Can a Solo-Developer Make a Successful Game?

In the forums I visit there’s a lot of people asking “can you make a game on your own”. Inevitably, the answer is yes, no, and it depends. All of these answers are correct in their own ways, and that’s confusing and unhelpful.

So I thought about it; and I figured. Well, most people are asking if they can be successful, in a monetary sense. Will a million people play my game? This led me to think that the best way to find out is to ask the people that have done it before; and ask them how they were able to.

100 emails, twitter messages, and private forum messages later, I received some responses. From non-other than Chris Sawyer, the solo developer of RollerCoaster Tycoon from 1999; and Nelson Sexton, the solo developer of Unturned, one of the most successful games released on Steam in 2014.

How much professional experience in development, if any, did you have prior to the release of your game?

Nelson: I had worked on a few mediumly successful games on Roblox prior to moving to Unity for Unturned. No traditional professional experience, however.

Chris: Before RollerCoaster Tycoon I’d spent several years developing Transport Tycoon, which was my first big self-developed project, and prior to that I’d been working on PC conversions of Amiga games for 4 or 5 years. I think all that experience helped considerably while creating RollerCoaster Tycoon – I knew the PC inside out, I’d worked with other developers and publishers, and I’d also had many years experience working on my own and other developer’s strategy and isometric-style games.

How many games had you completed prior to the release of your game?

Chris: My only other big self-developed game prior to RollerCoaster Tycoon was Transport Tycoon from 1994/1995. Before that I’d worked on numerous PC conversions of Amiga/ST/Archimedes games like Frontier Elite 2, StarRay, Conqueror, Campaign, Xenomrph, Virus, Birds of Prey, and Dino Dini’s Goal. Going back a really long way to the 1980’s I’d also self-developed many arcade-style games for the Memotech MTX and Amstrad CPC series home computers before going down the route of PC conversion work.

How many games had you not completed prior to the release of your game?

Chris: Good question… Perhaps the biggest was Transport Tycoon 2, which I put a lot of work into but eventually abandoned in favour of re-using much of the code for RollerCoaster Tycoon. I think the only other project I never finished was an isometric room-based platform game, which I only really started as a bit of fun and to help develop and improve an isometric graphics/world system on the PC. I couldn’t see it ever being commercially viable so eventually lost interest in finishing it properly, but much of the work that went into the isometric graphics system proved worthwhile on subsequent isometric game projects.

Nelson: Not completed at least a hundred prototypes and small games between GameMaker, Roblox, and Unity before Unturned. There were a half-dozen “complete” games e.g. Deadzone – the predecessor of Unturned.

Was there any free or open-source software that if you didn’t have, you wouldn’t have completed your game?

Chris: Not at the time – Back then there was very little free or open-source software so it was a case of either stomaching the cost of things you needed, or in most cases just writing the software or tools yourself.

Nelson: Software like Blender, Gimp, Audacity being free and other tools like Unity and VS Community moving in that direction at the time are indispensable. 

From conception to release, how long did it take you to develop your game?

Nelson: Unturned was originally available throughout development as a browser game from mid 2013 to early 2014. It was rebuilt (2.0) for desktop and released on Steam Early Access mid 2014, before being essentially rebuilt again (3.0) over three years before exiting EA mid 2017. I’m still working on it regularly in 2020.

Chris: Probably around 2 years, perhaps slightly more, though it’s difficult to remember exactly when things started and when the project actually became full-time. I remember first thinking about creating a roller coaster based game in mid-1996 but it was probably a full year later before things got serious, and the first PC version of the finished game was released in early 1999.

Did you develop the game in one long grind, or did you stop and start at different times?

Nelson: Until work started on Unturned II in late 2018 it was a fairly steady Friday update cycle. Nowadays it starts and stops as I switch between the two projects.

Chris: I think once I’d committed to RollerCoaster Tycoon (after abandoning work on Transport Tycoon 2) it very quickly became my main focus and continued like that until publication. I don’t remember working on anything else at all during those two years, and I’m not even sure if I took any time off at all either – it was an engrossing but fun project to work on, and even though it was never certain to be commercially viable I felt it was worth putting everything into the project and getting it finished.

What would you say it is about you personally, that allowed you to complete your game?

Nelson: Unsure how to answer this.

Chris: Not sure really – perhaps at the time it was a mix of being persistent and committed, but also being self-absorbed and stubborn while being told the game was unlikely to be mainstream enough to pay back its development costs? Not having to answer to anyone during most of the game’s development helped a lot – I self-funded the entire project so it was only my own time and money I was risking, and no boss or publisher to appease or who might interfere with the game design.

Where there people in your life, or a community, that helped provide you with the motivation to complete your game?

Chris: I think at the time I was very much on my own, and I enjoyed working that way without the pressure of expectations or conflicting advice or support. Very few people actually saw the early versions of the game – just a few friends and my neighbour’s children, who all perhaps helped confirm that the game might be more than just a niche game for roller coaster enthusiasts. My business agent at the time, Jacqui Lyons, was very supportive of my plan, despite also advising that the game would likely be a challenge to get published – without her ongoing support I think I might have taken a different course career-wise.

Nelson: My family were always very supportive of my interest in game development. Iterating on the game with community feedback is definitely my primary motivation to continue development.

Was there ever a time when you didn’t think you would complete your game?

Nelson: In late 2014 when revamping 3.0 the amount of work ahead felt very daunting. Taking it in small steps the game gradually progressed to where it is today. Working on Unturned II (4.0) feels similar with the huge roadmap ahead, but I’m hopeful development will pan out similarly.

Chris: I think once I’d committed full-time to working on RollerCoaster Tycoon I always knew it would get completed, with the only doubt being over what size and scale the game would be and how its features would pan out. The game design constantly evolved during development as I had no definitive plan at the start other than to experiment with building rollercoasters in an isometric game environment. Some of the underlying data structures suffered quite a bit because of this process, ending up being more restrictive and less efficient than they could be, but I think it meant the game ended up far better than it would have been if I’d tried to design it at the start and then stuck to that design. I think the only doubt in my mind was whether the game would ever get published, and whether it would ever pay back the development costs.

There you have it, there seems to be a history of game development prior to that big successful hit. It takes commitment over several years to get to the end result as well.

If I receive additional responses from any of the 30-odd other successful developers I tried contacting, I’ll add them to this article.

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