Creating Successful Indie Games With an Art Background

Hello! What's your background and what are you working on?

My name is Kara Stone. I've been making art for most of my life, mostly in performance. I started in theater and transitioned into film, and then from film into video games.

I've been making games for around seven years now, and they're independent and very artistic games. And many people might not classify them as games, but rather like interactive digital art. But I find a lot of footing and community within the realm of video games.

Right now I'm working on a newest piece, which is about AI and environmentalism and digital forms of self and community care. Very broadly it's called Unearth U, and it follows an AI who is designed to be your life coach support system and take you through these different exercises. And you find out more about the company who designed her and what her life is like as you play.

What motivated you to first get started with game development?

I'd been in the arts for a long time. And no one ever talked about games back then. 15 or 20 years ago, and to an extent even now, if you were in art programs not a lot of people that are talking about video games as a possible medium for making art.

So it wasn't until I was in my master's degree that I came across a community that was making independent games and art games. I'd been playing games my whole life, but only Triple-A, very mainstream games. And I didn't know that you could make a video game on your own, or that there were independent artists and makers doing that, until I came across a group doing it. And I was like, oh my gosh, I want to do it too! Let's get me in!

I joined different feminist-focused groups about things like sharing game design skills and supporting each other, and that really pushed me into it. That was really helpful.

Kara's website

Of course, I always think about how things would have been different if I started making things earlier, making games earlier. It's really helpful to come from a background in different arts, and feel really invested in art as a whole, rather than just as video games, which come with very specific rules and expectations, and art is a little freer. So now I look at how I got into games and think it's great, but there was a time where I was kind of resentful.

What was the first game that you made and what went into building it?

It's called Medication Meditation. It's a very open, free way sort of game where you can go into different levels and do mini-exercises or mini-experiences about living with mental illness. There's one where you can go do a meditation exercise, and another where you have to take medication at the right time. Another where you talk as disembodied therapists guide you through some questions.

The game is all made from pixel art. I programmed it myself and did all of the art myself. And then once it got a little bit popular and got some media coverage, I worked with people to make it into an app for iOS and to Android where it still lives today. And all that was seven years ago.

What tools did you use to build that game? Was there a particular language? Was there a particular game engine you liked?

Well, the original version, when I was first learning how to program, was a visual programming engine called GameSalad. It was free for a while, and then it was subscription.

When we moved the game to a phone app we used Unity.

What do you use now? Are you using unity?

I'll use whatever engine is good for the project.

So Unearth U, the game I'm working on now, is in Unity. another of my games, The Earth is a Better Person Than Me, was a visual novel, so I used Ren.Py to make it.

I'll just use whatever is good for the project. I would use processing, thinking what is the project? What do I want it to look like? Is there a tool to get me there? I think about these aspects for each project rather than being really invested in a specific tool. I wouldn't say "I really like Unreal, snd so everything I make is through Unreal." Because these different engines and different tools have different affordances and aesthetics to them.

So what I use changes depending on the project.

How do you attract players and market your games, or market yourself as a game designer?

I hate marketing! I'm one of those people that just can't stand it; I find it really uncomfortable.

But part of that is that I'm in the art world, and that comes with a different sort of advertising of oneself and one's work. A lot of it is applying to festivals and art galleries and doing artists' talks. Another is that my financial stability is not based on my art practice or my game design. And that's really helpful for me.

I thought about going the studio route for a while, but it's really unsustainable. And people burn out really fast, and studios come and go with like one or two projects, and hire and fire based on the projects. Many studios even go under within one game. And it's also a lot of pressure that what you make will have to be marketable and viable from a general audience of gamers, which is not really my target audience.

A game is a playful, interactive experience. And there are no other rules beyond that. It's a very simple definition.

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If I were to think of my target audience, I'm more interested in exploring what the possibilities of the medium are, and what the edges of it are. I'm more interested in what I find really exciting, and what would be different and interesting... which is not always widely marketable, of course.

The people who have connected to my work have seen it in galleries, or in festivals, or see articles written about the pieces. They've played them and felt connected to them because they're different, and they can be really personal and weird and experimental and are really out of the out of the norm of what people expect video games to look like. So I hate to think of it as an audience of the people who play my games. It's always been a really amazing connection and it's been very cool.

What does your process look like when you come up with a new game idea? How long does it usually take you? How do you lay out the project?

When I first started making games, the first few years, I was in my master's degree. I was just finishing the degree and I would make things really fast. I'd make a lot of small projects really fast, and I would do a lot on my own.

I'll always start with just writing. I'm journaling and designing it to myself, writing it out with sketches that nobody else sees. And I do a lot of the planning work like that. On paper, not working with any engines, not thinking about how to program it, not thinking about the next part of making it. After I have the general idea and the concept of it, I think about what it's meaning is, how's it conveying that meaning.

Then finally I'll go into thinking about what engine will best serve it. Do I have the skills to fully do it? What's the aesthetic? Do I have the aesthetic skills to fully do this? Or should I be working with other artists and what should it look like? And I'm just building from there. It always starts pretty small or very independent and very reflective thinking.

The past few years have been moving a lot slower, consciously so, just out of necessity. I've been more looking towards artists who are more processed and focused. I was originally thinking, "Oh, I'll just do this and execute it." And then not a lot of inspiration or change would come up during it. It would be just as it was when I first decided how it would be, I would just execute it. Now it's a little more open and feeling like, "Oh, I'm not exactly sure where this will go."

And things take a little longer, like when I made The Earth is a Better Person Than Me. There's a lot of writing in it. When I wrote it was a really enjoyable process. Now that's another one where I did everything. I didn't have any co collaborators for that one. So it was me on my own making it, programming it, and writing it. I would write one story line of it at a time, and there were multiple storylines in it, and I wrote them all. I wasn't really sure where it would go when I started; I didn't map it out as I once did. So I'm trying to get more in touch with that exploratory process version, which I think can really create exciting stuff.

You mentioned that studios just weren't what you were looking for with a game. Do you prefer to work alone or do you prefer to collaborate with people?

Both, but it depends on the project.

I have my limits as a visual artist. It takes me a while to find an aesthetic that I feel like I can do and looks good and interesting. So it can be really nice to collaborate with other artists. I also have my limits with programming. So for things that I think are just a tad out of what my capabilities are, or aren't where I want to be spending my time, I'm very happy to collaborate with programmers.

Unearth U is the first one where I'm really collaborating with writing. Usually I've written almost everything myself.

So it just depends. I love working with people and I like working by myself too.

So you're working on this new game. What are some of your goals for it, and what are your goals for the future in general?

I was feeling really creatively stuck before I started this game. Not that I didn't have like a million ideas of what I wanted to make, but thinking about the environmental impact of gaming and of technology, I was thinking how can I contribute to this ethically when it's a huge, huge producer of energy waste and e-waste? And how can I be part of this making culture of making without thinking of its effects on the environment, when we're already a climate catastrophe. I'm living in California, where there have been tons of wildfires in my area and making people evacuate and my friend actually evacuated to my house. This is a very real reality.

So I was feeling very stuck about it. How am I supposed to make something new? Probably the best thing most of us could do, especially those of us who work in technology, is to simply stop making stuff. You just can't make any more.

So I was feeling really stuck and I decided that I wasn't going to make anything new. Instead I was going to reuse things I've already found.

I like found footage. So in Unearth U, everything in it is found already, nothing is new. It's a mix of found footage, videos that I edit into what I need, the AI 3D and sound models are used. All of the UI and background images are from found code and images as well. I'm trying out this ethos of reuse and composting everything into a new thing, which is what Unearth U will be, as the project and the app. The only thing new is the writing, and I don't even know if one makes writing, but the new writing ties together all of the found elements.

And then I plan to delete everything once the app is made.

Of course, independent artists like me are not the ones that are making like the huge piles of waste. It's AAA companies doing that. But I still want to be supporting an ethos of environmentalism. The goal for me with that was finding a way to make media digital media, which is detrimental to the earth, in a way that I feel is supporting a message of environmentalism and trying to follow a process of environmentalism as well.

In terms of your journey, from an artist where game design wasn't really on the table, to now having made several games, what are some of the bigger challenges that you've faced and obstacles you've overcome on that path?

I have found several things to be obstacles. One of course is everyone's expectation of what a video game should look like. And I don't think that's anyone's fault. Most video games look exactly the same. Most video games operate the same. They have the same mechanics or they're shooters. They follow very similar storylines that have very similar looking main protagonists and are all very similar to each other. And so when you do something different, people are like, "Oh, I don't think this is a game." What I make doesn't seem to fit. Especially because I'm a woman, I also don't fit the clichéd notion of who a game designer is, or even who the audience is. So that one has been a struggle. Although now that it's just been like such a long time, I just barely care about that anymore, but it still pops up all the time.

Most people are mimicking what they already see! And it can get really boring and it can only go so far.

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Another one that really made me question why I do this, and that I really struggle with, is the environmental impact of gaming in particular. A gaming computer wastes six times more energy than regular computer usage. It's frustrating to be a part of that world. And that's just one instance, of course, of all the streaming and the massive e-waste, the physical hardware that piles up and is non-recyclable, and depends on mining rare, precious minerals with processes that are destroying the earth further, continuing making new consoles that we do not need.

So it's very hard to be a part of that world and feel like there's any role for me in it. Even if I'm not directly making things that need a high performance gaming computer or need a new console, I still feel like I'm participating in that culture.

And then the other obstacle is just the corporate takeover. There was a time five to 10 years ago, where games felt really exciting. This feeling that this is going to be a new art form, this is going to do really exciting things. This was when Tale of Tales was making their games, for instance. That was a great company before they decided to leave games because of the consumerism and continued corporate takeover.

A screenshot from Kara's game The Earth is a Better Person than Me

It can be really hard to deal with those big cuts where Steam takes 30%, Android takes 30%, and these art games can't survive. It's a huge cut for someone making independent art. And then you have to have things like a subscription on Unity, and all of these things are not really built anymore for independent creators. A 30% cut is huge for how little money most independent game designers are making. It can feel really hard to put out work that will reach an audience without using these tools. But also, I don't want to support these tools, and I don't think that they should get 30% of what I'm making. Dealing with how much corporate control there is is really hard for independent artists.

On the other side of that and those challenges, is there anything that you've found really helpful or advantageous in tackling those obstacles?

I found a really great community that is just so exciting, and people are doing really cool work in feminist and queer theory and maker circles.

Some of the most precious people to me, some of the smartest people, are in the movements for Game Workers Unite, which is trying to create unions for game workers. And game workers are some of the most ripped off employees and workers. That's so inspiring to me, and I've really found a lot of camaraderie and solidarity there with other people working in games.

Also, I'm a PhD candidate, and I'm in academia. So I teach games, I teach university students how to make games. And it can be really exciting to see what they do, especially when either they've come from gaming and they can shed their notions of what a good game is and what are their expectations of it are and make something like really interesting and unique and exciting, or when they come to it not knowing anything about games, and they came because they had to take this class or they liked me as a teacher. The latter group really ask such interesting questions and makes such interesting stuff that gives me a lot of joy and excitement. It makes me feel like, "Oh, maybe there is something here, like this is worth doing and really exciting."

Since you teach, I'm sure this is something that you come up against a lot. What are some misconceptions you see about making games?

That biggest misconception is that you need to know how to program, and it's all about programming. And you know now, with these visual programming platforms, I feel like you do need to program, but it's definitely not the most important thing. Story, visual aesthetic, and concept are equally important to a game as the programming it to happen.

Wrapped up in that is people expecting that they will never be able to make a game because they feel like they're not technical. I get a lot of students saying that, and a lot of like people outside of my students saying that as well.

It can be really good to start with easier access tools like Bitsy and Twine, and for pro gamers they won't be thinking that they're so exciting, but to make that and to be able to feel like, "Oh, wow, like I could do this! And I did make this game and I demystified this process a little and it feels more accessible to me." I think that's one of the best things to learn.

I was holding a long-form workshop at a community center in an area of Toronto that doesn't have that doesn't get a lot of resources, and to see people go from saying, "I'll never be able to make a game, I'll never be able to program." To making their first game on Stencyl or make their first platform, or even if it's a lot based on in engine tutorials, just to have them get the feeling of I could do this. That's like really nice.

Do you have any advice for people who may be interested in starting to make games might just be starting out anything that you wish you'd known?

Don't listen to other people's rules of what makes a video game. Feel free to explore what you think is interesting rather than trying to mimic what you already see. Most people are mimicking what they already see! And it can get really boring and it can only go so far.

A screenshot from Kara's game Ritual of The Moon

You should explore, even if it doesn't match other people's notions of what a game should look like, to try it out.

That's something you said a lot through this interview, actually, that a lot of people might not consider your games to be "games". What's your philosophy on what makes a game?

I think a game is a playful, interactive experience. And there are no other rules beyond that. It's a very simple definition.

I think like all art media, it's very hard to actually define what the borders of games are. I wouldn't even argue if someone showed me something totally different and said, "Well, this other thing is a playful, interactive experience!" I'd just say that's cool, great. The technical definition doesn't matter so much.

What kind of games do you like to play?

I like to play games with other people that aren't super competitive, where we can play and get to know each other better. I also like to play games with a story that really makes me reflect on my life, and on politics, and on culture, and get me thinking. It's the same thing I would appreciate from a TV show or from a novel, things with interesting characters.

I also like games that depict different worlds that are really fun and interesting, and you get to go explore that world. It's very broad, but I think that's a nice selling point of games.

What inspires your game?

Most of my stuff is about psychosocial disability, or a mental illness as it's more commonly called. And it's not always so upfront about that.

As I described my first game, Medication Meditation, it's really clearly about that. But most of the others it's more embedded in the design or the story or the dialogue. So most of it is about emotional wellbeing and self-reflection, and how people with disability relate to the world.

Where can we go to learn more?

My website is Karastonesite.com

You can follow me on Twitter at @karaastone

Kara Stone , Founder of Kara Stone Games

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  1. 1

    Truly inspiring post, especially for someone like me who is an aspriring game developer. The idea of interactive is very fascinating