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Secret Santa: It’s a Stealthy Xmas – A Rediscoverable Seasonal Game

April 16, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Secret Santa: It’s a Stealthy Xmas is an HTML5 stealth-based platform game with a Christmas flavor targeting a young audience. In the game, players take the role of Santa and deliver presents under several Christmas trees while remaining hidden from the various family members inhabiting the different homes/levels. The developer, Adsumsoft, is a tiny mini-micro-studio based in Singapore. It actually consists of just one person, game designer and author Roberto Dillon, but the team can easily expand on a per-project basis whenever needed, or even find creative and original uses for existing PD and CC-licensed assets to complete development. Roberto shares the experience of creating a seasonal game that has an advantage: it can be rediscovered and updated every holiday season. 

Santa just jumped on a bookshelf to remain undetected

No Enemies, Drama or Failing

Adsumsoft founder and the guy behind Secret Santa, Roberto Dillon

The idea behind Secret Santa was to create a joyful experience, without real enemies and drama for failing. In other words, it was designed to put players in a good mood suitable for the festive season.

A set of Christmas carols was needed to achieve the right atmosphere, and a few well-known ones were easily available from A-M Classical to accompany players in all phases of the game, including the “Game Over” screen which, as mentioned, still had to be perceived as a celebrative moment and not as an angry, disappointing failure.

Graphics wise, the idea was to keep things simple and cute, thanks to self-contained levels in each screen and a retro art style reminiscent of old classics like Little Computer People which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite games. The art assets used in the game were done mostly by Lanea Zimmerman and Trent Gamblin and fit the setting pretty well, delivering the kind of style that was originally intended.

Little Computer People (Activision, 1985): while there were no Christmas trees there, its cheerful atmosphere and serene setting still provided valuable ideas and inspiration for Secret Santa.

The reasons behind this choice varies. For example, being an “old” guy who grew up with 8-bit games, I obviously have a soft spot for retro-inspired graphics. Anyway, even from a less sentimental and more practical perspective, this type of graphics also makes sense, since it’s easier and cheaper to make than other styles and allows faster iterations if something needs to be tuned or polished further later in development.

All About Jumping and Hiding

Secret Santa is a platformer with a simple stealth gameplay at its core, where players have to exercise patience and then be quick in their movements.

Besides jumping around, hiding behind doors is the other core mechanic.

For the game to work, it was essential to make funny and interesting ways for the player to hide. So almost every piece of furniture in the houses has been designed as a platform to jump on and get to locations that remain out of sight to the family members: even a bookshelf or lamp, apparently too high to be reached, can indeed be a great hiding spot to wait while a little kid or an auntie passes underneath checking whether Santa has already delivered presents for them.

Besides jumping around, hiding behind doors is the other core mechanic. Glass doors can be opened to let Santa hide for a while as well, visible to no one but the player!

Controls: Buttons’ Functions Change with Santa’s Position

Controls can make or break a game on any platform, and even more so in mobile gaming. Great care was put into them to make sure that Santa’s acrobatics were as intuitive and easy to handle as possible, both when playing on PC and on a mobile touchscreen.

In touch versions, directional arrows for running were placed at the sides of the screen (left arrow on the left side, right on the right) with a button above each of them. The functionality of the buttons varies automatically according to Santa’s position and, in all but one specific case (i.e. while on the stairs), pressing either one will result in the same action, allowing players to use either thumb.

Santa is now hiding behind a door waiting for the right time to resume his presents delivering mission. Notice how the buttons turned red.

By default, the buttons are light blue and pressing them would result in jumping but, whenever Santa is next to specific objects, like Christmas trees or doors, the buttons turn red to signify something different can be done. That’s how Santa can go in and out of chimneys, hide behind doors and step away from there, use the staircases and, last but not least, deliver the presents under the Christmas trees.

Predicted Problem of Discoverability

The game was developed using Construct 2 and while the production workflow went very smoothly, it was kinda troublesome to fully exploit HTML5’s flexibility to deliver the game on multiple platforms and operating systems, since performance still varies significantly across browsers and devices. Eventually, we decided to focus only on PC desktop browsers, iOS (with the game ported by using Ludei’s CocoonJS) and also give a shot at the new upcoming Tizen platform, while temporarily leaving others behind due to lack of time for organizing proper testing.

Tizen caught our attention because releasing HTML5-based games on this platform is quite straightforward.

Tizen caught our attention because releasing HTML5-based games on this platform is quite straightforward. Besides, we developed the game while the Tizen million-dollar App Challenge was on, so we decided to give it a try. Naturally, we didn’t win anything, but are still curious to see how the game will perform next Christmas on these new devices.

Being a very small studio and completely lacking marketing muscles and distribution power, it was easy to predict discoverability would be an issue, and indeed it was. Secret Santa was released as freeware in the second half of November 2013. The web version running on and Facebook was the first to be launched, with iOS following soon afterwards.

Monetization was planned through ads on the web and voluntary donations through PayPal.

Monetization was planned through ads on the web and voluntary donations through PayPal on iOS (no ads there to provide a pure, undisturbed playing experience) with 50 percent of any eventual donation to be devolved to charities supporting children in South East Asia.

Overall, by the end of 2013, the game had about 55k users, mostly playing on the web, while on iOS, Secret Santa managed to break into the Top 100 Arcade and Family games in only two countries (Macau and Laos). Sadly though, nobody donated anything (yes: you read right, not even a single person!).

The reason for the complete lack of donations was that the game is targeted at children.

Most likely, the reason for the complete lack of donations was that the game is targeted at children who, for obvious reasons, can’t donate directly but need to ask their parents first. Probably, the latter were not keen to do so.

Ads revenue didn’t fare any better and resulted in only a few dollars that were then donated to Seametrey Children’s School and Village in Cambodia.

Seasonal Games: The Chance of Being Rediscovered Every Year

Secret Santa is a seasonal game, which means interest will peak only at a specific times of the year. This means there’s not much purpose in doing an update right now, since nobody would notice. On the bright side, seasonal games will periodically be rediscovered and get new chances for reviews on blogs, websites, and YouTube channels. In the end, when done right, they may actually have a longer tail than other games whose novelty factor and interest burns out quickly.

They may actually have a longer tail than other games whose novelty factor and interest burns out quickly.

Taking this into account, a proper Android version may be released in time for Christmas 2014: maybe we will get a donation this time!

Secret Santa is available on browsersiOS, and Tizen platforms. Roberto is currently working on a couple of new concepts: an “on-rails” RPG game named The Innkeeper’s Tales and Defense: Evolution, a sort of tower defense/RTS hybrid based on cellular automata theory. To remain up-to-date with his work, check out Adsumsoft’s Facebook page or Roberto’s Twitter.


Studio Spotlight

Excamedia: Bringing Retro Style to Modern Gaming

March 31, 2014 — by Gamesauce Staff


Maarten van Zanten has been wishing to make video games since he was six years old. When he and Dwight Lagadeau started discussing the idea for a game, they decided to look for others who were interested and soon founded Excamedia. Maarten talks to Gamesauce about the studio and their first game, A Clumsy Adventure.

the team busy working
The team hard at work

Excamedia loves a good challenge. Hailing from Utrecht in the Netherlands, Excamedia was founded by Maarten van Zanten in 2013 with an emphasis on retro-style gaming as well as difficulty — an element Zanten feels has been lost in many modern games.

“I miss the challenge in most games,” Zanten says, though he understands that many games are less difficult nowadays so that they appeal to larger masses. “In one way, it’s good for gaming as an entertainment medium, but on the other hand, it creates easy games for wider audiences to make big money.”

The Ultimate Challenge

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Zanten faced was founding Excamedia. The studio began in August 2013, when Zanten and Excamedia audio composer Dwight Lagadeau secured a contract with Sony and Nintendo and got into the ID@XBOX program. But before they could secure contracts, they needed a place to call headquarters. “We found that we had to have an office to invite the publishers to, to show our professional approach while being an indie developer,” Zanten says. “The challenge basically was to find an affordable office we could afford.”

Dutch Game Garden banner
Zanten and Lagadeau eventually settled into Dutch Game Garden

Zanten and Lagadeau eventually settled into Dutch Game Garden, a building in Utrecht that the team considers “Europe’s Silicon Valley for game developers.” In addition to providing a place to communicate with publishers like Sony and Nintendo, the office space also provided a central area for Excamedia team members to collaborate in person as well as with their international team members.

Currently, Zanten and Lagadeau, along with four interns, make up the populace at Excamedia HQ. But with Zanten working a full-time job in addition to his work at Excamedia and a team of international staff as well, online communication has become a staple for the company. “We mainly talk to each other through Skype — or if decisions need to be made on the spot, we do a Skype call, Google Hangout, or discuss one on one,” Zanten says.

Everyone brings their own special skill set and job to the table. Focusing on one job allows everyone to do what they excel at. While one person focuses on story-writing in Italy, another focuses on programming in France, and yet another focuses on 3D game elements in Nepal. The team holds weekly Google Hangout meetings to discuss things that need to be improved, things that need to be tested, complaints, workflows, and everything in-between. “Everyone is equal in the team and needs to say his/her opinion. Everyone is valuable during development.”.

In Development

Currently, Excamedia is developing a game called A Clumsy Adventure for the PS4 and PS Vita, though it will ultimately move to other platforms. The company was originally planning to release their game for smartphones, but good publishing conditions convinced Excamedia to release the game for Playstation consoles first.

Dark level new build 4
Currently, Excamedia is developing a game called A Clumsy Adventure

A Clumsy Adventure is a story-driven game and features Zack, the main character, whose clumsiness lands him in an adventure in which he must save Earth from aliens in under 24 hours. “We wanted a character that evolves through the story and behaves like we sometimes do on a bad day when things go wrong due to your own clumsiness — and later you face a challenge you thought you couldn’t,” Zanten says. “The game has a message to never stop believing in yourself.”

Mechanically, the game was inspired by retro games, with the gamer traveling throughout the world fighting various enemies and “epic end bosses, which remind you of the old days.” According to Zanten, the game mixes the fun of Mario with the difficulty of Dark Souls all into an action platformer.

Excamedia plans to split A Clumsy Adventure into four episodes. Every episode will be evaluated by players and the feedback will be used to improve the next episode. “We have a general story to tell, but (game) elements can be added, changed or removed as we go,” Zanten says. “The gamers are the ones who will play it and enjoy it so we want to be proactive towards the gamers and listen to them.”

Funding and Running a Start-up

Finally nice and tidy
Zanten and Lagadeau currently use their own savings to run the company’s day-to-day operations and pay for the office space.

Zanten and Lagadeau currently use their own savings to run the company’s day-to-day operations and pay for the office space, but in April, Excamedia will begin an Indiegogo campaign. They hope to raise enough money to “optimize the development further toward the release of the game and the episodes that follow.”

In the meantime, the company is focusing on game development — which has its ups and downs. Zanten says that “the biggest challenge is to put the ideas in your mind into words. You visualize a lot of things, but sometimes you need to explain it.” However, the upside for Zanten is testing those ideas. “You can really see if what you wanted actually works or not,” he says. “It’s both exciting and tense. If it works out the way you want, it’s very satisfying.”

In addition to developing the game, Excamedia reports its progress to Sony and Nintendo. While the publishers do offer advice, Excamedia ultimately decides whether to incorporate it or not. Zanten notes that Nintendo and Sony treat indie developers very well and lets Excamedia be creative in every way.

In the Pipeline

Once Excamedia has a steady framework for A Clumsy Adventure, the company will begin tackling other projects — a few of which are already planned. One of the projects will be “Skyrim for children” and is based on a book from well-known Dutch writer Tamara Gereads-Grootveld. Excamedia is also planning to build a game around a musical album from music artist Katsuo.

Excamedia would also like to develop a fighting game and complete “Seal Space,” a game Zanten and Lagadeau were working on before the creation of Excamedia and haven’t had a chance to complete. “Although Excamedia is just starting, we have lots of ideas for compelling and challenging games,” Zanten says. “Our games will have a good focus on retro games, so don’t expect very easy games from us.”

To learn more about Excamedia and follow their game progress, visit their page here. You can also check out Excamedia on Facebook and Twitter.