Famous games created by solo developers

 Five Nights at Freddy's, Undertale, Phasmophobia, and more

Creating any game is a laborious process, especially today when technology has stepped far forward and become more complex. Many companies have hundreds of employees, and several studios are working on individual large projects at once. However, there are also games that (at least initially) were created by only one person. Let's talk about them today.

Minecraft (2011)

Minecraft (2011)

One of the most famous and best-selling franchises in the world (on the second point, it is second only to the legendary Tetris). In 2020, the designer was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame, becoming the "youngest" member of the assembly and a neighbor of such hits as Doom, Tomb Raider, and Grand Theft Auto 3. It was also recognized more than once as one of the most important games in the past decade. Minecraft rightfully deserves such honors: every month, hundreds of millions of people launch the sandbox, setting records and building truly monumental masterpieces.

Swedish programmer Markus Persson started making an early prototype of the construction set in his spare time (at that time he was an employee of King, which developed browser games). When his superiors forbade him to create in his spare time, Persson, despite four years of experience, simply changed employers and got a job at jAlbum, a site for creating photo galleries. There he continued experiments (the bosses were not opposed), and eventually mixed together the ideas of Dwarf Fortress, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and Infiniminer (the last two games are also creations of singles). He created a basic version of Minecraft in a week and posted it to the indie developer forum in May 2009.

Markus Persson

At first, the sandbox was free, but then Markus sensibly reasoned that the money would not be superfluous. Funds poured in, but Persson, who grew up in a poor family, was cautious and did not leave jAlbum, even though the income from the game far exceeded his usual salary. In the end, he nevertheless decided to devote all his time to creating Minecraft, and let the money go to the foundation of the Mojang studio, which he registered with two former colleagues.

Along the way, Persson encountered both temptations and challenges. For example, he turned down a lucrative offer from Valve, because he wanted to create his own company, and not work for an existing one. And the PayPal payment system once froze 600 thousand euros in Marcus's account due to suspicion of fraud (perhaps that is why the author subsequently kept part of the money from the sale of the game at home under the bed ).

In the end, Persson got tired of the pressure and criticism and asked on Twitter if anyone would like to buy his stake in Mojang. Several companies immediately responded to the offer, but in the end, the studio and the rights went to Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Everyone benefited: Persson became a billionaire, and Microsoft turned Minecraft into one of the most successful franchises ( a new spin-off was recently announced ).

Plague Inc. (2012)

Plague Inc. (2012)

Briton James Vaughn started developing a pandemic simulator as a hobby in his spare time. Impressed by the film "Contagion", the author wanted to improve and develop the ideas of the browser game Pandemic 2 that he liked, focusing on realism and deep strategy. He worked on the project in the evenings and on weekends (on weekdays, James was engaged in strategic consulting).

Vaughn had no experience in creating games, and no medical education, so he spent a lot of time searching for information on the Internet. The author nevertheless hired three freelancers who helped him with graphics, programming, and music, thanks to which the development took about a year. Vaughn himself wanted to create a fun game that would also draw people's attention to health issues.

James Vaughn

The score justified itself. In a few days, Plague Inc. topped the mobile charts in the UK and America. And this despite the fact that the strategy simply had no advertising - Vaughn spent about $ 5 thousand on development. The efforts of the author were also appreciated by the US Center for Disease Control. Scientists liked the non-standard approach to educating people about the danger of epidemics (the task of gamers in the game is to help bacteria and viruses wipe out the population of the Earth cleanly).

Plague Inc. made James Vaughn a millionaire, but at the same time, the author and the Ndemic Creations studio he created did not forget about the main task - to help cope with epidemics. So, for example, the company raised $76,000 to fight Ebola, and the authors donated another quarter of a million to WHO and the CEPI Foundation to search for a coronavirus vaccine in 2020. Since the launch of Plague Inc. does not get out of the world mobile charts and has long become another notable British game (many gamers even study geography on it).

Flappy Bird (2013)

Flappy Bird (2013)

The history of another game from a single author is not so rosy. Vietnamese Dong Nguyen always thought that popular mobile hits were too overloaded with options, so he decided to make something very simple to operate, but challenging to the gamer (in the spirit of old Nintendo games). Dong did it over the weekend: he was maintaining GPS trackers for taxis, so he had programming experience. Nguyen made Flappy Bird free, hoping to make a couple of hundred dollars a month from in-game ads.

At first, no miracle happened. What James Won feared when creating Plague Inc. happened - the project was lost in the bowels of the App Store (Nguyen also did not promote his product in any way). But 8 months later, in January 2014, Flappy Bird unexpectedly soared to the top of the App Store chart. The popularity of the game is believed to have originated on Reddit, but Dong was also suspected of using thousands of bots to promote it. Be that as it may, news sites and the most popular YouTuber PewDiePie added fuel to the fire, after which the process could no longer be stopped. The author began to receive $ 50 thousand a day on advertising and quickly became a millionaire.

Dong Nguyen

However, happiness was fleeting. Flappy Bird made people addicted, and the players began to accuse the author of all sins and threaten him to the point of reprisal. In addition, the press tried to convict Nguyen of stealing ideas, and he had to hide from the paparazzi with friends so as not to worry his parents. As a result, Dong got tired of all this, and already in early February 2014, the game disappeared from the app stores. Due to the removal, new insults and threats rained down on the author, and some cunning gamers began to offer smartphones with a “deficient” game for fabulous money. The App Store was immediately flooded with dozens of clones ( 60 appeared per day).

Gradually, the wave of popularity of Flappy Bird came to naught, and in August 2014, the modified version was released exclusively on Amazon Fire TV. Dong Nguyen was only too glad for his newfound peace and continued to develop new games.

Papers Please (2013)

Papers Please (2013)

Programmer Lucas Pope has been working on games since the late 90s as part of various studios. He received an important experience when he was accepted into Naughty Dog. Pope did a great job of helping the team complete the development of the first Uncharted and stayed with the studio until the sequel's release. Lucas learned a lot from one of the directors of Uncharted 2 - Bruce Straley, including the intricacies of game design. Before the game's release, Pope and his wife, Keiko (a programmer at 2K Games), began working on an independent project in their spare time. The couple liked the indie development, so they devoted themselves entirely to a new occupation.

After leaving Naughty Dog and 2K, the couple moved from California to Keiko's homeland of Japan. Working on one of the projects required living in Singapore for a year and flying frequently to the United States, at the same time the couple was able to travel cheaply throughout Southeast Asia. During all this time, Pope had seen enough of passport control officers at airports and saw in their profession an idea for a game. And after watching “Operation Argo” and the trilogy about Bourne, the author realized that a project about routine work can also be made action-packed.

At that time, Keiko became pregnant, and Lucas decided to take on a second solo project. I had to hurry: income from independent games could not compensate the couple for their salaries in the studios, so Pope promised his wife that after the birth of his first child he would get a new job. Ironically, the creation of Papers, Please took just nine months, and ... Lucas did not need a new job. The border guard simulator became a hit, collected a bunch of awards, and allowed the author to support his family. The game's success paved the way for Pope's next hit, Return of the Obra Dinn.

Five Nights at Freddy's (2014)

Five Nights at Freddy's (2014)

Creator of one of the most famous horror franchises, Scott Cawthon is a deeply religious man. He began to actively develop games in the early 2000s, all of which were in one way or another devoted to Christianity. Despite good reviews, the projects failed financially. However, Coughton did not give up his occupation, believing that there was God's plan in it. He did not worry about money, because he combined his hobby with ordinary work.

But one day Scott began to wonder if he had wasted a dozen years. The last straw was the reviews for Chipper & Sons Lumber Co. - a family game about lumberjack beavers. Cawthon thought he created some pretty cute characters, but critics called them frightening, soulless, and like animatronic dolls. This drove the author into a depression, and he was ready to completely abandon the development. However, Scott then realized that he could scare gamers even more if he built the game purely around animatronics.

Scott Cawthon

The development took six months, with Cawthon doing everything except the music himself (computer animation lessons at the Art Institute of Houston and experience as a programmer came in handy). The game turned out to be tense and intimidating and became extremely popular among lets players. As a result, she spawned an entire franchise of many sequels and spin-offs, books, comics, and toys (there is also a film in the works), which allows the author to support a large family. Cawthon himself retired in 2021 due to a political scandal and decided to devote time to his children.

Axiom Verge (2015)

Axiom Verge (2015)

Since 2002, Tom Hupp has worked in several studios as a programmer, animator, and artist. He started creating Axiom Verge as a hobby in his spare time in 2010. He wanted to mix ideas from childhood favorite classics, mostly Metroidvania like Metroid, Bionic Commando, Blaster Master, and more.

In 2014, Sony included Axiom Verge in the Pub Fund program, funding the development in exchange for the temporary exclusivity of the game for the PlayStation 4. This allowed Tom to leave his work in the studio and switch completely to the creation of the project. As a result, Axiom Verge came out a year later. Hupp had high hopes for the platformer: at the time, his wife was four months pregnant and his savings were running low. In addition, his beloved dog Max, who was next to Tom all the time of development, fell ill and died.

Tom Hupp

Hupp's expectations were met: the game was well received by both gamers and critics, who recognized it as one of the best in its genre. The author remained immensely grateful to everyone who bought Axiom Verge: the income from sales allowed him not only to support his family but also to take care of his son, who became disabled due to medical negligence (insurance did not cover the cost of treatment). The creation of the sequel took Tom longer - the game was released in 2021, and fans also liked it.

Undertale (2015)

Undertale (2015)

At the age of four, Toby Fox played the Japanese RPG Earthbound (and learned to read thanks to it ). She had a strong influence on the boy. Subsequently, together with three brothers and with the help of the RPG Maker 2000 program, he created his own games. In high school, the young man also took up Earthbound romhacking (in a simple way - modification of cartridges). Already in college, he came up with the first design sketches and ideas for the future Undertale.

While working on the combat system, dialogues, and world, Toby was inspired by a number of games from his childhood, in addition to Earthbound - Super Mario RPG, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Shin Megami Tensei, and the Touhou Project (also created by a single author). According to the plot of Undertale, a child falls into a mysterious dungeon, and on the way to freedom, the player can kill or spare the surrounding monsters. The gamers who tried the demo were so fascinated by the idea that they helped Fox raise $50,000 in the Kickstarter service for further development (the author requested only $5,000).

Toby Fox

Toby took over the programming, scripting, and music of Undertale, with the help of his friend Temmie Chung with the visual style. The whole process lasted about three years, and after the release, the game became extremely popular: it earned a number of nominations and awards, and its rating on the Metacritic aggregator exceeds 90 points out of 100. Japanese gamers especially liked Undertale, who put it in 13th place among the 100 best games of all time (higher than Metal Gear Solid 3, Minecraft, Tetris, Resident Evil, etc.).

The opinion of the author himself about the success of Undertale was divided. On the one hand, being a modest man, Fox was stunned by everyone's attention and notably nervous about it. In addition, he realized that he would no longer be able to create such a popular project. On the other hand, Toby is happy that his creation inspires people as much as he himself was influenced by other solo developer games like Cave Story and Touhou Project as a child. With the creator of the latter, by the way, Fox met personally thanks to the fame of Undertale (as well as with the author of Super Smash Bros.).

Stardew Valley (2016)

Stardew Valley (2016)

When Eric Baron graduated with a degree in computer science in 2011, he had difficulty finding work. Realizing that he needed to learn programming languages ​​and somehow reinforce his resume, the author decided to try his hand at developing small games. One of these small projects was supposed to be a clone of the Harvest Moon series.

Farming simulators were Eric's favorite games as a child, but he felt that after 1999, all the new installments lost the charm of the first installments of the franchise. The Baron intended to improve the Harvest Moon formula by adding successful ideas from other hits - Animal Crossing, Minecraft, Terraria, etc. to it.

Gradually, the scale of the project became larger, and as a result, development lasted almost five years. Eric did not want to release the simulator in early access, believing that instead of an unfinished game, it would be better to offer the finished product to the audience. All of the graphics, animations, music, script, and code for Stardew Valley were single-handedly created by Baron from scratch. If problems arose, he did not ask anyone for help but climbed the Internet for solutions. It is not surprising that for all the time the author remade the game several times.

Eric Baron

We can say that Eric went on a voluntary crunch: he worked 12 hours a day, including weekends, and in the evenings worked as a host at a club at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. At first, such a regime did not bother him at all, because he was passionate about the process. However, over time, the wear and tear began to take its toll on the Baron: he played his game every day for four and a half years and eventually lost any sense of objectivity in relation to it. He ceased to understand whether she was really good (and already began to believe that she was still bad). And in the end, the Baron was simply tired of Stardew Valley. Eric was overcome by doubts about success and the fear that he was wasting his time. The author was afraid that his girlfriend and her parents might also secretly think about him.

However, when the simulator came out, all the efforts paid off in full. The soothing atmosphere and gameplay of the game won over critics, and gamers fell in love with Stardew Valley so much that even those who downloaded it from torrents promised to shell out their money for it.

Thanks to the sales, Baron received over $30 million and went to travel around the United States with a girl and housemates. However, Eric's luxurious life does not attract him: it suited him to be an introvert, and he remained so even after the release of the game. He is already working on new projects with a small team helping him.

Phasmophobia (2020)

Phasmophobia (2020)

Briton Daniel Knight, nicknamed Dknighter, began working on a cooperative ghost hunting horror around the beginning of 2018 (he had no special education in the field of game creation). Nothing is known about the development period itself, except that Knight worked on the project alone. By releasing Phasmophobia in early access, the author did not expect much attention from gamers. Daniel expected that about 500 people would play horror at the start, and this figure will only decrease over time.

Dknighter underestimated the virtues of the game. Support for VR devices, smart voice chat integration (ghosts attack swearers more often), and a low price attracted gamers, and thanks to streamers, the horror movie became even more popular. At its peak, over 112 thousand daredevils played Phasmophobia, and as a result, the horror stayed at the top of Steam sales top for several weeks. Knight had to extend the early access period and hire several people to the team.

Vampire Survivors (2021)

Vampire Survivors (2021)

Italian Luca Galante loved games since childhood and wanted to work in the industry. At home, such an opportunity did not present itself, so in 2010 he decided to move to London and try his luck there. Expectations were not met, and as a result, since 2014, the author has been mainly engaged in programming slot machines in online casinos. In the process, he gained new experience, and around 2020 he again tried to find a job, but, again unsuccessfully.

Then Galante realized that he needed to become more skilled in the art of design and work on a small project that could be played during the Covid-19 pandemic. His goal was to create a simple game with short sessions and automatic attacks, so as not to overburden gamers (he spied on the mobile Magic Survival). Luka also planned to support the project after the release in order to gather a small community around it ( his longing for the times when he was the administrator of the Ultima Online private server affected ).

Luca Galante

The prototype turned out to be a fun copy of Magic Survival, and Galante was about to do something else, but then he remembered the Castlevania-inspired collection of assets that he bought a few years earlier. With the help of resources, the author created pixel graphics and more, and in May 2021 released the game on Android devices. However, it slowed down too much, and Luka chose to abandon it in favor of the browser-based PC version. The developer was not going to take money for the project and posted it for free on the itch.io website. However, there was almost no feedback, and Galante decided that in the early access of the Steam service, the feedback would be much better, in addition, there would be a chance to recoup the £1100 spent on assets.

Vampire Survivors was released in December 2021 and brought together only a dozen gamers. The author realized that there was nothing to hope for, and again began to look for work. However, in January 2022, streamers drew attention to the game, and its popularity snowballed. Ironically, Galante was finally approved of the new location, but he left after only a week to devote full time to the action. Moreover, the author had to hire several freelancers to keep up with the support, since tens of thousands of people play it every month.

Making games alone is hard work. However, it is stories like these that encourage other authors to experiment on their own. Such indie hits can not only glorify and make rich their creator but also be on the list of the best games of a whole generation. New solo projects appear all the time, and Morbid Metal with Midnight Fight Express is proof of that. There are also enough old hits that were developed by a single person - Space Invaders, Prince of Persia, Braid. Do you want to know about their creation? Write in the comments.

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