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!
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.
“It was a lonely night, I was playing EVE online scanning some anomalies, and then suddenly received a message from a friend of mine, Kostyantin Dvornik – he asked if I had any ideas for games. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how it all began”, says BSK Games‘ Andrii Goncharuk as he shares the story of Anoxemia.
2nd Studio is an indie studio based in Denmark, Viborg. The company was founded in the summer of 2013 by Nikki Starostka and Dennis Jensen. The story of Jazon And The Dead starts in a dark room in Copenhagen in 2013. “The development evolved into a struggle for funding while trying to keep the project moving forward,” Dennis recalls as he shares the story of this action-adventure game.
A Game From Sketch
The story of our company actually starts back in 2011, when I was in school studying at the Animation Workshop in Viborg to become a CG artist. Back then, I was already interested in starting my own company and also wanted to gather a strong team to create our student film. Nikki and I were good friends, and we both had high ambitions and expectations about our work, so we teamed up with Tommy Kinnerup, a great artist. We always had the dream of making our own projects, and the student film was to become our very first one. The result was a short animated movie called “Out of the Ordinary”.
In April 2013, I was fiddling around in my room while working as a CG artist for EUCROMA, an organization teaching students about game development and trans-media. I like to do quick sketches for fun, and I made this one about a guy killing zombies and saving ladies. He was running on a huge horde of zombies, with a girl on his shoulder and a shotgun in his hand. I liked this idea, and I’ve always been a huge fan of zombies. So what was supposed to be just a quick sketch evolved into a game idea.
I pitched the idea to Nikki, and we started working on concepts and ideas. Jazon And The Dead was born. We had a tiny room where we worked till very late. I was sleeping right there and the only thing besides my bed was a desk where we worked. We applied for funding after one week of hard work, but the project wasn’t ready yet and the competition was too high.
Gathering a Team with No Money
We saved up some money and decided to found a company (having worked on the game full-time for three months), and then to apply for funding through government organizations. The company was started in a little office in Viborg. It’s the perfect place because it has a nice environment and a lot of people from the animation and games industry. Besides that, it’s a lot cheaper to live in than Copenhagen. The best thing was that we were accepted into an incubation course, which meant we didn’t pay rent for our office space. We also got in touch with a game consultant, Emil Kjær. His help turned out to be amazing. He was giving us feedback on the game and consulted how we should approach funding and communication with people. Now all we needed was a team.
Gathering a team with no money was a challenge. We had to convince people that our idea was amazing and worth working on for free. Normally, we would pay people, but since we didn’t have the means, we had no choice. We had an ambition of getting two programmers and a music composer. I had a friend named Matt Barr who had previously been involved in different game jams and had experience in both game development and art and graphics. Matt had a friend, Josh Long, and they were filling the roles of programmers. Matt was a link between our engine Unity and the 3D assets because he has knowledge in both areas. So it made a perfect team. We still needed a music composer, but we started developing our game immediately, because the time was ticking.
Feedback Emails Brought a Composer
We decided early that we wanted everything in the development to be transparent. So we often made updates on social media, and shared our work in progress on different websites and forums. This resulted in a lot of response and feedback, some of the emails we got were even from people willing to help out. One day, we received an email from a guy called Johnny Knittle. Just the day before, I started contacting different composers to ask if they wanted to participate in the project, and this was exactly what Johnny was offering. He became part of the project instantly, and his sense of how the music should fit, along with the ability to compose for the mood and tone in the game, was just amazing! It took the game to a whole new level.
Making Things Work With 33% Budget
In the middle of September, our deadline came. Even though we worked very hard, the project was way too ambitious for only three months. We had a basic prototype, but it wasn’t resembling our vision of the game.
We were running out of money and one of the programmers was going to work on another project and wasn’t able to continue. Despite only having a prototype, we decided to apply for funding anyways. During October, we had to live with almost zero money, so we started looking for work for hire, just to get some money. We basically took every job available, from web designs to music videos. Not perfect, but we had no choice.
We basically took every job available, from web designs to music videos, just to earn for a living.
There were a few responses and some funding, but not nearly as much as we needed. Only 33 percent of the budget. However, we got contacted by a big publisher company that showed interest in the game, and this triggered motivation to continue. We spread the budget thin. Nikki and I were working on the project part-time. We found a new programmer called Kasper, whom we were able to give an office space. Even though we had no money, we made it work.
Comic-Inspired Art in 3D
One of our biggest challenges was to achieve the look we were aiming for. It’s inspired by comic book artists like Mike Mignola, which is very graphical and shape-based. Therefore, it was important that our characters had a clear silhouette. Since our game is in 3D, it was a very difficult process. The Walking Dead game series is also inspired by comic books, but we wanted to take the look one step further: dark ink lines in the texture and hard, dark shadows. The blood was to stand out and not be affected by the shadows, and it should have a toon-shaded look.
The decision of showing the process and taking the transparent approach to development was one of the best choices we did. Even though we feared that if we failed people would point fingers and laugh, it showed the world that we existed and gave us a lot in return.
The team is still working on the game in-between work-for-hire projects. They have a playable prototype, and are applying for funding at various places. The game has recently been showcased at Select/Start Play in Viborg, Denmark. If everything goes as planned, the game will be in production in early 2015. If they get the funding they need, it will be published on PS4, PS Vita, PC, Mac, and Linux.
The Game Kitchen is a small game company based in Spain, that has been working independently for two years. Formed from a group of friends, they aim to create their own unique IP and make their mark on indie development. Raul Diez talks about the creation of the company’s first original game, The Last Door.
Building the Dream and the Team
To really explain the origin of The Last Door, we have to go back to 2004. Back then, we were just a bunch of friends who really enjoyed making games as a hobby, but it wasn’t our profession. But we all knew that our destiny was different. Our true passion was to develop games. Every day after work, we met together to spend hours learning how to make games and creating our first amateur projects. We lost a lot of sleep to master the necessary tools to develop games, and then decided to start up Nivel21 Entertainment in 2009, a really tiny pseudo-professional studio.
We developed some games and participated in a few contests. Rotor’scope, one of our most successful games, won several awards (Prize on DreamBuildPlay 2009, Best Spanish Indie Game 2010, etc.). We started to gain recognition and the necessary self-confidence to take the leap, quit our boring jobs, and create our own full professional company in early 2010: The Game Kitchen.
For the first two years, we did contract work for other companies and game studios, including ports of existing games and educational titles. We were quite happy in those times, but the advent of the crisis complicated things. Developing indie games in Spain became complicated, since no funding nor financial support was provided. Our clients were suffering, too, and contracted work became much more scarce, pricing went down, and payment came too little, too late.
The moment had arrived for us to step forward and reach our dream: to fully develop our passion and develop games we would loved to play. It was to time to move away from clients’ restrictions and be completely free to create. Thus, at the end of 2012, we stood our ground! We felt there had to be another way to fund games, and so we placed our hopes on Kickstarter as an alternative way around scarcity of bank loans, and a more sustainable and honest way to do business.
The Birth of The Last Door
We knew what we wanted to do and the path to follow. We were only missing the particular idea for a game. To solve that, we decided to have an idea contest internally. It had to be something different, something really groundbreaking… and then appeared. Enrique Cabeza, one of the team’s artists, introduced us to a simple game prototype made with PowerPoint based in pursuing the same feelings caused by classic horror books, where you rely heavily on your imagination to depict the scenes and situations.
The brainstorming began and all the game components started to flow; it had to be an adventure game, immersive, with low visibility and dark scenarios, even more..over-pixelated! The retro concept gained ground and the point-and-click mechanic was almost mandatory. We are quite a homogenous group, and have a mutual understanding when approaching video games. It wasn’t difficult to agree on the shape of the game and completely fall in love with the idea and concept. There was no turning back.
Designing the Kickstarter Campaign
Preparing for our Kickstarter, we knew that we had a lot of work to do before we were ready. It was the first time we were crowdfunding a project, and everything was new and vibrant, but also very time-consuming and stressful. Kickstarter gives you a month to reach the funding objective, so when we decided to start the campaign in December 2012, we also started a race against time to set a good communication flow with the community and create as many contents as possible. It’s common sense that the backers want to have a deep knowledge about the project they are going to support. Videos, social media, a functional website, art, team introductions, PR and marketing activities, as well as a playable prologue– all ideas were welcomed to explain the game and to tease and convince potential backers.
Videos, social media, a functional website, art, team introductions, PR and marketing activities, as well as a playable prologue– all ideas were welcomed to explain the game and to tease and convince potential backers.
In our ingenuity, we thought that part of the team would be enough to handle the campaign while the others start work on certain aspects of the game for when we were up and running (and more importantly, funded). But that wasn’t the case, as most of the resources were spent on the campaign itself. The only exception was the creation of the playable prologue. Even though we barely reused any lines of code or assets from it, it turned out to be a good prototype and gave us a real and concrete vision of what we wanted to achieve in the first chapter.
After a month of madness and frenzy, 285 backers not only supported the pilot chapter of The Last Door, but also helped us to reach 20 percent over the objective. That’s the way we were able to undertake our beloved project: an over-pixelated horror game in which the player would have to use his imagination more often than he’s used to.
The Moment of Truth: Developing the First Chapter
When approaching the design of the game, the first thing was to decide the technology to be used. We went for Flash, since we mastered this software, and it represented the best alternative in terms of budget and time, although it also had some restrictions. One of the restrictions is that Flash is “high level,” so it isn’t designed to be optimized from a technical point of view. Another limitation was that only one out of our three programmers really mastered this software and had previous experience with it.
As for methodology, we are used to work under Scrum, so we stuck with it. Our first decision was to make a first sprint that would last for a little less than a month, because we had to build a clear-cut, well-defined basis for every aspect of the game. This is the way we have continued developing our game until today, adding new features along with new chapters, like refactoring the engine, support for NPCs and dialogues (including the integration with ChatMapper, a very cool tool to create conversations), savegame, accessibility features (closed captions and dyslexia-friendly fonts), support for community collaboration, etc.
With development, we had teams in charge of certain aspects of the game. Our two artists were in charge of the script and general design of the game. They created the main storyline, script, and gameplay of the first chapter. Obviously, for the first chapter, it had to be a script that would somehow “hide” the lack of features that would be entirely missing from the game because of time constraints, such as tree dialogs or navigation grids.
With development, we had teams in charge of certain aspects of the game.
For the programming team, the top priority was to create the game engine. The coding of the prologue was done rather hastily during the campaign, so it was obvious it needed a deep and thorough analysis and refactorization if we wanted it to hold up a much longer gameplay and the potential inclusion of more features in the future. Considering the script and design team would need a few weeks before finishing up the story, we decided it would be best to test our newly coded engine features by creating a replica of the prologue.
As for the orchestral original soundtrack and sound effects, it is one of the greatest features of The Last Door. The soundtrack completes the strange and frightening atmosphere of the game, and it has been highlighted and praised by almost any of the media which have covered our game. For that, we had the good fortune of counting on our friend Carlos Viola, a master music composer with a long history of composing for video games, who rapidly understood what we wanted for the game and did outstanding work.
From the beginning, we wanted to create a scary and enthralling story, making the player feel a gripping, immersive status. That was a real challenge, but also the key to our success. We are fans of horror literature and of authors such as Lovecraft and Poe, so our first intention was to reproduce that atmosphere of the dark ages: full of light and shadows, uncertainty, obscurantism and mysteries. The story behind The Last Door revolves around cosmic terror and Gothic novels, especially from those above-mentioned authors, so their literary universes are the leitmotif narrative of the game from its very conception.
The Importance of Our Community
Thanks to the crowdfunding concept and backed by our active community, we released our first pilot chapter “The Letter” in March 2013. The positive response from hundreds of players and the good critics encouraged us to continue with the project and produce a second chapter and design the whole saga. Due to our previous success with crowdfunding, we thought that we could crowd-fund future chapters of the game independently from Kickstarter. We implemented the necessary tools within our website to make it possible, such has creating a good basis that supported user profile management. People needed to be able to register, log in, edit basic information and identify themselves as backers (or new ones) to access their individual rewards. We managed it and in June 2013, we launched our second chapter “Memories.” Since then, the game has been played by hundreds of thousands players throughout different websites.
The main role of our community is obvious, not only from the funding perspective, but also in a creative way. To continue telling the story and making this a long-term project, we depend on our community. Our idea was to design an expanded experience for those who want to get more involved while allowing more casual players to play without interference. We have a web blog/forum that works as an effective communication channel. It allows our community members to participate and suggest ideas or improvements in any aspect of the game (from content to marketing). Thanks to them, we’ve been able not only to fix bugs, but to perform relevant improvements in gameplay. Another main role of the community is the writings, as no one in the team really has enough command of the English language. we got almost 100 percent of the texts re-written by them, and they are also localizing the game into several languages (we have twelve so far).
We believe in collaboration as a way of creation, and we are making further progress in that direction. In the last chapter, for instance, we organized a kind of contest where our community members had the chance to suggest descriptions for many objects we left intentionally undescribed within the game. The “Leave your Mark” initiative was highly successful, and we are thinking about new actions to interact with our fans and make them participant in the success of the project. All these inputs really help in the creative design and fine-tuning of the game, supplementing and improving our original ideas.
Finally, we are really proud of our fans, since they are also creating a lot of rich parallel content related to The Last Door. Illustrations, 3D modeling, recreations of the game in SIM’s, Minecraft, etc. and even poetry about the game! We just can’t believe it!
Future of The Project and Studio
Future? We don’t really worry about that. We will try our best to survive in this pure “indie mode” as long as possible. It’s not easy, but we have the necessary tools to battle it out. Also, The Last Door is starting to be economically viable, so prospects are positive. Many people ask us how long is going to take to end the game, and to be honest, we don’t really know. Our game is designed to be a web-series and, as such, it hasn’t a predetermined number of chapters. As long as the community continues supporting us, and the series makes sense story-wise, we will continue producing episodes. If the project stretches on, we could even divide the game into different seasons, much like a TV series. Our intention is that once we reach “cruising speed” in production, we will detach some resources from this project, since the production will have enough momentum to be carried out by less people. At the same time, these liberated resources would start pre-production for something new. It isn’t decided yet, but we have plenty of ideas.
The third chapter of the series, The Four Witness, is scheduled for release at the end of September. Keep up-to-date with The Last Door development on Facebook.
Sean Clark has worn many hats during his time in the games industry. From designer to studio director and everything in between, Sean’s passion never seems to run out. He worked at Playdom, Electronic Arts, and LucasArts before settling as Director of Content Production at Big Fish Games. He enjoys everything he does in games, but what is most important to him is the fun of building entertainment experiences. “I get a rush from being a part of something coming together through a creative and collaborative effort, and I still get that rush working on great games at Big Fish,” he says. We were able to catch up with him to discuss his view on creating and producing games.
For the Love of Games
Growing up playing Pong and Atari games on the old family TV, Sean learned to love games early in life. When Atari released a Basic Programming cartridge, he immediately began learning the language and realized that programming consisted of a series of logical instructions. He discovered that building games could be an actual job.
Still, he did not plan for a career in the games industry. He graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in Computer Science knowing he liked building things in software, especially games. LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts) happened to be hiring junior level programmers at that time. Up to this point, Sean had only created games as a hobby, but this sounded like the perfect opportunity for him. He was right: it turned out to be a great time to join the company.
All of a sudden, he was working with a group of people just as passionate about games as he was; real artists, musicians, programmers– talented professionals who could bring unique creative elements to the product. “It was a blast!” Sean says. “It was also an experience that has helped me through my whole career, right up to today as 3rd-party Director at Big Fish, working to bring fun game content to the company.” In all the roles he’s done, he’s always shown his love of games. He looks for the same passion and excitement for a game from developers, both internally and externally.
Point and Click Adventure Games Anyone?
Having been involved in multiple projects in a variety of roles, Sean has a soft spot for point-and-click adventure games. While at LucasArts, Sean helped develop The Secret ofMonkey Island in 1990, a popular point-and-click adventure. It was a great experience, but problems always arise, and the solutions were often unique. Sean learned a lot about problem solving and creatively mitigating issues during this project.
“I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.”
However, point-and click adventure games started to slip into the background. In an interview with adventuregamers.com, Sean stated that the popularity of point-and-click adventure games would return. When we asked why he thought they had fallen to the background in the first place, his answer was emphatic. “I blame it on 3D. At the time, real-time 3D was such an amazing new capability that the faster computers and video cards enabled, it became the sexy new thing.” While 3D opened new areas of design, it also started a graphics arms race. Everyone focused on 3D graphics, with a game like The Dig being compared to Dark Force or TIE Fighter. But eventually, people realized that adventure games were a different genre to other games, like first person shooters.
He points out that in 2002, Big Fish took advantage of the 3D distraction and built a successful business recognizing and catering to the adventure gamer audience. Even Escape from Monkey Island still managed to do well in the “Adventure Games are Dead” era. Although there are not many classic 3rd person point-and-click adventure games coming to market, there is the very successful line of Hidden Puzzle Adventure Games that Big Fish is so well known for. These, Sean asserts, are a modern version of adventure game storytelling, similar to those he started his career with.
Another reason adventure games seemed to go dormant was the fact that retail space is both limited and competitive. Because attention was so focused on 3D games, it was challenging to interest retail chain buyers in adventure games. The big factor in changing the situation was the internet. Brick and mortar stores were no longer the only way to purchase games. Sean attributes Big Fish’s success largely to its creation of an online place to find and purchase great casual content, including adventure games.
Adventure Game Evolution
This new cycle of adventure games has evolved, bringing lower-priced games, which are also shorter in length, and tend to tell stories in chapters or episodes. According to Sean, these new games are still high-quality, well-polished games with great artwork, and compelling stories, although the format is different.
Sean believes Big Fish has been instrumental in bringing more attention to adventure games in a number of ways. They created a new format for adventure games, brought them to new audiences, and gave consumers a way to try the game before committing to a purchase. They figured out how to make adventure games easier to find and consume, at a time when retailers had all but abandoned support for the genre.
Sean is just as excited about the future as he is about the present. “We expect 2013 to be a year of innovation in game, content, and delivery, with games on almost every device and in nearly all casual genres,” Sean says. “In March alone, Big Fish launched 2 highly acclaimed mobile games: Fetch for the iPad, an adventure about a boy on the search for his dog; and Match Up! By Big Fish, the first iOS game to have real-time, 16-bracketed tournament play. Add to that the world’s largest interactive streaming casual game service and continuing franchises like Mystery Case Files, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times, and you can see how there is something to excite all types of gamers.”
Sean reminds us that Big Fish is an incredibly talented and creative company, with exclusive partnerships with more than 140 developers all over the world. He expects Big Fish to continue bringing fun and innovation to the games industry.