Game Design, On a Budget

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably the CEO and only employee of your very own game company.

I’ve been working with UDK on my own for three years now, picking up skills as I go along. Have I made any games? Yes (I made a “mod” called RIFT a while back, but that was before the MMORPG of the same name crushed my hopes and dreams). But making games does not necessarily translate into big bucks — to get those, you need to make good games.

The problem, of course, is that working as an indie developer pretty much counteracts the process of making a “good” game every step of the way. The big AAA developers have huge teams, lots of money and assets, and countless backing for the marketing phase of the process. And moreover, they already have the skills we’re desperately trying to learn. As an indie guy, you do have the option of making or joining a team, but this also presents problems (the biggest of which is finding an idea you can all agree on). I’ve done freelance work for various teams for about a year now, and let me tell you that they all have the same goal: make a zombie/shooter/RPG game with a plot that’s been done to death already, and get rich doing it.

Hehe…not happening.

So how do you design games on a budget as spectacularly bad as this? The answer is to think outside of the box and think SMALL. Just hop on over to the UDK Showcase and you’ll see what I mean:

  • Waves: Made almost 99% by one man.
  • Hawken: Mech combat FPS, made by 9 people.
  • Dungeon Defense: Made by a team of 4.
  • Hazard: Made by one very intrepid (and interesting) developer.

You’ll notice that none of these games have 6-hour-long campaigns or dedicated server farms or a bajillion weapon customizations. They don’t have characters with stories, or a bunch of NPC’s, or gigabytes of assets. And yet they’re getting noticed because each one of them is doing something…well, different.

Back to reality, and for this next example we’ll use me. I have a lot of knowledge of UDK, I’ve done a whole lot of work with UnrealScript, blah blah blah. But I cannot make a 3D model to save my life, nor can I mix music that sounds half decent or anything else in that respect. Working by myself, I’ve basically got half the picture: I can make a game with a menu and HUD and decent gameplay, but it will forever be stuck with UDK default textures. And that’s not exactly different, is it?

So as an example, today I brainstormed a bit and came up with this:

Let’s see what we’ve got going on here:

  • Completely white walls and doors
  • Weird escalator sign, yin-yang style
  • The only HUD is a timer ticking away the time since you started playing
  • No weapons

It’s a concept easily within the reach of even first-time UDK users, but with a little (okay, who am I kidding, a LOT) more work and a bit of polish it could turn into something quite marketable. At the very least, it should be intriguing…right? 🙂

The point is, I’ve seen far too many people get their hands on UDK and have wild visions about making the next Gears of War. I’ve had the same fantasies, too, and I know what it feels like to suddenly crash and burn — it’s not pretty, and it’s certainly not a thing I’d want to feel again. It’s okay to have high goals and the motivation to reach them, but always remember that you’re on a budget. Try to keep to it.

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