Tomer Barkan is the CEO of Suncrash Studios, but didn’t take a straight path to work in the gaming industry; instead working in a more traditional computer career before deciding to found an indie studio. At Casual Connect Tel Aviv 2016 he shared his experience of dealing with Steam Early Access and pointed out the main thing that would make this approach successful: people want to buy a game, something to play, and not just support an idea.
“If you launch too early, you will get very negative reviews and that will stay with you forever.” One strategy Tomer suggested is to always look at similar games and observe what worked or didn’t work for them. “A game has to launch when it is already fun to play, it’s already enjoyable. People are buying to play the game and to enjoy it, not to support some idea that maybe one day the game will be fun. This is not crowdfunding and they will judge you according to how fun the game is on release day so make sure it is already fun.” To learn more, tune in to the full session below.
“Ultimately, what pushed me to pursue a career as an indie developer is that I love games – and I saw an opportunity to make a living out of my passion,” Tomer said. “During my last few months as a product manager in Tufin, a cybersecurity startup, I found that the field no longer interests me. It’s very hard to participate in events, talk to customers, and make big decisions all day when you lack the interest. At the same time, I was introduced to Unity, and started hobby-developing a mobile game with some friends. This combination of losing interest in cybersecurity, and learning how easy it has become to create games (or at least so I thought at the time!), pushed me to quit my day job and try my luck as a game developer.”
“I learned so much during my seven years at Tufin,” he continued. “Starting from the basics of professional programming, source control, and all the real-life things you don’t learn at University, then as a team leader I learned a lot about how to get a team to achieve a mutual goal. I learned how to treat employees and colleagues, and that’s one of the main reasons we avoid crunching at Suncrash. But perhaps the most important, as a product manager, I learned a lot about how a small startup operates, how to prioritize features, how to simplify and how to let features go when necessary. I now know how to listen to the customers and the market, and make the best product we can with our limited resources.”
Of course, Tomer’s interest in the art of coding goes back to when he was very young. “My interest in coding goes all the way back to when I was six, living in Lima, Peru. My parents sent me to a computer class, and I learned ‘Logo’, a very old program where you write commands, and a small turtle walks around the screen based on your input, drawing lines where it walks. Basically it’s a programming drawing program. I loved it, and I learned the basics of programming, such as setting and using variables, loops and conditions,” he described. “From there my interest in programming grew every day, and I started learning GWBasic with a private tutor when I was 8, and then C programming. I think I actually created my first game when I was in the 5th grade (just a big face trying to pass through obstacles).”
Now that he’s a game developer, Tomer can’t imagine doing anything else. “The favorite thing about my job is that I love what I do. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a job at all, but a hobby (and sometimes it feels like the toughest job in the world). Doing what you love means that almost every aspect of your work is interesting to you. I get to play games as part of my market research, I get to travel to huge gaming conventions as part of our business development, and even though I end up working 16 hours a day during those conferences, I enjoy every minute. Even testing our own game is something I enjoy. I sometimes find myself eight hours in, just enjoying the game instead of testing all the different scenarios that need to be tested.”
Tomer loves game development, but knows it’s not for everyone. Tomer suggests that those interested in becoming an indie developer should just start and try something, but make sure it’s small and manageable. “Don’t start with your dream project that will take you several years to finish… You will learn so much when creating and releasing your first game, that any subsequent one will be so much better. Your dream game will end up more advanced if you create it as an experienced team.”
“That said, make sure you work on games that you love, games that you can connect with on a personal level. Creating an indie game is a very hard venture, especially your first. If you are not passionate about it, the chances of being able to finish it are rather small.”
Duumvirate for Judgment
Tomer worked to complete a basic prototype for Judgment after several attempts failing to make a PC strategy game. When that happened, he founded Suncrash and brought Yoni on board as an art director, and this is how they ended up as a two-person team.
“As we are such a small team, I do almost everything that needs to be done. Programming, adding content, balancing, marketing, business development – I do it all. The only thing I don’t do is graphics. I’m really terrible at that, and that’s why it’s so important to have an art director that I trust,” said Tomer. “I learned so much in our time creating and releasing Judgment. So many lessons to be implemented in our next game.”
“What makes Judgment really special for me is that it is my passion. I was playing strategy and management games since the first Sid Meier’s Civilization, when I was 8 years old,” he added. “Having the opportunity to create one of my own, a game that I myself would be running to purchase and play for hours on end, is not something to be taken for granted. Unfortunately, many indie developers try to follow the trends and the money. To me, indie means doing what you love. If you don’t have the passion for your game, it won’t have the indie feel.”
Going Early Access
Steam Early Access is an important resource for indie developers these days, and Suncrash Studios made use of it for Judgment. Tomer noted they discovered that Early Access was risky and is not a perfect fit for every developer.
“Once you are out there, your players will expect constant updates. You lose a lot of freedom, and add a lot of overhead (testing and releasing builds). You need to keep your community happy and make sure that your game is ready when launching in Early Access. Any negative Steam reviews will stay with you in the finished version, and a bad Early Access launch can ruin a game’s income,” said Tomer. “There are lots of pros to Early Access, but you must keep the risks in mind when making a decision regarding this program. It’s not something that indie studios should do automatically, there has to be extensive research and consideration before deciding, otherwise it might end up hurting your game instead of improving it.”
“It was my proudest moment as an indie when we launched Judgment in Steam Early Access,” Tomer added. “There were hundreds of Let’s Play videos within a day, and they all had plenty of good things to say about the game. We were also in the top of the popular new releases list on Steam and got very good reviews. Given all this was uncharted territory for us, and I didn’t know what to expect, I was very proud of the results.”
When asked about the best examples of games that used Steam Early Access, Tomer responded. “There are several great examples for Early Access games that did well, one of my favorites is Don’t Starve. They engaged their Early Access community well, and released many major updates that kept players coming back to the game. Not only that, after releasing the game from Early Access, they still kept delivering major updates!
“Another great example is Prison Architect. The game evolved dramatically during its Early Access stage, it used the community’s feedback to create a very polished game, and then when the time was right, they added a new game mode that provides a whole new experience. Such a major change in the finished version renewed interest of both players and press when the game was finally released.”
The Science of Game Creation
Every team has a different process for creating games and Suncrash Studios is no different. They take a sober, scientific view on things, trying to be creative when they have to come up with original solutions.
“If the game feels too repetitive at some point, we brainstorm different ideas for how we can make it less so, then analyze the pros, cons and effort required for each idea, and implement the best one. We iterate. We play the game, judge whether the solution is good, and tweak or even replace as necessary,” Tomer explained. “This, of course, is the process we use after we have the core gameplay. Producing a concept for a new game is mostly brainstorming ideas, coming up with a bunch that we love. Next, we analyze the market and check if our idea makes financial sense (based on similar games/genres with similar development budgets). Last, we prototype, and decide to either scrap or commit to the project.”
When actually in development full swing, Tomer says the biggest challenge is dealing with unpredictability. “This is true for the creative process – you can come up with a bunch of cool mechanics and after implementing them find out that the whole is much less than the sum of its parts,” he said. “And it’s also true for the business aspect – you can’t be sure that the game will sell as well as you need it to, which makes cash flow management a very tricky thing.”
“The most rewarding part is definitely when players enjoy your game. It doesn’t matter if you watch them run to get first to your booth in a convention, or a YouTuber getting really enthused about a combat mission in which survivors named after his friends almost died,” Tomer continued. “To see that all the hard work you put in yielded a result that people really enjoy is the most rewarding part so far.”
Inspiration is also an element that’s unique to every person, and, for Tomer, it can come from anywhere. “Playing another game, watching a movie or TV series. Even from walking the street and doing everyday tasks. I rarely watch a movie or TV series without getting ideas for a new game. The hard part is choosing from all the ideas.”
“The biggest inspiration for Judgment was X-Com (the original),” he continued. “We loved the concept of a strategic, base building, world defending game with tactical combat missions. We thought we could improve and enhance on the strategic part, and here comes Rimworld, which was another source of great inspiration for us. Rimworld took a very complex simulation like Dwarf Fortress and simplified it for the masses. A small team created a wonderful simulation game, and that inspired us to use the colony simulation genre ourselves for the strategic part of Judgment.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tomer deals with creative blocks in an active fashion. “When I do have blocks, the best remedy is to talk it over with other people. Just talking about the problem forces you to take a step back and re-evaluate – and many times you’ll come up with a solution yourself. Other times the advice you receive will help solve the problem.”
The Sting of Rejection
Rejection and a negative critical reception are common foils for creators and Tomer has also felt the sting. The worst time was when there were multiple competitions and showcase opportunities that rejected their game all in the same week. “It was really bad for our motivation, and frustrating. We felt we had a really good game, it was around the time when we released on Steam Early Access and had lots of positive reviews on Steam, videos and emails,” Tomer said. “We really felt it deserved a slot in those showcases, yet we were rejected.”
“It really hurt our motivation, so we needed something positive. I started some research on getting our game accepted into these competitions, and found out some interesting facts. Many award-winning indie games that press like to talk about and always participate in showcases end up having a rather small player base. On the other hand, many of the greatest indie games out there, especially in our genre, were not once showcased or won any awards. We came to the realization that not all games (especially niche games and even more so niche strategy games like ours) are good candidates for shows. These shows like games that are unique and different, and not necessarily games that are loved by the audience.
“Eventually we did end up showcasing Judgment in huge conferences and confirmed our suspicion that players that attend these events tend to prefer action, PvP, controller-based games. Sure, we had plenty of players in our booth, it was almost never empty, but it was never a big sensation like some of our neighbors. Those who did play, on the other hand, played for an average of 20-30 minutes, while other games got less than 5. So not all games are made equal, and each has advantages and disadvantages. We came to accept ours.”
Chase Your Passion, Not Trends
Tomer spends time playing other strategy games when possible, but also loves spending time with his family and dog when not hiking around the world or watching sci-fi movies and TV shows. Still, if given a huge AAA game budget, he wouldn’t venture far from what he is creating right now.
“These theoretical games would have much better graphics, sounds, QA, translations, etc., but the general idea would be the same – original single-player strategy games. With unlimited resources I’d probably add a multiplayer component that compliments the games, but the main focus would still be the single-player experience, since that is what I love.”
It is perhaps unsurprising then that Suncrash isn’t interested in making a quirky VR game like many other developers are. “We do not believe in chasing trends. We believe in creating games out of passion, not according to the wants of the herd. Sure, we do our market research, make sure there is enough of a target audience, and a sound business plan. But it all starts with something we want to do – the business plan and feasibility check come after,” he concluded.
David Radd is a staff writer for GameSauce.biz. David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.