What is the Indie journey like? What does it take to come up with exciting ideas, create your own company and develop a winning game? Recently Gamesauce was fascinated to learn from writer/animator Ozan Drøsdal about the process that began with a group of friends making a game and led to a company called Perfectly Paranormal developing the winning game, Helheim Hassle, at Konsoll Connect. As winners, the indie team has won the opportunity to compete at Indie Prize London which will take place at Casual Connect Europe on 29-31st of May 2018.
Gamesause: Tell us about Perfectly Paranormal. What led you to found this game studio?
Ozan Drøsdal: It all started during a boring semester in school back in 2011, where we decided to make an adventure game instead of doing homework. It was called Dudefish, it was made in Flash, the dialogue was recorded in our dorm rooms and it took us two years. We entered a competition or something with it back then and needed a company name (we weren’t a company yet at all) and we came up with Perfectly Paranormal. It’s inspired by the perfectly normal beasts from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. We didn’t form the actual company in a legal way before around 2015 when we were in the middle of working on Manual Samuel. A game everyone reading this should totally buy. It came out last year.
The winner of Indie Games Poland (an Indie Prize Partner Event) is a game studio based in Warsaw, Poland. As a winner, Juggler Games had the opportunity to participate in Indie Prize Kyiv 2017. Although Juggler Games is relatively new on the game scene, it was formed by industry veterans who collectively bring more than twenty-five years of experience to this company. The three founders, Mikolaj Pawlowski, Jakub Jabloński and Łukasz Janczuk, discussed the possibilities for more than a year before taking the leap to start the company. The undeniable fact that led to forming the company was that when you work for someone else you have limited opportunities to explore your own ideas for games. In order to make their own dream game they had to have their own company.
What Sort of Company?
During their year of preparation they spent a great deal of time analyzing what sort of company they would have and what their first project should be. They also looked for an investor to help them get started. In February, 2016 they founded the company and by August they had a working prototype of their first project to take to GameCom.
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.
Paweł Jędrysiak is the Co-founder/Game Designer at Digital Melody. The indie developer created Masky, which was honored with the IGJAM 2016 mobile game category award.
“Participation in game jams let’s you test your skills under pressure of time. It’s also a lot of fun,” said Paweł. “Winning IGJAM 2016 in mobile game category was a truly great award! People appreciate our work while we had tons of fun – for what more could you ask for?”
“Game Jam is an extreme test of our skills as game developers,” Paweł continued. “Working as a team can be compared to a factory. To keep it productive every one needs to focus on their job that’s why we need to understand each other clearly. This kind of experience improves our everyday work. Especially process management and we improve our work as a team.”
The Expanding Polish Development Scene
Digital Melody is supported by Indie Games Polska, a game developer organization in Poland. The organization works to help developers, particularly indies, with support as needed.
Artem Savotin, a Ukrainian developer, is the owner of Vidloonnya Reborn. He says that he got into the IT business more than 12 years ago.
“Games and game business always were a hot theme for me. I’ve created my own game projects at school and in the university along with my artist friend. I was a developer,” said Artem. “After graduating from the university I was working on enterprise development and outsourcing, where I went from a developer to a leader of a German IT company in Ukraine.”
Artem says that #DevGAMM 2016 in Moscow where he really started to understand game development. “I’ve decided there that I want to work on premium games, not F2P, since the creation of a fully functional commercial product was closer and clearer to me,” he detailed. “After the Moscow #DevGAMM in May 2016, we’ve started to experiment, and the first idea was based on evolution theme. The first prototype wasn’t very successful, alas. We’ve experimented with the control methods, and that appeared to be a typical beginner’s mistake, though the idea appeared to be very interesting from first sight.”
Early on the development team was Artem and Vasyl. At the time, Vasyl was still working with Unity, but he was experimenting with Unreal Engine during evenings and weekends and pushed that it was much better.
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.”
Stan Loiseaux of Pajama Llama Games is one of the creator of the game Flotsam. The indie game recently won the Grand Prix at White Nights Prague. The White Nights Conference is an international cross-platform business conference for game industry professionals, featuring plenty of networking parties and attended by thousands. As winner, Pajama Llama Games has the opportunity to compete at Indie Prize London at Casual Connect Europe.
“It was amazing and totally unexpected!” said Stan. “We’re still early in development so didn’t even think of winning any prizes anywhere yet. It certainly gives us a lot of encouragement to continue developing, knowing that people like it.”
While it’s a huge moment winning the Grand Prix and receiving a place at Indie Prize, Stan is still very reluctant to give out advice. He says this is his first game and he’s not sure he knows the real keys to success yet.
“If I had to give any advice it would be to start showing your game as soon as possible to other people,” said Stan. “Either to other developers or at conferences like White Nights. We have a small gamedev community in Belgium and we help each other all the time.”
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.
Kevin Beimers fulfills a lot of roles for Italic Pig: writer, editor, producer, director, animator, artist, designer, developer, coder, and storyteller. He has helped create Schrödinger’s Cat and the Raiders of the Lost Quark with Italic Pig. He noted that what he learned from this was: “the weirder the idea, the less likely it is to be stolen”, which led to the development of Mona Lisa, a game where the titular character is a Renaissance robot art thief.
“I’ve always found Da Vinci fascinating – I think everybody does at least a little bit. I mean, here’s a guy so far ahead of his time, with buckets of ideas, talented in every facet of art and science from inventing to sculpting to painting to engineering to botany to anatomy… and that’s just from the codices that he let everybody have a peek at,” said Kevin. “The thing is, for every time he dropped a bomb on human invention – ‘Here you go, folks: I call it a helicopter. That’ll blow your mind.’ – how many of his ideas never saw another human face? I would imagine that for every codex he felt comfortable putting on display, there’s another 10 back in his basement he never told anybody about, and more than a few that he probably had to set fire to.”
“Then you’ve got the mystery of Mona Lisa: Who was she? Oh sure, historians think they’ve got her pinned down as either the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant, his secret same-sex lover, or Da Vinci himself. In other words, nobody’s got a clue,” he continued. “I asked the question: what could be the culmination of Leo’s work? All of his sketches of engineering works, all of his sketches of the human body, what if Mona Lisa the Painting was not his greatest creation, but Mona Lisa the Girl?
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.