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The Stormglass Protocol: Learning From the Past and Creating Anew

March 3, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Previously the Managing Editor and Creative Director for The World of Chinese, Andy Deemer was recruited to work on The Stormglass Protocol. He shares the story of its development with Gamesauce.

The Birth of The Stormglass Protocol

Like many things, The Stormglass Protocol was born of secrecy, borders, and government lies.

I was running a propaganda magazine for the Chinese government in Beijing when I received a strange call from India. One of the founders of GameSpot — that celebrated and oft-disparaged website — had moved to India’s tech capital, Bangalore, and had a fantastic idea: a series of games and books about a secret school for junior secret agents — a Hogwarts for spies, perhaps — filled with gripping adventures, devious criminals, and terribly fun puzzles. The GameSpot founder was looking for someone creative to helm the operation. And he thought of me.

I had absolutely no experience in producing games or writing novels, but I’d worked alongside him at GameSpot for eight incredible years. My recent film, a chicken-zombie musical called Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, had been hailed by The New York Times as “perfect.” My photo-novella, Pyongyang Too, was about to be released in France. And Bon Appetit had just publicly mocked my recipe for Philadelphia Cheese Steak Ice Cream. So I must have been an attractive choice.

Oh,  and the GameSpot founder was also my older brother. That may have sealed the deal.

And so, over a series of international calls, he convinced me to quit working for the Chinese government and outsource myself to India. After all, I’ve always wanted to make a game. And write a book. And live in India. I got to do all three.

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Some of the Stormglass 1.0 team

The Original Failure

I arrived in Bangalore to an office filled with employees, computers, and even a resident stray dog: a playful mongrel with no name, but called “O.D.”, short for Office Dog. A team of twenty was already coding away, and within hours, I was whipping out storylines and adventures for the game. Some ideas were “Two San Francisco kids have disappeared — help track their kidnappers!”, “The drinking water at a New York high school has been polluted — find the culprits!”, or even “Catch a magician/confidence man in his lies!”

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Video Shoot for Stormglass 1.0

We spent a year perfecting The Stormglass Protocol. It would be web- and subscription-based. In-game videos were shot on RED in a London studio using actors I’d hired over the web, with me directing over a flickery Skype connection. A fitness instructor in Boston developed a series of exercise assignments for kids, a Chinese factory manufactured secret agent Stormglass pens with hidden compartments and UV flashlights, and a Hugo award-winning novelist in Berkeley, Tim Pratt, wrote the first draft of a novel. All development was done in Bangalore. This was a truly international production.

Workdays were 10 hours, sprints were two weeks, and we documented in Jira, coded in Javascript, and tested with a crew of 8-12 year old kids — Stormglass agents — from a local international school. The kids- sorry, agents assured us this was the greatest game they’d ever played, more addictive than Skyrim or GTA. They adored the storyline and in review sessions, they gave Stormglass five stars out of five.

After a year of development, we knew the game was ready for the prime time. On November 6th, 2012, we pushed it live.

And there was nothing. Silence. Utter, painful silence.

Finally, with sick stomachs, we shut the Amazon servers down.

Sure, we could drive users to the site with Google AdWords and Facebook campaigns, but they never stayed long. When the ads were turned off, our analytics flatlined. We spent six months trying to fix gameplay, tinkering with the backend, modifying the UI, tweaking the stories. But it soon became clear we weren’t going to succeed. Days became more disheartened. Members of the team floated away to other companies and more secure jobs. Finally, with sick stomachs, we shut the Amazon servers down.

But this isn’t the postmortem for that original version of The Stormglass Protocol. This is the postmortem for Stormglass Version 2.0. And that didn’t fail.

The Return of Stormglass

The company had six months of operating cash remaining, and I had six months on my Indian residence visa and my apartment’s lease. All three ended on November 1st, 2013. That trifecta of timing seemed to give us just enough space to produce a great game from scratch, but we didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes we’d already made. So we started by brainstorming an entirely new game. Time was short, pressure was on, but we spent two full and very valuable days in an off-site. How can we reinvent Stormglass? I broke the day into individual brainstorms, paired brainstorms, group brainstorms, idea-generation challenges, and absurd physical exercises. The walls became plastered in layers of poster-pages, each filled with scribbled notes, golden gems, and some really truly terrible ideas. Yet we kept coming back to one seed: an iOS room escape game in fully-immersive 3D. Something that — as far as we knew — had never been done before.

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I broke the day into individual brainstorms, paired brainstorms, group brainstorms, idea-generation challenges, and absurd physical exercises.

It would be filled with the same dark humor as my other work. We’d feature puzzles parodying Gilbert & George, Magritte, and even one level mimicking Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms (This was mere months before her real infinity rooms led to six-hour queues in New York’s snowy streets). In-game ads would promote Fracking (“It’s Like Hugging the Earth”), Affordable Laser Lobotomies, and — of course — Cheese Steak Ice Cream. There’d be Monty Python quotes, celebrations of classic b-movies like They Live and The Toxic Avenger, and subtle references to North Korea and Kim Jong Il.

However, we only had six months to complete it. To start with, I rearranged the team. Only one of us had ever worked in iOS before. Bijoy, a smiley, mild-mannered junior developer, was also the charismatic lead singer of one of India’s leading Christian rock bands, Cross Legacy. He’d spend all day coding, and then ride his motorbike across town to play a stadium show to tens of thousands of cheering fans. He became the dev lead, Javascript-diving into Unity.

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Meiding and Bijoy hard at work

For 3D, we were a little luckier. Meiding and Ebey both had experience. Meiding started out like every other man in his family, as a career soldier in the Indian army. But one day, Meiding decided to put down his gun and pick up Maya. I’d found him on India’s job site Naukri, where I was inviting potential employees to model and texture a vista of auto-rickshaws. Meiding took the challenge, and gave me something that looked like a photo. We hired him immediately. On the original Stormglass, he was a junior designer, but I loved his vision. I put him in charge of the game’s “evil prison-laboratory-office” aesthetics. Meanwhile, Ebey was just a kid, appearing out of nowhere. He was, and still is, a full-time student in 3D and filmmaking, but heard about Stormglass and sent me an unsolicited Hollywood-level demo reel. We didn’t need him, but we couldn’t let him go. So he agreed to juggle full-time work and school. I’m still unclear how he managed it.

Every week, we’d hold all-hands brainstorming sessions to establish room themes and puzzle-types: a game show, a dream room, a museum condemning Thomas Edison’s cruel business practices! And while the dev team was building the first two levels, and the 3D team was building the third and fourth levels, I’d be writing the descriptions and stories for the fifth and sixth levels. Almost every two-week sprint followed that process.

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One room idea was a museum condemning Thomas Edison’s cruel business practices!

Learning From the Past

To avoid the largest mistake we’d made with Stormglass 1.0, we didn’t develop for a year and then release a polished product. Instead, we pushed out a rough product with only three basic levels as early as we could. We didn’t have much time — less than six months now — and we needed to know what real users thought, immediately.

Fortunately, they loved it.

We kept a close eye on iTunes reviews, though, and modified the game accordingly. These were our focus groups. When users complained about the navigation — a valid complaint — we redesigned it and pushed out a new release. The next comment was about the puzzles being “too easy”, so we ramped up the difficulty.

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I was still working on my novel, editing and rewriting whenever I had time.

This release-review loop quickly became circular. Fans realized new releases addressed their reviews, and updated their reviews with revised feedback. Two-star reviews became five-star reviews. “Too easy” became “Wow.”  And most new feedback became three repeated words: build more rooms. We were building as fast as we could with two developers, two modelers, two modeling assistants, a designer and me! Still, we didn’t want the level of immersion — or the quality of the game — to suffer. We wanted Stormglass to have the dark laughs of Limbo, the obsessive confusion of The Room, and the snark of Infocom’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide. Also, I was still working on my novel, editing and rewriting whenever I had time.

The Final Push

Our November 1st deadline was rapidly approaching. It wasn’t just a goal; it was the last day I could stay in my apartment and in the country. And, perhaps even more important, it was the last day we could afford to pay the team, and still give severance packages. With each release, and each sprint, I found myself cutting so that we could meet our deadline. Puzzles were removed. Characters were eliminated. Easter eggs I’d so loved when they were written, axed. But most of it made it in. Through long nights and dedication to the game, the team managed to fit almost everything in.

And, with one week to spare, we pushed.  And the reviews started to appear….

“A definite must-have.” – JustAdventure.com

“A room escape puzzle game like no other. ★★★★½” – 148Apps.com

“Rich graphics, an immersive storyline, and puzzles that will have you turned upside down.” – iDownloadBlog.com

The Stormglass Protocol… pulls the genre out of its stationary roots.” – JayIsGames.com

And, at precisely the same time, the reviews of the novel started to appear. And they, too, were great…

“Like a Bond adventure for kids… undeniably entertaining.” – Kirkus

“A brilliant twist on the classic theme of villainous world domination… a captivating read… ★★★★★” – ForeWord Clarion Reviews

“Action-packed and fast-paced… barrels along with a cheerful intensity and no shortage of middle-grade Bond-style adventure.” – Publishers Weekly

The Stormglass 2.0 Team
The Stormglass 2.0 Team

But time had run out. We said goodbye, the team and I. I didn’t know if or when I’d be back in India, but every member of the Stormglass Protocol 2.0 team — Bijoy, Dharma, Ebey, Krishna, Meiding, Uday, Varun, and Yagnesh — was a crucial part of the game.

In the Bangalore airport, with my visa expiring in just three hours, I checked in for my 2 AM flight back to San Francisco. Repatriating myself, I filled out the customs forms with a smile. I was, after all, using my hidden compartment and UV flashlight Stormglass pen. My spy pen. And my mission, of course, was accomplished.

The Stormglass Protocol is on iPad, and you can experience The Stormglass Protocol for yourself here. You can also purchase the Stormglass Novel here. You can see more of Andy’s traveling adventures on his blog and his weird eats on The Huffington Post.

ContributionsPostmortem

Lost Toys: Landing on Games

August 26, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Barking Mouse Studio is a two-person indie game studio in San Francisco, consisting of Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming. They consider Lost Toys to be their first full game. While both are software engineers and artists, they come from opposite backgrounds. Jim took computer science in college and is a self-taught artist. Danielle took ceramics in college and is a self-taught engineer. Together, they tell the story of Lost Toys.

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Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming

Wandering Through Projects

We met when Danielle hired Jim to work at an interactive media agency. From the start, we wanted to work on our own projects together, but finding the right one took a bit longer than expected. Financial management app? Built it. News reader? Yep, several of them. Database GUI? Yup, it’s open-sourced here. With each new project, we learned a lot, but none of them ever felt quite right.

We did a couple of game jams and had a great time making the (often less than) 48 hour games. With every new jam, we would brainstorm ideas ahead of time. Suddenly, we were talking about games all the time. So naturally, we thought, “We’ll make a game to sell on the App Store! It’ll make a million dollars, and only take a month or so!” We barely knew game-making, we didn’t know mobile, and we really didn’t know 3D. It was nearly a year later before we were finally ready to launch our first game.

First Attempts

Our old GUI system, and the first time we were able to play a level.

Our first attempt at Lost Toys was with HTML5 and WebGL (using Three.js). For us, it was a nightmare. It felt like we had to re-invent the wheel, the scene view, the model importer, the audio player, the renderer, the camera, and… you get the idea. We struggled for about a month, and then realized that we needed something that would just work. After noticing a lot of fellow game jammers using Unity, we switched. In addition to being easier to develop in, this opened up a lot of doors for us, since we could now publish on nearly any platform.

In the trough of doubt between the switch from HTML5 to Unity, we questioned our initial game mechanic. It just wasn’t fitting with the aesthetic (creepy toys) and wasn’t as immersive as we wanted. Our budget was too tight to let us hire voice actors. We needed the environment alone to convey our story, and an unsettling theme can convey a lot of emotion. In the end, we drew inspiration from a lot of sources like Leonardo DaVinci to Apple to the San Francisco Exploratorium and games like The Room, Zen Bound and Cogs.

Scope and Resource Restrictions

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We made progress, but the build was still really unstable.

Neither of us has any audio background, but we know the value of it. It was important to us not to compromise the game aesthetic. Having no soundtrack was better than having one that didn’t fit, and the budget wasn’t there for something custom. Fortunately, we found the beautiful, classical and free Creative Commons licensed work of pianist composer Peter Rudenko. We’ve listened to “The Fall” about a thousand times during development. It’s one of our favorite pieces of music ever, and it fits the tone and aesthetic of Lost Toys perfectly.

We also didn’t have the budget for any kind of custom audio samples or to hire a sound engineer. We looked at a number of websites that sold or offered free stock audio. Most of the sites didn’t offer trial samples, and we needed to playtest different sounds as cheaply as possible. Pond5 was great for this, we could download watermarked audio clips and see if they matched what we were going for.

Since the game needed to be as immersive as possible, we felt that everything should be a part of the game world – including the GUI elements. At first, we tried to make everything skeumorphic, “physical” elements of the game. The first version of Lost Toys was more of a ghost story with little “wisps” that flew around and “oozed” off of the toy at the start of each level. Made up of little puffs of glowing smoke, wisps were ethereal “undo” buttons. Unfortunately, the wisps complicated the code and gameplay quite a bit. None of our playtesters understood what to do with them. So they fell into the dung heap of history, in favor of a minimalist on-screen GUI. Surprisingly, we found that the new GUI helped players remain immersed in the game because they didn’t have to learn how to interact with the wisps.

For us, building a 2D game was never an option we considered. Neither of us are 2D illustrators, and Jim had some old experience with 3D graphics. Plus, we really like the aesthetics of minimal but realistic games (think Zen Bound and The Room) and enjoy puzzle games like Cogs and Flow that take advantage of a touch interface. Because of our 3D requirement, keeping development time under a year was very hard work. We ruthlessly limited the scope over and over again. Despite this, our main rotational mechanic in this “simple” game took three months, several revisions and many individual attempts before we pair programmed a solution.

Getting The Word Out

Why do we need a trailer? We’ve got a laggy video of the whole first chapter!

Lost Toys is our first attempt at a professional game, and rotational math was only one of the many things we didn’t know how to do when we started. We had no idea how to market or distribute a game. We just assumed that was what app stores were for. Fortunately for us, we live in San Francisco, where there is a wealth of established indie developers that are incredibly generous with their time and advice (thank you, thank you, thank you!) Many of them we met through our local IGDA chapter, which is a great organization to join if you’re interested in indie game development.

The biggest advice we received was to start reaching out to potential players immediately. To do that, we needed a great trailer. Like with the rest of our game, and indie development in general, we didn’t have the budget to hire someone to make our trailer. We had to figure out how to make it ourselves with zero film-editing experience. It took us about a week of studying movie trailers to come up with a rough storyboard. From there, we needed to figure out how to make what we wanted. The solution we came up with was to turn exported image sequences into movie clips. The problem with this method is that in-game audio can’t be used. To get around that limitation we borrowed a trick from all those movie trailers, and have a single piece of music playing throughout the trailer which helps tie together all the different bits of gameplay.

Everything Comes Together

The finished trailer

So here we are, almost a year from when we started. Lost Toys won “Most Promising Game” as part of the Indie Prize at Casual Connect, and we’re launching on iOS at the end of October with Android and BlackBerry to follow. As part of the process, we learned to say “no” to every idea we had that wasn’t in direct support of launching a solid game and that building the game is only half of the job.

You can keep up to date with launch notices for Lost Toys by following them on Facebook or Twitter.

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