DEV Community

Cover image for How to be a Self-Taught Game Dev
Danny Ramos for New Relic

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at

How to be a Self-Taught Game Dev

I interviewed my good friend Eddie about being a self-taught game developer. Eddie is one of the hardest working and creative dudes I know and it was really cool to hear how he knew he wanted to make games, so he simply decided to make them. Below is the condensed transcribed version of our conversation that was originally hosted on my Twitch channel at muydanny. We talk video games, self-doubt, and just doing the dang thing.

Danny: What's up everybody. I've got a very special guest here today. A good friend of mine. I think we did probably five years of theater together. No, maybe you're just four, ah, I don't know. All the shenanigans we did during college. I'll count that. So probably five plus years of acting together. My good friend, please. Everyone. Round of applause for Eddie AKA @slumberface.

Eddie: Thanks for the lovely introduction.

Danny: Yes.

Eddie: Okay, let me get that pulled up here. Oh, wow. It all really came together. The presentation.

Danny: Yeah. You like the background? That's why I took an hour. It's custom made.

Eddie: Yeah, you actually found the perfect image. That's great. It's got a good flow and everything.

Danny: Yeah. Our big heads just cover up everything. So hopefully the fans, the true stans will know exactly where this image comes from.

Eddie: Yeah.

Danny: So what's up man please, please tell us about yourself. I know we haven't seen each other in a long time, so just whatever has happened from 2015 to now, please just tell.

Eddie: Yeah, I was thinking about this because it's kind of funny that I can try to think. The last time we spoke before, like just now jumping on a call together and it was. I think I remember some holiday party a few years ago. And then prior to that, it'd probably been a couple of years as well so yeah, catching up since 2015.

I basically, I had this moment where, you know, as Danny said, we were both kind of working in, in a film and stuff and I was also kind of running a company at the time and yeah, so I woke up and that morning it was running with my father and he was like, Hey, here are all the numbers for, you know, like the first quarter of the year.
And I'm like, okay, cool. Worked my ass off. You know, this was a big, big start to the year, whatever, what kind of returns are we looking at? And he's like we're losing this much money. And I was just like, my jaw hit the floor because it was insane. I was just so burnt out, but it was worth it. Cause I thought, you know, things are going well, but it's funny you can do a lot of work and actually make no profit and have a horrible time. And it was really that, yeah, it was really that trifecta that happened. So kind of in that same moment then when I was thinking about it, it flickered across my mind that it would be a lot cheaper to just investigate making indie games than it would be like shooting short films, which not only costs like 10 grand to shoot but, you know, have 0% chance of returning money. Whereas, you know, indie games yeah. Obviously, cost and maybe, maybe you might make some money. So that kind of started my deviation from film. And then in the past five years, I would say I've kind of been stumbling through like climbing up what feels like an endless mountain.

I know, I look back and it's like, I've learned a lot, but I, man, it's like all the knowledge has come seemingly by running into branches face first and then being like, ouch, that hurt. Okay. I don't want that. Now I'm smarter and better. And the next thing I work on will be great, but anyway, I'm still kind of in that process and, and you know, modern-day, I'm working on a few different little projects that are kind of the combination of things I've learned in the past five years.

Danny: Was there a game specifically that inspired you to want to make your own games? Or were you just always, because I know that you always been a creative person, like you're an artist, you were making films, it seemed like you always dove in deep into whatever you wanted to do. So did, was that also a part of being, like getting into indie games or were you just like playing them over and over? And you're like, you know what? I can make my own, I can, I can draw characters. I know how scenes and framing and everything works. I could probably do this.

Eddie: Yeah, I'm trying to think that I think I know the answer... growing up, I would say, you know, I, I played a lot of games pretty much up until till high school and, you know, in high school I was doing theater and doing some more sports and stuff and kind of had less time for it. And then by the time I got out of high school, the only thing I was was League of legends. So it was, you know, just kind of like a competitive multiplayer game. And other than that, I wasn't really playing any other games. And the thought in my mind was like, well, I'm a filmmaker now, so I should be watching movies. And that's what I should be spending my time doing. Well, I think, I think there was always something that stuck with me from playing games when I was a kid. And I think when I went into movies, part of the thought process was like, Oh, working in games, isn't a real job- working in movies is a real job. So I shouldn't do something stupid, like work in games. And it's funny, I kind of boomerang round.

Danny: The fact of the matter is making movies isn't a job. (haha)

Eddie: That's the real takeaway here, but I think right around that time I'm pretty sure Undertale had come out. I don't know if - did you ever play Undertale?

Danny: I haven’t.

Eddie: It was solo Dev who I think had kind of worked with a couple of friends that he hired to do some assets and stuff, but he pretty much solo Dev'd this game and it's like, it's. Like at a glance, it may like looks kind of ugly. It's like this eight-bit little RPG game or whatever, but it was an interesting, refreshing approach to like, I don't know, doing something inventive and storytelling and games that all of a sudden felt very fresh and exciting. So I think at around that time, I was thinking is like, Oh man, I played Mario played Call of Duty and these companies just pump out the same game over and over and the little changes. So that's what the entire, but anyways Undertale came out. I think that was very inspiring to me. That's the scene that like one person or a very small team could make something that was very impactful, very moving to a lot of people, and just kind of an inventive experience. So I think that planted a seed in my head and that was probably the impetus for thinking. It's like, well, it's possible. It's possible for a solo dev to make a game and release it.

Danny: Right, right. Because you hear so many stories of great success. Like the person who made Minecraft and the person who did Stardew Valley and you think it's possible! But also, is it realistic? I always see that they invest so many hours into it because when I think of a game, I think of it's something being so vast and huge. But at first Undertale, at least it looks like it's a little bit more simplified, but it probably focuses a lot on cool mechanics, character, and story.

Eddie: Yeah, at a glance. I mean, you nailed it. It's like, that's really where it excels. It's like, because your soul like that, you, you choose your battles. I mean, it's like okay, I'm going to keep this stuff constrained to a certain scope. So I have more, you know, resources then to explore what I'm really interested in sharing, and yeah that's what Undertale did.

Danny: Yeah, this looks cool. I might have to pick this up. I think it's on Switch too.

Eddie: It's yeah, it's, it's a little goofy. But like, I feel like it really was transformative for the game industry. I don't think it's a crazy long play-through either. The mechanics are pretty fun. So I would say it's, it's probably worth checking out. I think.

Danny: I can see it was on PSVita too, so it's been a while.

Eddie: Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah. Prolific truly. Wow. Yeah, man, I wish PSVT was one of those constants that I've wanted so bad, but just never got.

Danny: Yeah it was always a very specific kid at the lunch table too. If they weren't playing Pokemon, they were playing like Grand Theft Auto Chinatown. So what are you playing right now? Have you been playing any games that have really caught your eye?

Eddie: Something the most recent thing that I can think of that I played, I think came out a few weeks ago and is also, I imagine he would call it a success story or something. I don't know the exact numbers now, but it's called Loop Hero. Another game where if you look at it, it's pixel graphics. I'm not particularly like overtly fond of pixel graphics, so it's just a coincidence that this is also a big thing. And yeah, it caught my eye. Cause again, it keeps its basic premise really simple. There's like a little, I don't know, 16 tile tracks, like 16 spaces. And it plays a lot like a board game.

Danny: Where do you find the next game to play? Do you find it on Reddit or is the marketing Loop Hero really good or something?

Eddie: You know, I feel like that's definitely still like a growing pain or dilemma with games. And obviously, other mediums suffer from, you know, like social pipelines change and stuff. It's like, where do you market these things? How do you share your great idea? And I think most things end up crossing my radar because someone I'm following on like game dev Twitter likes something and then it happens to cross my feed. So I'm sure there are like 50 super great games that came out last year that I had no idea exists because like, you know, how, how does one really come across a full game spot? But this, I'm pretty sure I saw the gif on Twitter someone liked and it caught my attention, and that was that.

Danny: Okay. So can we… Can we go to your site and see the stills that you showed me?

Eddie: Sure!

Danny: What's your site again?

Alt Text

Eddie: * Here is a link to Eddie's website Slumberstar Land

Danny: There it is. Sweet. So are these little projects you're working on currently right now or snippets?

Eddie: So these are projects that I, you know, have been working on at some point, like I said, in the past five years kind of have been cycling through these different experiments, and yeah, these two little snippets that are pictured are just tiny little windows into games that very well could exist in the future, but they kind of stalled out because it's like, there's this pressure, you know, making a game to make it a certain size so that it's scalable and can be sold. It's like a game isn't really legitimate unless it's got a certain amount of content. And so, whether that means you want people to buy it or even play it, it feels like, you know, games have to be of a certain scope before they're relevant, even. And that's kind of something that I'm trying to find a way to work with that reality, you know, despite. Despite the reality being on my end, it's like, I can't, as a solo dev, make some huge game. So trying to find a way to package a smaller experience, it's something that, you know, I'm sure is like looking at these little gifs, I'm sure. You know, some people might see some and go, “Oh, cool! I'd love to play that. When does it come out?” So yeah, they might be like hour-long, little projects, little experiences that get released at some point.

Danny: I have so many questions. I'm changing the title to this stream, to “Being a Solo Game Dev”, because I feel like you keep saying that over and over. And I think that's the perfect summation of everything. Cause approaching all this and creating a world on your own must be super overwhelming, but also kind of liberating because you don't have to ask for permission. It’s just “This is what I want and this is what I'm going to create.”

Eddie: Yeah. Yeah. That's, that's the dream, right?

Danny: Yeah, because I know you, Eddie, you get very, very particular of how you want things. And so I can't imagine being like in a room where it's like, Hey I couldn't really figure out how to get this little cat on this ball. So I decided to make it look like some squid thing. And you're like, no, no, no, it's a cat squid, so we need to make it look like a cat.

Eddie: Yeah. And you know, I just know that's like a part of me. Like I have a cousin who works at Rockstar and my dad's like, “You should talk to your cousin,” and I'm like, I just, I don't, you know, I don't know if I want that. I mean, you know, Rockstar is great or whatever, but I'm not sure if that's the right job for me. Like, I'm not sure if I can even thrive in that environment, even if I left everything at the door and I'm like, okay, I'm not going to tell Jimmy that, you know, the squid doesn't look quite right. I just don't even know if I'm cut out for that sort of environment.

Danny: I showed my girlfriend your website, and she was like, Whoa, these games look so sick. What the hell? And I was like, yeah, Eddie is talented. It's crazy.

Eddie: I'm glad - that’s always an awesome thing to hear.

Danny: Can I show people what you sent me over email?

Eddie: Yeah. Yeah, sure. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. All right. I wish I had a high-res demo reel or something, but you can show them the compressed tiny email versions of these.

Danny: It's going to be sick regardless. You're being hard on yourself. You're like, this is not good enough. The game's not done. I think you should just release like a video game mixtape where it's just small little snippets of all the things that you've completed. And it's just, you know, this as a collection.

Eddie: Oh, you know what something about calling it a mixtape, like made something click into place into my head because I really feel like I have the freedom to be like, okay. As soon as the song is over, literally then click in next track that's like halfway through a level or something… that might be the way to go.

Danny: So, what is the story behind this character, if you, can you give like a little brief synopsis of this character?

Alt Text

Eddie: Yeah. So as per any of my ideas, they originate from a different game project that also got too big or too out of control or something like that. But this character comes from a different horror game idea and the project is called The Pelocco Bathhouse. And it's yeah, it's kind of a horror game that features you playing in this. You are maid in this bathhouse, this spa, for like wealthy people. But everyone else who was there are like, they're animal people. So they're like you know, goats and deer, whatever, but it's not really like, touched upon. So there's kind of this off-kilter feeling going into the game and it take the place over a couple of days, but anyways, I started working on that.

Danny: Well, before, before you continue, is this related this model here?

Alt Text

Eddie: Yeah. Yeah. So this character you know, is the character of that game and yeah. And the right there, you can see an earlier version. Yeah. But then I wanted to do something that I could finish in like a month or whatever. And I said, Hey, you know what I'm going to do. I'm going to do something that cryptically leads to the events of The Pelocco Bathhouse. And it's going to be this little horror snippet that happens at the subway. So I thought. Yeah. And it's like, I have mixed feelings. My Cardinal sin was thinking, Hey, I'm going to make something way smaller…Why don't I make all of the models 80 times more complicated and somehow I'll still get it done in a month, even though the rendering fidelity of everything is way, way, way higher. And it's like yeah, it's mixed because on one hand I like I'm in it for the art and stuff. And I'm in it for like making, you know, like a project that really like captures my imagination and hopefully other people's imagination, but there's just this dilemma in game making that, as soon as you think you are tackling your scope, that you can handle, like you, you immediately sabotage yourself because you would just balloon some element of it, way up, and then you put it on the back burner.

Danny: I just hear you getting frustrated. You keep covering your face, but I just hear you getting frustrated thinking about it. You're like ha stupid, but this looks, this looks so sick! I can't even like, how did you, how, how, how is this even made?! Like, what is that? What are you, what is there, what do you, are you drawing this out? Are these like are you downloading people's rendered subway, like, “Subway Cart - $5” and you get that plug into unity or is this all just created within?

Alt Text

Eddie: So like to offset what I was talking about, the you know, the impossible challenge of finishing things within the scope or whatever nowadays we have, right? Like a lot of. Resources to borrow from, or to pay for, or to pull from, like in other people's work. So like, whether that's like a texture database or like someone has like made some models on something or, you know yeah. And that's the unity. You can kind of pick and pull from these different areas and use that to help feasibly accomplish something. And, and this is a mix of like a lot of things like if you'll look at this still, in particular, the geometry of the subway was just made in like blender getting sketched out, kind of like a draft. And then the textures themselves come from - Epic has a texture database that's pretty great. And the subscription fee is, is not crazy or anything. Their licensing is is pretty lenient and nice, but you know, being able to pull from that and mix it with your geometry, all of a sudden, like you can show this thing and this looks like kinda. You know, starting to approach what could fool somebody into thinking like this is a triple-A production. And not one person made this over the course of a couple of nights. And, and it's like I had to rebuild the entire interior of those subway cars because someone had uploaded subway cars but didn't finish the insights or something, or they weren't quite set up for a campus to be inside. So downloading that and then kind of again, fixing it up and blend it and then pulling it in and texturing it and with Epic textures and stuff like that is how you're seeing what's there. It's like if I was just going to make all of that from the hand that shot alone, you know, what are taking weeks and weeks and weeks, whereas, you know, pulling a little bit of my own things that I created from texture database and maybe, you know, seeing a couple of models that exist out there. I was able to do that shot in a couple of days.

Alt Text

Danny: A big thing for developers is open source, open-source, open-source, but I imagine being a creative it's like, you kind of want to keep your things that you make to yourself. Like, yo, I spent so much time on this. This is, I don't want anyone stealing this because it's like putting out your art for free.

Eddie: Yeah. And you know, like we live in a capitalist society. So at the end of the day, it's like, well, got how to make some money to live too. So, so not only can it, I feel like, Hey, you know, I would like to receive some praise and appreciation for like this thing I created or thought of, but also it's like, well, if I give away my idea then my idea is not worth it, because someone else is going to come in and make Flappy Bird or whatever before I do. That struggle exists. And I would say it's easier to find open-source models on Sketchfab, like people who are just looking to be at in the in, in the credits, or something like that. There are some paid models, but that's actually an area where depending on the scope of your project, that there are, you know open source models available out there. With Unity there's kind of this, they call it a blessing. And I don't know if this didn't exist, there'd be more open source stuff, but yeah, there’s an asset store where people, you know, are able to say, Hey, I just want to work in a really good movement system. And then any developer who wants a movement system can pay $60 and then have this movement system that I spent nine months specifically creating. And they can just plug it in and mess around a little bit and then have that in their project. So there is that community health element, and that does add some synergy that you would hope to be getting from open source stuff. But I think what you were saying, Danny, is there's a reason why right? Like this stuff is not often free or easy to find even as because stuff goes under NDA and you want to like, hold onto these ideas and type them because we feel like when you release them, you want them to still be valuable or something.

Danny: Let me grab the other things that, so where you, I remember you saying that your initial goal was to like create a game, and then you realized the scope of the project was probably a little bit too large. And then you started just focusing on little small projects. Is that kind of your current approach or was that just for you to get a better understanding of learning and a better grasp of Unity as a whole? Or test running it where you're like, do I even want to do this?

Eddie: At the time? Okay. Let me think. So yeah, when I started doing it, I think that that was fine. It's like, Hey, can I do this? Do I want to do this? And then as I started, you know, being able to do it, I thought, Oh, great, okay, I'll see this through. But it's like, when you first start doing something, you don't, it's like I've been doing this for five years and I still almost have no ability to scope properly. So of course having no experience, I couldn't scale properly. And the process was at first, I scoped too big and my answer was going to be, I'm going to bring in three other people. And it's like, well, then I have a team and it gets done. But I brought in more people and it was amazing that the scope was still way too big for a three-person team. So I've been iterating downwards to smaller and smaller experiences. And I imagine at some point I will scope experiences so small that I actually finish it. I have yet to hit that point, but I'm definitely not spending too long on projects now. I would say if anything, I'm spending probably too short, but like what's your burn? What's the expression? Once burned twice angry? (HAHA) Yeah. Do you know, the sunk cost fallacy?

Danny: No.

Eddie: You don’t? Oh, it's like the idea where if you spend time on it, you are like, I already spent five months on it I can't possibly give up now. And like even gambling, it's like, Oh, I, you know, I lost $50, but you know, I've just got to keep digging down because I already paid that much to get to the good hands. It's a fallacy where it's like, just because you've spent time or money on it doesn't mean you've accrued any value. It's just the subtraction. I have the opposite effect. Now that's the point I'm trying to say is that I don't spend enough time on things where I abandon them without really giving them maybe the due attention anymore, because I'm scared. I'm scared about wasting time.

Danny: The endless depth of fear right there. It's like, am I wasting time? Yeah. Like how much time do I have left?

Eddie: So, so yeah, a team, a team would be nice, but I have yet to prove that I could even, you know, like work a team and make something happen.

Danny: What so what's the story behind this, this clip here? What is this game here? What do you, what were you imagining? Because this is so cool. Looking at this, I'm seeing a game, I'm seeing a game, I'm loving the character models. I'm loving the pace.

Eddie: That is like the best thing I could hear because that means, I think the intention is coming across in the very spirit of it, which is exactly what like I'm going for. It's like, I want to share kind of the experience of like getting this demo disc of like little experiences that pull from different pallets and just kind of capture your imagination. And when we think back to the demo disc, or a lot of what we're thinking of is maybe how like then we left the demo disc and all day we were thinking about these cool little worlds we got a peek into. That stuff is very interesting to me. This little game, in particular, the desert thing is - I'll spoil it, you know, kind of like am whipping myself into like actually getting it done before someone can steal the idea. But it's like this kind of Sci-Fi game that takes place in this world where there are these derelict reactors that continuously put out these energy cells. And it's like, kind of, as you go in and you'll see why, like the reactors are there, why people don't work there anymore, but these odd autonomous reactors keep functioning. You'll see that anyways, as a character, you kinda, show up here and you're raiding to get one of these high-energy cells and you'll see here, and it kind of functions around like this. It almost looks like a great base tactical game, but it's happening in real-time with like a point-and-click shoot and stuff. And over the past year, I've played a lot of chess and I played a lot of Battle Royale games, and I think that what kind of, you know, is flicking around in my head. I was trying to approach it like a chess game that happened in real-time and holding on to some of the other elements I like, and then trim off some of the other elements that don't really translate well. And one of the things that I think is really cool about chess is that the game isn't about eliminating all the pieces, it's about putting the King in checkmate. So similarly, if you have to control, you know, like several different units, it's like you were thinking when you're playing chess, like, Oh, I can sacrifice these units if it gets me closer to my goal. That's the coolest part of chess is like. You know, when you hear like a, or you see like a really sick Queen sacrifice or something.

Danny: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I love sacrificing the Queen and just be like, yeah, I just got a checkmate because of that.

Eddie: Juiciest part of chess! And I, I wanted to try it and explore like a real-time version of that. So, so hopefully, yeah. I'll be able to put together a little bit more of this game. What there's some more prototype even like this real-time combat system were my enemies and stuff, but I realized like a barrier I often run into is it's amazing how much easier it is to make this cool little video of what's happening and, and how much like exponentially harder it is to make this player ready or even player testable.
Because I can just be like, yeah, click, click, and look at everything's working perfectly. But the moment you put a player in this space and they're like, Hey, I broke everything to the left and of the right. That part is hard and not fun for me.

Danny: Right. Right. Cause it just like it's showing the cracks, the cracks in your masterpiece.

Eddie: Yeah. Well, he walked two steps to the left and you're like, wow. So that's how that's all held up there. Like paper straws and stuff.

Danny: This looks so good. I remember just downloading this from the email you sent me and just thinking this is, this is so cool. This is really cool, man. You should be very proud of this, even if it's a 30, to 45-second clip. I'm just like, this is, it's just so cool to just look at this and just think of the world that this exists in.

Eddie: Ah, that is, I could cry. It's just like the most beautiful thing I could get. Like if I had any hope and dream in sharing something like this with someone, like what you just said is like, ah, like juices by heart. That's literally what I'm hoping to try and, and share. So so you put a little few drops of fuel back in my just brutal, broken-up energy tank here.

Top comments (0)