What an exciting time to be an indie developer. With powerful tools that speed up development and an abundance of diverse frameworks that let you self-publish your games, there’s never been an easier, more accessible time to create something unique for the world to play.
For me, Game Maker: Studio was the catalyst that changed everything. I’ve spent most of my professional career writing about other people’s video games for publications like Nintendo Power, IGN, GameSpot, GamePro, and more. I never expected to eventually make my own games, yet here I am. In just three years of part-time tinkering, I’ve gone from having zero knowledge about what goes into creating a game to rolling up my sleeves and bringing games from concept to launch.
Missile Cards isn’t my first commercial project, but it’s one of the weirdest, most ambitious, and most successful games I’ve created to date. For me, learning is an important part of the process and each project brings new challenges, victories, and opportunities to share my experience with others.
In this post, I'll pull back the curtain on my game design and creative processes.
Finding the unusual concept for Missile Cards
It was late fall, 2016. Exhausted from grinding away on a larger indie console project over the course of two years, I found myself desperate to hit the finish line—aching to feel the cathartic rush of completing a game again. The idea of creating something small, polished, and launchable on a very constrained development cycle was immediately appealing. With no end in sight on the larger project I was working on with another team, I needed a temporary change of pace.
By this point, I would blow off steam in my spare time by prototyping card game concepts. Making a small card game seemed like a perfect fit for a short-term solo project, given the genre’s modular nature and high replayability. I just had to come up with a strong idea I could realistically build out and finish in a matter of months, instead of years.
My favorite mobile card games are the ones that mix bold themes with unusual mechanics to create something funky and fresh. Being largely a solo gamer, I also prefer solitaire-style card games that can be played alone. After a lot of brainstorming, I fixed on the idea of a card game where you would defend yourself from giant doom meteors hurtling down from space. You’d lay down defenses that would have to be charged up before blasting the oncoming debris away, and the deck itself would be your adversary, providing a mix of helpful and harmful resources to juggle.
I realized this concept reminded me of a childhood gaming favorite: Missile Command. I decided to roll with the retro vibe this evoked and put a fresh spin on things. The idea of taking the intense arcade defense gameplay of the Atari classic and re-imagining it as a turn-based strategy solo card game was just weird enough to work. Not only that, it had a grabby hook that would potentially appeal both to modern digital card game fans and retro gaming enthusiasts alike.
Missile Cards was born, with the tagline “Missile Command meets Solitaire…only with more doomlasers, death, and explosions.” In reality, it’s not quite like either game it pays homage to, but it draws inspiration from both as well as the nostalgia of growing up as a young gamer in the '80s.
Armed with a cool theme and a loose battle plan to make something fun in just a few quick months of coding and design, it was time to get to work.
Minimizing risk by making smaller games faster
Game development almost always takes much more time and energy than anyone anticipates. With Missile Cards, I set out to create and launch a polished game in just three short months. It took me six. Every facet of the game’s design was tuned towards creating a minimum viable product, and even then it still took me much longer to complete than I had planned. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has dabbled in indie game development.
So what does “minimum viable product” mean, exactly? My ultimate goal with Missile Cards was to make a finished game I was proud of, all while minimizing my financial risk on the project. The market segment for game genres and trends shifts so rapidly that many developers start making a game based on what’s popular at the moment, only to find that players have already moved on to the next big thing by the time their game finally ships years later.
Instead of spending years making a huge game that might not sell, I wanted to create a tightly-scoped project in as short a time as possible. If it sold, great! If not? Well, a few months of part-time work on a project that fails is a lot better than spending three years on a commercial flop with nothing to show for it.
Planning for the potential of failure, particularly with more experimental projects, is a smart bet in today’s hyper-competitive industry. You never truly know when a new game is going to resonate with a broader audience until it launches, and the longer it takes to develop a project, the more pressure there is for it to be a success. This is doubly important for solo developers and newcomers seeking to carve out a foothold in the industry for the first time.
Ways to help minimize risk:
- Keep the development cycle short
- Create constraints for the project
- Set internal deadlines and milestones
- Focus on just the core content and avoid piling on extras
- Be willing to cut features that aren’t working out
Keeping scope creep to a minimum
Scope creep is an omnipresent danger in game development, affecting teams of all sizes across all sectors of the industry. It’s all too easy to succumb to the desire to throw every cool idea you come up with into your game. Experimentation is an important part of the design process early on, but there comes a point where continuing to add ideas can easily spiral out of control. Not every neat mechanic or design idea you come up with will make it into your game—and that’s ok.
Here are some ways to keep scope creep to a minimum:
Constraints breed creativity
Setting limitations and learning how to identify unnecessary bloat in your game design are valuable skills. When you set constraints for your game project, it makes it a lot easier to identify and trim the fat. Honing this ability can save you a lot of wasted time and heartache.
It’s hard to pin down a realistic deadline when planning out your game in its early stages, but setting a target timetable is invaluable in keeping scope creep to a minimum.
Make tough decisions
My original plan for Missile Cards was to create three full planets worth of content. This seemed like a reasonable goal at the time, but once I got deeper into development, I quickly realized that building out that much content would take much, much longer than I anticipated.
It was a difficult decision, but I opted to pare the game down to one single planet with five bases, then double-down on making the game challenging and replayable enough to give players a solid play experience for their money. This was the right call.
Tips for killing scope creep:
- Impose creative limitations early on
- More isn’t always better
- Be willing to make hard decisions
- Try making smaller games, faster
Get the free eBook to learn more
To learn more, download the free eBook titled, "Behind the Scenes: Lessons Learned from the Making of Missile Cards." I'll share more tips on how to design your game, the complexities of card-game design, and tips to bring your game to life.
Nathan Meunier is an indie developer, freelance writer, author, and creator of Missile Cards. His work has appeared in more than 40 publications including Nintendo Power, PC Gamer, GameSpot, EGM, and many others. He is also the co-founder of indie studio Touchfight Games.