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Shrug Island: Building a Living Language of the Imagination

April 15, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Amazu Media is a Danish games studio creating personal storytelling worlds. It houses a duo of directors running different in-house productions around a common goal of approaching meaningful issues through fantasy. Shrug Island, an adventure game about friendship, nature, and the power of communication, is the studio’s second project and the latest part of many projects in an environmental fantasy universe called Shrug Worlds. Alina Constantin shares the story of its creation.


A Frozen Vision

The first idea for Shrug Island came during a walk in the nature, on a still day in the middle of February, as frozen as it usually gets in Danish winters. I hadn’t had a fresh idea for months… Suddenly, I imagined the frozen plants around me being people. People stopped in time. The reason for this would be the mystery to be solved. The tools, hidden around these human plants, would need to be found in order to sing to the nature — so that it would raise its icy hand and awaken the people again.

From Clay Houses to Game Concept

Many years before, I was an animation film student between France and Norway. I had been painting and telling stories since I can remember, and I put this, along with my love for nature, into an environmental fantasy world.

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The island where the Shrugs live

On a magical island, creatures called Shrugs lived and migrated, shifting their shapes to adapt to their changing world. This would become a 2D short film named Shrug, finished in 2009. It was awarded by a youth jury at the Annecy International Animation Festival and went around children’s festivals worldwide: RedCat in Seattle, Beginning Film in Russia, and CICDAF in China, to name a few. This was a first huge encouragement after years of solo student work. Using watercolors and nature’s sounds, stylized shapes, and minimal music, I tried to use a poetic approach to discuss our relations with our environment.

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The short movie named “Shrug” was awarded at children’s festivals, giving me the impact to move on with a game

And it worked somehow. Many people would give me very personal interpretations of the film, and I was amazed by the feedback. But it could only reach exclusive audiences of festivals, and I’ve always wished to share stories with larger circles of people.

I was just starting my career, and it was too early for me to know how to follow this up. So I left the Shrugs, my freelance jobs, and the world of media for a while, let life happen, and somehow found myself living like my characters, building clay houses in a sustainable community in Sjælland, Denmark.

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Living like my characters, building clay houses in a sustainable community in Sjælland, Denmark

On that winter day, as I was walking by the frozen reeds and river outside the ecovillage, a new Shrug story after many months arose in my head. It wouldn’t be a film, and I wasn’t going to make it alone. I’d involve the audience, but it would take a while before I knew how to make it.

Open Workshop — Transforming from Animation to Game Design

In the end of 2011, I was accepted to the lively Open Workshop art residency. It’s a department of the Animation Workshop, a renowned school and center for animation development in Viborg, Denmark. (Like other art residences throughout the globe, one applies with a creative background and engaged project, and, if selected, receives workspace, some material, and counseling to take a project further). For a time, I was given a creative context and opportunity to experiment towards the best format to bring a new animated Shrug story to life.

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A full family of Shrugs and a dynamic island have been designed

A year of sketches, pitches, masterclasses, morning dances, music jamming, and a few teaching jobs later, I had designed a full family of Shrugs to choose from, along with dynamic island locations. And I knew this was to be a game.

The diversity of Shrug characters, their transformations within their world, and its musical language – it was all really made for multiple choices, ambient puzzles, and player involvement. Researching, I stumbled upon the indie adventure scene, and “Games for Change”, so I stepped off the deep end. My plan was to turn Shrug Island into a meaningful adventure game.

Amazu Media – Adding Wings to a Dream

Having been already been involved in a few idealistic endeavors, I knew I needed collaboration and experience. I attended events, played more, went to game jams, and wrote to different foundations. I saw how much was ahead before I or anyone would be ready to start this large adventure. Igor Noronha, a friend in Viborg, suggested I build another game with the Shrug world, something smaller and casual. If I did that, I’d be welcome in the game company he had recently started, and he´d help me make that game. In the middle of 2012, I joined him at Amazu Media, and the idea for Shrug Tides was born. This was a simple sidescrolling platformer, with one little shape-shifting Shrug, for mobiles. I’d get game design experience, grow an audience, and get to Shrug Island later.

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Shrug Tides: a simple sidescrolling platformer, with one little shape-shifting Shrug, for mobiles. The game that got me into the industry

The Long Haul

This was much easier said than done. Gaps between animation and games, in terms of design and production, proved deeper and deeper, and Igor gave me more control than I expected. The first programmers I worked with were nearly as baffled as I was. But I kept learning, optimizing, and adapting a painter’s mindset to level designing and 2D animations for triggers and event calls. Meanwhile, still researching larger games, I visited schools and university staff all around, and even crunched a first two-week prototype for Viborg’s Learning Games Expo in 2012.

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“I kept learning, optimizing, and adapting a painter’s mindset to level designing and 2D animations for triggers and event calls.”

It was great to see people around an iPad, playing a Shrug scene for the first time, trying the game and being surprised by its characters. But there also came sobering realizations. No matter how early a concept and how much I tried to involve both the audience and teachers from the onset, Shrug Island would not be easily used in schools. It did engage people, and could become a nice game to discuss natural, social, or even musical subjects, but the learning was not practical or measurable enough. I wished to keep outcomes of game challenges open for interpretation, let the player decide and make conclusions. That left defined curriculums out. Unless I narrowed it down to one subject, and let the Shrugs illustrate the textbook, which was too literal a use for this story to work.

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Igor and I presenting Amazu

So Shrug Island wouldn’t end up as a learning game, and practically, I also stepped away from the funding that educational institutions could have offered. To make a large game, I needed to keep a team. If not a core educational market, I’d have to show that it could reach a commercial audience, so I followed Igor’s advice to try for mobile.

Shrug Tides became more important. It could be my first step into a possible market. I kept working on its production, as programmers came and went.

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Shrug Tides: looking for a market for the future big game

Scandinavian Game Developers – the Magic of Harmonizing

In February 2013, a sauna changed everything. Igor and I were at the Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen. On a weekend away from our projects in Viborg, long challenges and computers, we were board game jamming with a few lovely game-makers.

An amazing character by the name of Nicklas Nygren ran by, looking for company for the sauna. I decided to join. The two of us started something mostly resembling a music jam with a bunch of other grinning Nordic developers between the wooden walls of a tiny sauna, and I felt the magic was coming back into my world of game development.

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Nicklas Nygren and I game jamming

Two weeks later, I invited this talented Swedish developer by the code name Nifflas to Viborg. We game jammed for a week, reused some assets from Shrug Tides, and came up with a new little game called Shrug Song. The closest I had ever gotten to my initial vision for a game: 2D transformations, ambience, and music puzzles. After a few months of working separately on the game in our free time in various parts of the country, we released it online on Nicklas’s website.

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The experience in Shrug Song was exactly what I wished to create

I was overwhelmed with the response! Game magazines picked it up, people posted personal YouTube videos, and, with a few exceptions, the experience was exactly what I wished to create. The sound atmosphere was again a core part of the Shrug worlds. Shrug Song became the core mechanic for one of the characters of Shrug Island. The game was starting to get its shape, and we received a little development funding from the DFI game scheme in June 2013!

Shrug Island Finally Begins: Reuse, Recycle, Return

With the DFI funding boost, we had six weeks to make a prototype. Unfortunately, Nicklas had other projects and could not stay with the team. I discussed my plans with him, got advice wherever I could, and found two young programmers to move forward with me.

The summer went by in a flash. Our aim was taking two Shrug kids from previous prototypes, strengthening their individual mechanics, introducing the island in a few scenes of exploration and puzzles where the player would switch characters, at the end of which the two friends would meet. It was to be an alpha for the game’s beginning, before the crisis arose on Shrug Island, the mystery thickened, and the large puzzle adventure was unleashed.

The prototype had two Shrug kids from the previous game, who eventually met
The prototype had two Shrug kids from the previous game, who eventually met

Even with constant checks and scaling our ambitions, we realized we had too many challenges. The first one came with recycling assets. Being the only artist in the team as well as the game director and team manager, I had to reuse everything I could. Half of the assets were designed for smaller, closed prototypes, so re-adapting that code was discarded in favor of starting from scratch. More challenge followed in 2D design.

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Character moves had been designed differently

Character moves had been designed differently: one in profile for a sidescroller, another one in 3/4 for exploration. So they couldn’t walk on the same ground. I found visual tricks to include them in same scenes, and two individual pathfinding systems were built. Certain animations of the island proved too large to run on iPad. On the other hand, this created interesting solutions for a bigger game. Yet it turned out too costly for our short schedule. We all lacked experience, and, when scaling the plan down, I chose compromises for team spirit over design. It was greatly felt in the result: an attractive, but very segmented experience, which didn’t fulfill the game’s objective of a connected world. Nevertheless, we got to confirm in tests that the aesthetic parts of the experience still fulfilled their purpose.

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An attractive, but very segmented experience, which didn’t fulfill the game’s objective of a connected world

Players would pass the game to each other, stay around, interpret, and help each other out. We managed to create a shared feeling in an adventure game, while many games from this genre provide a solitary experience. Eventually we got close, but not enough.

A Responsive Background

A core feature was missing for the island to feel as the living breathing character it is. The background world needs to consistently respond, grow, and sing back to the player. This wasn’t implemented well enough for testers to feel it.

Funding ran out. Production stopped, programmers left, and I had a half-finished prototype, still far from the vibe of the game.

Something great came out of this as well. I no longer simply had a vision, I had a road map and a toolbox defined through experiences of testing, successes and failures. Now I knew what aspects of the Shrug world’s magic was meaningful in game language, and to a certain extent, how I could better guide a game production team to unfold this together.

It has always been my objective to have the audience involved. So came the next step to get this done: going to Kickstarter, and with humble aim and proper preparation and give my all.

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I no longer simply had a vision, I had a road map and a toolbox defined through experiences of testing, successes and failures.

Grounding the Story and Continuing the Journey

I started building up a message and online presence in the last months of 2013. I returned to the casual platformer, and, with a last little push, finished it. Amazu Media released Shrug Tides for free on Android in late December 2013. A few months later, it reached 30,000 downloads. Yet it remains true to itself, an unpolished experimentation of a first product, made to learn.

I remind people these are all different games. Shrug Song, the second, though earlier released, minigame, is closer to the larger adventure, but is still research. You’ll meet the same characters in Shrug Island, but the gameplay is different. I’ll let the Kickstarter campaign confirm if all of this has given the right direction, and if Shrug Island has reason to take the last step to come alive.

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Shrug Island, Shrug Song, Shrug Tides: intertwining characters, different gameplay

It took two years to begin to see myself as a game designer and understand how to define the game I once saw on a winter’s walk, the one I dream to share. I was always dedicated to learning, and I’ve certainly gained an invaluable understanding, from production and funding schemes of a game to its audience outreach. I’ve learned what is and isn’t worth compromising, and the value of the right team. The real adventure is only beginning. I look forward to it.

On March 23, Shrug Island has been successfully funded on Kickstarter. Alina is currently building the final team to get Shrug Island back into production and release the first chapter of the game on desktops and tablets in late 2014. Alina’s first Shrug game with Igor is freely available on Android, a casual spin-off of Shrug Worlds called Shrug Tides. Shrug Island’s early core mechanic and “feel” demo called Shrug Song is available for PC via Nifflas’ website. To keep updated on the development, follow Shrug Worlds’ Facebook and Twitter.

 

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndie

Necromancer: Rising Up to Create a Dream

March 21, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Founded in June 2011, Other Worlds Software is a three-man team created by two friends with the dream of making video games. After going through a long list of off-the-wall ideas, they decided that Necromancer would be their first commercial release. In this game, the player becomes the necromancer who has started the zombie apocalypse, and they must stop the heroes from turning the tide and beating the zombie horde! Carl Benjamin, programmer at Other Worlds Software, talks about the creation of the game.


Growing Into Mobile

Back in late 2013, The Other Worlds Software team had just started getting into mobile gaming. We come from the old guard, the PC master race, who are slowly evolving to catch up with the rest of the world. We grew up playing Doom, Quake, Dune 2, Command and Conquer, UFO, and Fallout. Rome: Total War became a staple multiplayer game for us, when we weren’t playing D&D or WH40k, and our weekend gaming sessions would get very competitive.

We were skeptical, but we got some tablets. After using them for awhile, we found we enjoyed them. I am sure it is in no way because it made us feel like we’re in Star Trek.

Suddenly, mobile gaming became the next great step in our gaming lives and made our get-togethers a lot easier – no more lugging desktop PCs and CRT monitors around! The only problem is the lack of really good strategic and tactical games on mobile platforms, especially those with co-operative multiplayer features. So we decided to change that.

The Other Worlds Software Team
The Other Worlds Software Team

Playing as the Zombie

Cover art 3 - The Necromancer
I started to wonder what kind of game would you have if you were going to play as the zombies during the zombie apocalypse?

Necromancer began life around six months ago. My girlfriend asked me for a copy of Sims: Supernatural for Christmas, because it had sim zombies in it. I was a bit baffled; what would be the point of being a sim zombie? They don’t eat or sleep or even talk, all they do is eat brains! I was pondering on it, and started to wonder what kind of game would you have if you were going to play as the zombies during the zombie apocalypse?

But we had to leave this idea to simmer on the backburner and turn our hands to larger – and still incomplete – projects, as the Other Worlds Software team all had jobs, families, and responsibilities. We decided to take our time, pace ourselves and work slowly and steadily towards our goal of releasing Drones, a turn-based, double-blind tactical game

Unfortunately, things change and one has to change with them. We carried on working like this for around six months, until the recession cost two of the team their jobs – the lead programmer (me) and the animation director, Russ Jarvis. This left us unemployed and, with the job market as it is, it seemed that circumstances had conspired against us to declare that this is the place and now was the time to make the game we’d been wanting to make for years. Russ, Giuseppe Constantino, and I got to work.

Developing Necromancer

We only started work on Necromancer in December 2013, and it is already nearing completion. Luckily, we’d been working on diverse projects over the years as we honed our skills and we built up a good stockpile of things  we’d need for Necromancer, such as scripts, assets, and hardware.

Necromancer‘s mechanics are based on ideas we have been formulating for years, so before I wrote the first line of code, we already knew that we’d have eight different kinds of undead minion, six different spells, and eight heroes to defeat. Our experience of developing larger projects was very valuable at this point – we are dreamers with big dreams, but this time we knew we had to be very strict about the amount of content we could put into Necromancer. Being such a small team, we’ve got to be realistic. Through this, we were able to make our game, with thanks to Dark Anatomy, Yoeri Veer, and Many-Worlds.co.uk for helping with artwork.

Cover art 1 - Zombie
Thanks to Dark Anatomy, Yoeri Veer, and Many-Worlds.co.uk for helping with artwork!

The major hurdle was that none of the team had developed a game for mobile devices before. Luckily, our experience was built up using the Unity game engine, which is fantastic for cross-platform development. Porting Necromancer to Android was incredibly smooth and easy, with only the most minor of bumps along the way.  It felt like this was going too easily!

The Parts that Make Up Necromancer

Once we had a prototype of the game up and running on Android, it was all systems go on development. AI scripts, 3D assets, and animations went in day by day, with constant playtesting to make sure everything was working as it should. Once we were happy with that, we got down to what, for me, is the most entertaining part: making levels. Even as a teenager, I would spend my evenings creating Doom 2, Quake and Half-Life levels. I don’t know why, but I love it. Initially, we had planned to make procedurally-generated levels for Necromancer, but that idea was phased out in favor of creating levels that presented specific challenges for the player. The procedural levels didn’t look great, and they didn’t allow us to put specific obstacles in the path of the players that made sense. It didn’t fit the style of the game.

AI scripts, 3D assets, and animations went in day by day, with constant playtesting to make sure everything was working as it should.
AI scripts, 3D assets, and animations went in day by day, with constant playtesting to make sure everything was working as it should.

The minions the player will command are one of the most important aspects of Necromancer. We love the classic zombie movies – to us, zombies aren’t the fast-running infected, they are the slow, mindless shamblers that come in hordes. They are the living dead that burst their way up from the ground! We also wanted the player to have hordes of them; you can hardly command armies of zombies if you can only raise one at a time, so each time you raise zombies, you raise a mob. You have a ready supply of these, although the number you can raise and control at one time is limited…at first. As each level progresses, you become a more powerful necromancer with more zombies available to you and more can be raised at a time.

We felt that the special undead minions the player controls were the most important. We particularly don’t like it when upgrades are strictly better than what came before – in any game. We prefer to make our games so that each unit or weapon never becomes obsolete, but performs a different function to the next one. We think it gives the player opportunities to calculate their advantages and use their resources to maximum effect, so tactics really make a difference. So far we have revealed the Wight, Mummy, and Liche.

The player will have access to six spells that can dramatically influence the course of a game. The spells are split into two categories, boons and curses. Boons boost your minions in certain ways and the curses hinder the heroes. You only have a limited number of these, that you can collect throughout the level or purchase between each level, so it is important to use them wisely.

The player will have access to six spells that can dramatically influence the course of a game.
The player will have access to six spells that can dramatically influence the course of a game.

Replayability is very important to us. When we’ve found a multiplayer game we all like, we tend to play it a lot. We wanted to make sure any games we make have the same kind of replayability that we value in the games we enjoy.  We decided on an efficiency system, by which we track the number of heroes killed and zombies lost, as well as how long it took to complete the level, and calculate the player’s overall efficiency. The players get a trophy depending on how well they do – either bronze, silver, or gold.

Going to Kickstarter

We chose Kickstarter because it has the most lively, vibrant community. We cannot afford to release Necromancer without the help of the good people of Kickstarter, who help make dreams happen. The costs of the commercial licenses for the software are much more than we can afford, and we still need to purchase a lot for the game to be finished – voice acting, terrain models and effects.

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We cannot afford to release Necromancer without the help of the good people of Kickstarter, who help make dreams happen.

As you can imagine, we’re very nervous about doing our first Kickstarter campaign. We’re not in marketing, we’re gamers! We are rubbish about talking about ourselves. Of all the challenges we’ve had to surmount in order to reach this point, writing the Kickstarter and trying to sell ourselves is by far and away the hardest part.

We’re planning to have 50 levels, but if our Kickstarter campaign goes better than expected, we’re certainly going to increase this number. The first three environments of the game (10 levels each) will be open, and any further environments will require a certain number of each trophy to unlock. This means that you’ve really got to focus!

If you like the sound of what Other Worlds is doing, keep updated their Facebook page , their website (which is currently in-development, so they ask that you please be gentle), Twitter, or head straight to their Kickstarter page and take a look.

 

ContributionsGame DevelopmentPostmortem

Algo-Bot – When a Game Teaches You (PC)

October 16, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Founded in Belgium by four experienced AAA talents in 2008, Fishing Cactus is a very prolific studio, with as much diversity of released titles as the people who form the team. Over the years, the team has performed work-for-hire for several top-tier publishers on famous titles such as Shifting World, After Burner Climax, Creatures Online and Woof the Dog, in a wide variety of digital and mobile platforms. Sophie Schiaratura, PR Manager at Fishing Cactus, shares the story of Fishing Cactus’ first original IP, Algo-Bot.

Fishing Cactus
Fishing Cactus Team

Self-publishing a game is risky. But after performing work-for-hire for a number of publishers, we decided we were ready. Now the time had come for us to release titles which are Fishing Cactus-branded. To self-publish successfully, you have to find a game that is unique, a game that people will love, and above all, a game in which you truly believe. We found it. We named it Algo-Bot.

Press Command to Start

Grab your beer, your cup of coffee, or whatever…The tale begins here.

A year ago, we met some lovely people from a training center. They had this training course in programming and were looking for a game to help their participants learn programming more efficiently. They didn’t have a ton of money but the idea of making a game about coding was enticing.

There is no need to tell you how coding is important in video games development, and at Fishing Cactus, we really do love making games. After hours of reflection, we called those guys back. Challenge accepted!

There is no need to tell you how coding is important in video games development, and at Fishing Cactus, we really do love making games.

Then we thought about it. How are we going to do teach programming without being dull and boring? That was our first challenge, and also the beginning of the A team. As part of this team, Laurent Grumiaux and Guillaume Bouckaert thought about the game’s concept, and we can truly tell you that this game was mind-tingling before even being a real game.

The first good idea that came out from this collaboration was to invite programmers to join the team, which allowed them to act early in the development process. It turned out that many of them used to play Logo and Robot Rally as kids.That point helped to redefine the concept.

Step 1: Redefine the Concept

Making a game about programming is not that easy, and we didn’t want to create another “OkILearnedSomethingAndSoWhat?” game. Then we were reminded of a famous quote from Steve Jobs: “I think everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” The solution was so obvious that no one even noticed it until then: we wouldn’t create a game that teaches you to code, but a game that teaches you how to improve the way you think.

But how were we going to do that? With logic, of course! Nowadays, coding is one of the more desirable skills there is, and coding is nothing without logic. With this in mind, we set out to create a game that would help people grasp the essential skills of logic that the programming craft requires. Good! We have got a nice concept. The question now is how will we manage to do that?

The first idea was to create a character that has a job to perform in a futuristic power plant full of leaking toxic containers, industrial crates, and stubborn little robots. By carrying around those toxic containers, sorting them out and re-arranging them, the player will need to be smart and use programming basics such as functions, variables, the set theory, conditions, and loops.

Old Prototype
An Early Prototype of Algo-Bot

The player won’t control the character directly. He won’t make him jump on mushrooms by pressing a single button either. Instead, he sets up a sequence of orders for him: go straight, turn left, go straight again, turn right, etc. When the player is done creating his little sequence, he passes it on to the character, who will follow the given orders to move around the power plants. In a nutshell, the player manipulates sequential commands to order the character around in an attempt to reach the given goal of the level.

Step 2: Select Your team

The programmers would tell you that they are all you need to create a game, but they are wrong. We needed a complete world.

We had a concept and a gameplay. All we needed was love, time, and money. We had to make this concept into a game. Joined by Jef Stuyck, Silouane Jeanneteau, and Christophe Clementi, our team 1.1 was now made up of a project manager, a game designer and three programmers. The programmers would tell you that they are all you need to create a game, but they are wrong. We needed a complete world. More than anything, we needed a hero. Then, we needed artists.

In game development, that is the moment when everything turns into chaos. Not because artists join the development, but because now you have a complete functional team with motivated people full of ideas. In that moment, nobody is a programmer, an artist, or a game designer, but everyone is the guy with an idea. And because it’s a game about coding, guess who think he knows best? Well, it’s like bombarding atoms with neutrons. It’s up to the project manager to make good use of this energy.

Step 3: Create a World

Even if you want to, you definitely can’t sell a game about coding staring a unicorn in a cotton candy world. Obviously, the robot was the perfect hero for our game. Inspired by Wall-E, Antoine Petit, our 2D artist, mixed futuristic shapes and retro styling into a robot with a real personality. Since there was no reason for Algo-Bot to be a 2D game, Cédric Stourme started to 3D model the robot and its world.

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The evolution of the hero

Speaking about the world, we imagined it as a huge power plant with a level of toxicity so high that humans can’t enter without dying instantly. The first mockups of this power plant were way too bright. You really don’t need that much light in a place where humans can’t stay. We had to stay realistic. Oh yeah, I hear you from here: “Realistic? With a robot in a futuristic toxic power plant, huh?” But yes, we had to stay as realistic as we could be within that setting. We now have a version of the power plant close to our idea: darker and more appropriate to the gameplay.

Step 4: Make a Game

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The deadline was approaching, and Algo-Bot seemed like nothing more than a seed, no matter how much time and love we gave it.

“Make a game” sounds simple enough. Everyone can make a game, but we wanted to make a good game, and making a good game requires a lot of self-investment.

First of all, a game needs time and includes hours of research and development. Focusing on this uncommon gameplay and writing this clean code that would bring the game to life became our daily routine. The deadline was approaching, and Algo-Bot seemed like nothing more than a seed, no matter how much time and love we gave it.

Game development is a sports team for geeks.

In most developments, being too self-invested in your project happens to be a huge thorn in the team’s foot. There is that moment you are truly living for your game, rejecting other ideas because you think that you are the only person who knows where this project is going. When you waste hours modifying the concept, trying to do the work of others…let me tell you this: you’ve never been so blind! So have a Kit-Kat and stop trying to be the man of the situation. Game development is a sports team for geeks. That’s the lesson we learned from this development. If Algo-Bot was made to teach others programming, it taught us how to communicate within our team.

And then we experienced the moment when you believe the game you dreamt of will never be developed for the simple reason that the client is out of money. Sure, the client can perfectly use this version. It’s playable, the learning process is quite effective, and the graphics are not so bad. But for you, it would never be more than an alpha version of your dream. So, like any good parent, you open your wallet until you run out of money yourself and then you cry… AND you launch it on Kickstarter.

Step 5: Make it a New Adventure

Have you heard of Kickstarter? Of course you have! It is a simple word that represents dreams, hope, support, and salvation. For indie developers, it offers the opportunity to bring an idea to reality.

What can indies do on Kickstarter today, when more and more well-known companies are giving it a try? Everything! We can do everything, because the true difference between million-dollar companies and us is our reason for being there. They go on Kickstarter to have more money. We go on Kickstarter to find people to share our dream with, people that would love to be part of this great adventure.

Algo-Bot will be on Kickstarter. It is up to you to join us.

Plan_Rapproche

Algo-Bot’s Kickstarter will start later this month, and the game will be showcased at Casual Connect Kyiv 2013’s Indie Prize Showcase. Stay up to date with information from Fishing Cactus by liking them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter.

News

Big Viking Games, Kickstarter, Community, and the next level of UGC

September 12, 2013 — by David Nixon

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KS LogoSince its inception in 2009, the crowdfunding site Kickstarter has seen successful funding of hundreds of game-related projects. From modest one-man projects requiring only a few hundred dollars to over $8,000,000 raised by the microconsole innovator, OUYA, little doubt remains that crowdfunding, and Kickstarter in particular, is a non-trivial force in the creation of new video game content.

 

Big Viking Games Taps Kickstarter

London, Ontario-based Big Viking Games hopes to soon join the growing ranks of game companies that have found creative independence, funding, and community support on Kickstarter with their new project, Tiny Kingdoms – kicking off today, September 12, 2013.  Founded in 2011 by Albert Lai and Greg Thomson, each individually successful social games industry innovators responsible for products like YoVille and Kontagent, Big Viking Games is “A passionate group of artists, designers, and engineers that love making great games as a part of a great team.” Big Viking pursues success through cross platform mobile and social game experiences based on HTML5.  For more information about HTML5, make sure to check out Chris Shankland’s talk on The Technical Challenges of HTML5 Development from Casual Connect USA in San Francisco.

Tiny Kingdoms is a free-to-play, RPG adventure game for mobile and social platforms.

So in the crowded world of crowdfunding, what makes Tiny Kingdoms stand out? First – a clear focus on User Generated Content as value of the community experience that comes with any good Kickstarter program. The campaign promises future backers that, “Through this Kickstarter campaign, you will not just be helping to fund this project, you will be helping us create it! We want to reinvent the game design process, and change what it means to be a funder. You will receive game updates, dev diaries and partake in polls which will determine the nature of future game assets.”

Albert Lai
Albert Lai, CEO of Big Viking Games

The message is further re-enforced by the company’s press messaging which states,”…what really makes this game different from any other is the way players will be able to influence the development of the game, with unprecedented access to the game creation process. When players become backers in this campaign, they will help craft the vision and direction of the game, along with the developers at Big Viking. They will be given the opportunity to offer ideas and feedback on characters, environments, items, features and tactical gameplay modes. Big Viking sees the backers becoming part of a tight knit development team, as they experience rare insight into the development process. To facilitate this process, Big Viking will host live chats, provide designer diary updates and conduct polls throughout development. This feedback will begin when the game reaches beta and will continue through and after launch as the game evolves.”

Albert Lai, CEO of Big Viking, sees this as a unique opportunity for players to leave their mark on the game and build the game they really want to play, saying, “We want our fans to go beyond just pledging their dollars to also lend their ideas and creativity. The ultimate goal will be to re-imagine the way players interact with game developers, through both Kickstarter and collaborative online platforms.”

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Greg Thomson, CPO

Second – a very modest initial funding goal of $50,000 coupled with the wide variety and professional polish of the assets developed to kick off the Kickstarter campaign suggests that while Big Viking Games could potentially bring this game to market on their own, they genuinely see value in letting consumers behind the curtain to become a part of the creative process.  While a few thousand extra CAD isn’t anything a successful games industry indie is likely to turn away, it’s clear to anyone familiar with the genre Tiny Kingdoms occupies that both Albert and Greg conceive of a game that is far, far bigger than $50k will buy. In a super-savvy move, the founders of Big Viking appear to tap the passion of the games crowdfunding community to guide their offering AND build their foundational community at the same time. The low funding threshold also virtually guarantees funding success while compelling stretch goals like free new characters, Co-Op and PvP Multiplayer functionality give ample ammunition for convincing their backers to pony up to the next level for those popular features.

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“When players become backers in this campaign, they will help craft the vision and direction of the game, along with the developers at Big Viking.”

Third – virality is built in from the very beginning. Tapping into the natural social component of today’s games, the RPG genre, and the crowdfunding community, Big Viking has built in social benefits even before the game is available by rewarding backers with bonus “buddy” rewards to share with friends. Clearly, the folks at Big Viking understand that gamers, especially midcore online and mobile gamers, want to share the love with their gamer friends, and in doing so, promote the Kickstarter campaign to the exact market most likely to find value in it.  With this core understanding of the power of virality and the gamer’s social networks, Greg, Al, and their team can surely expect to build strong social features into the game as well, completing and perpetuating social positive-feedback loops that enhance Tiny Kingdoms’ growth.

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More about Tiny Kingdoms

Tiny Kingdoms is a free-to-play, RPG adventure game for mobile and social platforms. In this game, players take on the role of adventurers on a quest to prove their worthiness to become the next ruler of the kingdom. To do this they must defeat deadly creatures through hundreds of strategic battles as they conquer the most insurmountable odds. They will have to choose a tactical team, craft items and weapons and find the loot that will strengthen their warriors. The powerful enemies in this gameplay can only be defeated through tactical strategy, item and weapon crafting and obtaining the amazing loot. The game is built using HTML5, which allows player to seamlessly play across different platforms, such as Facebook and their mobile devices.

To learn more or to contribute to the campaign, visit Kickstarter.  To learn more about Big Viking games, visit their website.

DevelopmentExclusive Interviews

Gas Powered Games’ Kevin Pun on His Career, the Evolution of Concept Art and How to Break Through as an Artist

June 5, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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Gas Powered Games’ senior artist Kevin Pun and his colleagues recently experienced quite the rollercoaster ride when their studio went through a Kickstarter campaign, had to close in the middle of it and ended up being bought by free-to-play giant Wargaming. We sat down with him to look back at his career at Gas Powered Games and reflect on the ideas he and his team had for Wildman.

The Evolution of Concept Art at Gas Powered Games

All my initial designs had to be tossed because they were too detailed.

Having started as an artist in the early 90’s, Pun has seen firsthand how concept art has changed dramatically. In the days of Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege, the technology for polygon-based games was still in its early stages. “A typical unit in Total Annihilation might have 60 polygons, so designing units like that didn’t require much fidelity,” he recalls. “In fact, when I first started, all my initial designs had to be tossed because they were too detailed.”

The demand for concept art started to pick up a few years later when Pun started working on Dungeon Siege, where the polygon and texture budget was dramatically higher. The Action RPG genre was becoming increasingly popular and Pun saw the competition heating up.

“By the time Supreme Commander started, the need for quality concept art really hit home,” he says. “Not only were there 2D concepts created, but to properly visualize the concepts in all orthographic views, the team had to model out high-quality concepts for evaluation.” This also caused the the art team at Gas Powered Games to be inventive and resourceful in delivering high-quality concepts while meeting tight schedule demands for subsequent titles.

Lessons Learned from Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege and Age of Empires Online

Kevin Pun
Kevin Pun

While the concept process has evolved, Pun still believes there are still a lot of lessons that he and his team could’ve applied to Wildman. In his time at Gas Powered Games, Pun points out the key aspect of all the Chris Taylor titles he has worked on in the past. “There is one common theme and that is epic-ness,” he says. “Chris loves to design big worlds, big battles, and tackle big themes,” Pun says. “Accordingly with our visuals, we strive to match his grand visions. For good or bad, our projects tended to jump wildly from fantasy in one title to sci-fi in the next and on to a stylized historic RTS. Artistically, the periodic change-ups were great for exploring new styles, but on the other hand, we don’t have a style to build upon.”

Pun proudly sees that as one of the main strengths of his team.”We are extremely flexible, and we are insanely passionate about making the best art possible without compromising design functionality,” he says.

Pun mentions the strategic zoom feature of Supreme Commander as one example of that; “The camera could zoom seamlessly from the ground to a wide satellite view showing the whole map while the player could still see all of their units. It was a major artistic and technical challenge that got even tougher by the camera’s ability to freely rotate on the horizontal axis on demand. In contrast to most of the RTS games of that time that did not have such a feature, all of the units, props and terrain features in Supreme Commander had to look good in all angles and all in zoom levels.” He says, “In Dungeon Siege, the most noted feature was the seamlessly streaming world. The player could walk from one end of the world to the other with underground explorations sprinkled throughout all without a single load screen. Creating this feature was a major undertaking that took years of long hours and sweat to pull through. To wrap up the examples, in Age of Empires Online, we tackled a completely new style for the studio by adopting a highly stylized cartoon look.”

Pun looks back at both Total Annihilation and Dungeon Siege to have good game cameras that sat above the action and were pulled back to see as much of the battlefield as possible.

“In a production design standpoint, the most important lessons are to make sure that we design each character or unit with a strong silhouette, good contrast, and a unique color scheme,” he says. “This goal is to help the player see his avatar easily against the background, and to understand what combatants are on the battlefield in a glance. This is extremely crucial for gameplay, especially with epic real-time combat seen in games like Supreme Commander. Since the camera in Wildman is similar to that of Dungeon Siege’s and the battles share much of that of RTS games, much of what we learned from those projects will directly apply.”

The Experience of Working on Wildman and the Kickstarter Campaign

“We made educated guesses on what would have impact and what could convey the spirit of the game without words.”

Starting the Kickstarter campaign was a mysterious journey for the studio and for Pun. The first step was to develop an attractive style that would work well with the budget that we were shooting for. “We made educated guesses on what would have impact and what could convey the spirit of the game without words,” he recalls. “Visually, we all want to produce eye catching art that captures potential backers’ imagination.”

Working on Age of Empires Online had given the team a lot of experience in creating highly expressive worlds populated with quirky, but memorable characters. Pun reflects that when they approached Wildman, they quickly gravitated towards a grittier, modified version of that look because the knowledge could be leveraged to speed up the development process in Wildman.

“Adopting that style also made sense in multiple levels, production wise,” Pun says, “Foremost, it addressed a big concern of how to deal with the violent conflicts in the game. With the highly stylized look, the battles would remain energetic, but slightly comical so that they would be more acceptable and responsible in the public eye. Asset production would also be easier without compromising quality, and we could avoid the intense scrutiny accompanied by photo-realistic styles.”

Once the team agreed on the look, the flood gate for creating assets for the campaign busted wide open. “Our criteria for creating art and posting were to keep communicating with Chris on what he wanted and to keep checking the pulse of the online feedback.”

Ideally, the team wanted to show as many facets of the game as possible to immerse the player into this unique and unforgiving world. Explaining this intention, Pun tells us, “The core experience of the game is adventure and combat, so that was our highest priority. For the launch of the Kickstarter campaign, we created pieces that could convey the power of the Wildman, and the relentless battles that would be fought. After that was done, we focused on introducing Wildman‘s adversaries and their environments. As the campaign continued, we set out to further flesh out the vision of the game. In a nutshell, the jest of our strategy was to post updates regularly, but remain fluid enough so that we could dynamically react to deficiencies in our campaign.”

While promoting the game at Kickstarter was top priority, the studio was also working on the game itself. The art team was a skeleton crew at that moment, causing everyone to be laser-focused on their tasks. His main responsibility made him primarily in charge of the concept art effort while the team was cranking on prototype levels. Aside from cool paintings, creating art for a game of this scope is much more difficult than most people realize. There are a lot of technical hurdles such as pipelines and tools that the art team has to face before the game comes to life. “The reality of the situation was that we were playing a catch up game and needed to pull out all the stops. The Wildman Kickstarter was a huge learning experience for us, and I am sure that it will be an interesting case study for other developers who are thinking about a campaign of their own.”

Art Transforms While You’re Drawing It

The most successful portfolios were carefully edited to bring maximum impact.

In the last 15 years, Pun has seen the role, scope and expectations from art transform completely. The industry has seen a significant shift in how games are produced and distributed; big budgets are harder to secure, and the demand for quick turnaround is higher than ever. He marks that recognizing and adapting to change is really crucial for succeeding in the industry. “To cope as an artist, I had to constantly reinvent the way I work, learn new tools or techniques, and upgrade my style to keep up with changing tastes,” Pun says. “A big part of doing that is to keep a constant eye on the evolution of the industry, soak in as much as you can, and push yourself harder through what you’ve learned.” Pun also wants to mention that one aspect of the Wildman campaign that surprised him was the importance of social media. Reaching the fans through forums, Facebook, YouTube and live-video chats were immensely powerful, and it made a significant impact to the campaign’s pledges. Now that he and the team have some experience, he wishes they had jumped on these earlier.

When asked about any advice that he would like to pass on to other developers who want to pitch their ideas and works, Pun considers quality, not quantity is of the utmost importance. Of course, in general, this is true for not only pitching games, but other marketing as well. For example, Pun sees a parallel in the countless portfolios of artists getting into the industry that he’s had to look through. “A lot of portfolios that crossed my desk were bloated with everything, including the kitchen sink,” he says. “For a modeling job, artists felt compelled to add not only modeling samples, but rough animations from school or sub par character concept designs that ultimately undermined the overall effectiveness of their interview.” Pun reflects and advises, “The most successful portfolios were carefully edited to bring maximum impact. There was a young artist who came through with six pieces on his thumb drive. Normally, that would be crazy to bring into an interview, but by the time I saw the second piece, I wanted to hire him at the spot. The art was that good.”

”That might be an extreme case but the point is to be focused and put your best foot forward,” he adds.

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