Nathanael Weiss certainly isn't the first one-person indie team to attempt to successfully bring a title to market. There have been wonderful success stories from the one-person indies behind games like Undertale or Stardew Valley, for example, but that doesn't make the task at hand for Weiss any less challenging. Not only is one individual responsible for every facet of development (art, animation, coding, sound, music, etc.) but the sheer weight of putting one's livelihood at stake certainly takes nerves of steel.
Weiss launched a Kickstarter for the Zelda-like procedural title Songbringer back in 2015, asking for a mere $9,000 and he managed to raise over $15,000. Now he's finally ready to launch on Xbox One and PC on September 1 and PS4 September 5.
"[The game] was a big question in my mind because I had no money at that point in my life," he tells me. "I had already spent all my money on my last video game that failed. I ran up all this credit card debt and so I was really in a tight place in life. It was nerve wracking. I had no idea how I was going to make the next $1,000 to pay my rent. So I was like, 'Ok, I've got to do something to make some cash and I have to prove that this video game idea I have is going to be worth it. Are people going to want this?' So I decided to do the Kickstarter. And that kinda funded me for the next - I thought it would fund me longer, but it really only funded me for about six months doing the Kickstarter. But if it hadn't been for that Kickstarter, none of this would have happened."
As interest in his project grew, so did the scope. Weiss had initially planned to launch by the end of 2015, but it became clear that more time would be needed as more and more features got added in.
"During the Kickstarter, I thought it would be about another year-long project and then it just kept growing and growing," he notes. "I just have so much passion for this game. This is my dream video game. This is exactly what I would create if it were the last thing I ever created. And that's what I went into it thinking. I was like, 'I want to make a sweet-ass Zelda [style] game that's procedural, surprises me every time.'
"Zelda [style] games are kinda big in the sense that they have so many NPCs and adventures and things like that and it just kept growing into something that just kept being a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better... Finally, you just have to call it and say, 'This is enough. This is all that Songbringer is going to be.' That happened about a year ago. It's been a year of just finishing things up almost."
Weiss has been making games since he was in high school in 1995, when he created a silly title about chickens in space where the player had to save the chickens from asphyxiation as fast as possible. It was built in C, running on MS-DOS, no less. Weiss has essentially taught himself everything he's needed to know. He took 10 years off to learn how to compose music, so that's a facet of development that probably comes easiest for him.
"I don't know what it is, but I can make music so quickly and I love it," he says. "It's like I just get in the zone with it. Art is also similarly very easy. It's such a pleasing easy task. Programming, by far, is still the hardest thing of all and I've been a programmer for 23 years now. I have a lot of built up skill and experience with programming. I've worked on real-time multi-player projects. That was the hardest thing I ever programmed. Still, to this day, it takes the most time to program. If I were to hire anyone, I would hire another programmer."
"There's this red tape and this bureaucracy that goes along with being a part of any team. You're always like, 'Ok, what's that person going to think about this idea? Should I even share this idea with them?"
So why did Weiss decide to fly solo for Songbringer? Aside from the creative freedom to do whatever one pleases, working as a one-person indie also means no need to clear any changes or approaches to a project with partners or team members.
"I had a pretty difficult last project... a pretty ambitious project, an iOS MOBA, and that was right when MOBAs were really hot," Weiss explains. "League of Legends was super [hot] - it still is, but everyone wanted to create things like that... We spent two and a half years making it and it just completely flopped because we didn't understand marketing. We didn't build up a following. You need to build a following for a multi-player game, especially along the way.
"There's this red tape and this bureaucracy that goes along with being a part of any team. You're always like, 'Ok, what's that person going to think about this idea? Should I even share this idea with them? Should I spend the hour it takes me to go explain this on an email or should I just do it?' Making Songbringer was one of the most rewarding and amazing experiences because I have that complete swift path to creation. There's nobody stopping me."
Weiss has worked on larger teams before (in the '90s he was part of Trilobyte). He's not opposed to joining a team again if the world of solo development doesn't work out for him.
"One of the downsides to it is there's no camaraderie. There's no sense of, like, it's really fun to go into an office and punch your friend in the stomach and stuff," he jokes. "You know, talk about music and play games together that evening and stuff like that. There's none of that in what I do. That's kinda one of the reasons why I do live streaming is that I'm connecting with other people that relate with what I'm doing. It's really nice to share with them on those live streams because I don't get that sense of sharing with people on a daily basis."
Weiss' tendency to livestream his development on Songbringer is also a savvy marketing move in this era of more open development. Fans can connect with a developer and offer feedback and get connected to the world a creator is putting together. "In a two-hour video stream I can not only do marketing on Twitch and YouTube, but also get some stuff done," he says.
Connecting with fans and the industry at large is absolutely vital for indies, says Weiss. It's a lesson he learned as he got deeper into Songbringer's development, and it's why he notes that going to events is something all indies should be budgeting for.
"I've really realized the importance of going to expos. I always ignored that completely," he tells me. "I was like, 'Oh, you can make a video game. You can make it totally successful without going to expos.' And I kinda was saying that because I didn't have the money to do it. I was like, well, I gotta find some other way. When [my publishing partner] Double Eleven came around, they put out the funds to basically get the game to PAX and GDC and E3 and that is so important. It's incredibly important to be there face-to-face with the industry, the press, the players. It builds trust, like, a lot. I see the value of that now. If I make another video game - if this succeeds, that's another thing that has to be part of the budget is expos. I've got to be able to go to these."
Assuming Songbringer does well enough for Weiss, he's absolutely interested in pursuing a sequel. And whether that's once again solo or with a few others on a team really depends on how much money he makes.
"My vision really is to create a franchise," he remarks. "I've always wanted to do that. I still don't know whether this will be a financial success in the end. If it is, if it does enable me to make the next game, then Songbringer 2 is definitely on my list. I know exactly where the characters are gonna go and what adventures they're gonna have in the next one. I'd like to create a lot of spin-off things in that world too. That doesn't mean that they will all be top down Zelda-y games. I have an idea for a platformer, like a Metroid-style game too."
"If I had a family, I wouldn't have done this unless I had some sort of secured funding or I had some money from a last project or something like that"
The world of video games, and technology in general, moves at a rapid pace, and those in the industry have to be prepared to turn on a dime, indies included. What looks like a standout feature in a title, for example, could suddenly lose its importance depending on what's on the market or what's soon going to release.
"The games industry changes so much. When I first started Songbringer, there was no such thing as Hyper Light Drifter, another Zelda-like game like this," he says. "I learned how much people will compare your video game to other video games. They'll say Hyper Light Drifter is the most original game ever. Songbringer's not because it came out after. But Songbringer started before it, so it's like, you know, you learn that people see things not as they actually are but how they appear to be.
[Editor's note: Hyper Light Drifter's Kickstarter began in 2013, whereas Songbringer's launched in 2015. We've asked for clarification, and Weiss stated, "Actually, HLD's Kickstarter happened before Songbringer was ever conceived. I simply meant that I became aware of HLD well after having started Songbringer and that Songbringer was already 1.5 years into development when HLD was released."]
"Also, you learn that one thing can change everything. When I first started out, it was a cool marketing angle to say, 'There's 308 million worlds in Songbringer,' but then No Man's Sky came around and started saying the same kind of thing, like 'Oh, there's 18 quintillion worlds!' and everybody hated them after that because they over-hyped their game, so now that marketing angle has completely changed. I've been trying to downplay that as much as possible and focus on the fact that it's just a Zelda-like game that has the option to surprise you."
Regarding Hyper Light Drifter and his fellow indies, Weiss doesn't view them as competition at all, even with the complete overcrowding on digital storefronts and discoverability issues that effectively do see indies competing with one another for the spotlight.
"I've met a lot of other developers that strongly believe in that [idea of competition] and I don't. I don't believe in that at all. I believe that we're all colleagues in this," he says. "Well, there's one tiny case where you'd be competing. That's if you're both releasing a similar game at the exact same time. That's the only time when you're really in competition with someone else. I'm not currently in competition with Hyper Light Drifter at all. They released a long time ago. People that love Hyper Light Drifter will probably purchase Songbringer as well... That's totally a colleague type thing. They're helping me. I'm almost helping them too. I'm sure some people will buy this and go, 'I kinda like Zelda games again' and they'll buy Hyper Light Drifter too. But it's a common fear amongst other game developers that we're all competing against each other."
Right now, Weiss does not have a family to support, and he fully admits that taking a risk as a one-man development team is something that's only possible at this moment in his life. "If I had a family, I wouldn't have done this unless I had some sort of secured funding or I had some money from a last project or something like that," he acknowledges.
"If I had known that no one would want my last video game, I wouldn't have spent two years making it and all my money"
That said, solo or not, Weiss is not averse to leveraging Kickstarter again, even though some don't see the crowdfunding platform as helpful to indies as it was several years ago.
"I would absolutely do Kickstarter again," he affirms. "I really do feel like I was already after that gold rush in 2015. If you look at projects like Hyperlight Drifter, for example, that got $700,000 raised in 2013. 2013 and '14, that's when it was still the gold rush... I feel like I got in already past that wave and if it worked for me then, then I really feel like it could work for me again, especially now that I've built up sort of a following around the Songbringer brand.
"I know it could succeed again. I also encourage other people to do it as well... game developers should do something to prove that the game is worth their time before they put the time into it. If I had known that no one would want my last video game, I wouldn't have spent two years making it and all my money. Kickstarter is a way that you can say, 'Are there enough people that will pay money right now, before the game is even out, to support this vision?' And I think there's still a thriving community on Kickstarter for that."
At the end of the day, flying solo as a developer takes a certain personality and a certain mindset. Not everyone is built for this kind of stress, but a little bit of optimism can go a long way.
"What's crazy about times like that where you don't know what's going to happen is that you [doubt yourself]. I was like, 'Is this going to succeed? Is the Kickstarter going to succeed?' I realized that, I don't know, it's always going to be OK. Something's going to work out somehow. It's like a little reassurance in the back of my mind. That's what I've learned about myself. There's really no need to fear. In the end, things will work out one way or another. You can take any failure and turn it into a success."