The story of Divey Jones: Bitey Shark (and, more specifically, the entire line of Divey Jones games) stems from one of those circumstances where you really don’t know you’re making a game until it’s almost done. You think you’re just prototyping an idea, you think you’re just tinkering and learning new tools and skills…and suddenly you have a viable product. You look at your teammates and say, “Hey, with a little push, this could be a shippable game!” – Zygobot founders and developers Roy Papp and John Amos thought. John tells what happened next.
Zing Games is a Chicago-based indie game studio founded in 2011 by the Ye brothers. It has developed and published several successful mobile games such as the Mr. Runner series, which was No. 1 Free Game on the Apple AppStore in many countries, and has achieved over 5 million downloads worldwide. Ding Ye, co-founder and creative director of Zing Games Inc., shares his experience and the joys and struggles of being an indie developer.
Small Team, Remote Collaboration
Before Zing Games was officially founded, we were all full-time employees in the game industry working for various companies. Like many other indies, every minute after regular work hours was precious and was spent on our hobbit project. Hao was doing programming in the Bay Area, Ding was in charge of art and design in Chicago, and a few other team members and volunteers were scattered all over the US. Communication was done largely by email, Skype, and phone calls in late hours of many long nights. The team did a superb job sticking to the project goal, communicating effectively, and finishing the game remotely.
#1 Free Game on AppStore, Zero Marketing Budget
In the first two years, several games were created successfully through remote collaboration. One of them, Mr. Runner, turned into a big hit. It was a 2D side-scrolling running game featuring unique black and white minimalist art style, hardcore minimalistic gameplay, and funny stick figure animations. Unlike other endless running games on the App Store, Mr. Runner focuses on the character’s running speed instead of jumping. Player taps the left side of the screen to slow down, and the right side to speed up. The game was launched without a single dime of marketing money. However, it quickly picked up steam virally and shot up the chart at a speed that we would never imagine. Eventually, it became No. 1 Free App in many countries and attracted millions of players.
The Sequel and More
Encouraged by the success of Mr. Runner, we worked on a few content updates for it, and then decided to work on a more ambitious project. We would develop a whole new world around the Mr. Runner character to give it more depth, more colors, more styles, and more personalities. We started the project in 2011, and the game would become something much bigger and more than just a sequel. The new game now features Saturday morning cartoon-style graphics, a rich background story, and many different colorful worlds that can be explored.
Unfortunately, shortly after pre-production, Hao was unable to continue his duty as lead programmer due to personal reasons. The project was paused, and Ding had to look for a replacement soon to avoid further delay. Luckily, he found a good team of programmers (the Envee Soft team) in Chengdu, a remote city in inner China. A new form of collaboration was established and the project resumed and continued to move forward.
Initial Scope Too Ambitious, Production Time Doubled, Many Features Cut
Our initial scope was too ambitious. We came from a AAA background and were used to building big games. This one was an indie project and we were a very small team. We knew it but still we fell into the trap of over-planning and over-ambition. The initial design contained so many features and contents that had to be cut later on from production, after we painfully realized that we could never get all what we wanted into the game. For example, eight different game worlds were planned initially, but only four were implemented.
Working with a team of programmers from a different continent brought unique challenges. Tremendous efforts were spent to coach the team in Chengdu so that they could follow our directions, communicate properly, and ensure a smooth production. Because of heavy iterations of game design, both the team in the US and the team in Chengdu were burned out. The tweaking and bug fixing just seemed never-ending. The initial eight month production time was stretched to one and half years, almost doubled.
Doubling production time is a disaster for any self-funded indie project and can kill it easily. We were so blessed and lucky that we survived! I need to thank everyone in both teams for their dedication, hard work and sacrifice. In the future, we probably should use a different production approach – complete the core game first, launch with only limited features and contents, and continue to add content updates and tweak the game based on market feedback.
Paying Tribute to Classic Games and Pop Culture Icons
One unique thing about Mr. Runner 2 is that it contains many game and pop culture references. Through a carefully designed cosplay and mask system, sometimes hidden in the backgrounds of various game worlds, players will meet and detect many interesting game characters and pop culture icons of the 80s and 90s. It is like running in their memory lane. It brings up warm feelings and sweet memories of all players of the golden age of video games. We received many compliments from our fans for that. As Gamezebo put it, “Mr. Runner 2: The Masks is a love letter to all us gamers at heart!”
Minimalist Game Design, Maybe Too Much
Mr. Runner 2’s gameplay mechanism inherited one unique limitation from Mr. Runner – no jumping is allowed. The character can only speed up or slow down but there is no jumping! The gameplay was hardcore, intense, but minimalist in terms of control. Maybe that is too much! We wrongfully assumed that, since the original Mr. Runner was very successful, players should be used to that idea of no jumping. However, complaints about not being able to jump were heard from day one since Mr. Runner 2’s launch.
We realized that runner game players were already influenced and educated by other more popular runner games in the past 12 months, so the lack of jump capability confused a lot of them. They now view jumping as an essential feature of a runner game. Because of that, some players might have been disappointed and turned away.
The game was critically acclaimed. Since its launch, Mr. Runner 2 has won several awards at various competitions and conferences and received mostly positive reviews. We were selected as one of the finalists at the Big Indie Pitch event during GDC 2013 and won a Golden Pass at the Global Game Stars competition at a mobile B2B event in San Francisco. Most recently, we won the Best Mobile Game title at Indie Prize event during Casual Connect 2014. These awards are recognition for our creativity and hardwork we put into our game, and we got encouraged and motivated to make more and better games.
More Targeted, Sticky Gameplay Needed
The game still has its flaws. The biggest one is that it is not sticky enough. We were able to attract players into the game with our unique art style and colorful game worlds, but failed to keep them long enough in the game. For hardcore runner game fans, the contents quickly run out. For casual players, the gameplay is too hardcore and challenging. Mr. Runner 2 happens to be in the middle – not hard enough for hardcore gamers, but too hard for casual ones.
The challenge we will have to solve in our next game is how to engage a specific group of gamers more deeply and make the game sticky enough, so that they have reasons to come back to the game week after week, month after month.
The team in Chengdu has started working on the Android version, so players with this kind of devices will be able to try the game soon. A localized version is to be published in China by a local publisher.
Equipped with the knowledge, experience and lessons learned from the Mr. Runner 2 project, the Zing Games team has created Mole Smash Saga, a sticky game appealing to casual gamers. They believe it has great potentials, and are already talking with different publishers to see if a collaboration/partnership can be established to make this game an even bigger success!
Kid Aviator is an endless flyer that launched on iOS and Android January 2014. It features Kid, a daring aviator-in-the-making willing to risk life and limb for his fans. The game was developed by two developers: Mattia Fortunati (programmer, designer and graphics rookie) and Claudia Perugini (visual artist and character designer), both hailing from Rome, Italy. Mattia shares their story.
A Lengthy Development
Kid Aviator was an interesting project for first-time developers such as ourselves. From start to finish, the development of Kid Aviator lasted more than two years, quite a bit of time for such a small game. Not only did we experience the expected false starts and ups and downs associated with a two-person team of first-time developers, but we were busy with school and day jobs. We only had time to work on the game in our spare time. Add to this the fact that Kid Aviator was built on a self-made game framework . . . and you get the picture.
It was also 100 percent self-funded. We invested our savings from our day jobs. We didn’t even start a Kickstarter campaign because it’s (sadly) not an option for Italian developers (Kickstarter only allows projects from the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand).
Dreams & Aspirations
We wanted to create a well-made, relaxing game, something that you could play in your spare time, during lunch breaks, or while waiting at the bus stop. We kept the game simple and full of personality. This was Claudia’s rule, and I’m glad we were able to stick to it. Kid Aviator was always meant to be welcoming and easy to learn so that players felt good playing it.
We also had a personal goal: to learn. Many teams around the world make great games year after year, but how do they do it? Our idea was to not take any shortcuts and pay attention to every single step: concept, prototype, production, testing, marketing, PR, all of it. Throughout development, we strengthened our writing, programming, drawing, interface, design, and polishing skills by asking for help and hearing war stories from fellow indie developers.
Pushing ourselves to the limit, we often found each other performing several roles at a time. After encountering a big problem, we sometimes wanted to simply surrender and leave things as they were instead of fixing them. As an indie developer, you will be tempted to give up from time to time because you’re way too busy with a day job or other projects. It’s like raising a bonsai: with some discipline, proper scheduling, and doing just a little every day, you’ll slowly see your miniature tree grow to be a strong and beautiful specimen.
Finding the Core Gameplay
The endless runners genre is marred by clones of clones now, but two years ago, there was still room for innovative gameplay. We wondered what would happen if the player moved the obstacles instead of controlling the main character. To add some variety to the gameplay, we included objects that could be destroyed, along with power-ups. Back then, Kid would move automatically (and randomly) around the screen – like a lifeless roboaviator.
Then we noticed that every time our friends played the game, they always ended up trying to move Kid by tilting the device. We didn’t have tilt controls then, so we said, ‘Why not?’ We immediately put our friends’ feedback to use and added tilt controls. Thus, the dual control system (in which players control both the protagonist and the interaction with each object) was born. Clearly, player feedback and the use of hardware capabilities particular to mobile devices have helped us develop (and refine) Kid Aviator‘s core gameplay.
The Circus Setting (& Choosing a Title)
Kid wants to become famous. He’s like a rock star, with his audience numbers increasing each time he wins a medal. It’s not about Saving Private Brian (I guess only Ryan was saved!), avenging a long lost cat, or cleansing the world of all evil. Kid Aviator is about flying endlessly toward the sky and becoming a star.
It’s an unusual choice, we know. This simple (and somewhat basic) concept—a cute Kid flying toward the sky and encountering random strange objects along the way—was born organically. As for the setting, we didn’t take long to come to a decision. After a quick brainstorming session, we chose a more traditional “human cannonball” theme for the game—and a circus setting was a natural fit. But the title didn’t come as easily: in fact, it took us two months to choose one!
We had a whiteboard that we scribbled on everyday, looking for inspiration. Some of the early titles we considered included To the Top!, Sky-Man, and Cannon Kid. Eventually, we fell in love Kid Aviator, a variation of Cannon Kid. However, we secretly called it “scaimen” (Italian transliteration of “Sky-Man”), and the game directory is still named “skyexplorer.”
Time to Tighten Up Those Graphics!
We’ve heard that graphics are the most important element in game development. An awesome icon and beautiful, hand-drawn characters are essential to success. This is only partially true. A great game needs deep, rewarding gameplay or it will just be an average game with AAA graphics. Just ask regular players. Most of them will say that graphics are important but “gameplay is king.” I find that the gameplay is the game’s soul and the graphics are its body. Gameplay is a direct channel between game and player.
At first, Kid Aviator’s graphics were no more than placeholders (and heavily inspired by The Powerpuff Girls). Once Claudia got her hands on it though, a revolution took place. She realized that falling objects would be more familiar to the average player—and after many sketches, she made a major decision: Kid would now be based on Mr. Driller instead.
Claudia was totally new to computer graphics, and Kid Aviator was her first experience mixing art and computers. However, in no time at all, friends and fellow developers introduced us to professional tools and gave us honest and constructive feedback. We love the result! Kid Aviator boasts “cute and warm graphics”—as it should be in an Italian game. The way the game looks is a perfect translation of the studio’s ethos, and it’s a little piece of the spirit of Italy that can be played worldwide.
What’s the point of making a game that no one will ever play? We knew that the game would be invisible without a good promotional push behind it. However, it would have taken years for us alone to learn the PR tools of the trade—and we would never be able to finish the game if we turned our attention away from development.
We contacted a number of PR agencies with a detailed message explaining our needs. It was our first time seeking PR help, and we expected professional replies, but we quickly realized that most firms were more interested in money rather than helping indie developers. We did not surrender—despite the cold, calculating replies—and we finally found Novy PR.
Novy replied in a professional, yet passionate way. They listened to us and were interested in our project as a whole. They were also affordable for our small, self-funded studio. Novy took the role of Kid Aviator’s cheerleaders, testers, marketing mavens, you name it. In hiring a PR firm, we weren’t trying to top the App Store rankings; we just wanted to avoid oblivion. Novy PR helped us avoid that.
Due to my work in development, I ended up becoming one of two core creators of RapaNui. An open-source, Lua, high-level, 2D game framework, RapaNui can be used with the Moai SDK when developing cross-platform games for iOS and Android. Initially created as a Corona SDK porting framework, RapaNui would eventually become a “college in a box” for me. I learned a great deal about both the Lua language and Moai SDK.
Since then, RapaNui has grown and led to a job making an AAA title. Working 60 hours a week while still fleshing out RapaNui reduced the time I could spend on Kid Aviator. At the same time, it allowed me to port my game to RapaNui. Improving the framework for the AAA project would mean improving Kid Aviator‘s engine as well—and vice-versa. Kid Aviator is bound to RapaNui, but it took much longer to develop because we relied on this exciting, but ever-changing new framework. I definitely don’t recommend going the “non-standard” route like we did—especially if you’re an indie developer.
However, I was personally willing to accept the risk, and I’m really happy with the end result. I feel closer to Kid Aviator because I built so much of it with my bare hands, a feeling I lack with my other games built with commercial engines.
We were moving along at a such a smooth but busy pace handling the (successful) open beta, we didn’t realize that iOS7 was right around the corner.
Kid Aviator was approved and ready for sale when suddenly, we had to make it compatible with the new Game Center and status bar designs. This meant that we had to re-submit the game to Apple and postpone the soft launch and worldwide release. With November already taken hostage by two major console launches (transitioning to the next generation, no less), we decided to slow things down and delay the soft launch to December, planning the launch for January. This was a two-month delay that we could not have predicted.
The second issue was the “December Curse,” which played a big part in our poor Australian/Canadian/Brazilian soft launch. Although it was intended to test the game’s viability and help us smooth out the actual release, the soft launch yielded almost zero downloads—and we didn’t get the feedback we so desperately needed.
In hindsight, we were hitting the freemium wall—with big titles, all free, released with the sole purpose to attract players at the expense of more premium indie offerings during the holiday season. Would you download Dungeon Keeper for free, or Kid Aviator for $0.99? The AAA game is obviously not truly free, but many mobile players still don’t realize this in advance. Most will skip the paid title and try a free download, even if they eventually uninstall it after 15 minutes. Kid Aviator was not made to do battle against the frighteningly competitive freemium market, but we couldn’t re-design it to counter that threat. Our only resort was to hope for a strong launch.
At no extra cost, Novy agreed to pursue a pre-launch campaign in order to generate some buzz. We reached out to journalists ahead of launch, and a number of outlets requested promo codes and Android builds, which made us quite happy. However, we stumbled upon a huge issue when it was time to release the game on Android: a black screen, which was reported by a large number of Android users on launch day. Of course, we fixed it as soon as possible to avoid missing out on any sales—but we received a number of refund requests before we could submit a fix (fixing the Android build took two full days – 48 hours without sleep).
It turns out that the Android logcat had no errors. This was a sneaky bug because it would happen only if the game was installed from Google Play. We found a solution, thanks to friends who lent us their time and Android devices — plus the help of other developers who had experienced the same issue. It was a problem caused by the new resource path system added to Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean): the game could not find its assets. After we fixed the problem, our Android players were happy and satisfied.
A note on Apple’s approval process vs. Google Play: Apple’s approval process is notoriously time-consuming. However, having a professional QA team test your game on every single iPod touch, iPad, and iPhone gives developers much-needed peace of mind. At the same time, Google Play allowed us to upload a stable build within a few hours – versus a few days on the Apple camp. I guess both platforms have their strengths and weaknesses!
First Week: Reviews, Feedback, Downloads
Freed from a nasty black screen, Kid Aviator flew across the world, ready for the real challenge: the App Store and Google Play. During those crazy days when we were busy fixing the Android build, we still felt incredible relief and excitement because we were reading the early coverage for Kid Aviator.
Journalists produced well-thought reviews with mostly positive scores. The few negative reviews were still very honest and always included constructive feedback. Players and reviewers alike enjoyed the dual control system, core gameplay, cute graphics, and charming characters.
Users rated the game, recommended Kid Aviator to their friends, and contacted us with a lot of awesome suggestions. However, while we got great reviews on top sites like 148Apps, Cult of Mac, and AppleTell – along with communities like Reddit and Touch Arcade’s forums – download numbers were low. It seemed to us that Kid Aviator was invisible in both stores, and we don’t remember adding an invisibility power-up.
I guess this speaks to the dark truth of mobile development: the competition is beyond fierce at the moment–more like “dog eat dog, who then eats you.” Free-to-play took the air out of the room, making it very difficult for a game like Kid Aviator to get download numbers matching its quality. If this was 2011, we would be in the thousands of downloads at this point. But we won’t give up. After all the hard work that went into Kid Aviator, we’ll keep pushing to give the game every chance it deserves.
The Bottom Line
Developing an indie, self-funded game is difficult, stressful, and crazy—fraught with ups and downs—but it’s also challenging, illuminating, and satisfying. Just make sure to hold on and never surrender!
This is our journey, brought to you with absolute sincerity. We hope that it can be useful to others like many postmortems on the web have been useful to us. A hearty goodbye from Mattia and Claudia, the small team behind Kid Aviator!
The duo invites you to try Kid Aviator today and leave your feedback (invaluable for indie developers like them). You can also keep track of how it is going with the team on Twitter, Facebook, and their website.