Stolen Couch Games is a young Dutch game studio formed by six alumni from the Utrecht School of Arts who decided to continue working together after their college projects. A part of the team came together to make a multiplayer prototype for XBLA and PSN title Chime made by developer Zoe Mode in collaboration with the One Big Game initiative. Stolen Couch Games then reformed and expanded the core team with an extra programmer and artist. Their first big title fresh out of the Utrecht School of Arts was Kids vs Goblins.
Building Kids vs Goblins
When we initially started out Stolen Couch Games, we wanted to make something that would appeal to a large audience and show our potential as a start-up game studio. It was important for us to use our first product as a kick start into full time game development. After a prototype and concept phase, we formed the core idea for Kids vs Goblins. We decided to go all in on it, and for eleven months we poured our time, energy, and above all love, into this project. We strive for high quality in all our projects, but this one was particularly important for the team. Unfortunately, attaining perfection is impossible. Sometimes things went right and sometimes things went wrong, and then sometimes things just went completely awful. We would gladly like to share some of these moments with you.
Our team has had plenty of experience with designing and developing videogames, from concept to completion. Most of this experience took place in a learning environment where many mistakes and blunders were accepted as a normal part of an educational project. Transitioning to the real world was hard, as commercial game development can be very harsh and unforgiving. Our team had experience with Unity 3D before starting the Kids vs Goblins project and the Unity engine was a logical first choice that fit our requirements neatly. We also worked with software such as Photoshop, 3DS Max, and SVN along with a free A* pathfinding plugin as well as a series of commercial plugins by Prime 31, such as the StoreKit, iCloud and Etcetera plugins. We worked on Kids vs Goblins for slightly more than eleven months in total. Pre-production, or the design period, lasted about one month.
A Light and Casual RPG is born
Kids vs Goblins is a bite-sized lite RPG action adventure game for iOS devices, but optimized for the iPad2. The story of the game revolves around a trio of young heroes that are in search of their kidnapped little brother. During a storm at sea they get stranded on a magical island. During the night their little brother is kidnapped by two goblins that take him to the evil goblin king. While the children are planning their attack they find a magical stone that transforms them into three powerful heroes. With magical spells and different tactics the player takes on the battle against all kinds of enemies in various surroundings.
The player controls the three characters with simple finger movements while attacking the enemies. Dragging spells on the enemies will give the player total tactical control over the combat situation. The goal of the game is to defeat the waves of enemies and surviving the different level conditions. For example the Roulette mode is a variant in which you get random spells which you need to use to win the game. But do not use too many because for each spell you use you pay a couple of stones (the in-game currency). You can use the stones you gather during the game to buy spells and thus customize your characters and define the strategy for the next battle. The RPG elements in Kids vs Goblins are very light and casual. With over 60 spells and 6 different levels and 30 missions, Kids vs Goblins gives the player at least 3 hours of gameplay.
What went wrong during the making of Kids vs Goblins?
Choosing a target platforms & compatibility: Tackling a hard decision
A couple of months into the project, we decided to make Kids vs Goblins for the iPad2. This decision was based on the possibilities the Unity engine gave us to port to iOS devices. We removed the controller support and started work on touch interaction. From a game design perspective this was a great step towards making Kids vs Goblins more approachable for a wider audience and it enhanced the speed of control of the game by just simply dragging your finger across the screen. But, as young enthusiasts often do, we overlooked the importance of checking the compatibility of every device after we ported to IOS, even the devices that were almost depreciated by their age such as the iPhone 3Gs. The difference between the different generations of devices became a big problem for us at the very end of the project.
During the first months of development this compatibility problem was not yet clear to us. But, around the time we wanted to submit Kids vs Goblins to Apple for approval, the question arose if it would run smoothly on older devices. We tried different optimizing processes, such as atlassing the textures and removing lots of particle effects. But in the end we had to make a big decision: Would we exclude the old devices and still release Kids vs Goblins only for the iPhone 4s and iPad 2?
We made a pros and cons list and decided to go on with only releasing the game on the newest devices, against the advice of our publisher. The game got really nice reviews from the press.
Resolution dependent art: Thinking Ahead
We all want to make a product that the player enjoys in the end, but sometimes things do not end up looking like they did on the drawing board. Therefore, thinking ahead and planning your implementation of art assets during these kind of big projects is a must to save time and energy.
Our art team made some great artwork for Kids vs Goblins. This makes a great contribution to the quality of the game and shows off the talent of our artists. But during the production, we never thought through the art asset exporting process. Our art pipeline was built up by trial and error. This was something that ended up costing us a lot of time and energy to fix. We made the 2D art resolution dependent on top of that. Later on, when porting to the iPhone, this proved to be a problem. We had to redo a lot of GUI work which cost us weeks.
We realized we would have to plan and think ahead more for our next projects. For example, if we would have thought about making the 2D interface resolution independent from the start, it would take us a lot less time to fix it later on. The graphical part of the interface as well as the programming part of the job should have been thought out more thoroughly. All our newer games have resolution and aspect ratio independent GUI’s. Everything scales, repositions like you expect and it’s super easy to setup.
We just took a big leap with Kids vs Goblins and realized our mistake far too late along the way. You can make your pipeline so much more efficient and save a lot of time during crucial times if you just take some time before you start to think about the applications and the different ways the assets need to be used in the future.
Planning: Getting a Producer
For a big project such as Kids vs Goblins, planning is key to make it a success. We tried to make schedules for all the different stages of the project and mostly worked with sprints of a couple of weeks, mostly 2 to 3. These sprints worked just fine in a team with clear goals. These sprints are great for the small parts of a planning and almost part of a bigger entity. But the bigger picture for Kids vs Goblins was not set into a planning and thus we had some major delays solely based on bad or insufficient planning.
To give the responsibility of planner or dedicated project manager to one of the team members was not possible because we all had plenty of work in our own fields. But a producer during these long compelling projects with different disciplines is essential, not only to finish the product in a predefined set of time but especially to maintain the level of morale and motivation of the team. During the stressful moments in crunch time, somebody that keeps track of every process in the game development can make a big difference in not only the quality of working but the quality of the product as well. This remains an outcome based on the employability and the mental health of the team, after all.
If we would ever again work on a big project that last for the bigger part of a year we would assign a dedicated project manager to secure the quality and pleasure of making games at this scale. It would be someone that is not involved in the creative process of game development and he/she would only be focused on making the process as efficient and streamlined as possible. Making use of every talent in the team at its best at all times if possible, a dedicated producer would have saved us loads of time and energy.
Bringing the message to the masses: Share often, but don’t rush announcements
To get the audience to notice your product you need to reach your target audience in a compelling way. The Apple Appstore as it works now makes it very hard to get noticed without being directly featured by Apple. All the apps are thrown on the same pile and thousands of apps keep getting added daily. It proved very beneficial to get Apple on our side and get a feature of some sort in the Appstore. But besides this feature from Apple, it is important to keep the attention of your audience tight and release enough information on a regular basis.
We did this completely the wrong way. We waited too long to show of the game while we were waiting for the game’ graphics to get just a little better. And yes, it is a good thing to show off with the best of the best, but to give your audience the feeling that they grow with you is a good way to get them involved with your project. Clarity is also important. If you don’t know the exact release date of your game yet, don’t share it with the world until you do. If you’re dependent on release dates set by Apple because you hope for a feature like we did, then just wait until it is approved. Even when that happens, be very careful because there are still a million things that can go wrong. In the end Kids vs Goblins got a little feature on the iOS app store and a huge one on the mac app store. This didn’t give us the amount of money we thought it would, but it would’ve been worse if we didn’t have those features. Our relationship with Apple has been great since day one.
What went right during the making of Kids vs Goblins?
Designing the theme: Stick close to your concept art
When we started Kids vs Goblins, the design of the graphical layer went pretty smoothly. It was almost developed independently from the core game. Our design team would work out the game’s mechanics without sticking to a predefined declarative and narrative structure. This meant that our artists were almost free to do what ever they wanted. So they got their inspiration from movies such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and artists like Anton Pieck, Rien Poortvliet, Brian Froud and Paul Bonner.
Starting with the basic story, we expanded the game’s entire theme from thereon. The story led the creation of the game world in shaping the architecture. The science and the technology the goblins use give the world its credibility. The shapes of the enemies were very important because they should tell you what kind of enemy you have in front of you. We believe cartoony approach combined with the painted style of environments make the graphical layer of Kids vs Goblins one that speaks to many different kind of players.
The thing that especially went right with the design of the graphical layer was how the ambiance on the island was communicated to the player. The concept art our art team made for Kids vs Goblins was absolutely beautiful. People seemed to really like to our style and the world they created. When creating assets we stayed very close to these concepts so that we maintained a consistent style throughout. Even-though we had to cut texture resolutions in half to save on RAM, we’re still very happy with the end result.
Iterative design process FTW!
At the Utrecht School of the Arts, we were always taught the importance of an iterative process in making games. This is a great way of thinking and dealing with problems you encounter when making a product for a large group of people. Our iterative process is not only driven from within the team (we’re all very, very critical of our own work), but mostly driven from the feedback we gathered from test players. To make a product that will be enjoyed by your target audience, constant iteration is invaluable for the success of your company.
Kids vs Goblins started out as a turn based-shooter with a cover system. It was a cross between Gears of War and Company of Heroes. When we switched to the iOS platform we believed the target audience had to be adjusted as well. So we changed the gameplay accordingly. Kids vs Goblins became a game that could be played by casual as well as hardcore gamers, instead of just the latter group.
We also took play testing rather serious. We used several techniques to gather feedback from testers that played the game. We started play testing early on in the project and continued even after the release. We used Testflightapp.com to send out build to testers around the globe. We also did play tests where we invited several testers to come and play in our office so we could directly observed their player behavior. Both ways gave us different kinds of information. In addition we developed a system that tracked what players did in the game. Every spell they used, every step they took was recorded and put in a database. Within days of release we got data from tens of thousands of play session. We used this data to balance our game in an update.
This iterative process was quite a success. We iterated on every aspect on the game and got a product that was way better than we would have gotten if we stuck to our initial ideas. Our approach is definitely a keeper for our future projects.
A team that is attuned to one another: Trust matters
Besides a good product and a bit of luck, a tight team is always the beginning of any success story. The team is the core and determines the potential of the final product. If a team member is off or cannot do the job, the whole team gets affected. The fragile relationships inside a functioning team are important and should be looked after. Our team had a structure where everybody had their own little island of responsibilities that was based on a lot of trust. We trusted each other to do their best in the time given with the vision we had set ourselves. There isn’t a typical hierarchy in our team. Even-though there are three artists not one can be considered the “lead” artists. Everyone has his own discipline and is responsible for that part of the development.
At moments where one of the team members fell ill, the team could still function and we actually never stood still for more than a couple of days in the worst of cases. Every talent was employed to the max and we had defined what everybody’s area of expertise was at the beginning of the project. We used Mantis, which is actually a bug tracking system, to give each other tasks. So everyone would know the status of a ticket and would know what to do. This is basically a digital scrum board. It worked on for Kids vs Goblins. But since then we have created a better system with a physical and digital ticket system combined.
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There were of course a couple of setbacks that had to solve with the team dynamics, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by talking things through. Building a team as attuned to each other as ours takes time. We still need to grow to perfect our dynamics, to get all the creative juice flowing at optimal efficiency and still have fun in the process. Having our team bond by growing together from a team of students into professionals is a rather rare thing that we strongly value and which has shaped our studio culture.