Mere days before April 20, 2019 the landscape of video game design shifted with the release of David Münnich’s indie-hit, “Supraland.” Münnich created the explorative game by himself, without the infrastructure and overhead that have classically supported video game design. Münnich attributed the unique yet familiar feel of the game to the subconscious influence of the Mario franchise, going on to say that “Everybody can now create and release a game … that would normally cost millions of bucks.” Gaming’s boldest new experiences are emerging from small-design teams.
At 19, Leighton Gray had “never made a game before.” She co-created and led the art direction of dad-dating simulator “Dream Daddy” (2017). Leighton hit a homerun without enough people to field a baseball team. In addition to Leighton, the design team includes a creative director, a design lead, two producers, a few designers as well as remote contractors. “Dream Daddy” was wildly successful, emblematic of the changing times and the unconventional conventionality of small-team game design.
Utilizing Talented Freelancers
The large undertaking of designing a video game compels even the most dedicated creators to dip into the pool of talented international freelancers. David Münnich drew crucial game elements from the free Unreal gaming engine and from his single art designer, who Münnich said immediately struck him as a “master” among a largely unimpressive lineup of freelance asset designers. Outsourcing, however, can be a risky proposition with practical limitations. Industry veteran Eric Neigher, director of marketing and publishing at Snapshot Games, spoke with DOPE Magazine as his team put final touches on the upcoming September release of “Phoenix Point.” “There are tiers to what can or should be outsourced, says Neigher, who explains further: “With a strong art-director, the drawing and animation process can thrive under a remote freelancer. User Interface is more sensitive. Core design work is crucial to the final feel and function of the game and should take place under the nose of the team’s visionary lead.”
Finding an Audience
Discoverability represents a significant challenge for small game designers at the moment. David Münnich has designed games for two decades (this was not even his first major gaming release). He admitted that upon releasing “the game of [his] dreams … the most likely outcome was no success.” You could say that Münnich got very lucky. The emergence of streaming and online gaming marketplaces has not done enough to connect gamers with stellar independent games.
Croteam, based out of Zagreb, Croatia, grew from humble beginnings in 1993 as a “garage game development” into one of the prominent game development studios in Eastern Europe — largely through the success of the “Serious Sam” franchise and 2014’s philosophical puzzler, “The Talos Principle.” Ante Vrdelja, CMO at Croteam, outlined two paths to indie discovery in 2019: The first entails designing marketability into a game from the start; developers should analyze cultural trends, adapt popular game mechanics and design a game that’s both fun to watch (for streaming purposes) and unique in each play-through. The second is more renegade: “There are many elite commando teams that save the world over and over, but there’s just one game [“The Talos Principle”] where you roam the garden of Eden with androids,” Vrdelja says.
The thing is … Leighton Gray invented this approach as a teen in 2017. Her reaction to strategy now is reminiscent of the young “Dream Daddy” character Amanda who bemoans her dad’s unfashionable use of memes (“daaaaad!”). Gray labels the built-in marketability approach dead in 2019, the victim of overuse by publishers in a “post-‘Dream Daddy’-society.” Vrdelja’s second path for indie developers entails disregarding what’s popular, breaking every rule and creating something ambitious.
“There are many elite commando teams that save the world over and over, but there’s just one game [“The Talos Principle”] where you roam the garden of Eden with androids.”
— Ante Vrdelja, Chief Marketing Officer, Croteam
Small design teams have more advantages now than ever before, and possibly more than they will ever have again. In the past decade, crowdsourcing, freemium economies, app games, and many, many more avenues for indie discovery have emerged. “Supraland” ascended to the top of the indie gaming world in 2019 without a marketing budget, on the back of one sleep-deprived designer. The natural emergence of a new, shining experience in gaming is evidence of the market’s good function. David Münnich made what he loved, and the people made it hot.
Expert Tip: Engaging the Modern Streamer
Tips from Eric Neigher, Director of Marketing and Publishing, Snapshot Games
- Identify the proper tier (low, mid, top) and category of streamer you want to work with. Top streamers command huge sums that can eat up an entire marketing budget.
- Working with streamers is relationship-driven marketing. Companies can’t just write checks. Streamers really want developers to be responsive to feedback and audience input.
- Game developers must involve themselves and appear authentically in streamers’ audience. Identify a streamer’s audience and figure out how to enhance their watching experience through involvements that show that developers care.
Interview with David Münnich, Solo-Creator of Supraland
You made Supraland by yourself?
I was the only one actually developing the game. The 3D assets I used were recycled from a previous game (Supraball). Being all alone I simply added my crazy ideas and that makes it all unique. Another pro is that when I have a crazy idea I don’t have to convince everyone. A democratic decision process is fine for running a country, but, in art, it’s giant BS.
What did the experience teach you?
Working all by yourself makes it makes it easy to write multiple pieces of code that affect each other, back and forth. You also save time spent in coordination but having everything on your shoulders is crushing. I slept poorly, knowing that I had big tasks ahead of me that were beyond my ability. I forced myself through it, I grew a lot in the process because I had to learn a lot of new things, but I would prefer not to do it again.
What’s the future potential for solo-game design?
The credits say that I made the game pretty much by myself, but in reality there is a big team at Epic Games behind me. They created the engine that I and lots of other developers are using. There are also marketplaces where you can buy assets that you need. I first saw my artist’s stylized/cartoony work on an asset platform. Most cartoon assets you find on these platforms are not well made, but he is a master. Everyone can now create and release a game and it can have assets that would normally cost millions of bucks to produce.
How do you make a low-budget indie game stand out?
Technology allows everyone to make games, but to be financially successful becomes more and more unlikely. It’s like in the music business where it was for decades impossible to create your own album and release it. Now everyone can record their own music in great quality, but there are so many artists that it’s hard to make a living through music. There’s even way too much music for anyone to even listen to. Same with games nowadays. I cannot give you a guide on how to stand out from the crowd and be successful. I only designed and made the game of my dreams.
What can the next generation of designers learn from your experience?
I have learned by doing. I have been actively creating games since Unreal came out with its level editor in 1999. I analyze the games I play and listen to podcasts and Youtubers’ game analysis. It’s possible to learn everything through practice and experience. If people think they need to go to game design class, I would ask them to question what they expect to gain from it. Research the kind of games a teacher made and see what school’s graduates have produced, to decide if school is of any interest.