It’s coming up. The granddaddy of all visual novel game jams, NaNoRenO. You want to make something, but by either happenstance or design, you’re on your own. Good news! This is a totally doable thing. As a solo dev myself, I’ve done it for three games and a demo, all in the short time frame of a game jam. If you focus, buckle down, and be honest with yourself, you can survive it, as well.
You Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel
Contrary to how it sounds, the phrase “solo developer” doesn’t necessarily mean that someone does every single little game development and asset creation task with their own bare hands. A better phrase would be “teamless dev” in that only one person is doing the bulk of the design and creative work, and, more importantly, making all the decisions. Don’t feel like you’re less of a developer if you have to rely on purchased or public domain assets or non-original code snippets to fill out your game. Those resources exist for a reason, and it’s not “cheating” to use them. If anything, it’s smart.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
Game jams are intended to perform a few basic functions for the developers taking part:
- learn new skills and sharpen the ones you have
- get experimental
- finish something, anything
- have fun
So why are you participating in NaNo? Is it to try a new engine? A new genre? A new medium? Because you can? Having something you focus on will motivate you to push through to the end and help you determine what you’re trying to get out of this whole adventure. So even if you can’t finish your game, were you able to get a better handle on Unity like you set out to do? Then you’ve still “won” NaNo because you’ve learned something.
Maintain a Strict Scope and an Even Stricter Calendar
Whether this is your first game or your millionth game, staying in scope is the quintessential game dev struggle. In a jam situation working by yourself, it’s super easy to underestimate how much you have to do and how much time you have to do it.
Look at what your focus is, and set a priority list. The first half of that priority list should be all the items you need to make a functional game from start to finish. The second half are polish and additions. A calendar it what helps you get through that priority list.
Before the jam starts, specifically set which days you’re going to do what specific task. Down to the hour if you have to. This’ll help you build your dev time around the rest of your life. How you much time any one person allocates to a task will vary, but, in my experience, you want something functionally finished ⅔ to ¾ of the way through the jam timeframe. This gives you the time at the end to polish and implement things you have at the bottom of your priority list. It also give you space to push into when invariably something goes wrong, and you have to re-prioritize and adjust your calendar.
This might leave you with the question “how much time do I give myself for each task?” Unfortunately, that’s something you have to figure out for yourself. I know, for example, that with my current work schedule, I can guarantee 15k words in 10 days. Since I program as I write, I can dedicate less time to specifically work on programming. I know how long it takes me to do a sprite. I know how long it takes me to do a background. If you don’t know this information about yourself, there’s nothing that says you can’t practice fundamentals before the jam starts. Time yourself. This will help you build your calendar.
Know Your Strengths and Play to Them
Fun fact: there’s no one right way to make a visual novel.
Are you a great writer but a terrible, terrible artist? Make something that’s super text heavy. Chunsoft originated the sound novel which is text on a background with choices and music. If you’re not a great narrative writer, but you can draw like the dickens and spin a decent poem, right there is the potential for something artsy and experimental. Make a game take place on one background. Make it only have two sprites. Retell a Shakespearean play.
There’s a performative aspect of game development that makes us think we have to do everything a certain way just because everyone else is. That if we don’t meet xyz certain criteria, we’re automatically doing it wrong. Yes, there are certain elements you’ll see repeated over and over, game after game. This is typically because they work, and learning why they work will make you a stronger developer. However, if you can free yourself of the notion that you have to do something just because every other visual novel has, you’ll be unburdened of some of the expectations that come with it. Any kind of relief is essential where you’re trying to do everything on your own.
Keep Your Mental Health at High Priority
An undertaking like this, making a game all by yourself, runs the real risk of taking a toll on your mental health. It’s a lot to do in not a lot of time, and there’s the potential for things to utterly fall apart on you.
Remember, game jams are supposed to be fun. Hard work, yes, but in the end a rewarding, enjoyable experience. If at any point your mental or physical health suffers in the process of making your game, stop. Recollect. Consider whether it’s worth it. Is there something you can do to make things go a little easier?
No one will ever know you cut a route or took a shortcut on an asset.
Nothing is more important than your health and safety. The beauty, then, of working on your own, is that you’re the only person you accountable to. And you’re allowed to give yourself a break.