Nuked Cockroach is an indie game studio based in a small country in North Africa: Tunisia, where the video game development industry is not a thing. They decided to start their own project and try to compete with international indie studios. The team started very small with only one programmer, one 3D artist and one concept artist, and it started expanding along with project vision, to eventually reach a total of 15 members: developers and management included. They share the story of their creation, a multiplayer shooter called Veterans Online.
GamesOnly.com is a Dutch game studio and game portal founded in 2009 by Robin Ras. Located in Amsterdam, Robin started to work with other game devs to develop Unity 3D games like the Orange Jet Fighter. “Being a big fan of jet fighter games, it was great to finally be able to develop something similar”, Robin says as he shares the story of Orange Jet Fighter.
CYPHER was started in May 2009. In this game, you play as an agent on Mars, bringing down the corrupt government through hacking and espionage. It’s currently the flagship product of the Soenneker studio. CYPHER has already established itself as a significant upcoming player in the indie game development scene.
“It started just like most projects – in the basement, with no idea if the tools in the developer’s hands were the ones he should be utilizing. The most important word of the previous sentence is ‘STARTED’,” Jake Soenneker, the lead developer emphasizes.
Bringing a Childhood Online Game Back to Life
The beginning is indeed the most crucial step of any plan, and the fact that I had no idea what language I wanted to use, or where to even begin, made the whole thing seem quite daunting. I knew I wanted to make a game though, so I began with making things move: first created a few images, animated them, and moved the sprites across the screen. I assume this is not the first time you hear about this design progression, so let’s skip it and have a look a few months ahead.
Silencer was an online game in the late 90s; it belonged to the World Opponent Network. I remembered playing Silencer on my dial-up connection with thousands of other players, and after discovering the game was dead, I decided to revive it and build it myself. At that time, I didn’t understand what an extensive undertaking this was, and in no shape or form am I recommending anyone enter game development by starting with such a huge project. Nevertheless, it was the game I wanted to play, so I didn’t think of going back. I wasn’t making it for money; I wasn’t creating it for any reason other than to experience the incredible heart-thumping joy I had as a child.
In March 2010, the initial public release took place showcasing the basic features, environment, and movement of the agent in the game. This was the first time I launched the game on the internet, and it was for Windows XP+ platforms. At this point, no multiplayer or online code had been written, so this was still the underlying monster that needed to be addressed. The core audience was teenagers and adults who were into cyberpunk. The reaction was good, the game sparked interest, but the overall decision was that it still needed significant amounts of work. I continued with this massive project, and the application was beginning to take shape. Joshua joined the team at this time, and he has been an absolutely vital part of CYPHER since. A bit more than a year later, online games became possible, providing not just an opportunity of playing together, but also networking. A problem not considered before began to surface: how were we supposed to continue to develop the game while maintaining an online user base that could play and test it?
We didn’t have much of a testing base, and thus wanted to engage our players. We were releasing new builds with lots of changes very quickly, and having users re-download the whole game was turning people off. We also needed to have all of the players using the exact same files to keep it fair, so the update system was how we solved that new problem.
A Stable System First, Content Next
I started building an updates system. We constructed a way for players to contact an update server that could analyze their current game version and give the latest one if they needed it. As the number of projects we needed (the map editor, updater, update server, lobby server, game server, extraction module, and others, not including the client itself) continued to grow, we understood we needed to construct not only the applications themselves, but also the libraries to hold all of the reusable code.
At the same time, we were still learning, and that was surpassing anything we had been at before. New methodologies we mastered allowed us to refactor and re-design, and the code we were writing was becoming future-proof. The programming being done was solving issues so that we wouldn’t have to face them again, and this made us hope for easy and rewarding progress.
Our code advancement was outstanding, but the game itself was not flowering as much as we wanted, so its components were (and still are) constantly re-prioritized. Our hindsight shows that better decisions were possible, but we made the best choices we could at that time.
Re-evaluating is healthy for any project. We decided on a few factors to be the key ones in our software, and with the CYPHER December 2013 release, we focused on stability, performance, and overall usability. We wanted to give the players an error-free experience, and to assemble a system that was going to work well for ourselves years from now. Content can always be added, so we didn’t want to skimp on the stuff that mattered in the backend so we could keep going without hindrance. We wanted to stay away from extending new features past the point that we could support them, and make sure our underlying processes in the code were solid enough, so that we didn’t need to rebuild them in the future when they’d take a lot longer to do if we didn’t address the issues with them now.
A Good Game is Cool, but Experience is Better
The best parts of CYPHER are the knowledge it has given us, the unity we achieved as a team, and the places it has brought us to. We gained experience with the tools we needed to be productive employees, and many times we applied the methodologies used in CYPHER to our other projects, and vice versa.
The latest road CYPHER has brought us to has been Casual Connect USA 2014 in San Francisco. We were happy to be able to display the game in a full-featured venue in front of thousands of game industry professionals. We were given the chance to see what a large variety of people thought of the game, and they weren’t necessarily finding us through our current channels we have set up. We were getting feedback previously from players who had preconceptions, and allowing people with new perceptions to check it out gave us a ton of interesting ideas that we would have never got otherwise. The reception was awesome, and several people said CYPHER had the most potential at the entire conference.
“To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe” – Anatole France paints a picture that Soenneker lives by. The team is looking towards the future with CYPHER; whose new modern art and gameplay will revolutionize the future of platformers. We will not stop working towards their goal of providing a game the industry will celebrate. My advice is to find your purpose, work on an image that defines you, and strive to be great. The achievement should not only be dedication towards pre-defined goals, but more of a path in life you’ll enjoy.
CYPHER is currently available for Windows XP, Windows Vista, 7, 8, 8.1 (32 and 64 bit). In the future, the developers want to see the game on Linux and Mac OS, and then to extend to consoles.
While at Casual Connect USA 2014, Teut Weidemann analyzed the monetization of League of Legends. “Riot’s conversion rate is less than 5 percent,” he said. “That’s not good. If you’re looking to copy League of Legends‘ monetization, don’t. It won’t work for you.”
Teut Weidemann is the senior online supervisor at Blue Byte Ubisoft, ensuring games in development have good online game mechanics and monetization practices. While the complexity of online game mechanics is something many teams underestimate, ensuring success requires constant iteration of both the monetization and game mechanics systems. Weidemann is passionate about educating the industry about online games, their systems, how F2P works and what they need to make good online games.
Weidemann became involved in gaming while growing up on Airbase Ramstein in Germany. The officers club had all the arcade games from the US, something that was a rarity in Germany at the time, and he quickly became hooked on Defender, Lunar Lander, Space Invaders, and Battlezone.
It all began when “Our group of coders was bored and started programming our own games, selling them to small publishers for 2500 DM (DM 1.95583 = €1 when the Deutsche Mark was converted to Euro). As I was the least nerdy, I was the one who would talk to the publishers.” Weidemann’s interest in the games industry became a career by a stroke of good luck when a friend asked him to sell his game for 5000 DM and offered Weidemann 20 percent for his contribution to the graphic and level design. The publisher was so impressed, Weidemann fetched 25,000 DM and quickly began supplying the publisher with more games, one of which was a hit: Katakis on Amiga. This success enabled Weidemann to parley university and jump headfirst into the games industry.
The Future is Online
Weidemann was drawn to online games because he loves interacting with other gamers. Ultima Online represented a turning point for Weidemann where the future of online was clear: Sooner or later, all games will go to online. Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, and Eve Online form the basis for all other online games. “Personally, I think Al Bots, QTEs, etc. are boring; humans write the most interesting stories. Everyone needs to play Eve Online to fully understand the potential of fully immersive online games.”
The best part of making games is sharing the enjoyment with others, when someone he knows picks up one of his games, and likes it, he insists, “You can’t beat that!”
Mistakes are to be Cherished
The Ubisoft philosophy is that mistakes are opportunities we should share proudly and learn from. One mistake to proudly share is Weidemann insisting that a team do what he felt was right, rather than letting them learn from their own experiences. He admits he had a hard time and the situation made him angry, making him so unpleasant, there is a meme to this day uttered frequently in the Blue Byte office, “I Teut you so”. While the story will live on, Weidemann is a new man; after sharing his opinion, each team is free to follow their own path, analyzing how their decisions performed and the result afterward.
What started as a small team of six grew to be what Game.IO is today: a serious game development studio with 40 people with a passion and drive to create great games. The team has worked on multiple projects and hopes their new games will surpass the success of their first game: Yatzy Ultimate. Marija Keleshoska, a marketing specialist for Game.IO, reminisces about building Yatzy Ulitmate.
A Memory From Childhood Leads to Our New Game
It was a usual Monday morning, and we started sharing some interesting moments from our childhood days. Everyone had his own unique story to share, but they all had one thing in common: Yahtzee. We soon realized that we all used to play this game when we were young and no one has played it since. Later on, when we were drafting our product portfolio, it’s funny how Yahtzee was on the top of everyone’s mind. We agreed that’s the game we wanted to start with. Originally, we wanted to call the game Yatzy, but unfortunately, that name was already taken on App Store, so we instead called it Yatzy Ultimate.
To begin, we started was with research and deciding the definition of the game. It gets pretty exciting when you get to know a game better – the history of the game, its mechanics, etc. It’s played in different countries and has its own characteristics. For our version, we decided to keep the basic rules and leave space to add new unique features in the next releases to make the game more attractive. Our main goal was to create a game WE would like to play.
The first version of Yatzy Ultimate included “Quick game”, “Nearby Players” and “Multiplayer”. It was the perfect fit for players of all types: those who would like to play a quick game while taking a break, or play with friends “Pass’n’Play” in Multiplayer mode. The “Nearby Players” exploited the Bluetooth feature of the device for playing with friends or family. Yatzy mainly is a game you would like to play with friends and family, but at the same time, it’s a fun way to pass time when you’re traveling or waiting in line in a coffee shop.
After the launch on the App Store in January 2011, the game started landing on our players’ devices and the first impressions really exceeded our expectations. We had some goals set in terms of number of downloads and revenue, and it was a great feeling to see how the numbers go up. The reviews we got were just more proof that we made the right choice and launched a quality product on the market.
As the game gained more success, our team starting expanding, along with our desire to make the game better. And then Yatzy Ulimate received its first award in 2012: the BestAppEver award in the dice category.
Keep Pace with Industry Trends
When something is good, it means you’re on the right path. But to make something great, it’s not enough just to follow the path. Those turns on the left and right may lead to even greater paths. As the industry was growing and new technologies were introduced, we knew it was time to take a new turn in our journey. We defined two key goals and put all efforts towards their achievement: cross-platform and online gameplay.
We already had a stable user base on iOS and Windows Phone, but it was time to make the game more social (and keep pace with the latest industry trends). We needed to allow them to get to know each other and challenge each other to see who has better skills. This was a great challenge for the whole team and included changes in the code and a lot of testing to make sure we got it just right.
For more variety, Game.IO chips were introduced in the game as virtual currency, which can be used to place bets in Bet mode and take high or low stakes in Online mode. This needed thorough analysis for our “numbers wizards” to set the economy of the game. With the introduction of Game.IO accounts and additional login methods like Facebook and Windows Live (for Windows Phone users), we set the grounds for cross-platform gameplay, allowing players to play their favorite game anytime, on any device.
The game went through serious re-engineering, development and testing to add all these bonus features. The team invested a lot of time and worked very hard to make it happen. Testing was crucial as it was a completely new structure of the game and there was no place for bugs.
After much work it was ready! But once it was ready to be introduced on the market, a new challenge was ahead of us: to market it properly and educate the audience.
Players are Not Just Numbers, Each One is Special
We went through a bumpy road in the post-launch period. The online play had certain problems with connection, which most of the time was out of our control. Mainly, when the player would lose connection on his device, the game would pick that information with delay and the player wasn’t aware the he went offline. This was our first challenge, and our priority for our next release. A customer support team is crucial at times like this, and we were lucky to already have that in place.
In the first release of the new and redesigned Yatzy Ultimate, we had to remove one feature due to certain problems that occurred with that function – playing with nearby friends via Bluetooth. Our plan was to get it back in the next release as, based on the analysis of the gameplay statistics, the percentage of the players who used this feature was not significant, and the temporal removal of it wouldn’t affect the game.
We were wrong. It turned out that this small percentage of players consisted of our most loyal players and we failed them. We learned this lesson the hard way: your players are not numbers, each one is special. Sometimes, you can have the best analysis of your target market, but it doesn’t mean you know them. Bringing back this feature was our biggest priority, and our development team worked hard to make it happen as soon as possible.
Finally, after the second release, the shaky and stormy period was behind us. Yatzy Ultimate reached its peak of glory, confirming we were on the right path. We were ready to start the new chapter.
Your Game Needs Some Za Za Zu
One of the most influential parts in mobile game development are the customer reviews. Those few sentences written by the players provide a plethora of ideas for new features and improvements of the existing gameplay. We just love our players’ creativity and their words (good and bad) are often the trigger for our most productive brainstorming sessions.
At one of our meetings, as we were reading the reviews, one really caught our attention. One player wrote us: “Pretty good. Needs some za za zu”. That’s right, let’s put some “za za zu” in Yatzy Ultimate.
A new challenge was in front of us. We needed to add more challenge, risk, and greater winnings in the gameplay. To do this, we introduced a leveling system and higher stakes in the online gameplay, and later on, a “Play with Buddies” feature. At the same time, we completed our strategy for cross-platform gameplay with the introduction of Yatzy Ultimate on Facebook. Our classic game now got the completely new trendy look and, according to the feedback from our players, Yatzy Ultimate has the “za za zu” flavor in it.
Today, Game.IO has proven itself as a serious player on the market. We’re no longer the newbies and with our experience and lessons learned, we’ve matured. New games and new challenges are ahead of us, and we have the passion and drive to make it happen.
Roman Povolotski discussed what it took to inspire community among his games’ players, and how that sense of community could be leveraged into financial success during Casual Connect Kyiv 2013.
Social networks can provide various services to engage the gamers, and in this way, increase the success of the game. At Casual Connect Kyiv, Roman Povolotski shared his experience and insight into these practices. Roman, game producer at 2realife, has an undeviating focus on games. All his time centers on game development; he claims his only other pastime is sleeping, saying, “There is so much that is interesting happening in game development right now.”
Mis-Spent Youth…or Was It?
Roman’s total focus on games began at a young age, when he was given a Nintendo. Early in the morning, he began playing, determined to save the princess, and kept playing until the game ended. He was so disappointed to find the game over that he decided to make his own games. From that point on, he was addicted. He spent years gaming, including cybersports, until he had the opportunity to begin a career in game development.
A Career That Starts with Browser Games
In 2005, Roman began his career with IT Territory as a game developer and then lead game developer, working on browser games. The most popular of these was Legend: Legacy of the Dragons. In his current position as Game Producer with 2reallife, Roman works in the middle ground between developers and investors. His objective is to build a successful future for a game with increasing monetization, retention, and other business statistics that measure the game’s success. This requires considerable research in behavioral economics, content, and currency inflation, since the longer a game is in use, the more statistical information it will generate as the players interact with it.
Three Year Success Story
Roman is currently working on two of the most massive and difficult projects of his career, learning from them every day. Working on the game The Heavens has taught him the importance of patience. He emphasizes, “The longer you are operating a game, the more time will be needed to make updates. Even if you have very high-quality features and art, you must still continue improving them or you will lose users very quickly because the market is so unstable. When The Heavens was released, social network games were just beginning, and since then, the mobile games market has grown rapidly, but users still play social games on PCs. How many social network games do you know that are still operating after three years?”
Up for a Challenge
Roman has seen many challenges in his career, but he claims, “The bigger the challenge, the more satisfaction there is when you overcome it.” He finds when 2reallife reached a new record for concurrent user sessions in one day with one of their projects to be particularly gratifying. This occurred in August 2013, after three years of operating the game. He says, “This was a hard job. There are no easy decisions when you have an online game and three years of operating it.”
Interesting Ideas are at a Premium
The greatest challenge today in the games industry, according to Roman, is the on-going need to find unique, new, interesting, and useful ideas and products, both for gamers and for the business. To meet this challenge, he believes the industry must invest more in start-ups and develop an atmosphere in which new ideas can more easily emerge. At 2realiife, they welcome each new idea and analyze whether it could become profitable for the user or the game.
In the future, Roman believes the games industry will see many new gadgets, but the most consistent characteristic will be the continuing demand for interesting games.
Community is Key to Success
Roman maintains that community is a vital part of every online game. An active community has the social units that communicate, generate retention, and spread news about new content. He believes the success of the game is very dependent on the communication between gamers inside the game. Through sharing goals, gamers gain experience working and communicating as a team. He points out, “As people solve problems together, they become a real part of the game, rather than simply using the game as entertainment. If you have a strong community, you have social assets, and you increase the retention of users because they have friends within the game.”
Ruth Wilson is part of 100% Indie, an initiative which aims to fuel the mobile games developer community and provide unparalleled revenue opportunities, supporting indie developers around the world. The initiative has been created by Chillingo, the leading indie mobile games publisher and division of Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ: EA) and Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. She shares the story of SecretBuilders.
There’s a quiet revolution going on, reinventing classic literature for children through gaming.
SecretBuilders is the company that aims to keep the classics alive through a virtual community and a catalog of games that enable children to enter the stories themselves. “We’re gamifying the classics,” says Umair Khan, founder and CEO of SecretBuilders. “Engagement makes content much more memorable.” The company’s games allow children to create their own so they can play alongside historical and fictional figures, from Huckleberry Finn to Macbeth to Dracula.
Not a moment too soon, according to the experts. “The classics are less accessible to today’s children,” says Leila Rasheed, who teaches writing for children at Warwick University. “It may be unfamiliar vocabulary that puts them off. It may be that a relatively slow pace and gentle content fail to stir the imagination of modern, video-gaming kids.” Whatever the case, the new UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman agrees, and even says that children are falling out of love with reading because schools are forcing them to read the classics.
In contrast, Umair is proud to declare his love of all things literary. A former math teacher from Pakistan, he wanted his three children to have the same enthusiasm, but recognized the need to change the format to ensure the appeal for some young people. He first got the idea of bringing classic books to life when reading Alice in Wonderland to his daughter. “I thought it would be amazing to actually go down that rabbit hole and experience the story in real-time, to engage with the characters,” he says.
The route to market has been two-fold. His company first created an online community which was sold to schools, then a year and a half ago, it entered the mobile games arena. The mobile market is proving a huge opportunity for the company, as this is the way most young people play. SecretBuilders is therefore currently working with 100% Indie to bring the games to market via Samsung Apps and reach the huge worldwide Samsung mobile market.
“When I first started thinking about this, back in 1997, CD ROMS were getting popular and multimedia was starting to take hold,” says Umair. “But I didn’t actively pursue the idea for nine years, by which time Club Penguin had taken hold and NeoPets were all the rage. I knew it was time to create my virtual world.”
SecretBuilders was born in 2007; an online community where gamers could enter the world of literary legends, interact with them, and play games with them to help them retain the plot and characters. It took two years to build, and started with Shakespeare. “We considered Russian literature but decided to go lighter,” jokes Umair. Dickens and Jane Austen followed, among others.
The economy in 2007 was in dire straits and with no money for marketing, the company relied on investors and word of mouth. After launching in the US with just a handful of schools, the popularity of the community took hold and started to spread. Teachers loved it, as it enabled them to fulfill the criteria of the literature curriculum, while children also loved it, as it brought the books to life for them. The community games included player incentives to encourage competition and school incentives through charity donations. “We knew we were succeeding in appealing to teachers and pupils alike when we started receiving emails from schoolchildren pretending to be teachers, requesting more games and access.”
A Current View
The SecretBuilders community now has over 9 million registered users and is still growing, so taking that virtual world into downloadable games was a natural move for the company. Mobile was the focus from the outset, because of the target audience. The challenge was ensuring a constant stream of content, and for that the company needed to partner with book publishers. A meeting with Oxford University press led to the world famous book publisher coming on board with over 300 titles and a rich library of content to gamify. Harper Collins is also now a partner. For SecretBuilders, it means a wealth of content ready for turning into games. For the book publishers, it’s a non-exclusive marketing tool to keep their stories alive and target a whole new generation that otherwise might never have been reached.
The model is simple and effective. Monetization is generated through additional paid game levels and in-app purchases, or through ads in the ad-supported versions of the games. The ROI is larger because of the ready-made content and rather than pay for each individual license, the book publisher gets a percentage of the profit for each game.
“The beauty is this simplicity and the turnaround time,” says Umair. “We already have the content, the visuals, the audio and the characters. The narrated plot is placed straight into the game with additional breaks for relevant challenges, such as helping Sherlock Holmes find a clue in a room. We can create a game in less than three weeks.”
The games range from spelling challenges to hidden objects and adventures, and Umair is aware the style will not appeal to older or more experienced gamers. But for the target market, it works. “I recognize that many gamers might look down on the old school illustrations and styling, but we’re not trying to produce the world’s most polished game artwork. We stay true to the style of the books.”
Since launching just over a year ago as a mobile games company, SecretBuilders has created 25 games with several million downloads and 175 SKUs across different platforms. Success for the full range has mainly been in the US and UK, with pick up in Australia and the Middle East with plans to go global. The fourth quarter of 2013 will see the launch of the first non-English speaking games, in Spanish and Portuguese.
And it doesn’t stop there. Umair is in discussions with publishers of cookery books and car books, who are inquiring about how to bring their content to life. “For us, it really is all about the content,” he concludes. “In the future, we’ll look into multiplayer options for mobile, too. It worked on the web for us, and we’d like to bring that aspect into our games. That way, we’ll have a whole new generation playing in classic historical and fictional environments together, using the wonderful world of gaming to help prevent these worlds from being forgotten.”