COFA Games is a game development company from Serbia, currently working on a pretty ambitious project for an indie studio, called Awakening of Heroes. This is an unusual multi-player game that combines elements of team fight, strategy, arcade, town development and pre-game unions. Although still in the Alpha phase, Awakening of Heroes has appeared on Steam Greenlight waiting for your thumbs up to help it enter this huge PC game download store.
COFA Games’ CEO Nikola Mitic shares the story of their game taking place in a dreamlike city, and featuring a sweet old lady obsessed with extreme sports such as tombola and knitting, a mellow-heart butcher with an alter-ego of a math genius, a sexy chimney sweeper with a vendetta against Santa, a hipster in an atypical bad mood, and a grandpa daredevil. And of course the craziest superpowers one can come up with.
In 2012, James Barnard from the Springloaded studio left the glittering world of AAA game production behind for a life of creative freedom and indie developer dreams. The first five games he made failed to gain any real market traction, so James was surviving on a part-time teaching job while coding almost every minute of the day and night. He shares the story of Tiny Dice Dungeon, the game that evolved Springloaded from just James Barnard and a laptop to a fully-fledged company with employees and a slightly cramped office.
One of the patterns you can see in game development is people getting bored and wanting to start something new. As a teacher, I always ask students to finish what they start, because completing a game is the hardest part, and what good are two unfinished games compared to a completed one?
Nevertheless, working on your own means you can ignore even the best advice, so I ignored my own and decided to take a break from my ambitious space game. Instead, I planned to spend a weekend building a small, fun thing to release as soon as it’s done. After two days, my idea of a dice-rolling dungeon crawler came to life as a bad-looking Mario-style character with a sword walking through one room after another fighting monsters. As I worked on the game, more and more ideas started to flow, and I realized that this quick recreational project probably deserved a little more time…
So I ended up with two games with something I thought was a lot of potential. I had to pick one to focus on. Having just started the RPG, and believing it only needed about five more weeks, I went on with this one. It’s amazing how with hindsight you can see how utterly wrong you can be about things.
It’s amazing how with hindsight you can see how utterly wrong you are about things.
Casual Connect Asia as a Totally New Experience: First Conference Ever Attended
Despite being in the games industry for 15 years, I had never attended a conference. I was always staying in the studio crunching on something or working to hit our next deadline. When Casual Connect Asia came round, I somehow ended up on an email thread asking for entries to the Indie Showcase. With a belief that my business wasn’t really going anywhere and was quickly devolving into a hobby, I understood I needed the help of a publisher, and this opportunity to meet some was too good to pass up.
I applied successfully, and was given a table in a room with 50 or so other developers. I rescheduled my classes and went along with several of my previous games, and my Tiny Dice Dungeon prototype to show to potential publishers. I had no idea what to expect, but was looking forward to finding it out.
Before the event, I arranged as many meetings as I could through LinkedIn and printed my first ever business cards (for a company that didn’t exist yet).
The conference was a world of opportunities, and I showed my game to every random person I met. I didn’t care about NDA’s or any kind of secrecy, I was just having a bunch of fun showing Tiny Dice Dungeon to people, and they seemed to be enthusiastic, offering plenty of feedback and making suggestions.
Without actually realizing it, I had designed a game that sat in line with certain demographics and trends that monetize and retain well. Therefore, Tiny Dice Dungeon happened to be interesting to publishers and even some investors. After a few discussions, I signed with Kongregate, who seemed to see things a lot like I do. I had to turn down some other offers, despite being tempted to sign two games. I stuck with just this one, which I think kept me from ending up dead.
An Official Company Created for the Sake of a Bank Account
I set up Springloaded as a company to have a bank account for something other than my name. And then I put my head down and started building the game for a September launch. Being a teacher helped me recruit a couple of people from the University: one person to do the networking and another one to help with balancing and art. My initial plan for the Tiny Dice Dungeon game was to use a few new features that weren’t there in my previous games, like very light network play through Gamecenter, and a Facebook “Like” button. But very soon, I realized that I needed to do a hell of a lot more in order to create a competitive product.
A Publisher is an Ally
Kongregate really helped me understand the freemium world better, and their input felt more like guidance and not forcing their will on me. It’s like we were both working together to build something. It’s totally opposite to my previous experiences, where the companies I worked for treated the publisher more as an enemy than an ally.
Therefore, I don’t see myself self-publishing on mobile again. The increased risk, lack of a second opinion, and inability to leverage a network of connections and options to help the game grow just make it impossible. Developers are always the first to mention Flappy Bird or some other self-publishing miracle story, but I feel like the chances of that happening again in the indie free-to play space are so minimal that you may as well call it impossible.
Interns: A Blessing and a Curse
As the project got bigger, our schedule became busier. The game I originally planned as a sole developer working alone wasn’t really going to cut it against the feature sets most players were probably expecting, and all the exciting ideas that would normally be called feature creep were somehow getting implemented with the belief that they would improve retention.
My team was expanded with interns from the university, which was both a blessing and a curse. Interns take a while to get up to speed, and just when they start being useful, they have to leave!
Testing the Markets
The science of metrics and refining your game through trusted data seems obvious, but I think without the push of our partners, I would have been lazy and just forced the game out early, killing our chances of maximising our impact at launch. That said, even with the analysis at work, we found our ARPU not high enough, and, due to adding all the fun new content, we had overrun our original global launch date by nearly six months. So, with the development money all gone, and the company running on fumes, we just had to release it.
All these careful adjustments had pushed the retention up and steered monetization in the right direction, but we hadn’t hit our targets. That’s why in the last moment before release, we agreed to add a couple of large new features. It was a calculated risk, but we all believed it was worth it. Stability wise, this step was dangerous, with us launching a new multiplayer mode just days before our global submission deadline. But the importance of drawing retention/ARPU up before the initial launch cannot be underestimated.
Eventually, we would be releasing Tiny Dice Dungeon globally some 13 months after starting, which is quite staggering for a game that was intended to take 48 hours to make.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
We made an original and fun free-to-play game that people seem to enjoy. Having a good grasp of all elements of development meant I could work pretty much uninhibited throughout the development of the game. As a passionate team all working together in a single space, we somehow developed the most relaxed and fun office atmosphere I’ve ever experienced, which made making the game pure joy (most of the time).
Hiring a full-time QA person (who is amazing at his job) really made the difference in the last month, because we were so busy adding features and fixing bugs that we simply didn’t have time to play the game.
Last but not least, we’ve achieved a great publisher-developer relationship that validated our decisions and helped us focus on what was best for the players.
There’s no project without the bad sides, and here they are: Tiny Dice Dungeon wasn’t originally intended to be this big, which meant we had to make some big design changes along the way, costing us some time. Integrating metrics and SDK’s too late created crash bugs that went out to the public in early builds. Not fully understanding what works in free-to-play from the very beginning is the reason why some design decisions were slower to nail down than they would be now.
Mind the Work-Life Balance
I did my best to protect the team from too many long hours, but my personal dedication to the project meant that I pushed myself as hard as possible, without much sleep and with no days off (including weekends) for almost a year. Because of the impending deadlines, I always promised myself it would only be for a short while more, but, as each deadline loomed, we decided we could make the game even better and did more and more changes. The result was an additional six months of development that left me very tired and laid waste to our finances.
The game was launched on iOS and Android globally in April 2014, and thanks to getting great features with Apple and Google has had nearly 2 million downloads already. While the game hasn’t been a raging success financially, it became very popular with the fans. Springloaded is now ready to do bigger and better things with their next title, and hope to continue working on Tiny Dice Dungeon for the foreseeable future, adding more content and new platforms.
Founded in December 2000, Yamago has now been developing games for over a decade. The team is based in Paris, France, and has all the skills required to develop quality games! Historically, Yamago focuses on 2D games for the web, based on TV and film intellectual properties, and has worked with clients like Cartoon Network, Disney and Lego. The company created game adaptations for global IPs such as Star Wars – The Clone War, Batman, Naruto, Adventure Time, and Gumball. Though in the last few years, Yamago has been making the transition to mobile games to keep up with the ever-changing games industry, and relying more and more on their own IPs to generate revenue. Their first in-house mobile game Hilomi started as a project for the Imagine Cup contest. Pierrick Lete and Sandrine Olivier, Yamago’s CTO and director of production, share the story.
A Student’s Contest as the Impact to Make a Game
Hilomi started out as an entry for the 2011 Imagine Cup. This annual competition is for students from all over the world to create projects that address the idea of a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.
Xavier Cliquennois and Norbert Tran Phat, both interns at Yamago at that time, wanted to participate in the Imagine Cup in the Mobile Game Design category. They came up with the game’s idea (a 2D platformer where the player can reshape the environment) based on the Imagine Cup’s theme. Mathieu Anthoine, our creative director, helped them refine the concept by finding the right genre (puzzle game), adequately balancing simplicity and depth, and deciding on the character design (Hilomi, the female protagonist, and the animals).
Eventually, Hilomi turned out to be a rather long adventure. From March to July 2011 the team managed to proceed to the second round of Imagine Cup, win the Jeuxvideo.fr Reader’s Choice award and the Silver Medal for Mobile Game Design at the Imagine Cup France Finals, and then enter the worldwide Imagine Cup finals and win the Silver Medal for Mobile Game Design.
Moving Away From the Contest Theme Towards an Original Game Vibe
Following this encouraging reception and feedback for Hilomi at the Imagine Cup, we decided to make it into a full-sized game that could be featured in Yamago’s portfolio.
First of all, we refined the controls to make the gameplay more understandable and easy for players. Hilomi is a puzzle game where users reshape the environment within “touch gameplay” to help Hilomi make her way through the levels. We found out that players manipulate the game in various ways. The controls had then to be adapted to all of those, and that on a large panel of screen sizes: it was huge work!
The need for cheap and quick updates was the reason behind simplified game design. To increase the lifetime of a puzzle game, we had to be able to produce a large number of levels and design them as efficiently as possible.
The original story hasn’t been perfect for the game as well. It was based on the Imagine Cup’s theme, but did not speak to the players. We had to integrate a touch of ecological theme in the storyline to fit the competition rules, but this resulted in a story too complicated and hard to narrate in a puzzle game.
We also altered character design and artistic direction to make the game more appealing and HD-friendly. Since Yamago is recognized for high-quality graphics, a game published by the company should stick to these standards.
iOS and Android tablets and smartphones were our main target. Imagine Cup is a competition sponsored by Microsoft, so the first version of the game has been made for Windows Phone using the Microsoft native SDK. We wanted to have a larger exposure for Hilomi, so decided to target the two main mobile OS’: iOS and Android.
The freemium model with monetization based on level packs was chosen on an early stage of development. Although this business model wouldn’t ensure that the game makes profit any more than a paid model does, it would make the project and our studio more visible. Creating commissioned games is Yamago’s main activity, and a high-quality, highly rated, and highly downloaded mobile game in the portfolio is a strong argument to convince clients that they can trust us to make great mobile games for them.
Sponsorship: a Solution If the Company Has Less Money than the Game Needs
Thanks to these starting points, we were able to estimate the budget required for Hilomi’s production. But since our revenue comes mostly from work-for-hire projects, investing in our own production is difficult… And the estimated budget for Hilomi was out of proportion with our financial assets at the time.
Hilomi became possible thanks to Adobe’s sponsoring. Being at a technological crossroads with AIR, Adobe chose to get involved with the game industry (Stage3D, SCOUT, Starling, etc.) after Thibault Imbert’s recommendation. They were looking for a game that would put Starling, their API hardware acceleration for 2D games, to test on mobile. Hilomi was picked because it matched the objectives, and partly thanks to Yamago’s being an active contributor to the Flash community from the studio’s very beginning. We’ve invested a lot of time in beta-testing Adobe (and formerly Macromedia) products.
Following Adobe’s sponsoring, Yamago secured a second aid from CNC’s fund for the creation of intellectual property. This combined help allowed us to conciliate our work-for-hire projects and Hilomi. We were able to assign team members to work on Hilomi for long periods, which contributed to making the project a reality. 14 different people worked on the game (fortunately not full-time and not at the same time).
Technology as a Convenient Constraint
Before the start of production, we were not quite sure about which technology to use. And again, Adobe helped us choose. They sponsored Yamago to test their technologies on an ambitious game that fitted the game industry standards and to suggest relevant features to improve these technologies. The solutions provided showed encouraging performances from the beginning, but we had to help fix a number of bugs, push for the improvement of certain features, and cope with optimization issues (due to memory allocation).
Free-to-Play Mechanics: Better Integrate in the Beginning
Knowing that a freemium game that gathers a large audience is not necessarily profitable, we wanted to integrate free-to-play mechanics to the gameplay loop. The main example is that we wanted to authorize players to increase the number of possible moves to solve a puzzle-level.
Despite numerous iterations, this mechanic never felt right. It worked against the gameplay and was making it more complicated. The “fun-factor” in a puzzle game was highly related to the “retry” option, because when the player retried, he got hooked. So every distracting mechanic that gave the player the opportunity to avoid it cluttered the message and thereby jeopardized the core loop.
This experience taught us that that free-to-play mechanics need to be integrated into the game from the start. Adding them later is a long and costly process, and the results are not guaranteed.
Art and Story Makeover
Already at the Imagine Cup contest, where Hilomi was stuck to the topic of ecology, the jury did not find them particularly relevant. Later, we chose to adopt a more lighthearted tone, while preserving the theme of the natural world and its animals.
The animals are both the challenge and the “cute factor” of the game. In design terms, they are collectables. We didn’t want Hilomi to just pick them up like if they were “stars” or “coins” (a staple of puzzle games), since she is not a hunter. 🙂 We wanted the collection to be more related to the game’s storyline and universe. Having Hilomi photograph them in order to collect was the ideal solution, as it also allowed us to create the photo album. The photo album adds a collection mechanics that increases the replay value of the game.
The photo album adds a collection mechanics that increases the replay value of the game.
In the Imagine Cup version of Hilomi, all the art had been created in a matter of days, leaving very little time to think of a coherent artistic direction and character design. So we rethought all art in the game in the beginning of production. There were villains in the first storyline; they were “polluting” Hilomi’s world. The world, thus, looked sad. Hilomi then had to look angry against them. But thanks to the lighthearted tone of the game, we were able to create a more cheerful character. Originally, Hilomi also had red tentacles for hair; and we discarded this design (only because it was not readable on small/mobile screens).
We kept the idea of odd mixes for the animals: a porcupine with logs for spikes, a mix of a ferret and a fennec fox, etc. As for the environment, we made square shapes a part of the artistic direction, with sharp angles and square structures often featured in the background. Hilomi has a tile-based gameplay, we wanted to create consistency with the graphic design.
We continuously receive positive feedbacks about the graphic design of Hilomi. And since we wanted to have a cute and cheerful character in a fantastic and colorful world – Mission Accomplished 😉
Hilomi is currently available on the App Store and Google Play, and we’re proud that in its first week after launch the game was featured by Apple in 128 different countries (including UK, France, Germany, Russia and China). We have passed the 200K download marks 15 days after the launch. It is also really great to see that the game is highly rated by players and critics (4/5 by 148apps and 7/10 by PocketGamer).
Secret Santa: It’s a Stealthy Xmas is an HTML5 stealth-based platform game with a Christmas flavor targeting a young audience. In the game, players take the role of Santa and deliver presents under several Christmas trees while remaining hidden from the various family members inhabiting the different homes/levels. The developer, Adsumsoft, is a tiny mini-micro-studio based in Singapore. It actually consists of just one person, game designer and author Roberto Dillon, but the team can easily expand on a per-project basis whenever needed, or even find creative and original uses for existing PD and CC-licensed assets to complete development. Roberto shares the experience of creating a seasonal game that has an advantage: it can be rediscovered and updated every holiday season.
No Enemies, Drama or Failing
The idea behind Secret Santa was to create a joyful experience, without real enemies and drama for failing. In other words, it was designed to put players in a good mood suitable for the festive season.
A set of Christmas carols was needed to achieve the right atmosphere, and a few well-known ones were easily available from A-M Classical to accompany players in all phases of the game, including the “Game Over” screen which, as mentioned, still had to be perceived as a celebrative moment and not as an angry, disappointing failure.
Graphics wise, the idea was to keep things simple and cute, thanks to self-contained levels in each screen and a retro art style reminiscent of old classics like Little Computer People which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite games. The art assets used in the game were done mostly by Lanea Zimmerman and Trent Gamblin and fit the setting pretty well, delivering the kind of style that was originally intended.
The reasons behind this choice varies. For example, being an “old” guy who grew up with 8-bit games, I obviously have a soft spot for retro-inspired graphics. Anyway, even from a less sentimental and more practical perspective, this type of graphics also makes sense, since it’s easier and cheaper to make than other styles and allows faster iterations if something needs to be tuned or polished further later in development.
All About Jumping and Hiding
Secret Santa is a platformer with a simple stealth gameplay at its core, where players have to exercise patience and then be quick in their movements.
Besides jumping around, hiding behind doors is the other core mechanic.
For the game to work, it was essential to make funny and interesting ways for the player to hide. So almost every piece of furniture in the houses has been designed as a platform to jump on and get to locations that remain out of sight to the family members: even a bookshelf or lamp, apparently too high to be reached, can indeed be a great hiding spot to wait while a little kid or an auntie passes underneath checking whether Santa has already delivered presents for them.
Besides jumping around, hiding behind doors is the other core mechanic. Glass doors can be opened to let Santa hide for a while as well, visible to no one but the player!
Controls: Buttons’ Functions Change with Santa’s Position
Controls can make or break a game on any platform, and even more so in mobile gaming. Great care was put into them to make sure that Santa’s acrobatics were as intuitive and easy to handle as possible, both when playing on PC and on a mobile touchscreen.
In touch versions, directional arrows for running were placed at the sides of the screen (left arrow on the left side, right on the right) with a button above each of them. The functionality of the buttons varies automatically according to Santa’s position and, in all but one specific case (i.e. while on the stairs), pressing either one will result in the same action, allowing players to use either thumb.
By default, the buttons are light blue and pressing them would result in jumping but, whenever Santa is next to specific objects, like Christmas trees or doors, the buttons turn red to signify something different can be done. That’s how Santa can go in and out of chimneys, hide behind doors and step away from there, use the staircases and, last but not least, deliver the presents under the Christmas trees.
Predicted Problem of Discoverability
The game was developed using Construct 2 and while the production workflow went very smoothly, it was kinda troublesome to fully exploit HTML5’s flexibility to deliver the game on multiple platforms and operating systems, since performance still varies significantly across browsers and devices. Eventually, we decided to focus only on PC desktop browsers, iOS (with the game ported by using Ludei’s CocoonJS) and also give a shot at the new upcoming Tizen platform, while temporarily leaving others behind due to lack of time for organizing proper testing.
Tizen caught our attention because releasing HTML5-based games on this platform is quite straightforward.
Tizen caught our attention because releasing HTML5-based games on this platform is quite straightforward. Besides, we developed the game while the Tizen million-dollar App Challenge was on, so we decided to give it a try. Naturally, we didn’t win anything, but are still curious to see how the game will perform next Christmas on these new devices.
Being a very small studio and completely lacking marketing muscles and distribution power, it was easy to predict discoverability would be an issue, and indeed it was. Secret Santa was released as freeware in the second half of November 2013. The web version running on Clay.io and Facebook was the first to be launched, with iOS following soon afterwards.
Monetization was planned through ads on the web and voluntary donations through PayPal.
Monetization was planned through ads on the web and voluntary donations through PayPal on iOS (no ads there to provide a pure, undisturbed playing experience) with 50 percent of any eventual donation to be devolved to charities supporting children in South East Asia.
Overall, by the end of 2013, the game had about 55k users, mostly playing on the web, while on iOS, Secret Santa managed to break into the Top 100 Arcade and Family games in only two countries (Macau and Laos). Sadly though, nobody donated anything (yes: you read right, not even a single person!).
The reason for the complete lack of donations was that the game is targeted at children.
Most likely, the reason for the complete lack of donations was that the game is targeted at children who, for obvious reasons, can’t donate directly but need to ask their parents first. Probably, the latter were not keen to do so.
Seasonal Games: The Chance of Being Rediscovered Every Year
Secret Santa is a seasonal game, which means interest will peak only at a specific times of the year. This means there’s not much purpose in doing an update right now, since nobody would notice. On the bright side, seasonal games will periodically be rediscovered and get new chances for reviews on blogs, websites, and YouTube channels. In the end, when done right, they may actually have a longer tail than other games whose novelty factor and interest burns out quickly.
They may actually have a longer tail than other games whose novelty factor and interest burns out quickly.
Taking this into account, a proper Android version may be released in time for Christmas 2014: maybe we will get a donation this time!
Secret Santa is available on browsers, iOS, and Tizen platforms. Roberto is currently working on a couple of new concepts: an “on-rails” RPG game named The Innkeeper’s Tales and Defense: Evolution, a sort of tower defense/RTS hybrid based on cellular automata theory. To remain up-to-date with his work, check out Adsumsoft’s Facebook page or Roberto’s Twitter.