The story of my first A MAZE (and why I wish we had an event dedicated to solo-devs)

It was an incredible surprise when I got the news that BlueSuburbia was nominated for A MAZE. When I started the project it was a secret dream to have it in A MAZE so I could finally go as a nominee.
Attending in person, after so many years of being nominated, then juding, giving a virtual talk… just actually trying to go, lol… was an incredible experience.

BlueSuburbia was shown on this big projector on the wall. It was tremendous to see it.
After so much hard work and self-doubt, people were actually playing it in this context.
Even the comments that the shader work and high fidelity textures are beautiful, is enormous because so much work went into learning that and perfecting it.
It’s truly one of the scariest things I’ve done so far because it’s a 3D project in Unreal. I had no idea if diverging from my typical 2D style was even going to work.

BlueSuburbia won the Explorer award at A MAZE!
At the award show my jaw incrementally dropped as the description of the winning game was read out… Like it kept getting more and more specific to BlueSuburbia until the title was announced.

I even participated in the alternative game engine panel that took place between myself, V Buckenham (from Downpour), Emilio Coppola (from Godot), and the wonderful person that made it all happen: Sos Sosowski.
I think that’s going to be a highlight for me for a long time coming because of so much food for thought that was said there. I’m still kind of shocked that I ended up there at all. The other’s in the talk had so much intriguing things to say. As a fan of alternative tools (also someone that makes and uses them almost entirely) this was a dream thing to be part of.

We sat on pink flamingo’s talking about very serious things.

I also was able to put together this very unscripted live performance of making a game.
I had no idea how that would take shape. It was a shot in the dark, and I’m grateful to A MAZE for having given that a chance…

Volunteers from the audience came up and made something in a tool they randomly chose.
The volunteers ended up being GalaxyKate and Pyrofoux.

It’s surreal when people you admire are just kinda there, in the vicinity, and participate in something you put together.

BlueSuburbia won. I’m proud of being able to see work recognized that’s just by one person because of what that means…

There’s been things on my mind. I guess I’ll dive into that briefly here… I’m still working on better contextualizing all this, maybe for a more thoughtful post much later.

Recently I’ve been talking about how it’s like to be a solo-dev and kind of being put in a weird position of defending that(??!?!??)

It all started when I social-media-suggested that there should be a festival for solo-devs that highlights that kind of work, because it is SO HARD for work by individuals to compete against (or get lumped into categories with) work done by teams.
I don’t think the craft is given enough opportunity to shine on its own. It is a very different way of making a game.
(Melodramatically speaking) I kind of equated it to mountain climbing freehand VS with equipment. Like… it’s freehand… if you fall, you FALL. If you’ve succeeded, you really did it on your own (sometimes I feel like it’s more because of stupid luck than anything else).

Then some people got a little pedantic about what solo-dev really is and that it doesn’t actually exist. Which I thought at first was a fluke argument. So I put out a little more positivity about it…

Then the reality that there are misconceptions about this really hit. People are PEDANTIC about solo-dev. In ways that I thought only gamers could be about artgames.

I think the misconceptions are really interesting, so I want to talk about that now…

I put out this thread. The replies are worth reading for a little slice of how general opinions look…

When I say that “I am a solo-dev. I do everything myself!” I will have a bunch of people coming in arguing how that devalues labor, robs others of credit (even though nobody else is working on this stuff but me… there are literally no others), and that I cannot call myself a solo-dev if I did not also code the engine, build the computer that I am using… pedantic arguments that essentially dissolve all the hard work that goes into pursuing that type of independence.
If this negative reaction comes as a response to an industry that erases its workforce, I think that this animosity erases the work of solo-devs too… Essentially the workforce (single or plural) is constantly being erased.

Toward the end of the argument chain the jokes start to write themselves because the individual is completely dissolved for the sake of the hypothetical “team” that may have directly or very indirectly worked on something.

It seems like arguing that “Aha! But you didn’t build the engine!” is some kind of gotcha when I don’t think that makes any difference at all.
I did make my own “engines” (and I put that in quotes because you can nitpick what that means too). So, as someone with that experience, I don’t think a “true solo-dev” needs to credit the engine no more than a musician needs to credit the instrument manufacturer of the instrument they use. Mind you that many do because there is a level of mutual respect and appreciation, much like there are between devs and their favorite engine, BUT this is irrelevant.
Tools take a level of mastery, and that mastery is entirely up to the individual. I often think that devs prevail despite their tools.

This argument is as dumb as saying:

“Steven King can not call himself the creator of his books because he also had an editor, publisher, and did not cut the timber to make the books himself…”

If we are going to maintain that standard toward solo-devs (artist using games as their artform), then we should do so for all other arts too. This does not happen tho. It seems an invalidation specific to games.

I find it interesting how, in game development, we are so quick to dissolve and disempower people of their own credit. Like somehow the person that made the game is in no way consequential to the game existing.
You get this a lot when you are in this space.
It happens in team projects where one person wants all the credit. Then it happens in solo-dev projects where everyone else wants to (too generously) assign credit to the environment, or random theoretic third parties, that had nothing to do with creating the game.

In a way I understand the eagerness to dismantle “solo-developers” of the term “solo” when there have been a few instances where someone had people work for them and then took credit entirely for themselves. Robbing others of claim to their own work.
At the same time, I could argue that this is an issue related to working with other people (the precarious ego of team projects), and not necessarily a “solo” issue.
I could also point out that exaggerating in the other direction, and acting like people don’t make games entirely on their own, erases credit.

Then there has been a load of discourse in the past surrounding the myth of the auteur. At this point you can tune out. Discourse is bad for you.

Either way… I feel like things have gone too far, and heading in yet another direction of taking credit away from the people that build games (like solo-devs that actually do everything solo).

There’s this really deeply fixated misconception that a person cannot make a game entirely by themselves. This really doesn’t sit right with me. I think it is a sad, maybe even harmful in the long term, sentiment to normalize.

I do make everything on my own. I get absolutely 0 outside help when making my games. Sometimes it frustrates me. Sometimes I love it.

I voice act, do all the audio (record it myself, make synth myself), music, art (actually draw it myself), animation, code… I spent YEARS getting good at all these aspects. I am proud of the perseverance it takes to be good at a lot of things.
Then i have to do all the PR, contact press (rarely, at this point I have no more energy), and apply to festivals, and go to festivals if I get in… Which I have to finance all on my own.
I do not have playtesters. I monitor how people play the game at festivals, and take notes in a live environment… Either that or watch streamers play the game.
All this is a huge amount of work. It takes a lot of sacrifice. It means that you will say “no” to friends, or taking a break, or doing other things, because you have to manage your time and honor your deadlines.
It’s a sacrifice I love making because I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
I love this art!

~ – ~ – Random reading from the internet: Meet the Japanese solo dev who spent 15 years making the bizarre game that’s secretly one of the highest-rated JRPGs on Steam and a personal favorite of mine ~ – ~ –

On the other end of the discourse spectrum, I am told that working on my own like this is contributing to crunch culture, and contributing to that abuse…
Aaaand at this point I think people should stop discoursing and actually focus more on contributing to the space by making games because discourse has turned self-proclaimed critics into brain parasites.
Maybe that’s harsh, but shouldn’t being here actually be more about appreciating games and the people that make them rather than tearing others down?
If you don’t have experience building games, you should not comment on how that is done.

There are so many misconceptions surrounding solo-development. I am not sure if people really know what that means, or to the extent that it exists, AND even has existed historically.
Solo-development is not something unique to present day indie. There are plenty of successful DOS games, or games from the 90’s that were made by just one person.
This existed for a long time! It’s also an unsung hero in the game space.
For example, go lurk on this Unity thread talking about it:

– Growing up, games by solo-developers and extremely small groups of friends were a huge influence on me.
I’ll point this collection out again:

There are no real resources, events, dedicated category of talks or discussions… surrounding how to navigate making games entirely from a solo-developer point of view.
Most resources for “how to be successful in games” surround team projects.
This can be hard because of the lack of resources afforded solo-devs. Time being the biggest and most valuable one. There often isn’t enough of it to do everything necessary to pursue financial success. You are just one person.

~ – ~ – Random reading from the internet: Solo dev Chris Arvanitis: “Total control can be a double edged sword” ~ – ~ –

It can’t be said enough: team projects, and solo-developer projects, are two entirely different ways of making a game.
One can hardly be compared to the other.
Solo-development is lonely, hard, and you are responsible for the thing entirely by yourself.
This is a double edged sword, both a blessing and curse.
For example, my biggest struggle is when I receive harassment. I know that being part of a team you are somewhat protected from harassment when your game becomes a target. You have a group of people you can talk to. A little bit of protection.
Being a solo-developer, you receive the full brunt of that without a support network. You have to be the social media manager in that instance. You defend yourself alone.

~ – ~ – Random reading from the internet: How to Become a Solo Developer Without Starving Yourself ~ – ~ –

So, in light of all the social media discourse…
As people try to catch me in an “aha gotcha!” when I defend that people indeed exist that do all aspects of game development on their own (examples are best reflected in this thread with arguments like “you didn’t code the engine, how can you call yourself a solo-dev?”) I think it comes across just as hostile as when gamers are attacking you for making artgames.
There’s a general misconception about development, or solo-development, that needs to be addressed…

It exists. In the general spectrum of computer art, it has been around for a long time. There are net-artists and creative coders doing their thing all on their own and enjoying a following for their work.
You in no way need access to a team or group of people to shine in the development space. That is at heart of what it means to make art on a computer.
There have always been solo-developers in games.
It seems like a more recent development that people are diminishing that and acting like it is a toxic phenomena.

– I’ll share this beautiful find that someone pointed out in the comments:

All that said, I wonder… is this just another way for the game industry to diminish labor?
Is this another subconscious way to disempower artists pursing this as their platform because everyone somehow needs a team, financial success, or capitalist value, for their art to be valid?
The animosity toward something as harmless as saying “Hi guys! I’m a solo developer and I did this by myself!” is really interesting to me. is full of solo-developers with beautiful projects. It’s hardly news that this exists.

Closing rant…

Are we really going to convince people that gamedev is a complicated thing where you need a fancy education, degree, lots of resources, and access to other professionals, in order to make a game?
How is that not disempowering and gatekeeping?
The heart of indie is to pursue independence. That means going solo too.
Like I said, not everyone has the advantage to know people. Some of us are loners. I sure am. That’s a perfectly valid way to pursue making a game.

This has been on my mind a lot lately because I’m determined to start a game event that celebrates and highlights work done by solo-developers.
I want a space for us to find eachother and empower eachother… maybe even so that we can collaborate and stop being completely solo.

Since its early release, BlueSuburbia has already been nominated for an IndieCade award, received an honorable mention for IGF’s Nuovo Award, and now won at A MAZE.
The Electric Zine Maker has also recently been a Webby Honoree for Net Art.
To me, this is hugely validating that solo-developed work (that leans in a more non-commercial experimental direction) has a place. It means I can get this far entirely on my own without help building my game, and I hope that never changes.

We would have a very exclusionary space if everyone needed to play popularity games and be part of a group or clique in order to actually make something.
Dependency on others can be extremely exclusionary.

I often say that people are easy to love, but hard to be around. People are popularity games, bullying, manipulative, gatekeeping… and that’s hard to navigate. Working with a group can be all that. Not everyone can handle it.
As long as gamedev is welcoming and accessible to individuals I feel like we maintain a culture where anyone can shine. You can prevail in spite of any obstacles.

Solo-dev is a beautiful thing because you can make the game the exact way that you want to make it.
You can take all your risks and follow your wildest whims.
There is nothing like stepping back from what you created and just being in awe that you were able to pull all that off.
This thing, this creative mountain that you climbed entirely on your own, exists in the world now.
It’s exactly how you dreamt it, and that is special!
Solo-development is an art that you as the individual artist can keep exploring, with game design as the creative language that you can keep perfecting on your own terms.
There’s nothing like that type of creative independence!