GAMEDEV INSIGHTS #5 – Indie Games – Hernan Lopez
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Welcome to Gamedev Insights #5, where we delve into enriching conversations with industry veterans. In this episode, our Senior Recruiter, Ljubica Garic, sits down with Hernan Lopez, an indie games designer with over 15 years of experience, co-founder of Epic Llama, based in Argentina.
We explore Hernan’s career beginnings in Córdoba and his journey creating first games. We further discuss the nuanced decision-making process of whether to self-publish a game or engage with publishers. Hernan, a networking enthusiast, also shares his insights on effective networking practices in the gaming industry.
His advice is particularly beneficial for indie pros and those aspiring to make their mark in the industry. Dive in as we unravel these insightful narratives and more.
Ljubica Garic, Senior Recruiter at 8Bit
Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Gamedev Insights. I’m very happy to host Hernan Lopez today, game developer with more than 15 years of experience in the games industry and a guy with over 60 games under his belt. Hernan is also the co-founder of Epic Llama, a multi-award winning company. And besides being a great game developer, he’s also a speaker, a Casual Connect ambassador in the Latin America and a part of the Argentinian Video Game Developer Association, and in his own words, a terrible magician.
Hernan Lopez, Game Designer and Co-Founder of Epic Llama
Thanks a lot for inviting me to talk about video games. I really appreciate talking about video games because that’s what we do all the time. It’s always fun to talk about.
Finding a Path in Gaming: From Childhood Creativity to an Indie Games Studio
Hernan, who or what actually inspired you to become a game developer?
I really love playing. I think everyone has the same thing – we all love playing video games, a lot. And at the beginning, I didn’t even dream about making video games because I believed that to make video games, you have to live in Japan or in the States. I’m from the 84, so we played Famicom games or NES games and when you finished those, you saw all that Japanese characters all over the place. So it wasn’t something that you even dreamt about.
Then I realized that a game company came to Córdoba, which is my city. And I thought: Hey, maybe I have a chance to start making games here. So I tried to join them and that was the thing that got me into gaming.
So you love video games, but is there any moment that you really solidified your decision to become a game developer? Like, was it a game or a talk or a game company coming to Córdoba? What actually set you into that path?
When I was when I was a kid, I did “games” in paper. We cut the characters and put it with a little string and move it in a cardboard screen and my brother would move the enemies. But also, they didn’t let us play that much at home. We had to get good grades to be able to play one or two hours in the weekend and that became like a positive reinforcement for us, the games. We loved it.
I also think Warcraft III Editor or Age of Empire II World Editor or even Duke Nukem Editor, that was really, really obscure thing to use. We were the guys from the neighborhood, doing levels and showing to the other guys to play or making “our own RTS” made in MS Paint with paint brush, like we do the units and then you can move it with the crop feature. And it was all made up because it wasn’t a video game, it was just an image. But that kind of stuff was like the first things that we did that led to that passion to making games. I think it was always there.
And you mentioned that once this game company actually opened their offices in Córdoba that assured you to actually join the games industry? Can you tell us more about that because I’m not sure what the games ecosystem looked like in Argentina while you were growing up and how it looks like now, how it evolved.
That company was Gameloft. Gameloft was in Córdoba in 2004 or something like that. At that time I was working in a call center like “what’s the problem with your cell phone, whatever, let’s try to fix it” – it never worked, I was never able to fix anything, but I worked there. Then I read in the news that this game company was here. They weren’t many, the gaming industry in Argentina at that point was just located in Buenos Aires and it was really, really small, we had some games, but it didn’t had any coverage.
And I think that in a lot of places that’s still happening, people don’t know that there is a local game industry in their city, in their country. And I think even here in Argentina people don’t know that they are making the great games and they could join the game industry, but they don’t have any idea that they could in fact do it. I never dreamt to be a game developer because I didn’t know that I could have that dream. It was like me being an astronaut. And also all those weird pre-concept that you have that to be a developer, you have to know programming and you have to know all kind of stuff.
So when I saw that Gameloft was here, I was like, “huh, okay, cool. I will send them my curriculum and they will hire me for sure because I love video games and I know a lot of video games”. And then there is a really shitty, if I may say so, one pager that I sent them. And they rejected me. And they did very well to reject me because it was really poorly made curriculum. It was like, “Yeah, I love video games and I know a lingo, like armor and HP, an MP, and I know all these games”.
It was all from the game player perspective.
Embracing the Now-Extinct Flash: Hernan’s Early Game Development Journey
I would try to do a game to show them that I can do stuff. I knew how to use Flash at that point, you know poor lovely Flash that died that it’s still in the hearts. So I tried to do something there, I saw some tutorials and I learned a bit of C++ from a book and the game that that made. It was just a lot of go to and stop, go to and play. And characters that you shoot, what you are doing is just clicking buttons and killing the things by clicking them.
Eventually I discovered other Flash games and I realized that there are other that were of really good quality. And I was thinking like, wow. At that point, I believe that Flash games were free and were made just by fans, but then I realized they have a lot of links and sponsors, and I was like: this is maybe taking money from someplace?
And I stumbled upon FlashGameLicense.com, that was a page that what used to sell Flash games. There were testimonials of people: “yeah, I sold my flash game through here, I sold it for X money”. I thought “Oh cool, let’s try to do this”.
So I made my account. I quit my job at the call center, to be full time making games to sell on FlashGameLicense.com With the money I was saving I bought a new computer to be able to make games – and it worked.
After two and a half months, I sold the license. That time you receive a paycheck, a physical paycheck, it was super cool.
And then Gameloft closed it Córdoba. Finally, I never tried to send them any game.
That’s an amazing start.
I have made a lot of games because at that point the developer cycle of Flash game was super sharp. There were games quick to make and sell, I think the one that we sold fastest was a dress up game. You know those games where there was fashion pony and you change clothes of the pony, you just a drag and drop every piece of clothes. It took me like a day and a half to put together. And I sold it for like $500, that for me was a lot of money.
You really, Hernan, took a leap of faith. You jump straight into the deep end of the pool, like leaving your job, spending your savings on a computer. It takes like a lot of confidence and faith in what you are facing, what you’re doing. Congrats on that.
It was what I wanted. I didn’t have a career, I never wanted to have a career at a call center. So I saw an opportunity and I tried to take it. I mean, it was like: okay, I can do this. Let’s try to go for it!
From Flash’s Sunset to Unity’s Dawn: Navigating the Transition
Cool and how about moving from Flash games to PC games, how did this transition actually happened?
It was because Flash died, but we knew that Flash was going to die before it happened. Also, I started like a solo dev. But I had the same friends that I had when I was a kid, that we made childhood games together, they were all from the neighborhood. And I told them: come, let’s make games. This is giving me money. We can live from it. We started a team. It was still a small team, three of us, but it was bigger than just one guy! And then we started making games together and those games got bigger and bigger and a bit bigger.
We saw that the Flash market was starting to stumble. It wasn’t like we decided “Let’s go with Unity, because we know that Unity is the future”, because at that point, Unity was another game engine out there. I remember they paid you $150 if you made any games on Unity. The Unity company paid you just so they have more games there.
There were a lot of other engine companies. But then we realized that publishers start to adopt the Unity engine. They were like “okay, you want to do game for PC? Don’t do it in Flash. Let’s do it in Unity. Because it’s easy for porting games”.
So at that point, when we did the definitive transition, I think we did a mobile game that was part of Unity. And then we were pitching Darkestville Castle, that was our first point and click big game. We were looking for publishers, they were like, “okay, so you are making this game in Flash, we can pay for the development of this game, but please port it to Unity. Tell me how much it costs to do the porting, you do the porting and everything is going to be fine”.
And we did that.
I highly recommend to any new developer, do not try new fancy, good sounding engines or technologies in general. Because maybe you adopt Silverlight that was also one of those engines that were going around and it died or you don’t find an audience you tried to go with.
What really did work for us is going for the mainstream, and then they’re going to ask you “please do it within what is supposed to be the right engine for it”.
Harnessing Friendship: The Power and Pitfalls of a Budding Game Studio
I’d like to go back to this starting your game studio. You inviting your friends to join you. How challenging was it like for you? As a game designer and solo developer to now transition into this role of a person who’s running the studio?
At the beginning, we were super passionate about making games. We were really young, 20-something. And we were taking turns to use the same computer to make games, as we didn’t have even two computers in the studio. When one was programing, the other was sleeping in the floor.
Hernan, this is such a good origin story, you know? Like every multibillionaires, who started from their own garage.
I’m just not the multibillionaire, YET.
And at that time, we were extremely full of energy and trying to make games. With the passing of time you cannot keep that level of intensity through the rest of the years. Then you have to start making a shape of an actual studio or more of an actual development team, not just guys full of energy.
I think the hardest part is to try to keep the roles on the game studio and the level of friendship at the same time. Since you’re friends, it’s not like you are only business partners. It’s like a gray area where you sometimes cannot stop talking about work and maybe other people are not interested on the project as you are.
So you go to your friends reunion and you just keep talking about work, work, work. You just annoy the hell of everyone because you’re just talking about the projects. And people just want the weekend! They went to relax.
For that reason I think that is somehow troublesome to start working with your friends.
But you know what I think is even more troublesome? If you are starting a studio and NOT start with your friends.
At the beginning you don’t have much money.
Lots of students sometimes when I go to lecture they asked me: I don’t have any money, where can I start? Well, maybe you have a team from college, who are also studying video games. Maybe you start with them. It’s really easy to start with friends, also friends are like glue on those moments of having problems with projects and struggling.
And I think making games is all a big struggle until the game is released. Then you struggle more and then you forget about the project. But it’s all about doing stuff and it’s always something that it’s not working quite as you like and friendship is super cool to keep the team together.
Choosing Independence: Why Hernan Always Opted for Indie Games
And Hernan, you know, like, you’ve been doing this for more than 15 years. Being the indie games developer has its pros, has its cons. But what has actually kept you in your line of work, being independent? Why didn’t you ever decide to join a big company?
Well, in the first place, no one wanted to hire me. No, I’m joking. But the thing is, I really love having like creative freedom. With this comes a lot of cool things and a lot of things you have to deal with.
You are the master of your own ship. You are also you are the master of your success, but also of your failure.
And you don’t have like a net. You don’t have a steady paycheck that you will have if you are in a big company, that thing is the downside. On the plus side, you do the games you want to do, you do it at your own pace. You can try to do alliance with with other studios as you please. That is what keeps me away from joining other company.
I think also it’s an ego or maybe a pride thing, like “I will do my own company and I’m going to do the best games, I’m not going to join you, stupid big ship. I’m going to make my really shitty game, but it’s going to be a damn good shitty game”.
Joining a company is super cool because that’s where you see a lot of lovely products, big games. Sometimes you are like, “Oh man, I wish I could use that IP. I would love to join this company to be able to mess with that IP and to use it as a lab because I love that theme or that project. I would love to join for a bit, just to check on that project, and then disappear”.
But then, I love to do my stuff and I love the games that we are making now. That’s what keeps me making indie games.
You’ve mentioned that you are making games that you like. I was wondering, when deciding on what project to do next, do you just like rely on your feeling, “I’d like to play platformer games and this is what I want to make” or do you do any type of market research?
How do you decide what your next project is going is going to be?
That’s a great and fair question. I just state I love to make games that I want, and it sounds like I’m just a crazy dude, that is like, “Oh, okay, let’s do that, whatever”. And the thing is, and I think that happens to everyone, everyone would love to make a lot of different games. A lot of them!
Everyone loves a lot of game genres and will love to put their dirty hands in the different games. And what you do as a game designer is not that you just do whatever you please, it’s like you see first the resources that are available to you.
With whom are you willing to work? How much money do you have to spend on making a prototype or a full game or a vertical slice or whatever? Who can you hire to do that?
And also, what is working? For other companies and in the market.
That could be a game that people will love to play. Say I’d like to do another point and click. Okay, we have that experience. What players think about it? What are the new point and clicks that are coming soon, do I have the resources to do that? Well, we already made a point and click game, so for sure we can do that again, and we will like to change the artistic direction.
I can hire, let’s say, a pixel artist that is good to make this.
And of course you have to have a passion to do it. As I stated before, you are always struggling when you’re making a game.
This it’s not like drawing or you’re like, start drawing, 5 minutes – you have a figure or something that looks beautiful and then you start adding colors and more lines, some background and then everything looks good, good, good.
With making games it looks like shit all the time. It looks clunky and doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t have music. And the art is bad because it’s not there, it’s just programmer art. And then the art comes. But these are just hard art in some places and in some places don’t, so it looks ugly.
And two months before releasing it, you have a game that looks good and then polishing hits the road so that two months become rather six more months of polishing, polishing, polishing, and then the game is released and you… are not satisfied.
You’re never satisfied when the game comes because there’s always something you’d like to add. That’s why you have to have a passion for it or it’s going to be awful. You don’t want to be stuck with the game you don’t like for two years or so.
Also you have to sell the game to the rest of the team, because they don’t want to be stuck with something they didn’t believe in.
I think that you have to balance your desires with the market desires and with the things that you can do because you have that time, that money and that resources available and then you like, okay, let’s do this. And maybe it’s a great decision, maybe it’s a terrible decision. But that’s the decision you make when making a game.
Embracing the process of making indie games
So yeah, it’s not that easy to make games, but it’s not impossible – if you have the passion and you want to do it, do it. Do games. The only way to learn and the only way to reach to a goal, whatever goal you have is to do stuff. You have to do that thing that it’s going to look awful until it looks good.
But just keep your goal in mind and just go like a bull to there. You know, I go through that struggle and try to reach the goal by just sheer stubbornness, let’s say that.
Awesome. Hernan, speaking on the topic of finding publishers and actually acquiring budget for development. What strategies or methods have you found actually effective for finding these potential publishers for your games? Are there any platforms or events or ways of finding these people, that could actually help your bring your game to life?
Yeah, kidnapping a relative of one of the publishers is a good idea to get money.
No, joke, the thing is to find a publisher. I think the first thing that you have to do, if you try to find a publisher, is to look for games that are similar to yours. Not the games do you want to beat, but really similar to what you do. Check what companies publish those games. Then with your demo and with a lovely pitch deck, you just spam their email folder with your game. I mean, don’t spam, but just send an email:
“We’re X company, we’re doing this game and I think it will fit your portfolio” and you send those emails to everyone. Then you ask the developer friends you have (it’s always good to have a network of other developers that you can talk to and rely on).
The value of network in the indie games business
The indie games industry, and game industry in general has a lot of super cool people that you want to hug and kiss all the time because these people love the same things that you love. And they can help you. They can point you to the right people like ‘you know what? I know that this guy was published by these dudes and they were looking for something new like your game’.
Also what’s super important is when you have a demo or a trailer, you show your game to everyone. To freaking everyone. You spam your game, you put it in front of everyone, you share it in social media. If you can go to a game industry event, you go there and you show your game to everyone to have feedback on.
Put your game on the LinkedIn. You find publishers through LinkedIn, they approach you like ‘Oh well you have something that looks like the things that we are looking for’ – and then develop.
And go to events and enjoy the parties. Go to the parties, one of the most important things about networking events are the parties.
Go there, make friends, have fun.
Finding a perfect publisher in gaming industry
So when you are getting offers from publishers, how do you actually do evaluation of those offers? Can you point us to any green flags or red flags when it comes to dealing with publishers?
Yeah. The first red flag is that no one knows the publisher. It’s these new publishers that no one ever read about. And the guy who’s talking to you comes from a marketing company that, you check and it’s just a made up thing. You’re going to find that kind of stuff. It’s not the most common but you are going to find this kind of like.
Such publishers are not really offering anything, like, ‘Oh yeah, we will publish your game’, ‘But what you actually bring to the table?’, ‘We will publish the game’. Well, I can press the ‘publish’ button on Steam myself, but why should I go with you? That’s the first red flag.
I’m not saying that new stuff is by default bad, but if the people behind it don’t have any track record, just run away from it. And if they are not committing with any kind of upfront payment or covering the development of the game, also run the hell out from there because they are not offering you anything.
Something that is always, at least for me, appreciated is when the publisher will take risks like paying for the development of the game or put in money upfront for the sale of the game in the future. So they also believe in the game and that also means that they are going to work to recover that money that they already paid for.
So, a publisher’s track record matters, especially if they’ve published games similar to yours. That would be ideal, right?
The more track record the publisher has, the better, the more games they published before looks like yours, the better. If the games look even better, much power to you. Of course always ask your friends, especially those who worked with the publisher. Learn if eg. ‘they did everything by the book, but in the end, they didn’t help us with the marketing’ or ‘they were trying to change creative things too much’. Or maybe the other way round. ‘That was the best experience. Go with these guys. They are great’. I always ask all the developers who I know.
Can you share any lessons you’ve learned along the way when it comes to negotiating these contracts? Negotiating the budgets and the overall cooperation with the publisher? More than once we have heard the stories of publishers backing out or limiting your creative freedom or pushing the dates earlier than it was agreed on.
I’m not sure if I can give you a good info on that, because I think that every contract is like a world. Try to approach a publisher that you know, that you hear is kind of more flexible than not, because things happen. At some point some weird stuff is going to happen. We had COVID like three years ago and that changed the way we were working on stuff. It can happen again in the form of other things that you don’t expect, that change the way your team works and if you’re working with someone that is too strict, it can be a trouble.
Scheduling a game development project
Expect the unexpected when making your schedule. Always have extra time for things that can go wrong because the things are going to be wrong. The problem is sometimes that we developers are too optimistic. Add time to problems because there are going to be problems at some point and don’t go just “I’m on it”. Don’t sign things that you don’t agree with.
Talk about it and and try to negotiate those points that you do not like. Publishers sometimes add some points for their own business security. A lot of developers just leave the industry in the middle of the development cycle and they don’t feel like making this anymore, or they want to change stuff too much and they change deadlines a crazy amount of times.
Publishers are afraid of that. That’s why they add a lot of stuff to prevent that kind of behavior. As developers, we want to write retained rights of what you can change in the future or make a new IP so you can keep the creative rights. Talk about this. Publishers usually are cool people. I mean, they want to make money with your game, but they are also risking something. Talk with them and you’re going to find a middle ground.
Pros and cons of self-publishing
You mentioned that you yourself can press the publish button on Steam. So why not self-publish?
Publisher has good things. I mean, and the bad things like, okay, they take a share of your profit. Why don’t you keep all that profit yourself?
I think that is something valid to do when you are more experienced, but you may say, ‘okay, you are 50 years old, I guess you are experienced already’? The thing is, I’m not experienced at all in marketing. I don’t know anything about marketing a game.
I don’t know where to put my money on to have the game looked by other people. Of course I can learn about it, but learning about it will consume my time of making games.
These companies exist with the sole purpose of making the games reach people. On the other hand, they take risk from you to them. Because again, a lot of things can go right and a lot of things can go wrong. So the less risk you have, the better. These companies take all the risk of the development backfire. Let’s say you didn’t make a penny out of the game. You’re not going to be bankrupt with the debt for paying all the salaries to all the people.
Also, they can help you with things. They can help you with the vision. All those things you can do yourself, but again, it’s going to take time for the next game. Let’s say it doesn’t take time from this game that you’re making. It’s going to take time from the next game you’re making. That’s why I highly recommend to work with a publisher.
I know a lot of super successful developers that self-published, but I also know a lot more of unsuccessful developers that self-published and that took them out of the game industry because it was too much risk. Our industry is hit based. You’re going to do a miss, miss, miss, hit – and the hit is going to cover all the mistakes that you made in the past. But the thing is, if you cannot cover your fairs to misses, then you’re not going to reach that hit ever.
Indie games events – networking pro tips
Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. Hernan. You’ve spoken about the importance of showing your games and going to conferences and networking to show your games. So how do you actually like prepare for a conference? I often go to conferences which have the indie games expo, you run into developers who don’t know how to present their game to the audience or how to talk to the players, let alone speak with publishers. How do you make the best out of visiting a conference?
Okay, first thing. Have a good sleep before the conferences because conferences are a wild beast. Once it starts, you’re going to be on the high energy levels of doing stuff until it’s finished. But you are not going to sleep well. You’re going to go to bed late and wake up early and you’re going to be talking with people all the time.
If you are feeling down, it’s going to be a waste of a lot of opportunities.
Also, usually game events have lectures and if you are not in a position of learning, because you are showing stuff, don’t go to lectures unless there’s something super specific that you want to talk with the guy at the end of it. Don’t spend your time on things that you can see on video later.
Use that time. Make friends, check for feedback, talk with publishers. If you are going to all the lectures, you’re not showing your game, you’re not making new friends that can help you in the future or can help you right there. And you are not meeting partners that can help you publish. Also, don’t lose time on meaningless talks.
Wow, that’s interesting. What do you mean by that?
Like for instance, when you are in a conference, a lot of ad guys that have no idea about the games industry because it is the first conference, they are going to talk with you or try to schedule a meeting with you to sell ad services that have nothing to do with your game. And if you are polite, you waste your time. Talk specifically with the people you have to. Do your research, check who is attending the conference. They always have a page with all the guests, check it by publishers. ‘Okay, this is a publisher. They publish mobile games about kitties, my game is not a mobile. Not about kitties. Skip that guy and you go on.
Until you find a few publishers that align with what you are offering, and you try to schedule a meeting with them. You prepare a pitch, you do your pitch, you listen what they are looking for. You listen what they are, they have to say it to you. Just pitching is also like conversation.
The art of networking and embracing feedback
It’s also good to listen to feedback there, but it’s more important to do networking. If you are just one developer wandering around, don’t be afraid to leave your game alone and your business cards there with your contact info. Go hunt for contacts to show your game, don’t keep yourself guarding your game. Waiting like a spider to a fly to come. It’s not going to happen.
From time to time go check if someone is playing your game or something happening in your booth, but then go hunting.
If you are at a conference that is just for the public, not business to business, then yes. Stay in your booth and with your game. Let people play and then you ask for feedback. But when you ask for feedback, you take notes and you shut your mouth. I see a lot of devs, who refute what the other people that just played their game are telling them. And that’s terrible because they are giving you feedback, they are telling you honestly what they think. Even if they are saying something that you don’t agree with and it’s outrageous to you, and you hate what they’re telling you, you shut your mouth. You take the feedback. You let them go. And then you see if you see a pattern.
Becoming a speaker at gaming events
Do you find speaking at events more helpful, for your games, for your business than just having a stand or exhibiting your game?
Absolutely. It’s something that I really love. You want to be known. If you are known, people can refer to you. And the more friends you make, the more it helps you to whatever thing you want to do in life or in whatever career you have, it’s always better to be known than to not be known, you can be invited to new conferences and that invitation already means a lot. These are new opportunities. I was giving a lecture in China. Without it, I would never go to a conference in China because this is exactly the opposite side of the world from my city, I checked that with an app. If you have this passion, do it.
There are a lot of people that cannot stand to be on stage and they are like frozen. But if you don’t freeze, it’s something that you can train like everything in life. You have to talk, you have to know how to talk to other people and I know developers who know how to talk to other people.
Soft skills are super necessary. Talking on stage is a great way to practice your soft skills, but maybe for some people it’s pushing a lot to be on a stage, doing magic tricks and talking about your game. But but yeah, it’s super, super useful to be on stage.
Making a game does not end up there
Yeah, I think one of the biggest things that people who aren’t in the game industry and maybe even people who are just getting into the industry don’t understand is that it’s not enough just to make a game. You have to market the game. You have to network. You have to get out there and push it.
You don’t design games, you make games. That’s something that I learned in a hard way. I spent like seven years studying video games. I have like 1 diploma, 2 diplomas, 3 diplomas, 4 diplomas. But that doesn’t make any difference. I you are a game designer and you don’t know how to code and you don’t know how to make art and you don’t know how to design sound, it’s ok. But you have to make a game. And in order to make a game, you have to learn how to make a game. And to learn how to make a game, you can learn a lot on YouTube or in a podcast like this one.
So you don’t need to go to a university to make a video game. And if like they are looking for developers, they are not looking for a game designer that is a good game designer in theory, they are looking for people that can make stuff, that can make games.
If you want to be a video game developer, go and make games. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. Just go and make a game and put it out there and people will play it and they will tell you what they think about it. That’s the only way you can learn to make better games and better games and better games. You will fail a lot. You will make a lot of bad games and people will tell you that you make bad games. And that’s ok because it’s the only way to learn.
I think that’s a really great place to end. Thank you so much for joining us today, Hernan. I think you’ve provided a lot of really valuable insight and advice. And it was great to hear about your experiences in the game industry. So thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.