Dev Blog #1 – The challenge of game development with no budget (or a very small one)

Game development isn’t easy. Even when the budget reaches the very high millions of dollars. One could argue that too much money can make things harder (more money, more problems), and a very large team can certainly pose a huge array of other issues, that a small indie team, or a solo developer, don’t have to deal with.

However, having almost no money (or none whatsoever) sets a different kind of hurdle on a game developer’s path. The story of how Caravel: Set Forth came into production, is another one of these under-budgeted game development stories.

Let me tell you how it came to be…

I had some previous experience as an indie game developer. Unsuccessful experience, that is. I had, together with two other friends, started Tricephalus back in 2012, intending to give this whole indie-game-thing a try. We had agreed to, in our spare time, work on a smallish project and see what came of it. And what came of it was… nothing. A project called “Leonardo’s Folly” (a 2D endless runner for mobile) that never went past basic gameplay mechanics and the bare minimum finished art. We all had our separate professional lives, and it got in the way. The project just fizzled.

However, the desire to turn my dream into reality never died. And throughout 2013, as I worked as a game store clerk, I decided to give it another try. This time, alone, so that the only thing in my way was myself. If I failed, I had no one else to blame, but myself.

Everyday, after leaving work at 6PM, I would go to the office for at least one hour and thirty minutes, to work on the game. In early 2014 and four months late, I managed to finally publish “Lazy Santa”. It was a match-3 puzzle game with a Xmas theme.

Having a Xmas themed game published in April didn’t help, of course, nor did the fact that it was an iPad exclusive (stupid and limiting, I know). Although I will defend the core gameplay as being pretty interesting, it suffered from having a sub-par programmer and artist (me!). It obviously had zero success, but from it, I learned a lot about the entire process, and also that I had what it takes to take a project through to the end.

Fast-forward to early 2019, and as my 40th birthday was approaching, that uneasy feeling of a dream never accomplished kept gnawing at me, eating away at my spirit. I felt myself spiraling into a midlife crisis.  Damn it! – I thought – I have to give it another try! This time, however, things had to be different. My coding and art skills just aren’t good enough to create something good. And that’s all I wanted. To leave behind something well made. A quality game. A legacy.

I had to find good, talented people to join me. But I had already tried that when Tricephalus first started, and it had failed. I had to change my methods.

I started saving up as much money as I possibly could (which isn’t much, being a married father of two small children, on an ever economically limp country). By the end of 2019, I had a small bit. Not even remotely enough to fund the development of a game, but enough to show potential project partners, that I was not some fickle amateur and actually meant business. But, that too wasn’t going to be enough. No talented, self-respecting professional is going to risk years of part-time work for such a small reward. This had to be a partnership, and that meant a revenue share of any potential profits in the future.  Having a lot of money is ideal. Having some is good. Having a bit can help. Having none always makes things harder.

So I started looking at game development subreddits, and Facebook groups, for people who were not only talented enough but who would also believe in the potential of my concept and game design. There are actually lots and lots of people always interested in joining a team, but they usually have little experience or a weak portfolio and it would result in a subpar final product. There’s always freelancers, of course. Some of them very, very good. But a bit of money is not enough in that case.

Fortunately, I ended up catching the eye of Artur and Daniel of Headless Studio. I had actually very briefly met Artur a few years back, and I knew he had AAA work experience, having worked at CCP Games in Iceland and Massive Entertainment (a Ubisoft studio) in Sweden. I was fortunate enough that both he and Daniel liked my proposal, and joined the project.

Then we needed an artist. Artur suggested one local to my town, Deivis (a.k.a. Akhan 74), who had experience in game development, and is an all-around cool dude, and was actually a friend of friends of mine, making for not only a nice coincidence but also a comfortable connection. Deivis had worked in a couple of game projects, and he, all too well, understood the struggle of being an indie game developer.

Finally, we needed sound and music. And for that, I already had someone planned. João Mascarenhas, who I had met on Facebook. He was an experienced sound designer and composer, with several game projects under his belt, as well as musical experience as a composer. The kind of game audio expert you would like to have in something like this. Fortunately, he too believed in the project and accepted my request to join the team.

And so, a very small budget, a revenue share deal, and a promising concept were good enough to bring a team together.

It’s not the most conventional start for an indie game project, as they are usually completely funded, crowd-funded, or are done with nothing but a revenue share model when people are willing to work for nothing up-front.

It may not work for you (and I make no claims about how correct this method is) or you may not have the possibility of saving up some money. But, it’s an alternative path, that may show yet another way to get things done in this industry.

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