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Skunkwerks Kinetic’s Ian Jardine on Making Games as a Team with no Experience

July 29, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

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Since 1999 (the founders are old or, as they say, “seasoned”), Ian Jardine, Craig Martin, Julio Carneiro, Steve Parkes and William Gibson (who provided the story and background) have wanted to get into the game-making business but lacked time, funding, and expertise. By building a successful web application consulting company over the past seven years, they were finally confident enough to start their dream company. They had an inkling of what they wanted to build: namely a multiplayer tank-based game that harkened back to Bolo from the ’80s. “We wanted to make the game hard. We felt that too many current games make it too easy for players to win. We wanted the player to explore their surroundings and get that “aha!” feeling upon discovering something new and weird inside the game. We were missing one key ingredient: Game Company Expertise”, Skunkwerk Kinetic’s CEO and founder Ian Jardine recalls.


Drive and Ambitions Above All, Experience Not Necessary

We aimed to build our team around a talented group of developers who had drive and ambition, though not necessarily game industry experience. Provided below is a brief description of three team members who we think represent a good cross-section of the overall spirit of our company.

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Jonas, the lead engineer: a promising Belgian ready to take big risks, with a passion for strategic games and a coding background.

You always remember your first hire, and we picked our lead engineer Jonas, a beaming Belgian with a passion for strategic games and a rock-solid coding background. At our first meeting, Jonas told us his story: upon graduating from an obscure university in Belgium, he and his lovely girlfriend (seriously, how did she get stuck with Jonas?) packed up all their belongings and moved to Vancouver. That showed us he was willing to take risks and take giant leaps of faith…very good qualities to have in a startup.

Upon graduating from a university in Belgium Jonas and his girlfriend moved to Vancouver. That told us he was willing to take risks.

Jonas is also very good at asking questions…lots of questions. He forces us to really think through all of our crazy ideas, not hesitating to bring up the myriad technical difficulties associated with an ambitious new feature. It has been a real pleasure watching Jonas grow into his role as head engineer, and as a person (new dad!!).

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Erik, the game/audio designer: a team member adapting to the ebb and flow of the ever-changing company’s needs.

Erik, the game/audio designer, is a good example of a team member adapting to the ebb and flow of a company’s needs as they change over time. Erik was hired as our ‘sound guy’ early on, but we were too busy making art assets and solving the technical issues of creating an online multiplayer game from scratch to spend too much time on audio. Erik’s passion for games and insight into game design were evident from the start.

Erik was hired as the “sound guy”, but we were too busy making art assets and solving the technical issues of creating an online multiplayer game from scratch.

He became our primary game designer and produced all the internal documentation needed for feature design in both the Art and Dev departments. He still has his hand on sound design, managing our sound consultant and offering advice on thematic audio design in the game.

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Kevin: an undergrad in Japanese Studies turned into a game developer

Kevin, the lead engineer, is a good example of how an undergrad in Japanese Studies turns into a dev at a game company. He is fluent in French, German, and Japanese. He plays guitar. He sings. He can do Flash….oh, and he is a helluva coder. Realizing that the Arts degree was not quite enough to land for a full-time work in a game company, he went back for a second degree in computer science.

An Arts degree was not enough for a full-time job in a game company, so Kevin got a second degree in computer science.

Kevin came to Skunkwerks as a co-op student, worked his way up to a key member of the team, and we never want him to leave.

Multi-talented Flexible People: A Solution for Small Teams

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If the game idea doesn’t work, we’ll hit the road as a hair metal band called “The Skunkwerks 5”.

We refer to our team members as “Swiss army knives”. Our company is too small to have a specialist in every department. Instead, we need people who are flexible and multi-talented; it also helps if you’re a musician (our backup plan: if this whole game thing doesn’t work out, we’ll hit the road as a hair metal band called “The Skunkwerks 5” or whatever number of members we can rope in!).

Through two years of development and working with a small team, we have felt the sting of developers leaving our team for larger companies (*cough* Amazon *cough*) with much more money to throw around than we do. Our entire server team was demolished within two months leading up to a critical release, forcing our downsized client team to pick up the slack within a number of weeks. The remaining dev team not only learned about the server-side codebase, but was also able to fix a number of longstanding issues with the server architecture. Lemonade out of lemons, baby! The good news is that the people left are in it for the duration, while all we lost is “deadwood” – like pruning a tree makes it healthier.

Before Legit Game Engines Started Suggesting Affordable Deals

When we decided to make a mobile game, it was about six months to a year out from when legit game engines began offering more affordable deals to indie developers in a meaningful way. After initial research, we decided to string together our own custom engine using a variety of open-source and licensed components. This proved to be a double-edged sword in the long run, although we learned a great deal about each part, including Scaleform for UI, FMOD for audio and Sparrow for texture rendering.

After initial research, we decided to string together our own custom engine using a variety of open-source and licensed components.

The ease-of-use and implementation took much longer than expected, compared to a more conventional approach using an all-in-one engine. Moving forward, we now know how to be able to fully utilize a commercial engine should we choose to use one and also roll our own if necessary.

Why just Apple?

“Where is the [insert any platform other than iOS] version of your game?” We get this question quite often, as our game is currently an iOS exclusive title. We chose the iPad as our primary device for a number of reasons: we liked the development pipeline and usability of the Apple mobile framework, and the lack of variability in screen size amongst the various retina and non-retina iPad models.

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The team decided to make the game primarily for iPad due to lack of variability in screen size amongst the various retina and non-retina models.

While we agreed that Android would be a good choice for the type of game we’re making, we were wary of the expansive device list and the necessity of making our game experience work consistently across many different screen sizes and resolutions.

Apple’s 30 percent cut of profit from App Store revenue was quite steep from a business perspective, although we did appreciate the distribution platform as a service.

The submission process proved to be frustrating during our initial release of MEG:RVO – we ended up getting rejected for minor UI issues (like where to place the “Restore InApp Purchases” button), and then felt like we got approved without any actual human verification. It felt like dealing with an amorphous gatekeeper at times, and unpredictable release and update schedules proved to be a challenge for our server-based game (we didn’t want to make updates to the server until the App Store update goes through, for fear of breaking previous versions).

MEG:RVO ended up getting rejected for minor UI issues, and then got approved without any actual human verification.

After our PAX East experience this year, we have received significantly more support from Apple, and the whole process has become somewhat smoother. It seems that as our app started getting more attention and updates on a consistent basis, the review timelines have shortened substantially.

Buying/Selling Wasn’t Fun – So We Removed It

One of the many things we learned from PAX East 2014 was that our game was suffering from lack of polish and usability in terms of the HUD design. PAX attendees who came to our booth approved the concept and look of what we had going on, but by the end of the three-day expo, we were all hoarse and exhausted from having to give a detailed explanation of the game mechanics to each person who stuck around to play.

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By the end of PAX East 2014, we got tired of explaining the gameplay in details

We then decided to re-design our menu and in-game UI in order to present all controls and information our game contained in a simplified and concise format. We removed some features that we felt were too complex or not fleshed out enough to belong on a release version of MEG:RVO. For example, we decided to get rid of the Marketplace for the next release, since buying/selling items didn’t seem that fun and in fact might have had a negative impact on first-time players. Instead, we built a combat training mission that we strongly recommend new players to try out before getting into a match with other players.

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We now give players all the weapons upfront, and people gain experience the more they play and participate.

The incentivization process was altered as well; we ended up giving players all of the weapons upfront. It’s now a balancing practice rather than a “pay to buy better weapons” system. Players gain experience the more they play and participate. Leveling up unlocks more maps, but the gameplay remains generally the same.

We hope that these changes along with our focus on user experience will allow users to stick around a bit longer and appreciate the depth and relative complexity of our game compared to more casual mobile games.

We’d Better Have at Least Someone With a Gamedev Experience

Have we made mistakes? Yes…quite a few, but no fatal blows.

Hiring people with no prior game knowledge had its pros and cons. It would have been nice to have at least one person with prior industry experience. This might have helped us avoid some common pitfalls in our design, and reckless ambition in terms of what we wanted to create.

Should we have hired people who were passionate about games instead of people who just wanted a job? Definitely. Did we assume that most people would “just figure out” how to play our game without any guidance? Yes. We have since realized that we need to show people how the game works first, and then let them explore. This has shifted to our primary focus over the last few months and we hope that this will be reflected in our next release around August 1st this summer.

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“We have since realized that we need to show people how the game works first, and then let them explore.”

The value of our team comes from learning from these mistakes, and we feel significantly more prepared to deal with design and implementation of features than we did at the outset. Our website tag line “Doing things the hard way” is very apropos. We’re looking forward to making more mistakes in the future and further sharpening our expertise through them!

Grants: A Framework for the Business Plan

What we did right was to apply for grants (CMF) as it forces you to think through your game-plan. We used those grant applications as a framework for our business plan which we then used to to raise money. Have a proper budget and stick to that budget! Do not assume you launch the game and get an instant cash-machine. This is not going to happen. Plan for no money, but hard work, loads of “impossible” problems, and all for a very long time.

Plan for no money, but hard work and problems.

Be adaptable to changing situations; the only constant is constant change: “We adding dragons today? – No wait, robots, yea, more robots and some sparkly stuff…”

Probably the most important thing we did was to be naive. If we knew all the pitfalls from a suspect iTunes market (bots much?), technical problems (server down again..ack), personnel problems, and day-to day operational problems (why are there plants in the bathroom? payroll is due today?), we would never have started the journey. And that would have been a shame as everybody is having a blast doing what they want to do.

MEG: RVO – Battle for the Territories has been approved by Apple, and will be released July 31st. The Skunkwerks Kinetic team is now working with the Unreal4 engine to expand their reach. It will be the same universe/setting as MEG: RVO: Battle for the Territories but using the Unreal4 platform, that will provide reach to the desktop/console and Android markets, and vastly improved graphics. MEG: RVO has been Initially released as a single player game, but multiplayer is high on the list.

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Company of Tanks: Bringing an Arcade Multiplayer Tank Experience to Mobile

February 26, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Based in Kajaani, Northern Finland, Critical Force Entertainment is the town’s first independent game company. Tim Spaninks was brought in as producer and lead designer to direct a young team in the development of a cross-platform game: Company of Tanks. In this article, Tim shares his experience of working with a fairly inexperienced team resulting in a very successful outcome.

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Initial goal: a high-quality tank game for the mobile platform

When I was brought into this project, World of Tanks (which is a massive online game developed by Wargaming.net) had fairly recently become insanely popular and managed to open up a completely new market segment for a new sub-genre called tank games.

Anything put on the Google Play Store featuring the word ‘tanks’ seemed to gather up to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of downloads, seemingly regardless of the quality of the game. Therefore, the initial goal of Company of Tanks was to “create something like World of Tanks for mobile devices” with a quality that would outmatch the existing competition.

From left to right: Ville, Lassi, Sampsa, Mikko
From left to right: Ville, Lassi, Sampsa, Mikko

Sampsa, Mikko, and Lassi came to Critical Force Entertainment as interns, and managed to get a simple prototype up and running very quickly.
Right after I joined the team, we brought in our artists Ville and Thanabodi a.k.a. Viola from Thailand, and I knew we needed a change of direction.

Every Game Should Have its Own Identity

Right from the start, I didn’t agree with the mentality or the spirit of the project. Firstly, I believe that every game should have its own identity and bring a new experience to the player. It wouldn’t feel right to try to duplicate a game’s experience, even if it’s on another platform. Secondly, we were mainly developing for the mobile platform, which has a completely different target group and lends itself to different gaming experiences than PC and consoles.

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At first we were going for a more slow-paced, realistic style game

At first, we were going for a more slow-paced, realistic style game, but then decided to adapt the gameplay to the platform: the game would become faster and way more arcade-like to have shorter game sessions with more action. We also decided to change the visual style accordingly. The game was to become stylized to set the right expectations: it’s not a tank simulator and sure as hell isn’t a World of Tanks clone. This way, we would still appeal to a very large market segment aching to play 3D tank games, but at the same time differentiate ourselves from the competition in terms of style and gameplay.

It was now time to prototype, test, reflect, prototype, test, reflect, and so on to find the right way to make the game as fun as possible!

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The game was to become stylized to set the right expectations: it’s not a tank simulator and sure as hell isn’t a World of Tanks clone.

Saying No

Often in a game’s development, it’s the designer who says “Yes!” and the producer is who says “No!” to gameplay and feature suggestions. One of my toughest personal challenges in this project was to have to take both of these roles at the same time. Many awesome-sounding or even almost crucial features such as an in-game chat, friend lists, clan support, ranking lists, player stats, or simply the ability to completely customize your tank by drawing on it, placing emblems, etc. had to be put on hold or scrapped completely in favor of finishing the game on time. I was only going to be in Finland until mid-December, and the entire team would end up only working part-time on the game shortly after: we had to release a playable Android version before that time.

Prioritizing was essential, and through continuous debate and feedback, we were able to pinpoint what needed to be done to get everything ready on time. This often meant going for the absolute minimum viable options. No fancy customization and putting together your tank of parts collected throughout the game, but simply a very basic upgrade system.

Sometimes, it’s demotivating not to be able to make the game as awesome as you dreamt, but knowing that we could keep adding features and content after release and strive to make the game as perfect as possible is something that made it bearable.

Remember Who the Game is For

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Showcasing our game at the Northern Game Summit in Kajaani and DigiExpo in Helsinki was an extremely enriching experience

When we had our first playable version ready, we got some great opportunities to receive crucial feedback to pinpoint what aspects of the game we needed to work on. Showcasing our game at the Northern Game Summit in Kajaani and DigiExpo in Helsinki turned out an extremely enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot participating in the Northern Game Summit conference’s pitching competition. And winning the €5000 prize for the development of our game allowed us to speed up, acquire some needed licenses, additional testing devices, and invest in a custom-made soundtrack and sound effects.

The most beautiful moment of the entire project for me was at the DigiExpo 2013 event in Helsinki. A young kid picked up our tablet and immediately understood how to play, and got completely immersed in the game. At some point, he glanced over at his friend next to him with a grin and said “hyvää peli!” (meaning “good game!” in Finnish). This nearly broke me. This kid stayed at our booth playing the game for nearly an hour! When getting lost in the development process and reaching your deadlines, it’s easy to forget what you’re actually doing it all for. This was the moment when it became tangible for me that after all of our hard work, we were actually making this for someone. And that someone really loved our game! This is why I love my work, and those tiny moments make it all worthwhile.

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This is why I love my work, and those tiny moments make it all worthwhile.

The rest of DigiExpo was sort of a blur of wonderful moments with many people (mainly kids) playing the game. Besides providing us with a lot of feedback to pinpoint what aspects of the game needed work, it was a massive motivational boost for the rest of the project.

Player Base in the Beginning: No One to Play With

There was one thing throughout development that I was dreading the most: how are we going to get players? It’s known that it can be hard for smaller online indie games to gather enough people because nobody wants to play a game that doesn’t already have an established player base – which complicates things even more.

Before our Android build was ready, we decided to Beta test and soft launch our game on the web platform using Kongregate and Facebook. This would allow us to build interest and gather some players without any marketing budget and get some valuable feedback at the same time.

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There was one thing throughout development that I was dreading the most: how are we going to get players?

Testing the game on Kongregate revealed one massive problem: when a player wants to start an online match, he is thrown into a lobby to wait for enough players to start the game. Because we started out with a non-existent player base, as soon as someone tried to start a game, they found that nobody (or not enough players) was in the lobby, and simply disconnected. This led to a situation where there were continuously one or two players online who didn’t have enough people to play with.

Arguably, the biggest mistake made in the development process was the way we dealt with this. We figured that if we decrease the minimum player requirement to two and interest in the game would pick up later, the problem would vanish. Surely, when the Android downloads would start streaming in, the problem would fix itself? Well, it didn’t.

Shortly after the Android launch, we noticed the problem still existed, and released a patch changing it to a drop-in, drop-out kind of system that would throw the player immediately into an already running game. Thankfully, this worked and we now have an active player base!

Additional Tweaks

We’ve just reached over 240.000 downloads and with around 7000 downloads every day, the project has been a tremendous success for such a young team so far. Based on the numbers and received feedback, it’s safe to say that many people are playing and enjoying our game, which is a fantastic feeling!

In our eyes, the game is far from finished though. It’s lacking end-game content and goals to strive for. There are many features and content to be added and many in-game tweaks to be made. We’re working hard to implement metric systems to collect tons of data using various analytics plug-ins to determine where our focus needs to be. So far, we’ve basically been working in the dark, and shedding some light on the impact of changes we make will allow us to work more efficiently and improve the game where it counts.

In the meantime, we’ve applied for Microsoft & Nokia’s AppCampus program to be funded with €50.000 to create a Windows Phone version of the game with custom content for the platform. We plan to use those funds to further tweak the game and get ready for a later iOS release!

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