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Steameria: Tournament – Experience is Not Everything

September 3, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

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Storm Bringer Studios is a world-renowned company that made a revolution in the game industry in early 2000s of the 21st century, the founder and CEO Irakli Kokhrashvili recalls, meaning their first IP, the hit game of Steameria:Tournament.


Successful Titles in the Past Don’t Make a Company Fail-Proof

It may have never happened if we didn’t participate in the GameFounders program in Estonia in 2013. When we came to Tallinn in December 2013, we had very little experience in pitching and presenting ourselves, and got pretty frustrated after the first few sessions with the mentors. At that time, we were pitching some mobile game prototypes that we made a few weeks earlier, like Flower Power, a direct clone of King’s Candy Crush Saga.

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Styles the developers tested in their prototype.

I still remember how miserable we felt in the first few weeks. Our pitches were terrible, so we started thinking about what we’re doing wrong. We asked ourselves: why are we now making games this unsuccessful? We’ve got history! We got used to making big and complex titles for more than 3.5 years. We were creating console games like GeoPolice 1 and GeoPolice 2, first and third person shooters. We did outsource for Microsoft, Kixeye, and Larva Game Studios. The shooters got millions of downloads worldwide. I will never forget that feeling when in 2011, I first saw the DVD with the game our team was working hard on, GeoPolice 1. It was time to make The Decision about our next games, and eventually, we headed back to Georgia and had a long meeting with the rest of team.

A screen of “Limbo”, an Easter egg level of the company's second title Police 2
A screen of “Limbo”, an Easter egg level of the company’s second title Police 2

Another Shooter, in a Steampunk World This Time

This was the turning point for us, an experienced team of 25 professionals. We finally decided to make another shooter using the Unreal engine. Now everything fit well, we ALL got organized and had a clear goal. The clock started ticking. We needed to make one fully polished level based on assets from Police 3, our game that was 90 percent finished but never released. Meanwhile, at GameFounders, we had to think out a concept of our own commercial title. Having researched the shooter market, we decided not to make just another realistic shooter but instead go for alternate reality, the steampunk world of Steameria. Steameria:Tournament was the first title in this universe. Later, we released several other games in the same world, but this is now all a part of history.

The first thing we learned during the GameFounders program was that game development is a hard and competitive business. To sell a game, you need a solid business model – the most popular model at that time was free-to-play plus in-app purchases.

Ok, we said, we can make a free-to-play online steampunk shooter, with 12 unique characters with their own backstory and motives. The game will feel like Quake III Arena meets Mortal Kombat. We’ve done an online shooter in past, so were able to create more, but we’re a startup company that needs to experiment and try new and innovative things. This time, we decided to support Oculus Rift VR and ordered the devkit. I personally was very skeptical at first. We had experience with VR devices in the past. They were big and not so impressive, and I had no idea of how this one could be different. Back then, most people were still using common flat PC screens (!). Having tried the new VR kit, we were shocked! Feeling everything physically and reacting to it naturally looked like the next big thing we surely needed to support and optimize our game for it.

Skilled Players Can Earn Real Money

We decided to allow skilled players to earn money. For example, when a gladiator reaches level 40 in Steameria:Tournament, he can challenge another gladiator of the same level, with an equal weapons and armor set, in the same Arena, bet real money, and have a series of duels. The winner gets money as the prize. Each player pays to enter a tournament ($1, $3, $5, $10), and the winner gets it all. This is now quite popular on mobiles with skill-based gameplay. We’ve partnered with Cashplay and are using its solution in three of our mobile games already.

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Having a certain weapon lets a player enter a tournament to win real money.

This idea was later developed much more: we did an extension and free DLCs in a year after launching the game. The extension added a partner mobile application for all major platforms that allowed mobile players to login, see live statistics, and bet on Steamerian gladiators!

We’ve finally mastered pitching and which words to choose for that, all thanks to numerous mentors’ sessions we had almost every day at GameFounders. There were some mentors that we called “nicers”. They came, we talked, they said – “oh that’s nice, keep working guys” – and left, and we never heard about them anymore. On the other hand, there were a few mentors who almost insulted us at first meetings.

“Some mentors almost insulted us at first meetings.”

We didn’t understand their motives at first, but soon realized that those were real mentors, the ones who cared. We partnered with them later and understood that connections are everything in this industry!

We were ready and fully motivated to enter the cruel world of game development by that time. We attended Slush 2013, had Demo Days in San Francisco and Game Connection Paris 2013, visited Sony, Facebook, Microsoft, Zynga, Funorama, Google, and met iconic people of game industry. We’ll never forget how we met EPIC’s VP, Mark Rein in a game event at Helsinki, or how we talked to Robin Hunicke and absolutely loved her vision and company.

This helped us realize one very important thing: people who work for those companies are not demigods, they are talented workers who think and talk almost the same as you. Maybe this doesn’t mean much for other companies, but it was almost everything for us. Being the first game development company in Georgia was hard. We were pioneers. Not a single person understood why we were doing this at that time. Nevertheless, we have confidence about our goals.

As for now, Steameria: Tournament is still being made, but very slowly, since the developers have switched to mobile games for now and are still looking for an investor for the big game of Steameria. They’ve released 10 mobile games in 3.5 month on iOS, ported 8 titles on Android and 10 on Windows phone.

 

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

LabRATory: The Cheese is Where a Good Game Is… And PR and Marketing

July 1, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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LabRATory is a mobile action puzzle game full of passion, thinking, and lab rats. It is the debut game of Bubo Games, a small, self-funded indie game developing company based in Hamburg, Germany. Born as a student project, LabRATory has been through a long journey to become the game you find in the app stores now. Its creator Bjoern Bergstein shares the story. 

Cut the Rope+a Lemming+Portal 2=Action Puzzle

It was a cold evening in December 2011 when three guys sat together to rescue their actual student project. There was a bunch of open tasks and lots of bugs and unsolved problems in the game’s design. We decided to kill the old one and concentrate on a new, achievable mobile game. Lack of time and resources gives the best circumstances for a good game design. So we ditched nearly everything we had, and gathered new ideas with new vitality and the will to succeed.
Around Christmas Eve, the vision was finally born: LabRATory should be a cute 2D action puzzle game with dozens of lab rats for mobile touch devices. The style should resemble Cut the Rope, the main character should act like a lemming, and the environment and features should be based on Portal 2.

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Cut the Rope style, main character acting like a lemming, environment and features based on Portal 2.

This would be a timeless cute comic game, but not too childish. The mechanics borrowed from lemmings gave us a simple and easy-to-plan character without random behavior. As for the puzzle and setting elements, we liked to use Portal ideas…by the way, lab rats in a laboratory with lasers and portals are awesome just because! 😉

The ingredients were perfect! After six weeks, we presented a full playable mobile game and got excellent feedback. The teachers then forced us to use the prototype and transform it into a good-looking game. They didn’t just rescue the project, they even defined a new kind of gameplay called “action puzzle”! Furthermore, they saw the potential that this could be more than just a student project.

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The lab rat with Bjoern Bergstein, the creator.

A Ship with 10 People Won’t be Faster Than a Rowboat if Everyone Discusses the Direction

It took a few weeks and lots of beer for Julien Rüggeberg, Philipp Soré, and me to dare to accept this challenge! We liked the idea of investing the next semester in improving LabRATory and making it ready for the market, but a highly motivated team was still missing. So, after pitching the game and the vision and presenting our plan in front of the other students, the team grew to 10 members. The goal was to get a full game into the app store to improve our portfolio.

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The team grew to 10 people after Bjoern and his friends presented the game in front of other students

But in the next two months, we were forced to realize that a vision can be easy to describe, but hard to transfer into a game. It was our first big lesson: a ship with ten different people will not be faster than a small rowboat when everybody is allowed to discuss the direction. We stopped development and went back into pre-production. The vision and style guide was not as clear as we thought, and we had no workflows or processes. Everybody was acting on their own, and the results didn’t fit together. Let me say it: the style was not as cute as we liked it, and the game lost its magic.

The style was not as cute as we liked it, and the game lost its magic.

There was a feeling that democracy is not always the clue to create a great thing. And after a few such weeks without a clear vision, we realized a strong need for someone able to make decisions for the whole team. So I was chosen as a vision keeper, and Floris Pfeifer became the lead artist. We were there to set up workflows and define our main goals. For example: the art quality needs to be exactly like Cut the Rope (but not too close to Cut the Rope), gameplay should be easy to understand without a tutorial, and we won’t have too much text in our game – so every button needed a symbol. After all these definitions were made clear, the great satisfaction motivated us again. We were back on course!

The Player and Developer Think in Different Ways

Powered by this tailwind, we created a few levels and began to do as many playtests as possible. I think almost every student and family member invested hours in testing LabRATory and giving feedback. It was good for us to present the game to some other students who understand game design and arts. We also involved parents who never played a mobile game before. Later on, we presented LabRATory at exhibitions and events to catch the idea of how strangers react while playing the game.

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LabRATory has been tested on students who know game design and art, and parents who have never played a mobile game before

The testers helped us optimize the flow by rejecting some features, such as the second way to finish a level or the countdown in the beginning of each level. In our opinion, it was great to have the option of finishing a level with or without cheese (we had an exit at this time) or to just have a few seconds to have a look at the game before playing. But that was just designer-driven s**t that nobody really understood or liked, so we cut it off! But the testers also demanded new things, like the stars above the clock and achievements in the winning screen.

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Playtesting helped the developers understand the difference between players’ needs and designers’ ideas

We also reduced the basic skill level of the game. It took a very long time to optimize the learning curve. This was really hard, because everybody we knew also knew the game. First of all, I built up new levels step by step, and tried to make them as easy as possible. After that, I looked for new opportunities at exhibitions to see how the players react to this. There were a few people who said the first level package was too easy, but most users were satisfied, and (the most important thing) everybody understood how the game worked. In addition to that, we got great advice from our teachers and mentors in coding and designing to develop according to high quality standards.

Gamefounders: a Check of Professionality

Strengthened by countless satisfied players, we finally decided to present the game and the team to the real market. We applied for the first Gamefounders round to see how professional we really were at that point. The expectations were very low, and we had nothing to lose. To our great surprise, we got to the last round, and could pitch LabRATory in front of the investors. We weren’t invited to the program just because of being students and having no track record. But at least trying was the right decision, and it was a very good experience for the team.

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“We applied for the first Gamefounders round to see how professional we really were.”

In different stages of the applying process, we needed to answer questions we didn’t even think about before. The difference between a student project and a business project turned out bigger than we expected. We didn’t care for monetization, localization, third person tools, advertisements, publishers, and so on. At that point, we just enjoyed building a great game with lots of passion and pure fun. We believed that a good game would be everything you need to reach the stars…

We believed that a good game would be everything you need to reach the stars…

So, we got back to earth and concentrated on finishing our semester with a brilliant mobile game. LabRATory won the Gameforge Newcomer Award in December 2012. And for most of us, the story ended there. Many of the students achieved their own goal and chose to work on other, less stressful things, or try out other genres or types of games.

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LabRATory won the Gameforge Newcomer Award in December 2012

Starting a Company: With Progress Comes Bureaucracy

Nevertheless, some people saw this award as a chance to build a company with its own ideas and an awesome culture, which was to be the cornerstone of many fascinating mobile games. This is why Bubo Games was born and gave us new opportunities. A team of four people who worked full-time and two people part-time rocked the house! Setting up our own place to work was awesome. Seeing our logo on all the documents and websites still makes me proud. But with all this progress, there came bureaucracy. I knew that building a business plan and trying to get an investor was to become a great part of my work. It was harder than I thought and took much more time.

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Building a company with its own ideas and an awesome culture was to be the cornerstone of many fascinating mobile games

We presented the game at the Casual Connect 2012 in Hamburg and found a few potential publishers for LabRATory. The deals seemed to be fantastic and for us nearly unbelievable. With those kind of deals, we didn’t need additional external money, and had a strong partner with knowledge and power. We also knew we had to negotiate with them until a contract is signed, and we were fine with that. We used this time to transfer the game into a professional gaming app with a local kit and tracking tools, along with other important features.

The negotiations went well! After a few months, our dream was almost coming true. The game was ready, the money was out, and we just needed to sign the contract with our favorite publisher. But this never happened. A personal change occurred in the upper management of this publisher company, and they decided to cancel all negotiations with external developers. And suddenly everything seemed to be too late.

Awesome Games are Played When People Find Out They Exist

We made the biggest mistakes of all possible ones. Having set everything on this one option, we forgot to care for alternative scenarios. We didn’t really pay attention to PR or marketing. It was the publisher’s task… wasn’t it? At that point, we understood that a deal without a sign has no value.

Having set everything on stake, we forgot to care for alternative scenarios. We didn’t really pay attention to PR or marketing. It was the publisher’s task… wasn’t it?

But we didn’t give up and reorganized ourselves quickly. LabRATory was this awesome premium puzzle game that the world must see! So we tried to do our best to promote the game at local exhibitions without any money for marketing and PR.

Finally, we released it into the App Store and hoped that the right people would realize the ingenuity of our game. We got no feature or response from Apple. Just a few downloads from our friends. But you can’t pay the bills with 100 downloads. That was the second time we were brought back to reality. Although we had the ability to make an awesome game, people wouldn’t be able to play it because they’d simply never find out our game exists.

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People wouldn’t play the most awesome games because they simply aren’t aware that it exists

It’s best to have a full-time team member to take care of PR and marketing. There will be no cheese in the end if you forget that aspect in your plan.

Through a reliable publisher deal with Tivola, the game is now available on Apple App Store and Google Play for free, and as premium on Amazon. It has recently received 125,000 downloads in less than four weeks, and the team aims on getting many more through updates and optimizing.

 

Video Coverage

Kadri Ugand: The Value of Accelerators | Casual Connect Video

October 25, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton

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Kadri Ugand provided the guidelines she uses to evaluate teams for investment suitability at Casual Connect Kyiv 2013.

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Kadri Ugand is Co-founder and Manager of GameFounders, the first game accelerator in Europe. Based in Tallin, Estonia, GameFounders focuses on startups, particularly small teams of entrepreneurs in the very early stages of their companies. They attract not only companies that build games, but also those providing gamified apps, platforms, tools, and other game-related services. The support they offer these companies includes seed capital, office space, mentoring, training, and services. She tells us that accelerators are able to bring the relevant knowledge, experience and motivation that allow startups to discover quickly whether an idea has the potential to succeed.

She explains that GameFounders is a niche accelerator, aimed specifically at gaming because they can give much more value with this approach. The teams understand what the others are doing, and the mentors and partners are 100 percent relevant. The mentors also have the advantage of seeing only teams they will potentially do business with.

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She explains that GameFounders is a niche accelerator, aimed specifically at gaming because they can give much more value with this approach.

Finding Satisfication

Ugand was attracted to the games industry because of the combination of creativity and business. She points out that many creative industries consider themselves more of an art form than a business, but the games industry is different in that it emphasizes both. And she loves the openness, helpfulness and fun attitude of the people in the industry.

The greatest satisfaction for Ugand comes when their startups launch their games and begin making their dreams come true. She cites the recent release of Oborun as an example.

Team Focused

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She emphasizes that success is entirely dependent on the team.

She is very focused on her work, claiming that when they have teams in Tallin, work is also her hobby. They go out with the teams and mentors every week, exploring Estonia with them. Ugand’s career has always been working with startups. She emphasizes that success is entirely dependent on the team, saying “Great teams can make average products great, but bad teams cannot make great products succeed.”

At Casual Connect Kyiv, Ugand announced that GameFounders is now looking for its fourth batch of gaming startups. The application deadline is December 8, 2013, and those interested can apply at gamefounders.com.

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