If something’s bothering people’s mind, it’s just a matter of time till there’s a game about it. Fake news have been trending for a while, and resulted, among other things, in HEADLINER: a short adventure game about media bias and how it affects the society, families and careers. The Seattle-based developer Unbound Creations has worked with teams up to 6 people on their previous titles, but HEADLINER has mostly been just Jakub Kasztalski.
“I had some brainstorming help from one of my friends in the early stages, and also hired an editor for the texts. In the last two months I also worked with Hashbang Games on marketing”, the developer comments. Friends have also been involved in the initial conception about a year ago: “The idea was actually given to me by a friend and over some beers we fleshed it out a bit more”, Jakub recall. :The direction of the game was a bit different initially, focusing on racing the clock to approve the articles in time and then getting home before a curfew started while avoiding paroling guards”.
However, as prototyping went on and Jakub observed what was happening around the world, the design shifted towards the narrative and media bias. “Here’s an article I wrote that goes into more details of how I mined Facebook and Google data to stay relevant to today’s issues”, he shares.
Try Before You Decide
“I started with free/public domain 3rd party assets and simple scenes built in Blender to nail down the look/feel/setting”, the developer recalls. “I went through 2-3 iterations before arriving at the final look. Overall, that wasted a lot of time, but not being an artist myself, it helped me figure out what “felt right” and what I wanted to really communicate. I’m very “try before you decide” when it comes to visuals”.
“I settled on Vector Art as I realized it’s the one style I could actually do myself. I researched a lot of references, the biggest being the awesome Lyft commercial.”
The street scene remained a 3rd party pixel artwork, but Jakub had upscaled it and did a lot of post-processing. He also used the baseline sprites to create new variations, such as police or rioters.
Music was also public domain/creative commons, but again the developer spent a lot of time researching: “I’d just play different tracks in the background while coding and testing, until I found ones that felt right”.
Someone Might Get Offended
When asked how not to offend anyone with a game on a touchy subject, Jakub confesses: “Honestly, I just follow my gut feeling. I’ll admit I used to be really socially awkward when I was younger (as many geeks are), but through great friends and few years of freelancing I learned where the social boundaries lie. I just apply the same skills to my work instinctively I suppose”.
“I also listen to the feedback I get. For example, many testers asked me why your spouse was always of opposite gender – why you couldn’t have same-sex marriages in the game? And I realized there really isn’t a good reason not to, so I added that”.
“There are some ideas I am trying to communicate in the game so it is inevitable that someone might get offended. And honestly if they do – well, that’s just what I stand for I guess. You can’t please everyone”.
Learn From Others'(and His Own) Mistakes
Learning from others’ experiences is what Jakub fully uses in his dev practice. Being inspired by titles like Papers, Please and Westport Independent, he read through Steam and press reviews. “I really tried to find what worked and what didn’t, building on the formula instead of simply copying”, he explains. “For example, in Papers, at the end of the day you might get a white text on black screen telling you your wife died. Well, that’s not very engaging. That’s why I wanted the whole street and home section – show, don’t tell. Make the player care about the world he’s building (or destroying).
“Show, don’t tell. Make the player care about the world he’s building (or destroying)”.
“There are many pitfalls I’ve learned and still need to learn. Brevity is very important I realized, as most gamers don’t want to be reading a book while playing (purely text-games and interactive fiction aside). Secondly, players want to really feel the impact of their actions, even if it may feel like over-explaining at times (I tend to be overly subtle). Lastly, fleshing out the world may seem wasteful, but it can do a lot for immersion – all my games have been praised for creating a believable sense of space (even if you only see a fraction of all the research and backstory I wrote)”. Jakub hints there’s a ton more lessons he could come up with, “but that’s probably a whole different topic in an of itself”
Looking back, Jakub says he’s pretty happy with how things went. “All the significant improvements I would have liked to add at this point would have taken several months and considerable investment. However, for various reasons, I did not want to go down that route, instead preferring to spread the additional effort and lessons learned over future episodes and new games”. If he still had to pick one area to improve, it would be artwork: “it was a big learning experience for me and I think it shows”.
Meanwhile, a fresh wave of fake news is coming up. “I’ve got a few ideas brewing in my head right now, but two of the major changes would be a bit randomized newspaper system for more engaging replays, and more personal interactions with various characters you meet”, Jakub shares. You can also join the world domination through news planning through the game’s official Discord, and keep track of updates on Twitter.
Kaigan Games is a 6 person game company based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Founded by two brothers, Sharizar and Shahazmi along with Jeremy Ooi, the team started working on their first game together before the company was even formed. Wanting to break the mould from making casual games, they decided to take on a more serious approach and make narrative-heavy games designed specifically for the mobile medium. A pitch was drafted and a demo was made. Jeremy shares the story of Sara Is Missing, the Best Mobile Game of Indie Prize Asia 2017.
When I met my partners, we were all burnt out of making casual games mostly for other people. Thirsty for a new project, I jokingly pitched a game concept that was as far away from casual as possible. A game set in a phone, like Replica, combined with the mystery theme and realism of Her Story. I said “jokingly” because the logistics of filming with live actors and designing a game where you replicate an entire phone in form and functions feels like a huge undertaking for us at that time. However, after some discussions, we were serious about the possibility of it happening. A few days of brainstorming – and we settled on the idea of a found phone horror game called S.I.M – Sara Is Missing and started working on the demo.
While “phone simulator” games are starting to become a genre of its own as of the time of writing, we didn’t have much to start with during the early months of development. We had no point of reference and pretty much had to come up with everything from scratch.
The vision was big at first. We want to fully simulate a phone, with chats, galleries, call features along with popular apps like Tinder, Uber, a web browser and a music player. We were strapped for resources at that time and couldn’t bear the risk of making these features and failing. So we went just for the core features and shelved the rest. A chat app for players to make narrative decisions and learn about the characters, and a phone assistant (like Siri or Google Assistant) to guide the players along the way. We added filler features like a gallery, emails and music player to give the characters more personality. Just enough to make a game out of it and prove the concept.
The story was particularly challenging, as none of us is a trained writer. We knew we wanted to make a horror game so that YouTubers would pick it up, but we didn’t know what would be the best way to do it. We used an obscure Japanese urban legend called the Red Room as a base for the story and built the rest from there, where the titular character Sara gets caught up in a technology-based supernatural event. A non-linear story of exploring a phone excited us, but having no writing experiences, we settled on a linear one instead. We decided to focus more on creating game mechanics while we sought the help of a writing team to flesh out the narrative and film the in-game videos. Whatever we couldn’t film or write, we asked for permission from other creators to use their work and incorporate it in the game, like the creepy videos and some of the filler texts.
We wanted the game to create a sense of eeriness and evoke a voyeuristic experience for the player.
Gating the game’s content through gameplay was something we spent the most time on. We wanted to make the gameplay as close to using a phone as possible, trying not to introduce unfamiliar mechanics to the game. The most logical solution was to block the player through password puzzles, but that proved to get quite repetitive. We used the supernatural aspect to justify the phone being limited in data and explored different mechanics on how to unlock them over time. We even experimented with a keyword-style puzzle where players enter notable keywords to “restore the phone” but that proved to be confusing and it also breaks our own rule. While not the best solution, we settled a tap and hold feature which allows players to progress and find clues by tapping and holding on interesting text or images.
We wanted the game to create a sense of eeriness and evoke a voyeuristic experience for the player. For the most parts, we did it. But the flaws of the game became very apparent once the novelty wears off. Since this game was a proof of concept, we took many of these lessons to our next game (more on that later).
The realism aspect was a double-edged sword. Some people were really immersed in the experience, drawn deep into the game with little effort, while others got genuinely freaked out by the game. At the beginning we asked the player to reset their “phone”, as a meta scare, making players second guess if their phone was really corrupted. This turned off plenty of people and telling them “it’s part of the game” inspired very little confidence.
The UI was also a tricky thing to balance. We recreated a phone UI as accurately as possible without much thought, but it turns out to be disruptive to the experience. Our notification bar served no function and was was there for purely aesthetic reasons. And when the player’s real messages came in and sometimes overlapped with the NPC’s messages, they were confused if that was part of the game. We also based the navigation on an iPhone UI, where the back button is on the top left. People who played the game on Android kept pressing their home buttons, with the hopes of going to the game’s home screen, but instead made them exit their app.
When building a narrative game, there are some expectations you have to meet, and one of the most important ones is multiple endings, which we didn’t really have. We only spent 2 weeks on the story and ended up with a pretty short game, with an average completion time of 15 to 20 minutes. However that should not pardon us from at least trying to create more endings. Speaking of which, the biggest criticism from players was that our ending was pretty weak and abrupt, further robbing them of their satisfaction when they complete the game.
When you make a game that feels real, some players will explore how “real” it is.
One of the biggest surprises for us was that we didn’t expect players to dive in so deep into game game’s lore (there was no lore). When you make a game that feels real, some players will explore how “real” it is. Most of our dates and times don’t match up to the character’s actions, which left the hardcore game theorists dissatisfied. Some players tried to connect the creepy videos with the game’s story, but they we’re really just placeholders made out of random videos from the internet. Others think there is some ARG (alternate reality gaming) elements to the story. Some players realized that one of the in-game coordinates is of a real location, but it is more of a hint to where we, the developers, are from, and nothing to do with the story. We even had players calling our fictional phone numbers in the game, where one of them turns out to be real.
More Than A Concept
Sara Is Missing could have easily crashed and burned, and we accepted the risk. Thankfully it paid off. While Sara Is Missing is a free game and we made no money of it, but the value of the project is still there. It brought us plenty of opportunities and support for our next title and grew our team to 6 people. The novelty of a “found phone” games is starting to wear off as many other games are trying to have their own go at the medium. The challenge for us today is to elevate that concept and transform it into a proper genre, with a deeper story, tighter mechanics and making things fresh again.
Sara Is Missing was a valuable lesson in more ways than one. SIMULACRA is the true vision of the game with all the cut features incorporated and all the lessons implemented. We believe we have pushed the boundary of what this game genre can be, and are excited to see how our fans will enjoy it.
The three of Wisageni Studio team members decided on starting their own company after meeting at Gamelan, a local game developer community in Yogyakarta, Indonesia back in 2014. Each of them has previously worked for companies that make games for PC, Flash, or do outsourcing. “So when we started Wisageni Studio, we used our background experiences and created some Flash games and worked with some sponsors”, recalls Wisageni Studio’s co-founder Vania Marita. As the Flash games market declines, in November 2016 they finally tried to redirect development to the mobile platform with the release of their first mobile game, Nonstop Show.
Raiders of the Lost Island is a local co-op party game for up to 4 people. Well, technically it is a semi-cooperative one, as you will soon find out. Alexandru Simion, the developer behind this title, has been in the industry for almost 20 years. Even though his dayjob as a lead gameplay programmer is to make AAA games shine, he never lost his passion for making indie games and expressing his creativity through such projects in his free time. Raiders of the Lost Island has won the “Best game of the show” and “Best design” awards at the Dev.Play convention in Bucharest, Romania, and will be showcased at Casual Connect in London in 2018.
IT ALL STARTED THAT NIGHT
It was a cold winter evening when I teamed up with three friends of mine and we stepped in the tech pub where Bucharest Global Game Jam 2017 was taking place. We were prepared and ready to survive the long weekend. The jam’s theme was “waves” and, as it always happens to me at such events, I was set to come up with a game that would not only be fun to make, but could give us many hours of fun playing it long after, with friends and family.
I didn’t have many board games when I was young and I can say I developed a passion for them quite recently. But one thing that board games have been doing so well for a long time is bringing people together, creating special chemistry between them. It doesn’t really matter if they’re happily working together towards a common goal, or if one betrays, or if they’re all at each other’s throats, but I’ve been really fascinated by this social interaction and I think video games have many lessons to learn from here.
So, drawing inspiration from board games like Forbidden Island and Small World, I managed to sell these ideas to my friends and convince them this was what we must do to worth the effort of the next 48 sleepless hours. We bounced a few ideas, and the game shaped pretty quickly this time.
Let me tell you what it is all about.
You and three other buddy adventurers of yours just found the Lost Island and you’re not there on a vacation. No, you’re gonna get filthy rich, because the island is full of silver and gold coins, and the most precious diamonds. You just have to grab them. But there’s a catch! You know the island is going to sink in about 4 minutes. The waves are already going up and down fast, and soon the water will rise, flooding the whole place. You will all lose, unless… you all work together to build a raft and escape in time. If you manage to survive, the richest raider stands in front, while the others just help them win.
So, everyone wants to collect as much gold and diamonds as possible to win the game, but if they don’t work together and build the raft, they might all lose! The gameplay mechanics are simple enough, but the fun moves to the couch, where the real players are. No one wants to carry sacks and work hard on the boat while others are stuffing their pockets with treasures and can win the whole game. So, if you feel you’re in front of others, you still have to convince them to stop chasing you and put their efforts to some better uses, like building the boat.
That was the original idea. But at the end of the Game Jam, after 48 hours of hard work and no playtests, we didn’t really know what we had and if it actually works. We were pretty tired and had been fixing bugs until the last minute. I don’t know if the game made much sense when presented to the other developers who were probably as tired as we were. But we were proud of our baby and still believed we made the right choice.
However, when I got home and gathered the family to play daddy’s endeavor of the last 2 days and 2 nights – in that moment I knew the game really works! It was a blast! Kids reacted exactly as I hoped, gathering gold coins like crazy, trying to push each other in the waters and steal their treasures. I had to calm them down and tell them we can actually survive if we cooperate to build the boat at least once.
THE ROAD AHEAD
As it usually happens to me with game jams, if I feel I came home with something special, I want to finish it. I must finish it! I knew from my experience that this won’t end soon. I was coming from another project, a game for kids on iOS, named Bathtime Toys, which took me almost 2 years to finish in my free time and I was hoping to finalize this one faster.
After a short break I started to work on the game to refactor the code architecture and make development and marketing plans. I was a total noob on the marketing side and still am, but I knew I had to start early this time and learn it.
Unfortunately the original team didn’t stay, as after the game jam people got back to their busy lives. They simply didn’t have time to put into the game any further. It’s hard to come home after 9 hours of making games and push yourself further up until late in the night, making more games. But I am that kind of guy, and I know this game deserves to see the light of day. I hope to catch them back from time to time though, to help me with some feature or making new levels.
According to my plan, I had to get a demo ready as soon as possible, to build a nice website and to make an awesome trailer. With these in hand, I was to register for Steam Greenlight and grow the game’s visibility through this campaign. After that, when the game had a good base of players, I planned to launch an Early Access campaign and finally release it in about 1 year. And so I started working.
GET THAT DIAMOND!
Perhaps the most important addition to the game was the diamond! This was planned from the beginning but we didn’t have time to add it in the Global Game Jam version. To understand what this is about, imagine that one little silver coin scores 1 point, one shiny gold coin scores 3 points, and then you have this magnificent bright white diamond worth 10 points! It was blast! Everyone was chasing to grab it. And when someone had it, everyone else was chasing after them, to steal it. Not many boats were finished during those days.
In fact the diamond was so powerful, that it made players invent new grief mechanics that I never had thought of. If my kids couldn’t get the diamond, they would start jumping off the island’s edges, drowning into the ocean while carrying the sacks needed for the boat, so they would be lost forever and no one was able to escape anymore.
“I’m throwing sacks, if you don’t give me that diamond!” was the warning you hear just before realizing that chances of surviving are dropping down fast.
Some sessions were so intense that they ended up in tears. Once I even had to order real glass diamonds from an online shop as a final solution to calm things down. All this excitement confirmed that I’m on the right track with the game, so I kept going.
MISSING the greenlight TRAIN
Making the trailer was a heavy milestone. I didn’t have proper skills, and it took me almost a whole month to finish it. But it was really fun and it motivates me every time I watch it.
I invited some friends for a playtest, we had some beers, wore some funny hats and I filmed them while they were playing. It was a successful playtest, everyone had a lot of fun and I got some good feedback.
As I said, making the trailer and implementing the most important suggestions took quite some time and while I was pushing hard to get these things done, Steam decided to drop the Greenlight feature. That happened earlier than I expected and I felt pretty upset at the time. It was like missing a train you were running after.
After a while I got over it and felt really happy for my efforts with the trailer. That playtest created some of the game’s biggest fans. In fact we did it again when the demo was ready and I know they can’t wait to return and raid some more in the future.
The marketing side is really tough for me. Building the website, Facebook page, videos on YouTube, preparing images, posting online, answering emails, writing articles – it all takes me more than half of the development time. But I know I can’t get the whole project right without it and I’m still learning what works and what doesn’t.
One of the first lessons I’ve got in online marketing was when someone wanted to “help” me with a Facebook post that would gain thousands of likes. I thought I can spare $30 to see what happens. And I saw it going down the drain. From all those likes, not a single person visited the website, since they were all coming from kids at “like farms”. Well, it was cheap enough for a lesson and I got a story to tell.
The first real challenge was to get to the Dev.Play Eastern Europe Conference which had a partnership with Indie Prize, the sponsor of their Indie Expo contest. The conference is like a smaller GDC organized in Bucharest by RGDA. Being accepted to show my game there, among so many other really good indie titles, was a big thing for me. I put a lot of effort in finishing the demo in time and preparing the advertising prints and everything for the booth.
All the efforts paid off when my wife and I presented the game and saw so many people enjoying it for 2 full days. It was the reassurance I needed, because until then, most of the playtests were conducted within the family, with kids and some friends.
The extra bonus came when the jury decided to award the game as “The Best Design” and “The Best Game of the Show”. My trailer was played on a huge cinema screen and my friends were the actors. The big prize was a place for my game in Indie Prize London 2018, and I have much to do until then.
After the success at Dev.Play, the game visibility was boosted quite a lot. I released the Alpha Demo on Itch.io so everyone can try it, and we’ve even been invited to tell about it in a famous Romanian television show.
BACK TO WORK
Passing the Alpha Demo stage puts me back to work and I can’t wait to unleash my creativity and shape the game further. In the next couple of months there will be a few more events, like a talk at Game Anglia conference and some local festivals. But the main focus is now on adding new features, new gameplay mechanics and new levels.
There have been almost 9 months since the game was conceived and, even though human babies see the light of day by this time, baby games tend to be more like elephants and stay in development for quite a bit longer.
“Play the Raiders of the Lost Island and be part of its story, tell me about your experience with the game, stream your play sessions and help it become a success!”, the developers invite.
Posibillian Tech is the game development studio behind Fhacktions, a location-based MOBA mobile game set in a future world ruled by factions of hackers. The studio is based in Asunción, Paraguay, with 12 full time employees. It was founded in 2015 by two software engineers and lifetime gamers, Juan de Urraza and Gabriel Villalba, who previously developed some small games while studying at university, but never as professionals.
They call themselves The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild, and they’re four guys based out of Seattle. “I started the company years ago, during the development of my previous game, The Bridge, says the company’s founder Ty Taylor. “I met the artist of The Bridge, Mario Castaneda, in university, and we’ve been working together since (he made the art for Tumblestone as well). For Tumblestone, I brought on two engineers, Alex and Justin, who I met while working at Microsoft”. Working on the current projects, the team doesn’t abandon their previous creations: The Bridge is getting released for Nintendo Switch, while Tumblestone is becoming a competitive game.
“There’s a long story of just talking about industry things in a very casual manner with no real common action points. But then it just happened: both Defold and Corona were into doing an online game jam”, says King’s Evangelist Oleg Pridiuk. This competition started at the same time as Ludum Dare, but is still ongoing till October 1st (and yes you can apply!) – and is of those rare cases when middleware companies targeting the same audience decide to join efforts for good. The programming language of Lua happened to be the unifying force for the two engines. “It’s all about exposure. We loved the idea of this gamejam because Lua is a great language that needs more exposure, and for Corona Labs, not enough people understand how awesome our instant-update simulator and live builds are for quick development iteration,” explains Julie Shmyrova, the Marketing Director for Appodeal (that acquired Corona earlier this year). The two engines representatives share some insights on how to make the most out of their respective software in the time- and resources-restricted reality of a gamejam.
By Jakub Kwinta, PR and Communication Specialist, Anshar Studios
This Polish studio knows how to exploit the potential of VR without forgetting other platforms. A group of 40 passionate individuals with experience in programming, design, and graphics, Anshar Studios, specializes not only in gameplay, but also in third-party projects, creating games and applications for other entities. Though Detached is their first VR game, it is a courageous project where the devs were not afraid of going against the norms, creating an extreme space survival game for the most demanding players.
Imperia Online Ltd. is one of the biggest game production companies in Southeastern Europe with 20 released games. The studio has over 40 million users worldwide and a team of 185 professionals. The company originally focused primarily on browser-based games with main title being Imperia Online – a MMORTS, but later started developing mobile games as well. Their R&D department has recently decided they should tackle a new project in an area they’ve never explored before – VR games.
“Indie Games Polska is a developers organization, like many in Europe, only for Poland”, founder and board member Jakub Marszalkowski explains. “We are working to help developers, mostly indies, as they need support the most. IGP is quite new, formally it exists since the end of 2015. You could find some of our earlier activities, but this still would be 2015.”
Indie Games Polska has been involved in IGJAM 2016 as well. The winner in the Best Mobile Game Category, a game called Masky by Digital Melody Games, participated in Indie Prize at Casual Connect in Berlin.