Marc Hale is the Head of APAC at Liftoff where he oversees partnerships with mobile app advertisers and agencies across the region.
“We offer CPA-optimized mobile app install and retargeting campaigns to performance marketers looking to acquire and re-engage high-value users for their mobile apps,” said Marc. “Mobile ad tech is a dynamic and rapidly changing industry, and over the last 10 years I’ve been fortunate to have worked at some key players at the forefront of those changes. With its data-driven approach to user acquisition and retargeting campaigns, Liftoff particularly interested me.”
One of the first things someone might notice when looking up RED Games online or visiting their brick-and-mortar location is the code FF0000. While some may be at a loss to the meaning of this letter-number combination, those in graphic and game design will likely recognize it as hexadecimal for the color red.
RED Games CEO Brian Lovell says the unique branding is indicative of the company’s work and has been a great talking point for clients. “It suggests we do things a little different and we tend to think outside the box. It subtly connects the name RED to the work we’re doing with design and technology. New clients will ask us what it means, so it’s been a nice icebreaker. Most of the time (people) get a kick out of it once we tell them – they get to be part of the cool kids club.”
Editor’s Note: This is part 3 in a three-part series focused on changing trends in the casino gaming industry. Part 1 focuses on merging esports and casinos. Part 2 focuses on socialization inside the casino, skill-based gaming, and selling experiences as opposed to offering traditional gambling.
We live in a connected world. From social media and the internet to mobile devices and apps, people these days are with their most liked brands, tools, games and people on a near constant basis. Yet, casinos are not always as connected to their customers as they could be and older infrastructure can make it hard to adapt to the times.
At GiGse 2016, industry leaders and experts came together to discuss what casinos of the future will need to stay competitive and thrive in an increasingly technological world. Among the things discussed were new technology and infrastructure – as well as some ideas on changing the casino business model altogether.
One word for it is “miraculous” – it’s miraculous how such a team came together in the right place at the right time. “It was as though someone had dropped a bag of scrabble letters, and amongst the resulting alphabetical catastrophe on the floor, one sentence lay there fully formed, ‘Start Company, Make Bingo’,” Oliver Jones, the director and co-founder of Moonfrog Labs recalls as he tells the story of their first game Bingo Club. The game was in made in six months by a team of four that grew to eleven.
A Gamedev Startup – a Crazy Idea for Indian Business
This story is as much about game design as it is about India. Bingo Club and Moonfrog would not exist if Zynga did not open up a shop in India and hire the best talents they could find in all competencies. At the Zynga shop, our team saw the potentials of a fast-moving mobile company in an emerging market, and made the jump into founderhood. It was a bold move! Generally, Indian entrepreneurs like to start traditional buy/sell businesses. As a result, this startup idea of a gamedev company seemed far too risky for some of our family and friends, who asked us to slow down and think twice. We did neither.
We knew that our team’s combination of development skills essential for games is quite rare in this part of the world. In India, it’s tough to find design, product, and game programming professionals able to handle these big 1M+ player bases. It’s also challenging to find creative people who will push for awesome player experiences, and even more difficult to bring all these people together. In the hard times when Bingo Club was finding its feet on the marketplace and players riled about bugs, we would remind ourselves that we could be making a part of history. We could become the first Indian gaming startup to actually execute on both scalability and high quality. It was the idea that kept us polishing and pushing our standards higher.
Math is King in a Bingo Game
The “spit and polish” approach, however, can only be applied to a smooth, solid object. For Bingo Club, this meant some solid, smooth math. Believe it or not, the average number of Bingo balls called in a game dictates absolutely everything else! From session length to level curve, even the cost of power ups could be calculated from that single number. In order to find that number, we had to define a set of rules and simulate bingo games a couple of thousand times. While the company was still inchoate, I quickly realized this fact and knocked together a simple Bingo simulator in Flash, that you can play around with on my website. Simply input the number of players and hit play!
This simulator allows you to define a set of rules, such as player/Bingo ratio, XP per daub, and run it thousands of times. It outputs values such as how many bingo numbers are drawn before a game is over, and even what quantities of XP and coins you would earn per game. These numbers became my constants, my guiding star in the sea of shifting XP requirements and jackpot payouts. Of course later, we started being more creative with our game mechanics and made more sophisticated simulations with no designer-friendly UI.
Casual Means Usable, Not Easy
It may come as unfortunate news for developers and designers that you can’t launch a spreadsheet on the app store. Bingo Club only existed for a while as a glorious mashup of formulas and calculations, while our UI remained a blank canvas. As we started drafting screens, it dawned on us that perhaps we didn’t really know what would resonate with our target audience. Who were the players of Bingo? What semiotics and game patterns are they familiar with?
To get rid of this problem, we started iterating. Above is a sample of what we greyboxed for the lobby screen before we came up with our final result. Each screen was tested, scrutinized in detail, and compared with our closest competitors. Along the rocky road to a clean interface, we also experimented with meta-games trying bizarre stuff like a Candy Crush Saga-inspired story and zoo animal collection. Along the way, we created hundreds of wireframe configurations.
Lesson Learned: Launch, Adjust, and Update
Despite the fact that we haven’t spent a single marketing dollar over the last few weeks, Bingo Club is naturally climbing its way into the top 100 in various countries, including the USA, UK, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Our reviews are averaging 4.5 stars. The future looks bright! However, we can say that we launched too late! Bingo Club could have been launched three months earlier. But instead of that, we decided to push to become more feature-complete. This was a bad idea, as our app would have become far more polished had we received precious feedback and suggestions from the players sooner.
One could argue that Bingo Club has already completed its mission. It has gone a long way to prove that both Moonfrog and the entire Indian indie game scene is capable of competing against the best developers in the global arena. We saw the bar of quality exhibited in current bingo games, ran, and jumped right over it. You could say that Moonfrog hopped as high as you would expect a frog would on the moon. But our journey was not entirely frictionless, and certainly had no shortage of lessons along the way. Our plan for Bingo Club however, does not end here! With continued support, we intend to see how big our little game can grow. Expect us to add fresh ideas, new levels, and more. For now, its only one small step for Bingo, but one giant leap for Moonfrog.
At the time of writing Bingo Club is available worldwide on Android, but they are still waiting to see whether or not their efforts will be fruitful and rewards, more than intrinsic. Regardless of the outcome, they feel they have proven themselves as a team.
Ola Holmdahl was the co-founder and CEO of Junebud AB, a Swedish game development company founded in 2008. Junebud grew from six people to about twenty in 2012. During this time, they released two games: the browser 3D MMOG MilMo, which was operated for two and half years, and Tuff Tanks, an artillery shooter MOG for the iPad. Both were free-to-play games.
As an entrepreneur, you constantly motivate yourself and others. You get up and tell the world you can do something no one else can. You convince people with skills, money, and ambition to work with you and take risks. Terminating your company is a powerful experience. Years of hard work, the hardest you’ve worked in your life, are reduced to ashes. Every single action you take during the process will have significant consequences.
Since the bankruptcy, I have been asked a lot of questions. Worried managers of other game companies ask: what went wrong? I tell them that business development efforts failed, and that it was my fault, which is true. But there’s more to it. This article describes what happened before, during, and after the bankruptcy of Junebud.
Battening the Hatches
In the winter of 2011, it became increasingly obvious that Junebud was headed for a rough patch. Contract work on Tuff Tanks, a new iPad artillery shooter, was paying the bills, but that contract expired in early 2012. While talks were under way, a replacement project was not in place. The publisher eventually decided against an immediate follow-up project, and wanted to release the game and assess its performance before deciding on new projects. By February 2012, it was obvious that we had to find a new partner for our next project in order to avoid financial disaster.
This posed a significant challenge for the management team and the board of directors. Wrapping up a game is always resource intensive. Meanwhile, signing a new contract takes an average of six months. The studio already operated MilMo, a browser 3D MMORPG that required a live team for maintenance and new features. MilMo was not generating any real profit, but paid for its live team and helped put the studio on the map.
A small prototype team was assembled, to find new applications for existing technology and to create new game prototypes. As 2012 progressed, several concept teams were assembled ad hoc, in order to produce new pitches and presentation materials.
Clear Division of Responsibility
I had not fully appreciated before just how mentally taxing it was to prepare for both success and failure and performing at my max
The management layer of Junebud began looking at plans for handling probable scenarios as efficiently as possible. Analysis established that a division of labor was the way forward. The CEO (me) was to look only at success scenarios and work toward them. Simultaneously, the most economically adept director of the board was assigned the role of “devil’s advocate.” He was tasked with looking exclusively at worst-case scenarios and preparing for them. This was a successful decision, as it reduced a lot of stress. I had not fully appreciated before just how mentally taxing it was to prepare for both success and failure and performing at my max.
Focus is key, and focus requires limited scope.
Our next step was to identify important stakeholders and to have a plan for managing them at all times. For us, they were: employees, customers (publisher, players), shareholders, the bank, the stock exchange where our shares were traded, our landlord, and business partners. While in the process of trying to save the business, the biggest need for all our stakeholders was information. As a CEO, I was responsible for most of our information distribution. Having a clear plan and well-defined priorities was a great help in e-mailing, holding meetings, and issuing press releases.
Finally, the board of directors established a time frame, success criteria and termination conditions for the company. That is, what needed to happen by when for it to be reasonable to continue operations.
Keeping Everyone Informed
My focus, according to our fall-back plan, switched to damage control and a graceful shut-down of operations
Moving into spring of 2012, our efforts generated several promising business leads. This met with our success criteria and prompted a lot of work across the company. Meanwhile, our devil’s advocate held meetings with a bankruptcy estate manger, in order to have a turn-key solution ready if the situation deteriorated.
Out of roughly a dozen pitches, we ended up with three fruitful tracks. Due to different circumstances, one of them failed and two were unable to progress to signing within the time frame our board had defined. In the summer of 2012, this met with our termination conditions. The probability of saving the company was now so low that we considered it irresponsible to our stakeholders to continue operations.
My focus, according to our fall-back plan, switched to damage control and a graceful shut-down of operations. My short-term goal was to manage the formal requirements of liquidation: turn in the correct paperwork, issue press releases, and inform staff and partners. Medium and long term, my goal was to extract maximum value for the stakeholders.
For our investors, that meant liquidating all assets before the company ran up too much debt. For our employees, it meant writing recommendations as well as informing other game developers about the skilled people about to enter the market. For our partners, it meant making sure they had updated versions of all deliverables and the documentation they needed to use them. For the estate manager, it meant providing access to clear financial and legal records.
The Emotional X Factor
Consider the following list of responsibilities:
The first two are clearly defined, and a matter of compliance. Moral responsibility is quite easy to grasp, as they reflect the mores of society. The emotional responsibility is individual, and thus subjective. Game development is technical, but as people we operate on an emotional level. As an entrepreneur, you motivate others, and to do that you must yourself stay motivated.
For me, it’s rewarding to know that over a dozen people got their start in the industry with Junebud, and have since brought their experiences to other great development companies.
The “Global Game Jam and beyond” series sheds light on the few brave Global Game Jam (GGJ) teams that have decided to take their GGJ projects to the next level and continue development after those challenging 48 hours. We ask each team to tell about their experiences, share learned lessons and offer advice on their attempt to turn their Global Game Jam project into a full-fledged commercial product.
The Global Game Jam version of FYI was developed by the Dutch game studio Digital Dreams and two friends of the studio. The concept of the game is based on infographics. Every action by the player results in changing bars and pie graphs, which make up the game world. After the Game Jam, FYI won the Independent Propeller Award for Best Design. The game has grown a lot since the team decided to continue development. Digital Dreams plans on releasing FYI to the public and is currently talking to publishers.
We were able to go just a little bit further with our game than the average Game Jam game
What triggered your initial consideration that your game was worth continuing with?
It felt right. From a gameplay point of view, the concept just felt right. Besides that, we had been able to reuse a lot of the code from previous projects at the Game Jam, so the prototype was already fairly complete as far as Game Jam standards go. We were lucky that our main programmer had recently worked on a similar game in terms of camera, physics and collision. Because of this we were able to go just a little bit further with our game than the average Game Jam game.
What do you believe was the main element of your game that allowed it to be commercially viable?
Even though it’s probably cliché and a common answer, we believe the uniqueness of the gameplay and the aesthetics makes FYI commercially viable. The gameplay is unfortunately really hard to explain in pictures and words, it’s something you should play for yourself in order to understand the concept completely. As far as aesthetics go, we use infographics as a visual style, which makes it stand out as well. This was also the main inspiration for the concept.
The biggest realization of the team members from the company was that we could produce so much in so little time
How did you manage the aftermath in your team?
Four out of six persons from the Game Jam team were already part of Digital Dreams. The biggest realization of the team members from the company was that we could produce so much in so little time. That’s why Digital Dreams decided to switch to developing smaller projects after the GGJ. That was a valuable lesson.
Another valuable lesson was about handling the IP. We talked to the other 2 GGJ team members and discussed our intent to possibly continue working on the GGJ prototype. In hindsight, this wasn’t enough. We should have done more than just talking. It’s never a bad thing to have things like this in black and white to avoid problems later on, especially before any money comes into play.
It made sense for us to continue as a company, because we really wanted full dedication and commitment. Basically we wanted to invest a lot of time, which is hard to achieve when working together part-time with people that have lots of other stuff to do. We also knew from the start we were taking a huge risk as Digital Dreams by investing our resources into this rough prototype, because we didn’t have the slightest idea if it would pay off some day. We really started to believe in its commercial viability after we won the Indie Propeller Award for Best Design.
What were the most important experiences/learned lessons and/or challenges that you had while further developing your game?
We knew the project would take around a year, making it the largest project to date for Digital Dreams. We did not have the money to do that. Selling the game to a publisher was the follow-up challenge. But it is great to get experience in this important aspect of the game industry, and learn how to pitch to other parties. It took quite a while before we convinced a party to actually invest in us though. This is one of the hardest things to achieve as a new start-up.
In your case, what did you learn from getting the game out to the public?
Well, the game isn’t public yet. But when we showed co-developers, other friends and publishers one of the prototypes we made, we saw how hungry they were for more. You just know you have something worth spending your time and effort on when people want more. This sure gave us confidence to continue development on FYI.
If you think you want to continue work on a GGJ prototype, it’s a smart move […] to know all the team members
What kind of tips would you give to other GGJ participants who might decide to continue developing their project?
Make properly signed agreements with your teammates shortly after or even during the GGJ. It’s not 100% necessary from a legal point of view, but it might help avoid some issues once you decide to continue with the project.
Also, it helps to know all the team members, this will make it easier to discuss this option, and you’ll know with what kind of people you’re getting on board with. It kind of goes against the GGJ spirit – getting to know new people – but if you think you want to continue work on a GGJ prototype, it’s a smart move.
Last but not least: Have fun! Creating something cool with friends in such a short time is one of the most fun experiences we can think of. So don’t worry too much, just give it your best and enjoy the ride!
You can find more information on FYI on Digital Dreams’ website. Currently, Digital Dreams is working on a big project, which will be announced in the coming months. Stay updated through Twitter: @DigitalDreamZzz
Dynamic Pixels is a leading mobile games developer based in Russia and CIS. Established in 2004, the company has grown into an experienced studio with almost 40 titles for java, Android, iOS and Bada. Dynamic Pixels games are distributed by content-providers, operators and vendors across South-East Asia, Middle East, Far East, South Africa and Western Europe, reaching in excess of 5 million players across the world.
We are all fans of the tower defense genre. So when the question of what kind of game we would like to develop came up, we knew it would be a tower defense game. But knowing the genre was not enough. What we needed was at least the slightest idea of a style or some kind of plot for the game. We spent days and wasted tons of pizza trying to figure it out, but in vain. At that point, our programmer saved the project. We still don’t know how, but he did it. When everything seemed to be lost he came in and said: “Let’s develop a tower defense game based on sports!” And you know, it clicked: the turrets and creeps would be transformed into sportsmen, the battlefield into a sports ground; a humorous touch would level the usual view on sports as a protracted process.
Being generous doesn’t pay off (or does it?)
We wanted users to feel free to enjoy the game at its fullest
It’s very important for the rest of our story to mention that we planned on earning some money on the project. That is why we thought out the business model of Goal Defense even before we started development. We decided to give the game an extremely loyal model of monetization. Basically, users had access to all in-game features and could finish Goal Defense without purchases and tiresome replays.
Why? We hoped that loyal monetization at release would help us get: (a) a high number of downloads, (b) top 10 spot in categories and (c) a large and constantly growing user base. After reaching these goals, a series of updates would take care of the monetization (high profits). In other words, we didn’t want to make users pay. We wanted them to feel free to enjoy the game at its fullest. In this case only truly addicted players would purchase anything. And though the percentage of those is very low, we hoped a huge user base would make this percentage rather substantial.
From free to temporarily paymium
The release of the game went great. Goal Defense managed to reach the 6th and 7th spot in the top lists in the US. We even received a letter from Apple, saying that they were considering the game for a feature in the AppStore. However, as good as the release went, a month after (and after more than 350,000 downloads), we realized we didn’t reach or goals in the first place. We had a high-quality project, lots of positive reviews, but Goal Defense didn’t become as big as we had hoped. The project could not boast an exceptionally high rate of downloads and, consequently, didn’t bring in much money! We didn’t panic. We simply switched to a ‘paymium’ mode, until we could make a well-informed decision. Which meant that we had to figure out how to make users that are not inclined to pay buy something. This required some analysis.
We figured out:
– at which point users left the game and why (Goal Defense: in the middle of the first episode/6th level, mostly because it was too difficult to play);
– how many users kept playing the game after aforementioned point and how many finished the game (Goal Defense: 50% kept on playing and 30% finished the game);
– at what point in the game user made their first purchase (Goal Defense: at the start of the second episode/11th level);
– what they bought first (Goal Defense: bonuses);
– the sum of the first payment (Goal Defense: $1.99);
– what items were bought more often (Goal Defense: bonuses ‘hail’).
From this data we understood that we had to:
– motivate users to buy sportsmen as they are more expensive than bonuses;
– nevertheless increase the number of bonuses they buy;
– make the game easier at the start;
– motivate users to make purchases during the first episode;
– motivate users to make purchases.
We came up with a series of updates to be released. A couple of weeks after each update we would repeat our analysis to check on the effectiveness of the updates. Each update included new features. The features were picked taking into account the expected effectiveness of the feature, the expected reaction of the users and the expected amount of time for its introduction.
Goal Defense v1.0.1
Goal Defense v1.0.2
Goal Defense v1.0.3
Goal Defense v1.0.4
Raise the game virality
Motivate users to buy diverse bonuses. At that moment ‘hail’ was the most popular bonus.
Motivate users to buy sportsmen
Motivate users to buy sportsmen and bonuses and do this earlier
Features added/purchases introduced
– Recommend the game and get in-game currency
– Introduced an automatic launch of a free bonus. When a user was on the verge of loss a bonus would appear to show how effective it could be.
– Switched off the auto unlock of sportsmen and bonuses (basically left only one sportsman and one bonus to play with, to unlock the rest the user had to buy them with crystals)
– Placed certain sportsmen from the shop on the field on some levels with a consequent proposition to buy him. Thus we ‘advertised’ them.
– Follow us on twitter and facebook and get in-game currency
– Improved the tutorial and the descriptions of bonuses in the shop
– Introduced the pop up of a shop window after each loss to motivate the user to buy smth
– Raised the price of bonuses. They were more difficult to acquire and users had to solve problems in some other way: by buying sportsmen!
– Switched off crystals acquisition after the level replay. You win the level – you get crystals, you replay it – you don’t.
– Made the first 10 levels easier
– Improved the description of sportsmen in the shop user clear
ARPU – 40%
These measures affected the gameplay. It became less diverse. But the problem was that users managed to finish the game even with one kind of sportsmen and 1 kind of bonus.
ARPU + 103%
Paymium is a great way to get any money for your project […] but it is never as effective as hard, well-thought monetization
Concluding from our own experience with Goal Defense, loyal monetization may bring you lots of positive comments, lots of traffic and favorable reviews. However, your game will never reach the top 10 and you might not be able to break even on development of the game. In short, paymium is a great way to get any money for your project, without the need for further updates, but it is never as effective as hard, well-thought monetization.
Hard, well-tought monetization should be aimed at those who do and those who do not want to pay. Especially the last group is important. If your user base is not very substantial you’ve got to make the most out of every user. It is hard, but if you find a way to do this you’ll be astonished by your financial results. Besides that, monetization, in the way we used it, requires constant monitoring and analysis until it’s perfected up to the stage of “wow, that’s a great deal of money we get here.” And for that you’ve got to find a way to integrate data collection into the game.
There’s still lots of thinking and analysis to be done in terms of Goal Defense. A few more updates are to be released. We strongly believe that the best has yet to come so we’ll go on pushing it up.
Goal Defense is available on iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) in the AppStore. It’s available for Android as well, on Google Play. Check out Dynamic Pixel’s Dev Blog to see what the development team is currently working on.
Jin Ho Hur has started several businesses, first in 1994, and another in 2000, and between running these two companies, he was CEO of Neowiz Internet, the operator of the second largest social networking service courier in Korea. Most recently he started his third company, Crzyfish, to focus on social gaming. Initially, he focused on social gaming on Facebook, then on other local social network platforms in Korea. Last year, he recognized that social gaming was shifting to mobile platforms, so Crzyfish shifted its primary focus to mobile gaming in the Korean/Asian market. With this experience, Jin Ho Hur is able to offer a number of key insights into starting and succeeding in a new business.
The Two Essential Keys to Starting Your Business
The absolutely most critical aspect of starting a business is building a good team with a clear understanding of the goal of your business. This is also the most difficult thing about both starting and succeeding with the business. Having a common understanding of the goal is the key to succeeding.
The second important aspect of starting a business according to Hur is focus. “You should recognize that a number of different opportunities exist,” says Hur, “not only the main business that you started with.” He maintains that there is a temptation to become involved in too many different opportunities, and this is one of the main reasons businesses fail. Focus on the key things you decided to do. Hur emphasizes that team building and focus are the two most important things to remember as you start a business.
What Does the Market Need?
“You should recognize that a number of different opportunities exist, not only the main business that you started with.”
Next, Jin believes you need to address what the market needs rather than emphasizing what you can provide. Many startup businesses make the mistake of focusing on what they can do, when the important thing is to offer what the market needs
Determining what the market needs is not a task with a simple solution. Hur looks at a number of different things to help in this assessment. First, he observes what people are doing on the street, in the metro, wherever he is going. He also compiles ideas and market reports. There is no single thing you can do to find out what the market needs, but you should always be working to understand what that is and what you can do to provide it.
Adapt to the Changes
The ability to adapt to the market is crucial. Crzyfish is a good example. When Hur started the company three years ago, there was no iPhone; the feature phone dominated the market and the carriers were in control. This market was not growing, and he didn’t see any opportunity there. But two years ago, the iPhone was introduced; the new Android dominated the market, and he realized there was a new opportunity coming. Within the last year, there has been a shift to mobile gaming.This is the kind of market change that Crzyfish adapted to in order to take advantage of the new opportunities.
It is critical to adapt in real time. “The fundamental thing is the business model is changing,” says Hur. More than 90 percent of the market is now the freemium-based business model, which means the market will grow to several times its present size. Hur tells us, “Many people, including myself, believe that the mobile game market will grow to a couple of billion dollar market in a few years.”
Market to Local Users
When promoting a game, it is essential to gather feedback and be prepared to adapt to the local market based on that feedback. Hur uses five to ten different types of promotion programs for the game, then monitors KPI on a daily basis, changing the promotion plan as a result of this information. There is no single formula for how to do this; it is subjective, but the key is being flexible and adaptable, using KPI and customer voices for guidance.
Always be aware that games are games, and as such they are dependent on the culture and behavior of local users. Hur says, “It is very important to understand how the local users would like to have the game and also how to address that kind of requirement.” He reminds us to address the preferences of the local area whether that is Japan, China, or any other area. Their awareness of local requirements is one of the things which makes Crzyfish an excellent partner for developers interested in moving into the Korean market.
Crzyfish’s gaming platform Vivagame performs a number of different types of the cross promotion and viral loops for promoting the game.
About five months ago Ostrich Banditos, a small independent Dutch games studio, came into existence. Ostrich Banditos counts five guys, all students, who decided to collaborate in an effort to create lively, memorable games. This is the story of developing Westerado, a western action adventure detective RPG for Adult Swim, or simpler: spaghetti western simulator.
Before the summer three of us, John Gottschalk, Jordi Boin and Jeroen Wimmers collaborated on a school project. The goal: to create a rogue-like game, heavily inspired by Western movies. For a couple of months we worked on the game and delivered an immersive yet barebones game where the player could walk around and shoot bandits.
In the following weeks the full team came together to discuss the setup of Ostrich Banditos. After some talking Octrich Banditos was born! Now we were scouting for assignments. The most interesting one was suggested to us by the guys at Vlambeer: Adult Swim was looking for developers to pitch their game ideas. We collected a few ideas we already had, from which Westerado stood out. The game ready to show and we could make a quick and easy start on expanding the game.
In order to see what Adult Swim was looking for in a game we took a look at their previous titles. Each of their games has some sort of weird twist, something odd that would make the game stand out. Westerado, in its current form, lacked focus and structure. This led us to re-defining the experience: we’d have to give our western game more focus and integrate Adult Swim’s twist.
Focusing the game
Throughout the entire development process we’ve struggled to keep Westerado as focused as possible
Westerado already had a scene in place where you’d find your brother and mother murdered near their burning ranch. We took this and expanded upon it, deciding that the player’s goal would be to find this murderous man. It became a revenge story. The game’s new core idea: The player creates his own western movie by interacting with characters, leading to different plot lines based on his choices. With the core idea in place, we were looking for a way to integrate Adult Swim’s twist. We came up with the idea that the player would literally be making his own movie: all the characters are actors, some of the buildings are fake set pieces and the director and his team exist in the game world. All of these elements would break the fourth wall. At first subtly, but gradually more obvious, so the player would slowly discover he’s on a movie set.
We all loved this fourth wall breaking idea and we came up a lot of ideas and a number of concept art pieces based on it. As we progressed, we realized, with help of Adult Swim’s feedback, that the movie world’s and the real world’s goals conflicted. Is it the player’s goal to create a great movie, or is it his goal to find the murderer? Which of the two is more important? Should we have both of these in the game? To prevent player confusion and save ourselves work, we had to reduce the presence of the movie world.
Throughout the entire development process we’ve struggled to keep Westerado as focused as possible. Constantly prioritizing what was essential to improve the game and gradually letting go of features resulted in two core mechanics: shooting and gun-versations (conversations with guns as a conversation option). Had we implemented more features, the full game would have lacked the polish we desired.
Finally, the game world itself went through several iterations. Initially we had one massive world with only house interiors as separated areas. This made it very hard for players to navigate through the world and find important people and places. Then Jeroen suggested a radical change: remove the overworld; keep only the important people and places. After a team discussion, we decided he was right. Players traveled from important area to important area through a menu. This turned out to feel too constraining, we had lost the charm of an open world and players felt a stuck. The final change to the world was simple: we kept the fast traveling option, but connected the separate areas. This resulted in sufficient player direction to keep the player’s attention, while keeping the charm of roaming in an open world.
Tools empower the team
Creating the content necessary to make the game feel complete and finished was the biggest challenge we faced
Westerado is a big game. All the Banditos admit, with mixed feelings of shame and pride, that we haven’t even played through every possible scenario ourselves. Creating the content necessary to make the game feel complete and finished was the biggest challenge we faced. Two factors were essential in achieving this: working our buttocks off and creating excellent tools. We created the gun-versationist and an expansion upon the free level editor OGMO. Without these two tools, we would have never been able to generate our content. The time invested in the tools was very well worth it. It proved invaluable to our process and would probably prove invaluable to that of any game developer.
So the first tool we made was the gun-versationist, fully created by Yhorik. As its name suggests it was programmed to create our gun-versations with. The tool itself is quite simple. You place two dots and connect them with a line. The dot indicates what an NPC says, the line indicates the conversation option the player has. Every dot and line has four text fields named ‘voice’, ‘requirements’, ‘changes’ and ‘description’. In ‘voice’ you enter the text of a character. In ‘requirements’ and ‘changes’ you can add any number of variables to manipulate the gun-versation or the game world. ‘Description’ is for ease of use, as it simply displays a text in the editor itself. Different dot and line colours indicate different actions. And quite important: the tool always interprets from left to right.
When we got used to the tool we could make a large amount of gun-versations without ever bothering the programmers about it. This allowed all of our team members, primarily John, to generate a lot of content with ease.
The other tool we used was an expansion upon the free level editor OGMO. Initially it was used only to create the visual layout of the levels, but Yhorik and Jeroen created a ‘trigger’ system that allowed us to easily implement unique gameplay elements in levels without stealing our developers’ time. All the triggers are made up out of blocks: blue blocks indicate when a trigger is executed; green blocks add requirements for the trigger to be executed; and red blocks add the actual functionality. If these blocks are in the same row, they form one function.
Our designers, mainly Wytze and Yhorik, were able to create unique missions, bandit ambushes and a lot of other functionality to make the world feel more alive. Like the gun-versationist, after getting used to the system we could generate a lot of content in relatively little time.
The content-heavy direction we chose turned out to be an even larger challenge than we had expected
Westerado turned out to be a complicated and large game. First of all, we had the gun-versations with their branching possibilities. Moreover, every segment of the game was handcrafted, each having a number of triggers to control the audio, the areas it connects to and the behaviour of NPCs. Aside from the time spent on level design, we had to spent a lot of time making the different assets of the world. Some assets were recoloured to efficiently create varying areas with a different feel. Aside from that we needed a lot of music, lovingly crafted by Sam van Lonkhuyzen, which adapted to the game situation.
The content-heavy direction we chose turned out to be an even larger challenge than we had expected. After having created all the content, we ran into the problem of having to test every single bit of it. With the first few gun-versations we created, we discovered how much time went into every one of them, and how much more time we’d have to spend to test all the possibilities. The five of us had more ground to cover than we could. If Adult Swim hadn’t been so awesome and done so much playtesting and bug finding for us, we wouldn’t have been able to bring Westerado to its current level of polish. Even now, the game’s got its irregularities, flaws and bugs that we couldn’t find in time. A next project would have to be set up smaller and more controlled, if we don’t want to run into the same problems all over again. Despite Westerado’s flaws we’re very proud of the result and not having clawed each other’s faces off during the many stressful moments.
Adult Swim and Ostrich Banditos released Westerado on Tuesday 15th of January. Currently they’re happily smirking at the overwhelmingly positive reception of the game. Next up are post-release fixes and a TV commercial for Westerado, made in collaboration with Adult Swim. The next half year Ostrich Banditos will sadly be on hold. Jeroen, John and Jordi are having their internships, while Yhorik and Wytze will be graduating.
Ticklebot is a tiny independent game studio, located in Serbia. The idea for Ticklebot formed soon after the meeting of its only two members, Stefan and Milica, and came to life in the spring of 2012. The name “Ticklebot” is derived from the founder’s true nature, as Stefan is a real human resembling robot and Milica is sort of a tickling maniac. This article is on their soon-to-be-published game Super Sub Hero.
Super Sub Hero is a puzzle platformer with an unusual kind of mechanics, a wintery atmosphere and a laid-back feel to it. What we started with, six month before its release, was a funny little ballet dancer hopping around and doing silly jumps. We wanted to make a game that would make players smile and relax while using their brains as well.
Art imitates art
We try to expose ourselves to various forms of art looking for inspiration
Our inspiration was originally a puzzle gameMidas: The True Weight of Gold, by Wanderlands studio. We came across it and were instantly drawn by the simplistic concept, unique mechanics and the fact that it was based on a well-known myth. These are the main qualities that we wanted to show in our game. We try to expose ourselves to various forms of art looking for inspiration, so we came up with a main character that is a prince from the classical ballet piece Swan Lake. It was an attempt to combine the storytelling and unique mechanics with humor, giving the game little bit of charm, but keeping it simple.
Now that we had a puzzle game that was somewhat funny, it was still lacking something crucial to make it worth players’ attention. At this point, we started experimenting with mechanics and it resulted in the core of our latter version of the game. We knew it was something to hold on to when we realized how fun it was for us to play around with it and explore the possibilities. The fact that you could easily alter the structure of the level, and the way of solving it gave us a whole new perspective.
As excited as we were to discover numerous possibilities – and with many ideas in mind – we started to move further away from our original concept. Focusing on the puzzle part, and leaving out the humor, the story telling part happened spontaneously. However, we felt like we went too far into that direction and could not put all the pieces back together. It started to feel like we were getting lost in the mess of our own ideas, so we needed to stop for a moment and just think about which way do we want to go. It was clear to us that we wanted to keep the new mechanics, but we felt like the prince slash ballet dancer did not fit anymore. So we concentrated on our starting goals and worked from there. It was important for us to make a pleasant environment for the players, to make it simple and to retain the modest, not pretentious feel.
We gave 100% and it wasn’t enough, It was devastating.
As we got deeper into developing it got more and more complex and we were making a lot effort to keep the creative work alive. We were both in our home cities and had lots of other things going on as well. Most of the time we weren’t in the same room – or even in the same city – but it was still working well. We were constantly trying to improve the game play, and changed design and art style many times. It was getting better and better, we felt we were nearly there. Somewhere around the last iteration of the character design, we started to feel drained. We gave 100% and it wasn’t enough, It was devastating. We tried really hard, not even noticing how exhausting it became. There was no creativity left, and we lost the energy to bounce back. It was time to make a break.
We put aside everything and left everything that reminded us of work. It was a time to go out, ride a bike, go hiking, have a picnic, have fun and just restart. We did that, trying not to think about, talk about, or look at Super Sub Hero. In our spare time we made one small game (Uniwords) because we were broke. It helped us cover some expenses. After about a month, it was finally time to get back and get working on Super Sub Hero. It was amazing how a break like that has helped us to recover. We were happy to go back to Super Sub Hero and worked harder than ever. It was the most productive period, we were having fun with it and we were finally seeing everything fall into place.
Understanding the need for creative time, for letting go when it’s not working, has been crucial for us. It is such an obvious thing that we never even gave it a thought, like it was going to happen by itself. But after learning to listen to ourselves we made a big progress. We learned to communicate more clearly and direct, to be open and give chances, to let go when we were in a dead end. Even though it has been a (relatively) short and not very demanding project, it has given us valuable experience. Our confidence has grown as well. Our goals seem clearer and we are in a better understanding with ourselves, as well as with one another.
Every day you learn something you could implement in your work.
There are a lot things that could have been done in a far better way. Every time I look at the game now that it’s been finished, I see many things that need to or could be improved. Every day you learn something you could implement in your work. And if you give yourself time to be playful and childish, to be free and careless, you can’t help but bring a part of that into what you do. Now that it is all done, and the game is released, we still need to wait and see how the players will like it. As for us, we are satisfied, and the reactions so far have been good, even promising. A better timing would have been a much bigger success, so that is another lesson learned. Overall, it has been a hard learning experience, but also the biggest inspiration for us to keep doing what we love. After releasing Super Sub Hero, we started working on a few concepts and are expecting to bring one of them to an end soon.
Super Sub Hero is set for an early 2013 release. Ticklebot will be sharing more in-depth insights on Super Sub Hero during their indie-postmortem talk during the Casual Connect Europe conference in Hamburg, Germany. To see what Stefan and Milica are doing in the mean time, have a look at their website.