Barking Mouse Studio is a two-person indie game studio in San Francisco, consisting of Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming. They consider Lost Toys to be their first full game. While both are software engineers and artists, they come from opposite backgrounds. Jim took computer science in college and is a self-taught artist. Danielle took ceramics in college and is a self-taught engineer. Together, they tell the story of Lost Toys.
Wandering Through Projects
We met when Danielle hired Jim to work at an interactive media agency. From the start, we wanted to work on our own projects together, but finding the right one took a bit longer than expected. Financial management app? Built it. News reader? Yep, several of them. Database GUI? Yup, it’s open-sourced here. With each new project, we learned a lot, but none of them ever felt quite right.
We did a couple of game jams and had a great time making the (often less than) 48 hour games. With every new jam, we would brainstorm ideas ahead of time. Suddenly, we were talking about games all the time. So naturally, we thought, “We’ll make a game to sell on the App Store! It’ll make a million dollars, and only take a month or so!” We barely knew game-making, we didn’t know mobile, and we really didn’t know 3D. It was nearly a year later before we were finally ready to launch our first game.
Our old GUI system, and the first time we were able to play a level.
Our first attempt at Lost Toys was with HTML5 and WebGL (using Three.js). For us, it was a nightmare. It felt like we had to re-invent the wheel, the scene view, the model importer, the audio player, the renderer, the camera, and… you get the idea. We struggled for about a month, and then realized that we needed something that would just work. After noticing a lot of fellow game jammers using Unity, we switched. In addition to being easier to develop in, this opened up a lot of doors for us, since we could now publish on nearly any platform.
In the trough of doubt between the switch from HTML5 to Unity, we questioned our initial game mechanic. It just wasn’t fitting with the aesthetic (creepy toys) and wasn’t as immersive as we wanted. Our budget was too tight to let us hire voice actors. We needed the environment alone to convey our story, and an unsettling theme can convey a lot of emotion. In the end, we drew inspiration from a lot of sources like Leonardo DaVinci to Apple to the San Francisco Exploratorium and games like The Room, Zen Bound and Cogs.
Scope and Resource Restrictions
Neither of us has any audio background, but we know the value of it. It was important to us not to compromise the game aesthetic. Having no soundtrack was better than having one that didn’t fit, and the budget wasn’t there for something custom. Fortunately, we found the beautiful, classical and free Creative Commons licensed work of pianist composer Peter Rudenko. We’ve listened to “The Fall” about a thousand times during development. It’s one of our favorite pieces of music ever, and it fits the tone and aesthetic of Lost Toys perfectly.
We also didn’t have the budget for any kind of custom audio samples or to hire a sound engineer. We looked at a number of websites that sold or offered free stock audio. Most of the sites didn’t offer trial samples, and we needed to playtest different sounds as cheaply as possible. Pond5 was great for this, we could download watermarked audio clips and see if they matched what we were going for.
Since the game needed to be as immersive as possible, we felt that everything should be a part of the game world – including the GUI elements. At first, we tried to make everything skeumorphic, “physical” elements of the game. The first version of Lost Toys was more of a ghost story with little “wisps” that flew around and “oozed” off of the toy at the start of each level. Made up of little puffs of glowing smoke, wisps were ethereal “undo” buttons. Unfortunately, the wisps complicated the code and gameplay quite a bit. None of our playtesters understood what to do with them. So they fell into the dung heap of history, in favor of a minimalist on-screen GUI. Surprisingly, we found that the new GUI helped players remain immersed in the game because they didn’t have to learn how to interact with the wisps.
For us, building a 2D game was never an option we considered. Neither of us are 2D illustrators, and Jim had some old experience with 3D graphics. Plus, we really like the aesthetics of minimal but realistic games (think Zen Bound and The Room) and enjoy puzzle games like Cogs and Flow that take advantage of a touch interface. Because of our 3D requirement, keeping development time under a year was very hard work. We ruthlessly limited the scope over and over again. Despite this, our main rotational mechanic in this “simple” game took three months, several revisions and many individual attempts before we pair programmed a solution.
Getting The Word Out
Why do we need a trailer? We’ve got a laggy video of the whole first chapter!
Lost Toys is our first attempt at a professional game, and rotational math was only one of the many things we didn’t know how to do when we started. We had no idea how to market or distribute a game. We just assumed that was what app stores were for. Fortunately for us, we live in San Francisco, where there is a wealth of established indie developers that are incredibly generous with their time and advice (thank you, thank you, thank you!) Many of them we met through our local IGDA chapter, which is a great organization to join if you’re interested in indie game development.
The biggest advice we received was to start reaching out to potential players immediately. To do that, we needed a great trailer. Like with the rest of our game, and indie development in general, we didn’t have the budget to hire someone to make our trailer. We had to figure out how to make it ourselves with zero film-editing experience. It took us about a week of studying movie trailers to come up with a rough storyboard. From there, we needed to figure out how to make what we wanted. The solution we came up with was to turn exported image sequences into movie clips. The problem with this method is that in-game audio can’t be used. To get around that limitation we borrowed a trick from all those movie trailers, and have a single piece of music playing throughout the trailer which helps tie together all the different bits of gameplay.
Everything Comes Together
The finished trailer
So here we are, almost a year from when we started. Lost Toys won “Most Promising Game” as part of the Indie Prize at Casual Connect, and we’re launching on iOS at the end of October with Android and BlackBerry to follow. As part of the process, we learned to say “no” to every idea we had that wasn’t in direct support of launching a solid game and that building the game is only half of the job.