In this interview, yellowHEAD’s Marina Sapunova speaks with Olga Khomenko about her life as a drummer in an indie band, what exotic places she wants to visit and why she loves playing board games.
Marina: Hi Olga! So we are at Casual Connect Kyiv. Could you please share with us what you do?
Olga: First of all, I want to say that I’m so excited that Casual Connect is back at Kyiv because it’s my native city and I adore it. A lot of new people come to your city and see how cool and beautiful it is. I work at PlayToMax and we create HMTL 5 games. We develop our own games, as well as provide outsourcing services. And I’m also here at the conference together with my friend – he’s an indie developer who’s working on his own game and I’m helping him, so please vote for him.
Marina: Sure! I still haven’t voted so I will do it. Are you a gamer?
Dropout Games had its origin when Ankush Madad and Sujeet Kumar were both studying Game Design at college. During their second year, both of them, along with several other students, were working on a game that was a big hit in one of the college game jams. At the same time, things weren’t going as well at the college, with staff leaving, curriculum changes and a lack of relevance to the game industry. But they persevered, juggling courses while working on the game in the evenings and on weekends. As the end of the year approached, the project was now a polished game and they believed it had potential. So they took their game, ROTO, to Casual Connect 2014 in Singapore, where it was nominated for Best Free-To-Play Game, and on the final day they met a publisher. The team learned a great deal with ROTO, from starting a game and working it through to completion, including PR, marketing and the publishing process. As Ankush says, “It was the biggest lesson we had taught ourselves that year.”
When it came time to return to college, Ankush realized it no longer seemed worth the cost. He had applied for internships, using ROTO‘s success as an example of his abilities, and was fortunate to receive one at a great company. He also began investigating other Indian game studios making noteworthy games but couldn’t find many. A few were doing great work and there were also a few indie studios, but nothing seemed particularly exciting. Then some new indies began emerging in different corners of the country; their games were small, but they were willing to experiment. This gave Ankush the idea of starting his own indie studio.
At GameRome 2017, Yonder won the Indie Prize award for their game, Circle of Sumo, giving them an invitation to participate in Indie Prize at Casual Connect Europe 2018. They tell us that events like GameRome are essential to receiving “hot feedback” on the game you are creating. As well, they are opportunities to connect with many professionals and increase your network. GamerRome 2017 hosted many international representatives of the game industry. It was especially exciting for Yonder when two of them, Dave Gomes and Simon Gerdesmann, chose Circle of Sumo as the best game of the show. Gamesauce has been fascinated to learn more about this winning team and their game from Giuseppe Mancini, their game and level designer.
Fifteen years ago John Criswick and Joshua Ostrowalker founded the game company Magmic. They both had experience in a mobile startup and they had worked on what became one of the most installed mobile operating platforms at Sun Microsystems. Then they realized there was a tremendous opportunity in the consumer market.
They believed that early adopters would be dominant in this initial phase of the mobile app market and that the content most easily monetized by early adopters would be entertainment. So they chose to take advantage of this opportunity by founding Magmic as a mobile game developer and publisher.
Carbon Studio will be bringing their game The Wizards to Casual Connect Europe 2018 to compete at Indie Prize. They won this opportunity through Respawn, an Indie Prize Partner event. They are excited to be with developers from all over the world where they can exchange experiences and be recharged with fresh ideas. Recently, Paweł Gajda, the Business Development Manager at Carbon Studio, answered Gamesauce’s questions about the studio and developing The Wizards.
Participating in the History of Virtual Reality
Carbon Studio was founded by three friends who had been working at The Farm 51 (known for the game Get Even) and go out on their own. They came to this decision after learning of the Oculus Rift Development Kit and discovering a desire to create games for this new platform from its earliest days. They wanted to take part in the history of virtual reality as it was being written. And the games they choose to develop are those they would like to play – a common motivation among game developers.
Carbon Studio has its office in Gliwice, Poland and all the team exceptPaweł work there; he works away from the office. The majority of the team members are from the Gliwice area, which is part of a larger metropolis in the culturally and industrially rich region of Upper Silesia, and others have moved their families there. Most feel lucky to work close to home.
Paweł came to Carbon Studios after working in the film industry as a set manager. A director who knew of his passion for video games and new technology invited him to join a meeting with the owners of Carbon Studio, and he came out of it with a strong desire to work as a VR game developer. Not long after he joined the studio and his first task was to write the story for their first game, Alice VR. He also designed one of the puzzles for Unreal Engine 4. Currently he is responsible for communication and managing business development.
Total Focus on VR
Carbon Studios decided to focus entirely on VR games since players with VR headsets usually stop playing traditional games. “When you try VR once, there’s no going back,” Paweł claims. They expect VR to become more and more popular, so they treat developing for VR as a long term investment. As Paweł said, “I don’t believe it will replace traditional games in the future, but I think it may become as popular as console games, with millions of units sold.”
They began working on The Wizards shortly after the Oculus Touch controllers were announced for the Oculus Rift headset. The idea of seeing and using your hands in a natural way in virtual reality was something they found deeply inspiring. At Carbon Studio they didn’t just want to reproduce activities from ordinary life; they were determined to create something that was possible only in the limitless world of VR. So they decided to fulfill a dream of becoming a powerful wizard and casting spells. Both Dr. Strange and Harry Potter were useful inspirations in their direction.
The Wizards has something no other game can claim: the ability to cast spells with hand gestures. Traditional video games make motions by pressing buttons. In contrast, in The Wizards the player learns specific hand motions to summon spells. Once they are mastered, the player uses them intuitively in a way that is unlike any other experience that simulates magic. As Paweł explains, the gestures are easy to remember and perform and the functioning of each spell is realistic; throwing the fire ball, aiming the bow and deflecting with the shield all are familiar mechanics that feel lifelike.
The development of The Wizards took a few unexpected turns along the way. The game started out as a simple wave shooter that could be completed in less than an hour. The idea of the game was to have the player stand on a platform and prevent the enemies from reaching the village behind. As they were developing the game, they realized it would be more interesting if the player could teleport between many platforms. It still felt too limiting, so they added free movement and free teleportation. The Wizards turned from a simple wave shooter to an action adventure with a lot of exploration.
As they were developing The Wizards, Carbon Studio decided to test at a very early stage of development. They organized alpha and beta testing, each time using the VR community, with testers filling out a beta form. It was extremely useful and gave them many outstanding ideas, but the results turned out to be a bit misleading. The feedback on the movement scheme was overly positive. Once the game was released, players who had paid for the game criticized Carbon Studio’s choice to stick with node-based teleportation. Apparently the beta testers were happy to have been chosen to test the game and were unwilling to criticize too much. This is something the company will keep in mind for the future.
On the other hand, some of the testers gave much more than they were asked for. One not only filled out his survey, he also provided several hours of videos of him playing the game, finding bugs and giving feedback. He then pitched the game to his boss, owner of a VR arcade, and has become one of the game’s most avid fans. When someone on the internet suggests the game is similar to another, he responds that it is, but better. He has now become one of Paweł’s personal friends, and Paweł says, “It was worth organizing the testing just to meet this guy.”
After Carbon Studio released The Wizards on Steam Early Access, they had many players criticizing the movement scheme and soon there were “mixed” reviews on Steam. This was totally unexpected because of the positive reviews from closed beta testing. They responded three days after the release by announcing that they would add free locomotion, a less restrictive way of moving in VR, which the players had requested. As soon as this feature was promised, the positive reviews on Steam began. Now that the free movement update is out The Wizards is a much better game. There have been even more positive reviews and a significant increase in sales.
The Virtual Reality Revolution
Carbon Studio wants to be part of the virtual reality revolution and provide the people willing to buy expensive headsets with even more interesting games. With The Wizards they wanted to make a game that allows players to feel like they are really casting powerful spells, a game that lets them experience something that might have been a childhood dream but was impossible to fulfill before VR headsets were invented.
Carbon Studio’s monetization method is the premium model, releasing their games on Steam and the Oculus Store. The user base for VR is not yet large enough for freemium to be a workable method.
Inspirations for their games can come from anywhere. For example, Alice was influenced by Alice in Wonderland but the plot of the game is original. However, characters, themes and mechanics do have references to the book, such as shrinking and growing, or the Hatter’s riddles.
Carbon Studio’s projects are led by one of the three founders of the company, supported by the other two. Each of them has different skill sets and specialize in different areas of production.
How the Project Grows
A project usually begins with a brainstorming session with the entire team. They want to be sure they are working on a project that is relevant, interesting and completely understandable for everyone. After establishing this basis, most of the decisions will be made by the leads, but they are always open to ideas and suggestions from all team members throughout the development process. And, of course, changes are made all along the way.
As their experience in game development grows, they put increasing importance on alpha and beta testing. With The Wizards, they turned to Reddit and active users on the platform for their users. They were reaching out to future potential users and building a fan base. The choice was not quite as good as they anticipated, with the results more positive than was seen in users after early release. In the future, Carbon Studio will find more impartial testers as well as using the VR community.
When designing the visuals for their games, their basic principle is to minimize the compromises involved in designing for VR. They are fascinated by mega-scans and realistic assets, but there is a certain amount of unavoidable stylization. Although compromises are unavoidable, constantly improving optimization on UE4’s end mean the options for visuals are also constantly expanding.
The humor of The Wizard comes from the narrator played by Jason Marnocha, who leads the player through the world and its story with flair and sass. As well, the designers hid curios and Easter eggs for those who explore the levels in detail. And the developers are particularly proud of the first encounter with the dragon.
Six weeks after the early release, Carbon Studio introduced a Free Locomotion Update. The update allowed the players the choice between free movement and free teleportation which were both new ways to explore the world. There were also new map areas, item pick-ups, and new interactive world elements, each crafted to encourage and reward thorough exploration. Last November they released Arena Mode in which players can face off with endless waves of enemies, testing skills and spells they have learned in the campaign. They also added another new region and new chapter to the story called Shrike’s Desert, concluding the commitments to the Early Access and marking the full release of the game.
On March 8th, Carbon Studio had a full release of The Wizards. The full release of the game comes with epic boss fights, new story chapters, and empowered spells for the ultimate experience in wizardry. Paweł reflects, “We are grateful to everyone who trusted and supported us with invaluable feedback during Early Access. We are humbled that so many players joined us on this exciting adventure and we hope that the new content will meet our players’ expectations.”
If you are an indie developer, Carbon Studio reminds you that it pays to iterate fast and fail early. Don’t be afraid of criticism; feedback is incredibly valuable throughout the development process. Share an early demo on a platform with many users. If the feedback is negative, you will save months of working on potentially unpopular features; if it is positive, you have the beginnings of your fan base. Similarly, it is useful to create a Steam page and social media profiles to spread the word about the game, allowing people to observe it and add it to their wishlist.
You should never release a game without gathering feedback during production. And never tell someone who gives you negative feedback that they are wrong. If you are selling a product it won’t help to antagonize anyone.
The team of Escabeche first heard about Indie Prize when they applied to the Awesome Game Awards hosted by ADVA. They relate, “We didn’t expect much, but since we were showcasing the game at EVA Cordoba, we thought we could try, and then it was all surprise and joy when we won!” And they are so excited at the opportunity to show their game at Casual Connect. “If our work happens to inspire other developers, especially from Latin America, that would be just awesome.”
The game that won Best of the Show Award at Codemotion 2017 in Milan was The Way of Life Definitive Edition from CyberCoconut. This is the first game from CyberCoconut, with release expected during the first quarter of 2018. They will also compete at the upcoming Indie Prize competition at Casual Connect Europe in London.
Founding a Company with a Shared Vision
CyberCoconut was founded by Davide Caio and Nicolò Azzolini, who met at the 2014 Global Game Jam in Milan. Although they didn’t know each other at all, they quickly discovered they worked very well together. After the game jam they began working together on small projects. Then they released on Steam the prototype of The Way of Life, which they had made during Game Jam. In the first two weeks it had 100,000 downloads, and the community was very enthusiastic, asking for more. Suddenly they were motivated to start their own company and continue working on the game.
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.
At Ludum Dare 39, Game Factory named the game Lost in the Sky winner of its Discovery Contest. Winning this prize also earned them a chance to compete at Indie Prize Kyiv from October 24-26, 2018.
Game Factory is affiliated with nearly every international gaming event, such as Global Game Jam or Ludum Dare, a game jam in which developers spend the weekend creating a game based on a theme. At each of these events, Game Factory holds Discovery Contests.
George Maidansky, one of the leaders of the Lost in the Sky Team, thanked their friends at Game Factory for the opportunity and said, “We think we will find new friends, first players and truly useful feedback on Indie Prize.”
Distortions, the creation of the game studio Among Giants, is an unusual game that combines music with a journey of self-discovery in the making. CEO Thiago Girello describes the experience as “a piece of our lives during the past eight years.” Among Giants is the winner of the Best Brazilian Game at BIG Festival 2017, an Indie Prize Partner event, with their game Distortions. They competed at Indie Prize and Casual Connect USA in Seattle.
A Process of Experimentation
Distortions began with a group of close friends learning to express themselves through the media of games. They shared a love for games and experimentation but each of them brought a different background, including movies, literature, design, and photography. Their variety of backgrounds had the advantage of allowing new and fresh insights into their game project. As a result, the making of Distortions was a process of experimentation and talking about subjects rarely seen in games. And throughout the eight years they never gave up on the project because making the game was always a fun time with friends, although Thiago does admit that they often say he gets too excited and should choose less ambitious projects.