June 1st, 2017 marked the fifth anniversary of Home – the “unique horror adventure” game that I initially launched with zero expectations in 2012 to surprising success. And now, after completing and shipping its follow-up, Alone With You*, I wanted to look back on the game and present five important lessons that continue to drive what my studio does, even five years later.
1. Be naive (in all the right ways)
With Home, I bet that I could create a lo-fi horror game that used sound and one very specific gameplay mechanic – that the game’s story is being retold based on the player’s actions – to do things that other horror games couldn’t. But this wasn’t some brilliant hypothesis formed after decades of experience; it was literally the best idea I could come up with, given my skill set at the time.
That pure, naive vision is what allowed me to focus on a concept that was simple and easy to understand – which in turn allowed the game to also be marketable and interesting for press and players to talk about. Nowadays, with a lot more at my disposal, I find this increasingly difficult – call it the curse of experience.
The lesson: inexperience can be a wonderful tool for avoiding common worries and pitfalls, and seeing opportunity where others don’t. (For more on this, I highly recommend Liz Wiseman’s book, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.)
2. Use what you have
There’s a temptation for devs to want to have some utopian, pre-conceived environment set up and ready before they even write the first sentence of their game design document – it’s easy to think that you need the right office space, specific computers, deals in place, dev kits, and predetermined suite of software to even get started.
With Home, I had an aging MacBook Pro running Game Maker 8.1 (initially) via a Windows virtualizer, and the same Adobe suite I was using for my client work at the time. Those were the tools I had, and so those were the ones I used to create and finish the initial version of the game.
If you have a PC of any kind, you can make a game, right now.
Not only did this keep the game’s financial risk down, but those constraints helped fuel creative solutions to all sorts of problems. And it also kept me from freaking out and worrying all the time; I “didn’t know what I didn’t know,” and so I could just focus on creating the game to the best of my ability.
The lesson: don’t trick yourself into thinking, “If only I had X, I could make my game.” If you have a PC of any kind, you can make a game, right now. And you can probably do it more quickly, cheaply and cleverly than someone else. Use that to your advantage!
3. Don’t bet the farm
Many indie devs bet years of their life (and their health) to make a single game. By the time they release, the industry and the market might not even be the same anymore, and their game’s chance of success could be wildly different. Home’s development was unusually short – perhaps six months, but stretched out over more than a year on a part-time basis (because I was still working for clients most of the time).
The evenings-and-weekends approach to the game’s development actually worked to its advantage: it forced me to keep the scope manageable; it allowed for daily breaks so I didn’t burn out on it; and – crucially – it meant that I wasn’t risking everything on a single product.
In game development, it’s not how hard you can hit; it’s how hard you can get hit.
In my studio, everything we do revolves around “calculated risk” – meaning that no single action or project is do-or-die. We want to be in this for the long haul, so we never make a bet from which we can’t recover.
The lesson: In game development, it’s not how hard you can hit; it’s how hard you can get hit. Don’t risk everything (especially your health!) on a single project. A great resource on this is the book Little Bets by Peter Sims.
4. Step outside the industry
The major reason for Home to even exist was that I didn’t see the game I wanted, so I decided to make it. Home isn’t “Minecraft meets Bioshock” or “Candy Crush meets Sonic the Hedgehog” – it wasn’t born of looking from within the games industry at all, in fact, or as a pitch line to use at mixer parties. And I believe one of the reasons the game sold well, and continues to do so (five years later!) is that it wasn’t based on a definable trend.
What surprised me the most about Home was that it got extended coverage – from newspapers worldwide, from horror publications such as Rue Morgue, and on television. You know where you’ve never heard about Home, though? At GDC, the IGF, or any other industry event. The game development community was never really interested in it (though it got coverage on every website and in several magazines, extensively), but this ended up being a blessing in disguise – a fact that I realized so deeply when I started receiving emails from mothers playing the game with their teenage children and from families who thought it was a creepy thing to enjoy at the cottage together.
The lesson: Reach beyond your immediate assumptions to find unexpected avenues for your game.
5. Start small and grow
Home was intended as a one-and-done experience that you’d talk about with your friends, but that’s not how things turned out at all!
When Home launched on PC in 2012, there were some surprising things about it, including:
- you couldn’t save
- there was no train yard area
- there were rooms in the first level that didn’t exist
- it only ran on Windows
Now, Home exists on Windows and Mac (via Steam, the Humble Store, and others) iOS (with support for pretty much every device from the iPhone 4s onward), PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation Vita. It has an auto-save system, it got social media hooks on Steam and iOS, it supports 21:9 monitors, it had new areas added to it months after launch, it got a major code rewrite, and it has had several passes of bug fixes, script rewrites and corrections applied to it throughout the years. I think I’ve updated Home more than George Lucas has changed Star Wars.
Few games are “set and forget” anymore.
Who knew this tiny horror game would continue to get updates and content additions for five years? But as the game grew in popularity, and as I dealt with bringing it to new platforms, I applied all the new things I learned to improve it – all quickly, cheaply, and as-needed, without bogging me down. It’s kept the game continuously viable and accessible, even as technology has changed.
The lesson: Few games are “set and forget” anymore. But releasing a manageable game means you can respond to changes, add features people actually want, and keep it relevant to new audiences – even when it’s a single-player, story-driven title that lasts just over an hour.
I’ve learned a whole lot since first launching Home five years ago – and have made plenty of new mistakes and discoveries along the way as well. I hope this article helps you tackle some issues you might be having in your own development.
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* This article originally appeared on Gamasutra in July 2017.