How One Team of Triple-A Devs Made a Facebook Game in a Month—And How It Kicked Their Ass

Remember when video games were things that you bought at a store? What if you (and four friends) get laid off from your traditional PC/console developer-rather unexpectedly making you ‘indie devs'-what would you do?

A few weeks ago, after we were let go, a handful of colleagues and I got together at a local microbrewery and talked about what we were going to do. Eventually the question was asked: what game could we make in a week? Lots of ideas were tossed around, but we settled on what we thought was a fairly simple, straightforward concept: a game about trading shares in pop culture icons. Just think about the graph for the Charlie Sheen stock!

Pick your favorite movie star, band, crazy Hollywood personality, whatever. If it was famous, you could buy shares in it. Pick the right pop culture phenom and watch your in-game pocketbook overflow. It's as simple as cobbling some tables and charts together and we've got a game, right?

Wrong.

First of all, make that week three weeks. It's about 3am and Facebook's authentication APIs are still giving us trouble. We've been lost for hours inside a tangle of Javascript, POST and GET requests and the various other minutia of web-based game development. This is embarrassing. We're seasoned PC/console developers with years of C++, application and graphics programming experience. This should be a cakewalk. Writing that back end to simulate a stock market? A lot harder than we anticipated, too.

Even worse: graphs and tables? Not such a fun and engaging game interface. People want to be able to see cool things, click on them, bling out their in-game space-all the usual video game jazz. So we're going to need more art than we thought. We have almost no budget, so we might as well go to the source for things cheap: the Internet.

We put out a request on a popular design website for some art. We made it a 3-day contest since we were trying to go at lighting speed on this game project. After two days the two submissions we had were absolutely awful. We were getting worried. (I mean really ridiculously awful. So awful that I cannot in good conscience link you to it. Your eyes might sue us.)

How One Team of Triple-A Devs Made a Facebook Game in a Month—And How It Kicked Their AssS

Suddenly, on the third day, it showed up: a great submission from an artist half-way around the world in Indonesia. We sent him a good chunk of our minuscule budget and…art! Now our game was at least a little more approachable, especially for players who didn't know anything about stock trading.

Except our game still wasn't good enough. Users want to be able to interact with the game world. They want to be able to have an impact. So we asked one of our artist friends if he could draw some stuff for us.

"Like what?" he asked.

"I dunno, like an office, perspective view. Maybe some stuff to put in it like a desk and a chair? Just send us some stuff we can prototype with and we'll go from there." The next day we had a complete office, avatar, desk, chair, and some plants (including the requisite cactus wearing a cowboy hat), plus upgraded versions for players to buy in-game. Turns out that doing 2D art was ‘a fun change' for this typically 3D environment artist, which worked out well for us. Score.

Finally, after 3 weeks, we had something that was looking like a game. Players could stop in for a few minutes each day and monitor their stocks. When things are going well, they can upgrade their office which-because we're not total jerks-also gives them additional daily bonuses. Plus we can continue to improve our game over time based on user feedback.

Time to launch.

It turns out it's pretty hard to launch a game on Facebook nowadays. It used to be that games could just spam all over their users' walls and grow virally. You can't do that anymore. That's definitely a good thing for Facebook users, but it does make the indie game developer's job harder. We've been talking to everyone we know about our game trying to get feedback and exposure. It definitely still feels like there's no substitute for those big marketing dollars, which make or break games. It feels great to strike out on our own, but working alone also highlights a lot of the sometimes intangible things a larger developer brings to the table.

But there have been the encouraging bits of feedback: users we don't know writing to tell us that our game's getting "easier to understand" and to "keep up the good work.". One of the best things about developing a web-based game has been the ability to have a quick turnaround and interaction with our users, making it possible to have almost daily, iterative improvements. That's almost impossible to do with classic AAA (or at least attempted AAA) titles we'd worked on before. To make even the simplest change on a big, traditional game can mean another trip through Technical Requirements Checklists, producer approvals, and myriad other roadblocks. It's liberating-and frightening-to be able to release a game update in minutes based on real player feedback.

Now our game, PopStocks, is chugging along on Facebook. It took us over three times as long to develop as we initially thought it would-but when that initial estimate was a week, that's not so bad. Our hosting costs are ridiculously low. (I think it cost us something like $0.14 for hosting today.) We all learned a lot about Python, Javascript, Facebook, Google's AppEngine and programming a game for the web in general. We're slowly watching our user base grow and we're having fun getting feedback and implementing little features here and there. It's sometimes an ego check to develop nearly live in front of an audience, but it also makes the feedback feel more intimate. We're not just working for players we'll rarely ever talk to in person or online. We're talking to our audience every single day.

Overall, it's been a huge change from working on the typical AAA-sized titles we're used to and it's made us hungry to work on more small titles. Maybe PopStocks will be a hit-and I hope you try it-but even if it isn't, it's liberating to be able to focus on a single core gameplay mechanic, build it as quickly as possible, and get it in front of an audience in less time than it might have taken us to even decide what game to make at a larger developer.


Andy Burke is an independent game developer in Los Angeles. He's the former Director, Helium Project at Whitemoon Dreams, and former Director, Tools Group at Insomniac Games. He worked with Geoff Evans, Paul Haile, Rachel Mark (Whitemoon Dreams, Insomniac Games), Marc Hernandez (Carbine Studios, Insomniac Games) and Don Smith (Whitemoon Dreams) to develop PopStocks, a pop culture trading game for Facebook running on Google's AppEngine.