Kjell ‘t Hoen is a game designer from the Netherlands, specialized in casual games. After creating his own concepts for his ‘Ludomo Gamestudio’, he is now mainly working as a game developer at Tingly Games. Kjell has a passion for making games and is always looking for new and original gameplay. This article describes the process of one of his games that he made in collaboration with YoYo Games, called Rick ‘O Shea.
The original idea for Rick ‘O Shea came from one of my earlier games called Curve Ball. Its core gameplay was controlling a metallic ball with the environment, i.e. launching it with flippers, bouncers and canons and having it follow rails. The concept came to me by looking at some beautiful clockworks and jewelry, which inspired me for the original design. The goal was to make something shiny and fun.
The Rick ‘O Shea journey originally took off when I met Mark Overmars, the creator of Gamemaker (the engine I had been working with for years) at the Festival of Games 2011. He was interested in working together with indie/amateur Gamemaker developers who had interesting game concepts for mobile devices. Since I was working with Gamemaker for a very long time, I had enough game concepts to show and since most of them were one-button they were quite fit for mobile devices. So I met with Mark a few times, where I presented some of my ideas which I had already polished a little in the past and we picked the one that seemed the best fit.
Working together with Mark and YoYo Games, we developed my raw concept into a fully fletched app for iOS and Android. Both Mark and the YoYo Games crew put in a lot of effort to steer the design and gameplay to an even higher level and I feel the eventual product is as polished and fun as it can get. As a great bonus, half way through the process, I was invited to fly over to Scotland where YoYo Games was situated, to finish the game. Personally this was a great opportunity and made for an amazing experience.
Tackling art issues
Right after the kickoff, the biggest issue we tackled was the theme and art style. It had to look great and we needed a believable ‘world’ as a setting for the rather abstract game mechanics. As my original idea was clockworks and jewelry, I first did a redo of my own graphical design for that. This design however lacked a likable character and believable world, so after it was rejected I thought about coins and how you could collect coins with a living piggy bank. That concept was also rejected, this time I think due to my personal lack of art-skills. Eventually we decided to move the entire art-issue over to Yoyogames. They were kind enough to assign the project to one of their in-house artists: Alan Morris, with whom I worked on the game from that moment on. He came up with the circus concept, and since that theme had actual cannons it fitted the mechanics perfectly. Also, with the art out of the way I could now completely focus my attention on gameplay, level design and programming.
Mistakes made, lessons learned
The original concept was focused on one-button, being the entire screen. I had designed the levels in a way that experienced players could do speed runs, which could change pace of the game and offer some immersive gameplay. Mark and the Stuart however, convinced me early on that it would be better to give the player more control, by enabling the player to aim, turn the canons towards the finger of the player and not having to wait for the canon rotation. This was a tough decision for me because my entire concept was based around this mechanic. On the other hand, my original concept had huge levels, but the app version would consist of smaller levels. So I decided to go for it. This turned out to be for the better. Even though I had to let go of all my initial levels, I found that I could create even more interesting and challenging levels and that the gameplay now offered more freedom. Rick ‘O Shea would have been an entirely different game if not for this change.
Another big issue was the business model. The idea of getting my old game concept to mobile devices got me really motivated, so before I knew it I had created 100+ levels. After showing them to Stuart, he suggested to break up the levels and sell them separately. The model would go from paid to in-app purchase where players could unlock two new worlds for each payment. This would also be a nice trial for YoYo Games to see if Gamemaker, their main engine, could handle in-app purchases properly, making it as Stuart called it the studio’s ‘guinea pig’.
I believe this has been a big mistake. What we did was divide the levels into 5 different episodes and give the first episode (24 levels) away for free. Even though we thought long and hard on how many levels to give away for free and what mechanics they should contain (and what mechanics to save for later), this was nothing more than an educated guess. And so it turned out to be. Even with more than a million downloads the number of actual sales was extremely disappointing. Looking back at this decision, there are simply too many risks I would never dare to take again. For example:
- The player plays the free levels, has the feeling he has seen most of what the game has to offer and deletes it.
- The player plays the free levels, loves them and downloads the game for free from some obscure website.
- The player does not open the game at all and still mentions it is shit, causing a bad review (this actually happened!).
- The player plays one level, doesn’t get it and deletes the game without looking beyond the first try.
I do believe the in-app purchase model can work nicely for extra gameplay variations (other weapon types and new features) that make it easier to play the game or offer the player more choices and strategies. The old demo/shareware model we went for though, was just not working out.
During the playtesting phase, done in the university where YoYo Games was located, I learned I was making levels a bit too easy. This was a huge realization for me as I looked back at many of my other games. The game was simply not challenging enough and I ended up giving 120 levels more ‘teeth’ and dangerous situations, which really made the game way more interesting and balanced.
Working with Mark and Stuart was a big deal for me and I was interested to see how a company like Yoyogames operated. They turned out to really supportive and had a lot of experience with creating games. They also gave me a lot of freedom and useful feedback while creating the game and tweaking it. But I also learned, when signing contracts about royalties, is that you should always check when you are supposed to get paid. I completely trust Yoyogames and I enjoyed working with them, but waiting for 9 months for a royalty payment is not cool and eventually took away some of the enthusiasm for making games on my own. I always say I’m not in it for the money and I am very patient, but without any financial results it’s hard to keep going and stay motivated.
Don’t do in-app purchase for levels, it’s simply not working. In-app purchase for extra variations, gameplay, strategies or guns can work fine, but not to complete the journey the player is on. In Rick ‘O Shea we also sold extra skins, which I think comes closest to what could have worked
Playtest with a wide variety of people. The play testers Yoyogames invited were really good, but most of them were also heading into game development. We could have done a better job if we had had some little children or grandparents play the game as well. I realized this after returning home and showing the game to my friends and seeing them have a really hard time getting past infamous level 5. So it was great feedback to make the levels harder, but what we missed was the feedback from the non-gamers as to where the game was too hard.
The day after
The day after Rick ‘O Shea was published on Google Play and iTunes it got featured on Kotaku, who made it ‘Gaming App of the Day’. I remember Andrew McCluskey, an employee at Yoyogames who became a good friend, coming over to my desk, tabbing me on the shoulder and telling me ‘Dude.. you’re on Kotaku’. Pocketgamer was next, giving the game a Silver Reward and a few other smaller websites gave some pretty nice reviews.
A few months later, in March, Rick ‘O Shea got featured on Google play. I have an iPhone but I got a photo from one of my friends who saw the game sitting right next to the new Angry Birds Space and Sims. That really good news and as I heard later, caused for some 80k extra downloads per day. All this was great, but the best feeling I have comes from the fact that the game still has a 4 out of 5 star rating with 3300+ votes. That made the game my greatest success so far. But even though Rick ‘O Shea was such a great success, I realize I also made some mistakes. Checking some of the first levels of the game and looking at my bank account made me doubt whether or not my game was really as good as it could have been.
After creating Rick ‘O Shea (Apple AppStore & Google Play store), Kjell decided to move forward and work for a new exciting company called Tingly Games as a Gamemaker developer. In his spare time, Kjell is still working on his own games. For example, he collaborated with NextGamez and Gamious on a hidden object game called Excursions of Evil, which is to be launched soon. If you are interested in what he’s currently up to, check out Kjell’s blog.