Learn, at all costs

The Cadenza team are almost all college educated, and between us there is a pretty eclectic educational background.  Aside from the requisite computer science degrees, we also have in our midst a biologist, a couple of electrical engineers and a linguist.  None of that education could have prepared us for just how deeply we'd have to study our chosen path in order to finish our debut title.

Being an indie developer meant we'd be without a large budget, but the make-up of our team also meant we'd be almost completely without experience.  Our two main programmers have worked in (non-game related) technical fields, but everyone else was at best a hobbyist in their chosen role.  New techniques and processes had to be integrated to make the team flow, but also to make sure we were producing something of quality.  From graphics programming to game design, and animation to indie games marketing, every day of production on Sol Survivor was worth four or five languid college Mondays.

Our processes were developed by actively researching those used by current industry professionals, as well as other talkative indie game developers.  When the game's shadows needed work, there was white paper on the implementation of shadows written by professionals elsewhere.  When it came time to learn how to animate our creeps, there was Google and a lot of trial and error.  Points would be introduced to us through research, and sometimes they'd do nothing but to reinforce the decisions we'd already made.  Either way, it gave us confidence and a way of centering ourselves as we set out as a new studio.

Getting into indie development, it's important to realize that the majority of developers want to talk at length about what they're doing.  Game development is a labor of love, and many teams will talk openly about their work.  This is a resource to tap in to.  Getting to know other indie developers both from observation and from direct conversation let us get a feeling for what we could expect with regards to distributor relationships, community response and even sales figures.  This extends to the media as well; we introduced ourselves to them early and often.  Making friends with developers and media is easy because they're genuinely as excited about games as you are, if not more so.

Resources like IndieGames.com and the related Gamasutra are invaluable, as is an RSS reader chock full of gaming media.  Social media let us listen to and make contact with people who were already established in games.  We read enough while making Sol Survivor to make LeVar Burton proud, and it paid off in nearly every facet of the game.  I can't suggest any ratio of time that should be devoted to this sort of research, but the end goal is to be saturated with knowledge on any given topic as quickly as possible.  This is something to which the internet is highly conducive!

This zealous information gathering helped us as we tried to find a place within the vast cultural knowledge that is gaming.  The culture is pervasive and unspoken.  It touches everything from a collective sense of humor, to opinions on what the "escape" key ought to do on a menu.  The design process of Sol Survivor was a balancing act between our collective knowledge of precedent in games and our original ideas we'd been brainstorming.  We wanted to make something that was unique enough to get attention, but familiar enough to be approachable and intuitive.  We leave the judgment to the players as to whether or not we've succeeded, but regardless of the verdict we've learned enough to justify the entirety of our development process.

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