What goes into making an indie game

About once a week or so, we get a comment from a passionate fan asking about our release schedule and why there’ll be so much time between episodes. These messages are almost always incredibly flattering to receive — I can think of few higher compliments than a player who’s enjoyed our game (Scarlet Hollow, play Episode 1 for free on Steam and itch) so much that they’re desperate to immediately sink their teeth into more.

But since we get this question with some regularity, we thought it might be helpful to explain the making of Scarlet Hollow, walking through each step of our development process to show the kind of work that goes into each episode of the game.

Writing

This part of the process never really stops — we’re constantly talking about, tweaking, and refining the overarching story in our spare time, but this work definitely ramps up right before drafting starts.

Once we feel like the bones of the episode are in a good place, Abby starts the first draft of the script. Originally we used Twine for this, but we made the shift to Celtx for Episode 2. Both get the job done, though among other things, Celtx has the advantage of being built for multiple users, which means that both of us can work on the script at the same time without constantly passing files back and forth.

Writing the first draft of an episode generally takes Abby a month. Once you account for all the branching and complex dialogue trees, the word count for each episode is roughly a NaNoWriMo novel. The first draft of Episode 1, for instance, was 70,000 words long.

A distanced, spoiler-free peak at the MAJOR decision structure in Episode 2. Each of those boxes has thousands of words and several-to-over-a-dozen branches of dialogue trees within.

While Abby writes the draft, I work on our marketing, patches, and building new systems in our engine. During her draft work on Episode 2, I put together our Talk To Animals patch, did our taxes, built an inventory system (to be released with Episode 2) and built out our marketing strategy.

After Abby finished the first draft of Episode 1, she handed it over to me for edits, and then made changes — this took about a week. I then took that edited version of the script and put it into Ren’py over the course of several months, doing further edits along the way and adding additional branching and dialogue options.

By the time we got around to Episode 2, Abby and I were much more comfortable working together as a writing team, so we were able to skip the first stage of edits to save time. As soon as the first draft was done, I immediately started putting it into Ren’py, where I’m currently making edits and adding extra dialogue branches as I go.

It’s worth noting that as we get further into the story, the script for each episode grows in complexity, since we track dozens of player decisions and care a lot about giving those decisions an impact on the story. As an example, whether or not the player chooses to spend the night at Stella’s or return to the Estate in the first episode dramatically changes the opening of Episode 2, to the point where the first 10–15 minutes are almost entirely different.

Art

  • About 50 unique backgrounds, excluding variants of backgrounds with small changes like lighting or simple animation.
  • 450 sprites. Some of the sprites were easier to make than others — they’re made from interchangeable pieces, so whether or not Stella is holding Gretchen or whether a sprite has night-time lighting is only a little bit of extra work.
Abby had to draw at least a dozen lines to finish this background.

There’s a huge amount of variability in how long it takes to draw a sprite or background, but some of the more complicated backgrounds take a good 10–12 hours from start to finish.

Coding

The further we get into the narrative, the more complicated this part of the process becomes. Episode 2, for example, has to include a lot of extra conditional logic based on whether or not Gretchen survived the encounter in the woods. The more opportunities the player has to interact with the denizens of Scarlet Hollow, the more callbacks and references to their decisions we wind up adding into our dialogue trees as well. It’s going the extra mile, but helps make our final product feel that much more organic.

If your character says they don’t know what YouTube is in Episode 1 and then goes around and says that they’re a streamer, Stella comments on it.

Marketing and Business Management

We also ran a Kickstarter, which, for anyone with experience doing them, is a full time job for its entire duration, as well as for the 2–4 weeks leading up to it. We made and tested ads, put out regular updates and fixes to the game, and were in a constant state of self-reflection, trying to figure out, in the moment, what was working, what wasn’t and how we could change things to do a better job.

Following the Kickstarter, our time and energy went into our submission for the AT&T Unlocked Games competition, which took another couple weeks to prepare for. But that hard work paid off, as we were fortunate enough to win both the runner-up and audience choice award, cementing our ability to devote even more time and effort to Scarlet Hollow.

And after that, it was right into tax season.

Can we go faster?

What a publisher probably thought we looked like when they asked if we could squish things into a 2 week-per-episode release schedule (?!?!)

Episode 1 took us 6 months on the dot from start to finish, and there are some ways that future episodes might take us less time to develop —

  • Every future episode should require fewer new backgrounds and sprites than the previous release. We’ll be able to re-use backgrounds when players re-visit areas around town, and there are only so many new places to discover in Scarlet Hollow. Likewise, while characters’ outfits change between episodes, their base sprites (generally) won’t, so once a sprite set is done, it cuts down on that part of development time dramatically.
  • I’m much more comfortable with Ren’py than when I started, which means I’ll save a lot of time compared to all the hours spent figuring it out during Episode 1’s production.

But there are also compelling challenges working against us:

  • The script increases in complexity between episodes — will that complexity outpace the time we save?
  • Though sprite sets won’t need re-doing, special sprites, like Stella and Duke in the woods, can’t be re-used, and each Episode will have its own special sprites, which can get pretty complex. This means there’s a baseline for how fast the art can move.
  • The 6 month release schedule for Episode 1 didn’t include marketing, which completely dominated our last two months of 2020. But it’s also worth noting that running a Kickstarter and building relationships with press and streamers took up most of that time, so marketing will be less time-intensive from here on out.
  • Being in lockdown for the past year stopped us from doing conventions. We love attending conventions, but boy do they interrupt our workflow! We usually lose at least a week and a half to each convention, as fun as they are.

Of course there are some ways we could speed up our development time — we could find a publisher and get enough money to hire artists and coders, but Abby and I have a strong vision for Scarlet Hollow, and we’re allergic to the thought of relinquishing any artistic control, be that to a publisher or to other collaborators.

We could also make the game less complicated, both in terms of its art and its script, but again, we have an artistic vision, and moving in either of those directions goes against what we’re trying to make.

Ultimately, we’re a core creative team of two people (plus our brilliant composer, Brandon, and our equally brilliant sound designer, Phil, both of whom are part-time), and both of us work around 60 hours a week to make sure we get each episode out the door on time while still meeting the standards we set for our work.

Why release episodically?

We chose this path for a few reasons —

  • The structure of our narrative naturally lends itself to episodic releases. You’re in town for 7 days, something happens on each day, and there’s a clear stopping point (when you go to bed.)
  • We’re first-time indie developers, and felt it was important to have a working demo with enough narrative and emotional content to get players invested in seeing more. This was especially important when it came to funding our Kickstarter, which relied on support from players. Continuing to show fans of the game that we can produce work on time is a great way to prove that we know our limits and are able to finish what we set out to do.
  • Since Scarlet Hollow is a mystery game, and episodic release schedule gives our players a chance to build a sense of community around solving the mystery, which just seems like fun!
  • We’re a two person indie studio working on this game full-time without a publisher. While we’ve raised enough money to cover our expenses for the full development of Scarlet Hollow, we’d like to be able to continue bringing in money from season pass sales before three years go by — you never know what sort of expenses might pop up, and it’s best to plan for the worst by making sure we can make money during the development process.
  • Both Abby and I thrive on receiving online attention and can’t stand the thought of working on this in relative secrecy for three whole years.

Closing thoughts

If you’ve read this whole article without playing our game and would like to check it out, Episode 1 of Scarlet Hollow is free to play on both Steam and itch.

If you’d like to support our two-person indie game studio and get early access to new content, feel free to support us on Patreon.

And finally, you can follow us on Twitter: @abbyhoward @blacktabbygames @tonyhowardarias.

Co-founder at Black Tabby Games