Lost Toys: Landing on Games

August 26, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska


Barking Mouse Studio is a two-person indie game studio in San Francisco, consisting of Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming. They consider Lost Toys to be their first full game. While both are software engineers and artists, they come from opposite backgrounds. Jim took computer science in college and is a self-taught artist. Danielle took ceramics in college and is a self-taught engineer. Together, they tell the story of Lost Toys.

Barking Mouse Studios
Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming

Wandering Through Projects

We met when Danielle hired Jim to work at an interactive media agency. From the start, we wanted to work on our own projects together, but finding the right one took a bit longer than expected. Financial management app? Built it. News reader? Yep, several of them. Database GUI? Yup, it’s open-sourced here. With each new project, we learned a lot, but none of them ever felt quite right.

We did a couple of game jams and had a great time making the (often less than) 48 hour games. With every new jam, we would brainstorm ideas ahead of time. Suddenly, we were talking about games all the time. So naturally, we thought, “We’ll make a game to sell on the App Store! It’ll make a million dollars, and only take a month or so!” We barely knew game-making, we didn’t know mobile, and we really didn’t know 3D. It was nearly a year later before we were finally ready to launch our first game.

First Attempts

Our old GUI system, and the first time we were able to play a level.

Our first attempt at Lost Toys was with HTML5 and WebGL (using Three.js). For us, it was a nightmare. It felt like we had to re-invent the wheel, the scene view, the model importer, the audio player, the renderer, the camera, and… you get the idea. We struggled for about a month, and then realized that we needed something that would just work. After noticing a lot of fellow game jammers using Unity, we switched. In addition to being easier to develop in, this opened up a lot of doors for us, since we could now publish on nearly any platform.

In the trough of doubt between the switch from HTML5 to Unity, we questioned our initial game mechanic. It just wasn’t fitting with the aesthetic (creepy toys) and wasn’t as immersive as we wanted. Our budget was too tight to let us hire voice actors. We needed the environment alone to convey our story, and an unsettling theme can convey a lot of emotion. In the end, we drew inspiration from a lot of sources like Leonardo DaVinci to Apple to the San Francisco Exploratorium and games like The Room, Zen Bound and Cogs.

Scope and Resource Restrictions

Lost Toys
We made progress, but the build was still really unstable.

Neither of us has any audio background, but we know the value of it. It was important to us not to compromise the game aesthetic. Having no soundtrack was better than having one that didn’t fit, and the budget wasn’t there for something custom. Fortunately, we found the beautiful, classical and free Creative Commons licensed work of pianist composer Peter Rudenko. We’ve listened to “The Fall” about a thousand times during development. It’s one of our favorite pieces of music ever, and it fits the tone and aesthetic of Lost Toys perfectly.

We also didn’t have the budget for any kind of custom audio samples or to hire a sound engineer. We looked at a number of websites that sold or offered free stock audio. Most of the sites didn’t offer trial samples, and we needed to playtest different sounds as cheaply as possible. Pond5 was great for this, we could download watermarked audio clips and see if they matched what we were going for.

Since the game needed to be as immersive as possible, we felt that everything should be a part of the game world – including the GUI elements. At first, we tried to make everything skeumorphic, “physical” elements of the game. The first version of Lost Toys was more of a ghost story with little “wisps” that flew around and “oozed” off of the toy at the start of each level. Made up of little puffs of glowing smoke, wisps were ethereal “undo” buttons. Unfortunately, the wisps complicated the code and gameplay quite a bit. None of our playtesters understood what to do with them. So they fell into the dung heap of history, in favor of a minimalist on-screen GUI. Surprisingly, we found that the new GUI helped players remain immersed in the game because they didn’t have to learn how to interact with the wisps.

For us, building a 2D game was never an option we considered. Neither of us are 2D illustrators, and Jim had some old experience with 3D graphics. Plus, we really like the aesthetics of minimal but realistic games (think Zen Bound and The Room) and enjoy puzzle games like Cogs and Flow that take advantage of a touch interface. Because of our 3D requirement, keeping development time under a year was very hard work. We ruthlessly limited the scope over and over again. Despite this, our main rotational mechanic in this “simple” game took three months, several revisions and many individual attempts before we pair programmed a solution.

Getting The Word Out

Why do we need a trailer? We’ve got a laggy video of the whole first chapter!

Lost Toys is our first attempt at a professional game, and rotational math was only one of the many things we didn’t know how to do when we started. We had no idea how to market or distribute a game. We just assumed that was what app stores were for. Fortunately for us, we live in San Francisco, where there is a wealth of established indie developers that are incredibly generous with their time and advice (thank you, thank you, thank you!) Many of them we met through our local IGDA chapter, which is a great organization to join if you’re interested in indie game development.

The biggest advice we received was to start reaching out to potential players immediately. To do that, we needed a great trailer. Like with the rest of our game, and indie development in general, we didn’t have the budget to hire someone to make our trailer. We had to figure out how to make it ourselves with zero film-editing experience. It took us about a week of studying movie trailers to come up with a rough storyboard. From there, we needed to figure out how to make what we wanted. The solution we came up with was to turn exported image sequences into movie clips. The problem with this method is that in-game audio can’t be used. To get around that limitation we borrowed a trick from all those movie trailers, and have a single piece of music playing throughout the trailer which helps tie together all the different bits of gameplay.

Everything Comes Together

The finished trailer

So here we are, almost a year from when we started. Lost Toys won “Most Promising Game” as part of the Indie Prize at Casual Connect, and we’re launching on iOS at the end of October with Android and BlackBerry to follow. As part of the process, we learned to say “no” to every idea we had that wasn’t in direct support of launching a solid game and that building the game is only half of the job.

You can keep up to date with launch notices for Lost Toys by following them on Facebook or Twitter.

Exclusive InterviewsNewsOnline

IGDA’s Kate Edwards on the Evolution of the Industry, the Role of IGDA, and her Goals as Executive Director

December 31, 2012 — by Clelia Rivera


Kate Edwards has enjoyed building a fulfilling career in the video game industry (read this interview to find out more). Now she is going another step forward as she accepts the Executive Director role at the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Being involved with IGDA since 2004, she founded the Localization SIG in 2007, served on the board of directors of the IGDA Seattle chapter since 2009 and received the MVP award in 2011. She sat down with us to discuss issues the game development community is facing, the importance of IGDA, and what she hopes to do in her new role as Executive Director of IGDA.

Current Issues

Throughout her time in the industry, Edwards has noticed several challenges the community has faced, from within the community as well as outside it. It is a lot to manage, but Edwards believes the rapid evolution of the industry is a particular issue which needs attention. The tricky economics of game development can be difficult to deal with, having a direct impact on the community. Mercurial audience demands also make it difficult to keep ahead. When a company does not evolve fast enough, this can lead to cutbacks, or in the worst case, layoffs. “The dynamic nature of the consumer market and the industry demands that both development companies and individual employees remain very agile,” says Edwards. She doesn’t see a short-term resolution to this problem, but she also feels that this constant change is part of the excitement.

“As the global gamer population continues to become very richly diverse across geographies, cultures, languages, genders, ethnicities, and so on, those who create games need to accept the fact that this is the world in which we live. When embraced, such differences can be leveraged as a powerful creative and economic force.”

Another issue Edwards feels needs addressing is workplace diversity. Management and HR circles will mention it, and the media highlights it on occasion, but Edwards feels it is important that this be decided by the individuals of a company. They have to choose for themselves what type of industry they want to work in. “As the global gamer population continues to become very richly diverse across geographies cultures, languages, genders, ethnicities, and so on, those who create games need to accept the fact that this is the world in which we live,” says Edwards. “When embraced, such differences can be leveraged as a powerful creative and economic force.” She believes resolving this issue is going to be a long-term cultural change. It may not go away completely, but it can lessen through a developer’s individual actions.

Importance of IGDA

Having been involved with the IGDA for a number of years, Edwards has been in a position to see what IGDA has been able to do for developers. Completely dedicated to game developers and their needs, IGDA has volunteer-run chapters around the world and expands the global effort of game development. While involved in the Localization SIG, Edwards witness the connection of like-minded professionals in localization and globalization issues. It broadened her understanding of those issues as well as her connection to professionals outside her expertise. One of her greatest memories of IGDA was the first time the Localization SIG conducted its annual meeting at GDC in San Francisco. “We had an awesome turnout and people were so eager and ready to engage, and the meeting lasted far longer than expected because of all the networking and collaboration discussions,” she recalls. The eagerness to be involved was astounding to Edwards. As the creator of the Localization SIG, she was amazed to witness the enthusiasm in the group. Throughout her time at IGDA, Edwards found IGDA to be indispensable for making connections in the game development community.

Kate Edwards at Game Developers Conference 2012

According to Edwards, IGDA initiatives take place on two levels: key organization initiatives and the pursuit of advocacy on a wide range of issues. However, there are three key initiatives she is most passionate about currently:

• Employment Contract Review process (currently in development) – IGDA identified 10 key areas for evaluation in an employment contract so a developer can understand the document they are signing. This process will also provide information to the company in the form of an assessment of their contracts through a game developer’s perspective.

• Changing the perception that IGDA is a mostly-US entity – Due to the large US membership, many non-members are under the misguided perception that the IGDA is a largely-US entity. Edwards wants to change that idea, since the organization is a global entity.

• Changing the perception that IGDA is meant for large studio-based developers – There has been a recent rise of successful indie developers, but many non-members believe that the IGDA is not available to any developers other than studio-based developers. Edwards wants to emphasize the face that the IGDA exists for all developers.

Moving Forward

Kate at IGDA Summit 2012
“That level of dedication is something I not only wanted to be a part of as a member, but compelled me to do more to help the cause.”

As enthusiastic as Edwards is about her work as a geographer and culturalization consultant, she is just as enthusiastic about the IGDA. Because of this, she has stepped into the role of Executive Director. “As my involvement in the organization expanded over the years, I came to know so many outstanding, brilliant people who give so much of their time and effort to push things forward for the greater good of all developers,” says Edwards.

“That level of dedication is something I not only wanted to be a part of as a member, but compelled me to do more to help to cause. “ She believes her experience working side by side with every function on a game will help her in her new role. When asked what she now hopes to accomplish, she provided the following four goals:

“1. Reemphasize the “I” in IGDA: The perception of the organization needs to change. The IGDA is not a U.S.-based organization that happens to be in other countries; we are an international organization that happens to have a large U.S. membership. I’d like to improve our inclusion of people, best practices and creativity from all chapters worldwide by better managing the communication and execution of ideas to and from IGDA leadership. This starts with providing better access between my role and the membership.

2. Reassert the IGDA’s relevance: The IGDA will be more proactive and visionary as a force in our industry. We will reassert a thought leadership position for issues affecting game developers and to achieve this, I will rely on our vast SIG-based expertise on key topics.

3. Reiterate the IGDA’s value proposition: I hope to demonstrate the value of our membership through stronger partnerships and incentives internationally, nationally and locally; an IGDA membership should benefit members at any level, from those in major studios to indie developers.

4. Reinforce the IGDA as a professional collaboration: I’d like to see a membership of incredible volunteers being even more proactive to engage and feeling empowered to act on their initiatives. Our mutual respect for one another – regardless of our genders, ages, nationalities and so forth – needs to be an example to those who play our games.”

Video Coverage

IGDA Summit videos at Casual Connect: how Shadowrun fared on Kickstarter, tips to get publishing deals and becoming a better negotiator

November 16, 2012 — by Brian Anthony Thornton


IGDA Summit 2012, held in conjunction with Casual Connect Seattle 2012 conference, did not hold back in its efforts to benefit the developer community. As the largest non-profit membership organization assisting video game industry members, IGDA works to further improve that industry. Using the best content, industry leaders from different disciplines worked to enhance the developer community.  The summit offered learning opportunites in over 50 sessions and panels.  Here is a small sample of what we found there.

Pitching Shadowrun on Kickstarter

Stand out, follow these 10 tips and get a  publishing deal

Whether your investors are brought into the fold via crowdsourcing or through more traditional means, it’s important to know how–and when–to stand out amongst a sea of hungry upstarts. John Young of Perfect World Entertainment discussed this and more during a panel dedicated to getting your game funded and published. His presentation proved to be very enlightening for the young entrepreneur as it focused on pragmatic real world advice that can be useful from the earliest stages onward. In addition, Young advised new developers to time their pitches correctly.

Negotiate your way to better business deals

One skillset that is absolutely essential to the independent developer is the art of negotiating a business deal. Tom Buscaglia of The Game Attorney PC was on hand to deliver a rousing panel aimed at scoring attendees the best deal they can get out of a complicated process. He furiously championed the rights of the individual creator, cautioned them against being a “spineless worm” and reminded attendees that they too held power in their business relationships. Buscaglia also warned the audience to make sure the contract they are given accurately reflects the negotiated terms.

IGDA Summit 2012 pulled out all the stops to bring the best content to the table. To hear from more speakers, visit the Casual Connect website or the Casual Connect YouTube Channel.





PopCap’s John Vechey on Why People Make Every Game Better

November 7, 2010 — by Gamesauce Staff


Keynoting the IGDA Leadership Forum in San Francisco, PopCap Games vice president of corporate strategy and development John Vechey told the audience that in 2004 and early 2005, he and his fellow co-founders were offered $60 million to sell the company.

While PopCap was known for extremely successful titles like Bejeweled, the offer came as something of a surprise. Says Vechey: we didn’t start PopCap to make money, we started it to make games. They declined the offer, ultimately feeling that it didn’t value the capacities of the team that had been assembled.

But the offer did serve as a wake up call. After having been offered millions, and refusing, Vechey says, “We knew we had to change, we knew we had to grow.”

Today, the company is 375 employees, still privately held, and as Vechey says proudly, focused on great games. “We get to control our destiny,” he adds.

“But even with the success, there were a lot of mistakes,” he continues. Alongside an influx of new people was “a lot of firing.” Vechey says that while some people were incompetent, some were great — but not a fit with the company, even during the times of change and transition.

“If you take advantage of the social graph and the friends list, every single game will be better.”

Vechey says that PopCap helped create the business of downloadable games, but that his company has changed enough that they’ve become irrelevant to the company today. “We have to look at how games are made,” he says of the future, adding that there’s a way to improve. “If you take advantage of the social graph and the friends list, every single game will be better.”

World of Warcraft, states Vechey, would be a lot better if he could log into Facebook and see which of friends were playing.

Social games, he continues, isn’t about spamming your friends on Facebook, but something Vechey calls “social relevance.”

“Every game can get more social relevance inside it,” he stresses. “And it’ll be a better game.”

He also suggests a strategy of experiences that are more connected. In future, Vechey says, “Whenever you’re playing a Pop Cap game, it’s like you’re playing an MMO.”

Vechey further encouraged an audience of senior developers and production leaders to rethink the correlation between purchase and fun. “Item buy can be fun. Buying a $60 game in a store isn’t fun,” he says. He discusses ways that gameplay mechanics and rewards make the spending of micro-payments a pleasure. “You can actually make the act of buying your product be fun.”

But the one constant that Vechey sees is change. He concludes: “If we’re successful, in the next five years, PopCap will again be unrecognizable.”