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Secret Santa: It’s a Stealthy Xmas – A Rediscoverable Seasonal Game

April 16, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Secret Santa: It’s a Stealthy Xmas is an HTML5 stealth-based platform game with a Christmas flavor targeting a young audience. In the game, players take the role of Santa and deliver presents under several Christmas trees while remaining hidden from the various family members inhabiting the different homes/levels. The developer, Adsumsoft, is a tiny mini-micro-studio based in Singapore. It actually consists of just one person, game designer and author Roberto Dillon, but the team can easily expand on a per-project basis whenever needed, or even find creative and original uses for existing PD and CC-licensed assets to complete development. Roberto shares the experience of creating a seasonal game that has an advantage: it can be rediscovered and updated every holiday season. 

Santa just jumped on a bookshelf to remain undetected

No Enemies, Drama or Failing

Adsumsoft founder and the guy behind Secret Santa, Roberto Dillon

The idea behind Secret Santa was to create a joyful experience, without real enemies and drama for failing. In other words, it was designed to put players in a good mood suitable for the festive season.

A set of Christmas carols was needed to achieve the right atmosphere, and a few well-known ones were easily available from A-M Classical to accompany players in all phases of the game, including the “Game Over” screen which, as mentioned, still had to be perceived as a celebrative moment and not as an angry, disappointing failure.

Graphics wise, the idea was to keep things simple and cute, thanks to self-contained levels in each screen and a retro art style reminiscent of old classics like Little Computer People which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite games. The art assets used in the game were done mostly by Lanea Zimmerman and Trent Gamblin and fit the setting pretty well, delivering the kind of style that was originally intended.

Little Computer People (Activision, 1985): while there were no Christmas trees there, its cheerful atmosphere and serene setting still provided valuable ideas and inspiration for Secret Santa.

The reasons behind this choice varies. For example, being an “old” guy who grew up with 8-bit games, I obviously have a soft spot for retro-inspired graphics. Anyway, even from a less sentimental and more practical perspective, this type of graphics also makes sense, since it’s easier and cheaper to make than other styles and allows faster iterations if something needs to be tuned or polished further later in development.

All About Jumping and Hiding

Secret Santa is a platformer with a simple stealth gameplay at its core, where players have to exercise patience and then be quick in their movements.

Besides jumping around, hiding behind doors is the other core mechanic.

For the game to work, it was essential to make funny and interesting ways for the player to hide. So almost every piece of furniture in the houses has been designed as a platform to jump on and get to locations that remain out of sight to the family members: even a bookshelf or lamp, apparently too high to be reached, can indeed be a great hiding spot to wait while a little kid or an auntie passes underneath checking whether Santa has already delivered presents for them.

Besides jumping around, hiding behind doors is the other core mechanic. Glass doors can be opened to let Santa hide for a while as well, visible to no one but the player!

Controls: Buttons’ Functions Change with Santa’s Position

Controls can make or break a game on any platform, and even more so in mobile gaming. Great care was put into them to make sure that Santa’s acrobatics were as intuitive and easy to handle as possible, both when playing on PC and on a mobile touchscreen.

In touch versions, directional arrows for running were placed at the sides of the screen (left arrow on the left side, right on the right) with a button above each of them. The functionality of the buttons varies automatically according to Santa’s position and, in all but one specific case (i.e. while on the stairs), pressing either one will result in the same action, allowing players to use either thumb.

Santa is now hiding behind a door waiting for the right time to resume his presents delivering mission. Notice how the buttons turned red.

By default, the buttons are light blue and pressing them would result in jumping but, whenever Santa is next to specific objects, like Christmas trees or doors, the buttons turn red to signify something different can be done. That’s how Santa can go in and out of chimneys, hide behind doors and step away from there, use the staircases and, last but not least, deliver the presents under the Christmas trees.

Predicted Problem of Discoverability

The game was developed using Construct 2 and while the production workflow went very smoothly, it was kinda troublesome to fully exploit HTML5’s flexibility to deliver the game on multiple platforms and operating systems, since performance still varies significantly across browsers and devices. Eventually, we decided to focus only on PC desktop browsers, iOS (with the game ported by using Ludei’s CocoonJS) and also give a shot at the new upcoming Tizen platform, while temporarily leaving others behind due to lack of time for organizing proper testing.

Tizen caught our attention because releasing HTML5-based games on this platform is quite straightforward.

Tizen caught our attention because releasing HTML5-based games on this platform is quite straightforward. Besides, we developed the game while the Tizen million-dollar App Challenge was on, so we decided to give it a try. Naturally, we didn’t win anything, but are still curious to see how the game will perform next Christmas on these new devices.

Being a very small studio and completely lacking marketing muscles and distribution power, it was easy to predict discoverability would be an issue, and indeed it was. Secret Santa was released as freeware in the second half of November 2013. The web version running on and Facebook was the first to be launched, with iOS following soon afterwards.

Monetization was planned through ads on the web and voluntary donations through PayPal.

Monetization was planned through ads on the web and voluntary donations through PayPal on iOS (no ads there to provide a pure, undisturbed playing experience) with 50 percent of any eventual donation to be devolved to charities supporting children in South East Asia.

Overall, by the end of 2013, the game had about 55k users, mostly playing on the web, while on iOS, Secret Santa managed to break into the Top 100 Arcade and Family games in only two countries (Macau and Laos). Sadly though, nobody donated anything (yes: you read right, not even a single person!).

The reason for the complete lack of donations was that the game is targeted at children.

Most likely, the reason for the complete lack of donations was that the game is targeted at children who, for obvious reasons, can’t donate directly but need to ask their parents first. Probably, the latter were not keen to do so.

Ads revenue didn’t fare any better and resulted in only a few dollars that were then donated to Seametrey Children’s School and Village in Cambodia.

Seasonal Games: The Chance of Being Rediscovered Every Year

Secret Santa is a seasonal game, which means interest will peak only at a specific times of the year. This means there’s not much purpose in doing an update right now, since nobody would notice. On the bright side, seasonal games will periodically be rediscovered and get new chances for reviews on blogs, websites, and YouTube channels. In the end, when done right, they may actually have a longer tail than other games whose novelty factor and interest burns out quickly.

They may actually have a longer tail than other games whose novelty factor and interest burns out quickly.

Taking this into account, a proper Android version may be released in time for Christmas 2014: maybe we will get a donation this time!

Secret Santa is available on browsersiOS, and Tizen platforms. Roberto is currently working on a couple of new concepts: an “on-rails” RPG game named The Innkeeper’s Tales and Defense: Evolution, a sort of tower defense/RTS hybrid based on cellular automata theory. To remain up-to-date with his work, check out Adsumsoft’s Facebook page or Roberto’s Twitter.


BusinessContributionsGame Development

Secretly Building a New Fanbase of Literature – Through Online and Mobile Gaming

October 17, 2013 — by Industry Contributions


Ruth Wilson is part of 100% Indie, an initiative which aims to fuel the mobile games developer community and provide unparalleled revenue opportunities, supporting indie developers around the world. The initiative has been created by Chillingo, the leading indie mobile games publisher and division of Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ: EA) and Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. She shares the story of SecretBuilders.

There’s a quiet revolution going on, reinventing classic literature for children through gaming.

SecretBuilders is the company that aims to keep the classics alive through a virtual community and a catalog of games that enable children to enter the stories themselves. “We’re gamifying the classics,” says Umair Khan, founder and CEO of SecretBuilders. “Engagement makes content much more memorable.” The company’s games allow children to create their own so they can play alongside historical and fictional figures, from Huckleberry Finn to Macbeth to Dracula.

Not a moment too soon, according to the experts. “The classics are less accessible to today’s children,” says Leila Rasheed, who teaches writing for children at Warwick University. “It may be unfamiliar vocabulary that puts them off. It may be that a relatively slow pace and gentle content fail to stir the imagination of modern, video-gaming kids.” Whatever the case, the new UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman agrees, and even says that children are falling out of love with reading because schools are forcing them to read the classics.

Sherlock Homes
“We’re gamifying the classics.”

In contrast, Umair is proud to declare his love of all things literary. A former math teacher from Pakistan, he wanted his three children to have the same enthusiasm, but recognized the need to change the format to ensure the appeal for some young people. He first got the idea of bringing classic books to life when reading Alice in Wonderland to his daughter. “I thought it would be amazing to actually go down that rabbit hole and experience the story in real-time, to engage with the characters,” he says.

The Journey

The route to market has been two-fold. His company first created an online community which was sold to schools, then a year and a half ago, it entered the mobile games arena. The mobile market is proving a huge opportunity for the company, as this is the way most young people play. SecretBuilders is therefore currently working with 100% Indie to bring the games to market via Samsung Apps and reach the huge worldwide Samsung mobile market.

“When I first started thinking about this, back in 1997, CD ROMS were getting popular and multimedia was starting to take hold,” says Umair. “But I didn’t actively pursue the idea for nine years, by which time Club Penguin had taken hold and NeoPets were all the rage. I knew it was time to create my virtual world.”

SecretBuilders was born in 2007; an online community where gamers could enter the world of literary legends, interact with them, and play games with them to help them retain the plot and characters. It took two years to build, and started with Shakespeare. “We considered Russian literature but decided to go lighter,” jokes Umair. Dickens and Jane Austen followed, among others.

Jack and the Beanstalk
SecretBuilders is an online community where gamers could enter the world of literary legends, interact with them, and play games with them to help them retain the plot and characters.

The economy in 2007 was in dire straits and with no money for marketing, the company relied on investors and word of mouth. After launching in the US with just a handful of schools, the popularity of the community took hold and started to spread. Teachers loved it, as it enabled them to fulfill the criteria of the literature curriculum, while children also loved it, as it brought the books to life for them. The community games included player incentives to encourage competition and school incentives through charity donations. “We knew we were succeeding in appealing to teachers and pupils alike when we started receiving emails from schoolchildren pretending to be teachers, requesting more games and access.”

A Current View

The SecretBuilders community now has over 9 million registered users and is still growing, so taking that virtual world into downloadable games was a natural move for the company. Mobile was the focus from the outset, because of the target audience. The challenge was ensuring a constant stream of content, and for that the company needed to partner with book publishers. A meeting with Oxford University press led to the world famous book publisher coming on board with over 300 titles and a rich library of content to gamify. Harper Collins is also now a partner. For SecretBuilders, it means a wealth of content ready for turning into games. For the book publishers, it’s a non-exclusive marketing tool to keep their stories alive and target a whole new generation that otherwise might never have been reached.

The model is simple and effective. Monetization is generated through additional paid game levels and in-app purchases, or through ads in the ad-supported versions of the games. The ROI is larger because of the ready-made content and rather than pay for each individual license, the book publisher gets a percentage of the profit for each game.

“The beauty is this simplicity and the turnaround time,” says Umair. “We already have the content, the visuals, the audio and the characters. The narrated plot is placed straight into the game with additional breaks for relevant challenges, such as helping Sherlock Holmes find a clue in a room. We can create a game in less than three weeks.”

The games range from spelling challenges to hidden objects and adventures, and Umair is aware the style will not appeal to older or more experienced gamers. But for the target market, it works. “I recognize that many gamers might look down on the old school illustrations and styling, but we’re not trying to produce the world’s most polished game artwork. We stay true to the style of the books.”

“I recognize that many gamers might look down on the old school illustrations and styling, but we’re not trying to produce the world’s most polished game artwork. We stay true to the style of the books.”

Since launching just over a year ago as a mobile games company, SecretBuilders has created 25 games with several million downloads and 175 SKUs across different platforms. Success for the full range has mainly been in the US and UK, with pick up in Australia and the Middle East with plans to go global. The fourth quarter of 2013 will see the launch of the first non-English speaking games, in Spanish and Portuguese.

And it doesn’t stop there. Umair is in discussions with publishers of cookery books and car books, who are inquiring about how to bring their content to life. “For us, it really is all about the content,” he concludes. “In the future, we’ll look into multiplayer options for mobile, too. It worked on the web for us, and we’d like to bring that aspect into our games. That way, we’ll have a whole new generation playing in classic historical and fictional environments together, using the wonderful world of gaming to help prevent these worlds from being forgotten.”


Couples in Game Development – ‘Wed-Ware’ Magic or Madness?

August 23, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska


Ruth Wilson is a communications consultant based just outside Manchester. Operating regionally, nationally or internationally, Ruth Wilson PR promotes products and services across consumer and business markets. Her article discusses the views of couples working together in game development, as seen by 100% Indie.

100% Indie
100% Indie helps Android indie developers worldwide get published, and noticed more couples working on great games.

Creating a game is a personal process. It’s full of passion, sometimes a bit tense and even – dare I say it? –  a bit frustrating. Much like marriage, some might say.

But 100% Indie, the team helping Android indie developers worldwide get published, has noticed more and more couples working on some fantastic games. Marriage extending into the app marketplace is a noticeably rising trend

So what’s their secret? Is it down to chemistry? Or would game developing couples (Devouples? Decoups? Gooples?) advise you to stay solo or work in a larger team, for the sake of your sanity?

Robot Loves Kitty
Alix and Calvin of Robot Loves Kitty

Alix Stolzer of Robot Loves Kitty believes it’s a recipe for success. She and her husband Calvin Goble have been creating games together for over seven years and have a strict work-split to ensure maximizing productivity and harmony. The Robot Loves Kitty website sums up this division of labor quite well, listing Calvin’s title as “Game Dev,” while Alix takes care of “Everything Else.” As she says, “The programming is all Calvin, and the business and marketing is all me.” It’s an arrangement that clearly works well; their project pulled in almost $33,000 USD on Kickstarter back in mid-December of 2012, well exceeding their funding target of $5,000. The key for Alix throughout? “Coffee and communication!”

Sparkling Labs
Emilia and Paquale of Sparkling Labs

Emilia Ciardi, of Sparkling Labs, agrees that bespoke roles are necessary: “I’m a developer and graphic designer, while my husband is a strong coder,” she says. Their first game together, Liv’s Cupcake House, was one of 100% Indie’s first 30 Indie Heroes, promoted at E3, GDC and Develop. The couple have ‘day jobs’ in the games industry and are already working on two more titles, both of which they plan to launch as Samsung Apps through 100% Indie as, being a small company (“We’re just a team of two”), they found themselves somewhat lacking on the marketing side. “It was helpful to work with a third party like 100% Indie, who can advise on any tweaks and help you get self published as opposed to just getting lost,” says Emilia. “Marketing the games and showing them off is so valuable, as share of revenue streams can be useful only if the games themselves are visible and have actual chances to be discovered. This is a learning curve that we’ve found incredibly valuable.”

She sees herself as the creative force while her husband Paquale is the practical motivator, keeping things focused and energetic – and with day jobs as well as the odd creative slump, motivation is a key factor in game creation, as any developer will testify. “We try to be an inspiration and motivation for each other,” says Paquale. “As a real life couple, we should be pretty accustomed to that, shouldn’t we?”

Ville Mönkkönen of Instant Kingdom agrees that working with your partner can really help in a slump: “My biggest development enthusiasm only ever lasts for about two weeks when I start a new game,” he says. “After that, it’s mostly work, and I have to force myself to it daily. To me, it’s tremendously important that I get to share ideas with Anne in the evenings, watching a movie, or when taking a walk. She always finds a way to encourage me.”

Ville started making games in 1998, but Anne, a trained psychologist, came to the game world a little later. The Finnish couple’s Driftmoon took seven years to complete, and they admit it was a challenge at times: “It’s not very easy, that’s for sure, especially with two little kids,” says Anne. Ville agrees: “Much of the time during those seven years, we managed to only get about one hour per day to work on the game. Fortunately, I received the Sammon Tekijät Award, which enabled me to take some time off my regular job. That extra day per week did a lot for getting the game done, as Anne was also at home with the kids during the last two years of development.”

Ville and Anne of Instant Kingdom
Ville and Anne of Instant Kingdom

“Working and developing games is an incredible challenge,” agrees Alix of Robot Loves Kitty. “It’s very hard to motivate yourself to do something when you’re tired after a long day of work.” She and Calvin had a unique solution: “We decided to live in a tree house for a few years, not only was it a massive adventure, but we could both stay home all day.”

“I honestly think we still have to do some work on our life/real work/indie dev balance,” says Emilia of Sparkling Labs. “As professionals of the mobile industry in our real work, we can have very hard days. Of course, this is what pays our bills, but it comes with a price – some days we just don’t have enough energy to devote to our indie games. I think in the future we could be looking for funding.”

The rewards are clearly worth it though, as Anne from Instant Kingdom says: “After all the work, love, tears and sweat we’ve put into Driftmoon, it’s been extremely rewarding to read the lovely messages we’ve received, and notice that we pretty much hit our goal of making a game that would brighten up its players’ days.”

So for any new game developing couples, the advice from others in the field is to stick with it and enjoy it as much as possible.

So for any new game developing couples (I’m going with Decoups), the advice from others in the field is to stick with it and enjoy it as much as possible. Emilia says: “You should try to bring together the best of each of you and start this new adventure with a playful and open mind.”

Anne agrees: “Always remember to keep your relationship (and any possible kids you have) first. Be supportive, constructive, honest, persistent, and merciful towards each other, and remember to take regular breaks off working as well.”

Alix advises: “Learn how to criticize and take criticism in a way that lets you both be completely honest about the state of the project. This is an amazingly valuable strength that often requires a stronger bond than most. Communicate.”

And finally, Ville’s top tips: “Start small, make your first game something that you can finish in a few months! And definitely find an idea for the game that both are eager to do. If you’re in game development to become a millionaire, start thinking about a change of plan!”