The MADFINGER team, founded in 2009 by four game industry veterans who were sick of the over-managed development process of big console and PC games, received a lot of praise for their mobile games Samurai and Shadowgun, and within two years, grew from four to thirteen members. Then in late 2011, they started thinking about a ‘side’ project, which MADFINGER could develop along with the planned multi-player game Shadowgun: DeadZone, to use to experiment with new features, technologies and gameplay ideas – or simply kill after some time, if it wasn’t viable. Petr Benysek, Senior Programmer, talks about how the Dead Trigger project started as an experiment and where it went from there.
Since there weren’t enough people for two projects, Mara, Emeth, Babec and Robotom, the founders of the company, decided to hire three more people, who could be fully dedicated to this new project, along with Emeth, the graphic artist and project leader. We are all long-time friends and have worked together in the past, so it didn’t take me a lot of thinking to take this opportunity and join the team in February 2012, along with two coders: Tomas Stepanek and Martin Capousek. Since we joined MADFINGER right after finishing a big console project, the first thing we actually did was to go on holiday. You can hardly be creative and fast when you are tired, and fortunately, MADFINGER is a company where people know this (we all have seen the results of infinite crunch too many times). There were several goals that this yet-to-be-born project should try to achieve:
o To serve as a training ground for the three of us, who already had a long history with games development, but not with mobile platforms and the Unity engine.
o To experiment with short and quick missions, as opposed to the huge areas and story-driven gameplay that we had been used to.
o To explore the new field of In-App purchases.
o To develop new technologies, such as cloud service and social network integration.
We had a time budget of 3-4 months to finish it. Coming from a ‘triple-A’ industry, I saw this as a joke more than a serious plan. Just imagine having to master the new engine, get familiar with C# (which none of us was seriously using before), create a completely new game and publish it on two platforms we didn’t have any experience with! But Mara’s answer was just: “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”
Fortunately, we could stand on the shoulders of the Giants. We got support from Babec, the character artist, Robotom, the sound engineer and Ondra, the animator. We also got the full range of MADFINGER’s talent at our disposal for the last month before the initial release, and the entire team stayed onboard for few more weeks after the release to help us with our first updates. We were able to draw from the extensive knowledge the other team members already possessed of Unity and iOS/Android platforms. That way, we wouldn’t have to spend more than a few minutes looking for an answer to our questions. Mara was also able to take the code base from Shadowgun and establish the roots of the project, with the game’s framework and some tools. Of course, I also have to mention the Unity engine itself. I’m still blown away by how fast you can iterate, how easy and intuitive it is to extend and to add new things. Working with complete and satisfactory technology is essential when you want to make things fast and well.
The Design Decisions
We had neither much time or people at our disposal, so we had to be wise with our decisions. What kind of theme would it have? Zombies, of course! People like them, it’s positively necessary to mow them down and they don’t need to be super-intelligent, so you can spend less time debugging your AI. What about mission size? That had to be small, of course. Small missions can be created or redesigned quickly, and you can stuff them into the memory without the need to stream. As for gameplay, we went with several gameplay modes plus generated missions, with the possibility to have scripted story missions. Players should level up as well as the enemies and be able to unlock new game content.
Next step: story. Having one would be nice! So we ended up with our apocalyptic version of the events of the apocalyptic year 2012, creating the Dead Trigger story. For the main menu, we chose to have a city map, which would allow us to connect the missions, story, shop, equip menu and other areas that the player could visit. It’s clear and expandable. As for the devices it should be played on: anything that will have enough memory and power to render our environments with six zombies spawned at the same time. After some tests, it turned out that we could run it on the iPod 4 Touch and comparable Android devices if we used lower level detail models, environments and shaders. We also created an ultra high-end version for the Tegra 3 and the newest iOS devices.
One of the great things of the Dead Trigger project was that nobody was forcing us to do anything. It was all up to the few people determining the direction of the game to discuss and decide what we were going to make. There were no publishers with their “amazingly cool ideas” that we had to implement, no producers trying to stuff ideas from other games that they just played into our game, no management guys cutting things they didn’t believe in, no design documents (that usually become obsolete as soon as you finish what’s in them). There were no designers, we all were designing the game with the passion of those who have the freedom to create what they wanted. For this reason, there was very little to cut or redesign and most of it was done on paper, before we even touched our keyboards or other input devices. For every considered feature the first criterion was: can we make it on time? If so, is it worth the effort, compared to other features?
With this simple approach, we’ve selected the most wanted features for the first release and left the others in our backlog for future updates. Knowing the limits, we wanted to achieve a scalable building set, composed of a game core that can be extended with any number of missions, types of gameplay, enemies, weapons and so on. We also wanted to re-use our environments as much as possible, so we created a system for defining spawn zones, gates, objects, enemies and objectives. On top of that, we created a data-driven game flow manager which generalizes the randomized missions and provides scripted story missions based on the player’s rank. In our first release, we had four different types of gameplay and just four maps. With that, we were able to generate over 60 unique gameplay configurations, which resulted in about 10 hours of fun.
As we were approaching the end of our four month deadline, the game was shaping up and it became apparent that it really is possible to finish and release a solid product within that timeframe. Still, we had a lot left to do, and we knew that some really cool things would probably have to wait until future updates, so the company decided to pause other development and allocated everybody to Dead Trigger for the last push. It was a huge help, because they contributed with new content, by polishing existing stuff and also by testing (it’s always a good idea to ask your friends’ opinions, since you will lose your objectivity after some time).
Paymium vs. Free2Play
One of the last things to decide was the business model. We definitely wanted to make the game very user friendly and affordable for everybody (we really disgust pumping hundreds of bucks out of players for virtual goods as some other games do), so the prices in the game were set fairly low, and we paid a lot of attention to balancing the game. That way, it’s playable without the need to spend money, while keeping it interesting for those who want to enjoy the game even more with premium weapons and gadgets. In the end, we set the price at $0.99, keeping the option to raise the price after release or to change it to a Free2Play model.
After four and a half months of development, full of expectations, we hit the release button and went to a pub to celebrate! We already had a few beers when the first player reviews started to appear and we finally knew that we did a good job, because all of them were fantastic! Nearly all aspects of the game, as well as the price, blew people away.
Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned
Although we’ve played it safe with most of our decisions, there were several areas that we had yet to explore, to learn how we could use them to our benefit and that of the player. One of those was In-App purchases. We’ve realized that some people didn’t expect them in the game (Dead Trigger was the first MADFINGER game with those) and were giving us one-star reviews just because of that. Unfortunately, somehow they didn’t realize that they could earn enough funds just by playing the game and don’t need to spend anything! Lesson learned: highlighting such facts clearly in advance should prevent any confusion.
We’ve also recorded a significant drop in players after the first few missions, so after some research, we realized that the game gets too hard for players who do not have any experience with First Person Shooters on phones or tablets. Another lesson learned: make it even more casual in the beginning and slowly increase the difficulty. At the same time, provide harder difficulty missions for hard-core players. Related to that previous point is one of the things that we’ve omitted for our first release: the tutorial. It’s usually a pain in the ass to make, and most players skip it anyway, but it definitely helps the casual audience along, and there’s a lot of casual players on mobile platforms. Yet another lesson learned: to provide a tutorial even when you think everybody will understand your controls anyway.
Last but not least, we wanted to give players an easy way to contact us, so we added a mail form to the game (the Post building in the City). But we underestimated the number of players who would actually use it and moreover, didn’t expect so many (iOS) players to click “Send” rather than “Close” when they change their minds. The result was our mailbox getting spammed with hundreds of thousands of emails with just a preset signature in them – and some really important messages from players got lost (at least for week or two).
The Day After
The success of the Dead Trigger game exceeded all our expectations. The initial interest players took was amazing, and it only increased enormously a few weeks later when we decided to make the game free, relying just on the in-app purchases. Since then we’ve released around ten updates for each of the platforms, adding new content and improving the existing features in each of them.
Within nine months we’ve achieved seventeen million downloads (iOS +Android), and even now have over fifty thousand daily installs and more than five hundred thousand daily active users. The game got several highly regarded awards, of which I should mention at least Unity’s Best Technical Achievement and Community Choice, Apple’s Hall Of Fame, Editor’s Choice or App Store’s Best of 2012 Showpiece Games, which we really, really value.
During the few weeks after the launch, all of us got back to work on Shadowgun: DeadZone (a great and challenging multi-player project), while revisiting Dead Trigger from time to time to work on updates.
MADFINGER Games successfully released Shadowgun: DeadZone back in November 2012 and right now are working on support for both Dead Trigger and Shadowgun: DeadZone, while also creating two new games; one of them being Dead Trigger 2.