The tiny Turtle Sandbox team, founded by Theresa Duringer and Pete Angstadt in 2011, was created to make a game that gamers had never seen before. Pete had come up with a concept for an artillery-based game with a real-time twist, and his winning submission to the 2011 Activision Independent Games competition paved the way to develop what would later become Cannon Brawl. In this postmortem, Theresa Duringer discusses Turtle Sandbox’s navigation of the exploding indie development scene to just launching Cannon Brawl on Steam on September 19th.
Pete and Theresa originally met on a crystal dig in Trona in California, an area most known from such films as Star Trek V and Planet of the Apes. Imagine if we both had known that surreal trip would eventually precipitate a totally different kind of trip, a wild indie adventure.
We also both worked at Maxis at the time, where Pete was working as a gameplay engineer and Theresa contributed on the online team for Spore. Coincidentally, both of us ended up deciding to strike out on our own to develop smaller, more personal projects. With indie development in mind, Pete entered the 2011 Activision Independent Games contest with an idea he’d been musing on for years. His concept of an artillery game fused with real-time action-strategy won first place, and the prize winnings gave us the runway to dive into full time development.
Leaning on the Tribe
When we started Cannon Brawl, the prospect of going indie sounded purely… independent; a solo endeavor. We imagined ourselves crawling into our home offices and emerging haggard a year later, with a beautiful opus of personal magnitude. We bit off a huge task that we thought we would accomplish on our own: the creation of a game that would pull in enough sales to justify the effort. Independent game development requires a lot: programming, art, audio. We could do that (with the help of Rich Vreeland, who composed our score).
We’ve learned that it also requires legal work, marketing and press savvy, office space, and myriad practical needs that we’re not pros at. We’ve found support for these needs through local indie collectives. The exploding indie scene is more and more fostering an economy of favors, where indie devs offer feedback, services, and help to each other. For instance, indie devs Jeff Gates and Tod Semple shared an office with us and gave invaluable design feedback. Fellow indies Tim Keenan (A Virus Named Tom) and Randy O’Conner (Escape Goat) have come to do playtests so we could get away from ourselves and see if people were really getting the game. I met Murry Lancashire (formerly Halfbrick) giving a talk at GDC about making explosions pop, and invited him to our little studio to help critique some of our particle effects. He gave good feedback about flickers and impact.
As more indie studios emerge, the dev landscape is further supporting tribe-style support networks. These collectives are forming to assist each other. Joining forces with local indie collectives has been mutually beneficial for sharing resources, most important of which is word of mouth knowledge. We find out about contests (such as the PAX10), press events (such as the IGN Press Mixer), and conventions (such as GaymerX) through other devs. Corey Johnson helped work our PAX booth and was an amazing salesperson. He’s not indie (works at Unity), but he pitched in. Outside of sharing information, leaning on peers for advocacy, press contacts, and business advice has been hugely valuable to us. Looking back, if we could have found these support networks even sooner, we could have avoided reinventing the wheel and saved ourselves a lot of time and energy.
Right now, the global market for game consumption is huge in relation to the local development scene, which disrupts typical economic models of scarcity and supply and demand and encourages collaboration rather than competition. While triple-A game titles directly compete in huge markets selling millions of copies each, indie devs need only sell a fraction of a fraction of that amount to be viable. The success of indie peers will likely not eat into our market share. In fact, success begets success as cliques of indies carry each other to the top to some degree, simply through advantages with press, notoriety, and even community good will. In the few places indies do compete for limited resources, for example the Steam Top 10 list, we have the power to mitigate risk by strategically coordinating our release dates to not affect each other.
Further contributing to the air of collaboration is the generative nature of our product. Game development is creatively productive; we’re not depleting a resource. It’s not as if we’re oil drillers, and thus if we help our competitor out overall, oil supplies deplete, resulting in less product for us to sell. Creativity isn’t a finite resource. One of the worst things a developer can do to shoot his or herself in the foot is hoard their ideas.
There’s a myth about startups: if you have the next idea, you can strike it rich. An idea is not enough. It is in the execution of the idea where the real value of a product is brought to life. The elegant mechanic of Cannon Brawl, real-time pacing joined with artillery style play, theoretically may have been conceived in parallel. We’ve been to more than one convention where people commented that they had the same idea for a game. The difference is Pete and I executed on our idea. We quit our jobs, buckled down for two plus years, and did the work. In the process, we tapped into our indie tribe network. The result is a game that has benefited from countless iterations.
We didn’t hide our idea away for fear it would get snatched up. On the contrary, we invited our most direct competitors, other indie devs, to play Cannon Brawl, and we reaped the benefit of their expert feedback, with the understanding that we’ll provide the same courtesy in kind. In fact, many indie collectives share a code bank, where games are gifted freely. Such access to a larger pool of games from which to draw inspiration strengthens all of our abilities and enables us to raise the bar and create better games. This collaboration with peer competitors in the indie scene has been a big departure from the zeitgeist at large corporations.
Design by Iteration
By relying on peer feedback, we’ve been able to hone and polish Cannon Brawl. We’ve embraced an iterative process. Part of this has involved heavy reliance on industry peers through countless kleenex tests and playthroughs. For example, we originally disallowed players from flying their zeppelins across terrain to manage the pace of claiming buried resources such as diamonds. We later implemented a requisite of unearthing diamonds before mining them. However, we didn’t see that this second solution also neatly solved our original issue of managing the pace of claiming buried resources until another indie dev pointed it out. Eliminating the original ban on crossterrain flight improved usability and was something we may have overlooked without the help of peer feedback.
The risk with peer feedback is that it can be colored by friendships. The harshest criticisms may be couched in praises, slanting the critiques to be more positive to avoid hurt feelings. For this reason, we’ve also relied heavily on player feedback through Steam’s community services. Posting the game on Steam’s Greenlight helped us acquire feedback from a community that we wouldn’t normally have access to as a small team. We found out about kooky issues on a wide range of machines setups and specs that we could not support on our own.
Opening up our development process to the public required a vast amount of letting go, allowing the public to see raw content that we weren’t fully proud of yet. Our hope is that iterations based on the feedback we’ve gained have added more value to the game than the potential harm of exposing players to undeveloped content. Players seek out games in development through Early Access and the Greenlight program; so there’s an implicit contract that the content will mature as development marches toward final. Players know that their patience with rough content will be repaid by exposure to a development process and a chance to inform the shape the game takes. In our building brainstorm thread, players post ideas for Cannon Brawl war machines. Their knowledge of the rules of our universe and the combined power of their creativity has resulted in newly-minted content such as the bouncing grenade launcher and the damage boosting lightning tower.
The Turtle Sandbox team has been blown away by the positive support for Cannon Brawl. They’re gaining traction and building an online multiplayer base. Throughout this final development phase, they continued paying attention to forums, gauging the mood of players and responding to their needs with regular updates full of features and fixes. Theresa and Pete have recently been heads down crunching on as many fixes, features, and fun things as they could hammer out in time for Steam launch on September 19th.