LabRATory is a mobile action puzzle game full of passion, thinking, and lab rats. It is the debut game of Bubo Games, a small, self-funded indie game developing company based in Hamburg, Germany. Born as a student project, LabRATory has been through a long journey to become the game you find in the app stores now. Its creator Bjoern Bergstein shares the story.
Cut the Rope+a Lemming+Portal 2=Action Puzzle
It was a cold evening in December 2011 when three guys sat together to rescue their actual student project. There was a bunch of open tasks and lots of bugs and unsolved problems in the game’s design. We decided to kill the old one and concentrate on a new, achievable mobile game. Lack of time and resources gives the best circumstances for a good game design. So we ditched nearly everything we had, and gathered new ideas with new vitality and the will to succeed.
Around Christmas Eve, the vision was finally born: LabRATory should be a cute 2D action puzzle game with dozens of lab rats for mobile touch devices. The style should resemble Cut the Rope, the main character should act like a lemming, and the environment and features should be based on Portal 2.
This would be a timeless cute comic game, but not too childish. The mechanics borrowed from lemmings gave us a simple and easy-to-plan character without random behavior. As for the puzzle and setting elements, we liked to use Portal ideas…by the way, lab rats in a laboratory with lasers and portals are awesome just because! 😉
The ingredients were perfect! After six weeks, we presented a full playable mobile game and got excellent feedback. The teachers then forced us to use the prototype and transform it into a good-looking game. They didn’t just rescue the project, they even defined a new kind of gameplay called “action puzzle”! Furthermore, they saw the potential that this could be more than just a student project.
A Ship with 10 People Won’t be Faster Than a Rowboat if Everyone Discusses the Direction
It took a few weeks and lots of beer for Julien Rüggeberg, Philipp Soré, and me to dare to accept this challenge! We liked the idea of investing the next semester in improving LabRATory and making it ready for the market, but a highly motivated team was still missing. So, after pitching the game and the vision and presenting our plan in front of the other students, the team grew to 10 members. The goal was to get a full game into the app store to improve our portfolio.
But in the next two months, we were forced to realize that a vision can be easy to describe, but hard to transfer into a game. It was our first big lesson: a ship with ten different people will not be faster than a small rowboat when everybody is allowed to discuss the direction. We stopped development and went back into pre-production. The vision and style guide was not as clear as we thought, and we had no workflows or processes. Everybody was acting on their own, and the results didn’t fit together. Let me say it: the style was not as cute as we liked it, and the game lost its magic.
There was a feeling that democracy is not always the clue to create a great thing. And after a few such weeks without a clear vision, we realized a strong need for someone able to make decisions for the whole team. So I was chosen as a vision keeper, and Floris Pfeifer became the lead artist. We were there to set up workflows and define our main goals. For example: the art quality needs to be exactly like Cut the Rope (but not too close to Cut the Rope), gameplay should be easy to understand without a tutorial, and we won’t have too much text in our game – so every button needed a symbol. After all these definitions were made clear, the great satisfaction motivated us again. We were back on course!
The Player and Developer Think in Different Ways
Powered by this tailwind, we created a few levels and began to do as many playtests as possible. I think almost every student and family member invested hours in testing LabRATory and giving feedback. It was good for us to present the game to some other students who understand game design and arts. We also involved parents who never played a mobile game before. Later on, we presented LabRATory at exhibitions and events to catch the idea of how strangers react while playing the game.
The testers helped us optimize the flow by rejecting some features, such as the second way to finish a level or the countdown in the beginning of each level. In our opinion, it was great to have the option of finishing a level with or without cheese (we had an exit at this time) or to just have a few seconds to have a look at the game before playing. But that was just designer-driven s**t that nobody really understood or liked, so we cut it off! But the testers also demanded new things, like the stars above the clock and achievements in the winning screen.
We also reduced the basic skill level of the game. It took a very long time to optimize the learning curve. This was really hard, because everybody we knew also knew the game. First of all, I built up new levels step by step, and tried to make them as easy as possible. After that, I looked for new opportunities at exhibitions to see how the players react to this. There were a few people who said the first level package was too easy, but most users were satisfied, and (the most important thing) everybody understood how the game worked. In addition to that, we got great advice from our teachers and mentors in coding and designing to develop according to high quality standards.
Gamefounders: a Check of Professionality
Strengthened by countless satisfied players, we finally decided to present the game and the team to the real market. We applied for the first Gamefounders round to see how professional we really were at that point. The expectations were very low, and we had nothing to lose. To our great surprise, we got to the last round, and could pitch LabRATory in front of the investors. We weren’t invited to the program just because of being students and having no track record. But at least trying was the right decision, and it was a very good experience for the team.
In different stages of the applying process, we needed to answer questions we didn’t even think about before. The difference between a student project and a business project turned out bigger than we expected. We didn’t care for monetization, localization, third person tools, advertisements, publishers, and so on. At that point, we just enjoyed building a great game with lots of passion and pure fun. We believed that a good game would be everything you need to reach the stars…
So, we got back to earth and concentrated on finishing our semester with a brilliant mobile game. LabRATory won the Gameforge Newcomer Award in December 2012. And for most of us, the story ended there. Many of the students achieved their own goal and chose to work on other, less stressful things, or try out other genres or types of games.
Starting a Company: With Progress Comes Bureaucracy
Nevertheless, some people saw this award as a chance to build a company with its own ideas and an awesome culture, which was to be the cornerstone of many fascinating mobile games. This is why Bubo Games was born and gave us new opportunities. A team of four people who worked full-time and two people part-time rocked the house! Setting up our own place to work was awesome. Seeing our logo on all the documents and websites still makes me proud. But with all this progress, there came bureaucracy. I knew that building a business plan and trying to get an investor was to become a great part of my work. It was harder than I thought and took much more time.
We presented the game at the Casual Connect 2012 in Hamburg and found a few potential publishers for LabRATory. The deals seemed to be fantastic and for us nearly unbelievable. With those kind of deals, we didn’t need additional external money, and had a strong partner with knowledge and power. We also knew we had to negotiate with them until a contract is signed, and we were fine with that. We used this time to transfer the game into a professional gaming app with a local kit and tracking tools, along with other important features.
The negotiations went well! After a few months, our dream was almost coming true. The game was ready, the money was out, and we just needed to sign the contract with our favorite publisher. But this never happened. A personal change occurred in the upper management of this publisher company, and they decided to cancel all negotiations with external developers. And suddenly everything seemed to be too late.
Awesome Games are Played When People Find Out They Exist
We made the biggest mistakes of all possible ones. Having set everything on this one option, we forgot to care for alternative scenarios. We didn’t really pay attention to PR or marketing. It was the publisher’s task… wasn’t it? At that point, we understood that a deal without a sign has no value.
But we didn’t give up and reorganized ourselves quickly. LabRATory was this awesome premium puzzle game that the world must see! So we tried to do our best to promote the game at local exhibitions without any money for marketing and PR.
Finally, we released it into the App Store and hoped that the right people would realize the ingenuity of our game. We got no feature or response from Apple. Just a few downloads from our friends. But you can’t pay the bills with 100 downloads. That was the second time we were brought back to reality. Although we had the ability to make an awesome game, people wouldn’t be able to play it because they’d simply never find out our game exists.
It’s best to have a full-time team member to take care of PR and marketing. There will be no cheese in the end if you forget that aspect in your plan.
Through a reliable publisher deal with Tivola, the game is now available on Apple App Store and Google Play for free, and as premium on Amazon. It has recently received 125,000 downloads in less than four weeks, and the team aims on getting many more through updates and optimizing.