Some of the best advice for game development, which arguably should be applied to life, comes from one of the creators of Bell’s Beach, Chloe Kilroy, when she urged indie developers to “unapologetically be a freak.” This sentiment summarises the freedom, variety, and fun that is happening in the Victorian indie games scene.
The abundance of clever and creative indie devs is reflected by the juicy programming for the upcoming Melbourne International Games Week, but especially in Freeplay’s annual indie showcase Parallels. This is by no means a coincidence, but a result of a vibrant, supportive game-making community, and a government that uplifts its developers with pride (and actual money).
Among the gems of the festival are a bunch of playful Victorians who are making a wide range of video games, from a crab-guided dungeon experience to being an axolotl fishing in a deep-fryer. I spoke with them about comedy, collaboration, advice on how to be an indie dev, and how their communities have supported and inspired them.
Some may recognise Jacob Janerka, one of the creators of The Dungeon Experience, from his silly TikToks, or maybe what he deems one of the funniest gags from his previous game Paradigm, where players can ask Doug the Beatboxing Eggplant to drop some Phat Beatsies, followed by an unskippable cutscene of Doug doing just that for a full minute.
“One of the wonders of making a comedy game is that you can often solve boring problems with humour and get away with a lot of difficult problems by just making someone laugh. Which also lends itself to shoestring budgets where your creative, funny solution can often be way cooler than the pro ‘good’ solution,” Janerka said.
A perk of indie development is having the freedom to create whatever you want without the pressure of success that comes from larger studios. You don’t have to please everyone but can instead rely on making things you like and waiting for the right audience to find you. “Foremost, I try to make myself laugh, if you’re trying to constantly consider your audience while writing, you’re just going to seize up.”
Another creator of Bell’s Beach, Billy Dent, also believes that having a laugh goes a long way in the process of developing a game. “It’s always challenging to make games, and we take our production processes pretty seriously, but we keep things lighthearted by running with in-jokes and leaving surprises for each other.” Dent has shared their game-making manifesto, where they have written right at the top:
- It’s ok to want to make people laugh more than you want to make them think
- But the best way to make people think and feel is to make them laugh first
And more importantly, further down on the list:
- Always put something behind the waterfall
These creators have locked onto something fundamental to indie video game development, that their games can be catered to their own unique humour and actually become better for it. “If there is a funnier, more creative way to execute an idea, always pick that over the status quo. We’re in an industry that is a wild west, that still has an emerging history, take advantage of that,” Janerka advises.
One of the wonders of making a comedy game is that you can often solve boring problems with humour and get away with a lot of difficult problems by just making someone laugh
All of these devs have a backlog of projects that have led them to their current showcases, with a mix of games made solo and collaboratively. Olivia Haines, who previously showcased at Parallels ’22 with Surf Club spoke about her experience collaborating with Andrew Brophy on Station Street: “I am very aware of what my strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to making games, so I love having the chance to work with people who can fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Designing mini-games is not a strength of mine, so Station Street would have been a very different game if I hadn’t worked with Andy on it.”
Brophy himself is presenting at Parallels 23’ with his game Knuckle Sandwich, a turn-based RPG taking place in the fictional and mystery-ridden Bright City. “I really wanted to get to the end of this project and be able to say that I did it all. Over time, I’ve learned that this doesn’t matter. Learning how to say something is finished is a skill that you need to refine, and having another person on the project often removes the stressful part of that process,” Brophy reflected.
Although there is immense freedom in tackling a project alone, many of these devs agree that working in a team leads to more inspired and less stressful game-making. Janerka says there is a certain “freshness” that comes with collaborating with others and that “when you’re working solo on your stuff, it loses all meaning. However, when I get to playing part of the game someone has contributed to, it feels brand new again.”
Most importantly for Dent, it’s about the magic of finding people who get you. “Sometimes you have an idea too personal or unhinged to string someone along for, but we’re lucky to have found people who are unhinged in the same way.”
Being An Indie Dev
For all the freedom and fun involved in indie development, there are definitely some sucky parts. Dent admitted that making doors has been one of the more frustrating elements, and “that’s why the fish and chip shop in Bell’s Beach is always open.” Janerka said the worst part is that “children don’t respect you unless you worked on Fortnite. It keeps me up at night, maybe I should be making Fortnite, but I then remember someone already made it.” Design elements, such as pixel size or how many bones something contains, have been most frustrating for Kilroy, saying “I never would have thought that I would be pulling out a calculator before drawing a fish stuck in a baked bean can.”
Even the crappy parts sound, at the very least, interesting, but unsurprisingly the more serious answers were about the planning, marketing, and time commitments surrounding the game-making itself. Developing takes “foreverrrrrrr” in Brophy’s words, and as Haines keenly observed, the monumental task of making a whole game can feel overwhelming. Despite all of these concerns they are still inspired enough to get to that moment when disparate elements come together to make something cohesive and to see how communities of players then form around their creations.
There is no clear-cut journey to becoming a game developer but everyone agreed that when it comes to studying games at university the advice should be…It kind of depends? Haines explained that “if someone is a bit more creatively-minded and is focused enough to learn by themselves (AND can make the effort to network), then maybe skipping uni isn’t a bad idea!”
University can help establish connections and give your work structure, however, what’s most important to these devs is to find community and make space for your ideas. Of course, there are also some places in the world (Victoria) where finding that community and space is easier, but no matter where you are, their key pieces of advice will surely help any aspiring indie devs:
Brophy: “The two more important things you can do is find a community, and find tools that make sense. Also, make sure you are not just inspired by other games. That’s really boring.”
Haines: “It’s way cooler to have a simple but coherent and confident game, than one ridden with half-baked features and ideas.”
Kilroy: “The most important thing is to nurture those little stories and characters you make up in your head.”
Our work involves a lot of time in front of a computer, so I can’t understate how nice it is to have such a huge and vibrant community of people around me that share the same passion I do
What became obvious in talking to these creators is that their communities have had an immense impact on their game-making process. In particular, game developers in Victoria have been huge inspirations for all of them.
Haines has named Grace Bruxner, creator of the Frog Detective series as not only a friend but someone who has been “endlessly inspiring.” Kilroy is energised by Melbourne darlings Massive Monster, with their game Cult of the Lamb and its “scrumptious visuals.” Untitled Goose Game has also been known to turn Kilroy into “such a feral creature,” which she states is “what we’re all about here.”
Brophy refers to Ian MacLarty, maker of Mars First Logistics. “His consistent high quality output is something I always aspire to reach.” And Dent praises a bunch of devs, including previous Parallel award winner Cécile Richard, because “they all remind me to be weird and strive to be weirder every day.”
Janerka loves the work of David Lloyd (Crawl, The Drifter) and credits a lot of his inspiration from the Australian game industry itself, stating that, “before I was aware it existed, it seemed like it would be near impossible to make indie games.” Vic Screen funding made The Dungeon Experience possible, and for most of these devs the Victorian game scene has made an incredible impact on their journeys.
“Our work involves a lot of time in front of a computer, so I can’t understate how nice it is to have such a huge and vibrant community of people around me that share the same passion I do,” Dent said. When asked if the Victorian games community helped, Brophy stated: “Absolutely. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t get involved in the scene here. All the opportunities I’ve had have been directly caused by being part of this scene; Olivia and I met because of this scene. We wouldn’t be having this interview if it weren’t for it!”
These creators will be showcasing their work at Parallels and other events during MIGW. Haines will be “wearing cool outfits, staying out late and having fun with friends,” Kilroy is “excited to turn PAX into a chaotic time,” and Janerka is “looking forward to showing [his] ability of being the second fastest game developer in the world in athleticism.”