Secret Santa: It’s a Stealthy Xmas is an HTML5 stealth-based platform game with a Christmas flavor targeting a young audience. In the game, players take the role of Santa and deliver presents under several Christmas trees while remaining hidden from the various family members inhabiting the different homes/levels. The developer, Adsumsoft, is a tiny mini-micro-studio based in Singapore. It actually consists of just one person, game designer and author Roberto Dillon, but the team can easily expand on a per-project basis whenever needed, or even find creative and original uses for existing PD and CC-licensed assets to complete development. Roberto shares the experience of creating a seasonal game that has an advantage: it can be rediscovered and updated every holiday season.
No Enemies, Drama or Failing
The idea behind Secret Santa was to create a joyful experience, without real enemies and drama for failing. In other words, it was designed to put players in a good mood suitable for the festive season.
A set of Christmas carols was needed to achieve the right atmosphere, and a few well-known ones were easily available from A-M Classical to accompany players in all phases of the game, including the “Game Over” screen which, as mentioned, still had to be perceived as a celebrative moment and not as an angry, disappointing failure.
Graphics wise, the idea was to keep things simple and cute, thanks to self-contained levels in each screen and a retro art style reminiscent of old classics like Little Computer People which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite games. The art assets used in the game were done mostly by Lanea Zimmerman and Trent Gamblin and fit the setting pretty well, delivering the kind of style that was originally intended.
The reasons behind this choice varies. For example, being an “old” guy who grew up with 8-bit games, I obviously have a soft spot for retro-inspired graphics. Anyway, even from a less sentimental and more practical perspective, this type of graphics also makes sense, since it’s easier and cheaper to make than other styles and allows faster iterations if something needs to be tuned or polished further later in development.
All About Jumping and Hiding
Secret Santa is a platformer with a simple stealth gameplay at its core, where players have to exercise patience and then be quick in their movements.
For the game to work, it was essential to make funny and interesting ways for the player to hide. So almost every piece of furniture in the houses has been designed as a platform to jump on and get to locations that remain out of sight to the family members: even a bookshelf or lamp, apparently too high to be reached, can indeed be a great hiding spot to wait while a little kid or an auntie passes underneath checking whether Santa has already delivered presents for them.
Besides jumping around, hiding behind doors is the other core mechanic. Glass doors can be opened to let Santa hide for a while as well, visible to no one but the player!
Controls: Buttons’ Functions Change with Santa’s Position
Controls can make or break a game on any platform, and even more so in mobile gaming. Great care was put into them to make sure that Santa’s acrobatics were as intuitive and easy to handle as possible, both when playing on PC and on a mobile touchscreen.
In touch versions, directional arrows for running were placed at the sides of the screen (left arrow on the left side, right on the right) with a button above each of them. The functionality of the buttons varies automatically according to Santa’s position and, in all but one specific case (i.e. while on the stairs), pressing either one will result in the same action, allowing players to use either thumb.
By default, the buttons are light blue and pressing them would result in jumping but, whenever Santa is next to specific objects, like Christmas trees or doors, the buttons turn red to signify something different can be done. That’s how Santa can go in and out of chimneys, hide behind doors and step away from there, use the staircases and, last but not least, deliver the presents under the Christmas trees.
Predicted Problem of Discoverability
The game was developed using Construct 2 and while the production workflow went very smoothly, it was kinda troublesome to fully exploit HTML5’s flexibility to deliver the game on multiple platforms and operating systems, since performance still varies significantly across browsers and devices. Eventually, we decided to focus only on PC desktop browsers, iOS (with the game ported by using Ludei’s CocoonJS) and also give a shot at the new upcoming Tizen platform, while temporarily leaving others behind due to lack of time for organizing proper testing.
Tizen caught our attention because releasing HTML5-based games on this platform is quite straightforward. Besides, we developed the game while the Tizen million-dollar App Challenge was on, so we decided to give it a try. Naturally, we didn’t win anything, but are still curious to see how the game will perform next Christmas on these new devices.
Being a very small studio and completely lacking marketing muscles and distribution power, it was easy to predict discoverability would be an issue, and indeed it was. Secret Santa was released as freeware in the second half of November 2013. The web version running on Clay.io and Facebook was the first to be launched, with iOS following soon afterwards.
Monetization was planned through ads on the web and voluntary donations through PayPal on iOS (no ads there to provide a pure, undisturbed playing experience) with 50 percent of any eventual donation to be devolved to charities supporting children in South East Asia.
Overall, by the end of 2013, the game had about 55k users, mostly playing on the web, while on iOS, Secret Santa managed to break into the Top 100 Arcade and Family games in only two countries (Macau and Laos). Sadly though, nobody donated anything (yes: you read right, not even a single person!).
Most likely, the reason for the complete lack of donations was that the game is targeted at children who, for obvious reasons, can’t donate directly but need to ask their parents first. Probably, the latter were not keen to do so.
Ads revenue didn’t fare any better and resulted in only a few dollars that were then donated to Seametrey Children’s School and Village in Cambodia.
Seasonal Games: The Chance of Being Rediscovered Every Year
Secret Santa is a seasonal game, which means interest will peak only at a specific times of the year. This means there’s not much purpose in doing an update right now, since nobody would notice. On the bright side, seasonal games will periodically be rediscovered and get new chances for reviews on blogs, websites, and YouTube channels. In the end, when done right, they may actually have a longer tail than other games whose novelty factor and interest burns out quickly.
Taking this into account, a proper Android version may be released in time for Christmas 2014: maybe we will get a donation this time!
Secret Santa is available on browsers, iOS, and Tizen platforms. Roberto is currently working on a couple of new concepts: an “on-rails” RPG game named The Innkeeper’s Tales and Defense: Evolution, a sort of tower defense/RTS hybrid based on cellular automata theory. To remain up-to-date with his work, check out Adsumsoft’s Facebook page or Roberto’s Twitter.