Paladin Studios is an independent game studio based in The Hague, The Netherlands. The company was founded in 2005. In these years, they grew to a team of 10 developers coming from different backgrounds – design, animation and coding. Paladin Studios usually worked on contract-based projects. But apart from client work, they’ve always wanted to be an independent developer and create and publish their own games. Momonga is their first big self-published game.
In 2010, with the rise of the App Store in full swing, we felt the time was right to work on our first game. We wanted to start small, so we set our minds on developing and publishing an iOS game in two weeks. We started from scratch with an idea and our brand new Apple developers account. After two weeks of concepting, arguing and developing, we submitted the game to Apple. These weeks were just one gigantic learning experience, which laid the foundation of Momonga.
With Jimmy Pataya and earlier prototypes, we underestimated the importance of a game concept and its selection. We had several concept-candidates for development, but lacked a good selection procedure. This led to discussions and fistfights, but most of all; it left the team with the feeling that this might not have been the best choice for us. So we figured we would not just start coding away on a big project. We needed a more formal selection process to get everyone on the same page.
For this, we used the stage-gate method as a starting point. In the stage-gate process, each stage has a “kill gate” where concepts get trashed based on predefined selection criteria. Everybody on the team had one week to bring in his or her ideas. At the end of this week we had a hundred ideas. What followed was a big pitch and vote session, which resulted in 10 remaining designs that we took to the next stage. We rated the concepts on different aspects, like innovation, feasibility, monetization, strategic value and remarkability. Eventually, we were left with three game concepts.
We developed a prototype for each one and invited testers to come over and play those prototypes. They sat down and played the games. One game caught their specific attention – it made their eyes twinkle and some even played the prototype for 45 minutes straight, trying to beat their scores. That game happened to be a prototype called “Pinball Forever”. It was an unexpected winner, and the start of a journey that lead to the release of Momonga Pinball Adventures.
After analyzing the prototype, we decided to drop the infinite game design and instead go for a level-based design. With a level-based approach, we had full control over the levels and could use that to dig deep into the story. From this point on, you could say the game was called ‘level-based pinball’, with a storyline.
The first step in building the story was to create the world in which the story takes place. When you look at international politics, the “Grand Strategy” theory concludes that every nation has specific needs for a sense of security. These needs are determined by the geographic differences like mountains, oceans and deserts. That is why we started with building the world’s geography. Drawing a map from scratch gave us poor results – so we looked at different random map generators, ranging from Civilization to Minecraft. We ended up settling on the map that was created by the Minecraft map generator.
The Grand Story
With the geography and politics in place, we could start writing the grand storyline; what was the main conflict in this world? We needed ‘one ring to rule them all’, ‘the darkside’ or a ‘Voldemort’ in our story. The epic conflict in the story, where we would base the much smaller game story on, was decided as:
The continent Aya has seen peace since the Great War. The civilized world is ruled by the Guardians, powerful animals who have sworn to protect the Element Sources. However, the Great War has left some species scattered and exiled. These Shadows live as outcasts, on the edges of civilization, waiting for their turn to come to once again overthrow the Guardians and seize the Sources. While the Guardians grow weak in their cities, the Shadow animals grow stronger in determination and strength.
This grand story sets the stage for the game, and it gave us a foundation to craft the game experience and characters.
Next up in the process were the characters. Based on our grand story, we decided to create characters by asking ourselves a couple of questions:
● What is their history?
● Where do they live?
● Who are they hanging out with?
● What events impacted their lives?
● What special abilities do they have?
● What do they look like?
Of the four characters that resulted from this process (Momo, Fry the Firefly, Panda the Panda and General Kuton), we’ll briefly introduce Momo and Fry the Firefly.
Momo is our hero. Born and raised in the Momonga village, he lived a peaceful and carefree life. One day, a band of owls burned his village and took away his tribe. Momo barely survived the attack, and was saved by Panda. As the last free momonga, he sets out on an epic journey to defeat the owls and free his family.
Even before the game story begins, Momo already made an epic journey. He came to life as ‘Dash’, the little red ball with big eyes in Pinball Forever. When we switched to level-based pinball, we redesigned him. The world of Momonga back then was a universe centered around vegetables, with Momo starring as a radish battling evil broccoli, potatoes and pickles.
Radishes are tasty, but we felt that it might not “stick” with a casual audience. Fortunately, we were hooked on a website called cuteoverload.com. Our CEO remembered a picture of little cute animals sitting in a tree, that looked like they could roll up like a pinball. After going through several dozens of kittens, puppies and baby hedgehogs, we finally found the picture.
Fry the firefly
Fry is a firefly from a lineage of martial art masters. His father is the head of the Ha Chi Order, and one of the finest firefly warriors. Fry, however, failed to live up to the expectations of his parents: he was defeated by a bunny that he was supposed to chase away as an initiation rite. He left his hometown because of shame. After leaving his town, Fry got caught by the owl bandits. They used him as a light bulb for the owl camp. Bummer.
In Momonga, you save Fry from a lightbulby life, after which he becomes your trustworthy sidekick. Fry is heavily conditioned in the firefly school of martial arts, and he goes into a frenzy whenever he hears a ringing bell. This comes in handy when you have to defeat a whole bunch of owls.
Real fireflies are red, and very ugly. The first sketches were fairly close to the real thing, and pictured a fat, lazy firefly. This didn’t really work, because nobody wants to drag around a fat firefly while playing pinball. So instead we made Fry an energetic and cute little bug.
One of the hardest things, and something we underestimated the most, were the pinball physics. Once you are dealing with pinball mechanics, it means you are dealing with very high speeds and collisions. The fact that the game needs to perform well on a mobile device only made it harder for us. We came up with the following solution.
The basics are simple. You take a ball and flippers, set up a table at an angle and let gravity do the work. It didn’t take long before we got the basic setup working and were able to shoot some balls. But the tricky part in physics is always in the details… and this is where you go one step forward and two steps backwards.
In an ideal world, the player has full control over where the ball should go, and the ball can go just about anywhere. However, we quickly found out that some places were impossible to reach. The angle of the ball was limited; it was very hard to get the ball to the sides of the level.
The movements of the ball involve quite some variables, which can be manipulated in order to enable better control of the ball:
– Flipper rest angle
– Flipper maximum angle
– Flipper strength
– Flipper material (friction, bounciness)
– Ball material
– Ball weight
– Ball drag
– Table material
– Gravity strength
– …and many more.
Changing any of them affects the whole game, and this is where game physics starts to hover between science and art.
We created an isolated test setup to determine exactly how all these variables influence the ball trajectory. In this test, a ball gets spawned every couple of milliseconds, and the flipper is activated automatically. We then traced the ball to see where it goes. Now we could change one setting at a time, and see clearly how it affected the ball trajectory. This, combined with several prediction and correction algorithms, made the physics work well enough for the critical consumer.
The things we learned
Momonga was our first “serious” self-published game, so there were a lot of things we learned the hard way:
- Don’t underestimate marketing. Something you have probably heard before. Marketing takes a lot of time and needs a lot of funding. Publishers have the money and the time, you don’t.
- You can self-publish a game and do successful marketing for it, but your game has to be remarkable for anyone to talk or write about it.
- Making a pinball game is hard
- Creating a game takes longer than you think, especially when you are bootstrapping your way to the launch. And yes, even when you take this into account, it will *still* take longer than you think.
- The odds are against you when you launch a paid download on iOS.
- Think about your business model and target audience in the early phases. The decisions you make will impact every design choice along the way. We chose a story-driven, level-based game, so the game had to be a premium download. If you want to go freemium, make that decision from the start.
- The story and world you create can be a great foundation for your future games.
- Good level design takes a lot of time. No, really, a *lot* of time.
Momonga in numbers
So how did we do? Here are the results, six weeks after launch on iOS:
– Our invested budget was around $250k
– Momonga has been downloaded 39,577 times, with a total revenue of $33,530.67.
– Momonga has been played by 69,075 unique users. 39,577 came from the App Store, so we have 29,498 illegal folks (43%).
– We got 199 user reviews with an average rating of 4.35
Despite excellent critical reception and positive reviews, Momonga did not break even by a long shot. There are several reasons for this, all of which we are going to address in our updates:
– The game is short and sweet, but still rather short
– There are no viral features, no way to spread the word
– There is no way to try the game for free
– It is a great game, but perhaps not perfectly suitable for the mobile market
– It is too difficult for some people, and too easy for others
Currently, Paladin Studios is working on a v1.1 patch for Momonga, which will contain extra content, Facebook leaderboards, and several other tweaks. To see what they’re currently doing, you can check out their developers blog, Facebook page, or Twitter.