Tool Stack for Solo Game Developers on a Budget
Being a solo game developer required being a jack of all trades. If you want to avoid delegating to contractors, You need to wear a lot of hats and be skilled at Art, Programming, Game Design, Music Composition, Marketing, and much more depending on the game you are making.
Learning all of those takes time and practice, but it also costs money. Most Game Dev Tools are pricy and require a long time of learning and practice.
But for most of the solo game developers out there, budget is tight, and you can’t afford all the licenses and subscription fees from all of those pricy software tools often used by bigger studios.
I was in this exact situation when I started out game development (And still am sort of). At that time, I was a student with no money and no skills.
Thankfully, there exists a large panel of game development tools that are free, or at least very cheap, and that are close, if not as good as the pricy flagship software.
And some of the premium tools have become more and more accessible, thanks to special offers targeted at small and independent studios ( Zbrush has some special bundles for individuals for example https://www.maxon.net/en/buy).
In this blog post, I have listed some of the tools I have used and still use to develop Lumnis, my upcoming Action-Adventure Metroidvania game.
This selection is targeted in particular to 3D game developers, as this is the type of game I make, but some of the tools listed are useful whatever the type of game you want to make.
Game Engine: Unreal Engine 5
From what I have seen, most solo or small-scale studios often choose Unity as their game engine.
It is often believed that Unreal Engine is more suited for medium to big AAA studios, but that is far from the truth. There is a large panel of solo or small studios using this engine, and Epic is making great efforts to support indies.
it has become very accessible thanks to Blueprint, the visual scripting language introduced in Unreal Engine 4, and it can do most of what you could do in C++, without too much of a hit on the performance.
It is a battle-tested game engine, used by game development studios of all sizes, and you take advantage of years of shipping game experience, resulting in a large panel of useful features (even more so with the release of Unreal Engine 5 and cool features like Nanite or Lumen).
The engine choice depends more on the type of game that you want to make and the skill you have though. Unreal Engine is more suited for First Person Shooters or Third Person types of games. Of course, you can do whatever you want with it, but it might sometimes require fighting against the engine and its opinionated architecture, which is less accurate for Unity or Godot, from what I have heard.
On top of that, Epic has designed its pricing model with solo and small indie game dev in mind, by asking for 5% royalties only after the revenue from a game is over 1 Million $, which most indies will be happy to pay if such a revenue amount is reached.
3D Art : Blender
Blender is truly a gift from god for all indie game developers. I can’t believe such high-quality software is available for free. It has always been seen as more of a software for hobbyists, and the substitute for software such as 3DS Max or Maya, which are the most popular in the industry. But recently (since version 2.8), Blender has really caught up, and it is now on par with them for most of the features available.
The learning curve is a little steep, but once you get over it and understand its philosophy, working with Blender becomes really great and enjoyable.
I have used it to create all of the 3D assets and animations for Lumnis, and it has never disappointed me so far.
You can use it for modeling, sculpting, 3D and 2D animation texturing, cinematic renders, and much more.
The only downside I have encountered so far is that it is good at about everything, but not as good as specialized software for each use case. For example, the Substance suite has more advanced features for texturing, Zbrush is better at Sculpting, etc. But Blender will be good enough most of the time.
Programming & IDE : Visual Studio
Visual Studio is the go-to IDE for C++ programming with Unreal Engine. The Community edition is free and contains most of the useful features you will need for game development with Unreal Engine (syntax highlighting, IntelliSense, Step-Through debugging, GoTo-Definition, …).
However, most of Unreal Engine C++ programmers recommended using Visual Studio with Visual Assist. It recognizes most of the macros and specificities of Unreal Engine source code, and replaces IntelliSense, which can be slow and struggle to understand some parts of Unreal Engine code.
Recently, There has been Rider that has taken Game programmers by storm, and rightfully so from what I have heard. However, it requires paying an annual subscription.
Visual Studio remains the go-to IDE for Unreal Engine, but maybe not for long.
I am staying with it for now, as it does the job and it is free on top of that.
Graphics editor: Affinity Suite
The Affinity suite is a great substitute for Photoshop.
Its main advantage compared to Photoshop is its pricing, which is a one-time purchase of 85$, as opposed to Adobe Photoshop, which is subscription-based, and at least 20$ per month.
Affinity photo is more targeted for image and photo editing at its core, but it can be used for any raster image editing.
Affinity Designer is targeted at vector graphics, and it can be used mostly for UI design, logos, and marketing assets.
However, Photoshop remains the go-to software for image editing, and most of Game Development tutorials, resources, and studios out there will be using Photoshop.
Affinity remains behind for some specific Game Development workflow compared to Photoshop (Texture packing using RGB channels for example). It also lacks some gadget features that make your workflow quicker, and it will sometimes require a little bit more work and fiddling with the UI to get stuff done.
But with the pricing model in mind, I will always go with Affinity if money is an issue for you. (Or if you dislike the subscription-based model)
Audio & Sound: Reaper
I found that Reaper is in a similar position in the DAW landscape as Blender is in the 3D Art tools landscape. It is a cheap but powerful software with a steep learning curve because it does things its own way. But once it has been tame, it does wonders.
I am using it for all Sound Design related work for Lumnis, as well as for Music Composition.
There are lots of resources available online, the main ones being the reaper forum and the REAPER Mania youtube channel, which is a gold mine for any reaper user.
In the same way as Blender or Affinity, it is not the go-to DAW for professionals, but I have seen lots of composers and sound designers currently working in the game industry using Reaper.
In my opinion, Its main downside is the User Experience. As I have said, it does things its own way compared to other DAW, so it takes quite a while to master it.
It comes with out-of-the-box plugins for common effects like reverb, EQ, or compressor, but you can use whatever external plugin or VST you own. (Kontakt, etc)
And like all the software tools described in this blog post, its main advantage is its pricing model, as it is a one-time purchase at 60$ if your yearly gross revenue is under 20 000$, or 225$ otherwise. In any case, it is very cheap compared to other DAW using a subscription model.
Being a solo game developer has never been that accessible and cheap. With time and practices, you can now start making your own game and even match games from larger studio. The lastest example being We Who Are About to Die, which is doing really well on Steam and is solo developed by Jordy Lakiere. But it does not have to be a commercial hit. You can make a small game for you, your family and your friends, as long as you manage to do what you wanted and people have fun playing it.
Keep making games and have fun doing it!