I guess that every single games developer in the world could say that everything started when they were kids and, with gleamy eyes but steady hands, played their first game. But I’d like to finish this post before the year is over, and that’d be a bit cheesy anyway, so let’s fast forward a little bit. In some sense, everything started when I decided to found a small development company. But then I would have to talk of 10 years of hard (but rewarding) work, during which we developed more than 50 products and saw many of our clients succeed – one of them sold his product that we developed for him for 50 million USD to NASDAQ!
So, fast forward again to the moment when we decided that the time had arrived to create our own “baby,” to make a game for us and not for others. The idea had crossed our minds before, but it wasn’t until some random day, having some coffee, when I saw a beautiful demo that Oren Rubin and Alon Simon had created. Back then it was something really tiny, but I instantly saw that it had something special – it was eye-catching, quirky, and funny. So I contacted them and told them that maybe we could make a mobile game out of it. We all agreed that it was worth a try.
And here we are, one year, one nomination to the Google Indie Prize, 20 times featured by Apple and Google (even featured once in the “Today” tab), and 4 million downloads later. It was definitely worth the try, don’t you think? But let’s see how we got here – the path is as important as the destination!
We are SignSine – a two people game studio from Kyiv, Ukraine.
We are developing PROZE, an atmospheric survival adventure game focused on telling a compelling story “about friendship with massive Cold War conspiracy background” and providing an immersive experience in VR.
Where did everything start?
In August 2016, we went to a countryside house (dacha) nearby Kyiv with a company of old friends. After getting lost in the woods we were very inspired telling the story to each other from a different perspective. Some time after we decided to turn our memories of that evening into a game screenplay, that’s how the initial idea came together.
We weren’t sure about genre, setting or technology. It was just a draft story and we kept developing it, collecting ideas and references for everything, drawing early sketches, describing game mechanics and creating puzzles — basically doing what we could.
We knew exactly what kind of experience PROZE should be in the end – a unique story with massive background, characters, which you love, hate and empathize. Cozy and at the same time – scary atmosphere that will be left imprinted in players memories for decades. Our sights of what the perfect game should be and on many other things was uncommon, that’s why we settled as a team and kept progressing on the development.
The decision of making a VR game was not instant. However while putting our design document together we realized that this technology can fully project our idea, thoughts, and emotions that we have put into the screenplay. To embody those moments as it could happen in real life we decided to make a VR game at first place.
Going for technologies that we are using in the game creation is a bigger challenge for us, as we are trying to reach really stunning quality of visuals and audio with no budget.
So pretty much all the things that we are doing, we are doing ourselves, including photogrammetry, motion capture, spatial sound design, 3D modeling.
The hardest part was to combine the development with our day jobs. We have to support financially ourselves and the project. We have to spend tons of time on doing things and learning new as we set this unreachable goal of making an uncompromised game.
There were 4 of us in the very beginning, but only 2 of us left carrying the torch. All of us have motivational, financial, family, time and other problems from time to time, it makes huge impacts on the progress of PROZE development, nevertheless we work as a team and support each other during the hard times.
Today we went for full time development, rented a small office, upgraded some gear.
That’s not fine when we can’t afford buying food everyday, but we truly believe that things will change and PROZE will be a blast when it’s done.
We have spend a lot of time on crafting the cinematic story trailer, which is not completed yet today. It still lacks of visual effects and expensive 3D character models.
Perhaps it was a mistake starting from such complex footage that required all states of technology and art in itself ignoring the actual gameplay.
However we’ve learned a lot and gained big experience with
The new game engine.
Motion capture, which we were recording with 2 soldiered Kinects in the rotten basement of the 18 story building. Where we were disturbed all the time by the tenants that were looking at us as on aliens trying to steal their gigabytes of internet.
Crawling through the dungeons and caught cold standing on the windy highways and fields and lakes to record authentic ambiances and sound effects.
But wrong moves were made right. Using the experience and groundwork we started from scratch creating a playable game episode in VR. Not much time has passed and we are showcasing PROZE pre-Aplha at our first conference. So many gamers that have never played anything like that before were extremeley excited.
After 2 months and huge update we are getting 2 main prizes during our second in life conference.
We’ve been awarded the Audience Choice Award and the Best Indie Game Award. Now as winners from GameDev Lviv (an Indie Prize Partner event), we are Indie Prize London finalist at Casual Connect Europe and the game looks and feels like never before.
The mistake that we won’t regret if you can call it a mistake is that we are not following the trends.
The development of such complex project takes a lot of time and the industry changes every now and then. PROZE is not social, it is not a multiplayer. It doesn’t have loot boxes or similar things.
It may sound strange, but it is designed mostly for introverts that want to relax after a busy day, spend a few hours alone and take part in the breathtaking story, experience the situations that might be related to them, but in an extraordinary way and get the emotional connection with the characters.
Hopefully we will connect with our audience and together we will prove that there are no such thing as unreachable goals. And the higher you aim the more you gain. That probably would be the main tip for other developers trying hard to bring their worlds to life.
It might be early to judge if our approach repays.
Our team is called Nord Unit and there are 3 of us: Fedor, Denis and Dmitry. We are true indie developers and Hyperforma is our totally first experience in developing and releasing a game.
Fedor Danilov creates art, game design, interfaces, writes a story and does CEO stuff.
Denis Dorokhov does UI, creates animations and scenes, makes sounds and works with freelancers.
Dmitry Konarev does programming, creates levels, compiles the game in Unity3D. So he deals with the technical side of the game.
And of course, we discuss game balance and mechanics together, so it’s a constant game-design-team-work.
Fhacktions is a location-based mobile MOBA game developed by Posibillian Tech, a Paraguayan startup founded in 2015. Set in a near future where the world is ruled by factions of hackers, players must battle each other to maintain control of strategically placed servers that provide them with currency and power. The core of the game is its location based mechanic, with servers placed in real world places, like your local coffee shop or the laundromat next door. Conceived before Ingress and Pokemon Go were launched, Fhacktions had an uphill road to follow in order to finance, code and promote a game with mechanics no one yet understood.
The game received several awards, like winning the “Best Audio” category in Indie Prize USA, and being finalist in Indie Prize in Asia and Europe in the “Best Multiplayer Game” category. Google selected Fhacktions as one of the 15 best games in the Google Indie Games Festival LATAM in 2018.
Founded in 2016, Miracle Tea is an independent game developer made up of Bradley Smith, Tom Andrews, Enrico Ercole and Gav Amante. Based around Ipswich, they met at the University of Suffolk and Brains Eden game jam. The team aspire to make games that tap into deeper emotions to touch players in meaningful ways. Ruyawas their first release. Bradley shares some insight.
Tom and I were both freelancing on the same project together. He showed me an old prototype he built from Uni. I had just competed in the Indie Speed Run and produced some artwork that I thought had some potential, so we pretty much combined two. Our goal was to re-imagine match style games with positive vibes and bring elements into the genre that you might not normally see.
We submitted the original prototype to the Tranzfuser programme back in 2016 – it’s a national funding scheme for graduates in the UK. We were fortunate enough to be one of the teams selected with a successful pitch for funding. This floated a chunk of our development. The team that rxun it have been lovely to us and amazing to work with.
In 2015 a young Syrian artist who had just arrived in Austria bumped by accident into a game designer that had somehow specialized in political games. He joined the designer and his team first as an apprentice, but soon after they decided to embark on an adventure: to make an autobiographical adventure game about escaping from the Syrian Civil War.
The project in a nutshell:
Path Out is an autobiographical narrative adventure, that allows the players to follow the journey of Abdullah Karam, a young Syrian artist that escaped the civil war in 2014. In the game, Abdullah is giving insight to his real-life adventure via video comments that appear throughout the game. While looking like an adorable retro RPG the game attempts to draw the players into the harrowing experiences that Abdullah had to endure during his journey. It also wants to function as an empathic connection between the player and the all too real protagonist. The first chapter of the journey was made available for free on Steam, itch.io and Gamejolt in November 2017.
Youmaku Games is a small indie game development team, with only three members who are all passionate gamers at heart, based in Egypt. The co-founders of the team, Ashraf Abou-Heikal and Gurin Jaw, two childhood friends, started the company in 2013, having a common goal of creating indie games. The team is currently working on their first game, an endless survival 2D platformer called Skelewton’s First Law, and this is their story of how the game was formed over time. The developers call it a bizarre one.
By Gurin Jaw and Ashraf Abou-Heikal from Youmaku Games
There was first a skeleton…
Our graphics designer, Ashraf, started his journey by practicing pixel art, and one of his early works was a skull. Later on, he drew a body for it, and we decided to make it an enemy in a dungeon crawler game.
Both of the team members had no experience back then, so this game was more of a learning thing than an actual project. Our developer, Gurin, was creating the game using Adobe Flash Professional. We ended up making the skeleton our protagonist, and started our development, or rather, learning process. After working for months, part-time along with college, the game was something like this:
The iconic typo
Then the most iconic accident in our team’s history happened, Gurin was inspired by one of his favorite games, VVVVVV, and thought of adding a gravity mechanic to the game, but with a twist of letting the skeleton switch gravity between four directions, instead of up/down only (like in VVVVVV).
While Gurin was telling our third team member, Abdelrahman, also known as Beta, about how the game is going, Beta made a typo in the chat, and typed “skelwton” instead of “skeleton,” as the “w” is next to the “e” on the keyboard. That’s when it hit Beta: gravity + apples + skeleton = “Skelewton”, Newton’s skeleton, – and so, our beloved character was born.
Two years of development in the trash
After two years in development, the game was glitchy, it looked bad, the levels were shallow, and uploading a Flash game to the internet didn’t seem like a bright idea by then.
That’s when we decided to redo the game using a game engine, Unity.
And so, we re-created the physics more efficiently, we made better animations, and things were finally looking neat. We decided to make the game specifically for the mobile platform, and that’s where we didn’t really think it through.
We lacked knowledge of the mobile market, and we didn’t study game design at all.
We were trying to put a 2D side-scrolling level-based game on mobile, where you need to walk, jump and change gravity. That was a very bad idea.
Our control scheme ended up like this: walking by touching the right/left side of the screen, jumping by touching the screen with two fingers at the same time, and you control the gravity with motion controls.
We started attending local gaming events in Egypt, which were very few, to collect feedback from gamers, and that changed a lot of things for the better.
We decided to go for an endless survival approach, rather than a level-based one (that was mainly due to our lack of experience in game design), as well as it was more suitable for the mobile platform. So, we decided that Skelewton should just collect as many apples as he can in each level till he dies.
Later on, Gurin’s little cousins suggested adding costumes to collect for Skelewton, which was indeed a great addition for the game.
We went to our first local event specifically for game developers. That was, Run Double Jump 2016, and despite it being the show we failed at most, it was also one that benefited us the most.
Gurin didn’t learn from others’ failures, and made one big common mistake: adding new features on the night before the event.
We wanted to get a new decent tutorial for the game ready for the show, but things took a bad turn. We didn’t sleep, the tutorial wasn’t done, and we were running out of time. By the time we reached the event, the game was literally broken, nothing was functioning correctly.
Surprisingly, despite the game being broken, people genuinely loved it, and gave us a lot of great feedback! Furthermore, we got to meet up with the country’s best developers and got to know many amazing people working in the industry.
Not ready? attend events anyway!
During Run Double Jump 2016, we found out about Indie Prize and Casual Connect as well. And decided to submit Skelewton’s First Law for Indie Prize Berlin 2017, despite being far from complete.
We got rejected as expected, but Gurin decided to apply as a volunteer, which would give us a free pass for the event, in exchange for helping out at the event for a day. Thankfully, Gurin got accepted as a volunteer and was able to attend.
At the show Gurin met countless professionals in the gaming industry, and got to know some wonderful people who were all willing to help and give feedback. On the first day, while volunteering, Gurin met some amazing game developers who were part of the volunteers team as well, and they gave a lot of valuable comments.
Special thanks to two teams, Traptics and Amused Sloth, for all their great help and support, they were truly kind and helpful!
Gurin also got to spend some great time with Egypt’s RDJ 2016 winner, Abdallah AlSayed from BNOO Games.
Three days at the event were far from enough to try out every single game showcased at Indie Prize, but it was the most amazing experience ever.
After that we attended a local event, Geek Fictions 2017, where we were invited to showcase our game along with other developers we know from across the country.
At this event, we saw how great the changes in gameplay improved the game. All feedback we received was positive and people were telling us we are in the right direction.
When the RDJ 2017 date was announced, we knew this will be a decisive factor for the future of the game. We worked every day the entire summer with no breaks at all until the day of the event, as if our lives depended on it, because they really did.
The day had come, and it was the best experience in our entire lives, we were genuinely surprised by how much people enjoyed the game and wanted to play again; this was when we felt the true joy of making a game that makes people happy.
What made that day even better was that all our friends and family were able to make it to the event.
We met some amazing game developers again, as well as hard-working, passionate people eager to learn game development.
The day was coming to an end, it was time to announce the winners, and we really didn’t see it coming, because it was a dream coming true: Skelewton making it to Indie Prize.
“Now, we are aiming to finish the game during Q1 2018 and are preparing for Indie Prize USA 2018. We hope to find a publisher for our game. While we don’t know whether the game will be a success or a failure, we agree that spending 4 years on a first game has to be the greatest learning experience ever”.
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.
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.