Ever since indie games have made their way to Steam, XBLA, and the recently shut down Greenlight, it’s no longer surprising to hear that only two or three people are behind a game. But no matter how accessible and intuitive game design tools become, titles made by one single person still lead to bewilderment. Their creators are real people-orchestras, capable of implementing a large-scale game idea without anyone else’s help, showing remarkable self-discipline and perseverance. It’s no secret that in most cases these lone heroes don’t get the results they want, but over the years the industry has been filled with more and more cases of exceptional success, often beyond the reach of many AAA titles.
Cave Story (2004)
Platforms: Windows, Wii, Nintendo DSi, Nintendo 3DS
During the time that the Japanese Daisuke Amaya, known online as «Pixel», single-handedly developed the cult platformer Cave Story, his life has changed radically. Starting his side project as a student, Amaya only released it five years later, already an office worker and family man.
«Since I decided to do Cave Story, my ‘playing’ time has been reduced to almost zero, and now I have no idea what’s going on in the industry.»
Moreover, when Amaya started creating Cave Story, he did not have any plot or any specific ideas prepared in advance. The first step in development was to write music for the main menu, and almost everything else was composed on the go.
“If I think of something in advance, I never manage to recreate it in the right way. It just bothers me.»
The only compass in his design choices were favorite childhood games like Metroid and Super Mario Bros. Amaya periodically borrowed certain gameplay elements from them, such as, for example, the head of the protagonist, pronounced against the general background.
Among the gaming community, Cave Story very quickly acquired a cult status because it conveyed the spirit of diamond titles of the 80s very well. In addition, the game was initially available for free, for which the players were doubly grateful.
In the following years, in addition to various ports of the original, an improved version of «Cave Story +» was released, and in 2011 a full-fledged remake for the Nintendo 3DS — Cave Story 3D — was released. Daisuke himself in 2015, together with the designer Ms. Kawanaka released the next big game, Kero Bluster.
The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai (2009)
Platforms: Xbox 360
The idea to create a reactive Beat ’em up, in which a dead samurai dishwasher furiously destroys opponents with a katana and a shotgun, did not come to James Silva by chance. After a few zombie games (Zombie Smashers X, Survival Crisis Z) failed to bring much success to the then engineering student, James found himself on the verge of bankruptcy and was forced to take a job at a local «fake Italian restaurant» washing dishes.
«Being a dishwasher puts me in the unique position of being literally in the least respected position in the entire building.»
Combining the fact that Bruce Lee also once made a living soaping up forks and spoons with his continued passion for drawing the cartoon dead, James came up with the concept for the future The Dishwasher. Just at the same time, Microsoft released XNA Game Studio Express and hosted the Dream.Build.Play. competition, in which James’s demo won. For the first place, the game designer received $10,000 to develop the full version and a contract with Xbox Live Arcade.
The game was later developed in the form of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, but the sequel was already developed in collaboration with other people.
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS Vita, PS 4, Wii U
Of course, it is impossible to imagine today’s list without Minecraft. In just 5 years, the game has gone from being a modest demo to an industry hysteria that has made its creator, Markus Persson, a billionaire.
Before the Swedish developer came up with the idea to implement an open fantasy world in a pixel-building environment, he managed to build up a considerable portfolio working for King.com. His completed projects include games in six programming languages, and Persson is still keen to add to the collection.
In early 2009, Persson decided to leave King.com to focus on his ideas. After taking a part-time job at Jalbum.net, Markus decided to go through his old prefabs for inspiration and stumbled upon something called «RubyDung», a Dwarf Fortress-esque strategy game.
Markus originally wanted to make something like Left 4K Dead with graphics like GTA: Chinatown Wars, and by creating his own map editor, he got Zombie Town.
After an unsuccessful attempt to introduce a first-person view, Persson abandoned the project for a while. But as soon as Infiniminer appeared on the network, everything fell into place.
“I realized that this is what I need. The building part of the Infiniminer was fun, but lacking variety. I remembered RubyDung and after a while I got the gameplay I needed.”
The public at TIGSource liked the idea and soon Markus founded Mojang with the money from the sale of the alpha version and devoted himself entirely to Minecraft.
Lone Survivor (2012)
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, PS3, PS Vita, PS 4, Wii U
In the case of Lone Survivor, the author of the game, Jasper Byrne, was not sure until recently that the game would ever see the light of day. Programming since childhood, Jasper has always kept game design as a hobby and spent 11 years traveling the world writing drum and bass before the release of Lone Survivor. By the way, many people learn about the developer through his musical role thanks to his contribution to the soundtracks of both Hotline Miami.
Berne started working on Lone Survivor around 2005 after thinking about dreams as a developer tool.
“We are used to the fact that dreams do not contain any framework, and anything can happen in them. It became extremely interesting for me to try to build a game around this concept.
From the first minutes of the gameplay, it becomes clear that, contrary to statements, Lone Survivor is not the horror we are used to, like the works of Frictional Games. Like Bern’s favorite Silent Hill series, Lone Survivor is filled with lingering atmosphere and psychological metaphors.
“The main thing is a strong central theme, and game design and mechanics are built around it. Even if some element turned out to be interesting enough, I will remove it if it does not complement the overall theme. Restrictions like this help a lot, at least for me.”
As for as many as five different endings, here again the influence of Silent Hill is obvious. Bern intentionally did not introduce moral indicators into the game that affect the finale, as in the same Mass Effect. Instead, the ending is defined in a much more subtle way for the player.
With Lone Survivor dealt with, Jasper can’t wait to move on to his next project.
“I think that, despite the increased interest in video games, these are just the first steps in the industry. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something incredible, like when silent movies turned into talkies.»
Papers, Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller (2013)
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, PS Vita
Before settling down at Naughty Dog and working on the Uncharted series, Lucas Pope launched his own Ratloop studio with friends back in the 90s, however, then nothing good came of it. When, nevertheless, the programmer got a job at a company that produces world-famous AAA titles, he realized that he wanted to return to independent days.
After finishing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Lucas decides to leave Naugty Dog and move to Japan to develop games with more experimental gameplay. Also, for a while, Pope stayed in Singapore helping a friend finish his project.
During all these journeys and flights, Lucas became interested in the work of customs inspectors. He came up with the idea to write a game in which it would be necessary to act not in the traditional role of a hero who needs to deceive the system, but rather, try not to be deceived.
In Papers, Please, your task is to use all sorts of tools and instructions to take turns considering the cases of citizens passing through the border of the fictitious state of Arstotzka. At first glance, too simple and routine process becomes more complicated as you progress through the game. The background of the whole process is the personal life of the protagonist, which is directly affected by his decisions during the verification of documents. Too large bribes will not bypass the attention of the authorities, and the refusal to let the bandits through can turn into the murder of your relatives.
Papers, Please was a great success, getting through Greenlight in a matter of days. It sold three million copies in three years and won several indie awards. However, a sequel is not to be expected. By the end of development, Lucas Pope was already so fed up with the game that he would now move on to a project on a much smaller scale.
Stardew Valley (2016)
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, Xbox One, PS4
Have you ever heard that the gaming community cared so much about the developers that they asked them to take a break and fix bugs at their convenience? This unheard-of position was achieved by Eric Baron, the author of last year’s Stardew Valley farming simulator. The game combines the best of the first Harvest Moon games with elements from Terraria, Minecraft, and Rune Factory.
Baron created all the code, pixel art and even music alone for four years, often working 10 hours a day and moonlighting as an usher in a local theater. It is amazing that, despite the fact that Baron unlearned to be a programmer, before Stardew Valley he had absolutely no experience in game design, including creating pixel art.
“It’s all about desire and discipline. It’s a lot easier to stay on track when you’re working on your project knowing you’re your own boss.»
Deciding to make a small clone of his beloved Harvest Moon in a couple of months, as is usually the case, the game designer’s ambitions grew in proportion to the development of the project, and the deadline was pushed back first by two years, and then by four.
Baron’s relationship with the players deserves special attention. Since 2012, he has been actively sharing all the development details on Reddit and has always listened to the opinions and suggestions of the players. Baron’s refusal to take any money from the players through the fashionable Early Access finally fell in love with the gaming community. It got to the point that when downloading the game from torrents, the players repeatedly wrote about their firm intention to later purchase the game for money. There have even been instances of buying multiple copies of Stardew Valley and giving away the extra copies to people who can’t afford the game.
About a year later, Baron continues to work hard, but now with much less pressure. The patient game designer has landed the coveted position of a financially secure indie developer with a huge fanbase waiting for his next move.
“The key is to 100% convince yourself that something big is destined for you. This is not even a question of ego, but simply a way to remove doubts and vulnerability that interfere with you. ”
Asked about the developer’s next move with Stardew Valley or other projects, Baron laughs:
«If I’ve learned anything by developing Stardew Valley, it’s something that’s useless to plan.»
There are still plenty of examples in the industry of developing impressive games both solo and with some kind of outside help. Much of their success lies in the fact that, despite the limited working resources, the game gets the necessary sophistication, attention to detail and balance. Components warm to the heart of every conscious player, which often have to be looked for with a magnifying glass in large projects.