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Friday, July 19, 2024
HomeRunning a studioAfter the failure of his game Summit, solo dev Dominik Hackl is...

After the failure of his game Summit, solo dev Dominik Hackl is eager to team up

It was right at the beginning of the pandemic, in early 2020, when Austrian indie dev Dominik Hackl started working on Summit, a 2D mountain-climbing Metroidvania. Without much game dev experience he relied on YouTube dev vlogs to help him along. Three years later the game launched without much success. So what went wrong? “It takes quite a while to get the player hooked”, Hackl says. “Feedback from players who played for more than three hours was really good. However, not a lot of people played that far. So I needed a more focused gameplay and core gameplay loop.”

For his next game project, Hackl wouldn’t mind teaming up. “I still enjoy dipping my toes in all disciplines but I am a lot more eager to team up with other specialists now”, he admits. In the meantime Hackl released a major update for Magic Keys, his Mixed Reality piano learning app, for the Meta Quest. 

Why did you become a solo developer?

“I’ve been developing games solo for a little over ten years. Back then I was still attending my high school which had a focus on software engineering, so I already had a few years of programming education. Naturally, I was really intrigued with creating games once I had the appropriate coding knowledge for it. I didn’t really know any people who were good at the other game-related disciplines, like art, level design etcetera, so I just tried to learn all those things by myself. Fast-forward to today I still enjoy dipping my toes in all disciplines but I am a lot more eager to team up with other specialists now.”

What are the biggest advantages of working solo?

“I would say two things, creative vision and efficiency. For authors, composers and some other creative fields it’s still the most common way to work solo. Of course, books are less parallelizable to make than games, but still there is tremendous benefit in having a single creative vision and being able to fully realize it by yourself.”

“Large teams are less efficient than small ones. This is of course because of the overhead of management and communication. But even with just 2 people working together you may have a lot of overhead, like discussing or even arguing about certain features or having troubles with version control. When working solo, you won’t encounter any of these and could theoretically be extremely efficient.”

Dominik Hackl also created Magic Keys for Meta Quest

And the biggest pitfalls?

“It’s Lonely. Most of the time there is no one helping you with tough challenges, or when you’re stuck on a hard problem. There’s a lack of Creative Symbiosis. You may have plenty of great ideas but they would probably be much more valuable when shared and refined with others. Plus a lack of Management. With no one telling you what, when and how to do it – all those responsibilities become yours.”

What’s your creative process?

“Writing down everything that comes to my mind on paper. Then periodically going through my stack of random ideas and trying to refine or combine them. I’m trying to have more regular exchanges with peers from now on. It definitely trumps solo brainstorming sessions and is also a lot more fun.”

How do you stay motivated through (years of) development?

“Constant progress – no matter how small. Getting stuck on some problem is very dangerous if you are solo because you are so tempted to quit altogether. Better to just move on to some other problem that’s easier to solve and tackle the hard one another time. Setting arbitrary deadlines if you don’t have any actual ones, like telling a friend to come over for a demo session.”

Will you ever work in a team or is it only solo for you?

“I would love to work in a team for my next bigger project, ideally a team of 2-4 people working on the core game.”

Summit

How did you get the idea for Summit?

“I love 2D platformers, especially combined with the Metroidvania formula. I wanted to create one so I thought of a theme that hasn’t been used too often. Many Metroidvania I played are located in some kind of dark underground world, probably because it makes sense to have a lot of verticality in this genre. I thought, why not go up instead, so the mountain climbing setting came to mind. There are other platformers with the climbing theme, like Celeste, but I didn’t find any Metroidvanias. The grappling hook is one rather unique mechanic in the game in the sense that it is a lot more flexible than most grappling hooks in other games. It’s a really fun tool which can be mastered and probably abused a lot for speedrunning.”

What’s the biggest lesson learned from this project?

“More focused gameplay and core gameplay loop. Summit takes quite a while to get the player hooked. The feedback from players who played for more than 3 hours was really good. However, not a lot of people played that far, because the game had a rather slow start. You can’t afford that nowadays. With my new project I will do A LOT more playtesting early on and also maybe art testing. For instance I will post different screenshot of different styles in the game and see how people react and what they prefer.”

The toll on your mental health can be quite high for solo developers. How do you deal with that?

“Take enough time off for non-game dev related hobbies. I love to spend time with friends, do outdoor sports and play the piano. Working on a game project, especially a new one, is often really exciting but I always make time for these other activities, no matter what. Having a broad set of interests will also benefit you when having to find new ideas.”

Watch Dominik Hackl’s own story on why Summit failed.
Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Editor-in-Chief of PreMortem.Games. Veteran game journalist for over 20 years. Started out in 1999 for game magazines (yes the ones made of paper) such as PC Zone Benelux, PlayNation and GameQuest, before co-founding Dutch industry paper Control Magazine.
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