The Letter is a non-chronological, horror visual novel game with seven playable characters. It also features full English voice acting, several branching paths with more than 10 endings, highly animated character sprites and backgrounds, and quick-time events.
Skara, The Blade Remains is a versus-style multiplayer hack’n’slash with the soul of an RPG. Developed by a small team of 12 crazy indie developers in the UK and Spain using Unreal Engine, Skara is set on a post-cataclysmic fantasy world where only the strong can survive. Teams and individuals of up to 16 will battle it out for supremacy in Skara’s full game mode, becoming the protagonists of an unfolding story. Until then, players can play quick versus fights, longer free-for-all brawls and six-person Team Deathmatches in dangerous environments.
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.
It probably helped that both of us occasionally confuse the moon for the sun.
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.
The Flash market just wasn’t where it used to be when we started the project.
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.
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.
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.
We used MDM Zinc to package the game for Windows, and a Steam extension to implement achievements and cloud storage.
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.
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.
“Obviously, everyone wants to do freemium today,” Ian Gregory tells his audience at Casual Connect Asia 2014. “Every publisher you speak of will always ask about freemium.” He continues, “I would like to point out that there are a few caveats to freemium.”
Ian Gregory, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Witching Hour Studios, has never had formal training in developing games. He came to the games industry from a career in advertising, and he claims, “You would be surprised how similar both industries can be.” However, he has been interested in game design from the time he was a child playing pen and paper role playing games. His first game, Ravenmark, was originally planned as a tabletop game. But after discussions with Witching Hour Studios Co-Founders Brian Kwek and Kevin Mohinani, he made the decision to convert it into digital format. And he says, “It’s been quite a ride since!”
At Witching Hour Studios, Gregory is responsible for art and design. The fundamentals of art direction and problem-solving he learned in the advertising world were a huge benefit when he came to the games industry. The project structure he was already familiar with was also an advantage in the pipeline planning involved in game development. And he discovered very early in his career the importance of communication and clearly conveying an idea.
A Profound Email and a Supportive Community
The event he feels is the most rewarding in his career is a bit unusual, since it did not include any of the usual forms of recognition, such as reaching a sales target, receiving an award, or being mentioned in the media. He tells of giving a talk on game design and the game industry at a school. Soon after, he received an email from a student saying how much he enjoyed the talk and that he wanted to become a game designer. Seeing that student discover what he wanted to do with his life had a profound impact on Gregory.
He describes the developer community in Singapore as small but incredibly tight and supportive. He finds the greatest enjoyment in his work comes from the amazingly talented people he works with. “Every day is a joy to come in and make great things,” he says, “when everyone is focused on the same goal of making great experiences.”
It is All About Creativity
The attitude at Witching Hour Studios is what keeps the creative fires burning for the team. And creativity is what keeps Gregory going. He maintains that he stays in the industry because he knows he can create and “that’s a heady drug.”
Inquisitive is the way he describes himself, and, no doubt, this is another aspect of his creativity. He admits, “I have Google searches and Wikipedia always open to some tab, often for the oddest reasons.” He reads whenever he is not playing games and admits to being a bit of an information hoarder, something which he claims is surprisingly useful in designing games. As well, his creativity is fueled by game play, including the tabletop RPGs he plays every other week, like Pathfinder and Fate of the Norns.
Gregory loves exploring new game worlds and following fantastic stories. He has just finished Shadowrun: Dragonfall and recently started Age of Wonders. He is currently playing on iOS, but is also comfortable using Android. But he does say he tends to use PC most of the time, and, although he owns a PS4, he uses it mainly for gaming with his girlfriend.
A Growing Change
In the future of the games industry, Gregory sees a growing split between freemium and premium business models, with smaller companies having to decide which direction to take. He believes many companies will be enticed by the profits they expect from the freemium model. Witching Hour Studios will move the other direction, knowing they are better at creating a holistic experience and believing people are willing to pay full price for it. Their audience objects to the constant nickel-and-dime payments for freemium.
Elonka Dunin is a game developer who has twenty years of experience in the industry with her. She advocates for the online game genre and co-founded the International Game Developers Association’s Online Games Group. She shares her start in the game industry, reflections on a constantly changing industry, and her current work on Fantasy University for Facebook and other web portals such as Kongregate.
From Gamer to Developer
Elonka Dunin has been playing games since a time before PCs. Dunin’s father was involved with IBM computers in the 1960s and programmed mainframes to play games with her. As computers started moving into people’s households, Dunin was one of the early explorers of online fantasy worlds. She played every MUD she could get her hands on. When the game industry moved in the direction of Bulletin Board Systems, she played those too, until the industry and her along with it transitioned to online services such as GEnie and CompuServe in the 1980s.
In the 1990’s, Dunin went to GemCon in St. Louis, Missouri, where she got to meet some of the people involved in writing one of the games she played—GemStone ][ on GEnie. They hit it off, and a few months later she quit her non-game job in Los Angeles, California to make the leap to Simutronics in St. Louis. She has been there ever since.
“I have a special fondness for each game in their own way.”
Since taking a position at Simutronics, Dunin has been in the game industry for twenty years. Some of her most-loved games she worked on include popular MUDs such as one of the longest-running online games GemStone, Orb Wars, DragonRealms, and Modus Operandi. In 1993, CyberStrike won the first award for “Online Game of the Year.” It’s hard for Dunin to pick a favorite: “I have a special fondness for each game in their own way.”
Social Games Development
Dunin is currently most excited about Fantasy University for Facebook, which is Simutronics’ first game for the social networking market. The Open Beta launched in mid-October 2010. So far, thousands of players have poured in from all over the world. “It’s got such a great energy about it, with wonderful humor and writing, and I am very proud to be part of a team that is bringing such a high-quality game to the space,” says Dunin.
For Simutronics, the biggest challenge has been the way the industry keeps changing so rapidly. However, Dunin is equipped to tackle the shifts, because of her love for and growth alongside the game industry since its beginnings.
We couldn’t look to how other companies were doing things, because we were often the first!
Dunin elaborates: “We couldn’t look to how other companies were doing things, because we were often the first! And the business model kept changing out from under us, so we had to be nimble. When we started, games were provided on major online services that charged an hourly rate, of which we got a percentage. Then the online services started changing their business models to go flatrate, so suddenly our number of users skyrocketed, but we could no longer rely on hourly fees. Then we moved our business to the web and had to come up with an entire billing system from scratch, as we re-worked everything to go with monthly subscriptions.” Now, the industry is changing again, so Fantasy University employs a microtransaction business model.
“It’s like we have to re-invent ourselves over and over again, which is fun at times, but definitely challenging!” exclaims Dunin.
Elonka Dunin also happens to be an internationally recognized expert on the ciphers of the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture and authored The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms. Dan Brown named a character after her in his latest book, ‘The Lost Symbol’ called ‘Nola Kaye’, an anagrammed form of ‘Elonka’.
Writer and designer Sande Chen reflects on her journey as a freelancer, breaks down the budding field of social game design, and recalls memories of working on her favorite role-playing games.
From Serious Games to Social Games
With a background as a games writer and serious games designer, Sande Chen is currently navigating the fairly new space of social game design. She continues to consult on other titles but is content with a steady design position.
Although Chen went to film school at the University of Southern California, she aspired to work in the games industry from the moment she graduated. Her first contract position as a game writer was for Terminus, which won two awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.
“As a freelance writer and game designer, I have worked on pretty much every platform, games big and small, from serious games to MMORPGs,” says Chen. She relies on a wide range of ongoing and overlapping work, which is the lifestyle of freelancers.
Transitional work is key to a stable career as a freelancer. “Since some of my freelance work had been in social games, I had a pretty smooth transition into working full-time as a social game designer,” says Chen.
Aspects of Social Game Design
“Social Game Designer” is a title for designers who primarily design games to be played on social networks like Facebook. Social games require a unique approach to users. Chen explains, “One particular facet of working in social games is dealing with metrics and the immediate feedback from users. Of course, other types of games deal with such issues, but I find in social games, user impact on design is faster.”
“In social games, user impact on design is faster.”
Social games especially appeal to Chen because she can have a more direct relationship with players. To Chen, social networking trumps AAA titles, particularly when you take into account that Facebook social games can reach more than 500 million active users.
Chen deals with more than writing and design. She also has to consider the economical and marketing aspects of games as a consultant. Recently, she has been familiarizing herself with free-to-play mechanics paired with microtransactional elements in social games. “It’s very important to understand your monetization scheme or to build in ways to monetize when designing a social game,” Chen advises.
Before Social Games
Although Chen enjoys social game design, she does miss the richness of writing for role-playing games. By far, her best experience was writing for CD Projekt RED’s first large-scale game, The Witcher, which won Best RPG 2007. She had the opportunity to work with a unique story created by leading Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowsk.
One of her most interesting experiences was working on a Serious Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (or SMMORPG, now that’s a mouthful). Like pushing the boundaries of social games, “the most exciting and challenging projects are outside the norm,” says Chen.
“The most exciting and challenging projects are outside the norm.”
Chen explains what brought about the game: “My friend is a physics professor and an avid fan of fantasy MMORPGs. He wanted a fantasy MMORPG to teach university level physics. It also needed to be non-violent.” For this project, Chen had to figure out what the basic gameplay mechanic had to be, what the quests would be like, and how a physics curriculum could be integrated into a MMORPG.