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Big Indie Interviews: Olexiy Izvalov discusses pitching, judging, and helping emerging developers

Interview: We chat with the long-time Big Indie Pitch participant and judge to discuss experimentation and helping the next generation
Big Indie Interviews: Olexiy Izvalov discusses pitching, judging, and helping emerging developers
  • Don't just submit your game somewhere to wait for an answer - show your game to real people.
  • Developers should think about a pitching session as a chat with colleagues where you share a creation you're proud of
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Pocket Gamer Connects London returns on 22nd-23rd January 2024, celebrating its 10th anniversary. Of course, this also means the return of our flagship Very Big Indie Pitch, the popular pitching competition that's been providing developers with insight, feedback, and prizes for years. It's also great fun. We spoke with the organiser Sophia Aubrey Drake for her memories and tips earlier in December.

What better way to celebrate ten years of Pocket Gamer Connects than by reconnecting with some of our most successful developers? In this series, we're learning more about where they are now, what they gained from their pitching experiences, and what advice they have for anyone heading to London for the Very Big Indie Pitch in 2024.

Next up, we're catching up with Olexiy Izvalov of Airapport, one of a select few developers to transition to being a judge, to learn more about their past, present and future.

Developer Olexiy Izvalov with fellow winners at The Big Indie Pitch at White Nights Prague in 2018.
Developer Olexiy Izvalov with fellow winners at The Big Indie Pitch at White Nights Prague in 2018.

Sophia Aubrey Drake: Please can you introduce yourself and the team?

Olexiy Izvalov: I’m an indie game developer from Ukraine. I started my indie game development during the Flash "Golden Age" and then switched to mobile.

Currently, my biggest games are Steampunk Idle Spinner, Idle Tower Builder and Engineer Millionaire. They are in the idle/incremental/resource management genre. Besides making my own games, I teach students at the Robert Elworthy Economy and Technology Institute, and I coordinate the organization of the world’s biggest game-creation event, Global Game Jam, in my country.

“I didn’t just submit my game somewhere to wait for an answer, but I actually showed my game to real people.”
Alexey Izvalov

You’ve been part of the pitch as a pitcher many times and have finished in the top three. What first made you want to be a part of the pitch?

The story of me learning about the Big Indie Pitch is fun indeed. Being an active member of the FGL/Enhance indie game dev community, I attended PGC and other game development conferences as a speaker. There I noticed that one of the conference halls has a row of tables where people show mobile games to each other. However, for over a year of my conference participation, I did not take a closer look at what's exactly going on at these tables.

It wasn't until 2017 that I submitted my own game for the Big Indie Pitch. Another fun fact: with all the rush of conference participation, I forgot to check my email and missed the confirmation. So finally, in 2018, I managed to become a BIP participant with my Steampunk Idle Spinner. This is a game about constructing a factory with cogwheels, pumps, steam engines and various other steampunk equipment, expanding it and exploring new worlds.

How did you find the experience? What was the most challenging aspect, and was there anything you weren’t expecting?

I participated in many game development contests before, and two things which make BIP stand out are:

  • I didn’t just submit my game somewhere to wait for an answer, but I actually showed my game to real people. This meant I could see their live reactions and answer their questions directly.
  • After the Pitch, I received an email with detailed feedback and suggestions for game improvement.
  • Later on, being a judge, I spectated this process from the inside and was amazed by the skilful work of the organizer, Sophia Aubrey Drake, to facilitate this.

I clearly remember my first Pitch in 2018. I took a laptop and two tablets with me to allow me to show the different phases of my game more easily. Also, I had a bunch of business cards to exchange contacts with the judges. So it was quite a challenge to quickly bring all my belongings from one pitch table to another, but I got a hang of this.

I asked the organizers to let me get into the first pitching session, as I had to give a lecture in another hall afterwards. After I returned from the lecture to wait for the pitch results, I opened my laptop and started adding new game features which were recommended by the judges. It was a really pleasant surprise to hear an announcement: “Third place: Steampunk Idle Spinner”!

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Can you let us know what has happened to the games you pitched? Did your experience as a part of The Big Indie Pitch impact your development and subsequent release?

I was so excited to have my game be selected as a Big Indie Pitch prize winner! This gave me the energy to go on with its development and also add certain terms for the release time.

You know, many indies keep the game in the alpha or beta stage for years, thinking, “It’s not yet perfect enough to be released”. But one of the prizes for BIP winners at the time was a promotion package on Pocket Gamer, and this promotion could be used no later than six months after the pitch itself. This gave me a clear release date ahead that I wanted to hit.

One of the judges’ suggestions for Steampunk Idle Spinner was to improve the game's visuals. Also they suggested giving players more possibilities to modify the factory. While the first suggestion needed mostly artistic work, another one required almost complete rewriting of the game engine. I managed to do it within the given timeframe and released the game to iOS and Android at the end of 2018.

The attention boost from the Pocket Gamer promotion helped me gain the players’ attention. I have kept updating the game with new content regularly since then. For example, when I learned that quite a number of the initial playtesters missed the original graphics of the game, I returned the original visuals as a separate game world.

“Being a developer, I understand how important it is to know what the judges think about the game”
Alexey Izvalov

Currently, Steampunk Idle Spinner is closing in on a million Google Play (the mobile version of Google Play is already showing a million, but the web console and Google Play itself are not yet). Additionally, my latest game, which I pitched during the online pitches and then launched on LaunchPad, is Farm and Mine. This is an incremental resource management about industry and agriculture. I released it in August 2021, and since then, I have added tens of new facilities, inventions and professions.

Now, what's really interesting about you, is you're one of a very select number of pitchers who have also gone on to be a judge. How was it adapting to being a judge?

I was invited to judge Big Indie Pitch after my other game, Engineer Millionaire, also received a prize at The Big Indie Pitch. I first judged at The Big Indie Pitch at the Sweden Game Conference in Skövde in 2018. It was an honour for me to join the “other side” of the pitch process, and I've enjoyed being a judge ever since.

I've judged various game dev contests and game jams before. Typically as a judge, I had to go through a spreadsheet of games, play them and rate them by various criteria. Being an indie game developer, I understand how important it is for the developers to know what the judges think about the game, so I often went the extra mile and recorded my play experience of the game to share with them.

Having said that, I can confirm that the whole BIP approach is built around the feedback to the developer in the centre. After the pitch, all the judges gather together and Sophia organizes a very structured games review session. It definitely helps that we, as judges, talk about the games which we had seen just within the previous hour or two. So the impressions we share are fresh, and Sophia makes sure that everything gets recorded and transferred to the developers.

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As a Big Indie Pitch judge, what would you say are the most important things a developer should remember when pitching their game to industry experts?

Every time I greet BIP participants I highlight that I’m also a developer and I understand how it feels to make a game and to present it to the judges. There is nothing to be nervous about: we all share the same passion for the games, don't we? So I suggest the developers think about the pitching session as a casual chat with colleagues where you share the creation which you are proud of. This approach helps to build a great pitching session, to my mind.

“I suggest the developers think about the pitching session as a casual chat with colleagues where you share the creation which you are proud of”
Olexiy Izvalov

You have extensive experience as a developer, pitcher, judge and even as the head of Global Game Jam Ukraine. As such, is there any advice you would give to developers based on your experience?

When it comes to game development, in my experience, it’s essential for developers to start building their own community as soon as possible.

I shared the first animated GIFs of my Steampunk Idle Spinner together with the invites to join the open beta testing just 3 weeks after I wrote the first lines of code, and once you start making your second game, you should definitely tell the players of your first game about it.

This advice might seem obvious (BTW, the title of a lecture which I gave at the conference after my first Big Indie Pitch was “What would Captain Obvious say about indie game development?”), but I met many indie game developers who keep making their first game for years, without letting anyone else actually try it.

How important is attending conferences, competitions and networking opportunities for independent developers? Is there any advice you would give developers who are considering attending upcoming conferences so they can make the most of it?

Conferences, competitions and game jams are an integral part of the life of the indie game development community. You might be working at home adding new features to your games, but only at the conference, are you able to understand that there are so many people who share the same passion for game development as you have. Also, submitting your game to showcases and contests give you a clear schedule for your work. When you know when your game must be ready to be shown to other people, it helps you get more organized in your development.

Another great thing about the conferences and game jams is that it is the place where you gain new connections. Don’t hesitate to say hello and introduce yourself. I saw many successful game development teams which were born like this.

For us game developers in Ukraine, the value of simple human-to-human interaction became apparent after the pandemics and the Russian invasion. When organizing the Global Game Jam 2023 we had to be extra careful and make sure that all the locations have access to the bomb shelters and are equipped with power supplies. We had to interrupt the work several times due to the air raid alerts, but our game jammers managed to create 83 games, some of which got publishing offers right away. We were happy to have you (Sophia Aubrey Drake) as a part of our panel of judges, and look forward to working together more for GGJ2024.

Finally, what are you currently working on? Is there anything you can share with us?

It’s difficult to talk about game development plans in the wake of the Russian invasion. Since Christmas, the missile strikes against the Ukrainian residential areas and civil infrastructure have intensified. Over 300 drones and 200 missiles were launched within the last 5 days. We have to hide in a safe place several times a day. Many of the missiles are shot down, and we're so grateful for our defenders, but there are victims and destruction. Just today, as I was completing this interview, we heard an explosion in our city.

In these conditions, it’s difficult to predict or promise something, but I tend to look at my games as a medium which helps the world know about Ukraine. In summer and early autumn, I launched a series of gameplay and game development streams where I communicated with players, shared game secrets and strategies, and helped with fundraising for the funds which supply Ukrainian defenders. They are UNITED24, Come back Alive and O-Pocket Foundation. The last one is organized by my friends, game developers from Kharkiv, who on the very first day of the invasion took their own cars and started delivering supplies to frontlines. They have been doing this for almost 2 years now.

During this series of streams my games were noticed by bigger streamers, one of them was Real Civil Engineer. I was amazed at the magnificent tower he managed to build in Idle Tower Builder:

I have a big list of players’ suggestions. Though, when I can I go through it and update the games, again, I can’t promise anything, but stay tuned and see what will come next.


Wantto show off your exciting new game? All details for the Very Big Indie Pitch at Pocket Gamer Connects London 2024, including how to enter, can be found on our upcoming events page on BigIndiePitch.com.

If you just want to attend the conference, then tickets for Pocket Gamer Connects London 2024 (22-23 January) can be found on the Pocket Gamer Connects Website, with mid-term discounts still currently available until the first week of January.

Get the latest news, interviews and in-depth analysis on Twitter, Facebook, and our daily newsletter. We will be adding more Big Indie Pitch stories to the site each week.