Indie Game Developer’s One-Man Show

An independent game developer often wears a lot of hats, and Alistair Aitcheson is definitely no exception.

A full-time indie developer, he runs a one-man studio that focuses on iPhone and iPad games. As well as the programming, he also does all of the artwork and design, which he tells me he really enjoys as he’s “a big fan of comics and animation.” Alistair writes regularly about his game development experiences on his blog, Drawn in Red Biro, and he handles the marketing for his games, as well.

His first commercially available game, Greedy Bankers, for iPhone and iPod Touch, is a fast-paced puzzle game with strong arcade influences. The game's designed to be simple and accessible, but also offer a deep layer of strategy for players to get hooked on. Forward-planning and quick thinking are keys to getting a high score. You can purchase the game from the App Store for £1.19/$1.99.

Curious to learn more about him and how a one-man developer does it all, I asked Alistair a few questions, including what advice he would give aspiring game developers.

How many games have you developed? Do you have new ones in the works?

Before going full-time indie I worked on a lot of small hobby projects, particularly while I was at university. I was a member of the Warwick Game Design society, and we worked on all kinds of projects in small groups, ran competitions and game jams. So there was a lot of valuable experimentation! I've also worked on a Sonic-style platformer engine which I explain in one of my recent developer videos.

Greedy Bankers is the first game I've taken right from concept to a fully commercial product, which has been an exciting journey. My next project is an iPad version of the game, which will allow larger game boards and local multiplayer, adding a neat competitive streak to the game! After that, I have a few ideas up my sleeve, so I'll probably do a bit more experimenting with prototypes before settling on the next major project.

You’re a one-man studio. What are the advantages? What are the challenges?

I'd say the biggest advantage is simply that I enjoy working on all aspects of the project, so I really want to be involved in every part of development! I tend to have a lot of ideas for games I want to make, and programming allows me to be completely hands-on with realising these ideas. My artwork has developed as a bit of a signature style, and I like the idea that each of my games is visually recognisable as my own.

Banker Robbed Concept

Of course, there's plenty of marketing, press and business to do too, and that's all been fairly new to me since starting out. But learning those aspects is all part of the challenge, so I enjoy learning my way around it. The most challenging part is balancing all the different requirements of the project and letting them overwhelm you, especially when every aspect of the game needs to be completed to a commercially ready standard.

How do you come up with ideas for games? What’s your inspiration?

There's a couple of perspectives on game design that I hold quite close. The big one for me is a concept which I call “simplex.” I like very simple elegant games where all kinds of complex strategies emerge from very simple rule sets. It's very evident in real-world games like go and poker, in Ikaruga's combo system and Puyo Pop Fever's fever mode. A simple and easily explained system that allows a wide variety of complex approaches from players can be really stimulating and encourage exploration, replay and mastery. I produced a developer video on how I designed Greedy Bankers around this principle.

I'm also a firm believer in games as a learning experience, which Raph Koster discusses in his book, A Theory of Fun. This is what often draws me to abstract and self-generating puzzle games, and what drove me to explore the space-management and risk-evaluation themes in Greedy Bankers. There's a lot of cases in the game where the player has to deal with an unfamiliar situation, and evaluate whether it's best to cash a gem in early or to try and make it bigger. The brain sees this as valuable experience that can be applied to unfamiliar contexts in the future.

What is your development process? Do you have a step-by-step plan you follow?

With Greedy Bankers, I chose the design from the library of prototypes I'd built up. It was so well suited to the smartphone platform which I was excited to explore, and had proven to be fun and addictive. I began by learning the iOS development environment, and worked predominantly on coding and artwork for the next few months. During this time I also built up the website and blogs, and tried to generate a social media presence, ready to use for marketing upon release. Once the game was ready, I began contacting blogs and reviewers, and trying to build up press for the game, while working on updates in response to player feedback.

With future projects I expect to follow a similar route. It's a fairly freeform process, and as I'm a one-man team I can be fairly flexible about how I approach development. As long as you can keep some perspective, and fix your focus on the end product, allowing yourself to adapt to a changing project can be advantageous!

Share with us the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given.

Network. Whether you're a small-time hobbyist, looking for a career in a studio, or trying to run your own indie business, your best asset is other people. Not only does a good set of contacts help open doors for you, but being able to simply chat to experts and your contemporaries can offer you insight you never knew was there.

Also, if you want to run a successful indie studio, you need to think like a businessman. Aim towards building a Minimum Viable Product and build up from there (thanks to Nicholas Lovell for that tip), and remember that marketing and game design go hand in hand (and to Dejobaan Games for that one).

Other than that, my own advice to aspiring developers is to be brave and ambitious, and get making those games!

-- Kendra Gemma, Players' Co-Op Community Manager