In 2012, James Barnard from the Springloaded studio left the glittering world of AAA game production behind for a life of creative freedom and indie developer dreams. The first five games he made failed to gain any real market traction, so James was surviving on a part-time teaching job while coding almost every minute of the day and night. He shares the story of Tiny Dice Dungeon, the game that evolved Springloaded from just James Barnard and a laptop to a fully-fledged company with employees and a slightly cramped office.
James also presented at Casual Connect Asia 2014:
Survival Mode Teaching
One of the patterns you can see in game development is people getting bored and wanting to start something new. As a teacher, I always ask students to finish what they start, because completing a game is the hardest part, and what good are two unfinished games compared to a completed one?
Nevertheless, working on your own means you can ignore even the best advice, so I ignored my own and decided to take a break from my ambitious space game. Instead, I planned to spend a weekend building a small, fun thing to release as soon as it’s done. After two days, my idea of a dice-rolling dungeon crawler came to life as a bad-looking Mario-style character with a sword walking through one room after another fighting monsters. As I worked on the game, more and more ideas started to flow, and I realized that this quick recreational project probably deserved a little more time…
So I ended up with two games with something I thought was a lot of potential. I had to pick one to focus on. Having just started the RPG, and believing it only needed about five more weeks, I went on with this one. It’s amazing how with hindsight you can see how utterly wrong you can be about things.
Casual Connect Asia as a Totally New Experience: First Conference Ever Attended
Despite being in the games industry for 15 years, I had never attended a conference. I was always staying in the studio crunching on something or working to hit our next deadline. When Casual Connect Asia came round, I somehow ended up on an email thread asking for entries to the Indie Showcase. With a belief that my business wasn’t really going anywhere and was quickly devolving into a hobby, I understood I needed the help of a publisher, and this opportunity to meet some was too good to pass up.
I applied successfully, and was given a table in a room with 50 or so other developers. I rescheduled my classes and went along with several of my previous games, and my Tiny Dice Dungeon prototype to show to potential publishers. I had no idea what to expect, but was looking forward to finding it out.
Before the event, I arranged as many meetings as I could through LinkedIn and printed my first ever business cards (for a company that didn’t exist yet).
The conference was a world of opportunities, and I showed my game to every random person I met. I didn’t care about NDA’s or any kind of secrecy, I was just having a bunch of fun showing Tiny Dice Dungeon to people, and they seemed to be enthusiastic, offering plenty of feedback and making suggestions.
Without actually realizing it, I had designed a game that sat in line with certain demographics and trends that monetize and retain well. Therefore, Tiny Dice Dungeon happened to be interesting to publishers and even some investors. After a few discussions, I signed with Kongregate, who seemed to see things a lot like I do. I had to turn down some other offers, despite being tempted to sign two games. I stuck with just this one, which I think kept me from ending up dead.
An Official Company Created for the Sake of a Bank Account
I set up Springloaded as a company to have a bank account for something other than my name. And then I put my head down and started building the game for a September launch. Being a teacher helped me recruit a couple of people from the University: one person to do the networking and another one to help with balancing and art. My initial plan for the Tiny Dice Dungeon game was to use a few new features that weren’t there in my previous games, like very light network play through Gamecenter, and a Facebook “Like” button. But very soon, I realized that I needed to do a hell of a lot more in order to create a competitive product.
A Publisher is an Ally
Kongregate really helped me understand the freemium world better, and their input felt more like guidance and not forcing their will on me. It’s like we were both working together to build something. It’s totally opposite to my previous experiences, where the companies I worked for treated the publisher more as an enemy than an ally.
Therefore, I don’t see myself self-publishing on mobile again. The increased risk, lack of a second opinion, and inability to leverage a network of connections and options to help the game grow just make it impossible. Developers are always the first to mention Flappy Bird or some other self-publishing miracle story, but I feel like the chances of that happening again in the indie free-to play space are so minimal that you may as well call it impossible.
Interns: A Blessing and a Curse
As the project got bigger, our schedule became busier. The game I originally planned as a sole developer working alone wasn’t really going to cut it against the feature sets most players were probably expecting, and all the exciting ideas that would normally be called feature creep were somehow getting implemented with the belief that they would improve retention.
My team was expanded with interns from the university, which was both a blessing and a curse. Interns take a while to get up to speed, and just when they start being useful, they have to leave!
Testing the Markets
The science of metrics and refining your game through trusted data seems obvious, but I think without the push of our partners, I would have been lazy and just forced the game out early, killing our chances of maximising our impact at launch. That said, even with the analysis at work, we found our ARPU not high enough, and, due to adding all the fun new content, we had overrun our original global launch date by nearly six months. So, with the development money all gone, and the company running on fumes, we just had to release it.
All these careful adjustments had pushed the retention up and steered monetization in the right direction, but we hadn’t hit our targets. That’s why in the last moment before release, we agreed to add a couple of large new features. It was a calculated risk, but we all believed it was worth it. Stability wise, this step was dangerous, with us launching a new multiplayer mode just days before our global submission deadline. But the importance of drawing retention/ARPU up before the initial launch cannot be underestimated.
Eventually, we would be releasing Tiny Dice Dungeon globally some 13 months after starting, which is quite staggering for a game that was intended to take 48 hours to make.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
We made an original and fun free-to-play game that people seem to enjoy. Having a good grasp of all elements of development meant I could work pretty much uninhibited throughout the development of the game. As a passionate team all working together in a single space, we somehow developed the most relaxed and fun office atmosphere I’ve ever experienced, which made making the game pure joy (most of the time).
Hiring a full-time QA person (who is amazing at his job) really made the difference in the last month, because we were so busy adding features and fixing bugs that we simply didn’t have time to play the game.
Last but not least, we’ve achieved a great publisher-developer relationship that validated our decisions and helped us focus on what was best for the players.
There’s no project without the bad sides, and here they are: Tiny Dice Dungeon wasn’t originally intended to be this big, which meant we had to make some big design changes along the way, costing us some time. Integrating metrics and SDK’s too late created crash bugs that went out to the public in early builds. Not fully understanding what works in free-to-play from the very beginning is the reason why some design decisions were slower to nail down than they would be now.
Mind the Work-Life Balance
I did my best to protect the team from too many long hours, but my personal dedication to the project meant that I pushed myself as hard as possible, without much sleep and with no days off (including weekends) for almost a year. Because of the impending deadlines, I always promised myself it would only be for a short while more, but, as each deadline loomed, we decided we could make the game even better and did more and more changes. The result was an additional six months of development that left me very tired and laid waste to our finances.
The game was launched on iOS and Android globally in April 2014, and thanks to getting great features with Apple and Google has had nearly 2 million downloads already. While the game hasn’t been a raging success financially, it became very popular with the fans. Springloaded is now ready to do bigger and better things with their next title, and hope to continue working on Tiny Dice Dungeon for the foreseeable future, adding more content and new platforms.