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Inside the ambitious indies raising the bar on what small teams can do

Sponsored article: Increasingly indie teams are motivated to push what is possible within the conventional indie framework. And they're turning to Unity Pro to do it

Sometime over a decade ago Tanya X. Short pointed out to her partner how few dating sims and RPGs let players develop romantic connections with the female characters. It was the start of something of a running joke between the pair.

"He replied 'OK, so go make Boyfriend Dungeon!' and we'd laugh," remembers Short, who stands as Creative Director and Co-Founder at Kitfox Games. "I told the other Kitfoxes about it and they'd chuckle too."

For a time, Boyfriend Dungeon was a playful idea suggested with a smile. But it was also a game concept that wouldn't go away. By 2017, it had become a very real project at Kitfox, and today it presents a distinct, celebrated and playful blend of dating sim and dungeon crawler - and a multiplatform indie game that brings polish and visual distinctness in equal measure. It is also part of a trend that sees increasing numbers of independent studios delivering multiplatform games that bring both a bounty of creativity and tremendous ambition with regard to performance.

The indie spirit is as thriving now as it has ever been - but increasingly there's an appetite for delivering technically lavish games. A quick look across today's gaming landscape -- for example, with Mimimi's remarkable Desperado's III -- you'll notice that the visual and technical finesse more typical of much larger teams is increasingly matched by indie titles. There's a renewed desire by independent teams of every size to push their own abilities, and increasing numbers are turning to Unity Pro to do so.

"We knew that action RPGs and dating sims are both really compatible with consoles, so we wanted to make sure to build it to be compatible with consoles from the beginning," Short continues, having recently released Boyfriend Dungeon to PC, Xbox One and Switch. "Unity Pro is the best way we know to do that. Plus, we'd built our previous games in Unity, so it was really easy to just grab some bits of code and jump into prototyping, instead of starting completely from scratch."

Short's talk of 'easy' prototyping highlights why Unity Pro is so popular with indie studios working on ambitious projects. In bundling up the core engine and a wealth of other tools, supports and services, Unity lets studios confidently push what they can achieve in the pursuit of highly capable results, while keeping workflows, pipelines and collaboration efficient and productive. Put another way, Unity Pro can make even the most ambitious game development feel easy.

Back to the Culture
That's something evident over at No Matter Studios, where a team of just three has been hard at work on the remarkable Praey for the Gods, a 'boss climbing open world adventure game' that looks and plays like the work of a much bigger team. Here again, the development team challenging themselves to achieve something hugely ambitious was in the founding DNA behind their latest creation.

"It came from the desire to get back to making traditional games," confirms Brian Parnell, Director and Founder of No Matter. "We wanted to make a game that pushed us artistically, technically and reminded us why we got into making games in the first place. The places we had been working were bogged down in long meetings about ARPU/DARPU but no one would ever ask: 'is this even fun?'." "One day we had enough of those meetings and the three of us went on a walk. We started talking about how we could get back to that feeling of when we first got into making games. To make something that pushed our skills to their limits while also making something we could be proud of."

This year the No Matter trio will take Praey for the Gods' full version to PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. Looking at the grand, ambitious survival game, it's remarkable that it is made by a core team of three; let alone published to so many platforms. And again, it's a case of an indie embracing the potential of Unity Pro.

"We'd used Unity Pro for a couple projects prior to the start of PFTG," explains Parnell. "We were very comfortable with the engine around Unity 4 [or] 5. As a team of three, we knew our strengths and found those tied in well with what Unity was doing. For one we didn't have to build an engine from scratch and having shipped a couple games on Unity meant we knew how to get the most out of it. The fact that Unity offers a free version as well as a monthly subscription was also very attractive to us since we were initially funding the game out of our own pockets before we were successfully crowdfunded.."

On the Shoulders of Titans
At Acid Nerve - famed for 2015's captivating top-down action-adventure title Titan Souls - another trio were looking to level-up their development ambitious while continuing to enjoy the benefits a lower headcount can bring. The result was the acclaimed isometric action-adventure game, Death's Door.

"We wanted to expand upon what we had learnt from developing our debut game Titan Souls," offers David Fenn, Acid Nerve's Producer, Designer, Composer and Sound Designer. "This was a minimalist, pixel-art boss rush game with a simple core mechanic. For Death's Door we wanted to create something bigger and more ambitious, with a wider variety of mechanics, themes and influences, while staying true to our established core.

"One thing that's always been very important to us is to stay as a small team. We find this is better for workflow, productivity, and sometimes even keeping the vision intact. Despite this, we didn't want to make something retro or minimal this time around. I think an engine like Unity was integral to this, allowing us to focus on making an ambitious game as a small team, with high production values and minimal development friction."

Clearly, a number of today's indies are finding that Unity Pro provides a means to embrace polish and high-end production, while letting them stick to their creative vision and preferred studio set-up. It's a sweet spot that helps thrust independent works into new realms. And it has proven highly valuable to teams that don't have vast staff numbers assigned to every discipline.

Tools for the Job
Across today's indie scene, teams and individuals are increasingly looking to tools that let them do quality work beyond their own specialties. That's something Unity Pro's suite of options has allowed studios like Kitfox to do.

"I'm a technical designer, but I'm not a programmer," states Short. "So things like the Scriptable Objects in Unity are fantastic for managing tonnes of object types and balancing data. I still use spreadsheets and so on as well, but the implementation is very smooth when the programmers on the team can spend 10 minutes making me a prefab that basically functions like a tool, exposing all the bits I need."

For Fenn and his Acid Nerve colleagues, it is ProBuilder that stands out as a highlight.

"Probuilder was indispensable for creating the world of the game," he enthuses. "This was our first game with a fully explorable world and we were quite ambitious with the level design, taking inspirations from the very best examples such as The Legend of Zelda and Dark Souls. This meant a lot of planning and a lot of handcrafted, time-consuming effort, so it was really important to have such a fast, iterative tool in order to make this process work."

At No Matter Studios Unity Pro's suitability for developing marketing and launch assets added a significant extra benefit on top of its prototyping and production strengths.

"Timeline [and] Cinemachine were tools that allowed us to create amazing trailers and intros for our bosses," says Parnell. "Game development is always hard, but making marketing materials is typically something the publisher will do. So, since we did it all ourselves we used to set aside a full month to make a trailer. That was usually Tim and Brian cranking away to get it all done. Our latest trailer took three days, it was done super fast, but there's no way it would've been possible without the tools from Unity.

"Unity's Recorder tool was also very helpful in sending videos to help get contractors we used on the same page with us. Specifically, since we all work remote, sometimes it's not possible to do a video chat and screen share. So to record a cutscene and send it over with the right format and size can actually be pretty daunting. Unity's video recorder was very, very easy to use, as prior to that it was a hassle of finding a good recorder that worked and didn't screw up audio, or drop frames etcetera."

It remains strikingly apparent that what is possible within the independent framework and remit of indie culture is expanding in terms of ambition, polish and finesse. That's as true in game marketing as it is with development. And whether you view this trend from a developer or player perspective, it is wildly exciting. None of this comes at the expense of the wonderful creations at the minimalist, lo-fi end of the indie spectrum, nor the dazzling output of the triple-A world. Indeed, Unity can be harnessed to make all of those kinds of games.

Audience expectations are continuously growing, irrespective of how big a developer you are. But so does the ambitions of the game makers themselves. We've reached a point where the term 'indie', at least as we understood it five years ago, has become blurred and -- in some cases -- completely redundant.

For smaller teams who acknowledge that they need to deliver ambitious, high quality experiences, delivering on player expectations and pushing the boundaries of their own abilities, Unity Pro is the perfect complement to that goal.

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