You’re really bringing out something interesting points here that I think applies to any hobby as much as it does to gamedev. I’ve been struggling with this for a long time (being a student does not help either), this makes me feel more like it alright to just goof around a bit. Very appreciated!
Six Cards Under is now free! (postmortem)
Goodbye, little ghost
With the coming of the new year, I’ve decided to make Six Cards Under free as a farewell to this strange tiny game. In general, I’ve been re-thinking the way I view money and monetization of my hobbies since my first steam release back in November.
So: join me in looking back at this weird little game I hacked together 2 weeks before Halloween!
How did this game even happen?
A project-management jumpscare
Back in September, I was neck-deep in developing a completely different game (my first commercial game on steam). I had been working on that game for about 4 months and was grinding through composing music, implementing boss battles, ending cutscenes, balancing, bugfixes, QoL, leveraging the Steam API, and last-minute marketing tasks like emailing influencers.
Then, one day while I was on a brief vacation, my fellow-gamedev and friend Jonah DMed me on twitter asking me if I wanted to be a part of a halloween bundle with some other devs.
Was I really going to make a another game when I hadn’t even released my main project?
Just make 2 games at the same time, easy!
I immediately thought, there’s no way I can make an entirely new game while working on my first big steam project, let alone release that new game one week before my other commercial release, right? This was surely a recipe for some horrendous burnout.
I have no idea why I agreed to it at the time, but looking back I think I understand why it worked so well.
Burnout vs Flow
I’ve always felt like not shipping is what causes the worst burnout for me. When I spend months prototyping different ideas and none of them work, that’s when I feel most burnt out. Having nothing to show for all my work feels so hopeless.
But during the final month of my commercial release, I was in the flow state. I was a gamedev machine. I had just released 3 other, reasonably successful games prior to this. Then, after 5 months of toiling on my commercial game, my Love2D-based engine was well-oiled and ready to be proven on a new game. My tools were as sharp as ever, and my knowledge of said tools was the best it’s ever been.
In a weird way, it was the perfect time to ship another, completely unrelated game.
Six Cards Under took me exactly 28 hours and 19 minutes to make (I track all my gamedev using the app aTracker). This is about 2 weeks worth of “crunchy” hobby work for me.
I’d love to be able to pump out games like this every 2 weeks, but Six Cards Under is special. The game rests atop the corpses of projects-past.
Back from the dead
The story of Six Cards Under is about a little ghost shackled to this world by unfinished business, unable to reach the afterlife.
The development of Six Cards Under is about little pieces of my soul from the past, left to rot on my harddrive, unable to reach the afterlife.
Back in 2020, I spent a full year working on a roguelike where every gun only had 1 shot, and you drew your guns from a “deck” of guns. You picked up ‘cards’ (guns) that fell from the sky to use them. It was a fun idea.
Looking back, I did a lot for that game. I wrote music, created a branching dialogue-based story with cutscenes and a custom node-based dialogue editor, a custom level editor, and more. I stopped development right as I finished working on the final boss. I gave up at the finish line.
The worst burnout always hits me when I don’t ship.
I have a lot of unfinished projects on my harddrive, but for whatever reason, as soon as I start writing music and a story, it feels like I’ve embedded a little piece of my soul into the project.
I’m happy to say that the music tracks from that forgotten project in 2020, those little pieces of my soul, as well as some of the art and general aesthetic, found their way into Six Cards Under. Finally, those pieces can be put to rest.
Ideas for Mechanics
I knew I wanted to make a real-time deckbuilder, so the main design question I had was: How do I prevent players from just spamming cards?
I didn’t want to limit energy by time, because that would lead to a lot of waiting around. I considered giving the player a basic attack that could generate energy, but I wanted to give the player a reason to traverse the map to make enemies more dangerous. This is where the current design of “energy spawns on the map” comes from.
Since the player is forced to traverse the map, this makes even very simple enemies much more dangerous. In general, splitting the player’s focus between playing cards, defending tombstones, and picking up energy gives each enemy a much higher “threat level” by default.
This meant that I could get away with implementing much simpler enemy behaviors, with each unit of behavior complexity being worth much more.
I also think this core idea of “deckbuilder + minigame” is really interesting and has a lot of potential (in this game’s case, it’s a “collect the dots” minigame).
Deckbuilders are so damn fun to make
Each unit of content in this game is really simple to make. Each card is just some combination of various-sized hitboxes, projectiles, and an energy cost. I felt the same way when I made “Cards of the Bog”: Once you’ve got your deckbuilding systems written, the content literally flows from your fingertips.
Simply coming up with different combinations of damage, energy, and “damage shape” (explosion circle, projectiles, etc) was enough to generate a ton of card ideas.
Each unit of content also yields far more mileage than in other genres. If a card is good, you can simply give it to the player again and they won’t complain, because cards are random and consumable. A second Spirit Fire? Give it here!
There’s also a ton of ‘tuning’ you can do with energy and damage values to make compelling passive effects. I wish I made more of these, they’re a blast to make.
Six Cards Under grossed around 200 dollars. Definitely more than I expected, but not enough to break the bank.
Since my first Steam release and the release of this game, I’ve been trying to figure out what my end-game is with gamedev.
I make games because it provides me with a fun creative outlet. I make games because it lets me write a shitton of code with no red tape or oversight. I make games because it gives me an excuse to write music and get better at art.
I release games so people can play them.
I don’t have a plan, and that’s okay
I feel weird having charged for pico 8 source code and soundtracks in the past. I am privileged in that I have a lucrative, stable full-time job unrelated to gamedev, so why do I need to monetize my hobbies? I don’t really have a great answer for that.
I do know that I like when people play my games; Maybe that’s enough.
And so, Six Cards Under, as well as all of my other itch content, is now free.
Thank you all for playing my games. Thank you all for making me feel so fulfilled. I hope to keep releasing games for you all this new year.
Get Six Cards Under
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Thanks for stopping by! I’ve definitely felt this with other hobbies too.
It’s weird, I do have other hobbies where I’m totally comfortable with them being just for me, but when it came to gamedev I convinced myself I needed to follow a certain trajectory because that’s what I saw others doing. Letting myself goof around in general has helped me enjoy stuff a lot more. Glad the post resonated with you.
I appreciate this postmortem and I completely agree with you relating to making games free. I've been considering doing that for a few of my projects just because I enjoy the process of making games. Once you attach a price tag it becomes more of a second job and one job is enough for me haha
I totally agree. As much fun as I had with my commercial steam game, it also felt a lot more stressful than just making a free game. There’s so much ‘mental liberty’ when you release something totally for free, rather than having paying customers to attend to.
Yeah, I have a stable day job (and also make some side money doing music production for people), so I don't need to turn game development into ANOTHER business haha. I've been struggling with one of my games since last year and I did a postmortem on it inspired by your post. Was nice to close that chapter in my life so I can focus on some other things :)