Making Games with Strangers: Inside Reddit’s Pick-Up Indie Scene

“Little did they know this ordinary salesman by day is a game designer by night,” I thought to myself, leaving the office at 5pm.

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I was working on a story-driven roguelite RPG and an old-school top-down shooter. My life as superhero shtick: a compartmentalized double existence, an unyielding sense of purpose, and an expanding list of sacrifices laid at the altar of an idealistic dream.

“Developer looking for hobby project,” states one post on the r/INAT (I Need a Team) subreddit. “Untitled Game is looking for Game/Level Designers & Maybe an Artist,” cheerily exclaims another. To passionate gamers longing to express themselves, this sub and r/GameDevClassifieds look like the promised land. A myriad of game concepts get thrown around as enthusiasts look for like-minded individuals to pool their skills with and create.

People’s reasons for contributing to r/INAT are as diverse as their projects. For some, it’s a hobby and a means to learn new skills. For others a way to build a portfolio and a stepping stone to landing a dream job within the gaming industry. Many find out it also separates the wheat from chaff, leaving only those who can handle the arduous realities of amateur game development. While it’s possible to get paid for contributions to r/INAT projects, it’s rare. Less rare for the more experienced artists and developers populating r/GameDevClassifieds. Most r/INAT teams offer revenue sharing schemes, where the team splits profits from the game when and if it’s released. This is a pretty huge if.

The first r/INAT thread I responded to was little more than an invitation to a project’s Discord server. It was posted by a developer looking for a game designer on a Spore-like real-time strategy game. Within minutes I was greeted by a private message from one of the four people already there. “Hello,” it said. “Are you a game designer?”

I was stumped. I had fantasized about this question. About whether it would ever be asked.

“Are you a game designer?” Half of my life flashed before my eyes. Almost 20 years dreaming of making games. Was it that simple all along? Browsing Reddit, joining a Discord, saying “yes”?

“In my dreams,” I said. “In real life I’m a hobbyist.”

“Can we work together as partners?” the Discord text replied. “I’m a programmer.”

I watched the demo of their game. It showcased unsightly 3D models of a creature, a building and a wall. For me, though, it all seemed too beautiful to be true. Once the show was over, they asked me if I had any ideas for the project. I had to concede that coming up with a concept for a strategy game on the spot was a bit beyond me.

“Alright, but then what if it didn’t have to be a strategy game? Do you have any game ideas I could work on?”

This was another one of those tricky questions, but this time I was prepared. I told them about a concept for a narrative-driven game I’d pitched to a certain studio a decade ago. Deconstructing concepts of causality, perception and free will, it had all the bells and whistles required to be taken very, very seriously — at least that’s what I thought.

As I was describing it, though, it dawned on me that perhaps my newfound friend was as much a game programmer as I was a game designer. The immediate ease of joining and forming a project team on Reddit is a double-edged sword. Asking to see the other party’s portfolio should be essential due diligence, but people living in glass houses don’t throw stones. The point was ultimately moot, however, as another realization set in: I was discussing a very vague concept with a person who had just, in front of my eyes, abandoned their own vague project.

We agreed to work together and then we never spoke to each other again.

To learn how teams of people who know each other only from Reddit and Discord can possibly persevere through the hardships and crises of game development, I reached out to two project leads who put themselves through the wringer to pursue their passions. Patrik, the founder of the one-man studio “DeepTaiga”, is the creator of I Fell From Grace, a side-scrolling adventure game with an adaptive storyline made with Unity. Raja leads a team of Unreal Engine 4 developers creating a classic, tactical, competitive first-person shooter codenamed “Project Wraith.”
Raja began his group on Reddit, though originally it also involved some real-life friends of his.

“We formed our group as purely a passion project, with hopes to go commercial. Reddit was a huge help for us, in fact it is what started the entire thing, as we were able to recruit some very talented people.”

KP: How did you get the idea to look for contributors on Reddit?

Raja: My friends in game development told me to look in /r/gamedevclassifieds and /r/INAT to find hobbyists/students or even some freelancers with solid experience to build up the base of the project. To be honest though, finding programmers is near impossible, so I had no choice but to fund them from my own pockets.”

KP: How many people joined you through Reddit?

Raja: We obviously had a lot of onboarding, tons of people joined. Only the truly dedicated ones stayed. In total, we now have 9 people. We try to recruit via weekly posts on Unreal Slackers, which is a great place to find fresh leads.

Patrik, who ended up as a writer, programmer and producer on I Fell From Grace, opted in the end to only work with paid collaborators instead.

Patrik: I started on my own to begin with. A lot of the initial months were just working on the story, the different narrative branches as well as actually getting to grips with how to use Unity. Once I was comfortable with what I would be able to do with the engine and various assets, and I was sure that I would be able to see the project through to completion. That’s when I started to look for collaborators. At first I was looking on different collaboration boards, where I tried to find people willing to work for free in a revenue share structure. But it soon became pretty clear that this wouldn’t really work out. People would flake out and eventually stop responding to messages altogether, so I figured I might as well pay professionals for their work instead.”

KP: Was there a particularly promising collaborator that ultimately didn’t stay on your project?

Patrik: I was looking on boards to find someone to do graphics to begin with, figuring that this would allow me to start working as well, once I had something to animate in-engine. I sent off a couple emails but only got one response as far as I can remember. The guy was certainly enthusiastic, and seemed really cool. It was pretty motivating, as he’d throw out ideas on how to get things done engine-side as well, even though he didn’t have much of any experience that I was aware of. At first, we got a fair bit of stuff done over the course of a couple of days. Then I didn’t hear from him for a while, and he got back saying he was very sorry and that the power had died in his house while he was working and he lost the work. No worries, I figured, you can’t really control that. But when I hadn’t heard anything for another week, and the guy gave the same excuse, I kind of got the hint. Don’t think I heard from him after that. I guess maybe he lost interest in the project, or he got preoccupied with something else.

The second team I tried to join looked a lot more organized, at least on the outside. The thread’s title was simply “Hex-Based RPG looking for team members.” It was a list of ambitious, high-level features annotated with brief descriptions of progress made on them. The poster, a programmer, was looking for other programmers, 3D artists and an animator to team up with. None of these titles fit my skill set, but at that point I was growing frustrated with the number of RPG and story-driven projects out there that apparently didn’t need a narrative designer, so I offered my services anyway. After a few private messages, I was on Discord, discussing how to create a proof of concept that would net us more contributors and potentially even funding.

The project lead was a college student making the game in his free time and, due to our time zone differences, replying to my messages in downtime between his classes. The team consisted of 4 people, including me, and after a few days I learned that only one other person responded to the original Reddit thread. The entire coordination amounted to communication on Discord and a Trello board. In one chat with the project coordinator, I tried to point out that getting the game into a state where we might be able to start any sort of crowdfunding is an extremely ambitious endeavor, considering the team size and what essentials the project still lacked at that point.

“That’s the issue,” he said. “Literally nobody is willing to work for rev-share. And if they are, they’re starting their own project. I’ve been trying to get people to help with this since I started work 4 months ago. Not only are people’s loyalties in question, but they have to make a living somehow. We are on the back-burner in almost every scenario unless we offer some sort of compensation.”

He agreed that we should work on a design document and a pitch, but it turned out to be too little, too late.

A game design document, or GDD, is a guiding vision that cements and organizes work of the development team. Without it, nobody knows what game they are working on, or worse: they each believe they’re working on something different. It took just a few more days for the 3D artist and musician to leave the team’s Discord server and for the project lead to pull the plug.

It seems there’s an inherent risk of assembling a team of volunteers you barely know, in that they are always a button press away from quitting. Patrik has a very down to earth perspective on the collaborator that left his project.

Patrik: I can totally get how that would happen. I’m pitching an idea that I’m really passionate about to someone — you know, it’s kind of my baby and all. And it might sound like a cool idea to others but then it becomes apparent how much work is to be sunk into a project like this and well … I’m sure that’ll turn off a lot of passionate flames. I try to put myself in his shoes and I reckon it wouldn’t take much for me to have the same reaction.

KP: I imagine you’ve discussed I Fell From Grace with a few potential collaborators that then left. Have any of them contributed to or influenced the game in a meaningful way?

Patrik: Luckily, I picked up quickly enough that rev share would lead to more headache than success so I didn’t get too much work before people started flaking. Anyone that I discussed the game with, we never got very far before excuses would come up as to why they couldn’t do any initial work and then silence kind of thing. I don’t think anything has been contributed by a rev share collaborator that actually made it into the game.

I also asked Raja about his experiences with hopeful contributors abandoning his project.

Raja: Well, we did have two very promising programmers/UE4 generalists. However, as it is a rev share project, real life commitments started to creep in. I wish we had funds to pay our team, but this is the nature of the beast!”

KP: How do you organize the work on your project, day to day?

Raja: We set tasks on a GDD on Google Docs, assign tasks and discuss them every week. If anyone is falling behind, they’re given support as needed but we generally push to work to weekly deadlines. We also constantly showcase progress in a Discord channel to keep things going.”

KP: Did you have a crisis of faith; a moment where sacrifices seemed to just pile up and the payoff is nowhere in sight?

Raja: There was this time when a toxic team member brought down team morale with comments that tried to make it seem like we needed millions in funding. The reality is, moments like these are what shape teams. We still stuck together and didn’t give up.

KP: What keeps you going? How do you keep the group together?

Raja: Just pure dedication. Everyone on our team wants to create a solid, fun FPS game. To keep our team together, as the project founder and manager, I talk to them a lot one-on-one. It’s really cathartic and it helps a lot.

A common denominator for all those distinct dreams and motives clashing with harsh reality in amateur game development teams is the pursuit of an ever-so-elusive, coveted goal: the release. Nothing you do in a project matters if it doesn’t reach completion. Armed with that knowledge, I set out to find a group at least a bit more stable than weapons-grade uranium.

“Programmer looking for team to remake my existing 2D Top-down games. Welcome all trades.” The thread was very promising. It listed older projects completed by the poster and even linked to YouTube gameplay clips. As a consumer, I wouldn’t give those games another thought, but from the perspective of an aspiring creator they looked like Egyptian pyramids dotting a barren desert. Here I’ve found someone who could actually bring a project to fruition!

We had a small scope estimated to take us 3 months to complete, a project plan on Visual Studio Team Services, and a source control system in place (meaning the programmers could collaborate on code and share their progress). While doing narrative design on a top-down shoot ’em up game wasn’t what I had in mind when I dreamt of creating epic gaming experiences, I welcomed the simplicity and decided to make the best of it. I scheduled regular writing sessions on most evenings and stuck to the plan. I did my best to compartmentalize, so that this second job wouldn’t affect the one that keeps the roof over my head. What surprised me about how my schedule changed is something that probably should’ve been obvious to me from the start: if you dedicate all your free time to working on your passion, you have none left to enjoy it. In other words, I had to stop playing games to make one.

There was a larger problem looming over my little paradise. After a few weeks of searching for 2D assets and weighing his options, the project lead announced that we’d be making a shoot ’em up with 3D graphics instead. It was difficult for me to imagine my previous ideas for narrative scenes in this new form, but I firmly believed I would pull that off — eventually.

The second part of that announcement was that since this was just the first of a couple projects we had in the pipeline, any eventual profits from it would fund the making of the second one. I never thought of rev-share as a real thing in the first place, the very idea of releasing a game with a bunch of strangers from Reddit was abstract enough. Thinking about financial profits at this point was akin to counting chickens before even the eggs are laid. It gave me pause, though, how quickly the entire project team was onboard with it. It seemed as if we all shared the same idea of similarities between that business model and Santa Claus.

The third and last part of that announcement was a harder pill to swallow: with the transition to 3D, the project’s scope had increased from three months to an entire year.

A few days later, as I turned in my writing for the day, the gravity of that change began to dawn on me. I was sitting in bed at 1am, my girlfriend turning over in her sleep beside me. Investing time and hard work into a passion just for the sake of it can definitely be worth it. Sacrificing one’s social life and putting a relationship and career at risk for what in all probability will amount to nothing but a white whale, on the other hand, seemed irresponsible and just plain dangerous even. I might’ve been able to go on like this for three months, probably a few more if need be. No way I could pull through for an entire year, though.

I flaked out.

I was curious if Patrik had to balance a day job and a relationship while working on I Fell From Grace.

Patrik: Yes! I had a day-job which I would do from 6 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and then be back home from around 3 p.m. in the afternoon and would work on the game until around maybe 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night most days. Weekends were more or less 14 – 16 hours spent working on IFFG. Luckily I have a very supportive girlfriend! I’d say I didn’t see much of any friends for about a year and a half or thereabouts working on the game.

KP: Did your work on I Fell From Grace influence your day job in any way?

Patrik: The job I had at the time had a lot of dead time in it. I ended up doing a fair bit of writing on my game and working out different story arcs and whatnot during working hours.

KP: How did it impact your relationship? It sounds as if you were spending entire weeks apart.

Patrik: I did the work from home, so it wasn’t like we didn’t see each other. A whole lot of the game I would do from my couch just lying down next to my girlfriend while she watched TV or some such. I did have a dedicated office space in the house as well, but honestly it didn’t get used half as much as I intended when I set it up. I think working full-time and then coming home to what is effectively another full-time job is going to have an impact on any relationship really, and there were times of frustration and arguing. But overall my girlfriend stayed supportive, knowing how much I disliked the day job and that this could potentially be a pathway to a new career.

KP: Did you at any point have a crisis of faith when making IFFG? Was there a darkest moment when it felt like perhaps it wasn’t worth it?

Patrik: There were lots of them along the way, mostly in the early days. Sitting in front of my screen realizing just how long this was all taking and knowing I had thousands of hours to go often had me feeling like there was just no way I would see it through. In the beginning there were times where I’d go two weeks or more in between even firing up Unity so it was very much a little hobby thing. I think this all changed around the time I started paying people to do work for me. That actually helped me stay disciplined in the end.

KP: How did it feel when you realized I Fell From Grace was ready?

Patrik: It was an absolutely bizarre feeling. It had taken just over 18 months and well over a year of that had been just non-stop working a day job and then coming home and working on the game. Now I had nothing to do, and whilst I thought I’d enjoy that, it really felt pretty empty afterwards.

KP: How has releasing the game affected your life?

Patrik: It has taught me a lot about how to manage a project this size, and there are a fair few things I would do differently if I was to make the same game today. It taught me a lot about the value of discipline, and drove home the point that motivation doesn’t really matter. Discipline is everything and to get up and do something voluntarily that you don’t have the motivation to do will definitely be rewarding and worthwhile in the end. The game hasn’t led me to a career in a different field like I might have hoped, but it did give me the courage to try new things, and to go after a job I otherwise wouldn’t, and that has really been a huge change as I love the one I’m currently in.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Raja’s story of balancing work on his passion project is also one of compromise.

Raja: I worked two jobs, as a Sys Admin for the last 5 years, and on the side I do other jobs I can find, such as transcribing, to finance project costs.”

KP: How do you deal with balancing your duties to your family, your social life and your project?

Raja: It’s extremely hard. It takes up a lot of free time, but it means I don’t really game much to relax. It’s mostly work, home, relax for a bit and back to work on the project. My wife is my biggest support, and when I have time I spend it with my 1-year-old son. I’m proud to say that our project is exploding right now, and we have network replication/Steam integration finally working — our biggest hurdle so far.

I didn’t try to find a gamedev group through Reddit again. I didn’t have the dedication to start my own project and persevere like Raja, let alone the discipline to pull through and actually release a game like Patrik.

The experience itself was priceless, though. In the brief moments when it seemed to be working out, it really felt as if I’d found my predestined place in the universe. That impression was fleeting, yet, like Patrik, it inspired me to find the courage to try new things. To pursue the dream of combining my career and my passion — a way to utilize my skills, for now other than making games.

If you’re reading this, you know exactly how that’s working out.

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Kamil Pawlowicz
Kamil is a video game & movie blogger pursuing gamedev at The Knights of Unity []. He collects pen-and-paper RPG handbooks, nerds out about metanarratives, and serves 3 cats. Keep up with his ramblings at @xen0bit.