At Casual Connect Europe, Yoeri Staal showcased their game, Wild Ride West. This game is designed as a trilogy, with three episodes to be released on many platforms, something which has not been previously attempted by any indie.
Yoeri Staal, founder and producer at StaalMedia, tells us the most fun part of being involved in the games industry comes from the constant stream of new materials. He says, “As I’m working on a project, any day at any time, I can receive a message from an artist, a composer, a programmer, or any other team member telling me they added a little piece to the huge puzzle that is my new game. It’s like finding a present under the Christmas tree at any random moment.”
As founder of StaalMedia, he started the company making games by himself. Then he began hiring the right person for the right position inside many projects, a modus operandi he is still using today. He is also a teacher of computer science, and finds understanding children, what they want, and how they need their information shaped, highly advantageous skills when designing games for this particular audience.
Doing What We Love
His passion for the industry comes through clearly when he insists the proudest moment of his career came at the Speaker Dinner at Casual Connect USA when he realized that a “silly piece of software”, which he only planned to entertain people without any thought of commercial success, had brought him and a few other game designers to an elite location. He emphasizes, “It was confirmation that we indie developers could reach a very high level while doing what we love.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that this game developer spends any free time playing games. He considers his PSP as the favorite platform he has ever owned. Its strong processing, for the time, and its ability to store a multimedia library made it his personal treasure before the age of smartphones, so much so that he gave it a custom skin and matching wallpaper. But now, of course, it is completely outclassed by his smartphone. Last year, he did buy a PS3 simply to play GTAV, so he sees no need to move to PS4. And he prefers to keep his use of Microsoft products to an absolute minimum.
What is Fun vs. What is Valuable
Staal recognizes the dichotomy between what is fun for the player and what is commercially valuable for the publisher as a huge challenge for the games industry. He notes, “The company that creates a really fun game, without constantly bullying the player into buying in-app purchases, could easily rise to the top of the charts.” At StaalMedia, there is an entirely different focus. All games are completely free for players to use, with no in-app purchases, no paid unlocks, and no “silly” premium hats. Instead, sponsors are the clients, and they pay to have their logos in the game.
Because touchscreen is the latest trend on all tablets and smartphones, StaalMedia designs all games to support touch controls. Staal believes the coming trend will be even more sophisticated ways of control, such as motion control combined with virtual reality. When smart watches and glasses have sufficiently penetrated the market, he will be designing for these technologies.
Released in November 2009 for the Xbox360 and PS3, Fairytale Fights is an action hack-and-slash platform game supporting up to four players. The game combines cute looking fairytale characters with over-the-top slapstick violence. The game was developed by Playlogic Gamefactory, the in-house development studio of Playlogic. The studio previously had worked on titles like Xyanide (Xbox), Cyclone Circus (PS2) and Xyanide Resurrection (PSP, PS2). The studio also worked as first party developer for SCE London Studio on titles like Eye Pet, Mesmerize, Aqua Vita (Aquatopia in North America), Tori-Emaki and Pom Pom Party. In this post-mortem, Martin Janse tells the story of Playlogic’s game Fairytale Fights.
Instead of a making a game for children, we wanted to create a game that would appeal to an adult audience by using over the top slapstick violence and comical gore
The game started as concept for the PlayStation 2 Buzz controller party game. Gradually, the concept started to evolve into something bigger that could only be developed on the Xbox360 and PlayStation3 platforms. In Fairytale Fights, you play the part of a used-to-be-famous fairytale character on a personal mission to regain his/her lost fame by going on quests throughout the kingdom. A quest could be rescuing princesses (and princes), fighting wicked fairytale characters or finding magical treasures. The fairytale world consists of cute characters and vivid animations as seen in many 3D animation movies, but instead of a making a game for children, we wanted to create a game that would appeal to an adult audience by using over-the-top slapstick violence and comical gore that also can be seen in cartoons like Happy Tree Friends or Itsy and Scratchy from The Simpsons.
Since the game was targeted for Next Gen-consoles, we felt the game should include some unique features. One of the programmers had been working on a real-time fluid system and we wanted to incorporate this technology in the game, not just for creating all kinds of liquid effects, but also for the blood that would cover the whole scenery and drip from objects. Another idea we had was that the player should be able to slice enemies and objects dynamically so in theory, the player could slice everything he wanted in any direction he would choose.
In early 2006, a team was assembled. They started working on the high-level game design and creating a short animated movie showing some of the core gameplay mechanism and general visual style of the game. After a couple of months, the team of animators, visual designers, modelers and a game designer produced a stunning short animation that convinced everyone that this had the potential to become a fresh and fun game.
The preproduction period was challenging
Before pre-production started, our technical department evaluated different middleware solutions. They came to the conclusion that Unreal 3 Engine was the most suitable tool for creating Fairytale Fights and other possible future titles. It had a very strong editor and was by then the only middleware solution that proved it could deliver quality results on both PS3 and Xbox360. We knew that it would take some time to set up the work flow and to learn Unreal 3. As a result, a small team was assembled to start learning Unreal while also working on the liquid and dynamic slicing technology and creating content in order to develop a vertical slice of the game.
The preproduction period was challenging. The team encountered several technical obstacles such as recreating the experience of the prototype movie to a vertical slice of the game. Fortunately, a couple of weeks before the Leipzig Games Convention in August 2008, something magical happened. After making some harsh cuts and redesigns, everything fell in place. The vertical slice became a game with a soul, fun to play and a delight to watch. The vertical slice looked gorgeous and the dynamic slicing and liquid system worked. You could even jump into the puddles of blood and red drops would color your surroundings. Also you were able to slide through the blood puddles, painting the world red.
Sometimes we could see the journalists thinking “Oh no, not a kiddy platformer! Another 20 minutes wasted of my precious time!”
The decision was made to present the vertical slice only to a select group of press behind closed doors during Leipzig Games Convention. We all knew we had something special, something different. But the question was if the critical games press would like it as well? We all knew we took a chance with Fairytale Fights. Everyone was using the power of the recently released Xbox360 and PS3 to show realistic looking masculine battle scenes in space or industrial locations. Alternatively, we were creating a game that from the first glimpse looked like a game made for children, but contained cutting edge technology to recreate cartoon violence (salami violence as we called it internally) like dynamic slicing and dynamic liquids.
When we started our presentations during the Games Convention, sometimes we could see a journalists thinking “Oh no, not a kiddy platformer! Another 20 minutes wasted of my precious time!” But once we started the dynamic slicing on the first innocent bunny into small pieces and slide through the puddle of blood from the bunny, you saw a big grin on the faces of most of the journalists and they were keen to learn more about the game.
After the Leipzig Games Convention, it was clear that Fairytale Fights might become something big. Some journalists even wrote Fairytale Fights was the biggest surprise at Leipzig GC that year! Now we had to develop the full game. It took almost 1.5 years to create the vertical slice, a tiny fragment of the whole game. Some key features of the game were working, but still a lot of work had to be done, especially creating content (models, animations, levels) and making sure it would run on all supporting platforms.
One of the biggest issues we already faced during pre-production was finding skilled people. A studio in Rotterdam (not far from the development studio) called Coded Illusions went bankrupt. They were working with the Unreal Engine for several years and we were able to make several formal employees interested in working at the studio, but this was far from the amount people we needed to develop all the content needed (creating models, animations and levels). So we got in touch with a studio that was specialized in building props and animations for feature films and animated TV-series. They were in-between projects and were eager to enter the game content business. Only there was a small problem, our team was not finished with the design and they were working day and night to make sure all the deliverables were available to them on time.
Fairytale Fights was scheduled for a late 2009 release. Sometimes it felt like a mission impossible, especially when things didn’t work out as expected. We had to some cut features and content that was originally scheduled for the game. Everyone at Playlogic was extremely dedicated and spent many hours to finish the game on time.
Not being able to attract as many experienced candidates to the studio as we would like also caused delays
As mentioned before, the pre-production took longer than expected. Most of the lead members of the pre-production team were recently promoted and had no or limited experience with starting projects from scratch. Also several key members of the team had to support other running studio projects every now and then, also delaying the pre-production. Not being able to attract as many experienced candidates to the studio as we would like also caused delays. We were recruiting, but it was difficult finding skilled people that were also willing to relocate to Breda (the location of Playlogic Gamefactory, in the south of Holland). After the positive feedback during Leipzig GC in 2008, it became much easier to attract skilled personal. Also the decision to outsource work to other companies meant that people who otherwise could help in production, were now managing outsourcing.
Another thing that caused the delay was that sometimes development was dictated too much by the visual design of the game. For example: at the start of the game, the players and enemies are moving on forest paths with varied terrain. It looked great, but it caused a lot of problems regarding Artificial Intelligence, collision and physics. Looking back, too much time was spent on trying to solve technical issues that were caused by these visual decisions instead of finding alternative visual solutions so these technical issues would not arise.
When the game was released, it received mixed reviews. Many journalists liked the colorful visual style and over the top cartoon violence of the game, but found it a bit too repetitive or didn’t like the usage of the right stick for performing combat moves. Combat is indeed sometimes a bit too repetitive. There were many more puzzles and platform challenges in the original design of the game, but not all of them made it to the final version of the game, making the game too dependent on combat alone. After speaking with a lot of players (especially female players), there was also many who liked the usage of the right stick for combat. It made the game accessible and suitable for co-op play with less experienced gamers, because using the right stick for combat felt intuitive. Several male players told me that Fairytale Fights was one of the few games their girlfriends or wives enjoying playing and they both enjoy playing in co-op mode.
Several male players told me that Fairytale Fights was one of the few games their girlfriends or wives enjoying playing and they both enjoy playing in co-op mode
Not such a happy ending
After the release of the game, a small team continued to work on DLC, which was released shortly after. The rest of the team started pre-production for Fairytale Fights 2. The first Fairytale Fights 2 prototypes were very promising and showed the team had many new fresh ideas. Unfortunately Playlogic encountered financial troubles and the studio had to close its doors halfway 2010 just before winning 2 Dutch Games Award 2010 for Fairytale Fights a few months later.
Some footage of early prototypes of Fairytale Fights 2 has leaked unto the internet. If you are interested, you might be able to find it. Playlogic is currently only publishing games, primarily focusing on publishing digitally on consoles, handhelds and mobile devices.
In the last decade Brazil’s economy has been flourishing, spawning all kinds of new commercial and creative initiatives. Brazil has a fond love for gaming and a growing industry to match it. We had a talk with the cheerful Martin Fabichak, Technical Director of Insolita Studios in São Paulo, to find out more about him, his company and what makes the Brazilian game industry unique.
After Fabichak graduated in Applied Math with a specialization in Programming, he quickly realized that his true passion was game development, leading him to create flash games. In 2008 he joined Insolita where he recently became Technical Director and a partner of the company six months ago.
One of the characteristics of being a young company in an upcoming industry is that you get to create all sorts of games. Insolita Studios has a diverse repertoire, from serious games to teach management skills, to comedic platformers featuring cavemen and devils.
CaveDays allowed Insolita to get noticed in the Brazilian industry, especially after winning the Jogos BR contest.
While they were making three serious games to encourage entrepreneurship in collaboration with professional experts, they decided to make something less serious, yet important on the side: CaveDays. “This cool platforming game allowed the company get noticed in the Brazilian industry, especially after winning the Jogos BR contest for Best Game, a contest organized by the Brazilian government to stimulate Brazilian game design.” Fabichak explains.
The award was the first step to start more, and bigger, projects. Fabichak likes to describe them in superlatives: “Afterwards we made a huge serious game, LudoPark. Pretty much one of the biggest serious games ever made because it’s a real-time multiplayer management game where 40 players compete to manage their business.” Besides this “huge” game, Insolita Studios joined up with the independent Brazilian game developer Abdução to make something “mini” that turned out quite big.
Freekscape from Brazil
The two companies joined forces as Kidguru Studios to work on the first Sony-licensed game in Brazil for the PSP Minis platform, Freekscape. “We’re the only licensees for Sony.” Fabichak explains. “There is no one with a PS3 license here. It’s really hard to get that in Latin America. Being able to get Freekscape on the PSP Mini platform was a unique opportunity for us.”
Developing Freekscape took Insolita’s international relationships to another level in many different ways. “We developed a prototype with 3 levels and took it to GDC in 2009. There we got in touch with the publisher Creat from the US that gave us the opportunity to work with Sony that was looking for games for its new PSP Minis platform that had yet to be announced.” Fabichak recounts.
Sony was really happy with the way Freekscape fitted their original idea of the type of games they wanted to offer on PSP Minis.
Compared to other PSP Minis games, Freekscape was a big mini. “Out of 40 levels we had in this project, only 15 remained in the game,” Fabichak admits. “We did not know that Minis would mostly be smaller-sized casual games. Most games come down to 1 or 2 hours of playtime, with a lot of replay value, of course,” Fabichak explains. “But Freekscape was disproportionately bigger with about 8 hours of gameplay. We believed and hoped PSP Minis was going to be a platform for small studios with big ideas.” Was Freekscape too big to be a Mini? “Sony was happy with the way Freekscape fit into their original idea of the type of games they wanted to offer on PSP Minis.”
Lessons from the little devil
Fabichak is happy with having an odd-one-out on a platform that has tough competition with delivering bite-sized portable games. He is proud of the game it turned out to be, but especially the lessons and relationships they gained through it. “We learned a lot from Freekscape. Especially in maintaining a relationship with an international publisher and a big player like Sony.” Fabichak says. “One of the things we struggled with was developing for Minis at such an early stage. Developing Freekscape before PSP Minis had even been announced, brought some difficulties, specifically nearing the end of our development cycle because the requirements and features for PSP Minis changed from one week to the other.”
Fabichak does not take his hardships for granted, however. “During this time, we had a great relationship with Vicious Cycle Software, who made the Vicious Engine we worked with. They helped us with a lot of issues. They even made some tweaks to the engine to help us out with some of the issues,” Fabichak recounts. “But when it came to one of the specific requirements from Sony, I spent about a month in the engine’s source code trying to solve it. That was really hard, especially since it came out of the blue, nearing the end of development.”
Now we can approach publishers and companies like Sony with much more ease.
“Despite these problems, we had great help from Sony.” Fabichak admits. It also gave them more confidence to step things up. “Through this project we now talk to others on a whole other level. Now we can approach publishers and companies like Sony with more ease. You can’t reach this level as a company without earning your stripes with a previous project. Now we have the credentials to talk to them and prove we can deliver on what we propose, and our partners know that. We feel like we’re on another level now.” Fabichak says proudly.
The second part of Fabichak’s interview will be published next week, including his views on the Brazilian game industry, Insolita’s current projects, and his effort to inform upcoming talents about the real world of game development in Brazil through his podcast, Doublejump.