It was far from given that David Wehle would end up as a solo developer of indie games. Not because of a lack of interest, though. At the age of 12, he made mods for Jedi Knight and even though his creations didn't inspire much enthusiasm in the community, he stuck at it. But when the time came to choose an education, he went in another direction opting for film production and editing over game design. One of the reasons for this was the seemingly insurmountable challenge of learning how to program. So, the dream of making games was shelved - at least for the time being. Some years later David was working a creatively uninspiring job when a coworker suggested he take a look at Unity. "I just thought that was the coolest thing ever," he says over our Zoom call. "That's when I really dove in. It was around 2012. I decided: Hey I'm gonna try to finish something. My first game was released in 2015."
The game in question was Home is Where One Starts, a short, narrative-based experience inspired by adventure games like Gone Home and Dear Esther, which were making a big splash at the time.
"As a cinephile, I love experimental films and I like experimental storytelling. I like Tarkovsky films and Terrence Malick films. And I didn't know that you could really do that in games. It wasn't until I played Dear Esther in 2010 and thought it was the coolest, most beautiful experience I had ever tried. It took the first-person genre and used it to tell an unorthodox story. It was vague on purpose, it was ambitious, it was very music-driven and story-driven. I was like, 'man, I wanna make a game like that' - and with Unity, it seemed pretty possible. I'm a horrible programmer, but what I could do was buy the first-person shooter package - it was the same tools they used in Gone Home and Dear Esther - and I could use that same player controller with the code and I could make my own game, put my own story into it".
However, "Home is Where One Starts" didn't change David Wehle's life. At least not at that time. The game failed to make much of an impact on Steam and, subsequently, didn't make much of a profit.
"I released Home is Where One Starts on Steam in 2015 without any marketing whatsoever. I think I did one post on Reddit and I thought I had a bunch of websites reviewing the game the day it came out and none of them was published, no-one was talking about the game. Back then you would get a really small spot for your game on the front page of Steam but it was switched out with other games really fast, it was random. And so even then it just didn't do well, it didn't get enough traction, it didn't get into the popular new releases tab. And not getting there made all the difference in the world because there are so many games now. There's too many to keep up on. There were a few people who were excited to play it but it wasn't big enough to gain critical mass".
Although Home is Where One Starts didn't become a big earner for Wehle, it did bring new opportunities in other ways. The VR experience developer The VOID took notice of him and hired him as a technical artist. Even though he enjoyed working there, Wehle kept working as a solo developer in his spare time. The experience he gained from his first game had been useful and having just been awed by Journey, an idea for a new game featuring a fox on a beautiful, well, journey started to take shape in his head. The First Tree was conceived. Lessons learned, David had a renewed focus and better grasp of how to breakthrough.
What I learned [from making the first game] is that marketing is 100% essential now. You need to find the people who want to play your game. You don't need to trick them into wanting to play your game, you just need to find the people who would love that type of style, that type of game. I decided if I can just take time out of my week every week and make a gif or a blog post or a short video and share it every week, then eventually I'll gain wishlists, I'll gain a following and then that following will help the game blow up to the Steam algorithm on launch day. That was my goal in all that. That was the big lesson: If you don't market your indie game, it will not succeed. It's that simple."
He developed The First Tree in his spare time over the course of the next 18 months and released it on Steam. It did well, which made it possible to port it to other platforms. Suddenly, David was making money from his hobby, which presented a new opportunity.
"I loved working at The Void," he told us. "It was a great team - some things you can only do with a big team. But the opportunity to actually take a chance and work for myself and work solely on my projects, it was too good to pass up. I was never a solo developer before that, I was a hobbyist. I'd work at night or on weekends. It never really paid the bills. It was for fun - something I did for the passion of it. So I just decided to take a leap."
The inspiration from Journey is evident in The First Tree but the game also features a different narrative technique in the shape of a conversation between a husband and wife relating both indirectly and directly to the events transpiring to the fox character. It's an unorthodox yet effective way of combining two narratives, which, it turns out, has roots in David's love of narrative adventure games.
"I loved Journey but I also love games like Gone Home and Firewatch. They're very human. That's what drama is, right. It's just humans talking and trying to understand one another and the world. I love the idea of a fox but how do you introduce a human element to that. I could have done no voiceover - that was a thought actually, but I wanted to add the human element really badly because that's what interests me the most. I think when you're a scrappy solo indie developer the best way to make art is to consider your limitations and consider what your options are and what's available to you. I couldn't animate people, I couldn't hire talented voice actors, so it was just me and my wife - we do all the voice acting in the game - and it was that idea: what if it's a husband and wife talking? Well, why is there a fox there? What if it's a dream? So, things just led to each other, it was just part of the creative process, figuring out what could work and what couldn't. I guess at the end of the day limitations can be a powerful creative factor in your art. It can actually lead to really great art. You shouldn't feel bad if there are limitations, usually, it means something good is around the corner."
Today, David Wehle is still a solo developer, but his focus has now moved beyond only focusing on his own games, as he explained.
"I spoke at GDC, which was awesome, and it helped me realise how many people want to make games. They want to finish them but the prospect of quitting their jobs and hoping for a huge paycheck on their first game... people are realising that's not possible. You can't expect your first game to be like that. So, I shared with people at GDC how to finish a game while working full time and taking care of a small baby. It was a lot but I was able to do it because of these tricks, these little tips to speed things up. To kinda like... I don't like saying compromise your vision because it sounds bad. But it was. I had to pick and choose so I could finish and release a game and I'm glad I released a game.
"So anyway, I've been working on this learning resource called Game Dev Unlocked and it's a YouTube channel, it's blog posts and it's also a premium online school. People can join a community and get software discounts and access to 50+ videos of everything I've learned. Game Dev Unlocked is my next big project and I love showing people how to make games and how to finish games because that's the hard part, right. Anyone can start to make a game but to finish a game that's the real challenge and that's what Game Dev Unlocked is all about.
"The reception has been great. I've had people join and say: 'I would never have released a game without this resource,' which is what I want. I want people to release games because that's the best way to learn. If you have a finished project under your belt, not only will it help you get jobs like it helped me get a job at The VOID but you'll learn what people like and don't like, you'll get data based on releasing projects. And then, because you can make games fast, you'll work on your next game, you'll know what to improve on. That's how you'll make a successful indie game really. It's a lot of repetition, it takes time."
There are downsides to solo development, however, David isn't afraid to admit that. While he loves what he does, battling, among other things, a massive workload and perfectionism can be a challenge.
"The downside to solo development is you can be a perfectionist or you can really get in your head. You get afraid of people judging you because your game isn't perfect. I still get emails every day from people who wanna take time out of their day for some reason to say: 'Hey, your game could have been so much better, you should feel ashamed of yourself'. I knew my game wasn't perfect but I needed to finish it because I was getting burned out and I had to make the choice between releasing an imperfect game that's mostly presentable or work on it forever and never release it. Those are the things solo developers have the hardest time deciding on. No one wants to call it quits. It's an overwhelming amount of work but you can work fast and it's your vision. You can feel really proud of it at the end of the day."
"It's humbling that people want to play my game. Some people don't like it. You can't please everybody. That's ok. If they really don't like it, I encourage them to get a refund. But it's totally worth it for the few people who say: 'This was one of the best games I've ever played' or 'I've had severe medical depression for years and this game was one of the first things that helped me get treatment.' There was a little girl, her mom emailed me. The girl had autism and her mom said that she never used to talk but she plays The First Tree every day and she's now progressing more in her communication skills. Those are the things that make it worth it. That's why people should release games. It's hard work, there can be a lot of rejection on the road. But it's worth it."
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