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.
Matthew Hall, Founder and Developer of KlickTock, describes his career as the childhood hobby that never went away. He decided on his career direction at a very early age. He was five years old when he watched a news piece on Atari with some footage of the factory floor. He turned to his parents and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an electronic engineer.”
By eight years old, he was making his own games. Recently, he took out a 30-year-old cassette of these games and was impressed to discover that almost all of them were complete. “These days,” he admits, “I have a lot more half-finished games lying around.” Hall began working as a professional game developer in 2001 and now he can’t imagine doing anything else.
A Hard Choice
Starting out as an independent developer is not an easy choice to make. When Hall decided to start KlickTock, he tells us, “My wife and child moved back to the family farm while I toiled away there on the original Little Things. When the original launch of that title didn’t go as well as I had hoped, it was a pretty dark time.” The problem was not that he had made a bad game, it was that he had made it for the wrong audience. When it was eventually released on tablet, it was very successful. Fortunately, he was able to move on quickly and found a niche for his unconventional products on the App Store.
Video games have always been a source of inspiration for Hall. Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the first Nintendo game he purchased. “I was completely captivated,” he says. Luxor by Mumbo Jumbo inspired him to leave his day job and start KlickTock. Recently, he has been playing Forget-Me-Not by Brandon Williamson and Nuclear Throne by Vlambeer. He claims, “They are the two most inspirational games I’ve played and remind me just how much I have to learn about writing games.”
As an independent developer, Hall especially values being in charge of his own destiny. He believes the best thing about his work is never having to convince anyone that his idea is a great one. But the most difficult thing is convincing himself of its value. He has discovered, “Without perspective that you can rely on, the only way to properly judge your own game is to take a few months off, come back later, and play it again. This obviously makes development quite slow!”
A Change in Indie Development
Hall points out that independent developers have been around since the birth of computers, but recently game development has changed in ways that benefit them. Unity and UDK have given independent developers the opportunity to compete with the big studios. Previously, they had to write their own 3D engine to release a 3D game. Now, any major problems can be quickly solved with a search, especially with Unity, since it has such a large development community.
The rise of portals such as Steam and the App store has also benefited independent developers, allowing them to make money, sometimes in significant amounts, from their hobby. Unusual games that were once played only by hobbyists can now find an audience.
The biggest challenge developers are facing, both in the indie space and in the mobile space, according to Hall, is getting noticed. Building a great product doesn’t guarantee success. He states, “For the indies, a cult of personality has emerged. Not only does your game have to be remarkable, but your personality also is a factor.”
In the mobile space, he has seen that the issues of a crowded marketplace have existed since the early days of the App Store. He emphasizes, “It’s important not only to build an amazing product, you also have to be ready to pick yourself up and try again if things don’t go well the first time. Building a profile as a reliable and interesting developer takes time.”
He gives this advice to independents starting out: “Build titles! Take a small idea, prototype it to prove it’s worthy of completion, then complete it.” He has noticed that developers are often overly invested in their ideas; playing them can shatter preconceptions of the game in a good way.
Preparing for the Future
Hall sees huge changes coming to the electronic entertainment industry with the advent of virtual reality via Oculus Rift. The original Oculus Rift dev kit has a profound effect on anyone who has tried it. Hall believes, “With the new technology, new genres and new opportunities will emerge. I’m very excited about making VR games, even if it isn’t the wisest business move at the moment.”
And the future of KlickTock should be just as exciting. Hall has a wall covered in game ideas ranging from the esoteric to potential top grossing titles. For several months, he has been working on a new title called Age of Solitare, which he expects to release very soon. He also tells us he is currently in ‘development hell’ working on a collectable card game called Deck War and hopes to release it later this year.
This article was written by Sergey Babaev, Creative Director of GD-Team.
Hello everyone! Recently, GD-Team began the development of MO-shooter Metal War Online. The project seemed to be a multiplatform one, meaning it will unite all the gamers with browser and client versions. Metal War Online has run only in Russia as a stand-alone client game and a social application. Over time, we decided to enter the global market via Steam. Like many of our colleagues, we realized this project via Greenlight. We devote this article to our experience of getting approval.
Please note that we don’t pretend to any creative and innovative approaches. We saw some simple and available communications gap on Greenlight, so we collected all the points together and show their importance for reaching the main result – getting the Greenlight! This consists of two parts: the approval process (advises, mistakes, etc.) and the early access (results, measures).
Is it Possible to Go Without Greenlight?
If you are not a big publisher or if you don’t have any friends who deal with the top-management of Valve Corporation, you can forget about getting directly to Web Services.
Let’s be realists. If you are not a big publisher or if you don’t have any friends who deal with the top-management of Valve Corporation, you can forget about getting directly to Web Services. Even if you deal with regional or local managers, they will only compliment your project, express their happiness to work with you as potential partners, and ask you to get through the modest approval on Steam Greenlight.
Don’t take it personally. There is not much choice: it is either supreme privacy or attempts to form some self-regulation procedures and filtration of incoming requests. You could possibly avoid the approval, but let’s suppose this measure is an impossible one and don’t take it into consideration.
What Does the Public Like?
Getting on Steam shouldn’t and must not be your end in itself.
Now for the favorite question of all developers: what can we do to get on Steam? This is the wrong question, and it leads to many dangerous consequences for developers. Don’t try to find favor in the eyes of the platform. Getting on Steam shouldn’t and must not be your end in itself. You can give the look to the audience, you can manipulate the understanding of your project, but you needn’t repeat the games which have already gotten the Greenlight and ARE waiting for release. Here are the reasons:
The public probably doesn’t want the same game project.
You don’t know how the game will operate after release. The service of “games access” isn’t a shop. You can’t be sure that by getting through Steam, the project will collect good feedback and money for release. And the other way around, it doesn’t mean that the project can’t be a successful project without Steam. Greenlight is some kind of Steam level. It expresses the whole trend in the Greenlight-community. This group of users bought time to look through games which would never be released with Greenlight, allot the marks, and comment. They are like aid men of their favorite social medias, saving 90 percent from spam information.
If you try to duplicate the success of any other game projects, you may face comments like “downvote for the same one”.
We are not going to discuss deeply some main questions. We believe that each developer will decide if its project can pretend to be a successful one or not. We are just trying to allay concerns which face developers during preparation for Steam.
So you are going to bring you project to Steam. First, you have to register by paying $100 and filling a form. Let’s divide the process of statement into some main parts and try to explain general mistakes in each one, because the first days in the catalog of specialties are the most active. Even if you can find an extra source of votes, you can’t maintain the same level of interest to your game for weeks.
1) Media Content
Preparing Metal War Online for Greenlight, we decided to post some of the most beautiful screenshots and our launch-trailer, quite stylish and dynamic demonstration, especially for F2P-projects. But here we faced the first catch…
The first mistake…and it wasn’t mistake at all… was that the trailer was only in Russian. The soundtrack was made by Russian actors, and it consisted of Russian text. We didn’t consider that it was the first reason of negative understanding by gamers. We received comments like, “They just didn’t try to translate the trailer”. That’s why we didn’t want to waste time with translating the soundtrack. We had prepared for negative comments, but suddenly we saw quite nice ones: “Finally, it’s perfect Russian speech”, “We are tired of warped words”, and “The game is by Russians, and it is so cool!”. Some gamers thought that we just saved the style of Russian military negotiations and tried to interpret them for gamers.
We don’t advise you to repeat this event. Effect of such activities can be different and you can hear the same comments like “They just didn’t even try to translate”. If you have some Russian soundtracks, it’s better to add English frames – subtitles and translations. In this way, the gamers will understand that it isn’t the result of you poorness or laziness, but that you try to convey your own unique atmosphere.
If the enthusiastic gamers fixed their eyes on the trailer, the most hyper-correct ones wanted to look through screenshots because these screenshots are the unique demonstration of the live game. What they ended up seeing: Russian text in chat, Russian elements of interface, Russian indicators on speedometer. They didn’t accept the project. They decided to look through the application form in order to find some information about localized languages. More patient games gave some comments, and others commented with a “downvote”.
This little mistake created several thousands downvotes. But later, we corrected. We posted the screenshots without the interface. These screenshots looked more subjective and didn’t consist of provocative information. You can also use fake screenshots with localization as promo material.
If you are going into the international service, you need to prepare an English version and, even better, German, Spanish, and French versions. There aren’t many words and verbal cues in our project, so we could do the localization quickly and inexpensively. We realized our mistake, and we began the localization of our project in four more languages except Russian.
Another mistake was the gameplay. It’s the most important point, but we will not pay much attention to it because not every project has a good and useful build for making a video for Greenlight. Many times, the gamers saw a lot of perfect screenshots, but later found out that these screens were just fake promo materials. That’s why they don’t believe the screenshots as a demonstration of gameplay. Also, they don’t believe the CG-trailer provides insight into real gameplay.
If you don’t have any gameplay video, the gamers may doubt your project because they think you only have screenshots. Of course, such projects can still get the Greenlight. Still, you should try to make a video. Ordinarily, there are several demo scenes from the engine. This shows how you are progressing and developing. Speaking from the perspective of developers, such scenes can lead to negative comments and points of view. The users will be able to understand how much money and powers you have spent. It’s definitely easier to make a demo scene than paint a fake screenshot. It is important for ordinary users to understand if such a project has any chance for success. If you can’t make any video or promo materials, then the Steam approval should probably not be the most significant aim.
Another point to look at is multiplatform. You have to appreciate it, especially if the engine’s authors decided to support it. For example, look at Unity3D. It isn’t perfect (if we speak about service and support), but qualified specialists will make your game for any platform. It’s stupid to ignore an opportunity to reach a whole category of users. Some of them react to the absence of their favorite system very bluntly:
We aren’t saying to promise everything to users, because unfulfilled promises on Steam aren’t the right tactics. You have to estimate your resources and the opportunities of chosen technologies. If the engine is multiplatform, it’s better to think of a Linux version and its start. If the technologies and resources don’t give you opportunities to make everything like you want, we advise you to inform them that you are preparing a version release for some platforms during the months after your start on Steam. Also, you should name these platforms. In this way, you can collect hundreds and maybe thousands of upvotes.
2). Title and Description
Our description looked like typical promo text, but everyone has their own point of view about effective text. That’s why we don’t aim to give you any experience in this sphere. However, here are some simple rules that may help you avoid problems:
If the project is in the development stage, you need to indicate the dates of the main levels: close alpha, open alpha, closed and open beta testing and etc. You can construct a diagram, if necessary. People don’t want to pay for obscurity. If the project is in close beta testing, you should refer people to your site where users can find out information. The gamers can’t get into this level, but they begin to understand that it works. If the project has already started in one region (in our case, Russia), you must inform the users. Call the number of gamers and the places where the game has been started (in our case, it’s social media).
You should also specify system requirements. Although nowadays nobody takes into account system requirements when starting to play, they calm the users. The users will think, “If the guys know how their game works, it means that the tests were held.”
And the most important part: you need to provide a description of your project in all the languages which you localized in. Unbalance and disparity leads to misunderstanding and doubts from users, meaning they will probably not be clients.
During the fulfillment of your title and description, you will be offered to choose an icon. We suggest that you shouldn’t abuse GIF-animations. You will be in the list of news even if you don’t have cool animations and perfect colors. It’s better to choose a good big logo to mystify the users. We have used such a logo where our reconnaissance equipment Chimera looks like a head of manlike robot.
After fulfilling everything, you will be published on Steam Greenlight. Now it is up to everybody to see and critic.
Work with the Community
Now you are at the beginning of a difficult road. You’ll have to face the gamers who have their own opinion about all the details of your project. It’s better to prepare for unusual critics – from dubstep in trailers to disgust towards F2P. People can say “no” to your long service only if they don’t like the music in trailer! It’s a harsh world!
Don’t despair! You did nothing bad. Sometimes, you can’t talk around your opponents. They are using their right to judge subjectively about content and are trying to exclude any aggravator. If they don’t like dubstep, the best you can do is load another soundtrack from the game if possible. But unfortunately, all your attempts will go to waste. Don’t play with moody gamers. You should try to connect with those who are making contact. Let’s consider some ways to connect during your time on Steam Greenlight.
First of all, you have to discuss the special aspects of your project. All the MO-games which include any technical equipment have one meme wrangler – the users see futuristic clones. We wasted a lot of time discussing all the special characteristics of our project to the gamers.
This doesn’t mean that you need to poke holes in or try to criticize the same projects. It’s the wrong way and leads your comments to flood with showdowns and mutual disses. Such a situation will create negative understanding and will influence the opinion of other gamers about your project.
Another famous style of trolling is to offer excuses. Who is offering excuses usually seems guilty. You always need to hold your position. If necessary, you can mention that your team isn’t big, and you can’t meet the needs of all the users. If the project gets to Steam, you will have more resources. It’s more difficult to talk in such way, especially if you are launching a fundraiser campaign in one of the crowd-funding stages.
Remember: don’t delete the comments. There can’t be perfect comments. Only inexperienced developers can dream about them, but others avoid such fact. There should be critics, good feedback, and arguments in your comments. You must instill order only in that way if you see that there are a lot of haters in comments from other groups or games. In all other ways, don’t remove the comments. Just take a breath and ignore the negative words.
Gradually, the number of limited traffic of Greenlight came out:
The yellow line represents the number of visitors (not more than 50 per day). Less that 40 of them vote and only half of the visitors vote for. But these factors are not as important. The number of visitors isn’t so presentable, and you can’t collect 17-20 thousands of upvotes in such a situation. A demand to attract new users aroused. We decided to do it and faced some mistakes and problems.
The 1st Mistake: Attempting to Attract an Unknown Public Page
The most obvious way to attract new users is to place interesting banners on game resources.
We can’t say that such placing was ineffective, but the number of new users was poor. Then we remembered the social aspect of our project, which is more active. We posted an inset calling to vote for our project in the main news of the page. The mistake was that this call was understood as advertising and aroused resentment. The number of profile views and votes rose, but the proportions were the same.
Was it possible to attract social traffic properly? Of course, yes. You could just include in the news feed information about your project, attract the users to play in social version and than offer voting. Also, you need to inform them that it is the project of one team and not any registered post. Later, we held some activities. The quality of traffic from our other projects improved. The number of votes also rose.
The 2nd Mistake: “Administration is spoiling the game. Downvote!”
The second mistake was our attempt to attract the users to vote for the social version of Metal War. The gamers can vote only in that way if they bought something at least once on Steam. It affects the public, which can influence on your project and opinion about it. When we called the community to vote, the traffic suddenly rose. But there was a problem in the social version. Haters began threatening to revote or something similar. The haters always use the thunders if they don’t like some negative activity. But, don’t despair too much. It’s just a negative fact for the group and its moderators. Several times, we saw some misbalance in votes, but it was the result of such thunders.
The 3rd Mistake: Not Ready to Vote
Like many others, there is an original news digest in our project, and can be seen upon entering the game. We decided to post the news about voting, but there was only one problem: The digest was shown to everybody, including the new gamers who just started playing. They either were not ready to vote and just close the digest or were displeased by the project and ignored the voting. What’s worse is they could just vote against it. That’s why mobile game developers ask you to estimate the application. They want to do their best to remove all the negative factors. We thought about it late, so we lost part of our gamers. But we realized our mistake and offered the vote option after some successful levels in the game. That led to a 70 – 90 percent increase of votes for our project.
With the mistakes, we did lose some traffic, leading to a lot of downvotes and difficulties in getting the Greenlight. The diagram of voting pattern in several days was the following:
The first day, the number of downvotes was 845 among 1700. The next day, the number rose, and the traffic began to fall. In about four days, the number of reviews was less than 1000, and the number of downvotes still rose. Only in 1 – 5 weeks did the situation changed.
Discussing the problems of project localization, it is important to understand that we didn’t notice the habit to revote in Greenlight. You can correct you mistakes and attract other user to vote for your project. The users who speculate don’t vote for or against. They just do “Ask me later”. The number of such users is quite low. Even if you can talk them around, it doesn’t help you. Try to surprise the new public all the time. Those gamers who have already voted made a choice and forgot about you.
If you have some strategy for voting, you can only wait. In our case, we needed to gain 18 thousands votes to get the Greenlight. It can lead to accessing the Top 100. Top 100 is a life order which settles in each project selection. During several such selections, you can be in the Top 10 and get the Greenlight.
After successfully getting the Greenlight, you get access to open beta testing. You need to prepare the integration of a payment service provider, authorization, a CDN for giving a game client, and develop a promo site, implement achievement system, and many other things which we are still working on. After getting on Steam, we will prepare the next installment in order to tell you about the technical and business aspects and what you should pay attention to. We hope that you have found something interesting in our information for your projects! Stay tuned for the next installment!
Living as an indie developer for more than five years and currently doing a weekly podcast with other indie developers, George Zarkua has created a summary of his experience in QA mode.
Working as an Indie
I believe the life of an independent developer is the choice for people who understand that in a company, they do not get what indie work could give them. He may be a loner who feels that he can grow stronger, can release a more independent product, make more money, or make better use of his time. After separating from a company, he gets all the freedoms and limitations that are inherent for indie.
The first thing you have to think about, unfortunately, is time and money. You must honestly ask yourself how much time you can share with your PC. Then multiply this figure by two. At this time, we need some minimum cash cushion, big enough to cover sickness (paid health insurance and gyms are not included in an indie life package), fun (very few people can be productive in a state of depression), and contingencies. This amount is the budget of your game. Of course, these issues are only for a full-time indie. If you are developing parallel to your main work, then it is simply impossible to calculate time.
When you becoming an indie, you become free. There is the freedom to choose a convenient schedule, programs, and partners. But almost immediately, it becomes apparent that indies can’t compete with the big companies. They must either create a studio with suitable rules or otherwise cheat. You are competing with studios that specialize in having spent a lot of time creating animation and content, and with a lot of people who are doing essentially the same job. In my opinion, indies should surprise the competition with ideas, unique style, and atmosphere. The ability to look to the future is the best quality for the companies; the ability to surprise is the best quality for an indie.
Making a Game
Experience helps avoid errors that you will understand only while making games.
Certainly, an indie’s first game could be a great game (Beginner’s Luck), but that does not guarantee that it will hit the top. However, the experience provides a broader view on the development of a variety of tools, working schedule, and a sense of the market. Experience helps avoid errors that you will understand only while making games. For example, you might forget to add a button of turning on sound and run into the crowd of disgruntled users who will write angry reviews and put a minus wherever possible. Or make an active area for a button on the screen, and not the button entirely. Even if your game has super cool music, particularly harmful players will not forgive you for these blunders. Welcome to the Internet! But through the experience of making ten buttons correctly, the eleventh will be done automatically. This will help you avoid a hit from a foolish fail and polishes your creation.
It is possible to gain experience without making games, but for me, this attempt turned into a failure. A long time ago, I found a great resource with a stupendous number of articles for indies. There was an incredible collection of articles on game design, development, sales as a whole, free graphics and music, and more. Almost everything was very interesting, and I read through it, trying to apply all in one game. But the negative of such articles is that they are designed for people who have some experience, and therefore were not dismantling the problematic issues that may arise for beginners. That’s because the layers are important in the experience. Layer by layer, we create an understanding of development. Reading articles about behaviorism in MMO without experience is like having a second-grader read Kafka.
In my opinion, the first game should be small and test-like. Even if you have a super idea for a super game, you still have no budget, nor the sense of the market and the audience. Postpone that idea for a while, and take up a small test project instead. When working on a small game, it is now incredibly easy to make a prototype of the game. In a worst case scenario, it could take three days.
Often, there is a sense to do it all from scratch as we learn a new technique of painting or read a book about the architecture of the code. Small games are good so that we have time to finish the game before we come to destroyable thoughts. And even if you decide to remake the game or after the remarks on the unprecedented lag of it even on the most powerful computers, you don’t rewrite as much. However, a small game does not have time to change ideologically. In any game, even the great games, it is important to keep the idea, the rod of the game. We can add features, change the appearance, but the idea of it should remain unchanged.
Increasing the quality of the game and leaving the level of “small games”, you will be competing with the big companies and studios. If you start to feel that you can not make a competitive game – look for an assistant. The type of the assistant should depend on your confidence in the game. If you feel the game itself is lame or you poorly see the idea, it is better to find a partner. If you want new ideas to the game, or a second head, which will criticize you, look for a partner. The only difference between an assistant and a partner is that the partner is involved in the development of the game, not just doing the job, but that difference is huge. Choosing a partner for a long project is like choosing a partner for a flight into space. If something goes wrong after six months of work, replacing will be very expensive.
Surviving as an Indie
I think an indie’s significance is hard to overestimate. Now is the era of indie developers. Indie games are no longer for hipsters. Steam introduced an indie games section where you can buy them on a par with the games from bigger campaigns. Apple Store gives indie games the same privileges as games of big companies. Sony and Microsoft are also looking for indie cooperation. The market does not reject that talent. There are sites for people looking for a direct link with the customer, such as Kickstarter, as well as conferences and meetings.
Now is the era of indie developers.
The issue of earnings is always painful. Each platform has their own rules and profits. There is practically no limit. For example, Minecraft earned about 100 million for 2012. But not all situations are so smooth. According to the well-known statistics of mobile applications, the top 25 developers received half of all profits in 2012. 80 percent of developers get three percent profit. 19 percent of apps earn $24k, and for the 80 percent, $300. Even if your mobile game will earn 100k on iOS, 30 percent of it you give Apple, 30 percent to your publishers, and then you have to divide the rest with your partner and tax.(source: The Game Bakers)
To start receiving more than you would have received in office and still do it all the time, you have to be strategic. I’ve learned to think about games in terms of categories. The first category are the games with new ideas, mechanics, and games with the new features of the devices. These are usually hits. Next on the list are quality sequels of old hits, complete with a bunch of fans and games that can be headed by a certain niche of the market. Finally, there are the games that cover some deficiencies of hits with new features. After that are the clones and trash.
To succeed, you must either make a game out of the first category (like Minecraft and Journey), or make one or two games from the second category (like Shank 2, the successful continuation of the epic Shank, and Limbo), or make lots of games from the third category. Surprisingly, some studios are ready to cope with it. For example, Berzerk Studio, a group of six people, provides great games month after month, almost always on the old mechanics. They have over 20 games. Berzerk Ball 2 went for 100k , and their new one went for 50k, so we can assume that the guys with such strategies have success.
However, I think everything in a game shouldn’t be unique. What should be exclusive is the idea and style. Freedom of game elements is a vise, and there is the possibility of being misunderstood. The human brain is based on past experience, so to enhance the audience’s understanding of the game, you should use images with recognizable patterns. Choose a technique for illustrations, so that it strengthens the idea inherent in the game and matches the audience. If you want to reach the maximum audience, then you need to learn from movies/cartoons with a maximum audience (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Cut the Rope). Use recognizable patterns and be moderately predictable. In the case of niche games, rules are dictated by the specific audience. Use references for the drawing and screenshots of successful games for the understanding of the principles of drawing, but do not copy.
Games are remembered for their distinctive features: Ideas, graphics, music, and easter eggs. In Alien Anarchy, I did a lot of content, but almost all the comments were about the Easter eggs from the movies that I left. When the player is done with the game, he remembers what can be shared with others: a tough situation, a high score, and funny stories.
Food for Thought
Indies should remember that an end product is expected. Without a good product, no one cares how much effort and energy was put into the game. The game is above the developer; this is important. If you want everyone to know your story, then place it in the game. Independent developers are asking questions and answers themselves, rather than just doing tasks. This gives them the opportunity to show off their own look. But be prepared for the fact that your opinion is not shared by all, and your game will not be the second Minecraft .
Before you finish the game, it is best to show it to a test group – your friends, family, and colleagues. Do not ask them what needs to be changed in the game. This is the number one mistake. Never ask them. You need to watch how they play. Just watch.
Creating a successful game is consistently making the right decisions, from the selection of the engine and the platform to the last pixel. The secret to being a successful indie is to do what you like. Otherwise, what is the sense of been indie? Make your strong brands stronger and new games cooler.
Currently, George is working on a mobile version of his strong brand, Alien Anarchy, Jim’s Dream, and the new version of Dream Symphony, which will be available to play at Casual Connect Kyiv 2013‘s Indie Prize Showcase.
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 wanted to do a game that was different, and this wasn’t it.
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.
The game is currently sitting at a Metascore of 81
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.
There doesn’t seem to be a middle market on iOS apps anymore
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!
The mid-1990s was a period of significant changes for the videogame industry. Arcades were beginning to decline as home console systems became more popular, the Nintendo NES would be discontinued in 1995, and computer games were increasing in popularity. Specifically, 1994 saw id Software’s Doom II: Hell on Earth and Bullfrog Production’s Theme Park become best-selling games at the time. 1994 was also the year Jeff Vogel founded Spiderweb Software while working towards a Masters in Applied Mathematics.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with Vogel about his love for the industry, what inspired him to create this company, his thoughts about making casual games, and what type of games he sees himself making in the future. (Sadly, no Spider-Man jokes came up. We are deeply sorry about this.)
Getting Started & Escaping Grad School
In 1994, Vogel was low on cash and dealing with the mental stress inflicted upon students by grad school, and decided to create a videogame to relieve stress and maybe earn some cash. It was a decision that would lead to the creation of Spiderweb Software. “I wrote my first game as a way of maintaining my sanity during grad school, and I released it in the hope of earning pizza money,” Vogel said when asked about the creation of Spiderweb Software, “I really didn’t have any plans. I still don’t. I just write games, release them, and hope they sell.”
“I have the rare gift of being able to do for a living what I dreamed of doing when I was a child.”
His first game was 1995’s Exile I: Escape from the Pit. It sold so well that he dropped out of grad school and committed to teaching himself programming. His decision to pursue a career in the videogame industry is not one that he takes for granted. “I was fascinated by video games from when I first played them over thirty years ago,” this lifelong fan said, before immediately acknowledging how fortunate he is to have made a career in this industry, “I have the rare gift of being able to do for a living what I dreamed of doing when I was a child.”
Learning About the Industry
After Exile I, Vogel went on to finish two more installments of the Exile series, and create the Avernum series, Blades of Exile, Blades of Avernum, the Geneforge series, and Nethergate.
Even after this success, Vogel’s humble. He still sees himself as the head of a “little indie company” and “probably the wrong person to ask about anything real industry people do.”
When asked what game design component he thinks is often neglected during development, he professionally responded “Not sure, really. I think games tend to be very well-designed, overall. But there are a million things that can go wrong implementing even the best design.”
“There are a million things that can go wrong implementing even the best design.”
Another element of Vogel’s success stems from the value he gives his audience. While he remains the driving force behind the games he develops, he always takes into consideration what potential customers might want. “Because there are a million choices to make in writing a game, and the answers are rarely obvious,” Vogel said. “When given two roughly equivalent paths to take, knowing who you are writing the game for can provide guidance.”
Current and Future Projects
One of his most recent games is Avadon: The Black Fortress, which Vogel describes as an “indie fantasy RPG.” Though he acknowledges its low budget origins, he knows that writing and careful craftsmanship helped make it an indie hit. “We worked very hard on its storyline and gave it a lot of polish, with the hope of getting it onto Steam. We succeeded [and] I learned that a little polish goes along way.”
When asked what he thinks helped Avadon stand out from the crowd, Vogel places a particular amount of importance on the game’s storyline. “It’s actually detailed, epic, and heavily integrated into the game. We cared about it, and it shows.” And it’s this emphasis on narrative that seems to be Vogel’s and Spiderweb Software’s most important attribute. “If you’re going to have a story, you might as well make the extra effort to make it good. It takes about the same amount of time and work, and can only increase your fans’ fascination with your product.”
As for what future projects Spiderweb is producing, Vogel would only humorously state “I don’t have new ideas anymore. I’m too old. I plan a long, joyous run of more-of-the-same.” We doubt that this is true, but even if it is, we know that we can still look forward to some great games.