Going Indie: My Journey as a Game Developer

Going Indie: My Journey as a Game Developer

By Cat Musgrove.

I have a confession to make. It’s not going to win me any friends amongst gamers, but it’s important to my story and I hope it will be relevant to many readers on this site. Here it goes: although I am a full-time, professional video game designer, I do *not* enjoy playing most games. Most of them take too long to start, or they are too hard, or too easy, or they are tedious or have ridiculous stories or terrible cutscenes THAT I CAN’T SKIP. But despite these things that make me crazy with frustration and/or boredom, every once in a while I find something special, and I know that this is really an amazing medium. And so, even though I feel that games are largely “not for me,” I am a game designer. My goal is to find these little bits of magic for myself, and to create games that I want to play.

Like many children of the 90s, I played video games growing up – and like many of my girlfriends, by the time I was 13 I had grown out of them. Whenever I poked my head back into gaming to see what was up, I felt that they were no longer for me. They were violent, or they were complicated, or whatever, and there were books to read and things to draw.

I went to college to learn computer animation so that I could work in film. In the final semester of my senior year, I had an extra time slot in my schedule, so I took a course on video games. I hadn’t really been paying attention to games and I had never considered it as a career option – and it didn’t take long before I was completely won over by the excitement of game development. Compared to film, games were this young, crazy medium that was bursting with opportunities that hadn’t been tried and the potential to engage people in new and unique ways. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a gamer – I could come into this weird space and help to create experiences that were completely new. In games, I could help to define a developing art form!

Thrilled, my mind was made up and 3 months after graduation I started work as a full time animator for a big-budget video game studio. Here I was, animating on multi-million dollar projects, working with huge teams to make big games that a lot of people were going to play, and it was very cool. I played the games that we developed, and I started to try a lot of games in my free time. This is the part where I started to form some real opinions on games “as they are now” and to realize that I didn’t actually like playing most of them very much…

So I found myself stuck. I was brimming with excitement to “change the industry” and “shape an art form,” additionally motivated by the fact that I didn’t like most of what we were making – working for a behemoth company that had no particular interest in risking millions of dollars by doing anything different. In addition, my colleagues, although brilliant and wonderful, were generally people that already loved games just the way they were. They wanted to try new things, of course, but only to a point. Even if this medium was rapidly developing, from where I was sitting it didn’t really feel like it was moving at all. Off to the side, however, was the newly established indie games scene. It was there that I started to see some of what I was looking for, and to find a few games that challenged conventions and tapped into something special.

Since the whole nature of the indie games scene is to create what you, personally, want to create, then clearly I needed to get into indie development. I started by focusing on the skills that I would need, like beginning to learn programming and starting with the basics of design by participating in game jams outside of work. After a year or so, a close friend and I reached a point where we felt we could strike out on our own and we started a small, independent company. So here I am now, taking these little baby steps towards my goal of eventually creating “something different.” I still have a lot to learn, and I think this will be a lifelong journey, but I really hope that someday I can create something I truly enjoy playing.

I think it’s easy to look at the video game industry and think “it’s not for me,” or maybe even try it out for a while before deciding that you don’t fit in – but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be making games. It’s pretty simple really: make the games you want to play.

Cat Musgrove is one half of Albany, NY based indie game studio, Trouble Impact, LLC. Prior to co-founding Trouble Impact, she worked at Vicarious Visions as an animator on numerous titles such as Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 (360/PS3) and Skylanders: Swap Force (360//PS3). Trouble Impact recently released their first game as a company, Amelia vs. the Marathon on iOS, Android, Kindle and Nook. They are working on their second game, a color manipulating, Zelda-esque 3D puzzle game, with the working title Color Thief. You can check out Trouble Impact’s development blog here: troubleimpact.com, and follow Cat on Twitter @Cat_Musgrove.