Infinity Levels Studio, the winner of Indie Prize Best Mobile Game nomination at Casual Connect USA 2016, is a small Thai-based games studio that focuses on building differentiated gameplay and amazing artwork. Coming from a not-so well-known place to produce innovative mobile games, and due to the competitive nature of the category, Nikki Assavathorn, the head of the studio, was pretty sure they wouldn’t win anything. So she sat at the back of the room and didn’t realize her studio has won the award, and only an hour later, when she chatted with the other gamers, she found out that Blades of Revenge has won.
Nob Studio is an indie company from Singapore, run by Shu Wan Cheng. He has been working as an indie game dev full time since 2008. Initially Shu Wan was developing Flash games only, and gradually switched to mobile. He barely survived as a solo dev for many years, and calls Prison Life RPG his biggest success so far.
Fearless Fantasy began in 2012, when animator/director Andrew Kerekes, encouraged by a couple of Flash RPGs that made a splash at the time, decided to create an RPG of his own. Its unique selling point would be a skill-based gesture mechanic which would replace the random number generator and create a more immersive experience. More than two years later, the originally humble Flash project got released on Steam, with plans to bring it to mobile devices soon. Daniel Borgmann was responsible for the development side, and now shares the experience of creating a game in an ever-changing market.
The Beginning: A Tempting Offer
I joined the project when Andrew was looking for a programmer to implement his concept. At this point, I had just decided to dive into full-time game development. While I was working on a couple of projects of my own, his offer was too tempting to pass up, so I jumped at the chance.
At this point, Andrew had mostly made a name for himself through animation projects, but also contributed and created a few smaller Flash games, the biggest one being an elaborate hidden objects game called Memohuntress. I remembered this game for its unusual atmosphere, and the prospects of creating an RPG with his unique style were exciting.
The plan originally was to finish the entire game in about three months, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t a realistic projection. We both still believed in the concept though and, because we were working well together, decided to change our arrangement to a 50/50 profit share. At this point, I wasn’t feeling too much pressure yet, as I had some savings left and was confident that our hard work would pay off in the end one way or another.
Collaborating Across the Globe
A distinctive feature of our collaboration was that the majority of work was done exactly 12 hours apart; by Andrew in Hawaii and me in Berlin. Everything considered, we dealt with the time difference pretty well. It probably helped that both of us occasionally confuse the moon for the sun. We kept working this way for many months, while the game went through various stages and we both also dealt with some significant personal changes.
Realizing how much work it would be to implement the original vision, we started to aggressively cut down features to focus on the essentials. One of the first things that had to go was the world map. After a few iterations, we ended up with a simple level-select screen so typical for casual and mobile games. This was a natural fit for our game, given that its core is the unique battle system and ease of play.
With this renewed focus, things really started to fall into place. We changed the battles to have multiple waves of enemies, which created a nice amount of challenge without becoming frustrating. We tweaked the upgrade system to allow unlimited re-specs, and even changed the shop to allow buying and selling items without experiencing a loss. In many ways, we were turning the game from a pure RPG into a skill-based game “with an RPG element”.
The Ever-Changing Flash Market: The Good and Bad
As the months went on, we both started to reach our limits. Both of us dealt with some personal issues, and the pressure already started piling up. We now had to rely on our families to keep us going, but we knew that this couldn’t go on any longer.
For me, the hardest thing to deal with was my marriage falling apart. I tried to avoid resolving it until the end of the project, but eventually it just affected me too much. After the separation, I went through a short slump but had a lot of time to reflect. So, when I had pulled myself back together, I knew it was time to bring things to the logical ending.
After one last major push to add a layer of polish and quality, we were finally ready to present Fearless Fantasy to potential sponsors. By this time, we had put so much of our personalities into the game that we didn’t really expect it to be profitable. Nevertheless, we were hoping to get an offer good enough to keep us going for a while, while we worked on sequels or new projects.
We contacted a few sponsors and received some phenomenal feedback, while the exact offers turned out disappointing. We had to realize that the Flash market just wasn’t where it used to be when we started the project, and our prospects looked grim. We were ready to cut our losses and put our hopes into a quick sequel or mobile release, but then we met tinyBuild.
tinyBuild’s Vote of Confidence
Alex Nichiporchik from tinyBuild played our game and liked it enough to offer us a publishing deal. He brought up the idea to get the game on Steam, like they did with their own Flash game No Time To Explain before. We had considered this before, but going through Greenlight looked too daunting given the situation we were in. tinyBuild’s vote of confidence and the possibility to bypass Greenlight convinced us to give it a try, and it’s not like we had anything to lose at this point. Of course, this also meant a few additional months of hard work.
The biggest task was to properly support high-resolution full-screen displays. What helped us was the fact that we had already chosen a rather large resolution for the Flash game, and used bitmap graphics exclusively, so we could set the stage quality to low and get reasonable rendering speeds from Flash. But we were already pushing Flash to the limits, and increasing the pixel counts to potentially very large numbers still posed a real problem. Our solution was to sacrifice disk space (which now was much less crucial) for the sake of performance by pre-rendering complex characters into a number of static frames.
The remainder was more straight-forward, and tinyBuild was able to help us out with their experience. We used MDM Zinc to package the game for Windows (incidentally AIR was not an option because it does not allow low stage quality with the desktop profile for some reason) and used a Steam extension they provided to implement achievements and cloud storage. Of course, we also improved the quality of the audio and graphics, and bought a few more music tracks since we could now afford the disk space.
A Bad Surprise on Release Day
Finally, we were ready for the big release. After everything we went through to get to this point, I couldn’t even tell whether I felt more relief or anxiety. It was probably the strangest feeling I’ve ever experienced. Then, on the day of the release, Gamasutra posted a feature about how Steam is being flooded with games, and what this would mean for small game developers. Reading this on the actual day of our release was a bit surreal and, as it turned out, we released simultaneously with a large number of games, some of them highly anticipated.
For this reason, it’s difficult to tell how we felt about the release. We didn’t get an impressive burst of sales we were cautiously hoping for from a Steam release. On the other hand, feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and this keeps us optimistic that the game can be a success, if we manage to get people to talk about it.
One thing we learned from the release is that the Flash rendering just isn’t good enough. Despite the hoops we went through to keep performance as high as possible, some people ran into issues, and our performance workarounds also led to relatively high memory usage, which could lead to stability issues. We had already planned to move to Starling and DragonBones eventually for the mobile version, so we decided to prioritize this. It would provide a huge number of advantages, from better performance and graphics to increased stability and the ability to use AIR.
As soon as the Daniel and Andrew are done with this, they’ll try again to get the word out, and then work on the mobile version. Additionally, they’re planning to add a survival mode for long-term value, and considering the possibility to release it as a free demo version for web and mobile. Fearless Fantasy recently won the Best Art Award at Indie Prize at Casual Connect USA 2014.