“We like to make games using parody and satire, so we’re always challenging ourselves,” said Shaun Britton during Casual Connect Asia 2014. “We really think about a sentimental sort of game-play as well, so we design games that look like they were designed in the 80s. People will look at the games that we’ve got and enjoy the experience because they had a game that was similar.”
Shaun Britton is one half of the two-man team that makes up Clicker Interactive, an interactive design agency based in Melbourne, Australia. Britton does the art and design while Bill Trikojus, the other half of the team, is responsible for the coding and development. The business began when the two met at Swinburne University of Technology, where they both teach game design. They both had a keen interest in old retro games, especially those from the 1980s, and decided they would start making games, as well as teaching others to do it.
Britton finds that his work is very much a balancing act between game design and academia. He teaches game design and animation during the day and designs games after hours. He has discovered these complement each other well, because effective design teaching comes from practicing designers imparting their knowledge. He says, “At the university, we are constantly surrounded by discussions about best practice techniques from peers, the latest use of technology from design departments and current gaming community trends from students.”
For many years, Britton worked for Warner Bros. and Walt Disney, surrounded by the best in storytelling, animation, and character design, a background which has given him a huge advantage in Clicker Interactive. At these companies, he had intense training in design from the best designers in the business. As a result, he still has a very international involvement in the character design industry and an attention to detail in everything he does in character and game development.
Clicker Interactive is still a new business, but there already has been considerable interest in what they are doing. They won a grant from Film Victoria, a government film body in Australia; they expect this will make a big difference in moving forward with their game releases. Britton states, “We’re very proud of what we’ve done so far, and to receive this sort of help really cements our confidence in the business we are doing.”
Britton’s simultaneous careers, teaching animation and designing games in the mobile game industry, leave him little time for other interests. He insists, “I still try to design characters every day, but with so much on, character design sometimes turns into more of a hobby now!” But he does make time to play a few games to make sure he knows what he is doing with game development.
Recently, he has been playing Minecraft on Xbox 360, finding it a great game to play with his son. They both enjoy the time spent together building in their worlds. The retro feel of the game appeals to him, while the mix of construction and danger makes for a unique experience. He prefers, as a character designer, to play games with strong characters and great graphics. The Halo and Oddworld series are games of this type that stand out for him.
More Mobile Opportunities
Britton sees more opportunities coming in mobile game development as the use of higher resolution tablets grows. “Even in 2D game design,” he says, “the opportunities to develop characters and environments with greater detail is very exciting. When we did our first two games, we tested them on various tablets, and the experience playing on the tablet with double the resolution of the others made all the hard work worthwhile.” Because they are experimenting with retro handheld “demakes”, the modern, lighter tablets made the game experience “seem more like the original handhelds, especially when we used one closer in size to the original devices.” He insists that lighter, more powerful tablets allow designers to present players with what they intend to show them, and not have to compromise on the quality of the gameplay and the graphics because of the technology at the end of the process.
Britton will now be looking closely at what is possible with these newer, more powerful tablets and mobile devices. He expects that these devices will have the capacity to support many of the design choices that have been challenging in the past, including added character animation and animation effects, more detailed characters, backgrounds and levels, and more sophisticated gameplay. He maintains, “Even with the 2D graphic presentation in retro games such as ours, the higher resolution and lighter tablets mean that our games are played in the best possible environment.”
Britton believes the greatest impact for the games industry in the next few years will come from these tablets. He says, “The use of tablets for more than just mobile gameplay looks interesting, such as, for instance, the tablet feature in the console game Watch Dogs. Imagine a tablet used to enhance these sorts of AAA games, by giving a player control over a portion of the gameplay, or displaying maps or other elements. Tablets used as windows to display virtual or augmented reality as part of any sort of gameplay is an exciting advance as well.”
Releasing over 30 titles in the app stores such as Vlad The Viking: Barbarian Run, Turbo Train (an Indie Prize nominee), and Tesla Boy, Dream Bot Studios is an independent game studio founded by Markus Skupeika. They believe they must design games to enlighten and free people from the hidden agendas of the powers that be, using stories and experiences that empowers gamers to live a life with purpose. The studio’s latest hit, Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager, was developed from all the data collected from the company’s other titles to produce what they consider “toilet time gameplay”. Markus talks about the game’s development.
Time to Build Anew
After launching multiple titles in the App Store and getting some great player data, we felt we could make some better decisions on our next game. Along with this, it was time to create a new game engine, which Dream Bot Studios could use to build a collection of branded games around. These branded games would focus on one core character, a character players could feel connected to and hopefully invest in. This is when we began thinking about Vlad, our cute little chubby viking.
During the process of choosing our viking theme. I would role play around the office as a viking or pirate. Yes, a goofy-like grown man thinking he was a viking, yelling around the office. Oh the joys of game development! It’s like acting for a movie script. I get into character, then draw some silly designs to see if it fits the way I’m acting. Character development is crucial because if you can get those players to connect to the main character, this can turn into more in-app purchases, higher retention, and revenue for the studio. Plus, who doesn’t like being a viking, especially a cute chubby one who bounces around his viking town?
Toilet Time Gameplay
When we first developed mobile games, we totally forgot people were playing these games mostly with just one finger. We were creating far too advanced gameplay or controls when in reality, people are playing mobile games while commuting, waiting, or what we like to call “toilet time gameplay”. Players usually use only one hand and finger to play mobile games.
In order to make a dent in the App Store, we wanted a casual type game to attract a larger audience. Since we are dealing with $0.99 in-app purchases, at least 20,000 downloads would be required in order to get the studio’s money back on the game. The way we did this is with a casual, easy-to-pick-up game.
After the many mistakes we learned from publishing our games, we had to come up with a system to make a great game. During each iteration of developing games at Dream Bot Studios, we always ask these questions for each game mechanic:
+ How can we have players want to continue playing? (retention)
+ How can we have players become our apostles? (downloads)
+ How can we have players want to spend more? (revenue)
Keeping Players Playing
The first thing in our game development process is getting controls to feel right. Making things feel right increases game retention. In Vlad The Angry Viking Voyager, we decided on drawing a simple platform to bounce our hero throughout the level. It was an endless level, so we could cut level design and simply increase the difficulty as players advanced through the game.
This was initially difficult at first simply because our character was at first created with as a normal human body, but bouncing a full body around the screen using physics was a horrific experience. So we made him into a cute ball-like character, animating his arms and facial animations.
We really wanted our players to connect to our hero, so we focused on creating really big eyes for our character. When players connect with the hero, the retention is always increased. A great tip for those who are building such characters is to look at Disney and DreamWorks’ characters. All the characters show personality through their eyes. So we did just that and gave Vlad an eye-bulging makeover.
Bouncing Just Right
After getting our character model into a little cute round cannonball shape. We now had a bigger problem getting the bouncing mechanic right. We decided to create bounce strength variables from the start to allow us to change the velocity and height of our hero. This allowed our team to balance our bounce mechanics more easily and also was strategically planned for in-app purchases for players who wanted to bounce Vlad into space. By having our hero use the bounce velocity variables to increase the height of his jumps, we could easily build upgrades later, which players could purchase with in-game currency. This proved to be beneficial and helped the studio receive more in-app purchases.
The longest part of development was the bouncing mechanics. This took quite some time to get right. Players could change the angle of the platforms and would create weird results. So after a month of testing internally and with friends and family, we finally got it right. Once we were feeling comfortable with the main mechanics, we began thinking about how we could make playing Vlad more fun. Keeping the idea in the back of our mind of toilet-time gameplay, we started coming up with new silly ideas.
Adding More Fun
We started thinking of cool power up bonuses with which players could upgrade their character. As we came up with ideas for the power-ups, this also sparked some imagination for our enemies in the game.
We started slicing up the new mechanics in mini salami-sliced iterations, like peeling the layers of the onion. We took one mechanic at a time to check if it would work. If it did, then we would check if we could use this mechanic to increase retention and build more revenue from the game. Each mechanic added followed the same process: does it make the game fun and how can we increase retention or create revenue from this mechanic?
We onion-layered in cool dragons, UFOs, coins, and power-ups. Each object in the game has its own cool way to make the game more enjoyable. Finally, after putting these new objects into the game, we had to test the game’s difficulty. Initially, it was too easy, and in my opinion, still is. But we will be updating the game to increase the challenge on our next iteration.
After each iteration, we would always ask the same questions as before, so our next step was how to get more downloads for this game without spending a huge bundle on marketing until we knew our numbers.
Transform Gamers Into Apostles
We came up with some really cool ideas to find ways to have players share the game with their friends and the world. We are indie developers, so we have to be creative. We created a super-cool viral mechanic leveraging Facebook’s huge user base. We didn’t hide it on a menu, but instead placed it right inside the main menu when players start the game. We ask them if they wanted to play with their friends.
If they choose yes…
They will see their top three friends score during the game. Then they will also have a chance to invite friends or brag to their friends on Facebook.
The opportunity to share happens on each end-of-level screen. This means free marketing and more downloads without having to pay for those expensive $2 to $7 installs. We let our users be our apostles and spread the word! This is something every game developer should consider when creating their game.
Another cool mechanic we did was our Kingdom of Coins. We want gamers to brag about the game or their achievements. So what better way to do this then giving a player his or her own castle to fill up using coins? After players collect coins, they turn them into diamonds. After every level, we send players to this Kingdom of Coins to collect diamonds and build their Kingdom, so they can share with friends on Facebook and Twitter.
Psychologically, players now are:
+ Collecting: (Gather as many coins as they can – increasing Retention)
+ Competing: (Showing Off – Whose Castle is Bigger?) with friends on Facebook and Twitter
Also, players are free at any time to purchase more coins, which increases their collection and size of castle! It was a new piece of the game I really wanted to add, to have a player invested into achieving more in the game and having some visual feedback to prove it to themselves and their fellow gamers.
What Is Game Without A Boss Battle?
Another layer we decided to push into the game was a cool boss battle. It was hard to think of a way to battle a boss while bouncing. We had one idea of a viking carry a long stack of bricks and the player had to bust through the wall of bricks to advance, but this proved to not be that fun.
As I was playing, I got to the part of the game where you can start bouncing over water. I thought about a fish jumping out of the water like I’ve seen in other games. So I took this idea and ran with it, making the fish really huge. This turned out to be our boss battle, as well as another way to allow the player to break from the usual gameplay while collecting more coins to upgrade their hero.
Now we had to answer the question of how to have players spend more in the game.
When creating the upgrades and in-app purchases, we didn’t want to break the action, so we strategically placed our store as a part of the gameplay. Upon starting the game, players were immediately introduced to the upgrade area and then onto playing the game. It was not just to buy stuff, but really to upgrade your character with the coins you collect from the game.
Our players come to the upgrade menu each time the game starts and the player begins a new level. It works very well, as it is not intrusive and players view this store as more of a upgrade area, rather than just a store. We took weeks to design the menu and make sure it was easy to navigate. I believe it was a good investment, considering the more players visit the store, the more likeliness to increase retention and revenue.
The team at Dream Bot Studios learned a ton from this game. We used analytics to see what users were doing and this proved to be valuable to help us see our exact numbers. Eugene, our lead programmer on the project, did a fantastic job of taking the ideas in the game development doc and collaborating with the team to make sure the game ran smoothly. It was a large project for us; we learned so much and we will continue to iterate new versions and test them to see what works best for our players.
We learned so much and we will continue to iterate new versions and test them to see what works best for our players.
I would have to say it’s important to develop games quickly, especially being a self-funded studio. The team at Dream Bot Studios now takes game development in really small pieces, trying to create polish in each piece of development. And we really stick to our three important questions when creating new mechanics and recommend other game developers to ask the same questions.
Listening to Players
After launching Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager on the Apple App Store, we got great reviews from players. We published a free version and paid version. Both did well, but we had some hiccups with our free version, as it was crashing for some gamers.
I really wanted to help our gamers, so I spent time in communicating directly with them and found they were initially upset of a free game crashing on their device. But after discussions with them, they were super happy to just know they were being listened to. We fixed the bugs and released an updated version within seven days.
Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager is only one instance of the collection of games we plan to release with Vlad as the hero.
Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager is only one instance of the collection of games we plan to release with Vlad as the hero. This game will lead to other games to help us keep our development cost down and produce higher profits by using winning mechanics that worked and adding more cool features to the world of Vlad. Again, it comes down to making small iterations.
Dream Bot Studios is happy with our release, although we are still working on making a large dent in the App Store and looking to win more rewards for our unique titles. Until that time, we will continue to iterate and make some really cool PC, mobile, and console games in 2014.
Incuvo is a game development startup created in 2012 by Wojciech Borczyk and Jakub Duda. Previously, they bootstrapped an indie gaming startup and successfully exited to lead a large console development studio for a major Polish publisher. However, they decided to get back to their roots and start something completely new. Jakub shared the story about its flagship project, Createrria.
It’s Always Been Games
I knew who I wanted to be in life when I was ten. This decision came shortly after I got my first 8-bit computer and started playing games. I didn’t have this “firefighter or policeman” dilemma. I wanted to create games – these magical windows leading into different realms. Their creators were giants to me. But at that time, I couldn’t fulfill my dream. Something scary, called 6502 assembler language, stood between me and my desire to create games. I eventually learned BASIC language, dropped the game developer idea for some time, and returned to it a few years later, sometime around 2004.
When we were looking for a new idea, I discovered that Wojciech and I share the same childhood experience: fascination with early computer games and frustration with the development learning curve. At the same time, we started looking at the rising popularity of tablets and amazing possibilities of touch interfaces. That decided us. We wanted to bring the fun of game creation to millions of mobile players who have no time or desire to learn game programming and master all the other skill necessary to create a game now. They could already create great photos, music, and even shape virtual pottery on tablets, but mobiles were still missing a great game creation app.
Thus, Createrria was born.
We wanted Createrria to be an easy-to-use, fun, no-skills-required game creation app for mobiles. From the beginning, we wanted it to be 2D experience designed for touch screens, not controller/mice/keyboard input. Also, it needed to be social – everything created should be instantly shareable with friends.
When we started Incuvo, everything was new: the company, the office (We worked without walls during the first week), the team (with some long time friends who decided to share this adventure with us), the platform (we were purely consoles in the past), the engine, and even the genre. The first few weeks were crazy. Things took shape slowly. We started with a cross-platform engine evaluation (Unity3D won!), then started working on a playable prototype. This prototype was to determine if our idea was at all achievable. We were afraid of ending up with something overly complex and hard to use, just another developer tool masked as a user app. Fights over game details went on for hours and were fierce. Then we started having our first moments of triumph (“The physics engine is working!”) and despair (“it crashes every ten seconds!”). But finally, our first tech demo appeared. With four graphic themes, several different gameplay types, initial cloud sharing (added as a last-minute hack), and early iOS and Android support. The biggest success was a lack of an external game editor. We initially planned it as a support for an in-app editor – but first attempts were successful enough that we could drop this idea entirely and design everything inside our app. This was a breakthrough and our first milestone.
Createrria was growing fast. Still accompanied by fierce and passionate fights over every feature, we iterated over every single thing. Long live agile development! The biggest challenges proved to be character design and cloud backend. The first challenge was strictly a design one. How could we create likeable, customizable and universal characters, also meant to be used as avatars, without copying existing games? We went through dozens of options, ranging from hamsters running in balls (easy to animate) to fully customizable avatars with exchangeable mustaches. Eventually, we managed to work out our own recognizable style: humanoid avatars, with detached limbs, based on one shape, but extremely customizable. Yes, we love them, and yes, we want to have more. Luckily, one of the cool things about mobile games is the easiness of updates – we can always add exchangeable mustaches later.
F2P or not F2P?
Free to play seems to be a very controversial topic these days. For most developers, free-to-play means robbery. Is it really that bad? Of course not! Createrria is a pure free-to-play game designed in our way: “Game first, money second.” Don’t blame the sales model – blame those developers who abuse it. We believe that well-balanced free-to-play games may bring pure joy to the players and pay our bills by the end of the day. Still, I sometimes feel like a dinosaur when I look at how much the business model has changed since we developed our first console titles.
The Journey Ends
Createrria‘s development was a long journey and great adventure for us. Now it is ready! It will be released for iOS in the second half of October 2013, with Android following shortly afterwards. We hope you will share the fun and adventure with us – playing the games we created with it and creating new ones we could never have imagined.
Find out more information about Createrria on Facebook!