Plans and Reality
When we started OLO with just David (lead programmer), Joe R. (first lead artist), and myself (supporting programmer and everything else at the time), it was a one-and-done idea; meant to take about nine months from start to finish. Make a little farming sim and be like, “Yeah, we made a game!”
But as we explored the idea with initial programming and artwork, we realized the game had so much potential and promise that we wanted to make it bigger: a real, full game worthy of releasing for PC on a digital storefront. Still, I wanted to keep it relatively limited and make that initial nine month turnaround.
Early on, the programming was chugging along nicely, but the art was lagging way behind. The lead artist at the time didn’t have as much time to devote to the project, and underestimated the work that goes into making pixel art - as many people do; pixel art isn’t really any cheaper than cartoon sprites when it comes down to it; less pixels don’t mean less work, rather, it just means more work per pixel!
I looked for more artists, but no one was interested in revenue share for such an early-in-dev game, so we resorted to cheap contractor artists - ranging from $2-6 per sprite, which meant for our meager budget of a couple hundred dollars a month, we could get a lot of sprites done (and seeing how the estimated sprite total for the demo alone was about 300 at the time, that was pretty important!). After scouring reddit INAT and GameDevClassifieds and doing a few rounds of (paid) test assets, I got a total of about five of them going on various bits and parts: plants, characters, and tilesets, for the most part. The art was now matching pace with the programming and technical development, and I was hopeful about still hitting our nine month goal.
The assets started to roll in, and we got them in-game.
My reaction? Crap. This isn't working.
The vibe, feel, and basic experience just wasn’t there. I didn’t get any of the vibes from this early pre-alpha prototype the way I felt I should be at that point – mainly a cohesive look that projects a distinct world. Despite being so early, enough was there that I really should be feeling like the game was -more- than the sum of it's parts, but it just....wasn't. Not as it was. It was definitely a blow, as so much work had gone into the game by that point. But the quality of the game came first. None of us wanted to put a lower-standard product out in the world when we knew we could do better.
As a result, I made one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make for the project, and pulled hard on the brake lever. I halted all game asset artwork in order to revisit our style and overall game aesthetics. Over the next couple months, we explored several different artistic approaches; higher resolution sprites, different color sets, overall different art styles all together. It was rough and draining, and ultimately led to a reasonably amicable parting of ways with the original lead artist. This was about three months into development.
At this point, we decided on a new path forward.
First pivotal decision was to go more ‘all-in’ on the project and increase monthly funding out of our own pockets. I found a brilliant pixel artist whom we would hire as the new lead artist for a combination of revenue share and up-front payment. Confusingly, he (Joe Pendon) shared a name with our previous lead artist (Joe R.).
Second, we did what should have been done at the start of the whole project, and began working up contracts for artwork and programming rights. I personally spent a week looking up how people have handled artwork contracts in indie games, and didn’t really feel like any of them were good enough. They were all either too risky for the project overall (a rogue artist could tie up the whole game project’s progress/potential), too risky for the artist’s investment (didn’t account for zombie projects where those in charge disappeared), didn’t offer the artist a fair compensation, or didn’t gracefully handle artists joining and leaving the project.
So, I took a couple more weeks to make a new, better contract. I wanted to be fair to the artists while protecting the project from people leaving, which requires a lot more legalese than you might think. I may do a full blog post on this some time, but that’s for another day.
The third major decision was that we simply needed a higher quality of artwork for the game to have the desired impact. The mechanics of games like Stardew Valley are critically important just like any other game, but the cohesive, tactile look and feel they have is equally critical in this case. These games lean heavily on their visual and audio elements to draw in the player and create a relaxing, rewarding experience. This meant we had to leave behind some of the contract artists sadly, and so development again slowed somewhat as we had to pay more per sprite, and our budget remained very tight despite investing every extra penny we could spare. But even with all those setbacks, we managed to produce a cool mockup which even got the attention of Chucklefish founder Tiy! At this point we were five months into development.
The final chapter in the more chaotic early development was when Nateo, our current lead artist who had been brought on as a concept and promo artist, dropped off the radar for a couple weeks, then came to us with a full artistic style rework, and an offer to take over the lead artist role (including pixel art) on a revenue share basis as compared with Joe’s paid commissions. Joe Pendon himself said that even though it means he would be giving up his paid role, we should take Nateo up on it, and so the torch was passed one last time from Joe Pendon to Nateo.
One Lonely Outpost as you know it now came into being.
As of now, the project has been under way for just under twelve months, but at least six months of that was pre-production and straight up trial and error. A few supporting members have come and gone, but the core team has persisted ever since. Nateo is a brilliant artist, and the extra time and effort he has invested we think has really paid off in the long run.
Lessons learned? Know exactly where you intend to go (and how much work is required to meet that goal) and don’t underestimate the importance of pre-production!