Inside The Lonely But Rewarding World Of Solo Games Development

Inside The Lonely But Rewarding World Of Solo Games Development
Image: Pumpkin Jack
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“You can become someone who spends all day thinking about a world that doesn’t actually exist, that no one else knows about, or understands. Sometimes that can make you feel a bit odd.”

Solo developers are a rare breed, and in the modern industry their profile is rising. But long hours and lonely work mean solo devs often experience strange periods of isolation, separation from their friends and family, and life-altering pressure brought on by tight budgets and the need to maintain a good work-life balance.

While games creation can be incredibly fun and engaging, it also has major downsides. Minimal opportunities for funding and a crowded games market means solo developers don’t often get the recognition or support they deserve.

The past few years have seen an impressive boom in great solo games, with hits like Stardew Valley, Undertale, Aussie game Paradigmmedieval romp Pumpkin Jack and the haunting Olija demonstrating just how much passion, creativity and talent can go into developing a game without the backing of a fully-fledged and fully-funded team.

Image: Pumpkin Jack

For Nicolas Meyssonnier, developer of Pumpkin Jack, solo games development started as a hobby and quickly evolved into a full-time passion project. “At first it was not an idea, I was just making a game in my spare time at home,” he told Kotaku Australia via email. “It was mostly a hobby … then it grew up, and some people got interested in it.” The ideas for his solo game developed into 3D action platformer Pumpkin Jack, one of 2020’s most underrated hits.

Meyssonnier chose to continue working on the game alone to reduce delays and streamline the development cycle. This involved learning new skills and software on the fly, and diving deep into artistic theory for animation and 3D modelling. “When I first met with co-workers on the project, I asked them to make some 3D mesh, music etc…. but I quickly realised that the time needed for them was just too long,” Meyssonnier said. “I could actually do everything myself, much faster just by learning and reproducing.”

One benefit of this choice was that the creative vision behind the game stayed true to Meyssonnier’s plans. It also helped him save on overhead costs, a major hurdle for games development. In many cases, working solo isn’t a choice — it’s a necessity when a game is too unique for studio backing, or is unable to obtain other funding. While video games are more popular than ever, they’re also more expensive and riskier to produce.

The modern gaming market is saturated, so publishers tend to back ‘sure bets’ — projects with proven track records and guaranteed audiences. A consequence of this process is more ‘unique’ or unusual projects are ignored.

Even when indie games are able to obtain funding, tight restrictions and timeframes are placed on how budgets can be spent.

Image: Olija

Olija developer Thomas Olsson received funding from Skeleton Crew Studio to realise his vision, but tight budgets meant there was only scope to contract a single artist for the game’s key art. Everything else depended solely on Olsson’s imagination and drive to succeed.

During the process, Olsson found himself struggling to stay in touch with the real world. “You can become someone who spends all day thinking about a world that doesn’t actually exist, that no one else knows about, or understands,” he told Kotaku Australia via email. “Sometimes that can make you feel a bit odd.”

The solitude also meant Olsson occasionally felt like his work was completely incoherent. A “worthless mess of pixels and code”. He would feel that his game was disconnected or imperfect, and he described feeling like he was on a “long, lonely walk in an endless fog.” The only way he was able to see the light in Olija and continue working on the game was by breaking down his tasks and talking to other developers for their perspective.

Meyssonnier also identified human connection as a major challenge — but from the perspective of a solo marketer. Pumpkin Jack is a fairly niche platformer. This meant it needed to find a unique audience to thrive. Marketing was a new realm for Meyssonnier, and it required extensive research and experimentation with GIFs, memes and videos to get right. Without a background in social media, the process was long and difficult — but finding eyes online was key to the game’s success.

This was also how Aussie developer Jacob Janerka was able to create Paradigm, the wacky space adventure staring a loveable mutant blob.

Image: Paradigm / Jacob Janerka

Poor funding for video games in Australia meant Janerka turned to online platform Kickstarter to cover the costs of the game. Finding an audience online meant he was able to spread his wings and realise the full vision for what Paradigm could be. It’s since gone on to become a massive hit, with its Steam reviews sitting firmly at 100 per cent Overwhelmingly Positive.

Like Meyssonnier, Janerka needed to learn new skills like social media marketing to boost interest in Paradigm and build a paying audience.

“The Kickstarter raised $37,000, and the amount of money that went into the actual development of it was probably… $20,000 went into paying for voice actors, sound design and stuff like that … and then the rest of it went into living expenses,” Janerka told Kotaku Australia over the phone. For full transparency, Janerka made clear he was living at home at the time to save costs, easing the financial burden of development significantly.

With secure funding, he was able to press forward with his ideas, quit his day job and really focus on creating the game. But even with funding, solo creation can be incredibly taxing. It requires flexibility, experimentation and learning new skills on the fly.

This flexibility is how Janerka, Meyssonnier and Olsson were able to create games with minimal prior experience. Janerka had a background in illustration, but taught himself everything he needed to create a solo game with “brute force” by reading online. Olsson had experimented with games prior to Olija, and built up his skills bit-by-bit while he worked as a waiter in Kyoto. Meyssonnier fell in love with the solo process, and ended up learning new software as he created Pumpkin Jack.

But all three developers identified too much motivation as a major mental hurdle to overcome. Games development can be fun, but a lack of accountability makes it easy to burnout from overwork. To combat this, developers cited exercise, taking frequent breaks and participating in ‘brain-busting’ game jams as core ways to stay on track.

For Janerka, exercise was also key to maintaining his sanity but there were moments when balance was hard to achieve. “I think there were times where I was doing it in a healthy way and sometimes was doing in an unhealthy way … There was a time where I just quit Facebook, and I stopped using social media, and I had a really good routine where I was [waking] up at seven and [going] to the gym, [coming] back to work.”

To keep on target, he also momentarily employed a unique sensor system that would keep him alert and accountable. “I set up this silly thing where I had a pressure sensor on my chair which would send a tweet that would update a website if I was sitting down working … I was so self conscious that people Kickstarted [Paradigm],” he said. “People are waiting for the game to be done because I said it’ll be done in a year, and it took like way longer than that.”

Eventually, Janerka removed this system and instead focused on going for walks or runs, taking breaks and watching the occasional TV show. “I think that was the most difficult thing,” he explained. “Where I was just delaying a lot of regular life stuff and overworking myself even though I did like a lot of it, because I was so passionate about it.”

Image: Pumpkin Jack

Like Janerka, Meyssonnier struggled to temper his passion with the need to stay healthy. Meyssonnier describes his time management during Pumpkin Jack‘s development as “chaotic”.

When he began working on the project, he was attending school or his job during the day and working on Pumpkin Jack at night. It meant an odd routine and minimal sleep — but his love for games development meant motivation was never an issue. Instead, Meyssonnier had to work on balancing his passions with his health.

“For the personal side of the project, I’ve learnt how to work at home and also save some free time for myself, to keep a good balance between a good mental health and also hard work conditions,” he said. Throughout the process, he discovered his pure love for games, and told Kotaku Australia he plans on creating even more games in the future, using what he’s learned to stay focussed and healthy.

Solo development is incredibly challenging. Personal accountability is a must, as is the need to remember that ‘fun’ work is still work. It requires constant problem solving, learning new skills, staying consistently motivated and being honest with yourself. But beyond passion is the need to maintain health. Overwork is still a major problem in the industry, even when you’re working for yourself.

With so many challenges to overcome, it’s a miracle solo games get developed at all. Pumpkin Jack, Olija and Paradigm are incredible titles, worthy of praise not only for their quality but the effort that brought them to life. Solo games development is a unique art, and the people behind these games are some of the most talented and extraordinary individuals in the industry.

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