In a competitive gaming industry, several developers are able to achieve international success. Media Context speaks to Andy Andi Han, the Executive Producer of Top Hat Studios, Inc., who shares key insights about producing its games.
Creating A Concept Selecting Technology And Engine Tools Scoping A Realistic Development Time Handling Post-Production Aspects Formatting Games For Different Platforms Adhering To Best Practices Or Standards Collaborating With Other Studios Advice To Indie Game Developers Tip 1: Persevere Tip 2: Defend yourself Tip 3: Be realistic Tip 4: Be inventive, be agile
Creating a concept
One of the most interesting parts of working with the kinds of games we do - generally indie games made either solo/or by small teams - is that the way they get made varies greatly, often as a result of their creation by outsiders to the normal kind of hierarchical structure in the industry. That is of course, as you can imagine, sometimes a challenge, but I'll touch on that in a moment.
The backgrounds of the games themselves can be very interesting; context changes greatly from project to project. Some of the most promising games we're working with had their beginnings as student projects, which were discarded by the dev's professors as being worthless, while others had their genesis as a series of comic books which flew very under the radar. They also come from all over the world: we work with people from Ghana, to India, to Japan, Germany, and the US.
With such a wide variety, you can probably imagine that there's not really any one "typical" sort of way that these games get made nor a one size fit all in how we work with teams. There are of course, things which need to be codified each time, which I suppose is probably as close as you'd get.
Selecting technology and engine tools
One of the most important things which I feel can often be a flippant choice for other developers is technology/engine tools selection - this is because as well as usually being one of the first design choices made for a game, the choice of engine and tools used is fundamentally an important marketing/path to success choice, as the choice of engine used can have a dramatic impact on the possibility of distributing the game to certain platforms and the implementation of certain SDKs and toolsets.
Scoping a realistic development time
Another thing is scoping a realistic development time in relation to the proposed amount of content for a game. It's very true that a rushed game is forever bad, whereas a delayed game can be eventually good, and the important thing here is to try and realistically inform expectations that a developer has on the timeline for their games to come to completion.
If a game needs to take longer, then that's just what has to be done, but if a developer has too optimistically scoped the timeframe for their game to be completed - which is often the case - then I've found they often feel guilty for taking that time. They really shouldn't feel that way, and that's why it's important to rationalise these kinds of things. Take as much time as is needed to make a good game, and have a realistic goal in mind for that to be achieved.
Handling post-production aspects
On the post-production side, this is a bit more formalised because it relies almost entirely on our work. At this point we'll usually begin co-ordinating with a press agency to promote the release of a game, and this obviously varies from game to game. Some games are better suited for more of a long-haul, community building type of cycle to release - often games that have made use of crowdfunding sources - whereas others are better suited to getting "lightning launches".
Formatting games for different platforms
One of the most important post-production aspects is that we receive the source, and we'll get to work on implementing the relevant console SDKs/APIs and such in order to publish the games to platforms like the Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4/5 and Xbox. As we're a fairly efficient and highly skilled team, we pretty much always do this work ourselves instead of subcontracting it out to a services studio, which is otherwise the norm in the industry.
A lot of publishers abuse the provision of services like porting a game to platforms, or the cost of marketing in order to rack up eye-watering amounts/bills owed from the developer to the publisher. It's not a practice I agree with so we do things quite differently, which gives a large benefit and flexibility to the developers who work with us.
Adhering to best practices or standards
When working with such a wide variety of games, made by such a humongous range of developers from a lot of unconventional backgrounds, there's not really any one "way" of doing anything.
There are certain conventions which are best practices, or maybe sometimes there are times where we can see a potential design issue appearing in a game but it can be hard for the developer to see these due to them not having like, a full context or experience behind them that communicates to them why a certain thing is better to do a certain way.
One thing I'll say that's a benefit of the checkbox-design-by-committee requirements that most conventional publishers have is that they reduce a game to, very mechanically, just be the sum of parts. In a process like that, the justifications for why certain things have to be certain ways is quite clear. I'll also say I think making games that way is quite stifling and boring. However, everything needs to be balanced, and while it's important to give developers freedom and flexibility, it's also just as important to ensure quality standards can be met.
Collaborating with other studios
I think you could probably say that every game we publish is a collaboration to be honest, given our publishing model? In that case, pretty much every single game we've worked with has been a collaboration!
We're always on the lookout to work with more developers that are driven and passionate, and maybe also a bit weird and out of the mold. I'm always down for giving the outsider a chance - and I think the very strict hierarchies that are present within most of conventional game publishing (including most indie game publishing) quite cruelly filter out a lot of skilled game creators who simply need an advocate.
We're quite a tight-knit team, which is part of why we can work so efficiently and also pay such close personal attention to all the projects we have going on. If you are a developer with a game which you would like published though, we are always open for partnerships, and we'd love to hear from you.
Advice to indie game developers
Tip 1: Persevere
I would say a few things to indie game developers and for people who want to become indie developers, one of which is that you need to persevere. It takes a long time to get good at making games, and not everything you make has to be top notch.
It takes a lot of attempts at trying to make something good before you can actually make something good. And I'm not gonna kid around, but it's a very long learning process, and a lifestyle. It can be a harsh lifestyle too, realistically, but a very rewarding one.
There's no such things as smash-hit first games, or overnight successes anymore - only well made guerilla PR campaigns that make people think as such - and while this might sound harsh at first, once you understand this you gain an immense amount of power. It means that none of those things are down to luck, but are instead the results of someone sitting down and hacking away at it. That's all it is. Just sit down and get to work. And it can't be emphasised enough, it's a lot of work, and you need to be in it for the long haul - but give it time and everything will start to make sense (or at least, it should, if your heart is really in making games).
Very importantly, remember your goals and scope and keep things realistic in regards to that - don't quit your day job just because you want to make a game without anything established yet, make sure you have the right resources and partnerships in place first, and make sure it is actually viable. Making a game is not a ticket to free money, it's a labor of love which requires a lot of hard work and a lot of fine details and time before it can become a career.
Tip 2: Defend yourself
Secondly, do not get taken advantage of - the industry, like any other media industry - is a harsh place, and most entities in it work for money at the end of the day. That said, a great publishing partnership is one that’s constructive and mutually beneficial, so don’t approach things in a very adversarial manner either.
You have to be very careful with publishers and those who are offering services, and it goes without saying you should always read contracts. A $100k advance can be tempting, but make sure you aren't accidentally signing the game's life away - or its future earnings.
There's too many instances of developers getting enticed by large amounts of money being offered as an advance by a publisher, not realizing there were expense clauses in their contracts so they'd never see any of the game's earnings beyond that advance. It's where you hear those horror stories of developers never receiving a penny from the game's earnings despite it selling hundreds of thousands of copies.
Tip 3: Be realistic
This is something which is hard, because making a game is exciting, and it's something most teams (and individuals) are passionate about. However, keep things in perspective; if you're making a game which is just like Minecraft, don't set your sales target as being the same as Minecraft just because it's mechanically similar; market research doesn't work that way. There are tons of factors which go into how well a game can sell - some of which can be impossible to predict - beyond just the "type" or "genre" of game.
Remember what your goal is as well - are you in it just because you enjoy making games and the passion, or are you in it for the business? If you're in it for one or the other, how you conduct yourself and your development should be easy. You shouldn't have to make any changes if you're the prior, but then unfortunately you have to just often take what you can get with sales - and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you're looking to optimize things as much as possible, there are going to be small compromises - not with any other party, but with you, yourself, that you often need to make.
Tip 4: Be inventive, be agile
Very importantly I'd also add, don't worry if you don't have a degree or certificate in anything to do with computing, programming, or game design - most of the best we work with don't either. I think a lot of the most creative, inventive, and zany people who could be making games are cruelly filtered out of degree pipelines for things related to game development, or from working at game studios now. It bothers me on a fundamental level how many people I see this happening to. I feel like this is largely because of - and it's a bit of ironic tragedy in a way - as the business of games has become exponentially bigger, the making of games has become more milquetoast.
One thing which I feel that’s highly neglected, is that not enough’s being done to emphasise to developing talent that it's possible to thrive outside of these hierarchies. So I really celebrate now the availability of game making engines and tools to basically anybody who owns a computer now, because whereas the act of making games before was gate-kept much tighter behind a layer of credentials and studios, it's now possible for any one individual to dedicate their mind to it and make their own little portion of the game world if they want to. The word indie is thrown around a lot these days for marketing, but I think that's really what it means to be indie.