Learning how to make a video game without any experience can be a fascinating and rewarding process. People worldwide are taking advantage of the vast video game market by creating and selling their games through Valve Steam and Epic Games platforms. Video games for various platforms and operating systems are slightly different, but they are all based on the same general concepts. As coronavirus-related restrictions keep millions of people searching for new forms of entertainment, the video game industry continues to see a significant rise in both revenue and attentiveness to e-sports and twitch gamers/streamers. People are at home, and they do not have anything to do. When you're bored, you fill your time. May that be making TikTok videos, taking on new household projects, or, in this case, doing what most people dreamed about, creating their own video game.
For the last few weeks, I have been speaking with Unfold Games founder and principal developer for DARQ, Wlad Marhulets, about a new project that has been in the works. For those that follow me, you may have seen my previous, extensive reviews written about Unfold Games debut game DARQ, including its most recent DLC, 'The Tower.' You can read the initial DARQ review - here, and the DLC ‘The Tower’ - here. 'The Crypt' will be the last DLC for DARQ, which will be released later this year for free in the Steam store.
In a short time since DARQ's initial release, Unfold Games has come a long way as a studio, building a strong fanbase and respect among not just gamers but developers, producers, designers and other creators in the field as well. It's genuinely something remarkable and inspiring. Unfold Games has indeed become an indie game leader.
Perhaps, like me, you've said to yourself, "I have an excellent idea for a game, but I have no idea how to get started!" Lead indie game developer Wlad Marulets has got you covered. He shares his practical tips for taking those early creative steps. In this article, I will share some of the secrets Wlad has been keeping out of the limelight. If you like what you hear, you can get yourself a copy of the book for a full in-depth guide. After his debut game, 'DARQ,' became #42 on Metacritic's Most Shared PC Games of 2019, Wlad felt compelled to share his knowledge of game creation by writing '10 Steps to Make Your First Game Successful'. The book's goal is to teach those with no experience in creating a prosperous game other own. In this detailed and expansive step-by-step guide, Wlad Marhulets seeks to immerse his audience in "all aspects of game development," as represented by the ten chapters created by Wlad.
I have decided to turn the book review into a three-part series, given that the book is close to 300 pages. Each will be released one day after the other. The amount of knowledge that Wlad has acquired in such a short amount of time is genuinely remarkable within itself. He describes the benefits of confronting and overcoming obstacles and habits that hold you back from achieving your dreams. He quotes several relevant, well-known literary and creative greats to further his points. Marhulets reveals his pitfalls of imposter syndrome behavior, encouraging you to overcome your environmental difficulties and self-sabotaging thoughts to get to developing your next hit game. Throughout Wlad's book, the reader gains an understanding of the process of overriding negative messages. He describes the challenging, yet necessary, mental feat of taking a step back from the immediate rush of events to gain greater insight into one's experiences and circumstances, before adjusting your actions to move forward again. Marhulet's thoughtful examination of self and society will, for the committed reader, deliver a refreshing and revitalizing perspective. After a couple weeks of receiving ‘GAMEDEV: 10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful.’ from Wlad, I would like to give my take on it.
Let's dive deeper into Wlad's mind as he guides you through the essential steps that it takes to reach your goal to create your next hit game.
Who is Wlad Marhulets?
“Wlad Marhulets? Huh? Never heard of the guy." - Well, it's time you did. The author is a proven composer, developer, and author. Wlad Marhulets has been performing far and wide by world-class musical organizations, such as Lyric Opera of Chicago, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Detroit Symphony, and many others. Besides, he's worked on huge Hollywood films, such as Hitman: Agent 47, starring Rupert Friend and Zachary Quinto; Marshal from Detroit, starring Eminem.; The Giver, starring Meryl Streep; November Man, starring Pierce Brosnan; Sabotage, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; and others. His educational accomplishments include earning a full scholarship to the most prestigious music school: The Julliard School. Wlad won the Azrieli Prize in Music, the Susan W. Rose Fund Grant, the Peter D. Faith Prize, and five ASCAP Awards, including their prestigious Leonard Bernstein Award. As a full scholarship student during his tenure at the Juilliard School, Wlad studied composition exclusively with Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winner John Corigliano (The Red Violin). Corigliano became Wlad's mentor and friend, to whom he dedicated this book.
"I hope his [Wlad] book inspires others to allow their dreams too, no matter what the odds are. Wlad's story proves that it's possible" – John Corigliano,
Marhulets would become the Founder of Unfold Games, Principal Developer for 'DARQ,' and, most recently, the author of 'GameDev: 10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful.' This is not just a 'how-to' book, but also a story that will bring you an in-depth look into his upbringing and struggles from Poland to New York with nothing but a dream, a severe stutter, and a net worth of $300.00. He dedicated himself to becoming a Juilliard student, one of the most expensive schools globally, with little to nothing in his name. I feel that many of us out there today, especially those affected financially by the pandemic, can relate to his story. Wlad gives his insights on what kept him motivated and inspired when all seemed lost, and the world became…DARQ.
Recently, Wlad has become well-known in the gaming industry for his award-winning game DARQ. What is DARQ? DARQ tells the story of Lloyd, a boy who becomes aware of the fact that he is dreaming. To Lloyd's misfortune, the dream quickly turns into a nightmare with all attempts to wake up ending in failure. While exploring the darkest corners of his subconscious, Lloyd learns how to survive the nightmare by bending physics laws and manipulating the fluid fabric of the dream world.
While the book is now available for sale, Wlad is aware that most authors never break even on their expenses. His goal is to distribute the book for free to thousands of academic and public libraries worldwide. As unemployment rates skyrocketed, his primary motivation for writing this book was to help as many people as possible. If the book brings long-term PR value to his studio, he'd be happy with that too! But he also would like for it to be useful and provide as much value as possible. By sharing his experience, he hopes it can help at least some people — those who find game development to be their passion, as he does.
As a first-time developer with no prior experience in coding, modeling, texturing, animation, game design, etc., Wlad managed to launch DARQ to commercial success and critical acclaim. With zero dollars spent on marketing, it was featured in major media outlets, such as IGN, Kotaku, PC Gamer, GameSpot, Forbes, and hundreds of others. Ultimately, DARQ became #42 Most Shared PC Video Game of 2019, according to Metacritic, with the average user rating of 9 out of 10. In Wlad's book, he shares with you exactly how he did it. The book guides you through a step-by-step process of making a game, downloading a game engine to releasing your first commercial title.
Last weekend I finished reading GAMEDEV: 10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful. Marhulets has produced a comprehensive and written book mapping out game design and development's conceptual tools and techniques. The book is designed for a new developer and designer and provides enough depth to be broadly useful to work designers. The book has two organizing principles. The first is an organically laid out map of all the essential elements of game design. This allows you to construct a game and make it successful in one of the most transparent and accessible manners.
I will not write out the entire book, that would be silly, but I will provide some of Wlad's most vital keys to success that are both informational and relatable to most of us. Again, I will be breaking down ‘GameDev: ‘10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful’ book into three separate articles.
Part I: Chapters 1- 3; ‘Mindset, ‘Preproduction,’ and ‘Funding.’
Part II: Chapters 4 - 7; ‘Development,’ ‘Business & Law,’ and ‘Marketing & PR’
Part III: Chapters 8 - 10; ‘Publishing & Distribution,’ ‘Preparing for Launch,’ and ‘What’s Next?‘
This may come off more like cliff notes, but it will give you an overall idea of what you will look forward to when educating yourself from Wlad's opinions and personal experience. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes I include will be excerpts of the book from Wlad himself. Let's begin.
"It all begins in the brain. Paradoxically, to become a successful software developer, you first might need to reprogram your brain to become a partner, not a saboteur. You didn't grow up in a perfect environment where self-confidence, self-growth, and self-discipline were nurtured."
This is the first couple of sentences of Chapter 1, and it couldn't be more spot on. Your mindset is vital; it's where it all begins and ends whether you reach your goal to completion. Wlad's compassion and eagerness to help the reader understand that they are not alone in this vicious journey to success are uplifting and comforting. On average, we humans process hundreds of thoughts a day, if not more., We tend to ignore the most repetitive and persistent thoughts, such as in our morning rituals or the daily commute. I know that when I wake up, I don't usually open up the curtains and say, "Ah! What a glorious morning! I love it when birds are singing"—not happening. My day's first thought sounds more like, "I hate birds" as I throw the pillow over my head to sleep in instead of promptly waking up as I should. That's not a proper mindset to start the day. These self-sabotaging triggers become so habitual that our minds hardly notice them, so personal growth is so significant. It's like the types of thoughts that take us through our daily routines. We only become aware of their consequences after our behaviors lead to dead-end jobs, chronically poor health, unsatisfactory relationships, and not fulfilling our dreams. We have all been there, and for those that haven't, well, lucky you.
Self-sabotage doesn't come out of anywhere, although it may seem as if it does. Wlad helps you identify the foundation of your mind and sub-conscious to become one and work together. He encourages you to control those variables around you, such as your current or past environment. Think of yourself as Lloyd, the helpless boy who was baffled and confused in and out of his dream state due to his situation. Trapped in his mind and riddled with PTSD, he practically ran around like his head was cut off, unable to control his subconscious to overcome his (possible) past or present obstacles. He took control of every situation to overcome the hardships and blocks in his path.
"If you doubt yourself every step of the way, how can you convince others to believe in you? If you don't expect a lot from your first game, how can you expect your customers and the media to take your project seriously? Building the right mindset is the first step to achieving any long-term goal. You can't win a battle if your mind makes you surrender before you even start."
Despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Video Games industry is anticipated to remain resilient due to the unprecedented increasing share of industry revenue attributable to online gaming. With millions of quarantined, XBOX and PlayStation are frequently releasing free and discounted titles, seemingly weekly. Understanding what all the market involves can lead you to develop more than just a video game. Perhaps you would like to become a developer or work in an actual marketing field in the industry.
This chapter will take you through the step-by-step preproduction process, the most crucial part of the journey, as you enter this industry. This step is the time to become more decisive than ever before. Ask yourself questions like, "Which platform will I use? Console? PC?' “Which genre will I create? Indie, Survival-Horror?" The possibilities are endless. But it is crucial to plan. Think of this as your personalized business plan. You'll learn about market analysis, scope, target audience, engines, and more. You'll also learn how to assemble a team and write a game design document. Wlad will show you how to prepare for the production and plan for what happens post-launch. "I want you to understand that as you've decided to make a commercially viable product, you've entered the business world. But keep in mind that now you're also preparing to run your studio, create a brand, register your trademarks, develop and protect your intellectual property, hire contractors, develop a marketing strategy, and enter into partnerships with other businesses, investors, publishers, retailers, etc. It might sound overwhelming, but you'll learn how to do all that in time... The industry evolves so fast, so there's no formula for making a successful game."
The subchapters within this chapter will guide you deeper through the process: 'Market Analysis,' 'What Game Should I Make,' 'Platforms,' 'Target Audience,' 'Engine,' 'Software,' 'Budget & Schedule,' 'Price Point and Monetization,' 'Replayability,' 'Team Assembly,' and 'Game Design Document.' Let's start by covering the 'Market Analysis' and 'Engine.' Below are some options from these two subchapters:
- Developing video game software
- Publishing video game software
- Wholesaling video game software
- Retailing video game software
- Manufacturing video game software
- Retailing video game consoles
- Wholesaling video game consoles and accessories
- Developing video game accessories
- Retailing video game accessories
- Providing online game subscription services
Wlad invites you to do as much research as you can. Try to find answers to a few of the following questions:
- What are the current market trends?
- What games are selling on the platforms you're targeting.
- What strategies made them successful?
- What was its budget?
- What are the most popular platforms, and what is their distribution model? What cut do they take? What is their demographic? Is it mostly male, female, or mixed? What groups do they represent?
- Based on the current state of the market, what trends do you anticipate in the future?
These are only a little over a handful of the many questions that Wlad asks the reader to research to become successful in marketing your new game. Finding the answers to these questions before you start working on your competition is essential. "In 2007, the whole industry's worth was estimated at 45 billion USD. Some analysts believe it will reach 200 billion by 2023.". WEPC.com gives an updated analysis with statistics per quarter, which you can find here. It covers the DLC market, Platforms, Steam sales per region, PC hardware, Console gaming, and much more helpful data. Information like this could help you cover the groundwork of Wlad's subchapters', while avoiding the most common mistakes first-time indie developers make. Let’s investigate these mistakes.
Underestimating the amount of time, it takes creating games could be the beginning of a snowball effect of mistakes. This is where scoping comes into play. "Does it really need to have all the features you have in mind? Does it need to be online? Does it have a complex crafting system, or is this a feature that is not essential to your game idea? Don't assume you can make a clone of your favorite triple-A game that had hundreds of people working on it for multiple years." Additionally, you should be scoping out the gaming industry’s vast array of available careers. The most common myth about game industry jobs is the lack of options. There’s video game artist, designer, writer, audio programmer, audio programmer, game producer, game tester, professional gamer, and so much more. The rest of this subchapter covers; ‘Marketability,’ ‘The hook and competitive advantage,’ ‘Core emotion,’ ‘Length,’ ‘Genre,’ ‘Strength and weaknesses,’ ‘Unique look,’ and ‘Recognizable characters.’
Once you have covered marketing and have an idea of the direction, you are going to go, it’s time to figure out which gaming engine to use (Unreal Engine, Unity, Gamemaker, Cryengine, etc.). Most developers use Unity or Unreal. “I encourage you to select Unity or Unreal, just because of the fantastic teams behind them that continue to improve their software regularly.”
Both come packed with an extensive toolbox, including terrain editor, physics simulation, animation, advanced lighting, VR support, and much more. Both can produce AAA quality graphics, with high standards between most of the industry-standard software.
“Download both engines to get a feel for them and play around. This way, you’ll be able to make an educated decision and choose an engine that’s right for your project.”.
Creating a game is time-consuming, and no easy task, but most people who take on this quest are motivated by their love and passion for games. Wlad understands the difficulty coming from nothing while trying to raise money for development. It isn't on every game developer's list of favorite things. Still, to see their ideas come to fruition, many a game maker has gone in search of funding. In the end, the stage of your development and nature of your game will determine the lifecycle when that time comes. If you're just starting, and all you have are little to no skills, a lot of determination, and the idea you believe in, then sometimes the only place to go is to family and friends. This means good ole mom, dad, and your grandparents. Or, as some game creators have been known to do, show yourself some love by backing your work via loans, your regular day job, or client work. "As a first-time developer, you should do your best to keep the production cost as low as possible. Pitching your early development might not be a good idea. Since you're a beginner, you are considered a high-risk investment. Ideally, you want to have a polished demo, good wishlist numbers, and an active community built around your game."
In Chapter 3, Wlad explores the different ways of getting funding. The subchapters include: 'Reducing living,' 'expenses,' 'Patreon,' 'Part-Time Development,' 'Grants,' 'Personal loans,' 'Crowdfunding,' 'Publishers,' 'and Investors.' I am going to cover 'Crowdfunding' and 'Investors.'
When personal loans come to a halt from close friends, and family is unable to provide anymore with investments, crowdfunding can be the way to go., This does, however, require more than simply adding your project on a platform like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. Wlad list the steps that he learned from crowdfunding platforms, mentioning multiple levels in what to do when funding a game.
Beginning and ending your crowdfunding campaign is challenging and a full-time job - It's hard work. "Asking for a small amount might make people question your chances of finishing the project. Asking for a large sum of money increases your risk of not reaching your goal.". No one wants to lose their money when pledging. "Having a failed campaign suggests that there isn't enough interest in your game. It can be seen as a red flag by investors and publishers if you ever decide to seek funding."
Creating your studio and launching your game off the ground often means you will need an investor. This isn't always the case, but if you need one, then Wlad and I would like to share our thoughts with you on how to be smart about it. As William De Kooning once said, "The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.". As wage-earners, you typically live paycheck to paycheck believing your financial difficulties will be solved by the next pay increase, which is unfortunately usually the case. Properly designing your investment plans is hard work, but it will help you determine the lifecycle of your game and the possible consequences of your financial actions. What kind of investors are there out there? - well, I've noticed there are three distinct types of investors, but today I am going to focus on two that best focus on which route a new developer would most likely take.
- Passive Investor
A Pre-investor is when you start off by investing in yourself. Pre-investors are characterized by minimal financial consciousness or awareness. When pre-investors earn more, they spend more, because lifestyle is more important than financial security. For whatever reason, pre-investors haven't woken up to the necessity of owning financial responsibility for their lives and their future.
You can also have a passive investor. This is an outside investor. They follow the "buy and hold" philosophy. The passive investor seeks to invest in securities likely to grow over the long-term and calls for frequent transactions to achieve above-average returns. These "above-average returns" are usually just a more significant cut until your investment is paid back, and then the revenue share will be cut to a smaller amount. "Deals with investors usually involve a one-time cash infusion in exchange for revenue share." Usually, with this type of financing, your new studio can keep control over your project throughout its lifetime. "You control both the pricing, discounts, and bundle deals. Unlike publishers, investors are unlikely to ask you for the IP rights and won't put their name on your game. Your company will be in the spotlight, not theirs." Having a passive investor reach out to you when your game starts accumulating wishlists on Steam means you're likely to hear from many other investors. "As with any other contract, you want to get a good attorney to negotiate on your behalf. You may think it's expensive, but not getting legal advice when you need it will likely cost you much more in the end."
It's first best to consider asking personal investors like your family, colleagues, and friends who see promise in your product. In exchange for revenue share or equity, your friends or family could become potential business partners. Now, imagine that you have sold your first game and it was a hit, well, it's not a bad idea to consider making a deal with an Angel investor from Angel.co. I've personally done it before when starting my own business, and it worked out just fine. I have also tried a venture capitalist. However, I believe Angel investors to be the safer bet because they tend to invest in under one million dollars, and funding isn't their full-time job. If you decide to go with the venture capitalist, who are full-time investors, be mindful that they usually look for opportunities that acquire equity. "In addition to an equity stake, venture capitalists usually expect to have some level of control, such as voting rights."
Wrapping up part 1 of 3
You have a great game idea—a substantial project with good potential. You have started on your marketing journey and building a plan. Your plan is in execution, you're building your new community and getting in touch with the right people. You're on your way to a release. Like many independent developers, when you are strapped for cash, you are better off doing as much as possible on your own like Wlad, and this article will give you simple steps to help you become successful. But purchasing the book will provide you with more insight and instructions on how to be genuinely successful in owning your newly found skills and studio.
As for in Investors, they don't want pitches promising the next 'Crash of [whatever].' They want scalability, repeatability, and a strong leadership team and, of course, a proven track record. Create a short business plan, a few pages, and no more on what your small development team's intellectual property (IP) is and where it may lead. It's challenging to find investors when you have not launched multiple or a single game before seeing progress on a product, but it's not unheard of. There are even events that allow small development teams to release their games or at least a prototype, like Global Game Jam, and from there, you can gain exposure to work with or do contract work for another studio possibly. Be excited and show it. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can't point to your ability to deliver the concept in a financially attractive manner, then investors won't be likely to get excited and will turn away.
Let's look at some key takeaways that are essential for your game to sell from this article.
- Your ability to act, persevere, overcome obstacles, and believe in yourself will determine your developer journey.
- While talent plays a role, it's not worth much without "sweat equity." It helps to be talented, but it's your willingness to work hard to make the most difference in your life.
- Content is not the overall picture. It's necessary to grab attentions of your future consumers and the press to build a lively community. You are becoming a creator, time to think like a one. Keeping in contact with your community is vital.
- Learn as much as you can about the market you're about to enter.
- Understanding that marketing is not only required, even with a $0 budget but that it's best to do it in a personal fashion that represents you and your company.
- Consider various factors when deciding which type of game you're going to create such as scope, marketability, competitive advantage, and others.
- Estimate your game's budget and the engine you are going to use.
- While most publishing and investment deals are based on revenue share, there are ways to find your game without giving up a percentage of revenue. Patreon, Kickstarter, grants, and personal loans are often used by indie developers to stay afloat.
- If you require substantial capital, consider making a deal with a publisher or an investor.
Let's continue you on to Part II, which Wlad will cover the following topics of 'Development', 'Business & Law', and 'Marketing & PR.' in chapters 4 through 6.
You can read Part II - here.
Moor Insights & Strategy's video game and tech reviewer Zane Pickett lives in Austin, Texas. He is a lover of all things psychological horror and Star Wars based while possessing an unhealthy knowledge of serial killers and Kingdom Hearts. When not writing, he works as Moor Insights & Strategy's Operation's Manager.
Follow me on Twitter: @Zanepickett37