Isomer – a look into the world of solo indie development

Video game development, especially in the AAA market, has become a huge business. From Ken Levine’s team of 200 taking five years to produce Bioshock Infinite to the hundreds of staff members Ubisoft employ to keep Assassin’s Creed running on its yearly cycle, games now seem to have to include a huge team in order to be even remotely successful. It’s almost a cliché to imagine video game development as a huge group of people in an office having the time of their lives while creating masterpieces.

There are people out there who’re doing just that but with one difference; they’re choosing to do it alone. Solo development projects have seen some of the limelight recently, with indie titles really bringing home the bacon for developers who find the perfect mixture of talent, coverage and interest. Markus Persson created a simple building game in Java that’s now sold over 35 million copies. Dean Hall created a mod for Arma 2 which took off massively due to YouTube coverage, ending in him creating a standalone version that’s just hit 2 million sales. Another, more recent success story includes Luke Hodorowicz and his town building game Banished.

To me, a man with an abundance of coding ignorance, the reality of solo development is one that I respect hugely. Creating your own game from scratch, sometimes even creating your own engine too, was, and still is, incomprehensible to me. I had the stereotypical image of an unkempt man in his garage for days on end in my mind, but surely that’s not what solo development is really like?

As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a Reddit post about an indie game by the name of Isomer. The game looked interesting, like a mix of XCOM and Minecraft. As a sucker for anything strategic I was instantly drawn to the idea of the game. Some quick research into the title showed the amount of work that’s gone into it so far.

I decided, on a whim, to write to the developer, Konrad Strachan, and ask him what it’s really like when you’re creating your own game. Konrad built the engine Isomer runs on as well as created the entire game with, so far, only the help of a part-time designer/illustrator. Because of all this work he’s undergone alone, I assumed he’d write me off and carry on with creating Isomer. In reality, Konrad was as welcoming as possible, a man whose passion and love for the game he’s creating was obvious, even through our brief emails.

Konrad told me all about his original inspiration for Isomer, telling me it came in “the late ’90s,

I was playing the follow up to the much loved first XCOM game – UFO: Enemy Unknown. After a slightly faltering follow up a year later, Mythos released XCOM Apocalypse, a game which rather polarised the opinions of the XCOM fans at the time. One of many things that gave me sheer unbridled joy when playing Apocalypse was the amount of destruction and chaos real time combat created. Weapons blasts flying everywhere, smashing walls, starting fires and destroying scenery. Something I enjoyed doing was cutting through the maps with heavy weapons to create ambush points, although it wasn’t something the game really encouraged.

The idea of an isometric game where the world could be adapted and altered stuck in my mind for a few years and it wasn’t until I started playing games like Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft that the idea resurfaced. At the time I felt like a change in pace and wanted to work on something a bit different, so I took the decision to give indie development a go.”

Isomer, to me, looked like one of those games with a little bit of everything. You had the isometric view and real-time strategy aspects, but then there’s base building, mining, resource management and the colonisation aspects of it. Konrad’s ‘short’ definition of his game is:

“an isometric real time strategy game that features a dynamic world populated by many enemies which can be shaped, mined and altered. It is an open ended sandbox where the player is dropped along with a starting compliment of units and given freedom to explore, mine and build all while defending their base and their starting dropship against the hostile forces of the world. In effect, you are the alien invaders and the inhabitants of the planet want to forcibly show you the door. If they manage to break through and destroy your central power core, the game is over and the world permanently deleted. These are all things Isomer offers right now.”

One thing that had intrigued me since I’d heard about the time and effort solo game development takes was how developers manage their time. As a serial procrastinator, the idea of setting my own times to work would be a nightmare where nothing would get done. So, do solo developers set their own time limits? Do they ‘clock in and clock out’? Konrad summed up how he manages his time to me:

“I like to keep things flexible, most of the time it’s a roughly 10 to roughly 6 a day, although working for yourself means the temptation is always there to keep working longer and later and some weekends. I think this is something many people don’t realise when looking into switching to indie development, it is easy for it to consume even more time than formal employment especially if it’s your only source of income.”

When reading this reply from Konrad, the amount of passion that goes in to his work struck me. For some reason, before speaking to Konrad, game development was somewhat of an emotionless concept to me. I’d known that developers both enjoy and love what they’re creating, but the reality of it always seemed foreign. The idea of working too long on something, outside of your set limitations, really hit a chord. It was then I truly realised just how important passion was in game development.

With Steam clogged with early-access horror stories and 10-year-old titles marked as new, it becomes easy to think that the majority of games and developers are only looking for profits. I realised that my cynicism for modern video gaming made the process of video game development somewhat inhuman, almost robotic to me. The fact that I never considered there being someone on the other end of the game you’ve bought with their fingers crossed, just hoping that you like it simply for that buzz of sharing their artistic vision with someone upset me. Stories of evil, cash grabbing developers are all too common, it was nice to be finding the opposite.

Konrad also added a few words that really cemented this through process for me:

“There is a special feeling each time someone buys a copy of a game you have seen grow from a few lines of code and mature as more and more features are added. It gives me a good feeling to reward people who have supported the project each time a new build comes out with more features.”

But, as many developers know too well, creating a game isn’t free. After leaving university, Konrad worked as a professional developer creating financial software for five years. He told me that in this time he’d created numerous games, but none he’d ever been happy enough with to release to the public. His decision to work on Isomer full-time was one he made some time ago:

“For the first six months I really had no idea whether I had made the right decision making Isomer my ‘job’, a fact compounded by not really being able to talk much about the project publicly and thus gauge reactions. Spending so long working on a project like this is a huge risk because unless you undertake a Kickstarter project or have some kind of external funding, every month you work on the project greatly adds to the number of copies you must sell during alpha to make the project viable and sustainable.

In truth, Isomer has not sold enough copies to cover the time I have spent on it compared to the cost of living whilst I worked on it, but it is something that I have greatly enjoyed doing. I live in hope the next few months will turn the fortunes of Isomer around, I’m not too worried about covering the cost of development thus far, but I need it to be able to pay for me to carry on working on it as a full time venture for the next few months in order to put in everything I want to!”

Isomer has just seen the 0.8.5.1 patch release and its emergence on to Steam’s Greenlight service, Isomer’s page can be found here. With this it marks another step forward for Konrad and Isomer, one that I really hope works out for him. The hard work and care he’s put in to the game so far has made its entrance onto Steam a well-received one and with that reception, the future looks bright.

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