Featuring an interview with Olly Bennett (Managing director at Cardboard Sword) we dive into the world of independent games development.
The games industry is saturated nowadays with everything from huge triple A titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 to smaller indie games such as Transistor.
However even one of the most well-known games ‘Minecraft’ started out as a humble indie.
Now since the early 2000’s there has been a huge rise in popularity of Independent games.
So, what makes a game indie?
Generally, for a game to be called indie it is often designed by a small independent studio with no huge publisher backing it.
They tend to have a smaller price tag and in some cases, are shorter in length and feature unique graphical styles.
Many indie games are accessible to those who don’t have time to sink 100 hours into a single game and learn deep complex RPG systems.
This smaller length often also means smaller size files which is why in recent times there has been a shift to have many indie titles ported over to mobile.
There is huge debate, however on what makes a title indie with some being created by a small team yet published by or having input from well-known studios.
Most titles have unique aspects to them as a result of coming from a small independent team with no corporate influence.
Perhaps some of the biggest examples in recent times being Undertale developed and published solely by Toby Fox and Braid by Jonathan Blow.
What’s it like being a developer at an indie studio?
The world of independent games can be a difficult one and surviving in this market can be testing to many studios.
Olly Bennett is managing director at Cardboard Sword, an independent team of experienced game developers currently working on The Siege and the Sandfox.
The company was founded in 2013 by Olly and his colleague Aidan Howe after they were both made redundant.
On why the studio was set up Olly was quite candid: “We were fed up of being directed by people we didn’t necessarily agree with, but had authority to make decisions. So, we thought we’re young enough, let’s start our own games business.”
Now they are a seven-person team all of which are directors and represent different aspects of development from art and design to programming, all having a voice when it comes to direction.
The team also take on contractors who have specific jobs short term.
An important aspect to indie titles is the timeframe in which it is released.
“We know not to release the game in November or December because it’s too close to Christmas; the big open world triple A games are coming out then.”
With huge companies like Sony and Rockstar having big budgets to spend on their titles, independent studios have to think carefully about finances.
On the issue of finances Olly said: “When you run out of money as an independent studio you need to raise more and that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do.
“Even crowdfunding costs a lot of time and money, and it’s a big distraction. We don’t have spare capital, and all of our money goes on the game, so there’s no backup fund to draw from.
“Realistically a project of any decent size or scope can cost anything from £250,000 to £500,000.”
But there are many pros to being an indie game developer.
‘’You make your own decisions, both in terms of business direction and creatively. You’re also faster to adapt and change based on changes to the game project or the business.
“Everything’s also more personal. In some ways, it’s easier to discuss things because it’s more personal but in other ways its harder.
“With a business structure, you can imagine everyone’s a stranger, with a small business everyone’s a friend.
“So, if you’re trying to tell a friend that they have to change something they are doing, it can be harder.”
What’s it like moving from a big studio to an indie?
“Essentially everyone I’m working with at the company is equal – I’m not really anyone’s boss.
“I can strongly voice considerations and concerns in any area of the company but we don’t really have a standard hierarchy.
“When I was working at my last job I had a team of QA beneath me, and a team of developers that I directed, to some degree.
“My duties were different then. Now I run an indie. As well as making a game I have to run a business and so I wear lots of different hats.”
How do you make your mark in such a saturated market?
In terms of the game itself Olly said: “You’ve got to have something unique about your games. Be it your aesthetic or gameplay mechanics, or whatever it is, your major USP needs to be something that no one else has ever done before, or better than anyone else has ever done.
“You have free channels like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit which you can create content on, but you need persistence.
“Your snowball starts tiny and slowly starts to grow; though you might get lucky and go viral. But you have to keep it up and not be disheartened, that’s important.
“When you’re starting out, if you do a livestream and you only have two or three people watching you, that’s fine, because each person knows lots of other people and all they need to do is recommend you to one other person, giving you potential to branch out.”
So, what about the game itself?
The Siege and the Sandfox is a 2D stealth Metroidvania game and is the first title by the studio.
It’s a dazzling open world platforming game with one single map featuring heavy exploration.
In the game, you’ll find yourself discovering new equipment and unlocking new areas through story progression.
One of the big draws of the game is the incredibly high quality 2D pixel art featured throughout.
Along with this the game is built in Unreal Engine 4 which helps the team incorporate modern effects to improve the visuals further.
The game is unique in that no one’s made a stealth Metroidvania title before with pixel art this detailed.
Speaking about creating a community for their game Olly said: “In a game like Fortnite you can share tactics and talk to people about games you’ve had and replay it for hours and hours.
“That’s powerful because you want to start discussing it with your mates and online. As a developer once you’ve got that you’ve got lots of fuel for marketing.
“For a single-player adventure game like ours it’s trickier. The main thing we are doing is creating a lot of YouTube content, showing development of the game, talking about game design theory and sharing information.”
Recently studios are finding it harder and harder to get their games discovered.
Olly addressed this: “When discoverability is hard you need to help people find your game, which is easier said than done.
The indie market has also been targeted by those making a quick buck further fuelling saturation.
Users are purchasing free to use assets and making quick games of varied quality with their only interest being on the money.
There was a time when users were actually missing indie content, which was when games like Fez, Thomas was Alone and Hotline Miami became so prevalent.
Nowadays there are huge games like Rocket League that have hit mainstream audiences.
Speaking about those games Olly said: “They’re good to remind people that it’s not just your massive game companies like Ubisoft, EA and Activision that are making games they can enjoy and talk about with their mates.”
Alongside game development Olly also runs Game Bridge, a networking event hosted quarterly in the Teesside University campus.
He’s also guest lectured at universities and advised on the creation of some games courses, including indie development.
For more information and all the latest updates on the Siege and the Sandfox check out Cardboard Sword’s official website.
You can also join the teams discord here.