HomeBearStudio is an indie team based in Breda, Netherlands. “Just two! You Miichi, the artist, does all the art. I’m in charge of everything else”, says project lead Joshua van Kuilenburg. Right now, this is a full-time job for them, and trying to keep it this way is one of reasons for their Kickstarter campaign. The debut game NAIRI is a cute point-and-click adventure where you follow Nairi, an abandoned upper-class girl, and a rugged scholar rat named Rex, as they uncover a dark mystery within the exotic oasis city of Shirin. In addition to adorable visuals and challenging puzzles, there’s a strong narrative. So the developers say it would appeal to both casual and hardcore players. Joshua sheds some more light on the development experience and some future steps.
David Logan shared his thoughts on crowdfunding in his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “The biggest thing I think is that people invest in people,” he said. “And that’s why, in my opinion, crowdfunding does so well, because you are investing in other people’s passion, in other people’s dreams, and you’re really helping those people take their project to the next level.”
David Logan, founder of Night Light Interactive, says, “Work is my hobby.” He loves creating and playing video games. When he plays new games, he is looking for interesting and unique mechanics and trying to learn from them. But he also enjoys hanging out with his pet tortoise, Chronos, and racing him around the yard.
Learning The Skills
Logan is a producer at Animax and also at Night Light Interactive. At Animax, he has worked with clients such as Paramount, Disney, Sony, and NBC. Currently, they are developing the mobile game Stick and Chick. He has been at Animax for over four years, where he learned the skills necessary to start his own company. These skills include management, budgeting, scheduling, marketing and more. He emphasizes, “These are really valuable skills that I’ve used in Night Light.”
The major milestones Night Light has reached with their game Whispering Willows has brought Logan the greatest satisfaction in his career. The first milestone was getting funded on Kickstarter. The other was getting the game approved on Steam Greenlight. The team had worked so hard at making this game a reality. These accomplishments made them feel ecstatic that their indie studio had made it so far and might actually be successful.
Logan’s view of his company changed completely when Whispering Willows won the Most Immersive award in the initial game jam they entered, the OUYA CREATE contest. He remembers getting home from work, lying down, and thinking, “Wow! We really can do this!” He found it very inspiring. After they won the contest, they wanted to ride the wave of their success, so they launched their successful Kickstarter campaign the following month.
Logan believes crowdsourcing and crowdfunding will take off in the next few years, even more than they already have. At Night Light, they are now thinking outside the box about how games will be funded and constructed.
Platforms of Choice
Consoles are Logan’s preferred platform for gaming. He admits to being a huge Nintendo fan and owns every one of their consoles. He also owns PS3 and PS4 and has a large PS1 and PS2 game collection as well. He has an OUYA a PC, and even a custom Dance Dance Revolution pad.
Currently, he is playing Mario Kart 8 with the Night Light team every week, and hosts regular Magic the Gathering and board game tournaments at work. He is looking forward to Super Smash Bros on Wii U and has also been playing TowerFall and Amazing Frog? on OUYA. However, his favorite game of all time is Unreal Tournament 2004. If anyone still plays, let him know, because he’d love to play again! He also makes an active effort to support other indie devs.
He also plays F2P and enjoys being able to try out a game for free. But he is intrigued that he ends up spending much more money than he would have on a non-F2P game.
Founded in 2013, DragonJam Studios is a newly established Spanish video game studio in Madrid. With a team of 10, they are currently working on their first game, Formula Wincars, an innovative MMO arcade racing game full of adventures and surprises in every circuit. Jesús Luengo, Formula Wincars’ game designer in charge of game mechanics and level design, tells us about how Formula Wincars came to be.
Formula Wincars started as a prototype developed by Jairo Calleja. Jairo had already been developing games on his own, when suddenly a small publisher asked him to make a racing game. Though the project was finally cancelled months later, Jairo was quite confident with the product, so he managed to keep it alive by cooperating with another interested company.
When he first contacted me, I was still living in Barcelona, immersed in the design of another game. Yet when he told me about designing a racing arcade game, I couldn’t help feeling very excited. I have always been a great fan of Sega arcades, such as Out Run and Sega Rally. And above all, Mario Kart is my favorite game. Having the opportunity to fully design such a game was a dream I couldn’t refuse, so I immediately moved to Madrid and started to work closely with Jairo. Sooner rather than later, the game design started to grow up, turning Formula Wincars into a more ambitious game than it had ever been before.
Building Up the Team
One of our first challenges was to build up a new team. We are a small studio, so we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes recruiting new members for the staff. Fortunately, all the people who have joined us are great and enthusiastic professionals. The first two to join us were Angel Arenas as the 3D environment artist and Eduardo Lozano as the game programmer — young talents who had a Master Degree in Games Development. I already knew them through a Game Jam in Madrid. In a very short time, Javier Pajares and Rubén G. Torralbo joined us as the concept artist and the 3D cars and characters artist.
This was the core of the team during the first months, but as the game kept growing, we quickly had to incorporate new members: Antonio Rodgríguez as backend programmer, Elena Fernández as 3D environment artist, Darío Muga as a game programmer and Javier Bargueño for the social media and PR. With all of them, our little family was complete.
Experiencing Technical Difficulties
Once we had built the team, we felt ready for everything. But the first challenge we had to deal with was the online synchronization. Jairo had a hard time developing the core of our game. It is one thing is to have an online game working, and another to have it working online properly. He had to deal with authoritative servers, online prediction, and all the stuff necessary to accomplish a satisfactory gameplay. We knew that without that, we had nothing, so Jairo put in a lot of effort to reach the gameplay feeling we are proud of nowadays.
Today, he’s still trying to improve it. Physics engines are non determinist, but as long as our game is online, we need the same things to happen in all clients. This is an issue Jairo is still polishing. He is developing our own physics engine in order to accomplish deterministic responses to guarantee a better online experience.
As the game started grew and became more complex, I realized we couldn’t limit it to eight vs. Races. Formula Wincars is a free game, so it must be engaging and addictive. We cannot hope to have thousands of players just by being funny. We had to provide a deeper experience. And that’s when I thought about League of Legends. It is one of the most successful free games, so they must have done something right. I broke it down to what it is all about: strategy, team building, and progression – things players like to have.
I have a theory that all of us as human beings need targets to drive our lives. This was what we were missing in our game. Our game was fun, but we needed something else, something deeper, without ruining the core of the fun in Formula Wincars. That’s why we added such ideas as sharing skills among members of a team, upgrading them during a race, or exploring the circuits to gather emblems. All this stuff is transparent for the newcomers; everything happens naturally, and they won’t care about it. But those looking for a deeper experience will discover that Formula Wincars hides a lot of features for them while they progress through the game after a few races.
The Kickstarter Experience
When we realized we had a very ambitious project in our hands, we decided to run a Kickstarter campaign. It seemed the right thing to do, because it could give us the extra months we needed in order to polish the game. Besides, it could introduce new players to Formula Wincars. Javier worked very hard trying to get Formula Wincars funded, and while we were close, we were unable to reach our funding goal.
Perhaps Kickstarter wasn’t the right place for us. Though we claim to bring back the classic arcades feelings, this game aims to be for all kinds of people. Besides, it is a free-to-play game. And just let me say, when we say free, we really mean free. We want our players to enjoy our game, and to pay only for aesthetic items such as skins or stickers for car customization. But it was difficult to express this through Kickstarter. However, we were able to speak with some private investors through the Kickstarter campaign that allows us to continue with our release as planned. Another benefit of the campaign was the ability to show our game to the gamers all around the world, and we hope them to give it a try once we release it.
Nowadays, we’re still working to accomplish an amazing experience. We are exploring new paths and our circuits are becoming more and more interactive, full of destroyable elements, shortcuts, secrets, alternative paths, and special events. Besides, we are including some fantasy elements which will affect the races, such as dinosaurs or skeletons. Because of this, we’re starting to say that Formula Wincars is, indeed, an adventure racing game. Up to now, it has been an adventure for us to create a game like this. But we hope the best part will start when, at last, it is released and people can download it and play. We are pretty excited looking forward to this moment.
Seadelphica follows the adventure of Jengu, a black dolphin connected to the global network called “Oversense”, as he searches for answers to his existence, love, and a way to save the consciousness web from the virus that has been embedded in it by Lil It, the sovereign of the largest settlement of their world. This game combines its gameplay with Tumblr for a connected experience. Anton Zoripov, the author of Seadelphica from Russia, shares the inspiration behind Seadelphica and their plans for the future.
Venting Through Games
It is said that everyone has his or her own talent, and you just need to work on it from childhood. For example, the only God’s spark I had was the ability to cause a feeling of hostility from other kids. Kindergarten and school were just a long and banal loser-story in Meg Griffin-style, with surrealistic pictures of Russian life in the 90s. To cut a long story short, I did not enjoy my school years. After a few crashing and humiliating attempts to socialize, I decided to bail education and just wait for the moment when it all will be over, and just enjoy life.
I was a typical hedonist – at big feast days, I got fake Adidas and Nikes, which was nearly sacred to me. I was inspired and ensorcelled by their shape and gracefulness, and was absolutely captivated by the mystique of logotypes’ attraction and self-expressive force. Swooshes and three lines – these symbols was magical for me. All day long, I was watching Terminator 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc., again and again.
Of course, I was also playing Dandy, followed by Super Nintendo. Games are such a vent! All my pictures, dreams, and thoughts were only about them. From a young age, I was just like a lil ugly emo, playing games all the time and realizing that real life sucks.
And all this ended quite despondently, of course. I finished school at 17 and had no direction. I didn’t even know basic things, and I couldn’t adapt to a new reality. That was quite a strange state of consciousness; I knew nothing and got some playing instincts – “to be courageous”, “to be cool”, to be attractive to the opposite sex, and of course, my love of games was a constant feeling. I spent two more years in a half-asleep state of inactivity, until I got my first computer and access to the internet.
Learning Through Livejournal
Then I discovered Livejournal, which became a special phenomenon in the development of the intellectual life of the former Soviet Union space in the first decade of the 21st century. Suddenly, everything changed. I found a free, unrestrained flow of knowledge, which I could absorb without any annoying initiation rites of submission and humiliation. Then, I just added different pages and read them all in a row. I liked everything – any opinions, any thoughts, any area of knowledge: politics, science, culture, and so on and so on. Whoever I am now – it’s all from the internet. My mind and my moral ideals were formed from an endless stream of Livejournal news.
Like any other normal ordinary artists, with the increase of years, I began thinking about how I could monetize my childhood and adolescence experience. When I was a boy, I wanted to create computer games – and only at the end of the third dozen did I finally decide to plunge into adulthood.
Seadelphica is the myth of the internet, which brings us to its origins. Internet is considered the mystical space of the soul. “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live,” wrote John Perry Barlow in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. The complicity to the Declaration was very important for me. It was also crucial to preserve sincerity of its main promises that are nodal points in the development of the plot. Seadelphica is the dream of a “civilization of Consciousness, which is more humane and fair” than the old world. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before,” wrote John Perry Barlow.
The black dolphin is a symbol of the new generation, living in the margins of the real world. The ocean is a cradle of the emergence of new forms of life. Young internet mutants whose DNA has mutated from the constant overdose of displays radiation became the new superheroes who replaced the obsolete superheroes of the past. Whereas Superman, having unlimited physical strength, tries to preserve the “eternal present” and guards the current order of Metropolis, the purpose of the black dolphin is to reprogram the Universe itself.
We did not want to pass that border, fearing to seem too serious. So we decided to get serious about irony and humor. After the first reactions to the game in the media and social networks, we could breathe easy, because the word “mindf@ck”, which has been used several times as an epithet, indicates that we are on the right path. Given my love of Robert Anton Wilson, it became our own «Operation Mindf@ck».
Genre and Story
The mechanics of the game are similar to old school games, and the story is divided into 24 chapters. To finish each chapter, you go through several runners or complete several free-play quests. In addition, there are eight bosses, each with its unique battle tactics. At first, we were not going to create a runner game. We had a storyline, so we were looking for the most appropriate genres in a bid to preserve unsteady balance between our narration and the gameplay. Eventually, we chose the genre of runner games – sort of kitsch in the industry of mobile games. It appeared to be the most applicable one, since it offered the desired balance.
Now it’s high time to talk about the main feature of our game – its integration with Tumblr, which is realized through free-play game tasks. It is supposed to bring the game up to a new level. The plot of the game is about a black dolphin who saves a social network of consciousnesses called “Oversense.” The dolphin is able to see echoes of people’s souls by looking at mystical and magnetic “Soul screens”. The concept is simple: these screens show pictures and photos from players’ blogs and their news feed, thus creating an endless flow of contemporary petroglyphs. Integration with Tumblr is our “perverse core” – our source of heresy and hesitation of different kinds. Considering the storyline, showing pictures and photos inside the game would be enough, but we decided to go further.
First of all, we had to choose which social network was best for our goals. Everyone forgot about Livejournal many years ago, so I decided to concentrate on Tumblr and VK. These two social networks are the best, but we had to choose one of them, and the answer was clear. VK has many advantages, such as liberty in the content’s distribution and some very interesting public groups. They could serve as separated spaces in the game. But it has a big minus – orientation especially on Russian audience. Recently, the creator of VK, Pavel Durov, was fired, and from that moment, Vk was not cool and special any more. All in all, Tumblr, I love you! You are perfect ❤
As I mentioned before, we want to implement something more than just simple demonstration of pictures from Tumblr inside the game. We decided to incorporate traditional Tumblr’s “Like”, “Reblog”, “Follow”, “Tagging”, and “Post Creation” functions into the gameplay. Being the developers, we see no differences between Tumblr and our imaginary “Oversense” social network. What would the “Like” function be for a man connected to a social network of consciousnesses? This function would be a way of communication with people’s souls and a tool for transferring positive energy, which you would be able to accumulate and use when required. The most important thing in life are “likes” (let us be forgiven by the chaste Internet-Desert Fathers). The “Follow” function would allow players to attract attention, make new friends inside “Oversense”, win their followers, and gain previously unachievable influence, which is required for progress of the storyline. The “Reblog” function would allow people to freely copy different stuff and information and easily access it. We also decided to create Tumblr profiles for all of the major and minor characters of the game. For instance, the bosses will run their own pages – post their thoughts, publish photos of themselves fighting against players. Each boss will have a certain number of followers, and after a player beats him, the boss and his followers will follow the winner, thus making the black dolphin more and more powerful.
By and large, we have described our concept of integration with Tumblr – the idea seems to be pretty clear. We have many ideas on how to integrate our game with Tumblr, and we are going to gradually implement them with each update, making the integration more deep, various, and interesting. Unfortunately, we cannot back up our dream of implementing everything at once with our capabilities. Step by step, we want to achieve a wide list of regular players, who would become our “born and bred citizens”, so the time they spent in Tumblr would be inseparable from the storyline. We dress ourselves in a black dolphin’s skin and look at our real life from within a social network. We look into the future of social networks, whose concept was described by Donna Haraway as “a network society without hierarchy and with no privacy bounds between the I and the world.” In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen brilliantly expressed his experience in communication inside a network society of that sort: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me”. This is the implementation of the old New Age dream of the extension of consciousness. And this is why we feel saturated with New Age aesthetics mixed with some elements of ancient myths, science fiction, contemporary pop, and internet-culture. For example, the main hero’s name – Jengu – may be considered both as a reference to the name of the water spirit from the beliefs of Cameroonian ethnic groups, and as a reference to Django from the Django Unchained film.
A Bump in the Road
Now to the sad news. We invested our own funds into the game and a few months ago, we ran out. When it became clear that we were broke, we did not despair, because even then, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel and moved to “Plan B” – organizing a campaign on Kickstarter. The results were disappointing; there was no light at the end of the tunnel, but only the blazing eyes of the chimera. We suffered a resounding failure, but I can not say that failure greatly saddened us. Rather, in the cold winter evenings with a cup of coffee, it was a good excuse to sneer and laugh at ourselves (Thank God, we managed to do it before Russia banned irony! Now we are trying to get the game done before it bans the internet). But actually, I have to say a huge thank you to all the guys who are involved in this project for their patience, love, and non-indifference to the black dolphin.
We are looking for funds, and we continue to work together, because we sincerely believe in miracles and that in any case, we can handle all the complexities. Our team members are spread across different countries – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, USA – but our true homeland is the internet. And if our team relationships are not affected even by political squabbles between our countries, the possibility of conflict over money is completely eliminated. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx: “We started from scratch and by hard work, we have reached a state of extreme poverty.”
A Personal Project
You might have noticed that I did not pay much attention to the development process of the game and the details of our workflow; I did not treat the game as a commercial product and did not consider its economic potential. Forgive me, but these things seem boooooring, though this does not mean that we pay no attention to them at all. Certainly, we dream of putting our game on the market, earning money, creating the game’s sequel, and starting new projects. Instead, I wrote about personal things. Probably too many personal things. I have just noticed how disproportionately big the part I devoted to my childhood was – the more a man talks about his childhood, the older he is. Well, this is excusable. Such a stupid adult life! Each member of our team spends time on the game for a variety of personal reasons, but all of us are like-minded. Ultimately, we proceed from the assumption that “life sucks,” and we have nothing else but to improve it ourselves.
Let’s get back to those inspiring words from the Declaration one more time: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth”.
Since the writing of this article, the Seadelphica team has found additional funding to continue the game. To learn more about Seadelphica and its progress, follow the team on Twitter, Facebook, and listen to the game’s music on Soundcloud.
Full Control is a small independent studio founded in 2004 and based in Copenhagen, Denmark. They have specialized in the genre of turnbased strategy games and have several productions in their portfolio, including their upcoming project, Jagged Alliance: Flashback, and the recently released, Space Hulk, a turnbased video game adaptation of the popular Warhammer 40k board game. Andreas Sørensen, the community manager for these two games, shares lessons from managing the Jagged Alliance: Flashback community.
First Encounter with the Jagged Alliance Community
After a hectic month of planning and discussions, the Kickstarter for Jagged Alliance: Flashback went live in April 2013. Even though we had been warned that the Jagged Alliance community was a very demanding bunch, we weren’t prepared for the massive amount of questions and demands that were coming our way.
This was our first Kickstarter and since we were in the middle of developing Space Hulk, we only had around three people dedicated to getting this project up and running, as well as supporting it when it was live on Kickstarter. We were only in pre-production of Jagged Alliance: Flashback, so we didn’t have much more to show than concept pictures and a general design of the game.
First challenge with that approach was that people did not really understand the concept of pre-production, and they expected an almost finished game design document with all details already in there. The second challenge was connected to the first; if you have a very general design, people will automatically ask questions about the deeper levels of the design, which at this point was sitting in our heads. Lastly, Jagged Alliance is a hardcore strategy game with very advanced systems and a complex design, so naturally, the community wanted answers for something like “Will the weight of bullets influence the movement speed of mercenaries?”. JA1/JA2 have been modded for more than 20 years and turned into completely different games, which is also why it still has a huge following.
We spent the first two weeks of the campaign answering thousands of questions and putting out updates to try and explain the overall ideas we had for this game in smaller and more manageable chunks. The community was doubtful of our ability to pull of this game, having mostly done iOS games in the past. They wanted a lot more info before they were willing to support our project. As it’s over a year ago now, I can’t say exactly where the tides changed, but I’m pretty sure that our high focus on making the game moddable and working together with some of the modders and designers from the old games made all the difference. The questions didn’t stop though, and it was a battle all the way to the end of the project, where it was funded seven hours before closing time. We have 13k+ comments on a project with roughly 7,500 backers. I can honestly say it was one of the most exhausting, but also exciting, months of my life, which is also why we’ve limited ourselves to a maximum of one Kickstarter per year.
However, this article is not about our Kickstarter. It is about what you have to do to manage a community with an existing fan base that have high expectations for the game you are making, but I felt it was necessary to describe how it all started and take it from there.
Remember, Don’t Feed the Trolls!
Some keywords to remember about community management is communication, expectation management, and honesty. Naturally, communicating with the community is a big part of managing it, but there is a lot more to that than you may expect. You have to understand where people are coming from when they give you feedback, have requests, or ask very demanding questions. You also have to keep you head cool and stop yourself from getting too carried away in heated conversations, as such discussions rarely end up in your favor.
I generally let people write what they want, as long as it is backed up with proper arguments and are adding value to the conversation. Since the release of Space Hulk and running the Kickstarter, I have only had to ban one to five people, and that is mainly because we engage in the discussions and try to keep them on a sober level. If I feel enough has been said, we simply lock the thread. I don’t believe in deleting threads, as I do not think it is good to hide things away.
I also handle the support for both of the games, and my general approach is to be polite, address their issues as fast as possible, and remember to follow up as soon as I have an answer. The same goes for visibility in the forums: I try to answer most posts, but of course, it is not always possible, as I have a lot of other tasks to cover. Thankfully, the team is good at helping out when in need.
Pick Your Words Wisely
Now on to expectation management. One thing I have learned is that you need to pick your words wisely when mentioning features, plans, and ideas you have for the future, because people will most likely see them as promises rather than just ideas. Therefore, it is wise to add a big fat disclaimer to go with the road maps you create, stating that even though you plan to add x number of features, it is not sure they will all make it in, as they may end up not fitting with the project after all. Alternatively, you can choose not to mention all details and then add it as a bonus, if you are not certain it will make it in.
Another element to consider is the fact that most people know very little about game development, and therefore, it is important to take the time to discuss some of the suggestions they give you in more details. You have to argue that you are prioritizing because of e.g. budget or a higher focus on the combat experience, and try to make them understand that some of the elements they want in can cost up to $100,000 to implement.
A lot of features may seem pretty straight forward, but seen from an art, animation, or coding perspective, it can be a huge task. It’s easy to add a quest system, but if you want to add several levels of depth to it, you need to make art assets, additional coding, special animations, and create multiple story layers. This is just an example, but it’s really important to spend time on.
I personally think you can go a long ways with being honest with your community, especially when it comes to delays and other elements that do not go as planned. However, there are just some situations where you are not able to give a straight answer either, because you are bound by contracts or because other stakeholders have a say in what you are allowed communicate. A lot of things happen in the background, and people generally have no idea how much it costs to make a game and the harsh terms game developers sometimes have to abide to. It is not always pretty, and I am sure people would be a lot less demanding if they actually knew what it took to make a game…at least I hope so. Thankfully, most people are very nice and great at giving you good feedback and a pat on the back 🙂 Game developers need hugs too!
Care for the Customers
There is no right way to handle a community, because they are typically comprised of very different segments that have different needs. But if you spend time engaging and listening to the community while making sure that you are doing your very best to deliver and give straight answers, then you are well on your way already. Get personal with your community and make sure to do your best to reply on posts and support cases. That is what most people are looking for. They want to feel that you care, and you should; they are your customers and they are the reason you are able to have this career 🙂
Follow Full Control’s current and future projects on their Twitter and Facebook, and look forward to Jagged Alliance: Flashback’s release. You could also find out more about the game’s development on their Youtube channel.
Black Forest Games is a 20-men development studio comprised of veteran developers from all over the world, mostly former members of Spellbound Entertainment. As the name indicates, they’re situated in the Black Forest ‘fairytale’ region in the South of Germany. Black Forest Games’ projects are widely multiplatform (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U), with focus on delivering classic arcade fun vibes and top notch visuals. The studio’s debut project Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams was a Kickstarted and Steam Greenlit classic platformer revitalization with a twist. Now BFG team is working hard on their new game DieselStormers, which is currently on Kickstarter, seeking backers. Black Forest Games’ development director Vladimir Ignatov shares the story of shaping their game from the publisher-inappropriate setting to the ultimate co-op run ‘n’ gun gameplay.
Medieval Age Against The Machine “Wouldn’t Sell Well”
We were Spellbound Entertainment back when we first came up with an idea for a setting that is different from traditional fantasy – an ultimate clash between medieval fantasy and diesel machinery. Imagine medieval strongholds all covered in shaky oil rigs, or knight’s armor powered by a combustion engine attached to their back. All the wonders of science and progress that simple folks could get through the discovery of magic petrol called Goop. The medieval society falls to the promise of easy life thanks to the diesel technology, while Goop’s noxious vapors change the minds and bodies of the people. Little by little, the population is mutating into crazy orcs, goblins, witches, and other hostile creatures; the society collapses and only some sane rebels unite to form a resistance. They have a plan to take the city back, the city named… Ravensdale.
As the game concept started its life as an evil incarnation of Zelda, a metroidvania-ARPG, it was turned down by several publishers we talked to. The reason for that was probably that our concept was too big and ambitious in terms of scope and development budget. Given a new IP in the times of collapse of the middle-segment games market, we had hard times finding people willing to put their money into the project, despite the fact that the team already had a multiplatform open-world action RPG behind its belt. On top of that, our fancy medieval machinery sounded a lot like steampunk, and every publisher believed that “steampunk doesn’t sell”.
Knights of Run ‘n’ Gun
By the time we’ve finished Giana Sisters, we also had plenty of art and visual mockups for a next game, and the shape of our dieselpunk world was already figuratively outlined by our artists. Our team was now living and breathing its aura. It was everywhere: from the posters in the hallways to the running gags that “Goblins Can Fly (with enough added force)”.
It was Giana’s self-published success that helped us make the decision to introduce our dieselpunk universe in a tight and fun game that delivers our vision of a medieval oil rig city with crazy, over-the-top machinery.
We decided to stay true to the solid platforming roots and rich visuals that brought us praise with Giana Sisters, to improve what was criticized there, and make a game based on our own engine and a custom framework to build a platforming game. Plus all our expertise in jump ‘n’ run genre: tight controls, keen sense of level design, etc.
Our ambition was to create reckless session-based run ‘n’ gun action, featuring level recombination and tons of loot to unlock. To reach the goal of truly delivering on cooperation and introduce some tactical positioning in the side-scrolling scenario, we focused on strong interaction with the environment and other players where co-op should be supported and encouraged by the gameplay dynamics we create. This meant no forced interactions, and no hosing of single players. We targeted the digital download crowd – people who grew up playing Metal Slug and who, like us, enjoy co-op shooters like Borderlands and arcade games like Castle Crashers.
We wanted to expand the existing small, yet growing BFG-fandom (people who will like our new game generally already like Giana–gameplay and vice versa). Last but not least, the purpose was to provide a modding toolset or a level editor, something we were not able to do in the past due to binding with the linked tools that we used in development.
TeamwORK or Die
We approach co-op from four overlapping angles:
Connection – Make player positioning relevant and dynamic – e.g. a lightning arc between players that kills enemies. Move as you would in single player with the arc following you like a pet, and you’ll get some incidental kills. Coordinate with your buddies, and you’ll tactically zap a lot more enemies. Use slams and explosions to displace enemies – for example, into hazards created by your teammates below.
Autonomy – Design co-op actions that one could just join and benefit from, while respecting single player freedom. Players’ shots can transmute into slow-moving super-projectiles under certain conditions. Catching those with a player character “pops” them, triggering a powerful attack. You don’t need them to defeat your enemies, but they offer a power boost and are easier to spawn and trigger with more players.
Surroundings – Make the levels and enemies reward co-operation. For example, a powerful turret that can be aimed by slamming one trigger and shoots by slamming another. A single player can operate the turret well enough, but two coordinating players can do so much more efficiently. Or an enemy with a heavy shield: alone, you’d have to avoid his charge and shoot him in the back, use a piercing weapon, or brute force your way through the shield’s HP. With two or more players, you can simply sandwich the ork to always hit him in the back.
Efficiency – Allow co-op to be more efficient than single player, provide the option of team squads specializing on specific roles, be it tank, healer or sniper. Each weapon is particularly powerful in certain situations, but more difficult to use in others. A spread shot may be great for clearing the skies, but it gets hampered by walls, ceilings, and platforms, while a rebounding shot thrives on narrow spaces, but can’t really do its thing in the wide open sky. Complementary armament in a team lets you pick your terrain and your targets according to your loadout and squeeze the maximum power out of your attacks. Missions don’t scale with the number of players, but you’ll always get to pick from a range of missions with different difficulty, objectives, and rewards. More players on your team make it possible for you to tackle tougher content, just like better gear and higher skill do.
How do we deal with replayability? We offer something new for each play!
A procedural approach to content allows meaningful level combinations with infinite replayability. Templates and content slots are used to layer relevant content chunks within some new additions, generating incredible diversity and supporting an ever-growing cast of enemies and hazards. Enemies are modular as well. Even the bosses are modular – with different body parts, limbs, and attachment slots for weapons, platforms, and hazards that will be procedurally assembled depending on the mission.
Customization Matters – the game will have to offer tons of loot: weapon parts (frames, engine blocks, and barrels), armor parts (helmets, gauntlets, cuirasses, and greaves), upgrades for the arc between the players, ammunition and crafting materials, plus a range of consumables like overdrive boosters, repair kits, and others like these. Your loot is stored in a stash and can be upgraded, recombined, or salvaged for parts. You will have your own “garage” to play with the knight’s armor, weapons building blocks, and research lab to unlock new upgrades.
Kickstarter: 2nd Attempt, Indie Style
That’s all been theory, and we still had to try it out in practice. Our first Kickstarter (as Project Ravensdale) failed, mostly due to the pledge goal being too high. The target figure was what we estimated we would require in additional funding to make the game a reality from start to finish. Asking for less and getting the money would’ve put us in a position where we cannot actually deliver the product. So we went on with the project in a different manner: little by little, in between work-for-hire, on the weekends, the indie way.
Our production goal was to test out the above-mentioned concepts as early as possible, and prototype everything that is new and therefore risky. By now, we have several prototypes covering a range of mechanics from the modular level assembly system to the basic navigation prototype that was mature enough to be released to the public as a teaser-level.
Now the game is getting closer to the playable state, and we just need a final push to get it out on Early Access. And we are back on Kickstarter under the new name DieselStormers with more bang than ever!
DieselStormers is currently on Kickstarter and in development. It is aiming at an Early Access launch this summer on Windows PC, with Mac, Linux, and console versions currently being considered. Previous Black Forest Games‘ creations, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and Rise of the Owlverlord, are available on Steam and GOG.com.
“I think the model right now for publishing is extraordinarily broken,” Chris Natsuume said during a panel at Casual Connect Asia 2014. “In 20 years, I’ve never seen it this broken.”
When Allan Simonsen and Christopher Natsuume founded Boomzap Entertainment, they had some inspiration from the early games of the casual game movement. Playing games like Bejeweled, Diner Dash and Feeding Frenzy made Simsonsen and Natsuume feel “like we had something to say that would resonate with (users).”
While these games is what inspired the duo to found Boomzap, it was a lecture given by Sprout founder James Gwertzman that finally convinced them such a move was feasible.
Founding and Function
In 2005, Boomzap finally became a reality. Now, nine years later, Boomzap spans the globe. The Boomzap team includes over 90 developers spread across 7 countries in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, speaking over 2-dozen languages.
They have become best known for their hidden object puzzle adventure games (HOPA) such as Knightstone and Awakening. “We traditionally look at where the industry is moving and what our audience is interested in, then see how we can make something in that world that takes our ‘bright and beautiful’ design philosophy and add something really new and interesting,” Natsuume says.
The basic idea for a game comes from Simonsen and Natsuume, who are constantly looking at the tools and technology Boomzap has at its disposal. Based on that and what they believe they can sell, they plot out the basic genre, platform, and core design of the game. At that point, the whole team gets involved.
“Currently, we have over a dozen teams working on a variety of projects,” Natsuume says. “Each of these development teams is largely independent, capable of making design and production decisions on their own.” All the games are made with Boomzap’s own engine and using editing/development tools specifically made to mesh with the company’s online work-at-home business model.
All the work has continued to pay off for Boomzap. Their most popular game franchises — Awakening, Knightstone, and Otherworld — have continued to top casual game charts and have received several awards, including the “Best Hidden Object Game,” “Best Story,” and “Best Adventure” awards.
The Importance of Social Media
Aside from the games themselves, social media and customer interaction has been another component that has been “critical” to the success of Boomzap. “We interact with (our customers) daily through our own forums and social media pages. We spend a lot of time reading and responding to their feedback,” Natsuume says. “Getting to know what they want is important in helping us make better decisions about our games.”
Natsuume recalls one of the most memorable responses he’s seen was from a grandmother who was diagnosed with a very serious illness, but found comfort in Boomzap’s games. However, while admittedly not all customer feedback is so uplifting, even the negative feedback is welcomed “as a learning opportunity.”
With all the success and positive feedback Boomzap receives, it would be easy to forgive them if they stuck to the same formula. However, Boomzap is looking to shake things up. The company will be releasing new games over the next few months in a wide range of genres including strategy, puzzle, and arcade. The company also plans to launch a crowd-sourcing campaign with Kickstarter.
Natsuume has long seen crowd-sourcing as integral to the future of gaming. “What’s really exciting about crowd-sourcing is that it allows the developer to reach out and develop a dedicated user base before they release a project.”
So what is this project? Only time will tell.
As Natsuume tells it, “we will be making a lot of new, exciting announcements and surprises in the coming months — a few of them at Casual Connect Asia. … It’s going to be a great year for Boomzap!”
Pixel Trip Studios is an indie development studio focused on delivering exciting, story-driven games with great character. Founded in October 2013 by Adam Jeffcoat and Vincent Kamp, their first game, The Breakout, is currently in development. Adam shares what inspired him to create the game and the journey since then.
A Fascination for Escape
Where was the idea for The Breakout born? I get asked that a lot and I remember it well… It all started when I was eight years old, full of that childlike imagination. I was at my friend’s house playing Great Escape on his Spectrum ZX. This simple little isometric game where you have to sneak around a POW camp finding tools and concocting an escape plan absolutely fascinated me. Maybe it was because you were breaking the rules under the guards noses, or because you were a prisoner and the potential sense of elation if you managed to break free seemed like the best reward ever.
I’m not sure if I ever actually completed the game but, either way, I was hooked and that concept has stayed in my head ever since. “One day, I will escape from that camp,” I silently promised myself.
About four years later, I was watching another influential movie, The Great Escape, which seemed to be on TV every Christmas, and I loved it. The classic storytelling, the ways that supercool Steve McQueen taunted the guards with his audacious attempts to escape, and the ingenuity and planning of the British troops. Surprisingly, when I watched the film more recently for research, I had actually forgotten, or shut out, the part where they shoot them all at the end. I think, as a child, I liked to think of them just digging another tunnel and eventually getting out with a nice, happy ending.
Then came my first brush with a point-and-click adventure, The Secret of Monkey Island on the Amiga. This was probably the first time I had experienced true addiction as a child, other than Sherbert Dib Dabs, of course. I was hooked and believed I really WAS Guybrush Threepwood, determined to become a pirate and win the heart of Elaine. Even though I got horribly stuck many times, I pushed on. With my younger sister as my wingman, we would rush home from school and sit there impatiently waiting for the next disc to load. I simply HAD to finish that game. If I hadn’t, it would have felt like a part of myself was stuck in Monkey Island, forever.
Starting Out and Thinking Back
Around 10 years later, with a degree in classical animation under my belt, I founded StudioNX and produced commercial animation for clients like Nickelodeon and CBBC. Business was good, but then along came the recession around 2008, so animation budgets were among the first to go. This also coincided with the rise of mobile gaming, and I felt it was an amazing opportunity to get your work direct to the audience on the Appstore without a middle man making the decisions for you. I decided to move StudioNX into the app and games market and, together with Imaginism Studios, we Kickstarted and directed the fully animated, 2D interactive comic book Niko and the Sword of Light for tablets. It was a critical success and is now being made into a pilot for a kids’ TV show. With the business heading in a new direction, I sat at my desk one evening and pondered the question: what if I were to revisit that POW camp, the one I never escaped from as a kid?
After flushing the idea out with several friends who were avid games, what I knew for sure is I wanted to treat the game itself as a vehicle for telling a story, so the first thing I needed to do was write it. I wanted to pay homage to classic escape movies such as The Shawshank Redemption and, of course, The Great Escape, but also to get that sense of adventure and classic villains like in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I also realized that the premise of this game could be quite limited in that the whole story took place in a POW camp, so I introduced some supernatural elements to spice it up, whereby the evil Colonel is found to have a fascination with devil worship and the occult.
The Beginning of Pixel Trip Studios
Through my time working on Niko and the Sword of Light I met Vincent Kamp, a successful business owner who had also written and created an animated comic book for kids called RobotSlayer. At the time, he approached us about animating on his project, but as we were currently busy making our own, we agreed to get together at a later date to talk ideas. As soon as I met with Vince, we clicked and I ended up pitching him the concept for my game over lunch. Vince loved it and shared a similar passion for the era and basically agreed to fund the development and act as creative producer for the game, utilizing his business knowledge and contacts. We set up Pixel Trip Studios in October 2013, put together a schedule, and decided to run a Kickstarter for the game for which we would need a trailer, a demo, and enough artwork and assets to run a crowd-funding campaign. Only thing we needed was a name as “The Great Escape” had already been done. One day, Vince emailed me, saying, “What about The Breakout?” It was perfect!
I had also been developing pixel art characters for the isometric game, as the style had been going through a resurgence of late. I got a great response from my early Facebook fan page, as a lot of people connected with the nostalgia of the pixel look which reminded them of their own childhood games.
Building the Team
With style and story in place, Vince then connected me with James Allsopp, whom he had met at a games conference. James had started his career at Sega and was now working as a game designer at a company called Playgen. I showed him my concept, story, and design for the game, and he essentially told me what would work, what wouldn’t and whether our plans were realistic and within budget. With a solid plan in place, we now needed someone to make this into a game. Having worked with numerous flaky coders in the past, I knew I would need a a candidate who was young, hungry, and passionate for indie games.
Enter Alex Hedberg. He contacted me after I posted in a Unity forum, as he immediately loved the game idea and our playful logo for the studio. I set him to work on a playable test of the POW camp, trying to recreate the pixel style, isometric view of the original Great Escape game. Alex put together a great little demo; you could walk around, interact with things, and the guards would even shoot you if you went out of bounds. Only problem was, it wasn’t fun. Time had moved on. My eight-year-old imagination could no longer fill in the gaps, and after years of being bombarded with AAA graphics and gameplay, we realized this approach was not going to cut it.
Finding a New Look
In late November, I flew out to Burbank, California for CTNx, a big convention for animators and illustrators. We were there to promote Niko and the Sword of Light, but I hadn’t realized what an inspiring trip it would turn out to be. I was surrounded by amazing artistic talent, all having designed great characters for their own projects with bags of personality. I realized at that moment that the key to all of the original Lucas Arts games I enjoyed so much as a kid was the fact that they approached them more as an animated cartoon. In games like Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle, it was for that reason the characters became icons in people’s minds.
Within a week, I had completely redesigned the characters in The Breakout in a much more modern and graphic style and ditched the isometric viewpoint of the game for more of a filmic perspective with painted backgrounds. I posted all the new artwork to my 400+ Facebook following and ran a poll.
To my surprise, the graphic look won hands down. As much as the pixels triggered feelings of nostalgia, it seemed that people were growing a little tired of it and all seemed in favor of a modern style they hadn’t seen before. So I immediately got to work and animated three tests of the main characters, each winding up the guards in their own special way. I also storyboarded out the teaser trailer, trying to capture all of the elements of this game that would excite people. I wanted to make it intense, to tease people with the potential and excitement of the escape, but leave them wanting to find out more.
Preparing For Kickstarter
In the lead up to our proposed Kickstarter launch, we tried to build up our social network as much as possible using Facebook and Twitter. We visited some UK game shows, including Geek in Margate, and spoke to other indies and asked for their advice and ideas as much as possible. It struck me straight away that this community of game developers were all open and willing to help. It really felt like a group of people that realized the value of helping each other out in order to survive in this highly competitive industry.
So with everything we had learned up to this point, we all sat down and flushed out the content of the Kickstarter page. The trailer would lure them in, then we would pitch all the features that would set it apart and make it fun, within a minute. We would then show some clips of gameplay, as from research, gamers want to see what it actually looks like if they are to part with their cash. To wrap up, we briefly talked about the rewards and some of the exclusive features, like becoming an in-mate or guard within the camp. We also started work on a playable demo, but quickly realized what a huge amount of work it is. When you make a demo level for a point-and-click game, you are essentially making the base for the whole game. You have to animate and design all the assets to enable the character to walk around and interact with the environment. Once that’s done and it works, the rest of the game is essentially additional level design and repetition.
We also knew from running a previous Kickstarter that in order to get enough press coverage, we would need some help with PR, so we hired a company called Novy PR over in the States, as well as a local team called PR Hound. They both helped us nail down the written pitch on the campaign page and prepared a press release to go out the morning of the launch. On April 2, six months after the conception of The Breakout, we felt like we were firing off a rocket by pressing a big green “Launch Kickstarter” button. I held my breath and pressed it, we blitzed the press and coincided it with a Facebook launch for all of our existing fans.
A Great Ride
Two weeks later, it’s been quite an intense experience, but good fun and so nice to see the great comments and feedback from people, which motivates you to keep busy. The campaign has naturally slowed a little, but the backers are still coming in. It’s been great to build a base of fans from whom we can ask questions and run polls about the game. We also put the game on Steam’s Greenlight program and linked it to the Kickstarter page, which proved so popular we got Greenlit in just two weeks!
So if you like adventure games for adults, with real life and death consequences, where your stealth, preparation, and adequate supplies are vital to your chances of escape, or if you’re a fan of nailbiting tension, a bunch of evil villains, a classic A-team style partnership, and an atmospheric score, then come check out The Breakout!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Based in Texas, Triple.B.Titles is a studio run by family. After working on their first game after five years of development and succeeding with their Kickstarter campaign, they were able to release Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages. Now they are working on their second game Popup Dungeon. E. C. Dryere talks about the lessons learned from Ring Runner and Popup Dungeon’s development in this article.
You’ve got to learn a lot before creating your first game, but the real education doesn’t begin until you release. Here’s a short list of things we learned about the industry through the successes and failures of our first game, Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages, and how we’ll be applying what we learned to improving our next project, Popup Dungeon.
Don’t Hide Your Depth
Take a million gallons of water and pour it into a pool that’s half a foot deep and you get a lake about 517 feet across, front to back and side to side. Pour the same amount of water into a pool that’s a little over 25 miles deep, and you get a one foot by one foot puddle of water, which few will ever plumb. In either case, the volume is the same.
Ring Runner may not have been an unfathomable column of water, but let’s just say it was a really deep pool – great for folks who lug around their own SCUBA gear, but not as appealing to those who are looking to dip a toe and wade when weather permits. This was due to our greatest design error of not making Ring Runner’s depth more immediately evident to players. We wanted to give players a lot of bang for their buck without overwhelming them. To this end, archetypes, customization options, game modes, and hundreds of abilities were completely hidden from the player, being slowly revealed as they played through the 20-30 hour long campaign.
That is why we decided to go with a rogue-like game for our next project. One of the greatest strengths of a rogue-like game is that it places the possibility for depth right in front of players from the start. They get to see a large portion of the game’s features and assets in a single play-through, arranged procedurally. They are invited to consider what it would be like to play again as a different character or spec, and the procedural generation allows things to become familiar without getting too predictable or stale. Popup Dungeon will implement these principles.
Be Kind to the Media
Reviewers, Youtubers, journalists, and Streamers are busy people, and the rate at which games are being thrown at them continues to increase. It’s downright selfish to ask for more than a handful of hours of their time to make a fair appraisal of your game, considering the amount of time it takes to create a respectable video or article in response.
To get an impression of Ring Runner’s full depth takes no less than 20 hours, an amount of time that is far more than most folks’ schedules will permit, regardless of diligence and generosity. We definitely wanted to make it easier in our next game. Our goal is to give players a clear idea of Popup Dungeon’s depth and direction within their first game – roughly 40 minutes to an hour.
An Established Audience
One of the greatest aspects of being an indie dev is the freedom to take wild risks and commit to niche projects. But there’s a reason bigger studios can’t rationalize these passion projects to their investors. It’s not because folks with money have a cabalistic desire to see Madden and Call of Duty on every gamer’s screen. Simply stated, the more esoteric and unfamiliar you make your game, the less of an established audience it will have. A smaller audience means more heavy lifting for what might be the weakest arm of the indie studio: marketing and advertising.
In other terms, creating the world’s most delicious sea urchin flavored bubble gum may not be as lucrative as a mediocre mint. Our goal with Popup Dungeon is to make less of a gourmet game and more of a darn tasty hot dog.
Creating a control scheme that favors experts rather than inviting beginners was another swing of the axe that cut down our prospective player base for Ring Runner. Our intent was to create something of a sport. If you lace up skates for the first time and wobble into the rink, hockey may be the last thing on your mind. Repeatedly icing your keister isn’t a very rewarding experience. Yet the gradual process of improving your skills until your skating circles around other players can be quite satisfying. People push through initial barriers because there is a perceived value to the skills they’re gaining.
But most players reported that the hardest part of Ring Runner was simply wrapping their brains around the control scheme and physics. Like driving a manual transmission car, things become natural once you figure out the clutch. The primary hurdles are placed right at the start. This is particularly problematic for an indie title, because the skills acquired have very little intrinsic value – not many people will list their Ring Runner skills in their résumé. The incentive to push beyond initial barriers is fairly low.
Popup Dungeon’s difficulty won’t come from being able to click on a target or manipulate the camera; it’ll come from increasingly complex strategic decisions. This allows us to place the biggest hurdles towards the end of the experience rather than the beginning.
Immediacy and Familiarity
Immediacy may be one of the greatest determining factors of financial success, but there are many ways to achieve it. I define immediacy as the amount of time it takes for a potential player to become excited about your game – not understand, become good at, or complete, but simply become excited about.
You could create an awesome game, but if its qualities aren’t immediately obvious, few will ever know. It’s not easy to unseat the opinions people form upon the first impression. Going back to the water metaphor, how impressive might the 25-mile deep puddle seem at first glance? Remember that your audience has very limited information about your game. They don’t know the fun secrets you’ve hidden throughout the campaign or the hard work you put into making abilities sync over a network. It would take quite a clever trailer to cover every quality of a game.
So what are some of the easiest ways to improve immediacy? Familiarity, presentation, and grand promises work well. If you can convince players that your game is like an old favorite of theirs with some new quality, you’re sure to spark interest. Naturally, pretty graphics can directly tickle our brainstems. And if you can convince folks that you’re selling deeds to the moon, you’ll find quite a few buyers, queuing with quills in hand.
Familiarity may be the broadest and most important of methods to establish immediacy. It runs the gamut from nostalgia and sequels to crossovers and favorite developers/studios. The goal is to grab your audience by their collars and say, “Look! There’s stuff you like in here!” Then, hopefully, they’ll give you the chance to make good on your promises.
The goal of immediacy is not to deceive or make a quick buck of a shameless clone. It’s simply to build a diving board, to coax players into your pool regardless of its dimensions, so that they can explore its merits with interest and appetite.
Popup Dungeon will allow folks to play as any character they can imagine and invite them to create their favorites. In this way, players may come to see how Sherlock Holmes fares against a slobbering goblin, but stay for the game’s other qualities.
You can support Popup Dungeon on Kickstarter and get involved in Triple.B.Titles’ development process. They would love to hear all feedback and suggestions. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter.