Red Sun: The Early Life of an Indie Game

Last weekend at ConBravo in Hamilton, I had the chance to meet some pretty awesome people after our interviews and panel called "Crowdfunding and the Independent Artist." There are so many of you out there doing rad creative things that deserve people's attention, so I was glad I could offer some tips that might save you a headache or two.

On that note, I want to introduce you to one of the indie artists I met, Richelle Rueda, who's spent the past several months on the dev team for a game called Red Sun (which looks like an exciting dark twist on the classic Bo-Peep.) I've always wondered what it's like to build a game from scratch and trying to co-ordinate a team of people who might have competing visions for the final product. SO here's a behind-the-scenes look at the process and some of the challenges of starting your own project:

A Little Information

My name is Richelle Rueda. I graduated from Texas A&M with a B.Sc. in biology. I worked in oncology research for three years, but I have always been an avid gamer. During school I worked as a freelance 2D artist under the pen name FireCatRich on deviantart. While my freelance work is primarily digital, I’ve had formal training in 2D and 3D traditional art at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada, receiving high honors upon completion of my studies. This past year I've been in the post-graduate game design program at Sheridan. There I led a small development team through their capstone project from concept to completion in the summer of 2014. 

Red Sun is a vertical slice - a small, polished sample or demo that is representative of a larger game - a 2-D puzzle platformer that was built in Unity 4. Ideally this can be used in a presentation to potential employers or investors as a sample of our work even if the larger game is never finished. The developer’s blog for Red Sun can be found here.

The Pitch

In December of 2013, all the designers in my cohort were tasked with making a short game pitch for our peers and the programming students. There were two main goals to this pitch. The first was to illustrate a clear vision for a game, highlighting its unique characteristics and project risks. The second goal was to demonstrate our personal skills and what we could offer to the team. The sculpture below was made to do both. I was the only traditional sculptor in the class and while it did not directly contribute to the digital game, it did demonstrate my clear vision of the main character and my dedication to the project.

The games pitches with the most votes were then able to form teams in January. Red Sun had a total of four members when the entire process was completed, with two designers and two programmers.

The original game proposal was then mapped out. The GDD (game design document) was written as though we had unlimited time and manpower on the project. This helped us to get all of our widely ranging ideas and goals for the project on paper. All of our team members had the opportunity to add their own ideas into the game, though not all of them chose to do so. While it was frustrating to not receive that much input from the other members of the team, my personal goal was to have the main characters--Bo, her sheep, and the gooey wolf antagonists-- fully realized within the gameBelow is some very early concept work I did for the wolves.

The most difficult part of the development process that I’ve had to go through so far was re-evaluating the original proposal once a group was put together. The original proposal was, intentionally, very grand and far more than could possibly be done in the 4 months of production we were given. We had to take into consideration the group’s strengths and specialties and realistically evaluate our own weaknesses. I find self-evaluation quite difficult, as did the rest of the people in the team.

When the dust settled and meetings among the team and with our advisers had concluded, the final proposal was cut down to the vertical slice of the much larger game that we are currently working on now. We had to showcase Bo and all her unique abilities in her world in one tutorial level and one fully realized level of game play. The story elements and large cast of NPCs that inhabited the world were stripped down to their bare minimum to accommodate our small team size and limited production time.

One of the hardest parts of getting started came down to setting short term goals that were manageable. In any large project it can often seem daunting to look at it as a whole, so chopping it into much smaller goals helps get things off the ground. We found that these very simple block diagrams were helpful to communicate ideas between team members even though the actually numerical values ended up changing several times during the project.

These diagrams also helped with the next step for our team. While the four of us were handling the game from a mechanically end, we asked additional people to join our team to make some improvements. At this point we brought on an animator to handle the lion’s share of the 2D sprites and a composer to make some original scores for the game. While the project could have continued without these additions, the quality of the project greatly improved from their expertise. This presented a new difficulty along with the benefits though; the interactions between team members often had to be facilitated. Below is Bo’s turn-around that I, as the primary 2D artist made, and then handed off to the animator. This job order required time to organize and made a timeline pivotal to the project.

Final Thoughts:
For anyone that would like to start their own project, be it a game or other creative project, there are a few helpful hints to keep in mind:
  1. Research your topic. If it’s a game play lots of games and examine them critically.
  2. Be creative with your ideas and solutions.
  3. Get those ideas down on paper and prepare to explain them to other people.
  4. Don’t be afraid to talk problems through with your team.
  5. Be clear about your goals and your team members' goals for the project. Check to be sure they don’t conflict.
  6. Be realistic with your time and resources.
  7. Reevaluate your project at set intervals.
The team also benefited from the time invested in project management and timeline building to keep everyone working efficiently. There were regular check points so that we could clearly see our progress and end goals.

Good luck and happy hunting on all your creative endeavors!
-Richelle “FireCatRich” Rueda