Juan Uys

Masters retrospective


Masters retrospective

I graduated in September, and waited a few months before leaving my review of the programme, so to speak.

TL;DR I was very excited about the programme when I started just over 2 years ago, enjoyed it thoroughly throughout, and do think I’m better prepared for indiedev having done the programme.

The module breakdown is as follows:

I’ll cover each of these in turn.

Development practice

To deepen your sense of development practice through a focused personal case study.

This module was basically a “taster” and encouraged us to figure out what our development pipeline would look like (not just coding, but asset creation, etc), find gaps in our knowledge (e.g. “I don’t know source control”), figure out how to plug the gaps, and then also make a small artefact (e.g. a game) using any newly acquired skills.

We were also urged to start reflective practice, hence the blog posts. TBH, I usually end up writing in my pen-and-paper notebook, and sometimes write a few extra words in Google Docs and Trello when I’m designing or planning, so not everything ends up on the blog.

I’ve been making small games for a while now, and have been coding since the nineties, so did some more reading around art, cross-pollination of different media, and ethics. I identified a big gap in my toolchain: shaders.

I would go on to get more proficient with shaders, reaching a point in 2022 where I’m making shaders from scratch without having to resort to documentation (much). It feels good to visualise a VFX, and then be able to sketch it with GLSL code a few minutes later.

Game Development

To integrate skills across disciplinary boundaries to realise a small indie game as an individual creative practitioner

Now we’re talking. Here we get to cover all the “big” gamedev disciplines: narrative design, animation, level design, sound design, etc.

It’s during this module that I’m getting more convinced of narrative design. I previously thought I wouldn’t need narrative, as I mostly make puzzle games, so no story needed, right? But, narrative doesn’t just need to be words on the screen. It can encompass a player journey underpinned by genre and theme, even just using iconography.

During this module I’m also getting more convinced of market analysis and marketing, having always thought “I’ll make the game I want to play” and “The game will be so good, it will market itself”. Now, those strategies are fine if you’re a hobbyist gamedev, and you might even end up making a great game, and have that one initial tweet domino the game into a viral buzz.

But, those successes are few and far between. Career gamedevs can’t spend weeks polishing, and have to release something decent, but also spend some time telling folks about it. It’s about the trade-offs, looking at the market and deciding what to make, where to spend time polishing, and how to market effectively.

Co-Creative Design & Development Practice

To cultivate ways of collaborating and managing creative projects effectively in a distributed multidisciplinary context.

This one was all about the teamwork.

It’s no secret that teams do better work than individuals. Even lone geniuses outsource tasks that aren’t their core competencies. Even since our tribal days, the groups survived and the lone nomads didn’t (much).

I’ve spent years of my career as team lead, or senior dev, having to guide and tutor as I go along, but I thought that for this module I’d take a back seat and focus on observing teams. I put our youngest team mate forward for the leadership role (which I think put him in good stead for a role he got in the industry a bit later on).

People management is tricky, and it is hard to find experts in fields outside your own whom you can trust to get on with it. People are just people, with their own thoughts, feelings, and ways of working, so it takes a lot of communication with low noise to get ideas and points across.

I focused more on empathy, and finding shared values and goals, than the actual project itself. The project was a success in the end, too.

Indie Game Start-Up

To design and prepare to launch a small business with a focus on indie game development.

This was my favourite module, because it dealt with the stuff that I knew least about, which was market analysis, marketing, pitching the game (to investors and publishers), and seeking funding.

My biggest insight was that, as a creator of experiences, I need to make every interaction with me and my studio “fun” (or at least, have good UX), not just my games. This goes for pitch decks, press kits, the way I market, my website(s), etc. I know that some things like pitch decks and press kits have a certain format, and an audience expect it to be a certain way, but one can still stay on-theme, or inject little moments of joy.

Most of all, us solo indies can’t afford not to stand out, so we have to be super creative when doing any of the above, not just with our games.

Major Project

What it says on the tin.

I identified a niche a few months earlier (the whole survivors-like explosion), and my focus for the final project was to make a small, cheap survivors-like of my own.

We did, however, move house a few months ago, and my PC is bound to a desk at a co-working space, so I haven’t been able to work on it since graduation, but my new garden office is being built in January 2022, upon which the sparks will fly again. (I self-fund my gamedev at the moment, and do client work 4 days a week, but have gone up to full-time on client work, because we need some extra cash to pay for the garden office and other home extensions.)

The market is being flooded with survivors-likes, though, so I’ll have to spend some time next year to find a nice twist for the game if it’s going to have a fresh approach to that sub-genre.

Other highlights

The staff at Falmouth are super nice and very knowledgable. I particularly enjoyed my 6 months with our research supervisor, Dr Jeff Howard. He opened my eyes to having our games be more than what you see on the outside, i.e. it can also have a thesis, and be about something more. This can be anything, like in my case, can I make a financially viable survivors-like, yet also have the medium be the message (about the climate crisis)?

I worked with Maciej on the first 4 modules, and it was super fun. He’s a very talented artist, and a super nice guy, and we promised we’ll work together again in the future. In fact, we floated the idea of starting a studio together in the form of a workers collective. (equal ownership and voting rights)

Failing that, I’m fully prepared now to embark on a solo indie dev career. I can easily walk into a dark room every morning, switch on the lamp, and just start being creative. For the low days, I’ve got a few prompts prepared, so at least I get started quickly with something every day. (I’m lucky to have never had depression, or very low days. I’m mostly talking about those days where I come to work on a Monday having had a particularly busy weekend, or caught a bug. Knock on wood.)

I’m made a few friends along the way. Communities of practice, and all that. There are people like you, and people who complement you out there. Find them, and maintain mutually-beneficial connections. Treasure them.

The whole two years was totally worth it. I also got a distinction (and bought myself a Steam Deck as a reward, whoop!). But, it’s not important how well I did on the programme. What’s important is whether I can pull of a career as an indie game dev. Wish me luck!

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