Play Hard to Work Hard: The Perks (and Challenges) of Being a Game Designer

February 4, 2015 — by Industry Contributions


By: Barry O’Brien

Barry O’Brien is a video game designer at Plarium

Being a game designer is what a lot of gamers would consider to be a dream job; and I would have to agree. Yes, we do get paid to play games but we also manage to get a bit of work done too! Apart from having a lot of fun playing games we are actually working. The idea is this: the more a game designer knows about games, the better the game designer!

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Exist: Experiential and Experimental Design

July 11, 2014 — by Industry Contributions


Like many games, Exist originally began as a short prototype titled Ten Minutes, and was supposed to last for exactly that long. With a simple premise of “finding the bomber in a crowded city area”, it’s developer, Ansh Patel a.k.a. Narcissist Reality, intended to complete Ten Minutes within two weeks. He never finished that game though, and the concept eventually grew both in scope and ambition – until Exist came into being. Ansh explains how he created the game using experiential and experimental design

He also spoke about using games to discuss real-world issues during Casual Connect Asia.

Lack of Certain Skills Means the Need of a Partner

On one of the early development stages of Exist, there was a point when I understood that the scope of the game had outgrown the space where I, as a solo developer, would be able to provide justice to it. I looked at the number of possible environment art and animations: I’d have to create a single “scenario”, and, taking into account how little confidence I had in my own skills, I realized I had to team up with someone like-minded and also equally competent.

Ansh needed to team up with someone sharing his views on game design, an also equally competent.

At this particular time, I needed a person to handle the modelling and animation, a critical aspect of development where I considered my skills severely lacking. I would be killing both the game and my own confidence if I kept half-heartedly doing what I’m not really good in.

I would be killing both the game and my own confidence if I kept half-heartedly doing what I’m not really good in.

So I got in touch with Kimberly, the environment artist, animator and also the art designer of UI elements. Some mutual Twitter friends recommended her, and we instantly managed to find a lot of common ground in not just expectations from our creative collaboration, but also the possibility to fit it into our daily schedules. This was important, because we were to work remotely and in different time zones.

Kimberly from Canada started taking care of modeling and animation

Having a partner changed my development process a lot. I could now focus almost entirely on design, programming, writing, visual scripting, and level design, without stressing about making subpar models and animations due to my novice skills.

It also significantly changed my thinking process: now, instead of keeping design or its visual aspects ideas inside my head, I could discuss them with Kimberly. Transforming thoughts into words gave me, the speaker, a fresh perspective on my own ideas, enabling many of the crucial creative breakthroughs we made in the following months.

Now, instead of keeping design ideas inside my head, I can discuss them with Kimberly. Transforming thoughts into words gave me a fresh perspective.

Experiential Approach: Designing the Game as You Develop It

When it came to designing the game, I knew right off the bat: Exist wasn’t going to be one of those games I could accomplish by simply creating a game design document describing and finalizing all features within a day or two. A game based on real people’s experiences would require an equal amount of research, which should be further filtered through my own world view. It wasn’t something I could design simply out of my thoughts at a specific moment of time. Considering that, I decided to go with experiential design – the technique where you design the game as you develop it.

“A game based on real people’s experiences would require an equal amount of research, which should be further filtered through my own world view.”

It may not be considered a “good design practice” in traditional terms, and has its fair share of problems (which I was to find out soon). But this was the only design technique that could have complemented Exist. I saw it as a form of conversation between me and the game, where I understood the game more and more as I developed it, enhancing or altering certain aspects to reflect my newly found understandings.

A form of conversation between me and the game, where I understand the game more and more as I develop it.

Same as for many designers, scope creep was always a major concern for me, especially when the range of themes I could possibly incorporate into the game was so broad. I solved this issue by listing down a variety of life backgrounds, personalities, and fears the character could have, and religiously sticking to that before creating the procedural character generation algorithm.

Empathetic design was one of the major motives behind Exist, that is, making players feel what the character is experiencing purely through the mechanics and/or aesthetics. On top of it, I was also aware that traditional adventure mechanics would not work unless they were subverted into something else. This presented me with a challenge particularly in the highly fragmented structure I ended up having for the game: one where every single thought sequence needed to efficiently convey what the character was thinking to the player – using text or dialogues only when absolutely necessary.

Empathetic design: making players feel what the character is experiencing purely through the mechanics and/or aesthetics.

The subversion of traditional adventure mechanics also allowed me to incorporate a stream-of-consciousness structure. This means that each sequence would activate depending on what the player saw or interacted with in the game, thus imitating the character’s thought process. Doing this properly was important since “feedback” to player’s actions within the game is a critical component of the design, and I did not want to overlook that.

I wanted to avoid restricting Exist’s philosophy to solely its themes. Instead, leaving space for the player’s thinking and interpreting words and sequences differently would mean branching paths that would accommodate all those things, without diluting the unifying theme that I, as a developer, am trying to keep through the whole game. All these variations resulted in a massive downtime where I had to learn more about the Unity3D engine we use for development, as well as visually scripting the shaders through the ShaderLab.

Leaving space for player’s thinking and interpreting words and sequences differently would mean branching paths that would accommodate all those things.

The Desire to Make a Game Makes It Easier to Work in Different Time Zones

Progress in the initial few months was incredibly slow, and the constant adjustments made to the UI design resulted in time being wasted. But these are the hazards which are part and parcel of the aforementioned “experiential design”. Working remotely with another team member across a massive time zone difference is going to be a challenge anyways. But both Kimberly and I are willing to incorporate daily adjustments into our routine and sit down to discuss things that need to be done (collaborative tools like Trello or Gliffy are incredibly handy in situations like this).

Working in different time zones is hard. But both Ansh and Kimberly are willing to incorporate daily adjustments and discussions into their daily routine.

Exist may still be at an early stage, but its first part of the journey has been quite eventful, with the game undergoing many facelifts and changes, particularly in the structure, which is now non-linear, and the player takes in the thought process of the character, as opposed to the linear progression of the earlier build. Environments have become more beautiful and the world is now more alive with Kimberly’s contribution. We’ve used some feedback we received at Casual Connect Asia and tried making some elements less vague. Although I hope that all the drastic changes are all behind us, there is always a risk of some new ones when you’re developing a game based on a set of people’s experiences.

We’re close to finishing the first of the three “questions” of the game and, while it may have taken us quite a while to reach this point, now the algorithms and most of the backend work we’ve dealt with should make the process comparatively smoother from here onwards.

Exist will be released in the first three months of 2015 for PC and Mac. The developers say that they’re not planning any new platforms for the nearest future, since they prefer to focus on one single task at a time. 


Asia 2014Video Coverage

Shaun Britton: Retro Games and Opportunities on the New Tablets | Casual Connect Video

June 9, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton


“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.

Shaun Britton, Art and Design, Clicker Interactive
Shaun Britton, Art and Design, Clicker Interactive

Balancing Act

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.”

Snip and Chu is one of their games, and winner of Most Innovative Game at the Indie Prize Showcase at Casual Connect Asia 2014

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.

Britton would say designing characters is a hobby of his.

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.

“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 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.”


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Lucid Labs’ Roto: How Game Jams Help Students Become Real Game Developers

June 9, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Lucid Labs is a small indie team based in India, formed by a group of students right after participating in a 24-hour game jam and assuming they had made the best game in the competition. Because of the community feedback and praise from their trainers, they decided to complete the game and make it available to the global market to enjoy even more appraisals. This debut game is called Roto. Chirag Chopra, the founder of Lucid Labs, shares the story of the game about big balls.

Chirag Chopra also presented at Casual Connect Asia 2014:


An Announcement That Turned Students Into a Studio

Since we all come from a video game design college, news about various game jams come our way very often. One usual day, as we were about to go to the lectures, we saw a poster about the Global Game Development Student Competition on our notice board. We got excited: this was a 24-hour game jam on a weekend, so we could easily participate without missing any lectures or assignments. Also, it was a wonderful opportunity to hang out with global game-makers.

So, the team was formed of three members: game designer Pramod Nautiyal, programmer Sujeet Kumar, and myself as game designer and artist. I decided to name it Lucid Labs.

They were going to the lectures, but formed a studio

The rules of the game jam were simple: develop a small game/prototype on a given theme. After about three hours of brainstorming and rejecting ideas, we finally had a concept in mind. Priority was given to something casual that could be made, polished, and tested within 24 hours. And then the work began. Since the game had to be made really fast, we decided to use an engine which is easy to use, yet powerful. Sujeet suggested Construct 2, so we decided to enter the Browser category, because it was easy to make HTML5 browser games with that engine.

College Dorm: The Place for Instant Testing

One positive aspect of developing a game while living in the college dorm is that we could have some people come over to our room, make them play a specific portion of the game, and get instant feedback. This helped us make a good prototype, crafted on community feedback, and make sure we were creating something good.

Since our game was pretty simple and straightforward to play, I decided to keep it as minimalistic as possible in terms of art. I experimented with basic colors like grey and black (I love grey and black) and got good results. After hours of no sleep, playtests, and hard work, we had a good game in our hands. We decided to call it Black Sun. It wasn’t for any specific or racial reasons. It’s was just because the game had big black balls.

First name was Black Sun, because of the big black balls in the game.

It was time to submit the game, get some sleep, and hope that we’ll win. The results were announced in about three months. Unfortunately, no one won in our category of Browser Game. Nevertheless, two games, including ours, won an Honorable Mention, and we received a $1000 cash prize. We were really happy and sad at the same time: disappointed that we didn’t enter the Top 3, but happy since no other game did either. On the other hand, we were glad that the jury appreciated our creation, and it was enough to motivate us to complete the game and release it.

Another advantage of studying in a video game design college: you are always surrounded by creative people.

After deciding to work on our game further and bring it to the global market, we knew we needed more members in the team. And here goes another advantage of studying in a video game design college: you are always surrounded by creative people. We needed one artist and one level designer, and I already had perfect candidates in mind: Ankush Madad (one of the best level designers in the college) and Rahul Narayanan
(one of the best artists in the college). They were the perfect addition to the team. After explaining to them the concept and our vision, they instantly agreed to work with us. Now, Lucid Labs had five members in total. Woohoo!

Studying game design in college makes it easier to widen the team when necessary

Going Mobile, as Suggested After the Game Jam

Production began instantly after we set up the team and made sure everyone was on the same path. One common feedback we got after the game jam was to port our game to touch mobile devices. We knew we had to do this, and it was easy, since our game had a very simple tap control scheme. But going mobile meant that we had to switch from Construct 2 to some powerful engine for mobile devices. Sujeet recommended Corona SDK due to its superb performance and usability. Our programmer was comfortable with Corona, since he has prior knowledge of Lua – the language used in the SDK.

Going mobile required switching Corona SDK to a mobile engine. Sujeet recommended Corona SDK due to its superb performance and usability.

The whole game code was re-written in Lua. In about a month, we had a small prototype ready for Android devices. Just in time for GDC 2013! We decided to take the game to GDC India to showcase and meet some publishers. Everything was planned and going smoothly, but, as we discovered later – not for long.

GDC 2013 – The Big Luck and a Disappointment in Publishers

We had attended GDC India previously in 2012, but this time, it was special. Now we had a game in hand and were looking for potential investors/publishers. Those two days were spent talking to numerous people and showing them the game. Surprisingly, we managed to grab the attention of a couple of publishers, who got interested in publishing the game and investing some money into it. That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in all my life. A small team of students from India, who had no prior experience in the industry, managed to attract publishers for their first game! What else could we possibly ask for?

A small team of students from India, who had no prior experience in the industry, managed to attract Publishers for their first game! What else could we possibly ask for?

After coming back from one of the best GDCs ever, it was time to decide and choose the best publisher (in terms of deal offered). This was very hard. Eventually, we decided to go with one who was somewhat new in the scene, but offered a good deal. At least, that’s what we thought.

We started working on legal things and lots of other stuff. We also changed the overall theme and art of the game in order to please the publishers. But soon we decided it was a bad idea, and realized Roto plays best when accompanied by its original minimalist art style.

We understood Roto plays best with the original minimalist style

After about a month of negotiations with our preferred publisher, we decided to look for other opportunities as well. Maybe this was a bad idea, but it helped us get a broader view of how things work under a publisher. Call us immature or naïve, but we realized we were not meant to work with a publisher. Not because there were restrictions, we just didn’t like the idea of selling our own game to someone else.

Call us immature or naïve, but we realized we were not meant to work with a publisher.

We decided to drop the idea of getting our game published by other people and said a big NO to everyone. I’m sure they were really upset and angry with us, but at least we chose a path which WE wanted. We were even more excited about self-publishing.

“What the Hell is Black Sun?” Means Time for Changes

“What the hell is Black Sun?” This was the most common question people asked us when we told them about the game. The name sucked. It was obvious that we had to find a new one which could match the game and sound less racial. I have no idea how Sujeet came up with the name Roto, but we all liked it.

The development was in full production. Meanwhile, we were looking for events and awards to showcase our game and gain exposure. One such opportunity was the Indian Creative Tech Awards. We decided to give it a try and submitted the game. To our surprise, we got nominated for two categories – Excellence in Browser Gaming and Excellence in Mobile Gaming. The results are still due and we are quite positive in our expectations.

The name sucked. It was obvious that we had to find a new one which could match the game and sound less racial.

Thanks to our level designer Ankush, we created a lot of new levels for the game, making it even more viable for the global market. And Rahul helped us refine the art and make it even more polished and beautiful (yes, it is beautiful for us :P). Rahul also created a lot of visual feedback for every action in the game. This was something that the game lacked since its early prototype.

The Game Needs Sound!

All of a sudden, we realized we needed sound for the game – initially, it was completely silent!  How could we publish the game without any sound? We didn’t think about this at all before. Fortunately, I have a friend who is studying sound design, and I thought he might be the best candidate for this job. I explained the game to him, as well as what kind of sound and music would suit it best. Samples started coming in. A lot of samples. But the team was somewhat not happy. Not because the sound guy was bad, mainly because his style of music didn’t match our vision of the game.

I started looking for another sound designer. A video game sound designer, to be precise. After looking almost everywhere on the social networks, I found The Perfect Guy.

The perfect sound designer for Roto – Ash Read

The guy who had worked on games like Watch Dogs and The Crew, agreed to be our sound designer – Ash Read. Un-f*cking-believable! I still have no idea how I managed to convince him to work with our game. Ash’s music is one of the most important assets in Roto. Apart from being one of the most talented sound designers ever, he’s one of the best people I’ve known in life.

Finally, we’ve released our game on Android. iOS is now the priority and we might bring it to Windows – depending on the demand. Meanwhile, the team is preparing the next update to the game, with new level packs and, possibly, a new game mode. Right now, our dream game is still Roto and we want to make it big, not only in Asia, but all over the world. We don’t want to get rich or become millionaires. If we wanted that, we would have made this a paid game. We just want to create a fan base which loves the game and is always excited for future updates. We want to tell the world that people from India can create unique and fun experiences for the world. The proof of this is already coming our way: we’ve been featured on IGN and the biggest website in China.

Find out more Roto through Facebook and Twitter.


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Bingo Club: When Math is King

May 20, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


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.

Our family and friends asked us to slow down and think twice before starting Moonfrog. 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!

The average number of bingo balls called in a game defines everything. A Flash app had been written for finding it out.

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.

“These numbers became my constants, my guiding star in the sea of shifting XP requirements and jackpot payouts.”

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?

Each screen was tested, scrutinized in detail, and compared with the closest competitors

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.

“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.

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Shapist: A Seamless Journey Through a World of Puzzles

April 2, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Shapist, a sliding block puzzle game where you need to clear the doorway out of obstacles, was born out of a collective effort of two people who have never met in real life: Ori Takemura (design & concept) and Dmitry Kurilchenko. They found each other through a Unity 3D forum where Ori was looking for a freelance developer or a partner who would share his excitement about what used to be the original Shapist idea. Dmitry turned out to be a perfect match. Later, in the development process, the fact that they had a very similar opinion on what a puzzle game should be like and what is most valuable to the player helped them create Shapist in a very consistent way. Ori shares the story of providing a journey through a seamless world of puzzles.

A Game That Would Physically Feel Like a Real Object

The story of Shapist started in 2012, when I was using a lot of Gmail on my iPad, and the sensation of how intuitive sliding in the UI felt on touch devices got stuck in my head. Later, in 2013, that impression grew into a concept of a game experience based around bringing a very tangible and physical sensation into a digital game, making a video game feel as natural as a real object.

What we had in the beginning was a list with a rough description of mechanics that would feel natural on a touch device, where “dynamic meaning” and “control meaning” would be synonymous. ‘Control meaning’ is something rarely discussed in game design. However, with modern technologies like touch screens, VR, and those similar to Leap Motion, there is now a great opportunity to build game mechanics and UIs around the sense of intuitive discovery that you would get in the physical world. Controls and meanings in the design can be subconsciously understood just because you are subject to human conditions – this is what we mean by the ‘feels natural’ mechanics type. Let’s say, if a tile in a game disappears as a feedback to a touch move, this mechanic would not feel natural, because usually objects we physically interact with do not vanish in an instance. However, you can fold and collapse things in real life…

The Shapist team: Ori Takemura and Dmitry Kurilchenko

There was also an idea of “teleporting” between puzzles, when a phone becomes a portal to another dimension, but then a puzzle hits the screen and blocks your from further movement to the ultimate goal. We had a folder for a game called “Something Small”, as the final name hadn’t been made up, and it felt like the whole thing would be ready in a relatively small amount of time, a few months at maximum. Little did we know it would take us almost a year. Since sliding was the most basic interaction in the game, we felt that a sliding block and something similar to a 15-puzzle game would fit our concept best of all. We thus decided to adhere to unified block sizes and grid-like level design.

Sliding, Rotation, Detaching, Attaching, Collapsing and Transforming

Not all our ideas made it into the game. We deliberately focused on those clearest for understanding, because they’d feel natural: the sensation was crucial for us. Dmitry spent tons of time polishing the blocks’ reaction to the touch. We didn’t want rail movements within a strict grid, like most block sliding games have, and yet we needed to auto tune the position for better comfort.

Teleporting between puzzles: a phone becomes a portal to another dimension

Finding the perfect balance took a lot of time. We had ideas of goo-like blocks and other overly complex mechanics that only benefited the player viscerally but added nothing to the core values, so they were discarded. We ended up with five main interactions: sliding, rotation, detaching, attaching, collapsing and transforming.

Zero UI for a Natural Experience like a Rubik’s Cube

When you interact with a physical object like a Rubik’s Cube or a volume knob on a stereo system, you don’t have a block of text floating in, obstructing your view and experience; there’s no tutorial that would keep you from discovering the object by yourself. We wanted Shapist to feel as natural as that, with no barriers between the experience and the player. That is why we made what is called zero UI: we don’t have a single word, letter, or digit in Shapist. Never do we punish a player, rush, or mislead him or her. We do provide a very subtle guidance for the player to feel the enjoyment of a discovery.

The Shapist concept: zero UI, neither a single word nor a letter or digit

Our puzzle design follows the same concept. Very early in development, we understood a need for a consistent method to introduce the player to a new interaction type. In Shapist, the user gets to discover every new mechanic within a familiar puzzle design around the very first level he or she would ever see in the game – familiar yet different. As for the difficulty progression: all the puzzles in the game have been designed by hand (Dmitry made the editor while I created the puzzles) and not computer-generated, so we were able to very carefully control the excitement the game provides. The biggest benefit of designing everything by hand is the ability to plug in puzzles that feel very different and require the player to think creatively. In puzzles where a system is first hand-crafted, and then it generates challenge situations for the player (like in Tetris), it’s done procedurally, which makes it harder to control over that ‘flow’ through the game. While we wanted to tell a story though the mechanics, with surprise on the way, we believe that those special levels create richness and diversity. We wanted the game to be a journey with a challenge rather than 100-something levels of boredom.

Colors that Help Concentrate on Puzzles

Colors play a special role in Shapist. There is a functional aspect. For example, interactivity is always highlighted with orange color. Color palettes tell the story during the journey though the game, with vibrancy and excitement shifting from bright colors for easy levels to more pastel, serene colors that let players concentrate on harder levels as he or she advances.

Functional color palettes have been inspired by Sinapore, Japan and the feeling of nostalgia

One color palette was inspired by the colors of Singapore, where I currently live. Among our five palettes, there are some resembling the feeling of nostalgia and serenity, and the last chapter of the game has colors inspired by Japan.

Consistency in the Game and Beyond

Shapist was only possible through great teamwork and an identical vision of the game and its core values. We were blessed with fantastic people in and around development. Jorge Vinals wrote us an amazing ambiance for the background that contributes to the overall feeling of the game in the most perfect way. We wanted to highlight the experience of a never-interrupted journey throughout the game, where there are no loading screens or level titles. We translated the same sensation of flow to the website we launched together with the iOS version of Shapist for iPad in the end of February 2014. There’s a seamless transition between the HTML site and a web demo of the game. We are now working full time on bringing the game to iPhone, Android and maybe Windows8 phones in a few months.

Right now, Shapist is available for iPads, while the demo version is online and works with most desktop OS. 


Exclusive Interviews

DC Universe Online’s Jens Andersen on working with big IPs, staying connected, and doing what you love

April 10, 2013 — by Nicholas Yanes


Jens Andersen is currently the creative director for Sony Online Entertainment’s DC Universe Online and has been in that role since the game’s inception. Andersen has over 14 years of game design experience and prior to working for SOE, he worked at Activision, Z-Axis, and Pandemic Studios. Some of the games he has worked on include Heavy Gear II, X-Men: The Official Game and titles from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, and there is no evidence connecting him to the local superhero, The Austin Avenger.

Gamesauce:  You got a B.F.A. in Acting from Ithaca College in 1993, but by 1996, you had started work as a Game Designer for Activision.  What inspired you to switch from acting to game design?

Jens-AndersenJens Andersen: The fact that I was six-foot-eight, skinny, and unbelievable insecure about myself – oh, and I loved gaming. I should probably put some context to all of that: I went to school for acting because it was something I loved to do with the best of friends I grew up with in Westport. On day one, my professors told us something, “Unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else…you shouldn’t be here.” I didn’t really buy into that back then – I figured I would be the Neo in my little dream of becoming a Hollywood movie star. I wanted to be the lucky guy that brought some fantasy, Sci-Fi, or superhero character to life on the big screen.

But that was not meant to be. I was tall, skinny and utterly awkward when it came to meeting people. The odds were really against me, and faced with a life of waiting tables versus finding something else to pursue (that something that my professors were referring to) I decided to make a change in direction. I decided to pursue my passion for games, and indeed have come to discover what they were really talking about – I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

What were some of the initial challenges you faced when you transitioned from acting to game development?  Are there elements of your academic training that have helped you develop videogame concepts?

In hindsight, I made so many rookie mistakes. But that’s okay—that’s what rookies do, right? Once I found my footing, it was a matter of learning the process of making games. When you’re acting, everything is so transparent from one second to the next, almost everything you do from the moment you start has an audience. You are constantly in a fishbowl while you work. Games were different. I had to learn to be more autonomous about what I was creating, and pick my moments to share my work.

When I first started, I think I was overly dependent on my peers and leads. I had to get out of that really quickly. Once I did, everything I learned through years of live performance was really helpful to me. All of my performance training allowed me to fill some voids on a small team: when it came to story, voice direction, and in-game cinematic work, I stepped in to try and do those jobs. I was pretty green, so I had a lot of learning to do, but I at least understood how to create immersive, entertaining experiences.

One of your earliest jobs was as a Game Designer for Activision where you worked on several PC titles such as Battlezone, Heavy Gear II, and Star Trek: Armada.  What were some of the challenges you encountered during this period?

My biggest problem was remembering to walk before I ran.

My biggest problem was remembering to walk before I ran. I was voracious when it came to taking on as much of the vision or direction of the games I worked on. In short, I was sticking my nose into everything, and I would get frustrated if one of my ideas wasn’t implemented. Everything was hyper important to me, no matter how small a detail. If it had to do with the user’s experience or the creative vision, I would pounce on it. Early on, I probably was overzealous, but I was just so passionate about what we were doing and I wanted to do more. I came from a world of auditions and constant critique, so I was very forward with my views about where things were going. It definitely got the attention of my leads – in a good way – but might have ruffled the feathers of some of my peers as I spread my wings in the nest.

Your LinkedIn profile states that you worked on a game called Aliens: Colonial Marines for Check Six Studios, but it was cancelled before release.  While I imagine that most of what happened is confidential, could you discuss how this experience shaped your approach to both game development from a creative and business standpoint?

That was one of the games I learned the most on – most of it through mistakes. Once I was able to internalize the whole experience and look back on what I could have done differently to affect a better outcome, I really grew a lot. I was able to apply that knowledge to my next project. I also came to terms with the fact that there was actually nothing I could have done, as an individual, which would have changed that outcome. Even so, that experience was when I first realized that games were fun and entertaining, but it was a serious business with serious consequences.

We were sandwiched between two heavyweights – at least compared to us – and we got chewed up and spit out the other side.

Activision was so huge, it had such strength as an organization, it felt almost impenetrable, and I was insulated in a way. It certainly was a heavyweight when dealing with the business side of things, so I had very few worries in those early days. In contrast, by the end of my time at Check Six, we were working with three major publishers, two of them on Colonial Marines (Fox Interactive and EA Partners). We were sandwiched between two heavyweights – at least compared to us – and we got chewed up and spit out the other side.

An example was that Fox licensed us a mature title, but when EA Partners came on, their people wanted us to make it a teen-rated game. For example, they wanted us to remove Chestbursters from the game. Statements like, “Can’t you just have the victim face the other way, and not show it?” were common during meetings with our new publisher. These kinds of creative differences – how to handle the license – combined with financial leverage, made for a pretty calamitous end to the project. On the one hand, the concept for the game was way ahead of its time; I know it would have been really compelling on that front. On the other hand, I am not sure we had the right cards in our hand to make a truly great shooter. Either way, I’ll never know.

From 2001 to 2004, you worked at Pandemic on Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Battlefront. Did you find any significant difference between working on a Star Wars game versus working on a Star Trek game?  Did you find one franchise to have more creative freedom?

After A:CM was canceled, I was fortunate to fall in with some other colleagues from my Activision days. They brought me on as a cinematic designer for the Star Wars game they were trying to wrap up. I made over 80 cinematics for that game in just a few short months. I pushed that tool to its limit and really practiced my presentation skills as much as possible. While that was going on, I pitched the concept of Star Wars: Battlefront to my Director – one of my oldest friends in the industry. He and I worked on the concept, made the pitch, and the rest is history. I became the Lead Designer on Star Wars: Battlefront, perhaps one of the best games I’ve made to date next to DCUO. Yet, that did not earn me a de facto Lightsaber – robbery!

The creative freedom with any given license varies a lot between projects, based on the whims and fancies of said producers

As for my experiences with franchises-that-start-with-the-word-star, they were very different. But, before I get into that, I think it is important to note that dealing with big IPs like these really means you are dealing with a lot of individuals that represent the brand. You aren’t very often given direct, unfettered access to the source material itself. The individual producers on the publisher side that are the primary gatekeepers for the brand make a huge difference. So the creative freedom with any given license varies a lot between projects, based on the whims and fancies of said producers. That being said, working with Lucas Arts was more rigorous than working with Paramount. I think this has to do with the nature of each IP itself: Star Trek was created with an episodic format in mind, featuring a wide range of stories hidden away in remote corners of the galaxy, just waiting to be discovered. Star Wars was based on a singular story arc that had reverberations throughout an entire galaxy; it dominates the landscape of that universe. While individual, episodic stories have developed later, its roots are more or less defined by those early films, which were highly focused. In short, Star Trek by nature is more open to harebrained ideas for storytelling. Regardless, I enjoy creating under both circumstances. Limitations present challenges and overcoming them is very satisfying, but sometimes it’s fun to run wild with ideas. It’s good to have a balance over your career.

Player created characters battling one another in DCUO’s Safehouse PvP
Player created characters battling one another in DCUO’s Safehouse PvP

You were the Creative Director of X-Men: The Official Game, which functioned as a bridge between the movies X2: X-Men United and X-Men Last Stand, and was co-written by Zak Penn and Chris Claremont.  What did you learn about game development from this project?

Wow, I have mixed feelings about that one. It was one of those projects that you’re proud of as a developer, because you knew what it took to even get it on the shelf, but from a player facing standpoint, you’re not so proud because it left some things on the table. We certainly did our best given the circumstances.

I would say the thing I took away from that development cycle was a lesson in the power of politics. The X-Men game was a victim of constantly changing goals and politics. Originally, it was going to be based on the comic books. Chris Claremont was hired to write; the team was building versions of the characters and environments based on the comic book portrayals and his story ideas. Then the company decided they wanted to tie it to the movie, so Zack Penn was also brought onboard because he was heading up the movie script – it was thought this would be the best way to try and get synched up with the movie. But this didn’t turn out to be true. The script was constantly changing and they kept it under wraps. I decided we needed to shift the story to be in-between the two films in the timeline, in order to move forward with confidence.

So, we switched boats midstream, but we didn’t alter anything about our schedule – which got even tighter due to the movie’s release date. On top of that, the company wanted to move toward a certain product cycle that maintained a larger number of titles under development. The studio began to expand rapidly. A large portion of developers joined from another prominent studio in the area. There was a huge culture clash as a result. Then there was a major management shift and the company’s strategy shifted again. That, coupled with the challenges I mentioned previously, caused politics to come out of the woodwork. The development of the title became really difficult. I’d like to say I learned how to be more adept at political maneuvering, but really I just learned how much I hate politics in the creative process.

DC Universe Online is your second game based on a comic book universe.  In addition to being a comic book fan, what is it about the superhero genre that interests you?

I love how comics re-invent themselves; I love how they are serial in nature. There are so many characters and themes for everyone to relate to and enjoy. I also think it is a place to really push creative boundaries. And the speed at which you can generate the content (story and art) is astounding from a game developer’s standpoint – it’s so fast!

I also just love the art. Comic book artists are amazing. The ones that inspire me have the ability to capture the motion and emotion of a scene in a single frame – it’s a tremendous skill. There is a beautiful simplicity to it. There is a very limited amount of space and they have to accomplish a lot [illustrate the script] in a very limited area [number of pages]. The skill it takes to strip down an image to the most essential elements required to advance the action is something I respect. I try to think about that process when I go about scoping my designs. At a high level, I try to make sure there isn’t a lot of wasted movement or extraneous elements. I want to capture the core of the concept. Then it can be passed to the rest of the team to add in the necessary details to support it. In game development, this is super important because each added element, unlike a comic book panel, can create all kinds of complications in an interactive environment. Messaging and mechanics are critical; we have to take even more care with the details because they have consequences in game.

Future Batman,  Nightwing, Harley Quinn, Bizarro, and other iconic characters battle in Legends PvP
Future Batman, Nightwing, Harley Quinn, Bizarro, and other iconic characters battle in Legends PvP

DC Universe Online features many of DC Comics’ most popular characters.  Are there any less known characters that you’d like to introduce into the game?

Oh, heck yes! There are lots of characters I would like to see added to DC Universe Online. There are lots of characters already in the game I would like to see developed even more. We have several ongoing storylines featuring a large cast of characters. We’re going through them as fast as we can, all the while layering in new story hooks as we go, which we will build on later. It’s a weird adaptation of the Levitz Paradigm I suppose. Thankfully, we have years ahead of us to continue to explore the vast roster of characters DC has to offer. Eventually, we’ll be seeing the likes of Darkseid making appearances, I’m sure.

As a creative director, I’m a fairly mainstream guy though, and ultimately I think that’s what most people want in the game. If I were going to pick out some characters that are my top-choices for additions to DC Universe Online they would be Black Manta, Vixen, Plastic Man, and Atom. For me though, this is always less fanboy and more game developer. I can’t help but begin to spin the scenarios of what each character would bring to the game in the short and long term. Each of those characters offers some kind of hook for a new super power, location, or storyline for our players to enjoy. For example, Atom could bring the Palmerverse to the table. We could begin shrinking players down for microscopic adventures! So for me, these lists are always strategic and less personal.

DC Universe Online is driven by its own great story in which players are trained by establish characters to prepare for an invasion by Braniac. Given that DC has fantastic stories – such as Kingdom Come, Crisis on Infinite Earths, Sinestro Corps War, and more – are there any stories that you’d like to turn into a separate video game?

Kilowog combating Amon Sur of the Sinestro Corps in DCUO’s Legends PvP

Yes, there are several. We make massively multiplayer games, so from that angle, a few ideas leap to mind: I would do a planned three-part trilogy of games based on the events from the onset of the Sinestro Corp War, through the horrific action of Blackest Night, and into the conclusion of Brightest Day. I think we could do an amazing job of putting players in the roles of Lanterns in one of the expanding corps, fighting alongside the great icons in the key moments of the story. Sure, we could throw in a legends mode like DCUO has, in which players step into the shoes of the main characters…why not? The second one would be based on the 52 mini-series. I think it would be pretty cool to recreate those events and put players on the frontline of some of those epic battles as the main DC characters.

I’ve noticed that you are not only active on Twitter, but you frequently answer questions about DCUO and help players troubleshot any problems they come across.  What inspired you to want to actively communicate with and help fans?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Perhaps it was when we were doing fan events and going to cons to share the game with people. We did one right after launch, before we released Fight for the Light, and I still remember it. Interacting with the fans at these events, seeing how passionate they are about the game, their appreciation to be able to spend some face time with the developers, it touches you on a personal level.

The other part of it is being a good representative of the game to the players. This is essential, because it is a live product. It doesn’t release and get replaced by the next thing – it never stops, it’s always expanding. It is important for players in a game like this to know that you are accessible to them, because the decisions you make when adding to or changing aspects of the game affect them.

On the whole, this is a rewarding experience for all parties. But, like everything, it does come with a price. Individuals don’t always like what we do, they never agree entirely with each other either, and they are a few key presses away from letting you know just how they feel about anything and everything. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, even crosses a line, and people lose perspective and it becomes hurtful. But in the end, the benefits it provides the players who do appreciate it, and treat you respectfully, make that sacrifice well worth it.

Though you’ve been in the gaming industry for two decades, do you have any interest in returning to the world of acting? Additionally, given that you are a comic book fan and that you get to work with iconic superheroes, would you ever want to write a comic book?

Wow, now I feel old. I don’t think a return to the acting field is in the cards. I’m still tall, and thanks to that time in game development, I’m no longer skinny. There are people more dedicated to the craft of acting than I am. I have found the perfect outlet for my creative talents in game development, and I look forward to continuing it as long as I can. I have been able to scratch the acting itch a bit over the years though. I have been fortunate enough to voice many characters in the games I have worked on. So I guess that college education paid off after all, Mom!

I would love to write something. I’m very interested in creating new and exciting worlds for people to enjoy no matter what the medium. Game development takes a long time, and the teams have gotten huge. The idea of creating something from start to finish by myself is an exciting challenge. I began dabbling with writing a graphic novel just to give it a try. It’s a very different creative muscle to flex. When they say a picture paints a thousand words, imagine how many a few moments of gameplay could generate. So I’ve been heavily relying on the sights and sounds my medium provides. It’s like starting all over again when you try and make the switch to prose. Things that would come naturally to me with games were taking more effort to get right with my script. I’m trying to understand the construction, how to make people turn the page, when and where to surprise them. I have a love-hate relationship with my effort so far. I keep putting it down and then picking it up when I get to come up for air. Sadly, I am really good at holding my breath.

 DC Superhero, Steel, is in the middle of a battle with player created characters
DC Superhero, Steel, is in the middle of a battle with player created characters

Looking back at your career in the videogame industry, what things have you learned that you think younger people entering this field should know?

Things have changed a great deal since I got into the industry. I would urge them to take on as much as they can, but to do so humbly. It is important to be ambitious, but it has to be tempered with patience. I would encourage them to understand the process of making games, understand the rules. Then you can learn that every rule has an exception. Based on the goals you and your team have for the product, you’ll be able to understand how to apply those rules and when to break them.

It’s all about what you are trying to accomplish. Never lose sight of what is happening in the other creative mediums either, or the world around you. I call it loading the creative gun. Read, watch, and listen to a lot of different things – don’t just play games. You have to draw a lot of inspiration from a lot of sources and then bring them to your games. Make sure to keep broadening your horizons each and every day.

Video Coverage

ReignGames’ Matthew Mayer on Designing the Perfect Touch Control Schemes, Tapping vs. Slicing and Creating Games That Fit Today’s Lifestyles

January 4, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton


Melting Pot of Ideas

The whole ReignGames team on a company outing to a Pixar exhibition in Shanghai.

ReignGames’ goal was to create games that would appeal to as many people as possible. They decided the best way to do that was to create a casual game that could be played for a few minutes at a time. Their first game, Pig Rush, was not immediately successful, but, as they received feedback from players who downloaded the game, they added additional aspects to the game and launched updates and new versions. The game became increasingly popular in countries around the world. “It gave us the chance to work on something that could make people really happy, and reaching people around the world is what drove us,” says Mayer.

“We all love tech, we all love games, so that brings people together from different cultures. And I think that melting pot helps create more interesting ideas, and more interesting design aesthetics.”

As part of ReignGames’ effort to appeal to the greatest number of people, they have hired people from around the world. But Mayer emphasizes, “We, of course, all share common loves. We all love tech, we all love games, so that brings people together from different cultures. And I think that melting pot helps create more interesting ideas, and more interesting design aesthetics.” Mayer believes an important aspect to generating these exciting ideas is the fact that they are a small company, together in one office.

One Chance at a First Impression

Mayer asserts that players’ first time experiences with a game are vitally important because that influences their ongoing opinion of the game. Pig Rush, for example, attracts casual gamers because it is simple to learn and becomes more challenging as the player progresses through the game. It starts out with a lot of flexibility and retains player interest by increasing the difficulty with moving platforms, larger gaps to jump, and bonus items, but the game stays basically the same. The simplicity of the game is the primary reason for its popularity. Mayer emphasizes that using a touch screen well is important in creating a game that people will enjoy playing. The advantage of the touch screen is that the player can interact directly with the game with a simple touch and drag. The screen can also allow additional ways of interacting with the game by using different motions on the screen. These motions include pulling and releasing, tilting the screen (Doodlebug, Labyrinth), slicing (Fruit Ninja, Slice It), and swipe and flick (Mirror’s Edge). This allows more feedback than a simple tap. For example, in Angry Birds where you pull and release, you can adjust the strength and power of your control before you release.

Testing a new level in Flockwork for iPad with designer Shinae from South Korea and developer Tuo from China.

New ways of interacting with the touch screen will continue to be developed. Dual-controlled systems will be developed, and voice controls are already beginning to be used. Mayer believes that voice controls are particularly exciting, essentially allowing a gamer to play with a third hand. Mayer points out several aspects of casual games that contribute to their continuing popularity. As he says, “They just really suit the lifestyles of most of the people who are going to have smartphones and tablets.” The growth of social games on Facebook has more people than ever playing games. Games are now readily accessible on tablets and iPhones, so people will continue to want games that use these to their best advantage. These will be games that have short play sessions and that are easy to pick up and play.

ReignDesign are working on a follow up to Pig Rush called Pig Rush 3000, as well as bringing Flockwork to iPhone.

Video Coverage

VGSmart’s Joe Lieberman on the successful marketing of video games, having your game stick out and getting the attention your game deserves

December 4, 2012 — by Brian Anthony Thornton


Once a platform has been chosen and content has been created, an independent designer needs a way to market their product. If no one sees it, no one plays it. That’s where Joe Lieberman of VGSmart comes in. We sat down with the self-proclaimed Superhero and Public Relations Monkey for a chat about what it took to get him where he is today, and a few bits of advice for those searching for success in the industry. Lieberman recently helped Yellow Monkey Studios with their promotion of Huebrix.

Where it all begins… Ex-Renaissance Fair Performer and Juggler. I stopped performing when I founded my company due to lack of time.

What made you decide to enter this segment of the industry?

So during my sophomore year of college, I failed out of Calculus II, and that’s kind of where it all began for me. I failed and I ended up talking to the senior producer of Star Wars Galaxies. He said, “The game industry needs good business people who understand games.” I guess you could say I ran with that. For a while, I did pro bono work for a company called Dragonclaw Studios. They’re not around anymore. I took that time to build up my contacts so by the time I graduated college, I knew enough people in the industry that I never had to seek a job from someone else. I could do my own thing. I focused entirely on helping small studios because I believed in what they were doing, and since no one else was focusing on them, I didn’t really have any competition. And to be honest with you, there still really isn’t any competition. It’s a growth industry, I guess.

I focused entirely on helping small studios because I believed in what they were doing, and since no one else was focusing on them, I didn’t really have any competition.

Now, indie studios typically can’t afford a large scale public relations machine. That costs tens of thousands of dollars a month. They just don’t have the budget for it. My methodology is that I do the majority of the marketing a large company would do pretty quickly, and I make up in volume what I lack in individual client income. I have worked with over a hundred different studios on games, though.

What pushes a title ahead of the pack in this crowded market of ours? What makes one game a hit and another a miss?

The cop out answer is “It’s going to vary depending on the game.” And to some degree that holds true. But I think what makes a game an actual success is really how much you can energize your users to get out there and be proponents of your product. And doing that in the indie game space really comes down to an innovative drill down. We can take a look at a successful product — Minecraft for example — that took the idea of exploring a sandbox, and they drilled it down to essentially a crafting system of exploring and putting things together Lego style. Not just in the building aspect, but in the blocks themselves. They drilled it down to such a fine level that it gave someone an easy thing to tell someone else about. You can take that approach with a lot of successful indie games. How about Spiderweb Software? For the last sixteen years, they’ve done robust storytelling. Each game they make is somewhere between 130,000 and 180,000 words. You can imagine the immense amount of detail that goes into every game they make. It’s what their users like, and it arms them with talking points.

From 2006-2011, I was a part of, in some way, the Aveyond Series by Amaranth Games, which pioneered bringing JRPG style games to casual audiences. In 2012, we’ll be working together on a new, secret, project.

Any final words for people trying to make it in the industry as a successful designer?

The key to success is to fail and then understand what the hell went wrong and fix it next time.

Fail. The best thing you can do when starting out is to make something and fail. I mean, obviously, if you knock it out of the park on your first attempt, well then good for you. The majority of people don’t. It’s okay. The key to success is to fail and then understand what the hell went wrong and fix it next time. It takes years of failures sometimes. But don’t give up. The end is worth every step of the journey.

Joe Lieberman was an advisor for Casual Connect Seattle 2012. He help put together a great selection of speakers. To hear from those speakers you can go the the Casual Connect channel on YouTube or see them on the Casual Connect webpage.


Making My First iPhone Game From Scratch Part. 1 – by Pepwuper’s Brandon Wu

February 3, 2011 — by Mariia Lototska


Brandon Wu is the founder and CEO of Studio Pepwuper. Brandon’s previous career includes strategic consulting at Sony and leading a testing team at Electronic Arts. In a previous life, he was an MBA, a economics major, and an owner of an office supply company. Now he spends his time making games, writing blog posts, and dreaming of a world where everybody loves games. In his first contribution for Gamesauce, he will talk about how he learned his way to building his first iPhone game, Megan and the Giant, without prior knowledge of programming and art-making.

A little more than a year ago, I was working in the strategy division at the Sony headquarters in Tokyo, busy making financial forecasts for new ventures and evaluating business deals. I had a typical MBA job, working with spreadsheets, writing feasibility studies and business plans, and meeting with executives to discuss high level strategies for one of the largest consumer electronics company in the world. My job couldn’t be further away from what I am doing today.

Armed with an education only in Economics and Business, I had no experience with programming a game, creating 2D and 3D art assets, or making sound effects and music for games. Not to mention my lack of proper game design experience. In the beginning of 2010, when I quit my corporate job, I had nothing but a desire to make games, and an idea for the first title. Insane? Maybe, but at that point, I had already decided that, no matter what it took, that game had to be made. Here is the series of events that led to the birth of “Megan and the Giant.”


Early sketch of the stealth gameplay. Tools used: imagination, pencil, notebook.

In December 2009, I went to England for the first time to visit my in-laws for Christmas. My wife and I went on the Duck Tour – an amphibious bus that takes you around the city, and transforms into a boat that goes into the River Thames. While on the Duck Tour, I saw a road sign near the River Thames that resembled a giant creature, with a red line crossing through it. We couldn’t figure out what the sign meant, and I had the idea that perhaps there are giant creatures living in the river, and that the sign is saying “No Giants Allowed”.

I decided it would make a pretty interesting story, and spent the next few days sketching out ideas of how the story would unfold. I imagined England at war with another country, and these giants were thought to be secret weapons from the enemy, but eventually they became friends with a little girl and helped defending London from an invasion at the end.

The story was modified over time, and eventually I decided to stay away from a war-themed game to keep the game family-friendly.

I kept having this idea where in one scene, Megan would have to help the Giant escape from the police. Eventually I decided that that is what the game would be about, a simplified stealth game with elements from Metal Gear Solid and Pac-Man.

After I had a rough idea of what the story was about, I started thinking about gameplay. Initially I imagined a game similar to Professor Layton, where puzzle game is the main gameplay with stories in-between play sessions. But I kept having this idea where in one scene, Megan would have to help the Giant escape from the police. Eventually I decided that that is what the game would be about, a simplified stealth game with elements from Metal Gear Solid and Pac-Man.

Concept Art

One of the early concept art made by Yu Chen Wang. Tools used: Facebook (messages, contact)

After the basic concept was in place. I decided it would be great to have some concept art for development, and to help explain to people what the game is about. I asked Shawn Yu from Yu’s Art Adventure to help me with the concept art. This is when I finalized the look of the Giant and his personality.

Design Doc: DEMO

I plotted out the main story timeline on Keynote (simply because I am more familiar with presentation tools than anything else). This is when the story was still about the war, with an epic scene at the end where hundreds of giants show up to fight against the enemy. EPIC! Tools used: iWork'09 - Pages, Keynote, Game Design Document Outline

I decided to make a short demo for the game first so I could get some early feedback on the game. I used to write business plans, and I thought having a design doc, even though this is a small project, would help me think through the design and find details that I’d missed. So I wrote a design document that described the story, the gameplay, the visual, the target audience, and the purpose of the demo.


After the design document for the demo was done, I wanted to outsource the development to a third party since I didn’t have the skills (programming, art, sound, etc.) to make it. I talked to many studios around the world, and found several talented studios interested in the project. However the development cost was too high, and I also decided that having the knowledge of how a game is made is crucial for me if I want to lead Studio Pepwuper to success. After one month of business development activities, I put my head down and started learning how to make a game from scratch.

Game Engine

After a few weeks of intense studying and experimenting I was able to set up a scene in Unity 2.6 that contained the basic gameplay.

Fortunately there are some great game engines available on the market. I had been paying attention to these middleware since 2009 and knew what my options were when it came to developing an iPhone game without having to do all the ground work. Among the choices were: Torque, Unity, ShiVa, and Cocos2D, and I eventually decided on Unity 3D for it’s ability to publish to multiple platforms and it’s supportive community. I bought the only Unity book available at the time (Will Goldstone’s Unity Game Development Essentials) and spent one month studying it day and night. The book does a good job of introducing the engine to beginners, but due to my lack of programming knowledge, I had to supplement my study with lots of reading online to learn programming and scripting with Javascript. I had a new found respect for all the programmers after that intense month.

What’s Next?

It took me three months from the moment I had the idea of making a game to actually seeing the prototype on screen, with the majority of the time spent on learning how to program and finding my way around Unity. It was great to finally see the idea come alive, and to know that maybe, just maybe, I can actually make games!

It was great to finally see the idea come alive, and to know that maybe, just maybe, I can actually make games!

A prototype is not a game, and the game was still 7 months from completion. Armed with my new-found confidence in self-studying, I continued my journey into more topics involved in game development. In the next part, I will talk about 2D and 3D art, sound/music, level design/boss fights, play-testing, getting the game onto an iPhone (Xcode), and the final crunch to the finish – the much juicier – and rewarding -parts of game making.

Stay Tuned!

Brandon can be reached at