Mingle Games is an independent game development studio with main focus on mobile gaming. Based in Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, the company was founded in 2012 by two experienced game developers Vladislav Spevák and Jiří Formánek, who worked for game companies as Disney Mobiles, Centauri Production, or Lonely Sock. Vladislav shares the story of developing the company’s third game, Dark Lands.
Before Dark Lands, Mingle games released two games: a physics-based logical-action game called Save The Birds and a hammer tossing game called Dwarven Hammer. While Save The Birds had some success with over 1.7 million downloads, Dwarven Hammer was pure failure. It was our good learning process though, where we put all the lessons and experience into Dark Lands. I am a programmer turned game designer and producer, while Jiri Formanek is still focusing mainly on programming. We hired Pavel Konfrst as artist to be part of a team.
After we failed with Dwarven Hammer (which was simple and quickly made), it was like a cold shower to wake up and stop doing things that we believe might have been popular, and instead focus on something that is a part of us and what we wanted to really play.
Creating Our Own Feel
We are all fans of fantasy as well as dark and horror themes, so we wanted to make something that would have unique look and artistic feeling, while not spending too many resources on complicated art. At the time, I was playing Limbo and was fascinated with the possibility to make a very strong atmosphere with just silhouettes. From that moment, I felt so inspired that I decided to also try to make a silhouette game, but with a different approach than Limbo. We also love Frank Miller as an artist, so we were inspired by his Sin City and 300!
We started designing the art style and felt it was the way to go. Pavel did a great job bringing all our ideas to life and also putting little details in it that matters. Finally, we believed we had what it takes to be different and still minimalistic with a noir feeling. As a big fan of old games like Another World and the first Prince of Persia, we wanted to make more complex movement so we chose to use skeletal animations instead of sprite, as this allowed us to make way more animations without a great loss of memory.
As I love to play runners, I was playing with an idea to twist the gameplay a little and bring in a fight mode to the game to make it a hack-and-slash runner. I found that games like Punch Quest have a nice fighting model inside, but wanted to make it little more tactical while still using full scale of movement such as slide, jump, double jump, etc. Gameplay was the biggest challenge in the end. We decided to use gestures for running, so a simple swipe up was set for jump and double jump, while swipe down was used to slide, just like in games such as Temple Run. Incorporating a fighting system to this was the most difficult. We tried to use gestures over enemies to slash them (think Fruit Ninja), but that produced chaos in the control and was mixing with other gestures. We even tried virtual buttons for attack and block, but again, it didn’t feel good to mix virtual buttons with gestures. After many fails, testing, and changing of gameplay, we ended up with the simple control we have now: swipe up to jump, swipe down to slide, tap to attack, and two fingers hold to block. It just felt natural, and people we have tested it with finally liked it.
The issue with all development processes is always budget. We wanted to create a high-quality game, but time was ticking, so we could not spend too much time on it. We knew that creating another fast game would just result in failure, and we could expect to close the company right after that. Then came AppCampus, and everything good happened from there.
We applied for funding from the AppCampus program, and we were lucky enough to be selected! This was something that we needed, as we believed we had a great idea in Dark Lands and while we put all our knowledge and skills into its creation, we also knew we needed extra time to make it stand out from the rest. They helped us not only with funding, but also mentoring and education that helped us spend way more time on the game and brought in new ideas. We had to release Dark Lands exclusively for Windows Phone for period of three months, so we focused on this part first.
Feature Hell and the Release
As we knew from our past projects, it is very easy to slip into feature hell and get killed by it. So we have been very strict with Dark Lands, making only the core gameplay, a limited amount of bosses and enemies, and two worlds. We wanted to release the game to see if our ideas and our game were what people actually wanted. It is always easy to think that your game is great, but the truth is, only the players will decide if the game is good or not. So we took all the necessary features we believed were needed to make the game feel complete and made those as perfect as we could as fast as possible to release it. Quality is always more important than quantity.
After a few extra months of development (six months total), we felt we finally had a core game that was ready to release. We self-published on Windows Phone (WP), and we had just a small marketing budget. The game went live on December 12, 2013 just before Slush 2013 in Helsinki. Before release, we were so scared of releasing another failure that we spoke loudly about closing the company after its release. But luckily, the game gained popularity right away. With support from the press as well as promotional help from Nokia and Microsoft we reached over 1,600,000 downloads to the date and became the most successful project of AppCampus. We reached the Top 1 Paid App spot in most of the countries, and also the Top 10 Free spot (we have been setting the game free for promotion). With thanks to all AppCampus team, namely: Paolo Borella, Timo Mustonen (Nokia), Ron Ellington, and rest of their hard working team, we had our breakthrough in mobile gaming.
We’ve been lucky that our game has gained mass popularity in a mostly organic way, so we didn’t have to spend money on promotion. But we released just the core game, and people wanted more. We felt it was time to bring in all the extra features we wanted to do: a level based mode, multiplayer, and new art, enemies, bosses, worlds, etc. Also, we needed to port the game to iOS and Android, so that after the three months WP exclusivity, we can release the game there as well. As the game has had great success on WP, we have had offers from multiple world class publishers for Dark Lands. We chose to go with Bulkypix, as their offer sounded fair, and we’ve known them for a long time. Now we have finished the port, and soon we will bring the game to the iOS, followed by Android, while we carry on updating WP.
As our company is very young, we learned that only hard work and dedication is the key to success. It is necessary to analyze heavily every step and decision to make things happen. Everything we do, we ask yourself why we want to do it, why it is important, and how that can bring interest to the game. It is also important to try it on other people before it is decided for full development. Prototyping is the key and throw ideas away as soon as they doesn’t look as perfect in reality as they do on paper. Not only have we been learning business by our mistakes and failures, but we are also learning how to be more effective, how to not get overworked, and how to not lose time on things that are not important. All this also comes with a large amount of stress and starting a game company is definitely not for everyone, so I would not recommend it if that person doesn’t feel strong urge to do it and is ready to fail and to learn from failure and keep improving. It is a tough business, but it is a beautiful and worthy effort. We are very proud of Dark Lands and how we were able to cooperate to bring it to success and we are so happy to have positive feedback from players. It is so pleasant to read all the mail fans send us. Having the game rating over 4.6 is fantastic and unexpected. But we are only at the beginning of the journey and many hard obstacles are in front of us. We have won this battle, but the war is not over yet.