KickBack is a team of two: Nick Konstantoglou and Vagelis Antonopoulos. Unofficially formed in early 2010, the team was officially founded in 2012. Lost Echo, their first game, came out in September 2013. Nick tells us about their experience.
Before I tell you the story of Lost Echo, I have to tell you the story of the game we never made. I used to do architectural visualization, but stopped for a variety of reasons. Wondering what to do next, the idea to make a game, specifically an adventure game, came to mind. Of course, I made the classic mistake most inexperienced developers make: start with a very, very ambitious idea. It would be a PC game with graphics that would rival games with a budget of millions, and mechanics that would be innovative and revolutionary. While that had over-ambition written all over it, my cousin Vagelis needed no convincing to come on-board. Thus, KickBack was formed.
A couple of months passed, and one thing became really obvious: we were never going to finish. We had one area with a really detailed entrance, but really blocky surroundings, and a pretty basic movement system working, but that was about it. No puzzles, no mechanics, no dialogue system…nothing. Fortunately, we had the wisdom to realize we were in over our heads, but we weren’t giving up. We shelved the project and thought about our next move.
Enter Lost Echo
We attempted to adjust our ambitions to a more realistic level. We started to consider mobile games. The more we thought about it, the more sense it made. The point-and-click controls made even more sense on a touch device than on a PC, so we weren’t compromising there. Actually, we were improving the experience. We had already bought a copy of Unity Pro, so the cost of just the iOS add-on was something we could afford at the time.
So we started from scratch. And in our naivety, we just made a list of things we like. We quickly decided on the following:
1) Touch controls that made sense: If touch is the input method we have, we wanted an experience that would take advantage of that and not emulate some other kind of non-existent input.
2) Setting: It was a no-brainer: Sci-fi, near-future. We both liked Sci-fi, and the rough idea we had of the story we wanted to tell worked really well in the near-future.
3) Graphics: They had to be the best we could make on a mobile device. Since it was a mobile platform, there was a limit on what we could do already. So why not shoot for the sky? As I had experience in architectural photorealism, I was pretty confident that I could bring the style I had developed over the years to mobile devices.
4) Gameplay: We decided to not reinvent the wheel here. This would be our first game, and so before we threw out the rulebook, we explored it. The puzzles would be grounded to logic, we would have enough variety, and we would have at least a couple of puzzles that would be really fun to do on a touch device.
5) We would be done in six months.
Do you see something really wrong in the list above? At the time, we didn’t.
Realities of Development
The first couple of months were very exciting. We were serious this time, and the project seemed doable in a short amount of time. Using the small amount of experience we gained from the previous project, we were moving very fast. We started with nothing and a couple of months later, we had a lot of things in place, much more than our first attempt. The groundwork for the movement was done, a dialogue system was in place, we had the first silly puzzle, and I had started work on a multitude of areas. Yeah, so the game crashed every so often and all the areas were unfinished and untextured, but it felt like so much was in place.
Since we seemed to be doing really well, we went into feature creep mode. Every couple of days, either me or Vagelis would go “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and then we’d both quickly decide to do it. The story became more intricate and complex each day (and it was pretty complex to begin with).
With the deadline we ourselves set creeping ever closer, we suddenly realized that development takes much longer than we originally thought. We hadn’t stopped working, and we had put a lot of work into it, but the end product was feeling like it was 10 percent better. It wasn’t crashing as much now, the calculations were more efficient, and there was some texturing, but I had to rework some areas completely, so everything felt just as unfinished as before. I remember showing our game to a friend who said, “Wow, you really stopped developing it, eh?”. But we hadn’t. We were working more than ever, but we had nothing to show for it.
The next months of development were not pleasant. We made progress slowly. We kept pushing the deadline back, and each time, it was overly optimistic. We started feeling that we might never be done. There was no end in sight. At the same time, this was becoming a bigger commitment than we had realized. A six-month project that then flops is not a big deal; we could rationalize it as it being a learning experience. But as we passed a year of development, the stakes started to get higher.
There were other problems. The 2006 first gen Macbook Pro I had that I did most of the graphics on was really not up to the task. It’s not a bad machine (I’m still using it today!), it’s just that it was really starting to show its age. Baking lightmaps to compute lighting should be a one hour deal, but it became an overnight thing. Testing and tweaking things also was much slower than it should have been. Even Vagelis’ laptop died mid-development.
Things started to get pretty desperate. We realized every decision had to be correct the first time, which was almost impossible, and also made us a bit scared of making decisions. What if that puzzle idea is not good enough, and we have to change it? That will push us back! What if I have to change that model again? I will have to bake the lighting in all the scenes again, and that’s going to take a week! Our inexperience in other areas was starting to show as well. I was pretty confident in my graphics ability as far as environments went, but characters were not something I was strong in. I had to redo some characters three or four times to get them to a passable level.
This is usually the point in a story were something really positive happens that changes everything…but nothing of the sort happened. We just kept going.
We had a ton of problems we didn’t have immediate solutions to, and things were looking grim. We kept asking ourselves if we were just wasting our time. But despite all that, we never even thought to give up. Call it tenacity, stubbornness, or whatever you like, but we were determined to finish Lost Echo, no matter the cost. The only thing that changed was that we started looking for a publisher. At first, this game was a fun little project. Now it had become a bigger investment, and we were starting to feel scared. So instead of our original plan of self-publishing, we searched for a publisher. And as with all fear-induced decisions, it was a bad choice. I can’t really share what happened, and it wasn’t all bad, but overall it was a soul-crushing experience, the kind that makes you lose faith in humanity.
A Cliched, but Important, Lesson
In the end, we had to put more effort than ever before. We had to change a lot of things, because many of the decisions were clearly wrong. And even though we were already developing for much longer than we thought we were allowed to, we kept revisiting a lot of the decisions we made.
In the end, we were never sure about anything. We were never sure if our decisions were right, if people would like our game, or even if we would be able to cover our expenses. We just made it up as we went along and chose to do what we wanted to do. If there is one thing to take from this, it’s to never give up. A cliche, I know, but of all the things we did, this is the one thing we did 100 percent right.
We are also sure that we can do better next time. With the sales and general reception of Lost Echo being better than we expected, it seems that there will be a next time. We couldn’t be more excited.