Greetings, Reddit!

A decade ago, I was bored out of my mind at my programming job and decided to make games. Then I failed a whole bunch.

Eventually, I made Airships: Conquer the Skies, a game about building steampunk vehicles from modules and using them to fight against each other, giant sky squid, weird robots, and whatever else I felt like putting in. It's inspired by Cortex Command, Master of Orion, Dwarf Fortress, and the webcomic Girl Genius.

That game has just passed 100k copies sold, so I guess I'm successful now?

Maany people want to become game developers and the solo developer working in their garage is part of the mythology of games, so I want to give you an honest accounting of how I got here.


Update: I think that's most questions answered, but I will keep checking for new ones for a while. If you like, you can follow me on Twitter, though note I write about a lot of different things including politics, and you can also check out a bunch of smaller/jam/experimental games I made here:

Comments: 620 • Responses: 60  • Date: 

Oryzaki480 karma

Do you ever worry that you will die in some unfortunate way leaving the game forever in its current state?

zarkonnen1254 karma

Yes! I actually would like to set up some kind of time-delayed licence that specifies that the game goes into the public domain in 20 years' time, or 20 years after my death. You know, the way copyright used to work.

Our age of perpetual copyright is a massive theft from our shared culture forced on us by giant corporations who aim to own everything. I want no part of it.

flexwolf397 karma

How much money did you make?

zarkonnen771 karma

Enough to live on, not enough to get rich. Which is already far more than I expected!

OktoGamer180 karma

What feature are you most proud of?

zarkonnen378 karma

It's kind of hard to choose! Here's some features I'm proud of:

  • There's a combat replay system that lets you re-enter the combat at any point so you can try out something else.
  • Multiplayer: Did you know that multiplayer is really hard? I'm proud of still having my sanity.
  • Upcoming feature: Automatic naming of sea features such as bays and narrows.
  • Physically based tentacle animation system, yeah!

Niarbeht181 karma

Physically based tentacle animation system

Japan would like to know your location.

WhyBuyMe52 karma

Releasing that system in Japan might cause some lifestyle issues. Like needing to find land on which to build a giant Scrooge McDuck style vault to keep all the money he would make.

zarkonnen13 karma

It actually has Japanese localization and sells fairly well there.

1420pat179 karma

Also any tips on how to force my friends to buy your game?

zarkonnen250 karma

Threaten to feed them to the sky kraken.

moebiusdev133 karma

I heard that you use Java for Airships: Conquer the Skies: isn‘t that a rather unusual choice for a game (not judging, just seriously curious)?

zarkonnen269 karma

Absolutely. If you're starting a game now, I would not suggest you use Java, unless you're very sure that's what you want to use. It's increasingly hard to make sure that Java-based games actually work on everyone's computer.

But back seven years ago, it was a perfectly reasonable choice. Remember that Minecraft, which is only a few years older, was also written in Java. And we didn't yet have such a wealth of high-quality game engines as we do now. Unity was still fairly primitive, Unreal cost a lot of money, Godot didn't exist yet.

And lots of games are now written in C# in Unity, and C# is, well, it was Microsoft's Java clone originally. So the languages are pretty similar. I will likely use Unity for my next major project.

Marsmann3xy96 karma

I just want to thank you for this wonderful game! I saw it during the swiss game sale on Steam and it seemed pretty nice so I bought it. I already have 52 hours in it and most of my friends bought it aswell after I showed it to them.

Is it also planned that "normal" Ships (in water) are being added? In my opinion it would be awesome although im not sure how they would be best implemented since there are waterpaths for landships. (Maybe if they have to be transported via ship? Because then you could also intercept those convoys with maybe submarines or something.)

(sorry for my awful english) Grüße von Österreich!

zarkonnen93 karma

I may create an expansion for the game that introduces normal splishy-splashy ships and submarines - but first I want to finish my planned work relating to diplomacy and multiplayer conquest!

Mjeno80 karma

Hey! Came here from your Twitter announcement. As an indie dev myself, I wonder about a few things:

  • How did the many, many features of your game come about? I was very surprised to discover the whole strategy gameplay aspect and I wondered whether the game had always been planned like that or if you kept piling things on during development as that tends to happen. :D
  • How much money and effort did you put into marketing and do you see much value in it all? I have a feeling that a game's quality is by far the most important factor when it comes to sales.
  • Any other numbers you could share? I'm trying to build an understanding of how follows, wishlists, reviews etc. on Steam relate to sales.

Thanks a lot, congrats on the milestone and best of luck with your games!

zarkonnen107 karma

It was absolutely a case of piling things on during development. I find it hard to resist the lure of a cool idea. Looking back, a more streamlined game design would arguably have been better, shaving off a few years of development or allowing me to focus on making the features really high-quality. But it's also hard to say which features I could have left out, and which are part of the game's charm.

Landships, detailed crew, conquest mode, multiplayer, missions, heraldry, monsters, all those things took time, but without them the game would be a bit bland.

I've put in a fair amount of money and effort into marketing. Having a stand at gamescom one year cost about 6000 euros, for example. But it's very hard to quantify which parts of it were worth it. On the other hand, given just how many games come out on Steam every day now, I don't think "if you build it, they will come" is a viable strategy either.

Wishlists are currently considered to be the Magic Way to get lots of sales on Steam, and they're definitely helpful. Airships had accumulated a lot of wishlists when it exited early access and that definitely helped produce a very large spike of sales.

As for reviews, it's not clear how much they influence people's behaviour or Steam's algorithm, but you do definitely want to stay in the "positive" end of the scale.

If you want even more in-depth numbers, feel free to hit me up on Twitter later.

Rsloth48 karma

How did you market the game and how do you continue to get sales after release?

zarkonnen132 karma

The marketing process has honestly been very hit-and-miss and luck-based. What probably helped the most was the game being played a lot on a number of YouTube channels such as Stuff+, Lathrix, and EnterElysium.

I've tried a variety of other things such as going to shows like Gamescom and PAX, writing to press, yelling about things on Twitter, and, obviously, this AMA. The success of those is harder to quantify.

When it comes to getting sales after release, what helps is continuing to fix and update the game and having a strong community and modders.

thyhog_46 karma

will there ever be support ships? (i.e: resupply, healing, transport, etc)

zarkonnen47 karma

Probably not. I've thought about how to do them but I think there would be a lot of problems with balancing and micromanagement.

LollyGriff39 karma

What were some of your failed game attempts? Cheers to you!

zarkonnen73 karma

Oh wow, so I spent about four years working on science fiction RPG that was originally meant to be a clone of Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. I never managed to quite get the game design working, and eventually slunk away from working on it when Airships ended up getting way more traction.

That said, if you want to play it, I did release the half-finished version here:

Apart from that, I've worked on any number of abortive prototypes. :D

karma_dumpster25 karma

Was it a science based MMO with dragons?

zarkonnen18 karma

I unfortunately understand that reference.

1420pat29 karma

Is there gonna be another AMA for 200 k sold copies?

zarkonnen85 karma

Yes, but instead of Reddit, it will happen in a strange collective nightmare of hooded figures floating over a lake in the deep woods.

Dredly13 karma

sooo... /r/hoodedfigures ?

I have no idea if that is an actual sub or not

cBurger4Life5 karma

Holy shit, OP made it a sub. That's fucking hilarious

zarkonnen5 karma

Join it. I will totally think of a daft/spooky use for it. And add some custom styling.

Salbee27 karma

What was your prior programming experience?

zarkonnen53 karma

I started doing programming by abusing the scripting system in FileMaker Pro, an old Mac database program. Eventually, I made some small games using REALbasic, before going to university to study computer science.

After uni, I spent a few years doing web and GUI programming in Java. So I had programming experience, but no game industry experience.

sparta98126 karma

Big fan of it! I love the boarding mechanics. Favorite game dev story?

zarkonnen91 karma

I once introduced a bug where if a tree was cut in half, the crown of the tree would stay in place but the entire ground would fall away. Yes, exactly like in this Pink Panther scene.

Sir_Orang22 karma

Diplomacy update when?

zarkonnen53 karma

In the future.

Chemical_Kick21 karma

How’s your day been ? I hope well

zarkonnen41 karma

We watched The Old Guard last night, which was great. We did drink rather too much wine, so today has been something of a hangover day, oops. I did manage to clean the kitchen, enjoy the rain, and play some Civ 6.

NewAgeOfPower18 karma

How long do you see yourself working on Airships? What is your next planned project, or are you planning on taking a break?

Do you need bribes paypal/patreon funding injections?

zarkonnen40 karma

I keep thinking the game is nearly done and then it isn't, so by induction, forever.

But seriously, I'm working on one last big update and then I will declare it complete. After that, I might create expansions, or start work on a whole new game project I've already planned.

And of course I'll take a break before I do any of that!

BillyBoy35717 karma

Hello,I've always wanted to become a video game designer. But my parents don't think that it's a viable career option, I've heard and read a lot about how low the success rates are in the gaming industry. I do realise that you are an indie developer. But could you please share any information about it (Any small piece of information is greatly appreciated)?

zarkonnen47 karma

I'm going to copy in a longer response I gave in an interview recently:

The reality is that most indie games don't get anywhere near breaking even. And Airships is one game, one data point. Some luck was definitely involved in its success. My next project might fail. So I'm not a good reference point.

The big question you should ask yourself is: What do you want? (Accidental B5 reference, oops.)

If you want to make games for the joy of making games, consider doing it as a hobby rather than as a job. Making things you enjoy into your job can destroy your enjoyment. Creating hobby games gives you maximum creative freedom.

If you want to be part of the game industry but don't mind about creative control so much, working in a game studio gives you a chance at a regular paycheck - though beware of predatory third-rate game schools and studios squeezing you dry with overwork for little pay.

Finally, if you want to create your own games *and* make money doing it, you have to think about what you can make that people want. That doesn't mean forcing yourself to create some over-commercialised thing with in-app purchases, but it does mean that you have to verify as quickly and effectively as possible whether your game project has any traction. Rebecca Cordingley's article about "Marketing-first Game Development" is a good starting point."

flvoid12 karma

Hey! Congratulations on the milestone. Working on a game myself as a hobby project, and currently hitting the roadblock of art assets. How much of the art/design did you do yourself and did you find it hard to balance between making better looking assets vs. adding more in-game features?

zarkonnen26 karma

I did most of the art myself, with the exception of the splash/character art. Recently, I've also accepted some player contributions of improved and additional pixel art.

The main thing is that having a strong, consistent visual style is way more important than some specific standard of quality. You can't compete with AAA games anyway - and limitations can breed creativity.

Driver29009 karma

How hard was it to get your game on steam? Did they have any quality requirements?

zarkonnen32 karma

This was in the ancient times of Greenlight, where Valve had this system where you made a public profile of your game and users could vote on it. Only, in practice, they stopped letting anyone in for something like a solid year before suddenly dropping the bar massively, at which point the game was accepted into Steam.

Nowadays, the system is called Steam Direct and you just give them a hundred dollars.

FaustusC9 karma

Do you like memes?

Also, the game seems cool. I'm surprised it hasn't gotten more attention. What's the criticism that's upset you the most about your game? Any review or comment that just bugged the shit out of you?

zarkonnen3 karma

Memes are good.

The type of review that really frustrates me are ones which are really tech support requests, and where people don't reply to my attempts to help them. Let me help you! I want you to enjoy my game!

MylMoosic9 karma

You mentioned Cortex Command - Do you think that concept could be revitalized? I loved that game but it never went anywhere development-wise.

zarkonnen11 karma

Arguably the game you're looking for is Planetoid Pioneers. Or Worms. :)

Sp1Nnx9 karma

Weird animal fact about blob fish?

zarkonnen24 karma

Sad animal fact: it actually doesn't look very blob-like in its natural habitat. It's a deep-sea fish, and the reduction in pressure when it gets hauled up makes it turn into its blob shape.

GimmeTheCHEESENOW8 karma

What are your plans for the future for the game? Do you plan to have massive updates, or small ones?

zarkonnen26 karma

I'm planning one more massive update, the "diplomacy update" mentioned elsewhere in this thread, which will add diplomacy, co-op combat, and more mechanics for conquest mode. It's taking... a long while to make.

After that, I might make some expansions.

fredandlunchbox8 karma

As a dev, I always find asset creation to be the biggest bottle neck. It seems inefficient for me to spend time learning an asset pipeline when my abilities are better suited to systems. How did you handle asset development, and what advice do you have for programmers that want to build games, but aren’t artists?

zarkonnen15 karma

Advice: Figure out a consistent, interesting, legible art style that you can create. Pick a simple color scheme with colours that work together and aren't hypersaturated.

Or team up with an artist, but that team-up has to be a proper partnership. Just like programmers despise it when they're told "we've done all the work, we just need someone to program it", artists aren't fond of "we just need someone to do the art". It has to be a shared creative process.

Or pay an artist, at which point you can call the shots.

Leo_Verto7 karma

Hey, I've really enjoyed your game!

I'd love to know from which direction you started your game? Was the primary drive to build a game about airships or did you start by building your world first?

zarkonnen3 karma

Definitely "build a game about airships". The world-building has come haphazardly, after the fact.

glennromer7 karma

I think every person who has played games has ideas floating around for their dream games they like to play, or maybe even make themselves. As someone who actually did that, what was your initial vision for Airships, and how did it change during the course of development?

zarkonnen14 karma

Conveniently, I actually have a transcript of the conversation where my friend David and I talked about the original idea for the game back in 2012. What I ended up making is actually very similar to what I intended.

cryinguitar6 karma

In your opinion, is there one best strategy in the game? It seems to me that on almost every difficulty I have been able to cheese it with a well defended, high service sealing carrier task force?

zarkonnen9 karma

I try to make it so there isn't a one best strategy in the game. There's a lot of discussion about balance in the discord, and something of an evolving meta. Interestingly, I haven't seen people use your approach, which sounds perfectly valid.

GuyN14255 karma

What coding language did you use? Do you recommend it for making games? Why or why not?

zarkonnen8 karma

The game is written in Java. I would not recommend it now, because Java on the desktop has been neglected for many years.

BenD994 karma

What is your favorite part of the game-making process? And how does it feel to watch someone enjoy your game?

I got your game through a BLM bundle, so I've got a lot of respect for you right off the bat!

zarkonnen5 karma

My favourite part is probably breaking new ground on a cool new feature. That exciting time where new stuff appears in the game, before you have to do all the bug fixing and detailed GUI work and so on.

azlatl4 karma

Congrats on 100k copies, that's huge!

What inspired you to make the game and when was it apparent that it was picking up steam?

zarkonnen5 karma

Probably when Stuff+ did his first video on it on YouTube and it sold a hundred copies in a day.

neongreensniper564 karma

Are you playing to expand the spy and allies system in singleplayer conquest?

zarkonnen4 karma

There will be a full-blown diplomacy system in singleplayer and multiplayer conquest. I'm still trying to figure out how to re-engineer the espionage system to be better.

MoltenHotMagma4 karma

Do you mind sharing what idea you have for your next big project (if you are currently in the works for it)

How long did it take you to develop Airships: Conquer the Skies?

And my last question, What video game do you associate with the word Nostalgia?

zarkonnen11 karma

I'm not quite ready to share my next project, but I can tell you that it again involves horrible things happening to small simulated people.

I started developing Airships in mid-2013, so it's been seven years. Not entirely full-time, though.

Escape Velocity!

Johannes_V3 karma

Coke or pepsi?

zarkonnen11 karma

Coke zero. None of that cane sugar stuff that Rami Ismail drinks.

Air_Admiral3 karma

  1. What inspired you to choose the time period/setting that you did? Any books or movies in particular?

  2. Did you ever consider any other settings for the game?

zarkonnen19 karma

My thought process was roughly this: I originally wanted to make a game about building and fighting with spaceships, but I was disappointed by how stale space battles tended to be. Just two silvery blobs floating next to each other, firing energy beams to reduce shield integrity numbers.

At the time I was reading a lot of Girl Genius, a vaguely steampunk webcomic. So it occurred to me to make a steampunk airship construction and combat game.

If I had infinite time I'd do a spin-off using the same engine that is set in space.

greenlion983 karma

How difficult was it to learn things such as 3D modeling, animation, etc.?

Edit: sprite art* instead of 3D modeling

zarkonnen10 karma

Oh, but you assume I know how to do these things. :D

The game's 2D pixel art, and I actually wrote an entire physics-based tentacle simulation system because I couldn't figure out how to animate them.

zarkonnen6 karma

Pixel art: it was learnable. I basically just practiced. Avoided drawing things with difficult shapes or complicated angles. Traced from photos when needed.

trippy7413 karma

Wow, I remember playing your game a few solid years ago and I can't bring myself to imagine how you managed to wake up for several years and work on the same thing.

How do you cope with long term development?

I've been working on my game for a few months now and I'm already sick and tired of it!

zarkonnen8 karma

I get to wear a lot of different hats developing the game, focusing on graphics, code, storytelling, design, marketing. I think that helps me keep it fresh.

In practice, I tend to (hyper-)focus on one aspect of the game for 2-3 weeks and then switch to something else.

I'm also trying to be better about actually taking breaks, especially with the strange shut-in existence we now have thanks to Covid-19.

KaDokta3 karma

  • Did you have any self-doubts when starting the whole game development endeavour? If yes, how did you manage to deal with it? If not, what kind of god are you?
  • Since you live in Switzerland, how did you deal with the high cost of living when you were still working on your game projects?
  • What advice would you give your younger self that just started game development?

Your game is amazing btw.

zarkonnen4 karma

I had plenty of self-doubt, but I'm also very independent-minded and really wanted to create something by myself rather than working in a software company making user interfaces.

Also, I knew I could probably get another job. At worst, hey, I have a good relationship with my parents and could crash on their couch. Safety nets help. The idea that you can force people into being more productive by putting ever more pressure on them and making their lives ever more precarious is plain wrong and deeply evil.

Cost of living in Switzerland is indeed very high. I supported myself doing freelance software development. Eventually, the game started making money and I basically stopped taking new contracts.

Advice for my younger self: Make small games, finish them.

AbortedSandwich3 karma

We're the sales big on release, steady, or spiked with random events and updates?

zarkonnen8 karma

Very spiky. Sales, updates, YouTube videos tend to produce a lot more sales than the baseline. Which is also why games are *constantly* on sale on Steam.

FiveWheelRick3 karma

How screwed is the codebase after all these years and has it reached the level of eternal regret?

zarkonnen4 karma

Surprisingly, not too bad. I've definitely learned to beware of adding new features that interact with lots of other features, though. You end up with a very non-linear increase in complexity.

rogert23 karma

I'm assuming Airships was built with different tech than you use at your day job.

How much of a stretch was it? What finally caused you to tackle the hard work of learning whatever languages and tools you ended up using to make Airships? Are there things you didn't do because you yourself weren't competent to do them? Did you try to rope any of your colleagues with relevant experience into pitching in? Did you have any success?

zarkonnen4 karma

Actually, I used pretty similar tech. Before I quit my day job, I'd been writing Java, and I also used Java to make the game.

My abilities did definitely shape the game I ended up making. I'm not good at 3D modelling or complex animations, and so it's a 2D pixel art game.

For other things I definitely needed and wasn't good at, such as music, I found people via the Internet, such as Curtis Schweitzer, who created the soundtrack.

SonEf_Adam3 karma

Is programming hard? Does it take a lot of mind power to program? How much free time do you have? Sorry for the lot of questions I want to be a programmer 😅

zarkonnen2 karma

It's kind of hard, it's basically continual logical problem-solving. But I think it's fun.

I have however much free time I can convince myself to take because I'm self-employed. :)

not-at-all-for-porn3 karma

As a big fan of steampunk, and a long-time player of your game, I have to say thank you. I consider steampunk to be a relatively untapped genre, and I'm always excited when a developer can embrace it in a way that doesn't make the theme feel like an afterthought.

What inspired you to make a game with a steampunk setting instead of something more contemporary?

zarkonnen3 karma

Part of it was definitely that it's a relatively underserved genre. As I wrote elsewhere I originally wanted to make a sci-fi ship-building game but steampunk felt more interesting.

MrNorrie3 karma

Did you have a job while working on the game?

If not, how did you support yourself?

If yes, how much time did you spend on working on the game and how did you keep a somewhat healthy work-life balance?

zarkonnen2 karma

I supported myself doing freelance (non-games) software development. I wouldn't say I always have a healthy work-life balance. Watch me spend Saturday night doing an AMA, for example.

MrNorrie2 karma

Thank you for the reply! I’ve always had the dream of developing my own game(s), but I can’t financially just take a couple of years off and the thought of working 16 hours a day for a number of years is... well... not attractive. I suppose it’s the sacrifice that one has to make, though.

zarkonnen4 karma

I didn't do that, though. I worked 50% on reasonably well-paid freelancing work, 50% on my game, and kept my costs low. It's easier when you're double income no kids, no pets, no car, no foreign holidays, etc.

Don't sacrifice your health.

Communist_Crunch2 karma

I know there’s been a few naval questions already about actual boats, but if it was an expansion would it include new monsters?

zarkonnen4 karma

Yes, of course! I love adding new monsters to the game.

rayzjcyb2 karma

Will there be a 3D verson of Airships Conquer the skies?

zarkonnen5 karma

Most likely not. Two reasons:

If the game was 3D, it would lose its "ant farm" aspect, as it would no longer be possible to see inside your constructions. So you'd lose a lot of information and visual interest.

Re-creating all of the many features of the game, but in 3D, would be a huge amount of work, but if I simplified the game too much, it would probably not succeed as a sequel.

Also, I have other projects I'd like to create, one day. :)

haysanatar2 karma

Should Geese be added to the terrorist watch list?

zarkonnen11 karma

Fun history fact: the ancient Spartans ritually declared war on their slaves once a year as a kind of justification for all the awful things they did to them. Given that we eat geese, it would make sense that we declare them terrorists as a similar justification.

Also, goose eggs make great quiche.

StupidCreativity1 karma

How many games did you make before you quit your day job? I see my self today where you were "bored out of my mind at my programming job" I just Finished a a 20hour tutorial in unity and started on a tiny game that I hope to release before 2020 is over. Do you have any tips for where I am?

zarkonnen6 karma

I'd finished exactly one game, back when I was 17. Quitting my day job was not a wise decision. I ended up with a years-long chronic pain condition and having to do whatever freelance programming work I could do to stay afloat.

Making tiny games is the right approach. Create stuff, learn to finish stuff, figure out what you want to make, build an audience.

SatanicOnion1 karma

What did you design the game with? What engine/language, I mean.

I'm currently using Java with LibGDX for cross platform

zarkonnen1 karma


Neat_Petite-1 karma


zarkonnen1 karma

Of course it is, but I hope I'm being interesting and entertaining.