OWLNIGHT (all uppercase letters) or usually known as mamoniem (all lowercase letters by the way) is that entity that is focused on making weird indie games. You can call it a company, team or a mini studio: it’s just one guy making games all the time (with some support from his great wife, friends and people around) & passionate about anything that is related to games. Muhammad A. Moniem made this decision a long time ago: that he will start making games in his free time rather than doing freelance work. It was a hard decision. It was hard to replace what brings money with what takes money, but he decided to go for that risk.
When I decide to make a new game, I have to pick an idea that contains something I’ve never done before, so I get a chance to learn something new in the process (art, development, management etc.) of creating the game. Getting money from the project is not guaranteed, however, what is guaranteed is new knowledge, and it’s worth it all.
Let’s revive an old game
A game is the end result of coming up with an idea, but what if we can’t get ideas for a while?! Do we stop making games?! That was the question I kept wondering about, but never really cared for, until I got in that situation myself. I had free time but couldn’t get new or fresh ideas. Couldn’t work!!! But instead of going out, hanging around and wasting time, I decided to look into my old games, in case there is something that could fit the new ones after some polishing. Checking on my games list and that of cancelled projects (oooh boy… it took too long to get to the end of the list!), I saw it – Harmonic. I knew that will be my next game. I now had an idea and initial plan – to remake the mechanic of Harmonic but still trying to make it something else than what it initially was. Harmonic was created within 10 days as a 10-levels small game, which meant remaking it into a new game would be almost a completely new project.
What do people love?!
But wait a second… With all my past indie games (regardless whether published or not) I was chasing two main goals: good mechanics and new experience. But this never worked… Those targets’ results were not what the players usually expected. People might indeed be looking for a new experience, but if that experience is not mixed with what makes them happy, they’ll forget about it. So I decided to update my goals with “What do the players want?” With this in mind, I started discussing with friends, learning it from them: what made their favorite game so cool. I was even asking myself, checking out games, playing more, and more… and some more. Eventually I ended up with a very short list that includes a “Story” that makes people remember the game, a “Multiplayer Mode” that gets the player concerned about sharing their experience and good times with friends, and a “Level Editor” that allows players to not only enjoy the pre-made fun, but to build their own way of fun.
But what do I need ? Like in all the past years, I still have to ask a question before stating something. “Is that all that I need ?” Because usually, when I set the plan, it’s hard to change later, both the mechanic and decisions. Few things remain flexible, of course, but the core of the project will never be changed under any circumstances. Previously, I did try to fulfill the players’ wishes and expectations of a good game, but how would I feed my own desire to learn, experience and investigate?! While the old prototype of Harmonic was a 3D game, I decided to go all 2D this time, and make it my first full 2D game. I never really made 2D before (except for just a few game jam entries or, of course, projects for companies), but now wanted to learn how to draw, colorize and make animated 2D assets and particles. And this was the point when I decided this project will not be quit. With any game you have the choice to terminate development for whatever reason, and I’ve done that too. But for me, when the reward became big enough (in this case – learning a totally new world of 2D), canceling was not an option anymore!
Penguins or Rabbits
After making all the decisions and giving myself a decent plan and vision of the new project that I was going to invest in for the coming few months or even years (Who knows?!), I found myself in need of an essential thing… A title! But in order to decide on what it could be, I first needed to see the game flow, and make sure the characters and environment were going to be the same. What about the story that I wanted to add in order to fulfill the player’s expectations? I kept thinking: I’m going to flip the project to 2D, so what is the benefit of remaking the same characters in 3D? And how would those sweet harminions from Harmonic enrich the story? Eventually I realized they aren’t a good fit at all, and, since the game is mostly about jumping a lot, I found nothing better than rabbits. But… wouldn’t that be boring?
A few months ago I wrote an article about how to pick game characters and, basing on the thoughts I expressed there, I decided to go for animals of absolute cuteness, but at the same time I would NEVER use rabbits, as they do make sense! Rabbits can jump high, that would be a fun first level, but then what ? It would become dull, since it’s true to life. So I started twisting my mind and thinking about the “Animal” that could jump, make fun, but above all could provide the necessary diversity for different characters’ mechanics. And found nothing better than penguins. I started drawing immediately, and also making quick clay mockups to define the mass and overall shape of my future heroes.
More lessons learnt
But sometimes things went in unexpected directions. New things came into consideration and new lessons were learnt without even being considered before, and that’s totally fine as long as it works for the good of the game, myself and anyone involved. Anyway, before writing the first line of code or even the first 2D sprite, I had to give a name to my project! All that I knew at that time was that there were penguins, they jumped a lot and were controlled within one system. But still, I had no story to give a title to. With my first search query for penguin stories I found “Penguins Of Madagascar”, which is one of my favorites! I can’t get how I managed to miss this idea while thinking about the game! Anyways, I decided to stick with a game title that looks a bit like the Madagascar one, so people would first get confused, and then curious! It was actually a tip from someone I met a few years ago: either make up a totally weird and unique name or get one super close to something famous. When people get confused between two products or titles, they will take the time to learn about both!
While I already knew that my penguins needed to be kept alive, I decided to build the story around the trip of the penguins who live at the North Pole – where there are in fact no penguins! For people who don’t know, penguins only live at the South, since the North Pole is full of dangers, like polar bears, wolves and even owls and eagles. So now, with a tribe of penguins living in the North,I wanted to give them a popular name. How about “Penguins Of The North”?
Oops, can’t measure how fun it is!
Working as a small team on a game that is far from big could easily get things out of control. Sometimes you lose your focus because of tons of other things not related to the game design and code itself. And eventually lose the ability to add more fun, or even keep the same fun level! When this stage looms, I know how to refocus again. Polish as much as possible, prepare different platforms’ versions, and make some calls. Start visiting friends and let them play the game, and keep writing down their comments and your own observations while they play. Sometimes they would ask for things or suggest stuff, but sometimes you’d get ideas from their behavior. In the end of the day I got back home with a good list to prioritize. My favorite is calling MattRazz, one of the greatest Australian designers who has the really impressive skills of playing, analyzing, fixing and rebuilding the game design at the same time!
Lower the cost as much as possible
Being indie is not easy, and especially when it comes to be self-funded. You have your own money to invest in your games. No strings, no deals and no investors to complain about. And that is good, even great! At the same time you have to consider the cost everyday. However, in the past few years I’ve adopted some services and technologies in all my projects, and that includes engines like Unreal or Unity to focus more on the game design itself, and never get bothered about engine porting. Or using the great free service of Trello to build my Scrum sprints and keep track of everything as professional as the companies I used to work for. Using all Google services has been super helpful in creation of the game design or boss AI diagrams, as well as spreadsheets for localization. Finally, to keep all the work safe, I HAD TO use Git, and when it comes to being indie, nothing works better than the mix of SourceTree as a Git client cross-platform app with their Bitbucket repositories. Which means I’ll have a free wiki and an advanced bugs database, for free as well.
It’s worth mentioning that I now mainly use Unreal Engine, since I’ve already published 2 books in Unreal Technology.
The game is almost there: 80% is ready, all the code is done, and just tons of animations still need to be finished. The game has been submitted to Steam greenlight a few weeks ago, and it’s doing A LOT better than Muhammad’s other 2 games, Coated & TK..TK..BOOM. He believes it will get accepted by the end of the year. What makes it take a bit longer than expected, is the fact that he has to handle lots of things, and marketing is his lowest priority for now. The game has also been submitted to several events, and there are currently some emails going around to bring those penguins to a warm platform.