ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Steampunker: How Visual Tools Helped an Amateur Make a Game

August 11, 2015 — by Industry Contributions


ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Steampunker: How Visual Tools Helped an Amateur Make a Game

August 11, 2015 — by Industry Contributions

Amateur – a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons. Compare professional. First things first. Let’s start with who I am, to provide enough background for what is to follow”, says Mariusz Szypura, the creative director of the Telehorse studio, as he shares the story of Steampunker.

“What do you do?” I have always found this question a bit awkward, as I could never answer it in a way that would put all the puzzle pieces together. Rather, I would give a half-truth that best fit a given situation. Actually I’m a would-be architect, who dropped out of university having started recording albums. Yet I never became a professional musician. I have worked as a graphic designer and creative director. Not to mention dabbling in computer programming. That is why it’s so tough for me to give a straightforward answer.

Mariusz Szypura
Mariusz Szypura gradually got to gamedev through music and then design.

It all started with music. I had recorded an album with my band called Happy Pills and someone had to design the artwork for the cover. Then I made another cover for a couple of friends, some gig posters and T-shirts. This landed me at a job at an advertising agency. Over a few years I progressed from just a designer student side-kick to the position of a creative director. My portfolio includes almost 100 album covers as well as countless graphics and advertising campaigns. Music has become an after-hours pastime. And, since I’m known as a workaholic, this pastime consumed all the time that others were spending partying, sleeping or any other ways. Eventually I’ve managed to release 15 albums with various bands, compose original scores for two movies and produce records and songs for other bands.

I also tried my hand at computer programming – I began developing iOS apps. And then it struck me! I could finally pull all my skills together and make a game! So I did: came up with a concept, designed it, drew it, programmed it, provided sound effects and composed the soundtrack. After a year of hard work my game was finished. I called it Steampunker.

Now, after this short background, are you really surprised that the reviewers and prize judges offer critical acclaim mainly to the artwork and music?

But developing Steampunker was not easy at first…

photoshop skills helped make art easier

I enjoy drawing but always lack time to do it. When I began working on the game, I wanted to draw it from scratch. Though I soon realized that if I did so, I’d finish the initial stage in about 3 years. I had to come up with something that would enable me to create the art, while still leaving time for programming, music and concept work. I planned to start off with very general sketches and develop more detailed ones later on.

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Mariusz was looking for ways to make original art, music, and do programming, all by himself.

I decided to create the dominant artwork in a way that may seem difficult at the first glance: I put together photo collages and turned them into something completely different in Photoshop, as a background. Then, based on these collages, I used a tablet to draw the boards. Over many years of work as a graphic designer I have mastered Photoshop as my main tool, so working on the graphics proved easier than it seemed. Whereas Vincent and the robots are made and animated in 3D, I think it is a nice combination of 2D and 3D techniques.

The dev eventually decided to make rough sketches, and upgrade the art later on.

 A Record You’re Listening To As You Play

I really wanted the music to be different to what can be heard in all other games. I thought of it as of a record you listen to while playing the game, which perfectly matches what is happening on the screen. I had plenty of sketches available for the new album of my Silver Rocket project, so I selected those fitting the ambience of Steampunker and wrote a few new tracks. The soundtrack was to reflect my personal style and in no way those trends currently in vogue in the gaming world.

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The STEAMPUNKER soundtrack reflects the dev’s personal vision, and not any of the trends.

Programming: in need of something visual

I chose Unity as the tool to make my game. Why? It’s probably obvious to all gamedev experts, but it was not so for me at that time.
Before that my programming experience had been limited to Basic and, subsequently, when I entered the realm of the interactive, I first worked in Macromedia Director, and then in Flash… With the advent of iPhones I developed a few apps in Objective-C.

screenshot A 2
Limited programming skills made the dev search for something visual and understandable.

Problems arose as soon as I decided to make a game. Not an app, but a real game. I simply could not imagine writing it line by line. This was not an option with my limited programming expertise. I definitely needed something visual. First I came across GameSalad and started to develop my prototype there. Although I was happy with the visuals, I quickly reached its limits when it comes to usefulness in my game. I also became briefly interested in Cocos2d and GameMaker, but it was Unity that hit the nail on the head. I could finally see what I was doing and the capabilities were virtually unlimited. Despite it took me too long to figure out what was going on in the code you got referred back to after a while, another invaluable discovery came with the Playmaker plugin! I am a graphic designer, a visual learner, and it is so much easier for me to work when I see what is connected and why.

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Unity turned out the best tool to bring these sketches to life for Mariusz, a visual learner.

The highly developed Unity forum has proved itself really useful. I was able to find solutions to all the problems that I faced during development. Another tool streamlining work in Unity is the assets store. And here comes the dilemma: should I develop the game all by myself, but for a longer time, or is it better to spend some money on ready-to-use solutions? There have been moments when I chose the latter. Mainly because of the fact that being the solo developer of the game there was no one to delegate part of the work to. On top of that, I am a passionate advocate of reaching your goals quickly and effectively, rather that savouring the path to the very end.

“I like to learn, so I took this opportunity to find out more about Javascript and C#.”

After my previous experience with 3D software, Unity appeared very intuitive and quick to work with (at least for me). I like to learn, so I took this opportunity to find out more about Javascript and C#. Another advantage of Unity is its cross-platform function. It’s pretty amazing; I cannot imagine starting the project all over so that the game could be played on Android, for instance. Nevertheless, converting the game developed for iOS to Android platforms still proved to be total hell due to confusing resolution, density and aspect ratios.

screenshot EEE 1
Porting an iOS game to Android still turned out a hard task.

With a little help from friends

When I finished the game I thought I would need a bit of help to showcase it to the world at large. Jacek, my fellow Happy Pills band member since 1993, took it upon himself to deal with all marketing activities. Domaradzki brothers, famous for their Witcher posters, created beautiful artwork for Steampunker. Gabz, one of the brothers, used to be my co-worker in an advertising agency. Other Steampunker posters were designed by Piotr Ruszkowski, the co-developer of Tormentum, as well as Dawid Ryski.

Friends helped Mariusz make the art.
Friends helped Mariusz make the art.

When I realized I actually created a complete, functional game, I started submitting it for various competitions and showcases. Some of the events where Steampunker was showcased are Casual Connect Indie Prize, Tokyo Game Show, Digital Dragons and Poznan Game Arena. And all of a sudden the game met with favourable reception, winning critical acclaim, awards and nominations. Whereas I, travelling to all those locations and meeting game developers, sellers and players, suddenly saw all the shortcomings of my game. What was even worse, I realized how little I knew of the business side of things. I simply made a game I liked, without thinking of gamers, business models or ideas of monetization. It seemed terrible – I published a premium game, while everyone else went for free-to-play. On the other hand, I felt the same way as in the 1990s, when I released my records without any calculations, through my own independent record label. Had I treated my game development as pure business, it would have been an absolute fuck-up. Whereas now I feel it’s a perfect springboard for my next game.

Being a passionate gamer, Mariusz recalls Steampunker’s development process as an exciting game as well, “A strategic adventure, where you need to plan everything with limited resources (1 hominid). Next, you have to solve innumerable logical puzzles without losing sight of your main objective. A million decisions has to be made that will affect how the game turns out. Eventually, you reach your goal and complete the game… or rather, both games.” He admits that you soon start missing that initial excitement, and have no other choice than start making a new game!

Steampunker also has a long story with Casual Connect: they got accepted for the USA show in 2014, but couldn’t go to San Francisco. They won the Indie Prize for Best Game Art in Belgrade the same year, and participated in the Indie Showcase 2015 in Amsterdam. Steampunker was nominated for Best Audio and Best Game Art at Indie Prize Asia 2015 and for Best Audio, Best Game Art and Best Game Design at the USA 2015 show.

Steampunker is currently available for iOS and Android mobile devices. And Mariusz is quite busy at the moment. New features will be added to Steampunker soon. He is also working on a new game called Steamville ,showcased at Indie Prize USA, and hopes to finish it in Q4 2015. And on August 7th he released a new EP with Happy Pills.


Industry Contributions