to expand from this core nugget of fun into something more complex while still retaining the central spirit.
During this next process, a design document is a great idea. But even so, don’t treat it like a design bible — again, a terrible mistake. The proof is always in the pudding. Whenever you add something new to the game, you have to ask yourself if this adds to the experience, or if it actually drags it down. A great example of this, in my opinion, is the Yoshi’s Island series. The core mechanics are pretty okay, but it’s not as strong as the main Mario games. What keeps these games especially niche, however, is the fact that there are so many collectibles and items that you get graded on at the end of the level. Normal Mario games allow you to play a level in a way that lets you run through very fast and enjoy the speed and grace of your actions. And they often have collectibles that reward you coming back to a level you played before and exploring further, and more slowly. Similarly, they also have slightly-hidden paths that allow you to run through the level EVEN FASTER if you wish. That’s a great design! All of the parts are in service to the core fun that is running and jumping with Mario. The Yoshi’s Island series has running and jumping and throwing eggs, which is already not as compelling based on how it was implemented. But even worse, you’re constantly saddled with these expectations of getting a good grade at the end of each level, and you feel like you’re doing poorly if you don’t slowly comb through the level for each stupid collectible. It’s not a fun thing to come back to: it’s an upfront chore, or at least that’s how it feels to many people.
This is where it becomes impossible to talk in generalities. Are all collectibles and end-level scores bad? Absolutely not! Some games thrive on them. But you would never be able to tell which ones are actually fun or not based on a written description of those games. You can only tell by playing them, which is why that initial vertical slice, and then further endless prototyping and experimentation, is so important. Hotline: Miami is a great example of a game where the end-of-level scoring is done to perfection. My Friend Pedro is an example of it being done semi-poorly, but not so much that it completely ruins the game as happens with the Yoshi’s Island later entries. (Remember, the later Yoshi’s Island games have the benefit of nostalgia and a giant franchise on their side; they would never make it as indie games without those characters.)
Anyhow. You will keep building and building on your core 5 minutes of fun, constantly evaluating everything that is new for whether it should stay or if it should be cut. If you aren’t sure, then that probably means it should go. Past some certain point, you will still have a pile of ideas that you COULD do, but that you haven’t tried yet, and you will realize “hey, this is already enough; this game is quite big now.” So stop adding ideas and get to polishing. If you keep pushing every last idea, then your game will be over-sized but under-polished. I’ve been guilty of this many times.
At this point, get the graphics to be as good as you can. Work on the music, the sound design, the achievements, any voice work that is needed, and so on. If you are looking for a publisher to fund a game, now would be the time to try to find one. Or if you want to do a kickstarter, then now would be the time to do THAT. Maybe you couldn’t afford art or music or sound before now, or you can’t afford the programmer expertise to really optimize the game. Well, okay then, that’s fine. At this point you can show people something that is demonstrably fun, and also “complete except for hair and makeup.” When you run a kickstarter, DO NOT promise more features. Make it clear that this is about funding the art and music and optimization or whatever. Give people a vertical slice (more than 5 minutes, but less than your whole game) to actually play.
Graphics and audio and the trailer and such — and the game of the game, for that matter — are the first things that people will see about your game, and many will not click a link to see what it is if even the name turns them off. All of these things are important! But especially as a new indie, you can’t be worrying overly much about these things before you actually have a game that is fun.
I used to tell people that games are not fun during most of development, and then at some point suddenly they are. And this remains true. But my strong belief now is that you need to hit that point sooner than later in the project, or stop working on a given project. If you can’t hit a point where you have a fun 5 minute game, then you need to stop and move on to a new concept. This happens sometimes, and that’s okay. Not every core concept is worth hanging onto. If you are not willing to admit defeat and throw away a “great idea” that you can’t execute, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Remember: if you plan on this being your career, you always have a chance to come back to that idea sometime in the future, in a different time when you know more. If it’s that great, then you’ll eventually figure it out, probably while driving somewhere or in the shower. But you do not have to figure it out right this moment. If you’ve hit a brick wall for months, and you’re starting to get truly frustrated, perhaps take a break and at least try a side project. Sometimes that “side project” turns out to be a major winner. This was the exact scenario that happened for me with the original AI War. It was just this little side project from the “main game” I was working on. I released the main game years later, after finishing it, and it bombed hard. It is widely disliked (though loved by an incredibly tiny minority) and has an overwhelmingly negative response on Steam. My side project made buckets of money, is still frequently put on best-ever lists for its genre, and so on. Don’t be afraid to “kill your darlings,” as they say in writing.