Built An Indie Studio In An (no-longer-so) Unlikely Place – Part 5

Well… it’s been a long while since I wrote, but fear not, I will be more active from now on…


Right… well, unlike the previous posts, I no longer speak about “building” the studio because it’s been around for 6 years, so I guess either I am very stubborn, or I’m doing something somewhat right… I’ll assume I am stubborn. Another difference is the title. I no longer speak of an “unlikely place” but rather a “no longer so unlikely” place, because things have changed a lot in the last 6 years, although not enough for my taste.

Then Vs. Now:

I think the biggest change is the access to software. When I began in 2011, there were a few tools out there, but they were not the kind of tools that someone with zero experience (and zero knowledge of special knowledge). At that time I used UDK, because it was easier to use for someone like me, with no programming experience (thanks to Unreal Kismet). However, the funny part is that, even if I didn’t have any programming experience, I ended up getting some decent knowledge of Unreal Script, because Unreal Kismet was only useful for some things. Things like Unity were already out, but they required more programming skill than what I had, and there was also Game Maker, but unfortunately, my 2D skills sucked (still suck), so I had no other choice to go the 3D route even if it was “more difficult.”

Now, there are more engines to choose from, and Unity has become pretty much THE tool for indies or solo developers, thanks to the ease of use and the really cool ecosystem. I ditched UDK and moved to UE4 in 2015, but given that I found myself forced to learn a new engine (UE4 and UDK were vastly different), I figured I’d give Unity a chance. I mostly chose Unity because, in 2015, performance was vastly superior. Personally I am not much of very graphically-demanding games, so it was alienating to see the default UE4 level barely hit 14fps on my MacBook Pro (I also use a Windows desktop, but I like to be open to multiplatform).

However, not everything is cool. We still have problems trying to acquire certain technology (mostly things that aren’t delivered digitally). For example, due to tax imports, an equipment ordered outside the country may end up costing twice or thrice the original costs. Internet access is also a problem. There’s “fast” internet here, but “fast” here means around 10mbps upload rate tops. At least it’s better than the 0.5mbps upload rate I had back in 2011.

That alone can be a very defining point when it comes to making games. In 2014 I released the second game (more about that later). It was around 1Gb in size, and it took around 5 hours to upload. Now I can upload that same game in less than 20 minutes (people in civilized countries can surely upload it in less than 2…). But here’s the thing: it is not easy to spend 5 hours uploading a game, risking a power outtage, internet interruption, a crash (they rarely happen, but still), so it all becomes a balance of making a game that does what you want, but at the same time doesn’t take too long to upload.

Another change is government support and amount of companies. This is a topic for another day, but long story short, when I opened the studio in 2011, there were only 2 studios that developed games (including mine). Now, at least there are more than 2. Also, we now have access to certain government support. More about that in a future blog post.

Another change… platforms. Back in 2011 my focus was on Windows PC only. In 2014, with the release of Enola, I expanded to Mac, and shortly after I got access to PS4 and PSVita kits. So now in 2017 I can target Windows, Mac, PS4 and PSVita. Why not Nintendo and Xbox, you may ask? Well, I think it’s better to learn to walk before you learn to run, and taking on more platforms may not be so wise. I did talk to Microsoft once about the Xbox, but long story short, they don’t ship kits to El Salvador. I just mentioned the lack of access to technology. Well, for the PS equipment I had to go to the US and bring the equipment in my carry-on bags. However, the Xbox person told me that not only they won’t ship them to El Salvador, but they won’t give them to me so I can take them with me in my carry-on bag either. So the only way for me to make Xbox games is to use the WUP, not my ideal scenario (on a side note, it is interesting to me that, I know for a fact, that a company here has Xbox devkits, so I wonder what happened to the “no kits for El Salvador” when they were in talks…)

And last but not least… this may sound funny, bizarre, extremely awful, or whatever… In 2011 we were 2 guys in my company, and at some point we were three. Now, I work with a freelancer working whenever he has the time. I said this would sound funny or extremely awful because the idea is that your company should at least grow a little bit in 6 years, but in fact it shrank!

6 year recap:

Well, in these 6 years, things look like this:

Number of cancelled games: 3 (a sci-fi third person shooter, a sort-of-existential short sci-fi 3d platformer, a multiplayer 6DOF game à la Descent).

Number of released games: 3 (the game I mention in the previous part, which completely flopped, Enola, a horror adventure game that sold around 20,000 copies, and a just-released game in Early Access, which I mention because it can be purchased, even if it’s in early access).

Number of micro-game experiments: 3 (a top down weird shooter, a first person atmospheric game for an LD, a management game for an LD).

Same recap in not so few words…

After the first game released in 2011, I began working on a new one, titled Enola, and that one took the next 2 years to be finished. It was a completely different kind of game, because, while the first one was an arcadey shooter thing, this one was a story-driven adventure game similar to Myst, albeit very horror-themed. I think this is the game that defined the route I’d follow next for the new games, and helped me see what I can and cannot do.

Here’s the thing, there’s a saying that goes “nobody is good for everything, but you are certainly good at something). I am not very good at designing gameplay-heavy games (meaning games where it’s all about the gameplay feeling right, balanced, with tight controls and all), but I am very good at writing stories. That’s pretty much the reason why the first game was so bad and the second one was so great. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to design a “gameplay-heavy” game at some point, but it would take me a lot more than it would take me to make a game with a good story.

So, the lesson I learned from that game was to trully see what I was good at, and opt to focus on that instead.

After Enola was released, we (at that point we were six) began to work on a new game (the 6DOF multiplayer I mentioned), and at that time Epic released UE4. We decided to try to make it but the game didn’t quite “feel” right, so I decided to pull the plug. At that time, as a side project I was working on a basic “platformer controller” in Unity, and I decided to use it for the sort-of-existential short sci-fi I mentioned. However, I also pulled the plug on that one, because, even if I knew the story and the message I wanted to deliver, I couldn’t get it to “work” right, if that makes any sense. I mean, it was like “I know what I want this to say… but the message is not being delivered at all.”

So, another lesson was to learn when to pull the plug on a project. The first project I cancelled (back in 2011), was cancelled after wasting 7 or 8 months of work (and my own money). These two projects that were cancelled in a row, were cancelled in the span of maybe 3 months tops.

But since I already had the platformer controller, I opted to use it for something else, so I proposed this new project, a sci-fi horror platformer. At some point during concept, a dude said “how about Lovecraft?” so I began to think how Lovecraft could be applied to this (because, well, Randolph Carter is not known for his platforming skills).

We began working on that game, titled The Nightmare from Outspace and then retitled as The Nightmare from Beyond, in 2015, with the help of the government during 2016 (the same 6 guys I mentioned before), and this is the game that is now on early access. Since this is not a post-mortem, that’s all I will say about this game at the moment.

However… there’s something worth mentioning… you just read we were 6 guys working on this game, and that now I only work with a freelancer that collabs when he has the time. The fact is they other guys dropped out of the project. I will touch on this as part of a game postmortem I will write soon-ish, and also as part of the “state of El Salvador industry” post I will write, where I will also describe the government support and the other companies.

Something that didn’t happen on a specific date, but rather happened as time passed was the decision to go multiplatform (in a limited way). I said how I now have access to PS4, PSVita, but not Xbox or Nintendo. Well, the plan is release every game I make in those platforms, so no more “PC only” games. Managing multiple platforms is a very time consuming work, so this is where another part of the plan comes in: smaller, simpler games. More about that plan in the next section.

MOAR lessons learned:

Well, my biggest complain would be that it’s taking too long to make games, and that risks sustainability. Enola was developed from 2012 to 2014, and The Nightmare from Beyond has been in development since 2015. I am lucky to live in a coutry where living costs are not so high, but that doesn’t mean I can afford to develop à la Blizzard (“they will be done when they are done”). Oh, and Nightmare is still missing maybe a year more…

Last year I went to my first GDC, and there I attended a talk by Jake Birket titled “The No Hit Wonder: 11 years and still going,” and to me that one completely changed my view of many things, and made me rethink a lot of things (on a side note, I ran into him at this year’s GDC, I took a pic with him, and I told him that his talk as the one that had helped me the most the previous year). I know the kind of games I can make, and I know the kind of games I want to make, but the next step is to make simpler, smaller games. Enola ended up being a 6 hour game, and The Nightmare from Beyond may end up being as long (if not longer). The point is I suck at play-time metrics, so it’s better for me to focus on smaller, more manageable games. After all, nobody said a story-driven game must be X hours long.

The Nightmare from Beyond is larger simply because the team was larger (a team that later abandoned the game, so I am having to do a lot of stuff to make the game more manageable for 2 people), but if there’s a lesson I need to learn from this, it is to focus on smaller story-driven games that don’t require a mid-to-big team (bear with me, because to me, a “large” team is more than 5 people… a very different concept than the one used in developed countries where a “large” team is maybe 50 people). The problem was to think the “large” team would be around during the entire development, which was not the case.

I actually began to move towards that plan after GDC last year, but the “urgent Vs. important” struggle was always there (thanks to the troubled development of The Nightmare from Beyond), so I was being constantly distracted from that goal because “urgent” things. So, long story short, I still haven’t been able to completely move to this new plan.

So, I am finally moving to this new goal of making smaller games, while development of this “larger” game continues. To do this, I am working on two projects at the same time, something many would consider insane, but in fact it helps me keep my sanity. See, after such a long development cycle, sometimes I just want a break and do something else (or not do anything at all). Having a smaller game as a side project helps me relax and take those “breaks” from the game, without “wasting” time.


Thanks to more accesible tools, there are more people making games now, so it is not weird to see people making games in places with no game development industry. However, there’s a big chance people starting with games will make some of the same mistakes I made, like aiming too high, spending way too much time making a game, or struggling between the “urgent Vs. important” things. There are certainly people in my country making some of the same mistakes.

So, if there are things people can learn from my 6 years as a developer, I’d say these are the things:

  1. Fail fast and don’t be afraid to pull the plug on a project. It’s better to waste one month, than to spend one or two years working on a game that is not going anywhere.
  2. Find out what you (as a solo developer, or as a small team) are good for, and focus on that. As I said, my thing is story-driven games, so it is very unlikely you’ll see me making a class-based Overwatch-like arena shooter any time soon.
  3. Aim for the best, but plan for the worst, when it comes to development times and teams. What if the game takes longer than expected? What if the team abandons the project?
  4. Organic growth, AKA, learn to walk before you run, AKA, start small, with small games and single platforms, rather than making an online multiplayer shooter game for PC, Xbox One and PS4 as a first game (true story). As I said, I began with PC, then Mac, and now I am taking on one of the 3 consoles, but I have no plans to take on the other two at the moment.
  5. If you can’t go to GDC, spend a lot of time watching videos at GDC Vault. Not just programming, narrative or art videos. Watch everything. They will surely make you think differently, just like the experience I had.
  6. Lastly, don’t fall into the “urgent Vs. important” trap. There are always “urgent” things, but the “important” things are the ones that will shape the future of your studio, or allow it to have a future at all.

I hope you find this useful, or at least interesting. Next I will write about the current state of El Salvador’s game development industry.

~ by nemirc on September 22, 2017.

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