Upopa Games is an indie games company from Israel. The three team members, Niv Touboul, Or Avrahamy, and Gideon Rimmer, met in Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and formed an instant bond due to their mutual passion for games. Hopeless: The Dark Cave is their first game (though they’ve since released two more games, and others are on the way). Gideon Rimmer, game designer and artist at Upopa Games, explains how to make a horror game cute and not depressing.
Hopeless: The Dark Cave is a cute and funny horror game. The player controls a single blob, standing alone and scared in dark room, waiting for its doom. Shadows creep in from the edges of the screen, and you must decide quickly whether it’s a monster coming to eat you or a friendly blob giving you more firepower (and another body in the way). Shoot a monster and you’re safe (for a while), shoot a friend and you’ll have to face the consequences.
As Hopeless: The Dark Cave is the first game we published as a team, and we are a very small team, we wanted to keep things simple. The game had to be 2D, endless, with an intuitive and simple mechanic, but also to stand out and be memorable.
True horror games create anxiety in a safe environment by making the player feel disempowered. Hopeless: The Dark Cave is all about disempowerment as well, but in a casual, humorous way that tries to appeal to a wide audience, and doesn’t conform to the “horror game” standard grim and realistic look.
We knew right from the start that we want the game to evoke strong emotional reactions in the players, making them feel a real connection with the characters. Our art director Niv Touboul designed the blobs to be cute for the player to relate to them, but not in a childlike manner, so their deaths would be funny and not tragic. I drew the monsters, which needed to provide a strong, clear contrast to the blobs: big, red, dark and angry, vs. small, yellow, poorly armed and timid.
Terrified Blobs Lose a Life
The gameplay in Hopeless: The Dark Cave is mostly about fast reflexes, with a fair amount of luck and some strategy thrown in for good measure. In order to keep the game exciting and challenging, we had to limit the number of blobs that can be accumulated and the number of shots the player can fire.
The blobs represent the number of lives one has in the game. Run out of blobs and lose, so we couldn’t just give the player an unlimited number of them. We came up with the idea of saving a bunch of blobs once the player gathers a certain number of them. This not only kept the difficulty level in check, but also provided a further sense of achievement and progression.
We considered an ammo mechanism to limit the number of shots, but that seemed too cumbersome, and running out of ammo would mean ‘game over’ within seconds. Our solution was giving the blobs anxiety levels: the more shots missed and friends killed, the more terrified the blobs become. Get them too scared, and eventually they wouldn’t be able to take it anymore and will blow their own little heads off.
Instead of an “anxiety meter,” we made a separate animation sequence for each anxiety level, making it visually clear that the blob is scared, and giving them more character. And of course, the suicide animation had to be funny and cartoonish.
We love to see players reacting to the blobs killing themselves. However, while it came to marketing the game, the suicide which we thought to be one of the best moments in the game was viewed by potential publishers as a risk. And so we decided to go full indie and market the game ourselves with no budget.
One Million Downloads on a Tight Budget
We decided to release Hopeless on a Friday 13th (December 13th, 2013), because we knew that game reporters and reviewers would be looking for horror games, especially ones with a unique theme (i.e: everybody’s fed up with zombie games!).
Our emails to game sites and bloggers struck home, and we got some great initial press coverage. Later, in order to break the 500k barrier on Android, we cooperated with companies such as AppGratis and App of the Day, which highlight an app and give players who download it something for free. We like the model these companies offer because everybody wins: the players receive free content for their games, and the developer gets lots of new players without having to harm the game experience or spend a lot of money.
An unexpected ‘bonus’ to the large numbers of initial downloads on Android was lots of pirates! Pirating is a problem for every game developer, but I’m not sure how crucial it is for free-to-play games. In our case, the pirates actually did some of the work for us; when we released the game on iOS, we got a massive wave of legal iOS downloads in the countries in which we were most pirated.
Listening to the Players, Exploring New Tools
After the initial release, we had to tackle two main issues: performance and players’ demand for more content.
When we first built Hopeless, we used sprite animation (the monsters were actually drawn frame by frame). It looked great, but the game slowed down and lagged just as the action peaked, especially on older devices. Our developer, Or Avrahamy, found Spine 2D, a great tool for creating bone animation, and we set to redoing the whole game animation. The process was very tedious and time consuming but well worth it. With bone animations, the game ran much smoother even on slower devices, and we could now easily add new skins and weapon options. It also halved the size of the APK, resulting in a much faster download, while still looking just as good as the original animations.
The original version of the game was well received but didn’t have much depth. We considered plenty of different ways to add more content to Hopeless, but soon learned that the balance between ‘too easy’ and ‘too hard’ is very delicate in such a simple game. We eventually opted for more weapon options, which we added over time, and a completely new game mode that is faster and more intense than the original. Combined with an in-game currency which we implemented later, these items give players something to aspire to and tangible achievements rather than just a higher score.
Working on Hopeless: The Dark Cave was a great experience. The team learned not only about making and marketing games, but also how to run an indie games studio.
In the months following the launch of Hopeless: The Dark Cave, Upopa Games released two sequels, Hopeless: Space Shooting (iOS/ Android) and Hopeless: Football Cup (iOS/ Android) which have somewhat of a different atmosphere. They’re now working on some other, very different, games they hope to release in the near future.
Hopeless: The Dark Cave (and its two sequels) are available on the iTunes Store and Google Play. The game is currently undergoing a massive update, which will be released very soon.