Šarūnas Ledas is the CEO of Tag of Joy, developer of Monster Buster. The game recently won best Indie Game at GameOn Vilnius 2016, the largest video game conference in the Baltics which is dedicated to video games and the culture that comes with them. Monster Buster: World Invasion will also be shown off at Casual Connect Europe as part of Indie Prize.
“Our studio, Tag of Joy, has always been looking for ways to innovate games and gamified experiences technologically, visually and gameplay-wise. So, winning an award means that we are on the right path, and that people find our projects interesting. The same goes to the GameOn award – it’s an additional encouragement to keep on going and make the best game possible, while also presenting something new to the players,” said Šarūnas, adding, “Monster Buster will soon be released on iOS and Android, so we hope that showing it off at Casual Connect will help spread the word about the launch of the game.”
Tag of Joy has worked on a variety of programs and apps over the years, including educational and advertising projects, all of which Šarūnas says has made them better developers. “We have worked with a variety of partners and have also made some interesting projects of our own,” detailed Šarūnas. “Some of the clients make games widely known all around the world, so we could learn a lot from their experience, while other projects were more experimental, and let us try out AR and other technologies in multiple use-cases. All of this led to the materialization of Monster Buster.”
Monster Hunter Go
Being of those games where players seek out monsters to fight and capture, Monster Buster puts a twist on things. By focusing on real-world locations and AR, it gives players something new to focus on with their gaming.
“Monster Buster was the first monster collection and fighting game that takes you outdoors,” noted Šarūnas. “It was launched on Windows Phone in 2014, and even though now there are more games like this, it will still be the most engaging one, as it will have multiple fun features not seen before in AR monster games. For instance, there will be full-featured monster battles, monster ability customization, the possibility to craft items that can help you, little monster companions and so on.”
“We came up with the idea to make an AR monster hunting game in a hackathon back in 2012,” continued Šarūnas. “It sounded like an extremely fun concept, but at the same time it was a completely new one, so for a year or so we were refining the idea and thinking of how gameplay should work in a game like this. When we felt confident about the gameplay flow, we started active development and released the initial version of the game on Windows Phone in 2014. This was sort of a soft launch, so, naturally, we kept improving the game and implementing all of the other ideas that we had, and now we are very close to a stage that we can proudly call the first full version of Monster Buster.”
This doesn’t mean that selling players on Monster Buster: World Invasion was always easy, but the ultimate result of making a great game made it worth it. “A rather natural struggle while developing Monster Buster was to convince people around us that AR gaming and monster capturing can be fun and popular – it was a new concept, and people tend to be skeptic, until they see the numbers,” noted Šarūnas. “When talking about technical challenges, one of the specific issues that we had was the implementation of augmented reality: since there were no frameworks to achieve our goal, we had to make use of all the sensors and maps ourselves. Different platforms also work a little differently, so sometimes it’s difficult to implement the same experience on all of them, but if you look hard enough, you will always find a way.”
What helped in pushing Monster Buster out to as many people as possible is the fact that it’s free-to-play with in-app purchases. “If the players want additional content, they can purchase it in-game. What we also try to do is make the purchases as user-friendly as possible, so that players could fully experience the game without buying anything,” detailed Šarūnas. “But if they want to customize things more or if they’re just a little lazy, they can buy additional content. However, we’re not against any monetization models. E. g. the other game that we’re making – a classical adventure called Crowns and Pawns – will be a premium title, because it just makes most sense that way.”
Photo Bombed by Monsters
Tag of Joy actively test the games all the time, according to Šarūnas. However, the developer does not have dedicated testers yet, due to resource constraints.
“Since we’re a small indie team, everyone does some testing: first, the programmers test for bugs, then the game designer and all other team members playtest the games,” noted Šarūnas. “However, we also show our games to other people and gather external feedback. With Monster Buster, we also soft-launched an early version of the game on Windows Phone, which was a perfect platform to playtest the game worldwide, with hundreds of thousands of players.”
“A large part of playtesting Monster Buster actually happened with real players on Windows Phone. One of the players mentioned that he was walking around the campus, looking for monsters in AR, and some girls started posing, since they thought the guy was taking photos,” added Šarūnas. “Here are some more fun comments from players: ‘Super interactive! Ran down the street in the middle of the night with no shoes on to battle a new monster’, ‘Awesome. Gets me and my kids walking the neighborhood’, ‘I think that this is the best monster game app I ever played’. We have received plenty of funny comments like this, which always cheer us up.”
Two Brothers, Both Leaders
Tag of Joy was founded by the brothers Šarūnas and Žilvinas, and they serve as the collective leads for the team’s various projects. They take the lead where each are the most experienced, though sometimes they co-lead some areas of development.
Šarūnas describes Tag of Joy as having a relaxed work culture. Everyone in the small studio knows each other and they talk about games or any other subject, and are willing to pull together to reach for a common goal. “We have an office, which seemed inevitable when the team grew to more than two people,” Šarūnas noted. “Since our aim is to innovate and be highly creative, reaching this goal is only possible when the core team is at the same place and can quickly have a discussion. It’s also easier to communicate and it simply makes the process more fun.”
“Building your own studio is almost the default option if you want to realize your own ideas and we’ve always had game ideas we find entertaining and engaging. On the other hand, our company aims for the highest quality and innovation, which helps us stand out from other small studios,” said Šarūnas. “We always hope to make an impact in a particular genre or area. For example, with Monster Buster on Windows Phone, we proved that location-based AR monster games are fun and have a significant market. And even though it won’t be the only AR monster game when we publish it on iOS and Android, we hope that it will help establish this new genre.”
“The creative process is very dynamic and organic,” Šarūnas shares. “If we need to brainstorm something, we allocate some time specifically for that and simply discuss, whether we should choose one direction or another. If anyone has specific suggestions, ideas, references, we lay them out and look for the best option. Of course, we iterate later in the process and improve the decisions based on new findings. This process lets us stay creative, but also focused on the target.”
“For our development we use Unity, which is almost the standard for small teams,” Šarūnas continued. “It lets us achieve almost anything, because it has a lot of functionality on its own, but it also allows us to expand the engine. We use a lot of custom features, such as sensors, camera and so on, and we need more than Unity can offer. But we can implement all of that on top of what already exists. We also play around with custom animation and visual features, but you can always write your own shaders and edit animation from scripts in Unity.”
A Team Effort
For Tag of Joy, inspiration comes from a variety of sources. The whole team contributes to what they are developing, so it’s a mix of experiences from the team members from what they play, read, watch or listen to that inspires how their games look or are played.
“When we were discussing the concept of a monster collection and fighting game, we didn’t want it to look like almost all other games, where you fight monsters,” noted Šarūnas. “Our main artist made a few concepts that were inspired by a couple animated series and some other influences. We all loved the style and how unique it was, so we instantly decided to keep using it. What’s interesting is that even though the monsters are a little weird, everyone seems to like them – even little kids.”
“I think the whole style and narrative of the game is quite witty,” Šarūnas added. “The monsters are bizarre, their abilities have funny names (e. g. ‘venomous spit’, ‘necrotic shackle’, etc.), consumable items are a bit wacky, and the whole context of the game has various references and jokes (e. g. to detect monsters, you have to use F. A. R. T. S., which transcribes to ‘Feral Augmented Reality Targeting System’). One of the main ideas of this game was to make it weird and funny at the same time, which hopefully we succeeded.”
Make a Game Others Will Love
Šarūnas says that Tag of Joy wants to make games that stand out, and will continue to do so as they grow. They also love narrative games, so they’ll focus on doing things like that, within the resources that they have available to them.
“We have mostly developed games for mobile platforms due to their accessibility, and because we could use technologies like AR on them,” said Šarūnas. “But our new title is developed primarily for personal computers and consoles. I’d say there are two things that we love in games: innovation and narrative. That’s why at the moment our two main projects are Monster Buster, which is innovative, and Crowns and Pawns, which is completely based on narrative. But at the same time we are innovating in Crowns and Pawns, as well as integrating narrative in Monster Buster. We also highly appreciate great visuals, which can be found in all of our games.”
As for other indie developers, Šarūnas suggests that they focus on genres and styles they’re confident in and try and stand out in those fields. “Either it’s unique visuals, innovative gameplay or just high quality, it’s important to make a game that will be noticed and loved by players,” suggested Šarūnas. “There are so many games coming out these days that you, as an indie developer, have to find something that is different and hopefully better than in other games.”
“The charm of being an indie developer is that you can do – more or less – anything. But one thing I would suggest is to never make a game only for yourself: think about what others want, analyze the market and look for something that would potentially make you successful. Of course, if you’re making a game that you love, it’s even better, but the moment you realize that no one else likes your game, you should start looking for a different idea. Remember that your goal is to make a game that people will download and pay for, then you’ll do fine!” Šarūnas 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.