Believe it or not, many of the best games start out as student development projects. The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, flOw and even Portal all began life as student projects. Speaking at a GDC panel, the developers of the games listed above gave their advice on how budding student game designers can see their own projects become a success. The panel included Kim Swift, designer of Portal and currently of Airtight Games, Matt Korba and Paul Bellezza of The Odd Gentlemen (P.B. Winterbottom), and Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany (flOw).
The advice was wide-ranging, though all the panelists agreed that the best way to get a game noticed is to submit it to as many competitions and festivals as possible. Swift specifically noted that it's a good idea to literally drag people to come and play your game at festivals and shows like GDC. The game itself should "grab" players as well, with Korba saying that a festival showing of a game should be get players involved within five minutes.
Concerning the actual design process, Korba related some advice he learned from thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen. His advice on how to build a team: "Just hold meetings, and whoever shows up after the second or third week, that's your team." Korba added that design should involve everyone on the team. While he had a basic design concept for P.B. Winterbottom, he admitted that he let individual team members fill the "holes" in that design. Allowing team members to take ownership over certain aspects of the design keeps them motivated, said Korba. Swift added to this, saying, "Collaborative design is incredibly important. It keeps people invested in the project."
The business side of development, according to most of the panelists, is something of a "trial by fire." Korba noted that it's good to have a lawyer for business dealings, but added that The Odd Gentlemen learned a lot of things as they went along. For example, Korba said it's easy to overlook something as simple as buying a mop to keep the office clean. Santiago said it was a good idea to build up a community of personal advisors, whether they be faculty members or other independent developers.
What about mistakes to avoid? Almost everyone agreed: Don't think too big. Korba warned developers against this, saying that it's best to "look at your team and look at yourself and do what you're good at." Swift offered similar advice, saying "Be aware of your constraints." She added that no one is going to make an epic RPG at a game design school and advised new developers to "be really realistic with what you can accomplish."
All good advice, we're sure, but the best advice of all probably came from The Odd Gentlemen's Matt Korba. When asked how to make your game stand out, he replied simply, "Silent film, delicious pie, time travel." He elaborated that it's best to make something personal. "Whatever makes you unique in your own personal experience, use that."