Fiddlesticks was formed in late-2014 by Dan Da Rocha and Henry Hoffman. Da Rocha previously worked on the award-winning indie game Q.U.B.E, whilst Hoffman worked on the BAFTA-winning Windows Phone game Mush. After this Da Rocha and Hoffman tagged up to form Mudvark and create Mortar Melon, which has had over a million downloads to date. Now under a new banner, Fiddlesticks, the duo is working on multi-award winning game, Hue.
Upopa Games started out as a small indie games company. Following the success of their first game, Hopeless: The Dark Cave, they were acquired by ironSource, and now form ironSource’s in-house game development studio. The team consists of Niv Touboul, art director and head of the games studio, lead developer Or Avrahamy, and game designer and analyst Gideon Rimmer, Their fresh creation named Mutation Mash is a crazy puzzle game where you need to match radioactive animals to make new mutants.
Blugri is an indie game studio based in the heart of Europe, Brussels. Tom Janssens, who founded the studio in 2012 shares the story of its latest game Circuits. He started off developing games by coincidence: after the launch of WP8 and following an XNA course he created his first game called Boxes, just for fun. After the first success Tom decided to become a full-time game developer and started establishing the blugri team. Blugri’s mission is to create casual games with an innovative touch, with smart and high-quality graphics and sound, Tom explains. And the most important point for his team is to create games that everyone (including themselves) loves to play! The blugri team has already created the games of Sudoku, Solitaire, Boxes, Jungle Mamba and Air Hockey.
Pipe Mania With A Modern Twist And Electricity
After finishing his Word Crush Mania game, Tom Kier, the founder of Endless Wave Software, wanted to create a simple casual puzzle game. Being a solo indie developer with no budget meant that the project had to be simple enough for one person to do all the work, yet he wanted the game to be challenging and entertaining, Tom recalls.
Puzzles with Multiple Solutions that Keep Players Engaged
The original idea was to create a simple casual game about untangling lines. The gameplay would be twisting and turning a set of tiles so that a path gets connected between two dots on the game board. Each tile would contain path segments, and once all the tiles are rotated in to the proper position, the path through the tiles connecting the dots would reveal itself.
Inspired by other popular puzzle games like Flow, Strata, and Lyne, I wanted my game to be easy to pick up and learn, yet provide challenging puzzles. It had to be casual enough that most puzzles could be solved in a couple of minutes or less, yet be challenging enough to keep users coming back for more. Most importantly, I wanted each puzzle to generate that “aha! moment” when the pieces finally rotate into place and the solution reveals itself. This meant each puzzle’s solution needed to be unique and challenging. I did not want to have dozens of similar puzzles that have little variation.
Another important design goal was that I didn’t want users to feel stuck and get frustrated if they were having a hard time solving a particular puzzle. I wanted to make sure it was enjoyable for players of all different skill levels. So I decided that each puzzle would have multiple solutions, with some easier than others. I settled on the typical three-star scoring system. Solving the puzzle with a simple solution would only be awarded one star, two stars for more difficult solutions, and three stars for the most difficult and challenging solutions.
Balancing Complexity and Simplicity for Casual Players
The original prototype used square tiles, with four path segments running through each tile. I built a puzzle generator tool that allowed me to create custom board layouts for the tiles, and then the program itself randomly made the path segments for them. The first playtest showed a couple of problems.
First of all, generating random tiles was not working as desired. Sometimes the puzzle had too many solutions and was too easy or, on the contrary, only a single one or very few that were overly difficult and challenging for some casual gamers. I understood that in order to get that “aha!” effect for each puzzle, and also enable multiple solutions, I’d better craft the puzzles by hand and tune each to make sure it has a unique and challenging set of solutions. So I modified the tool to allow more manual control over the tile generation.
The other problem was with the tiles themselves. A square tile had two path connectors on each side, which meant there were four path segments on one tile. This produced lots of interesting and varied path designs, but again, made the puzzles too complicated and overwhelming. I experimented with using only one path connector per side, which meant only two path segments per tile. That did reduce the complexity, but also made the puzzles too simplistic. I needed a way to get three path segments on a tile. Using a hexagon tile with one path connector per side solved the problem.
If the game catches on and there’s demand for more puzzles, I may do a puzzle pack with square tiles for those looking for more challenge.
Design Makes Players Sleepy, Gameplay Keeps Them Awake
Once the switch to hexagon tiles was completed and the updated puzzle generator started working, it was time for several weeks of long evenings building the 120 different puzzles in the game. Turns out that creating puzzles with multiple solutions is harder than I originally anticipated, so it took longer than planned.
Along the way, I introduced new elements such as path teleporters, which transport your path to another tile, and puzzles with multiple dots to connect. This allowed for increasing challenge and variety for the higher levels.
Once the puzzles were done and tested, the whole thing became a matter of completing and polishing the visual design. This is where I made my biggest mistake. Being a solo indie developer with no budget to hire external helpers, I have to wear numerous hats: game designer, developer, graphic artist, and sound designer. I am a much better developer than graphic artist. I wanted to go with a minimalist look, inspired by the new iOS 7 visual design and the style of games such as Letterpress and Dots. But unfortunately, this didn’t work. As Jordan Minor at 148apps.com wrote, “Simply Twisted‘s looks could probably put a player to sleep. Fortunately, its smart gameplay will keep them engaged and alert.”
An updated version of Simply Twisted has recently hit the Apple AppStore. It includes a new updated visual design that hopefully won’t put people to sleep, the developer says.
“I thoroughly enjoyed creating Simply Twisted,” he recalls. “Each new game I create comes with its own unique challenges. Simply Twisted was no exception. Even with my missteps, I believe it is one the best games I have created to date. I am currently exploring different ideas for my next game.”
After the success of Pretentious Game, Bari Silvestre decided to create a new game from scratch, but instead finished a game accidentally, while playing with codes. He shares the story of the Rubpix project that became a part of the Game Slam at Casual Connect Asia 2014.
Ideas Come as the Developer Plays With Code
When creating games, I usually think of ideas based on some games I really enjoyed, write them down on paper, and do a mockup of what my version will look like. Sometimes though, games appear just destined to be created.
Splitman is one of these. I came up with it when playing with codes that can move two characters in a platformer at the same time. I noticed that, with the right timing and by utilizing the platforms in the game, I can get one of the characters on top of another just by jumping and moving. When two or more characters are on top of each other, they can reach higher platforms and, potentially, do a lot of stuff. Thus, Splitman was born.
Rubpix is another such example. I was creating a combination of a block puzzle and an RPG fighting game where in order to do action, you have to slide icons to create one big link, and then tap the linked blocks to unleash the effect. I was having a problem coding the final bit – when I thought I could make interesting patterns with the colored blocks. I’m not really a good programmer, and couldn’t make things work, such as create a perfect game field filled with random values which do not form any free match. I set this project aside and made some pixel art.
Stumbled With His Own Game
The first pattern I did was the flag of France, since it’s simple and only consists of 3 colors. I recreated it in 3×3 pixels, shuffled with an algorithm, and played it in my game of sliding blocks. I was dumbfounded. I never realized that a simple 3×3 puzzle can stump me for minutes. I was going in circles, sliding in and out blocks, and couldn’t solve it.
At first, I thought maybe there’s something wrong with my algorithm – the blocks are shuffled randomly, making it impossible to solve. Then my wife saw me working on the puzzle and solved it in seconds right in front of my eyes. She’s a really good puzzle solver.
That’s when I knew this was indeed a great puzzle game. I made a new pattern, a ninja, and solved it just by using a good strategy and observing how my wife did it. No more going round and round over a misplaced color. I learned to study patterns in puzzles and come up with strategies instead of brute-forcing a solution.
I am now convinced I have a good puzzle in hand, good code, algorithm that can make hundreds of levels, and a hook in the form of mini pixel art. Time to go researching.
Inspirations: David Stoll and Kotaku
I googled “pixel art ” and found the recognizable pattern of blue, white, and red character. It only used 4×4 pixel art, but was clearly Sonic the Hedgehog. I read more about it on Kotaku and knew I was on the right track.
The man behind the genius was David Stoll, and he has hundreds more to show. Seeing and recognizing easily characters like Blanka, Chewbacca, and many more, brought lots of good memories in me – how good I was with Street Fighter and beating players with obscure characters like Blanka…
This looked like the perfect combo: a puzzle game that doesn’t require too much of your brain, like a quiz game, but rewards you with amazing nostalgia.
In order to make the game feel right, I had to cater to both casual and hardcore gamers. So I made a few 3×3 levels, and some more of the interesting creations of David. For the hardcore player, I knew I needed to make 8×8 levels, that would possibly only be beaten by a few.
I turned to my interns provided by Angeles University Foundation for some creative input. John Manlutac and Arnie Tolentino provided some interesting patterns like a Minion, a lobster, and the Ninja Turtles.
It was time to make everything perfect, and that means user experience should be focused on. I wanted to make a good impression by introducing the player to a new way of starting a game. The way you begin the game in Rubpix explains how to play the game further.
Swipe to play. That’s it! Players will notice that the shapes wrap to another side as they slide the circle with the words “Swipe to Play”. Then they will be greeted with a nice-sounding bell, and their eyes will be guided to a small pattern that flashes on top of the screen. Surprise! You have just recreated the pattern above in the big square in the middle.
People Swipe Too Fast
Swipe to play – it can sometimes be so hard for someone just jumping into the game! It turned out they can’t even get past the title screen. As I let my friends play the prototype in Wizards Wink and Mythic Moogle (local hobby stores where I play card and board games), I found out people swipe too fast! They can’t get the circle to the middle, and so they don’t match the pattern above. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s definitely a serious mistake from my side. I came home, edited how fast you can swipe to make the circle lock in its right place, and let the title screen be failproof.
Here’s an interesting thing about the title of the game. It comes from Rubik’s Cube, which is what most people say about the game: a one-sided Rubik’s Cube. The “pix” part is to pay homage to games like PathPix and others, where you make interesting mini art out of simple colors. When I posted about my game online, people pronounced its name as “Rab-Pix”. Like rubbing it in my face, such an ugly title for a profound game.
My 7-years-old daughter saved the situation while watching me testing the game. She said, you should try something like Mario in Nintendo 3DS, where, after you press “Start” the game says “LETS-SE-GOW!” (Let’s go!).
This is the story of how a game was made, kinda accidentally, and how I worked on it with the help of friends, families and fellow developers. Rubpix was part of the Game Slam in Casual Connect Asia 2014, and it was a roaring success. The audience are literally roaring with laughter. That night, it was also nominated for Most Promising Game in the Indie Prize Asia 2014.
Lucid Labs is a small indie team based in India, formed by a group of students right after participating in a 24-hour game jam and assuming they had made the best game in the competition. Because of the community feedback and praise from their trainers, they decided to complete the game and make it available to the global market to enjoy even more appraisals. This debut game is called Roto. Chirag Chopra, the founder of Lucid Labs, shares the story of the game about big balls.
Chirag Chopra also presented at Casual Connect Asia 2014:
An Announcement That Turned Students Into a Studio
Since we all come from a video game design college, news about various game jams come our way very often. One usual day, as we were about to go to the lectures, we saw a poster about the Global Game Development Student Competition on our notice board. We got excited: this was a 24-hour game jam on a weekend, so we could easily participate without missing any lectures or assignments. Also, it was a wonderful opportunity to hang out with global game-makers.
The rules of the game jam were simple: develop a small game/prototype on a given theme. After about three hours of brainstorming and rejecting ideas, we finally had a concept in mind. Priority was given to something casual that could be made, polished, and tested within 24 hours. And then the work began. Since the game had to be made really fast, we decided to use an engine which is easy to use, yet powerful. Sujeet suggested Construct 2, so we decided to enter the Browser category, because it was easy to make HTML5 browser games with that engine.
College Dorm: The Place for Instant Testing
One positive aspect of developing a game while living in the college dorm is that we could have some people come over to our room, make them play a specific portion of the game, and get instant feedback. This helped us make a good prototype, crafted on community feedback, and make sure we were creating something good.
Since our game was pretty simple and straightforward to play, I decided to keep it as minimalistic as possible in terms of art. I experimented with basic colors like grey and black (I love grey and black) and got good results. After hours of no sleep, playtests, and hard work, we had a good game in our hands. We decided to call it Black Sun. It wasn’t for any specific or racial reasons. It’s was just because the game had big black balls.
It was time to submit the game, get some sleep, and hope that we’ll win. The results were announced in about three months. Unfortunately, no one won in our category of Browser Game. Nevertheless, two games, including ours, won an Honorable Mention, and we received a $1000 cash prize. We were really happy and sad at the same time: disappointed that we didn’t enter the Top 3, but happy since no other game did either. On the other hand, we were glad that the jury appreciated our creation, and it was enough to motivate us to complete the game and release it.
After deciding to work on our game further and bring it to the global market, we knew we needed more members in the team. And here goes another advantage of studying in a video game design college: you are always surrounded by creative people. We needed one artist and one level designer, and I already had perfect candidates in mind: Ankush Madad (one of the best level designers in the college) and Rahul Narayanan
(one of the best artists in the college). They were the perfect addition to the team. After explaining to them the concept and our vision, they instantly agreed to work with us. Now, Lucid Labs had five members in total. Woohoo!
Going Mobile, as Suggested After the Game Jam
Production began instantly after we set up the team and made sure everyone was on the same path. One common feedback we got after the game jam was to port our game to touch mobile devices. We knew we had to do this, and it was easy, since our game had a very simple tap control scheme. But going mobile meant that we had to switch from Construct 2 to some powerful engine for mobile devices. Sujeet recommended Corona SDK due to its superb performance and usability. Our programmer was comfortable with Corona, since he has prior knowledge of Lua – the language used in the SDK.
The whole game code was re-written in Lua. In about a month, we had a small prototype ready for Android devices. Just in time for GDC 2013! We decided to take the game to GDC India to showcase and meet some publishers. Everything was planned and going smoothly, but, as we discovered later – not for long.
GDC 2013 – The Big Luck and a Disappointment in Publishers
We had attended GDC India previously in 2012, but this time, it was special. Now we had a game in hand and were looking for potential investors/publishers. Those two days were spent talking to numerous people and showing them the game. Surprisingly, we managed to grab the attention of a couple of publishers, who got interested in publishing the game and investing some money into it. That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in all my life. A small team of students from India, who had no prior experience in the industry, managed to attract publishers for their first game! What else could we possibly ask for?
After coming back from one of the best GDCs ever, it was time to decide and choose the best publisher (in terms of deal offered). This was very hard. Eventually, we decided to go with one who was somewhat new in the scene, but offered a good deal. At least, that’s what we thought.
We started working on legal things and lots of other stuff. We also changed the overall theme and art of the game in order to please the publishers. But soon we decided it was a bad idea, and realized Roto plays best when accompanied by its original minimalist art style.
After about a month of negotiations with our preferred publisher, we decided to look for other opportunities as well. Maybe this was a bad idea, but it helped us get a broader view of how things work under a publisher. Call us immature or naïve, but we realized we were not meant to work with a publisher. Not because there were restrictions, we just didn’t like the idea of selling our own game to someone else.
We decided to drop the idea of getting our game published by other people and said a big NO to everyone. I’m sure they were really upset and angry with us, but at least we chose a path which WE wanted. We were even more excited about self-publishing.
“What the Hell is Black Sun?” Means Time for Changes
“What the hell is Black Sun?” This was the most common question people asked us when we told them about the game. The name sucked. It was obvious that we had to find a new one which could match the game and sound less racial. I have no idea how Sujeet came up with the name Roto, but we all liked it.
The development was in full production. Meanwhile, we were looking for events and awards to showcase our game and gain exposure. One such opportunity was the Indian Creative Tech Awards. We decided to give it a try and submitted the game. To our surprise, we got nominated for two categories – Excellence in Browser Gaming and Excellence in Mobile Gaming. The results are still due and we are quite positive in our expectations.
Thanks to our level designer Ankush, we created a lot of new levels for the game, making it even more viable for the global market. And Rahul helped us refine the art and make it even more polished and beautiful (yes, it is beautiful for us :P). Rahul also created a lot of visual feedback for every action in the game. This was something that the game lacked since its early prototype.
The Game Needs Sound!
All of a sudden, we realized we needed sound for the game – initially, it was completely silent! How could we publish the game without any sound? We didn’t think about this at all before. Fortunately, I have a friend who is studying sound design, and I thought he might be the best candidate for this job. I explained the game to him, as well as what kind of sound and music would suit it best. Samples started coming in. A lot of samples. But the team was somewhat not happy. Not because the sound guy was bad, mainly because his style of music didn’t match our vision of the game.
I started looking for another sound designer. A video game sound designer, to be precise. After looking almost everywhere on the social networks, I found The Perfect Guy.
The guy who had worked on games like Watch Dogs and The Crew, agreed to be our sound designer – Ash Read. Un-f*cking-believable! I still have no idea how I managed to convince him to work with our game. Ash’s music is one of the most important assets in Roto. Apart from being one of the most talented sound designers ever, he’s one of the best people I’ve known in life.
Finally, we’ve released our game on Android. iOS is now the priority and we might bring it to Windows – depending on the demand. Meanwhile, the team is preparing the next update to the game, with new level packs and, possibly, a new game mode. Right now, our dream game is still Roto and we want to make it big, not only in Asia, but all over the world. We don’t want to get rich or become millionaires. If we wanted that, we would have made this a paid game. We just want to create a fan base which loves the game and is always excited for future updates. We want to tell the world that people from India can create unique and fun experiences for the world. The proof of this is already coming our way: we’ve been featured on IGN and the biggest website in China.
Shapist, a sliding block puzzle game where you need to clear the doorway out of obstacles, was born out of a collective effort of two people who have never met in real life: Ori Takemura (design & concept) and Dmitry Kurilchenko. They found each other through a Unity 3D forum where Ori was looking for a freelance developer or a partner who would share his excitement about what used to be the original Shapist idea. Dmitry turned out to be a perfect match. Later, in the development process, the fact that they had a very similar opinion on what a puzzle game should be like and what is most valuable to the player helped them create Shapist in a very consistent way. Ori shares the story of providing a journey through a seamless world of puzzles.
A Game That Would Physically Feel Like a Real Object
The story of Shapist started in 2012, when I was using a lot of Gmail on my iPad, and the sensation of how intuitive sliding in the UI felt on touch devices got stuck in my head. Later, in 2013, that impression grew into a concept of a game experience based around bringing a very tangible and physical sensation into a digital game, making a video game feel as natural as a real object.
What we had in the beginning was a list with a rough description of mechanics that would feel natural on a touch device, where “dynamic meaning” and “control meaning” would be synonymous. ‘Control meaning’ is something rarely discussed in game design. However, with modern technologies like touch screens, VR, and those similar to Leap Motion, there is now a great opportunity to build game mechanics and UIs around the sense of intuitive discovery that you would get in the physical world. Controls and meanings in the design can be subconsciously understood just because you are subject to human conditions – this is what we mean by the ‘feels natural’ mechanics type. Let’s say, if a tile in a game disappears as a feedback to a touch move, this mechanic would not feel natural, because usually objects we physically interact with do not vanish in an instance. However, you can fold and collapse things in real life…
There was also an idea of “teleporting” between puzzles, when a phone becomes a portal to another dimension, but then a puzzle hits the screen and blocks your from further movement to the ultimate goal. We had a folder for a game called “Something Small”, as the final name hadn’t been made up, and it felt like the whole thing would be ready in a relatively small amount of time, a few months at maximum. Little did we know it would take us almost a year. Since sliding was the most basic interaction in the game, we felt that a sliding block and something similar to a 15-puzzle game would fit our concept best of all. We thus decided to adhere to unified block sizes and grid-like level design.
Sliding, Rotation, Detaching, Attaching, Collapsing and Transforming
Not all our ideas made it into the game. We deliberately focused on those clearest for understanding, because they’d feel natural: the sensation was crucial for us. Dmitry spent tons of time polishing the blocks’ reaction to the touch. We didn’t want rail movements within a strict grid, like most block sliding games have, and yet we needed to auto tune the position for better comfort.
Finding the perfect balance took a lot of time. We had ideas of goo-like blocks and other overly complex mechanics that only benefited the player viscerally but added nothing to the core values, so they were discarded. We ended up with five main interactions: sliding, rotation, detaching, attaching, collapsing and transforming.
Zero UI for a Natural Experience like a Rubik’s Cube
When you interact with a physical object like a Rubik’s Cube or a volume knob on a stereo system, you don’t have a block of text floating in, obstructing your view and experience; there’s no tutorial that would keep you from discovering the object by yourself. We wanted Shapist to feel as natural as that, with no barriers between the experience and the player. That is why we made what is called zero UI: we don’t have a single word, letter, or digit in Shapist. Never do we punish a player, rush, or mislead him or her. We do provide a very subtle guidance for the player to feel the enjoyment of a discovery.
Our puzzle design follows the same concept. Very early in development, we understood a need for a consistent method to introduce the player to a new interaction type. In Shapist, the user gets to discover every new mechanic within a familiar puzzle design around the very first level he or she would ever see in the game – familiar yet different. As for the difficulty progression: all the puzzles in the game have been designed by hand (Dmitry made the editor while I created the puzzles) and not computer-generated, so we were able to very carefully control the excitement the game provides. The biggest benefit of designing everything by hand is the ability to plug in puzzles that feel very different and require the player to think creatively. In puzzles where a system is first hand-crafted, and then it generates challenge situations for the player (like in Tetris), it’s done procedurally, which makes it harder to control over that ‘flow’ through the game. While we wanted to tell a story though the mechanics, with surprise on the way, we believe that those special levels create richness and diversity. We wanted the game to be a journey with a challenge rather than 100-something levels of boredom.
Colors that Help Concentrate on Puzzles
Colors play a special role in Shapist. There is a functional aspect. For example, interactivity is always highlighted with orange color. Color palettes tell the story during the journey though the game, with vibrancy and excitement shifting from bright colors for easy levels to more pastel, serene colors that let players concentrate on harder levels as he or she advances.
One color palette was inspired by the colors of Singapore, where I currently live. Among our five palettes, there are some resembling the feeling of nostalgia and serenity, and the last chapter of the game has colors inspired by Japan.
Consistency in the Game and Beyond
Shapist was only possible through great teamwork and an identical vision of the game and its core values. We were blessed with fantastic people in and around development. Jorge Vinals wrote us an amazing ambiance for the background that contributes to the overall feeling of the game in the most perfect way. We wanted to highlight the experience of a never-interrupted journey throughout the game, where there are no loading screens or level titles. We translated the same sensation of flow to the website we launched together with the iOS version of Shapist for iPad in the end of February 2014. There’s a seamless transition between the HTML site and a web demo of the game. We are now working full time on bringing the game to iPhone, Android and maybe Windows8 phones in a few months.
Entertainment Forge was a Serbian-based one-man indie studio founded and run by Darko Peninger, the programmer and game designer. Darko later joined forces with Gilbert De Vera from the Philippines, the studio’s artist who also shares game designing duties. They’ve recently launched their second game for PC, How Smart Are You?, where the player happens to land on a planet with some intelligent civilization whose history arises as the visitor solves their puzzles in a pyramid. At the same time, the player’s IQ is being measured for some reason… Darko, with help from Gilbert, explains how they got to working together and how they’re going to conquer the world.
First Choice: Less Money, More Work
I started working on my game-making career as soon as I finished high school on the 1st of July 2011, though I should have totally left school and started earlier! Back then, I didn’t know much about game design, knew almost nothing about programming, but had a big passion for making games – as I still do! So I just thought out and did everything myself, including artwork. Oh boy, was I bad in art! In about a year and a half, I made a game called Mystery IQ Test. It was my first game that got sponsored.
I got two sponsors fighting over the game. One offered more money, and the other one promised less money and some additional work. So, logically, I chose the latter! It was actually a good decision, because this is when I met Gilbert. The chosen sponsor from Yepi, Roy Tzayag, suggested paying an artist and working together to make the game even better. This could have been a valuable experience for a newbie, so I decided to give it a try.
From Call Center Trainer to Game Artist
Gilbert De Vera has been a game artist since 2010. He started it as a part-time job, while still working as a trainer in a call center of a company.
“Like everyone else who’s starting a new job, I didn’t have all the things I needed to make art: no tablet, printer, scanner and not even a good computer,” Gilbert explains. “I used my camera and took photos of my art in paper, and then transferred them to the computer for digital coloring. What is more, I was using a crappy old PC. That was really hard, but turned out a great challenge.”
“In 2011, I quit my day job and became a full-time game artist,” he recalls. “I’ve worked with different clients, garnered a lot of experience in game development and finished plenty of games. One of them was a game made by Darko. A client who happened to be his sponsor asked for help to improve the game’s visual aesthetics. After we finished that project, Darko planned to create a sequel to the game he made first. And How Smart Are You? appeared.”
Puzzles Make a Game Fun, Even With Little Mechanics
The game’s puzzles were designed with the help of my friends. They used to come to my place or we just sat in the park brainstorming puzzles. There were at least 200 ideas, but I picked the 40 I found most suitable for the game. Many of these still didn’t appear to be good enough, so only 30 ended up in the latest version of How Smart Are You?. I think figuring out puzzles was the hardest thing, cause the game itself doesn’t have much of a mechanic. And then Gilbert joined the team to do his magic and make art! We started creating games together with a 50/50 percentage deal.
“I didn’t have any problem doing art on this game, since Darko explained all the details he needed pretty well,” Gilbert says. “At the start of the project, I always ask what kind of character is needed, to make sure to create two or more so that there’s a choice. Darko told me to draw a spaceman that looks like a human, while it’s actually an alien. There is a puzzle room where the character needs to put boxes behind an X-ray machine to see what’s inside. It also shows the character’s skeleton that should resemble a human one. This is the tricky part: making players believe that the character behind the spaceman suit is a human being.”
“The best experience for me is when a player loves the game so much that we receive fan mail and good feedback,” the artist confesses.
“Sometimes we disagree about the design, but the good thing is that we respect each other’s opinion, value each other’s reasons, and eventually end up using the best version (that are mostly my suggestions),” Gilbert says. “But I really commend Darko for being one of the fastest coders I’ve worked with (or maybe I’m really that slow).”
“It took us almost 2 months to finish the game,” Gilbert recalls. “The main challenge for me was keeping up with Darko’s deadlines! Since I was working for several projects back then, my attention was split, and I wasn’t doing things fast enough. However, I learned one thing here: better to do one project at a time and focus on it, in order to finish it much faster. Never really expected that Darko and I will continue doing games in the future, but I really admired his efforts on finishing a project, and that’s why I suggested to him to make more games together.”
Currently, we’re working on smaller games to get more experience and build up some budget – Physics, Launcher, Action/Adventure games for Web (and planning to go mobile soon) platforms. We’ve noticed that making a small but fast to finish game is the safe way to earn money in this line of business. Risk is much lower compared to creating a game that we could finish in a few months.
Plans: Rule the World and Beat Bill Gates’ Fortune
I have plans for bigger games (most likely web and mobile). From the very beginning, my goal was to make awesome games that will rule the world (Muahaha!!). To be serious, it’s creating really engaging and meaningful game experiences for players. And I will accomplish these goals, cause I strongly believe that I can and will give everything I’ve got to achieve them!
“My future plan is to top Bill Gates fortune and be able to donate half of it to charity,” Gilbert smiles. “Kidding aside, my real plan is just to top Bill Gates fortune.”
Right now, How Smart Are You? is available for web only. In the meantime, Darko and Gilbert are thinking of some new games, both similar to the previous one, but, at the same time, totally different.
Arges Systems is a micro-studio doing game consulting and application development in Unity – their specialty is on game logic and AI. Arges Systems has been partnering with companies specializing in 3D graphics and visual design, as well as doing contracting for companies building games with Unity. In this article, Ricardo J. Méndez (founder of Arges Systems) shares some insights on their just-released Hairy Tales.
I initially founded Arges Systems to take advantage of my experience running remote teams and projects. We had been doing contracting on various game projects for a couple of years before I decided to switch gears and start working on our own stuff. I had just decided to pull the plug on a turn-based strategy game for which I realized the scope was too ambitious and was chatting with Yuriy Mazurkin, our concept artist, about possible themes for a follow up game. The conversation drifted to Russian illustrators – somehow we ended up talking about Ivan Bilibin and it got me thinking about action/adventure games.
A sword-wielding octogenarian riding a warhorse charges forward from a hill. Nordic forests and evergreen trees spread before him. He’s also butt-naked.
It was a simple, straightforward picture by Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin, from his Marya Morevna series, and my first encounter with Koschei the Deathless. He’s an archetypal antagonist of Slavic folklore, an even more evil version of their better-known Baba Yaga.
I took one look at it and with its combination of adventure and absurd, I thought “damn, this would make for an excellent slavic Zelda-like game”.
You can’t get there… from here
I experimented with gameplay styles while Yuriy drafted some concepts. We drafted several ideas for scenarios, including a story, but it quickly became apparent I had nothing new to say about the adventure genre. I wanted to do a game that was different, and this wasn’t it.
Partly as a way to cleanse our creative palate, I started experimenting with mixing puzzles in. You had to maneuver the main character through a corrupted land, frozen in time, but elements got un-frozen as you approach them. This had pros and cons, since you could activate machinery just by being near it, but enemies also came alive. The puzzle aspect was to figure out what to do when. I decided to discard this version as well. It seemed like a one-trick pony, with the sort of read-the-designer’s-mind approach that I hate, and lacked replayability – once you know the solution, that’s it. Also, the game was taking on a somewhat stoic tone that I felt dragged it down.
You will notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the modeling side of things. We had overenthusiastically already started modeling before I was done with the design, because I wanted to get the time-consuming assets out of the way – or at least properly estimated. Despite it being a bad strategic decision, it had a positive side effect: it made me realize early on that the 3D artist we were working with just wouldn’t cut it. The quality of his work had been in decline, he wasn’t paying attention to details, and both Yuriy and I kept having to bounce work back to him with notes. Eventually I had to let him go and start looking for a new hire. Fortunately we found Ash Barnard, from the UK, who meshed with the team perfectly. He has an eye for detail, very expressive animations and more importantly, just the right sense of humor to make the Hairy Tales animations memorable and peculiar. Ash also brought in a good eye for gameplay, and helped criticize mechanics as I was coming up with them.
Through several experiments and iterations, I ended up landing on something close to the current approach. The first few iterations were fixed stages, based around arrows that directed them and fences that made them turn two sides to the right. It also featured a first draft of the spreading corruption, with the twist that if it spread to a tile with a fence, then it got corrupted and the fence turned into a deadly wall of flame. I can hear the thought gears as you try to figure it out. Playtesters weren’t getting it, and even when they figured out stages the reaction often was “I know this is how it’s supposed to be, but don’t know why”.
That would not do.
Dragging it there
I started paring down the elements. At this point we’ve been in a production iteration limbo for months, and all the associated hair pulling is starting to take its toll on me. Everything is self-funded, so Arges is hemorrhaging cash while we experiment, and my focus is split between the game and the client work that is funding the process. I started trying different games to relax – mostly playing demos, so I didn’t get too involved and lost track of the project. One day I was playing a demo of Atlus’ Catherine, moving Vincent around, pulling and pushing blocks into place, and then a light bulb went on. After simplifying the elements, the stages had felt too straightforward, and the new levels depended mostly on size for their complexity. What if players could drag tiles from one place to another?
I didn’t tell the team, just sent them a build where some later stages required them to move tiles. They were rather surprised at first, but immediately saw the possibilities, like tiles that drag Hairys from one place to another, weapons you can re-use or teleporters. So finally, after months of iterations, we had a design we were happy with.
The 90-90 rule
It took a lot to get from a game’s design to the final product, of course. We still had to design the look for the various tile elements as we were going, which kept Yuriy involved while Ash created the models and I both coded the behavior and came up with the stages. Yuriy was also helping with the texturing. His true love is painterly work, however, so he came to me when we were about to enter the final stretch and brought up that he wanted to move on.
As sad as this made me, since I enjoyed working with him, I helped coach him for interviews and gave him a sterling recommendation. He ended up getting employed by Yager in Berlin, who recently published Spec Ops: The Line, and I expect is right now working on their next project.
At about this time I brought on board composer Levan Iordanishvili as a contractor to work on the game’s music. He liked the game and offered to take care of the sound effects as well. To ensure both were cut from the same cloth – he did a smashing job of re-creating the sound that Ash’s animations made in your head when you looked at them, and his scoring of the three worlds and bosses was top notch.
I had initially planned to release with five worlds and five bosses worth of content, for a total of 75 levels (15 per world). Playtesting had demonstrated that players needed a gentler level progression than the breakneck pace we initially had, so each world had increased to 24 stages. If we kept the same number of stages per world, we were looking at 120 stages total, plus the extra time it would take for the two other bosses and possibly new enemies to keep things lively. The scope was getting out of hand.
I made a judgment call. We would be launching with 72 levels and three bosses, using some minor characters as mini-bosses. Once we saw the initial reactions to these levels from our players, we could release a couple more worlds as add-ons and expand on those qualities that players enjoyed the most. The team agreed, and we geared up for polishing the worlds we had fully designed.
The initial stage sequence introduced one concept after another, presenting a more concentrated experience which gave the player little respite, with no stages that they could use to experiment with the mechanics they had just learned before throwing a new set of concepts at them. After various rounds of playtesting, I introduced some intermediate levels that presented the concepts they’d just learned in different contexts, so that they could play around a bit more, which made the initial learning process smoother. However, it also led to the initial stage sequence feeling a bit drawn out, so I then had to adjust the sequence once again. This process went on over several iterations, even after we had released.
Launch and everything after
We wrapped what we considered to be version 1.0, went back to talk to some publishers we’d been in contact with, and settled on Forest Moon Games and BAM! The game was out the gate.
It was exceedingly well received by reviewers – sites like TouchArcade, EuroGamer and Gamezbo gave it glowing reviews, praising its flexibility, difficulty and character. The game is currently sitting at a Metascore of 81, the highest Forest Moon Games has gotten (and one of the highest of its less-experimental sister brand Crescent Moon Games). Apple picked the Mac version of the game as an Editor’s Choice on the Mac App Store, and gave it a humbler New and Noteworthy feature on iOS.
However, commercial reception was merely lukewarm. We were aware that the characters, not being your traditional cute-and-cuddly puzzle game stars, would be an issue. But we were not sure what was the main problem. The initial game difficulty was rather high – a throwback to the old school puzzle style – which might be turning off casual game players who get it expecting an easier time and hurting word of mouth. At the same time, the visuals are cartoonish, which leads players who would appreciate the challenge to dismiss it as a merely a casual game. Once we get it in front of players they usually love it, but doing so takes a fair amount of effort.
We’ve also had an overwhelming amount of piracy – 95% piracy rates on iOS and Mac, with Windows being well over 99% (Windows sales are comparatively a rounding error). It’s great that players are enjoying the game but having gone with a design oriented towards making it a premium app instead of a freemium game means we get no benefit from those playing it for free – not even a ranking increase.
We have continued supporting the game, releasing so far three minor and one major updates, including an adjusted difficulty curve and 12 new tutorial levels (bringing the total up to 84), but as of this writing that update has only been out for a couple of weeks – it still remains to be seen what effect it will have.
Where do we begin?
Target it, goddammit – We focused too much on the gameplay and on crafting characters with a personality we enjoyed, without considering if we were sending out mixed messages that could confuse players, alienating precisely those we wanted to rope in.
Cut the dead weight early – the initial modeler and animator just wasn’t working out, and keeping him on board for longer than I should have was not only an expense I could have saved, but risked losing us an invaluable team member. Deal with these problems sooner rather than later.
Be ready to trim – we have a plethora of characters and elements we just didn’t get to use because we simply had no time to properly develop them. As much as you love your designs, chances are a lot of them will end up having to be left out.
If you’re indie and working on a premium app, reconsider – there doesn’t seem to be a middle market on iOS apps anymore – it’s almost all either huge AAA-quality projects, or simpler one-mechanic freemium games (and some freemium games have been getting shinier and more elaborate). Do you really want to bet the house on a business model with a piracy rate higher than 90%, when the market is flooded with competing titles that players can get for free?
Where to go from here
Stubborn as we are, we find ourselves already working on our next title, after going through multiple prototypes and even more concepts – this time applying the lessons we learned from Hairy Tales. I expect we’ll manage to retain the spirit of experimentation and sense of humor that we imbued the game with, while setting it into a game design more fitting for today’s game climate. Wish us luck!