ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Own Kingdom: A Game Remake that Built the Team

September 22, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


In July 2011, Eldwin Viriya took a leave of his job as a lecturer of basic algorithm and data structure for a semester to take a GRE test for the master’s degree. Having passed it successfully, Eldwin discovered he had a lot of free time. He decided to use this time for self-development and made DragManArds in 1.5 months. This Flash game really sparks the light of game development spirit in its author. Later, his company, Own Games, created DragManArds’ remake Own Kingdom, a fantasy medieval strategy game where you need to protect the kingdom from waves of monsters. He describes it as an experience of tower defense games with a taste of war games.

Get the Taste of Making Games

When I first created DragManArds, I used MochiAds for monetization, since that was the only monetization option that I knew at that time. I didn’t even know about Flash sponsorship back then! The result turned out interesting: I got a lot of feedback from real players in Kongregate, some fan messages and suggestions, and also managed to earn more than 200 USD in the first month (which was cut down to only a quarter in the following month, and to almost nothing for the rest of the month).

It felt amazing to actually experience the thrill of launching a game, but the best part was when DragManArds dragged me into the gaming ecosystem of Indonesia. Groups such as Gamedevid allowed me to get to know game developers of the country, as well as big companies like Blackberry and Nokia.

Own Games Team - left to right - Raynaldo - Jefvin - Eldwin - Okky - Agustian
The current Own Games team: Raynaldo, Jefvin, Eldwin, Okky and Agustian

Remake DragManArds: More Features, Better Graphics

In late 2011, Nokia held a game developer competition for their feature phone platform. I asked Jefvin Viriya, my brother (who was still in high school) to help me make the game in time. Having submitted a mini game named Beyond the Well, we came out as the third winner in the competition, and since then, we continue developing games together under the name of Own Games.

We started attending local gamedev events here in Indonesia, one of which was Game Developer Gathering. After this gathering, Kris Antoni from Toge Productions invited me to a meeting with Mochi Media. I got a chance to show DragManArds to their representative and received good feedback about the game. He said he was interested in being contacted again if there’s any sequel to the DragManArds. This meeting made me believe that my game has a lot of potential within.

The meeting with Mochi Media made me believe my game has a lot of potential.

At that time, working on a new Flash game would have been really hard for us. Firstly, Own Games already had a good amount of players from Nokia Store, and we want to keep them happy with our creations. Moreover, I was also busy with my day job as a lecturer, and my brother got overwhelmed with his high school final exams (not to mention that he didn’t understand ActionScript at all). So we continued our life as usual after that time.

A few months later, Nokia launched Lumia, a Windows Phone smartphone. Until this day, Own Games was focusing on feature phones only. We were working in native J2ME and were not really familiar with modern game engines. Then I noticed that one of my juniors had graduated from the bachelor program, and I invited him to work together in Own Games. The first thing he did in the company was port DragManArds to Lumia. The results turned out great: DragManArds  got a gold medal in the Lumia Apps Olympiad in December 2012.

DragManArds Gold Medal from Lumia Apps Olympiad
DragManArds’ gold medal in Lumia Apps Olympiad in December 2012.

Then I finally decided to quit my job to completely focus on Own Games. On April 1, 2013, Own Games transformed into an official company. Agustian, a 2D artist, also started to help us out. It was really a big move for us: before he joined, we were short on manpower and, what is more, he had a degree in arts and experience in making games. The first objective became clear: remake DragManArds with more features and better graphics.

Learning From Mistakes and Feedback

DragManArds already has a lot of versions: Flash, Windows Phone, Blackberry 10, and even J2ME. Having received a LOT of feedback, we planned a lot of stuff that we wanted to implement in the remake. It turned out to be a lot of tasks. But as Agustian is a talented artist with experience in game industry, I could fully dedicate myself to improving the gameplay and user experience, and our programmer had proven himself successful in making the Windows Phone and Blackberry version of DragManArds, we believed we’ll make it.

Own Kingdom Banner
The DragManArds remake, Own Kingdom, needed much more effort than expected.

I was too optimistic back then, and set the deadline to 3-4 months (DragManArds was made in 1.5 month by me alone, right?). But we weren’t able to finish everything in that time. As any new startup, we faced many challenges, both technical and not. I often argued with Agustian about how he used a lot of time to draw some tiny details that cannot even be clearly seen in the final game. Meanwhile, our programmer had to work remotely from another city because his father had a serious illness. In the end, he realized that he didn’t have enough time to develop anything and left Own Games. So we lost our programmer, our art assets production took more time than planned, and my entrepreneur’s soul was still on a very early development stage. I used to get a salary each month, now I had to pay salaries each month – It feels totally hard in the beginning even though you are already aware of the risk.

I used to get a salary each month, now I had to pay salaries each month. Feels hard in the beginning.

A few months after our programmer left the team, we met Ray Naldo, a former junior in the university where I worked. But we didn’t want to give him the pressure of developing a game as big as Own Kingdom for his first time. So we decide to make Eyes on Dragon, a 3D endless runner. During its development, we also got some help on 2D art assets from Okky, Agustian’s junior.

Eyes on Dragon Logo
Eyes On Dragon: project for the new programmer to adapt.

Meanwhile, Jefvin was learning C++ and tried to make Own Kingdom for Windows Phone 8 using Cocos 2dx. The WP8 version eventually became the finalist of the Indonesia Game Show. During our presentation at the competition, the judges called Own Kingdom’s gameplay a unique and promising one, but pointed out that the program was crashing and the buttons weren’t working smoothly. Even though we didn’t win the competition, this encouraged us to go on with Own Kingdom. But, sadly, once again, we had to put development for WP8 on hiatus when we realized that Cocos 2dx for WP8 didn’t support mp3 files.

Back to an Abandoned Game

A few more months had passed. Eyes on Dragon was published. We were happy with what we made, and decided to go on with the development of Own Kingdom. Ray started learning Unity 4.3 for 2D, Agustian and Okky made more art assets for the game, and Jefvin and I kept improving the game design, level design, and also the whole gaming experience.

The second development phase was not easy, but definitely better than the first one. Continuing the game that was once abandoned is for sure not an easy task, since most of the courage is gone. What is more, there were two desires we struggled with: to make the game better but, at the same time, finish it as fast as we could. Yeah, that’s shameful. Nevertheless, coming back to Own Kingdom had positive sides, too: we already knew that the game is worthy and that a lot of people wanted to see it completed. What is more, now we had a bigger team and some experience. Eventually, we managed to finish Own Kingdom in April 2014.

own kingdom gameplay 1
In April 2014 Own Kindgom was ready.

The development of Own Kingdom is a long journey, and we realize that it has not ended yet. But we are really happy with the growth of each of us. Agustian has started to become more efficient and effective at allocating his energy to finish the work in time. Ray got a lot of experience in making the game using Unity in both 2D and 3D, which opened the possibilities to reach more platforms. I became more familiar with project management, and got a whole new experience in leadership. But the most valuable thing that makes me really grateful is how Own Kingdom turned Own Games into a more solid and powerful team.

own kingdom gameplay 2
Own Kingdom turned Own Games into a more solid and powerful team.

Own Kingdom is available in Windows Phone Store and Nokia Store (Nokia X only), and has recently been launched on Android.

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Spoiler Alert: The Challenges and Difficulties of Doing a Game Backwards

February 19, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Megafuzz is a Danish indie game studio founded in 2013 by Jeff Jensen. With their flagship game Spoiler Alert conceived at a game jam, they are all about passion, creativity, and fun. A genuine love for the game is their strongest foundation. Jeff discusses the ups and downs of creating Spoiler Alert.

When Everyone Goes Right, Go Left. Literally.

In true indie spirit, Spoiler Alert was born at a small Danish game jam in Viborg in 2012. I remember the jam’s theme had just been announced: “resistance”. As many jammers in the corners were discussing various rebel games, friction-based games etc., I had a slightly different train of thought. I was thinking of “resistance to mainstream”. And what was the most mainstream thing I could think of in a videogame? That you had to complete it! Why not uncomplete it instead?

The jamming was about to begin, and I still hadn’t found anyone with whom I really got along. I was about to go solo when a tall, calm guy approached me, introducing himself as Martin Pedersen, a graphics artist. I explained to him my idea for the game (a reversed Super Mario), and we made an official team. Discussing ideas of how to proceed with our game, we immediately hit it off, and there was chemistry unlike anything I’ve ever felt before with a game jam partner.

There was chemistry unlike anything I’ve ever felt before with a game jam partner.

Internet and Phone – Connecting Developers

The game jam was a success to us; Spoiler Alert won first prize for best game, best pitch, and also received a Judge’s Favorite, as well as Audience’s Favorite award. A couple of weeks later, it also got mentioned favorably in the Danish newspaper, Politiken.

Martin and I felt that we had a fun game idea, and, with the response we’d gotten based on our little 48-hour prototype, we wanted to turn it into a full game. We still believed there was a lot of untapped potential in the gameplay. Armed with nothing more than the idea and intense passion to carry it out much further, we launched a full assault on taking Spoiler Alert from a game jam prototype to a full game. We live in different cities with a significant distance between us, so we have to rely almost exclusively on the internet and phone for communication. Facebook and Google Docs are among our favorite go-to tools.

We launched a full assault on taking Spoiler Alert from a game jam prototype to a full game.

Making a “Reversed” Game

Even though I’ve worked on numerous small games before, this was my first serious project, as well as my first time working with a partner. As for Martin, it was his first time making a game. Period. So, neither of us was that experienced. On top of that, we were doing a rather unique game, with a lot of uncommon design-related challenges. Just wrapping my own mind properly around everything going backwards was difficult enough at times.

Everything going backwards here

I remember making an entire boss fight, being satisfied with it, showing it to Martin who was also satisfied, and then we realized I did it going forward (like a “normal” game). We both looked at it without realizing that. Instead of swallowing his own fireballs, the boss was shooting them – just to name an example. This sounds simple and stupid, but it caught us both a few times before we really got used to designing everything in reverse-logic.

About midway through the project, we saw a handful of issues. First off, the game wasn’t suited all that well for handheld devices (which was a strong focus), because we made the levels fairly long (2-5 minutes). So we cut them up into smaller pieces, and added a lot more new levels. We went from having 30 long levels to 100 shorter levels.

From 30 long levels to 100 shorter ones

Also, there were virtual buttons; one for jumping and one for using your powerup. The problem was, that as you didn’t always have a powerup, 50 percent of the GUI was redundant and confusing. We discussed having the powerup button only appear when you had a powerup, but then became afraid people wouldn’t notice it. Also, we thought it would be inconsistent. We ended up removing virtual buttons altogether. Instead, tapping anywhere on the screen would make you jump, unless there was a fireball to catch, in which case you would swallow it. In other words, we made it context-based. This worked much better and was way more streamlined.

We’re Done! Oh Wait…

About eight months of development later, and we were done! Or so we thought. We were about to release the game, but were forced to wait a few weeks as I was in limbo with paperwork (I was registering Megafuzz as a company, getting it approved as a business at Apple, doing bank stuff, and many other grown-up things). These weeks let us take a step back and look more critically and objectively at our own game. We realized that, in the end, we just weren’t satisfied. We could do so much better!

Spoiler Alert before full re-development…

We chose to postpone release, and took Spoiler Alert back into full re-development. This was a long process, which extended into another 6-8 months. Things became much better; the graphics got a huge overhaul, many old levels were improved and new ones added, UI was animated, and, thanks to extensive testing, we found out that the game was way too hard and unfair. We spent a lot of time making Spoiler Alert more intuitive, and re-balancing its difficulty. I’d estimate that we’ve reduced the difficulty level about 10x since the first version. At least.

…and after.

The Encouraging Impatience of YoYo Games

We were knee-deep in development, moods were high, but exhaustion was also there. Spoiler Alert was developed using GameMaker: Studio, and I would often use the game as a basis for bug reports to YoYo Games. I guess this is how they noticed the game, because we didn’t really advertise it, but, all of a sudden, I got an email from their PR manager. She said that she and some of her colleagues had been playing around with the game, and would like to include it in their (at that point, non-existing) official games showcase. This definitely gave Martin and me some extra fuel, and we were promised to be included in their showcase as soon as it went live a few months later.

Eventually it was there, and I was supposed to email YoYo Games some materials for Spoiler Alert so they could put it up. Even though I really wanted us to get in the showcase, I deliberately waited until the game was in a state I would be more comfortable showing off. I actually held off for several months after the showcase went live.

I guess they got tired of waiting because one day in November 2013, I saw a mention on Twitter that Spoiler Alert was now in the showcase. As we hadn’t given them any proper materials, it didn’t look its best, and we had not submitted proper info either, so the showcase stated that the game was out, and provided a dead link. Being honored and excited, we understood we had to hurry and send in some proper materials and correct information. Even though we were fast, in less than an hour after the game info went live, I received the first email from a user who asked why he couldn’t download Spoiler Alert, and said it looked awesome. It was a mess, but a fun kind of mess!

A Team of Three, Yet Two Have Never Met the Third

I mentioned this was our first real game, and we’ve learned a lot from it. Martin has obviously improved very much as a graphic artist, and we’ve both gotten a completely new understanding of what it means to make a game. It’s a fun, but long and tough process, and often it pays to over-estimate schedules and times.

One of the areas in which I’ve personally grown the most is my own “quality bar” – it’s been set much higher. I’ve spent more time than ever on small but important polishing-related things, and have learned much about trying to make the interactive experience as intuitive and foolproof as possible. I’ve also gotten significantly more experienced in level design.

I’ve learned a lot about working with a team – Martin, and our musician and sound technician Roland La Goy, who’s based in the USA. It’s been interesting to make a game with a team where most communication is virtual, and two of three people have never met the third person. I’m still amazed that this worked out well, but I’m just blessed with having such awesome people in the team.

Spoiler Alert will be available for download in February 2014, on iOS, Android, Windows, Mac OS X, Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, OUYA, Ubuntu, BlackBerry and Tizen. It also won the Most Promising Game in Development award at Casual Connect Europe‘s Indie Prize Showcase.


Bringing Illustrations to Life: The Relationship Between Illustration and Interactive Animation

November 12, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska


Morphopolis is a hidden object adventure game set in a fantastical insect world, by Micro Macro Games, and is a collaboration between illustrator Ceri Williams and animator/programmer Dan Walters. The player takes the role of an aphid grub that changes form through a cannibalistic control of dead insects in their quest to rescue their companion. Dan explains how they brought their vision to life.

An Illustrated World

The most powerful element of Morphopolis is the idea of entering an illustrated world. The ability to control, move, and interact with an illustration instantly transforms the player from observer to protagonist. Authorship is shared as the illustration changes, offering the viewer a much deeper and involved experience. In return, the responsibility of interaction must be accepted and the pace must be controlled. Interaction is distinctly different to observation.

When Ceri Williams and I started Morphopolis, we wanted to create a game for people who loved illustration. This worked really well, as not only were we essentially creating a game for ourselves, but we could engage with like-minded people, and offer interactivity to a traditionally static discipline. There were games we loved and admired (Machinarium, The Tiny Bang Story), and appreciated the importance of a illustrated identity. The style of the game had to be our own.

All the illustrations of our game were done by hand, with a set type of ink drafting pen on tracing paper, to ensure consistency between drawings. The hand-drawn style was partly because of our ambition to create something personal, where the hand-drawn aesthetic creates a sense of care and process. The larger factor was probably that Ceri is a traditional-type illustrator, having not created illustration digitally before. All illustration was created to the same scale, then digitally reduced when added into the game. Ink wash textures were created to add texture to the white bodies of the graphics, while much of the color is added in Photoshop.

Morphopolis 2
The hand-drawn style was partly because of our ambition to create something personal, where the hand-drawn aesthetic creates a sense of care and process.

Feeling Inspired

The goal was to create originality. To do this, I wanted to close my eyes to the game world and look else-where. I approached Ceri with the project because he was not a games person – he lived entirely in the world of design, architecture, and illustration. He has high creative output and because of this, he thinks a lot about his own work, perhaps living in his own world more than anyone else’s. There is a unique character to his work that I wanted to introduce to gamers.

While we started off looking at a large pool of inspiration and reference material, this was eventually discarded in favor of Ceri’s natural style. There was a huge expense in creating a new style in terms of work velocity. In the end, this resulted in a more personal product. Narrative and animation were also bigger inspirations than games and game-play itself. Animated films such as Princess Mononoke played the greatest inspiration, and it was the concept of bringing a part of that type of world and narrative to interactive media that drove the project.

So Much to Do, So Little Time

As with many projects, the significance of the amount of content required was grossly under-estimated, and I would never recommend such a content-centered game ever be attempted by such a small team. Combined with a basis of narrative, the initial project goals and timescale were unrealistic. After our initial commitment of eight man-weeks, we had thrown a lot out and had little that represented a game, but did have the basis of a tool-set and design that was very accurate and the work ahead seemed mostly a content-creation exercise.

The significance of the amount of content required was grossly under-estimated, and I would never recommend such a content-centered game ever be attempted by such a small team.

The programming requirements were also surprisingly high. The game has been built for full HD graphics, which, when considering that the scenes are layered and composed of many parts, becomes a very demanding problem. There is also a huge variety and customization of behavior which has had a high programming cost.

As for design, deadlines and promotion had the greatest effect on progression. We exhibited at Rezzed this summer, and the deadline of presenting our game was a huge motivator. Since then, we have continually made sure we had others depending on us in order to make sure there was always a little bit of pressure.

Building the Right Tools

There is a technical nature to interactive media that requires an awareness of real-time graphics and the limitations of computers in this regard. Images must be of certain sizes and shapes, scenes must be composited in a certain way, and animations must be built with play-back in mind. We were able to develop tools that allowed us to work the way we wanted to, and automated many of the technical tasks involved. Building our own art pipeline was critical in defining Morphopolis‘ personal style and visual nature.

The animation tool is a well-featured utility that allows us to quickly assemble and animate our in game objects.

We developed two custom tools – an animation authoring tool, and a scene authoring tool. The animation tool is a well-featured utility that allows us to quickly assemble and animate our in game objects. This tool has proven to be fantastic; we got the feature set right, and it has been very fast to use. The scene tool rationalizes merging the many different types of object and behaviors into a single scene. This is a big tool, but breaks tasks down into layers, meaning you only have to think about a single aspect of a scene at a time when authoring the content, making it easier to get to grips with the tool.

In terms of design, we broke the game down into four main player interactions, allowing us to focus on these events. This hugely simplified the work required to design the game, transferring the onus of variation to the game content.

What Next?

The final result is shaping into a product we are really proud of. The direction of the game has hugely changed, and the nature of narrative in the game has shifted from our original direction. We have had to remain agile as the game has grown, and been reactive to feedback and play testing. This process will continue up to and probably long after release.

For more information on Micro Macro Games, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter. Morphopolis is now available here for Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, Android, iOS, Windows Phone 8, Blackberry and Kindle Fire.


Lost Toys: Landing on Games

August 26, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska


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.

Barking Mouse Studios
Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming

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.

First Attempts

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

Lost Toys
We made progress, but the build was still really unstable.

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.