Making games can be a long, hard, and expensive process.
Few know this better than indies, who often work alone or in small groups to build unique and beautiful games.
Gwen Frey is a great example; after getting her start in big-budget games over a decade ago, she went on to cofound an indie studio (The Molasses Flood) and work with a small team to ship The Flame in the Flood in 2016.
Later Frey moved on to work on her own solo project, a quirky puzzle game that became Kine, which recently launched across PC and consoles. Along the way she's learned a great deal about what it takes to ship games, and now she's coming to GDC 2020 next month to share her knowledge in "The 'Kine' Postmortem", an Independent Games Summit session all about puzzle game design and the art of dynamically scoping your game.
Here, Frey opens up a bit further about why she's putting this talk together for GDC, what she's learned about how to manage risks as an indie, and why she's so passionate about encouraging other devs to have multiple scopes their games -- so they don't get trapped in funding deals they can't walk away from.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your path into game development!
My name is Gwen Frey and I've been a professional game developer for 11 years now. I started out working as a tech artist in MMOs. After that I moved into AAA and worked as a technical animator on BioShock Infinite and the various DLCs for that franchise. Around 5 years ago I left AAA and founded an indie studio with 5 other people called The Molasses Flood. While there I was co-owner, CFO, and the sole animator/tech artist on The Flame in The Flood.
Finally, two years ago I departed that studio to work on a solo project I was crafting at home. I decided to found my own studio, Chump Squad, to work on this game. Over 2019 I secured some funding to hire a few a few contract houses, I polished and finished Kine, and then I launched it on PC, Stadia, and all of the consoles.
So what inspired you to pitch this talk for GDC 2020?
Kine was a huge learning experience for me, and it involved taking a lot of risks. I started out as a solo developer making a puzzle game - I've never made a game alone before and I I've never worked on a puzzle game. My background was in art, and I've never considered designing a game until Kine. I made this game entirely in Blueprint (a visual scripting language) which seemed insanely risky for a multi-platform title. I launched this game on 2 new storefronts, the Epic Games Store and Google Stadia, and I built Kine as these storefronts were being constructed.
I've learned a lot very quickly over the last two years and I'm very eager to share my experiences with other developers out there. GDC seemed like the best platform to reach as many people as possible.
What are you hoping your peers will get from your talk?
I want to use videos of Kine at different stages (pre-funding, partly funded, and fully funded) to pitch a philosophy about game design. I strongly believe in having multiple scopes for the game you are making - one scope that you can finish with existing funds (or in my case on my own with no money), a scope that you can make with moderate funding, and a scope that is your dream game.
I think being able to walk away from any funding deal and still make a game you are proud of is important. I honestly think that is the key to crafting a game with a unique and personal vision. I hope there will be some solo developers or developers working at very small studios that I can persuade to work in a more dynamic and flexible way. I also want to share what I've learned about puzzle game development specifically. This is an incredibly fun and fulfilling genre to work in and I hope any puzzle developers find one or two interesting takeaways from the talk.
What do you fear about being unable to walk away from a deal? Is it just general common sense, or do you have cautionary experience with/stories of devs taking deals that turned out to be harmful?
This comes from personal experience. One of the most demotivating things is working on a project that may not get funded. It is hard to passionately work on something that has a good chance of getting cut. There have been times in my career when I forced myself to work really hard on a prototype that needed funding to be fully realized, and then I've flown around pitching that prototype to different publishers. That is an awful position to be in. One of two things happen: you might end up not pouring yourself into your work because you don't know if it will get funded and if it doesn't then no one will see it. Or you might end up giving up a lot of creative control to a publisher/funding partner because you really, really want to make your prototype into a game. Sometimes you end up doing a combination of both.
Generally I've found the best way to pitch a game is to go into any meeting knowing that you can complete a version of the game that you are proud of with the funds that you have in your bank account. When I'm looking for funding it is because I think there is a better game that I could make with the right business partner, but if any given business partner wants too much creative control or has a vision for the game that I am not interested in then I need to know that I can walk away.
So, for example, imagine there is a partner that will fund your game but you will be required to pursue a monetization model that you don't think fits your work. If you don't have any choice and this is the only way to fund your game then you will feel trapped and disheartened. You will sign this deal, but you will hate that you felt you were forced to take it. On the other hand, if you know that you can make a different, smaller version of your game without that funding then you have a choice. Now you are choosing to either use this unexpected monetization model and make a bigger game overall, or you are choosing to walk away and make something smaller without this partner's funding. Now you are weighing the pros and cons of two options rather than feeling trapped into one option. I find that having this choice really changes your outlook.
For Kine I chose to partner with Epic and make Kine an Epic Game Store exclusive. I decided to forgo other PC storefronts and get funding instead. That funding allowed me to make a much bigger game, translate the game into eight languages, and launch on consoles day-in-date with the PC version. Just look at the difference the funding made:
This is what Kine looked like when I was working alone with no funding:
Not bad for a scrappy solo developer with no money, right? ;)
But here is what Kine looked like after I was funded and spent a few months working with some artists from Surface Digital:
Working with Epic was obviously great for my game. However, before the Epic Games Store existed I had a couple of other offers that I turned down because they would have compromised Kine in ways that I was uncomfortable with. Having the ability to turn those other offers down allowed me to make the game that I wanted to make and allowed me to eventually pursue this deal with Epic.
Fun and fulfilling aren't career descriptors we hear too often, sadly. If you don't mind us asking, what do you find fulfilling about making puzzle games specifically?
My background is in animation and a key part of animation is the idea that you are telling an audience something without actually saying it. It's this "show, don't tell" mentality that I also like in puzzle games. A good puzzle has an idea to it, but it wont tell you what that idea is. You have to experiment and figure out what that idea is.
Sometimes the idea can be funny: "look at this odd thing that happens when you combine these mechanics!" Sometimes the idea can be interesting: "I bet you didn't realize you could do this, but in hindsight isn't it obvious?" When you play these games you often feel like you are having a conversation with the developer. They feel unique and personal to me. That is a huge part of what drew me to the genre.
With Kine I wanted to tell a story about three struggling musicians, but I wanted to tell this story with puzzles rather than words. So my challenge was this: If a character is heartbroken then can I make a puzzle that feels like a never-ending heartbreak? Can I use the puzzle mechanics in Kine to make two characters fight? Can I craft a puzzle that captures what it feels like to be victorious and and excited, or puzzles that make you feel helpless and broken? These were ideas that I was exploring in Kine, and I can honestly say I had a total blast making this game.
GDC 2020 runs from Monday, March 16th through Friday, March 20th. This will be the 34th edition of GDC, and if you're not already registered to attend organizers encourage you to take a look at the ever-expanding session schedule and your GDC pass options -- register early to lock in the best price!