Anucha Aribarg of Pixel Perfex is the lead designer for Earth Atlantis. The game was given an award for graphics at the BIC Festival 2016 and was selected to show at Tokyo Game Show 2016.
“I was surprised when it happened,” said Anucha. “I knew that my game art style was very ‘different’ but I didn’t expect to win an award for Excellence in Art. I didn’t even stay for the award announcement.”
“When I first thought about making a game that looks like an old explorer sketchbook from 14th century, I only thought that the idea was interesting and it would be so much fun to do it.” Anucha continued. “To know that people acknowledged and liked it, that was just awesome.”
One game represents Croatia, two games Greece and Portugal, four games Italy and seven games Spain at the international Indie Prize showcase in Berlin during Casual Connect Europe 2017! Among them, two games were nominated by Game Nation Nomination Partners in Italy: Milan Games Week and Codemotion.
GAME: Light&Dark DEVELOPER: Under the Stairs PLATFORM: Desktop Win COUNTRY: Croatia
Light&Dark is a 2D roguelike platformer with random level generation. Light is your primary resource which you spend to uncover levels, kill monsters and progress through the game. Every death is permanent and every run is different.
Awards: Best gameplay and Best artstyle at Reboot Infogamer.
It was 1983; Ivan Mandic was in the second grade, when his father’s friend knocked on the door and came in with something wrapped in a blanket. A small black box with a rainbow, lots of cables, and a cassette player. A few days later, Ivan decided to create his first game. 10 circle(10,10,x), 20 x = x + 2, 30 goto 10 – a sample code from Spectrum BASIC. “There were no books about ZX SPECTRUM in book stores, but Father found one and rewrote it by hand. The whole book, including images,” Ivan recalls as he shares the story of his game, AVION Checkpoint.
Because of 3D
In February 2014, for the umpteenth time, I decided to download Unity3D, but this time, I was prepared. I had downloaded some gamedev tutorials from YouTube (about 60GB) and already knew what a game object was, a prefab, how to rotate it, how to get input from keyboard, what Vector3D was, and how to make a Space Invaders clone. I had read anything and everything about Unity3D and game development. I got lots of experience with 3D Studio, so already had a clue about 3D objects, transforms and textures, which was all helpful.
In a few months and countless number of versions, I came up with a game similar to the one you can try on Google Play. Many people asked me: “Why the hell 3D, all good and successful games are 2D, have you tried Angry Birds?”, and every time my answer was: Because I need to make it 3D. It has to be 3D. I see it in 3D. End of story. This was the only time I didn’t want to listen to good and friendly advice.
Problems: Variety of Devices, Sound, iOS, and Lack of Time
The first problem was testing the game. Thousands of devices, OS versions from 2.3.4 to 4.4, small screens, big screens, screens bigger than my home TV, processors from single to quad core, memory, and skins…I decided to buy test devices: a SONY Xperia ARC as the low level device, SAMSUNG Galaxy TAB as the middle one, and Nexus 7 2013 as a high-end device. My goal was to make a steady 30+ FPS which would run easily on all test devices. But they don’t represent the whole world. On most phones older than four years and with processors slower than 1 – 1.5GHz, the game was unplayable. I didn’t find a way to check processor or memory on devices and to scale resolution/number of objects/textures to achieve at least 30 FPS, so I decided to limit the Android version to 3.0 or higher hoping that newer devices will have the higher OS version. This turned out to be a good decision.
The second problem was sound. I have worked in various areas of the IT industry, but I never touched sound. My biggest involvement in computer sound was to play Pink Floyd or Metallica in WinAmp. Luckily, my brother Vladimir Mandić is an MC in Czech Republic, so he sent me a sample which is now the main theme in the game. But this is a favor done for a family member. I still need proper sound effects and background music, and I can’t ask my brother to make changes or try something else a few times a day. So I will need to sit down and learn something about melody and harmony.
“My biggest involvement in computer sound was to play Pink Floyd or Metallica in WinAmp”.
The third problem is the iOS version. Exporting from Unity, importing to xCode, compiling – and all I get is hundreds of errors. Maybe an OS X version? Downgrading the iMac from Yosemite Beta to Mavericks, and xCode to 5.0 didn’t produce any visible results. So the iOS version will have to wait for better times. Sorry Apple fans, it’s too complicated right now.
The fourth issue was time, and it was the BIGGEST problem. I realized that my one-man team wasn’t big enough when my friend Davor Končalovic started testing all versions up to the smallest details and telling me what he thought should be changed, added, or deleted. I’ve spent hours fixing bugs, making changes, and adding improvements. Testing is essential, but I have a regular job from 9 to 5, and kids are waiting at home with their own wishes and demands. So the only free time I have is at night. The first night was easy, the 10th one was sleepy, and the 100th night was hard. Now I’m used to less hours of sleep. Sometimes a short nap in a chair is refreshing enough for some more hours of work. I’ve heard that Nikola Tesla slept 15 minutes several times a day (and the maiden name of Nikola’s mother was Mandic, so you can see the connection).
Another obstacle is the need to cover so many different areas in order to make a good game: programming, design, modelling, rendering, optimization, sound, usability, gameplay… And I’m losing time because of the constant need to re-learn and remind myself how to do something – for example, add a new object or select all linked vertices in Blender. Of course, Google knows. But it’s 10 minutes lost! 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there… It’s too demanding to work on multiple projects/jobs at the same time.
The fifth problem was game design decisions. Should I focus on gameplay, or are graphics more important? What is the path to a successful game – nice and shiny or addictive? I know that the best games have this all, but how can I achieve this? I decided to focus on the gameplay – making it addictive and creating more levels, leaving the menu designs and options for the better times.
Marketing: Ask What is Wrong and Get Feedback
In the beginning, I thought, I will make a game, post it on Google Play, and that’s it. What a mistake! Making the game is a small part of development. Having posted the first public version, I decided to announce it locally. I sent nearly 400 emails to my friends and people from my business contact list with brief information about the game and a download link, and asked them to help me by testing and posting impressions. What I received were 4-5 replies and maybe 10 more downloads. WTF? OK, I thought, maybe they don’t have time for testing, or don’t know how to tell me that the game is not good. So I posted the link on lots of Android game forums – and nothing again. I started thinking that other devs didn’t want to encourage my development because of competition. In 10-12 days, I decided to openly ask: “Hey guys, what is the problem. Am I a black sheep? Do you hate me for some reason? Do I write in a language you don’t understand? Please say something, even that my game is the worst one ever and I need to format my HDD and go to work on a corn field. Anything, but don’t ignore me, please!”
And BOOM! Hundreds of replies in the next few days. People said it’s a great or excellent game. I got nice ideas, people tried AVION Checkpoint on so many devices, providing detailed reports, lots of them offered help. What a great feeling it was to receive nice feedback!
I’m now working mostly on optimization and new levels. I’ve made 12 new levels and 3 more airplane models, which will have their own flying properties. The already available levels will soon be remade with better textures and baked shadows. I made one level endless, for the most passionate players. I’m also making a better online score system: all scores will most likely be nulled every week so new players will have the opportunity to see their score in the top 10, even if for a few minutes. I didn’t forget about the iOS version, but right now, I don’t have enough time for it.
I can’t wait for the day when I will be able to tell myself: it’s time to leave everything behind and start fulfilling the dream of your whole life – BECOME A GAME DEVELOPER. I have energy, great support from family, and believe that day will come for sure, because I’m feeling butterflies every time I start Unity or Blender.
Ivan believes AVION Checkpoint has great potential, and promises to do his best to make it even better (and nicer), though he admits he will need help in marketing and promoting the game. It can already be downloaded in Google Play and from some other websites with Android games, and played online on Wooglie and Kongregate. Ivan adds that he hasn’t thought of monetization yet, since his day job takes too much time and strength, but plans to change that after meeting some publishers in the nearest future.
“Quiet reflection – I think this is one of the most underused techniques for developing anything,” Greg Lemon explained. “I think we need to get back to a period of quiet reflection and meditative thinking, literally just sitting there and think with no stimulation, a lot of times you can get great ideas from that.”
Greg Lemon is CEO of Greg Lemon Interactive. In his company, he balances a combination of paid and speculative work. The paid work is freelance, to pay the bills and keep the lights on. The speculative work is creating new indie games, which may or may not make any money, but is exiting all the same. Specifically, what he does is – everything! And everything includes art, sound, design, 3D modeling, texturing, rendering, rigging, animation, coding, motion graphics, engineering, and optimizing. He claims, “I really enjoy working on all aspects of game production, and I love it when I get to touch multiple parts that make up a whole.”
The ‘Featured’ Rush
Being featured on the front page of the Apple App Store for his first indie game, Puppy Park, brought him the proudest moment of his career. Unfortunately, the game was released in the first week of January, so profits were minimal, but the experience was still exciting.
Another exciting time was when he was promoted to the lead animator on Star Trek: Online. He had already worked as a senior animator on another MMO, but becoming a lead was a huge eye-opener for him. Suddenly, he wasn’t just animating, he was working with engineers, designing state machines and coming to grips with the huge responsibility of planning and scoping out all the work that needed to be done. It was his first glimpse of how all aspects of a game, including art, design, and code, work together to form a cohesive interactive experience.
The emerging trends that he sees most affecting his company are virtual reality, wearable tech, and 3D scanning devices. He plans to use these trends to continue innovating and making great games.
Allowing For True 3D
The trend that he feels will most affect the industry as a whole is holographic projection. This will allow for true 3D games in real space, not confined to the 2D plane of a television or monitor. Another innovation he believes will come is being able to live online without the need for a physical body. Even though it sounds sci-fi, he is certain it is being worked on. Ray Kurzweil, an engineering director at Google, has already talked about this being a reality within this century.
Lemon prefers to do his gaming on PS3. Currently, he is again playing through Final Fantasy Tactics, one of his favorite RPGs. He says FFT has such an engaging storyline, and the chessboard-like movement and the combat system take RPG battles to a whole new level. He is also playing Outland, Pro Evolution Soccer 2014, Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, and Unfinished Swan. Outland is one of his all-time favorite platform games, combining great controls and aesthetics with an Ikaruga-like color swapping system. He enjoys Pro Evolution Soccer, not just because of the World Cup, but because at its core, soccer is a physics-based puzzle game with an infinite variety of attack and defense strategies, and he feels no one does this better than Konami. He claims Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike is an amazing fighting game; the parry system alone creates fantastic depth. Unfinished Swan is a First Person ‘Shooter’ with no guns or violence. He calls it an absolute masterpiece; he is greatly enjoying painting his way through the game.
Lemon also enjoys a variety of non-gaming hobbies: cooking, brewing beer, drawing and painting, swimming, playing ice hockey, playing the guitar, and reading. And, he says, “Hanging out with my wife and three-year-old daughter is pretty amazing, too.”
At Casual Connect USA, Lemon announced that he is working on some pretty cool projects. He is also available to help work on other developers’ projects. He says, “Let’s talk!”
Barking Mouse Studio is a two-person indie game studio in San Francisco, consisting of Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming. They consider Lost Toys to be their first full game. While both are software engineers and artists, they come from opposite backgrounds. Jim took computer science in college and is a self-taught artist. Danielle took ceramics in college and is a self-taught engineer. Together, they tell the story of Lost Toys.
Wandering Through Projects
We met when Danielle hired Jim to work at an interactive media agency. From the start, we wanted to work on our own projects together, but finding the right one took a bit longer than expected. Financial management app? Built it. News reader? Yep, several of them. Database GUI? Yup, it’s open-sourced here. With each new project, we learned a lot, but none of them ever felt quite right.
We did a couple of game jams and had a great time making the (often less than) 48 hour games. With every new jam, we would brainstorm ideas ahead of time. Suddenly, we were talking about games all the time. So naturally, we thought, “We’ll make a game to sell on the App Store! It’ll make a million dollars, and only take a month or so!” We barely knew game-making, we didn’t know mobile, and we really didn’t know 3D. It was nearly a year later before we were finally ready to launch our first game.
Our old GUI system, and the first time we were able to play a level.
Our first attempt at Lost Toys was with HTML5 and WebGL (using Three.js). For us, it was a nightmare. It felt like we had to re-invent the wheel, the scene view, the model importer, the audio player, the renderer, the camera, and… you get the idea. We struggled for about a month, and then realized that we needed something that would just work. After noticing a lot of fellow game jammers using Unity, we switched. In addition to being easier to develop in, this opened up a lot of doors for us, since we could now publish on nearly any platform.
In the trough of doubt between the switch from HTML5 to Unity, we questioned our initial game mechanic. It just wasn’t fitting with the aesthetic (creepy toys) and wasn’t as immersive as we wanted. Our budget was too tight to let us hire voice actors. We needed the environment alone to convey our story, and an unsettling theme can convey a lot of emotion. In the end, we drew inspiration from a lot of sources like Leonardo DaVinci to Apple to the San Francisco Exploratorium and games like The Room, Zen Bound and Cogs.
Scope and Resource Restrictions
Neither of us has any audio background, but we know the value of it. It was important to us not to compromise the game aesthetic. Having no soundtrack was better than having one that didn’t fit, and the budget wasn’t there for something custom. Fortunately, we found the beautiful, classical and free Creative Commons licensed work of pianist composer Peter Rudenko. We’ve listened to “The Fall” about a thousand times during development. It’s one of our favorite pieces of music ever, and it fits the tone and aesthetic of Lost Toys perfectly.
We also didn’t have the budget for any kind of custom audio samples or to hire a sound engineer. We looked at a number of websites that sold or offered free stock audio. Most of the sites didn’t offer trial samples, and we needed to playtest different sounds as cheaply as possible. Pond5 was great for this, we could download watermarked audio clips and see if they matched what we were going for.
Since the game needed to be as immersive as possible, we felt that everything should be a part of the game world – including the GUI elements. At first, we tried to make everything skeumorphic, “physical” elements of the game. The first version of Lost Toys was more of a ghost story with little “wisps” that flew around and “oozed” off of the toy at the start of each level. Made up of little puffs of glowing smoke, wisps were ethereal “undo” buttons. Unfortunately, the wisps complicated the code and gameplay quite a bit. None of our playtesters understood what to do with them. So they fell into the dung heap of history, in favor of a minimalist on-screen GUI. Surprisingly, we found that the new GUI helped players remain immersed in the game because they didn’t have to learn how to interact with the wisps.
For us, building a 2D game was never an option we considered. Neither of us are 2D illustrators, and Jim had some old experience with 3D graphics. Plus, we really like the aesthetics of minimal but realistic games (think Zen Bound and The Room) and enjoy puzzle games like Cogs and Flow that take advantage of a touch interface. Because of our 3D requirement, keeping development time under a year was very hard work. We ruthlessly limited the scope over and over again. Despite this, our main rotational mechanic in this “simple” game took three months, several revisions and many individual attempts before we pair programmed a solution.
Getting The Word Out
Why do we need a trailer? We’ve got a laggy video of the whole first chapter!
Lost Toys is our first attempt at a professional game, and rotational math was only one of the many things we didn’t know how to do when we started. We had no idea how to market or distribute a game. We just assumed that was what app stores were for. Fortunately for us, we live in San Francisco, where there is a wealth of established indie developers that are incredibly generous with their time and advice (thank you, thank you, thank you!) Many of them we met through our local IGDA chapter, which is a great organization to join if you’re interested in indie game development.
The biggest advice we received was to start reaching out to potential players immediately. To do that, we needed a great trailer. Like with the rest of our game, and indie development in general, we didn’t have the budget to hire someone to make our trailer. We had to figure out how to make it ourselves with zero film-editing experience. It took us about a week of studying movie trailers to come up with a rough storyboard. From there, we needed to figure out how to make what we wanted. The solution we came up with was to turn exported image sequences into movie clips. The problem with this method is that in-game audio can’t be used. To get around that limitation we borrowed a trick from all those movie trailers, and have a single piece of music playing throughout the trailer which helps tie together all the different bits of gameplay.
Everything Comes Together
The finished trailer
So here we are, almost a year from when we started. Lost Toys won “Most Promising Game” as part of the Indie Prize at Casual Connect, and we’re launching on iOS at the end of October with Android and BlackBerry to follow. As part of the process, we learned to say “no” to every idea we had that wasn’t in direct support of launching a solid game and that building the game is only half of the job.
You can keep up to date with launch notices for Lost Toys by following them on Facebook or Twitter.