Based out of Finland, Tribe Studios was founded in 2010 with the passion of building great, cutting-edge games and tools. With eight members, the studio has worked to bring to life Velvet Sundown, a game that casts you right in the middle of the intrigue and lets you determine the outcome of the storylines. Elina Arponen, the founder of the studio, tells the story of its creation.
Planning to Break the Mold
The company behind Velvet Sundown was founded in 2010. Since then, we’ve been building the technology to enable us to create multi-user storylines, which was to be called Dramagames. We set a very high target for ourselves in the beginning to create something new, something that’s not yet out there on the market. We wanted a game of high audiovisual quality that is enjoyable in short ~1 hour intervals and is social so you can play with friends.We felt that many of our best gaming experiences have been when they’ve been shared with others, so we wanted the game to be multiplayer. From the beginning, it was clear the game mechanics would be different from resource management or reaction speed challenges.
We were six people at the time and started to develop the first story: Velvet Sundown. We thought it wouldn’t be too hard of a problem to tackle, as we had some tech base built up already to help us, but I’m still glad that we could not foresee all the challenges we would have to face to solve it all. 😉
Executing and Iterating on the Plan
The first playable version of Velvet Sundown was ready in the summer of 2011, and we played it together. It was not finished by any measure, but we had fun! It was finalized for the first closed beta release in Autumn 2011. We had some good feedback on the game, but realized that it was 1) too hard to access (you basically had to bring your own friends with you to play) and 2) our iteration speed on content was way too slow.
So we improved the user experience of getting into the game and did a new revision on our story tools. Next soft launch happened in Summer 2012, by which the underlying platform was named Dramagame. We didn’t do much in the way of PR or marketing, but maybe it was good that we didn’t, because we again noticed some technical issues. Out of all the issues, the main was that the game was functioning as a web site plugin, not a standalone application, thus creating continuous issues.
That autumn, we switched focus to the Dramagame platform and started with a partner to develop a training game with the Dramagame story mechanics, with Velvet Sundown to be the first (and so far only) entertainment game created using the platform. We’ve done couple of corporate training games with the same platform, but they are very different from Velvet Sundown. But of course, the time we took on this will help as later on, as the development of the platform is beneficial to all the Dramagame projects.
In Summer 2013, we got the opportunity to continue developing Velvet Sundown itself. And now in 2014, we have started the beta for Velvet Sundown for the third time. So the very short version of Velvet Sundown‘s history would be “This is the third iteration on everything”. As with every iteration, the content, UI, and everything else has been going through adaptations, not only the few things we mentioned above.
So How Does It Work
Velvet Sundown is a multiplayer story taking place on a luxury yacht sailing on the seas of a fictitious Caribbean state. We thought about many alternatives to this setting. We were thinking of going with a space ship, but then decided on something that is not so common in games to stand out better.
When you go into the game, you get put in the shoes of a character that is either one of the passengers or part of the crew of the yacht. You will control everything the character does and says in the game. Essentially, you are acting out that character’s role. You will be given quests that form up your character’s agenda. When acting a character, you can talk with the text input like you were that character and the game will translate it also to voice.
All the players in the game will be acting out their own roles as well. You have quests, and you can be creative on how to go towards your goals. It is not only allowed, but encouraged to make things up on the way. The quests will always tell you what to be talking about if you have no clue. We see quests and roles as some of the core elements in multiplayer stories. Roles define a big part of the story setting and quests direct the story and give meaningful content to act upon.
At the moment, Velvet Sundown has two scenarios. One is called Sea of Fire, and it has more clear-cut win conditions. The other one, Story of Fathers and Sons, is more about story exploration than winning. Sea of Fire has story elements on secrets and politics, where Story of Fathers and Sons has more elements towards party and romance. We hope to build more scenarios for Velvet Sundown as the user-base grows.
We see massive potential on building many variable story-driven games. Games are too often built around only one type of mechanic, and story is left in the secondary role. By combining Dramagame mechanics with other types of games, we’ll be able to deepen the game storytelling. Games often tell very similar stories that involve a lot of physical fighting. If you compare them to movies for example, they have a much wider range in the types of stories they tell. We feel games can cover as much, if not more, of the range in interactive means.
In that sense, Velvet Sundown is the beginning, and we eagerly await our players’ feedback to see what directions to take in the future with the game. So far, our beta players have been a wonderful source for inspiration for us.
Velvet Sundown is available in Steam and at www.velvetsundown.com. The game works in PC and Mac and is free to play. To unlock all the scenarios, you will need a premium account.
A new game studio out of Orem, Utah, MURA Interactive was founded in 2013 by Joe Albrethsen, now CEO and game designer. MURA designs games for play on a variety of platforms. DubWars, their first release, is available now on Steam Early Access, OUYA, and LeapMotion. Joe recalls the experience of creating and developing Dubwars.
Game Before Company
In Japanese, “mura” means lack of uniformity. Considering the fact that MURA Interactive was born after the game it was intended to launch, it’s a fitting name for the company. Now, MURA Interactive is a healthy mix of students, interns, and professionals. Our team is growing and consists of 10+ full and part time developers. DubWars started at Utah Valley University as a capstone project and spun out to become a fully commercial game. I run the business development and innovation, while Scott Wilson and Richard Terranova bring 20 years’ technical experience leading the business development side.
MURA’s story begins in 2013 as Utah Valley University’s pilot group—the first to develop a game from start to finish for sale. That unnamed game—now DubWars—was born from the ashes of another project abandoned after six months development time.
Hit The Ground Running
We were working on a game we called Cape Chronicles, and abandoned it because we purchased an OUYA development kit during their Kickstarter campaign. Imagine playing Super Mario Bros. with an eight-second input lag. While this creates challenging gameplay, it was all but fun. Having the opportunity to launch with a new game console is huge, and we knew that there was little hope to pivot the current game to run properly. Here is a link if you’d like to see the abandoned project: Cape Chronicles Trailer.
We hit the whiteboard knowing we had three months to create a playable prototype. This gave us a new opportunity to rethink scope and scalability. About 10 ideas made it to the final round that could be a game candidate, one of which was a joke: “Let’s make a game to Dubstep music!” We all had a good laugh, calmed down, and moved on to other choices. As we voted, it became clear that nothing was sparking our imaginations, so we got back to, “Screw it, we’re building the Dubstep one!”
DubWars is Driven By the Beat, Not Rules
The first six weeks of development was spent on creating a four-player car combat to Dubstep music. Think along the lines of Twisted Metal, where when you fire the weapons you pick up, it makes a different Dubstep sound depending on which weapon you have. The theory was this: players will be driving around blasting each other while making amazing sounding music. The reality was it sounded terrible! With only six weeks left before OUYA’s launch, we started from scratch once again with a single player focus.
The other major change was to license music and build a custom gameplay experience around the song, channeling every bit of it through players’ weapons for a colorful, intense, fun experience. We chose white-hot Dubstep artists Omnivore, Dubsective, Official Spock, Minecraft Universe, Tim Ismag, and Celldweller. Coming soon are songs from Varien, Minesweepa, Dani Deahl and Animale, Totally Sick, and Klaypex. The licensing was an intense experience on its own, but it was very important to acknowledge the incredible Dubstep artists out there and include them. Artist response has been incredible, and, on a practical level, gives us another channel through which we can interact with players and potential new fans.
In the end, DubWars is a much stronger, more interactive experience than it started out being. Each level is custom built for the music, propelling gameplay at different intensities. The better you know the song, the higher your score will be. Our ability to remain flexible and change the rules as we went along became our biggest strength.
But We’re Not Perfect…
One of the biggest mistakes we made early on was assuming everyone on the team shared the same vision and commitment levels. This was not clearly laid out in the beginning and that ultimately ended with dissolving the initial team. Also, roles within the company were not clearly defined. While it is very exciting to be a part of something with large potential, thinking through the full scenario is a must. The only thing that kept the game alive was a solid investment in legal work preparing contracts and operating agreements. While the cost of proper legal work is hard to swallow early on, it is vital in building a company. Don’t be afraid to ask for terms either—many good attorneys are willing to reduce rates, carry balances, and root for your success.
It has been a very trying time working through the many challenges of building a game on top of building a new team to deliver that game. The new developers involved have been added slowly, coming through high referrals and long interviews. Another major change is working smarter and moving away from the 100 hour weeks that took place early on. The extra time is nice when you are testing a multitude of ideas, but we found there are diminishing returns when you are working on an established pipeline. We found it was also important to identify what opportunities are worth the focus. It has been nice to pass on some conventions and competitions to allow for time to build a better game and not just crunch things out for submissions’ sake. There’s no doubt we rushed things occasionally to hit a deadline—that’s a special kind of motivation. But in general, the focus is to build a great game. Taking the time to do that is invaluable.
Here’s our advice: build a prototype and start charging for it ASAP. This will help validate if your idea is worth developing all the way to the end. Also, you get feedback from people who actually paid for your game. Revenue is the lifeblood, and the sooner you can collect and reinvest into the game, the better.
While we are still far from done, launching DubWars on Steam was a huge milestone for MURA Interactive. Being included in Steam Early Access will help us to develop the game for our audience. Thankfully, everyone is very open about what is working and what is not. It is also fun to read comments like “throws wallet at screen.” Sometimes, one sentence from a fan is enough to carry your team through a major obstacle in development.
What started as a small team of six grew to be what Game.IO is today: a serious game development studio with 40 people with a passion and drive to create great games. The team has worked on multiple projects and hopes their new games will surpass the success of their first game: Yatzy Ultimate. Marija Keleshoska, a marketing specialist for Game.IO, reminisces about building Yatzy Ulitmate.
A Memory From Childhood Leads to Our New Game
It was a usual Monday morning, and we started sharing some interesting moments from our childhood days. Everyone had his own unique story to share, but they all had one thing in common: Yahtzee. We soon realized that we all used to play this game when we were young and no one has played it since. Later on, when we were drafting our product portfolio, it’s funny how Yahtzee was on the top of everyone’s mind. We agreed that’s the game we wanted to start with. Originally, we wanted to call the game Yatzy, but unfortunately, that name was already taken on App Store, so we instead called it Yatzy Ultimate.
To begin, we started was with research and deciding the definition of the game. It gets pretty exciting when you get to know a game better – the history of the game, its mechanics, etc. It’s played in different countries and has its own characteristics. For our version, we decided to keep the basic rules and leave space to add new unique features in the next releases to make the game more attractive. Our main goal was to create a game WE would like to play.
The first version of Yatzy Ultimate included “Quick game”, “Nearby Players” and “Multiplayer”. It was the perfect fit for players of all types: those who would like to play a quick game while taking a break, or play with friends “Pass’n’Play” in Multiplayer mode. The “Nearby Players” exploited the Bluetooth feature of the device for playing with friends or family. Yatzy mainly is a game you would like to play with friends and family, but at the same time, it’s a fun way to pass time when you’re traveling or waiting in line in a coffee shop.
After the launch on the App Store in January 2011, the game started landing on our players’ devices and the first impressions really exceeded our expectations. We had some goals set in terms of number of downloads and revenue, and it was a great feeling to see how the numbers go up. The reviews we got were just more proof that we made the right choice and launched a quality product on the market.
As the game gained more success, our team starting expanding, along with our desire to make the game better. And then Yatzy Ulimate received its first award in 2012: the BestAppEver award in the dice category.
Keep Pace with Industry Trends
When something is good, it means you’re on the right path. But to make something great, it’s not enough just to follow the path. Those turns on the left and right may lead to even greater paths. As the industry was growing and new technologies were introduced, we knew it was time to take a new turn in our journey. We defined two key goals and put all efforts towards their achievement: cross-platform and online gameplay.
We already had a stable user base on iOS and Windows Phone, but it was time to make the game more social (and keep pace with the latest industry trends). We needed to allow them to get to know each other and challenge each other to see who has better skills. This was a great challenge for the whole team and included changes in the code and a lot of testing to make sure we got it just right.
For more variety, Game.IO chips were introduced in the game as virtual currency, which can be used to place bets in Bet mode and take high or low stakes in Online mode. This needed thorough analysis for our “numbers wizards” to set the economy of the game. With the introduction of Game.IO accounts and additional login methods like Facebook and Windows Live (for Windows Phone users), we set the grounds for cross-platform gameplay, allowing players to play their favorite game anytime, on any device.
The game went through serious re-engineering, development and testing to add all these bonus features. The team invested a lot of time and worked very hard to make it happen. Testing was crucial as it was a completely new structure of the game and there was no place for bugs.
After much work it was ready! But once it was ready to be introduced on the market, a new challenge was ahead of us: to market it properly and educate the audience.
Players are Not Just Numbers, Each One is Special
We went through a bumpy road in the post-launch period. The online play had certain problems with connection, which most of the time was out of our control. Mainly, when the player would lose connection on his device, the game would pick that information with delay and the player wasn’t aware the he went offline. This was our first challenge, and our priority for our next release. A customer support team is crucial at times like this, and we were lucky to already have that in place.
In the first release of the new and redesigned Yatzy Ultimate, we had to remove one feature due to certain problems that occurred with that function – playing with nearby friends via Bluetooth. Our plan was to get it back in the next release as, based on the analysis of the gameplay statistics, the percentage of the players who used this feature was not significant, and the temporal removal of it wouldn’t affect the game.
We were wrong. It turned out that this small percentage of players consisted of our most loyal players and we failed them. We learned this lesson the hard way: your players are not numbers, each one is special. Sometimes, you can have the best analysis of your target market, but it doesn’t mean you know them. Bringing back this feature was our biggest priority, and our development team worked hard to make it happen as soon as possible.
Finally, after the second release, the shaky and stormy period was behind us. Yatzy Ultimate reached its peak of glory, confirming we were on the right path. We were ready to start the new chapter.
Your Game Needs Some Za Za Zu
One of the most influential parts in mobile game development are the customer reviews. Those few sentences written by the players provide a plethora of ideas for new features and improvements of the existing gameplay. We just love our players’ creativity and their words (good and bad) are often the trigger for our most productive brainstorming sessions.
At one of our meetings, as we were reading the reviews, one really caught our attention. One player wrote us: “Pretty good. Needs some za za zu”. That’s right, let’s put some “za za zu” in Yatzy Ultimate.
A new challenge was in front of us. We needed to add more challenge, risk, and greater winnings in the gameplay. To do this, we introduced a leveling system and higher stakes in the online gameplay, and later on, a “Play with Buddies” feature. At the same time, we completed our strategy for cross-platform gameplay with the introduction of Yatzy Ultimate on Facebook. Our classic game now got the completely new trendy look and, according to the feedback from our players, Yatzy Ultimate has the “za za zu” flavor in it.
Today, Game.IO has proven itself as a serious player on the market. We’re no longer the newbies and with our experience and lessons learned, we’ve matured. New games and new challenges are ahead of us, and we have the passion and drive to make it happen.
Interested in what Game.IO has in store for their players? Find out by following them on Twitter and Facebook.
Releasing over 30 titles in the app stores such as Vlad The Viking: Barbarian Run, Turbo Train (an Indie Prize nominee), and Tesla Boy, Dream Bot Studios is an independent game studio founded by Markus Skupeika. They believe they must design games to enlighten and free people from the hidden agendas of the powers that be, using stories and experiences that empowers gamers to live a life with purpose. The studio’s latest hit, Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager, was developed from all the data collected from the company’s other titles to produce what they consider “toilet time gameplay”. Markus talks about the game’s development.
Time to Build Anew
After launching multiple titles in the App Store and getting some great player data, we felt we could make some better decisions on our next game. Along with this, it was time to create a new game engine, which Dream Bot Studios could use to build a collection of branded games around. These branded games would focus on one core character, a character players could feel connected to and hopefully invest in. This is when we began thinking about Vlad, our cute little chubby viking.
During the process of choosing our viking theme. I would role play around the office as a viking or pirate. Yes, a goofy-like grown man thinking he was a viking, yelling around the office. Oh the joys of game development! It’s like acting for a movie script. I get into character, then draw some silly designs to see if it fits the way I’m acting. Character development is crucial because if you can get those players to connect to the main character, this can turn into more in-app purchases, higher retention, and revenue for the studio. Plus, who doesn’t like being a viking, especially a cute chubby one who bounces around his viking town?
Toilet Time Gameplay
When we first developed mobile games, we totally forgot people were playing these games mostly with just one finger. We were creating far too advanced gameplay or controls when in reality, people are playing mobile games while commuting, waiting, or what we like to call “toilet time gameplay”. Players usually use only one hand and finger to play mobile games.
In order to make a dent in the App Store, we wanted a casual type game to attract a larger audience. Since we are dealing with $0.99 in-app purchases, at least 20,000 downloads would be required in order to get the studio’s money back on the game. The way we did this is with a casual, easy-to-pick-up game.
After the many mistakes we learned from publishing our games, we had to come up with a system to make a great game. During each iteration of developing games at Dream Bot Studios, we always ask these questions for each game mechanic:
+ How can we have players want to continue playing? (retention)
+ How can we have players become our apostles? (downloads)
+ How can we have players want to spend more? (revenue)
Keeping Players Playing
The first thing in our game development process is getting controls to feel right. Making things feel right increases game retention. In Vlad The Angry Viking Voyager, we decided on drawing a simple platform to bounce our hero throughout the level. It was an endless level, so we could cut level design and simply increase the difficulty as players advanced through the game.
This was initially difficult at first simply because our character was at first created with as a normal human body, but bouncing a full body around the screen using physics was a horrific experience. So we made him into a cute ball-like character, animating his arms and facial animations.
We really wanted our players to connect to our hero, so we focused on creating really big eyes for our character. When players connect with the hero, the retention is always increased. A great tip for those who are building such characters is to look at Disney and DreamWorks’ characters. All the characters show personality through their eyes. So we did just that and gave Vlad an eye-bulging makeover.
Bouncing Just Right
After getting our character model into a little cute round cannonball shape. We now had a bigger problem getting the bouncing mechanic right. We decided to create bounce strength variables from the start to allow us to change the velocity and height of our hero. This allowed our team to balance our bounce mechanics more easily and also was strategically planned for in-app purchases for players who wanted to bounce Vlad into space. By having our hero use the bounce velocity variables to increase the height of his jumps, we could easily build upgrades later, which players could purchase with in-game currency. This proved to be beneficial and helped the studio receive more in-app purchases.
The longest part of development was the bouncing mechanics. This took quite some time to get right. Players could change the angle of the platforms and would create weird results. So after a month of testing internally and with friends and family, we finally got it right. Once we were feeling comfortable with the main mechanics, we began thinking about how we could make playing Vlad more fun. Keeping the idea in the back of our mind of toilet-time gameplay, we started coming up with new silly ideas.
Adding More Fun
We started thinking of cool power up bonuses with which players could upgrade their character. As we came up with ideas for the power-ups, this also sparked some imagination for our enemies in the game.
We started slicing up the new mechanics in mini salami-sliced iterations, like peeling the layers of the onion. We took one mechanic at a time to check if it would work. If it did, then we would check if we could use this mechanic to increase retention and build more revenue from the game. Each mechanic added followed the same process: does it make the game fun and how can we increase retention or create revenue from this mechanic?
We onion-layered in cool dragons, UFOs, coins, and power-ups. Each object in the game has its own cool way to make the game more enjoyable. Finally, after putting these new objects into the game, we had to test the game’s difficulty. Initially, it was too easy, and in my opinion, still is. But we will be updating the game to increase the challenge on our next iteration.
After each iteration, we would always ask the same questions as before, so our next step was how to get more downloads for this game without spending a huge bundle on marketing until we knew our numbers.
Transform Gamers Into Apostles
We came up with some really cool ideas to find ways to have players share the game with their friends and the world. We are indie developers, so we have to be creative. We created a super-cool viral mechanic leveraging Facebook’s huge user base. We didn’t hide it on a menu, but instead placed it right inside the main menu when players start the game. We ask them if they wanted to play with their friends.
If they choose yes…
They will see their top three friends score during the game. Then they will also have a chance to invite friends or brag to their friends on Facebook.
The opportunity to share happens on each end-of-level screen. This means free marketing and more downloads without having to pay for those expensive $2 to $7 installs. We let our users be our apostles and spread the word! This is something every game developer should consider when creating their game.
Another cool mechanic we did was our Kingdom of Coins. We want gamers to brag about the game or their achievements. So what better way to do this then giving a player his or her own castle to fill up using coins? After players collect coins, they turn them into diamonds. After every level, we send players to this Kingdom of Coins to collect diamonds and build their Kingdom, so they can share with friends on Facebook and Twitter.
Psychologically, players now are:
+ Collecting: (Gather as many coins as they can – increasing Retention)
+ Competing: (Showing Off – Whose Castle is Bigger?) with friends on Facebook and Twitter
Also, players are free at any time to purchase more coins, which increases their collection and size of castle! It was a new piece of the game I really wanted to add, to have a player invested into achieving more in the game and having some visual feedback to prove it to themselves and their fellow gamers.
What Is Game Without A Boss Battle?
Another layer we decided to push into the game was a cool boss battle. It was hard to think of a way to battle a boss while bouncing. We had one idea of a viking carry a long stack of bricks and the player had to bust through the wall of bricks to advance, but this proved to not be that fun.
As I was playing, I got to the part of the game where you can start bouncing over water. I thought about a fish jumping out of the water like I’ve seen in other games. So I took this idea and ran with it, making the fish really huge. This turned out to be our boss battle, as well as another way to allow the player to break from the usual gameplay while collecting more coins to upgrade their hero.
Now we had to answer the question of how to have players spend more in the game.
When creating the upgrades and in-app purchases, we didn’t want to break the action, so we strategically placed our store as a part of the gameplay. Upon starting the game, players were immediately introduced to the upgrade area and then onto playing the game. It was not just to buy stuff, but really to upgrade your character with the coins you collect from the game.
Our players come to the upgrade menu each time the game starts and the player begins a new level. It works very well, as it is not intrusive and players view this store as more of a upgrade area, rather than just a store. We took weeks to design the menu and make sure it was easy to navigate. I believe it was a good investment, considering the more players visit the store, the more likeliness to increase retention and revenue.
The team at Dream Bot Studios learned a ton from this game. We used analytics to see what users were doing and this proved to be valuable to help us see our exact numbers. Eugene, our lead programmer on the project, did a fantastic job of taking the ideas in the game development doc and collaborating with the team to make sure the game ran smoothly. It was a large project for us; we learned so much and we will continue to iterate new versions and test them to see what works best for our players.
We learned so much and we will continue to iterate new versions and test them to see what works best for our players.
I would have to say it’s important to develop games quickly, especially being a self-funded studio. The team at Dream Bot Studios now takes game development in really small pieces, trying to create polish in each piece of development. And we really stick to our three important questions when creating new mechanics and recommend other game developers to ask the same questions.
Listening to Players
After launching Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager on the Apple App Store, we got great reviews from players. We published a free version and paid version. Both did well, but we had some hiccups with our free version, as it was crashing for some gamers.
I really wanted to help our gamers, so I spent time in communicating directly with them and found they were initially upset of a free game crashing on their device. But after discussions with them, they were super happy to just know they were being listened to. We fixed the bugs and released an updated version within seven days.
Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager is only one instance of the collection of games we plan to release with Vlad as the hero.
Vlad the Angry Viking Voyager is only one instance of the collection of games we plan to release with Vlad as the hero. This game will lead to other games to help us keep our development cost down and produce higher profits by using winning mechanics that worked and adding more cool features to the world of Vlad. Again, it comes down to making small iterations.
Dream Bot Studios is happy with our release, although we are still working on making a large dent in the App Store and looking to win more rewards for our unique titles. Until that time, we will continue to iterate and make some really cool PC, mobile, and console games in 2014.
Tacticsoft is a small Israeli game development studio that started as a one-man project and grew into an international studio with a staff of 10 people around the world, and Battle Dawn, a successful MMO game that made millions in revenues. Their game designer and founder Michael Rosen started the studio as a hobby in 2005, and now shares his experience of building it from scratch without any external investment.
Making Games Since Childhood Through the Army
Building games has been my passion since I remember myself, whether they were board games, toys or computer games. I discovered coding when I was 10 and, from there on, made games as a hobby. Getting a toy or a game as a present from my parents was a rare occasion, so I found myself creating my own games from paper cards, pens and scissors. The first game I remember making was the “Stratego” game.
About 10 years ago, I started playing online browser-based games, particularly one called Planetarion. The moment I realized I set an alarm clock to get up in the middle of the night to send an attack, I understood I got addicted.
Back in those high school days, I was fiddling around with Flash 4 (yah, back in the days when it was all scripts), and thought that making a browser-based game with this technology was a good idea, and 2D graphics would stand out in the market with hundreds of text-based browser MMOs.
Time passed, and I had to give three years to the army (mandatory in my country). Each time I had a long guarding duty, I’d sketch out my game designs. I used weekends to play other existing games and see which parts of them I’d like to adopt into my own game design.
The moment I realized I set an alarm clock to get up in the middle of the night to send an attack, I understood I got addicted.
Once I finished my military service, I had tons of motivation to do something, but no money to start anything big.
A Map, MySQL database and Simple PHP Communications Making an Online MMO
I had no idea of the extent of the project I was stepping into. The only thing I had in my hands was the design document I had been rewriting for almost three years.
The first line of code was written in October 2005 for the concept of taking the mechanics of a text browser-based strategy MMO and placing it on an interactive map with a nice GUI, and thus get a niche in the market by becoming the only true 2D browser-based MMO. I started with building a Google Maps-kind of interface, added a MySQL database to hold the location of all the bases, and displayed them on the map using simple PHP communications. I had no money to buy expensive software (my Flash license came from my previous work as a freelancer), so I chose free dev tools. Lots of PHP coding was done in Notepad at the start 🙂
After six months, I reached a breaking point. Everything was working locally on my computer, but I had to test it online now, to see if it works with real players. It took me a whole month to gather the courage to spend $10 per month on a virtual server host. That was like a whole McDonalds meal once a month (I was calculating it that way back then), as well as being my first online purchase ever.
Once the game went online, I saw a lot of issues I didn’t take into consideration, such as bugs related to latency and slow internet connection. That gave me at least one more month of work before I opened the alpha version to public, which was very ugly as can be seen in the following screenshot:
Bringing Players Through Forums and Message Boards
It was the 1st of June 2006 when I opened the game for public for the first time. I still had no money for advertising campaigns, so had to turn to guerrilla marketing. I wrote about my game on Flash development forums & mailing lists, as well as a few other similar browser-based games message boards, in order to attract a small player base to test my game. My posts were very spam-like: “Come play the best flash MMO game online!” So most of these were deleted by the moderators. Nevertheless, some were picking interest.
My posts were very spam-like: “Come play the best flash MMO game online!”
The response at that time was overwhelming! In just a day, I had at least 200 people playing my game, as well as commenting on the forums with bug reports and suggestions for improvements and features
The next few months were a daily ping-pong game: players reporting bugs and issues and having me fix them. Most of the problems reported were game-breaking bugs: buttons not working, UI issues, and battle calculation errors. As the entire game UI was built with Flash, there were quite a few errors to deal with.
We encountered one of the funniest bugs right after a new feature was added to the game by the request of the players: nuclear missiles. It was supposed to kill all the troops standing in the target the missile hits. But I forgot to add a WHERE clause to the SQL statement! It resulted in a world nuclear holocaust killing all the armies around the world once the first nuke has hit its target!
Implementing PayPal: “Just Copying the Big Fish Out There.”
Once all major bugs were gone and the alpha version was stable, I moved on to implementing PayPal. As the online browser-based games market wasn’t quite developed at that time, there weren’t many services available for online payments in games. I saw that PayPal was widely used by all other existing browser-based games at that time, so I decided to use it, too. “Just copy the big fish out there” was the best advice I got at that time.
Making money on the game was basically the plan from the start, to be able to pay my rent and living costs while studying in a university. I just didn’t imagine it would eventually pay also for nine other people!
Five months of the game being online covered all expenses of development. After a long weekend of coding, I managed to get the PayPal API to work with my game, and offered $5 resource packages of metal, oil, workers, and energy that you could spend in the game to build an army faster than non-paying users. Again, like before, I just copied what other games were doing. One of those I learned from was called Gindis Army Commander, I even copied the design of the payment page from them. By the way, the founder of that game now works for my company.
Five months of the game being online covered all expenses of development.
Within two minutes of committing this new feature, the first purchase came in from Australia. Five minutes later, another one came from the US, and the payments just kept on coming every few minutes. It was a great feeling: to build something for almost a year, and see people enjoying it and willing to pay for it. The mechanics I used to persuade people to pay are now common in free-to-play games: time-based short cuts instead for waiting for the resources to be replenished for a whole day: spend $5 and get your silos full.
The first month generated about $400, the following one – almost $2000, the next one passed $4000 and the game building costs were already covered.
Eventually, as the player base grew, the shared virtual server became too slow to handle my game, and I moved to a separate hosting solution. But this time, there was no more financial issue.
Harnessing Your Community’s Creativity to Build a Team
In the beginning of 2007, the number of players of my game surpassed 2000. They came by word of mouth as well as game-voting sites such as pbbgames.com (no paid advertising was done yet). I was unable to cover the forums and in-game private messages on my own anymore. I just had to recruit community management staff.
The first member of my team was actually a player. Some community members stand out by being more active on the forums and sending me private messages which showed their special dedication to the game. So I gave this guy the keys to become the first world admin of Battle Dawn. Fortunately, he’s also a lawyer, so he knew exactly how to handle all those players and their complaints. This experience also helped me trust a person i never met face to face.
Some community members are more active on the forums and send me private messages that show their special dedication to the game.
Other players helped me create better graphics for the game, contributing their free time to create new graphic assets to be implemented in the game. I was at a point when I’d appreciate any help, as the game was really ugly. The first contributions were completely free and voluntary. Later, when the game started to make more money, I went back to these guys and actually hired them to make some more professional art.
On the other hand, about 10 months after the alpha launch, the game was hacked. One of the players managed to get access to the world database and gave himself endless resources. Luckily, he hasn’t caused any serious damage, so a quick ban along with hiring some server security firm solved this issue. And actually an apology came from the hackers group associated with the incident a few days later. The guy who helped with securing Battle Dawn‘s servers was also one of the players, and now he’s been in my team for six years.
The guy who helped with securing Battle Dawn‘s servers was one of the players, now he’s been in my team for six years.
It’s much easier to find solutions to exploits and balance issues when you got a hive mind of hundreds of “core” players instead of one or two game designers.
Two Years After Launch: Game Becomes Unmanageable, Gets Rebuilt From Scratch
After two years of updates, the game project grew to be too large and patchy, and updating turned into a nightmare. The code became unreadable, and only I knew where everything was. The game couldn’t evolve any longer.
We had to rebuild everything from scratch: the billing platform, user management, admin tools, game client, make a new database, new art, and set up new servers. Nevertheless, it happened to be easier than we thought: having a live prototype as our design document made our lives much easier. The extra income and high profits allowed me to recruit more staff, including programmers and artists.
The income that Battle Dawn generates now allows us to work on other games projects. The market has changed, Facebook, iPhones, Android smartphones and tablets, iPads – all these were coming into play. New opportunities on those platforms made us start a new cross-platform game three years ago and released it online. We are continuing to keep our eye on creating great games.
Supermechs, the team’s cross-platform game, is available online and is coming to iOS soon.
After working at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic for so long, I found myself craving more control over what I was making. I decided it was time to set out and start my own studio where I could develop mobile content. Being a developer and designer, the current mobile landscape is an appealing canvas for content distribution. After eight months of part-time design and development, I launched my first game, Glint.
Step Aside, Quest
Glint was not actually my first mobile game, but it’s the first game I’ve published. Prior to 2013, I honestly didn’t play games on my phone. I didn’t understand the point – screens were small and processors were limited. The quality of games I saw was poor; most of them were 2D with cheap-looking graphics and generally uninteresting to me. At some point, I started noticing that it seemed like everyone was playing Temple Run. I decided to see what all the fuss was about and I downloaded it. It was free, after all.
I remember one night sitting on my couch at home, obsessed with this game. I made my first ever in-app-purchase and, for the first time, understood how it was possible to make money with games. It got me thinking about how easy a game like Temple Run is and how I could use my existing skill-set to create something similar – as an experiment. So Quest was born, as was my passion for mobile game development.
Working at an industry-leading visual effects house like ILM forces you to push the limits of what you and your tools are capable of. I took this to heart when developing Quest – I wanted it to be beautiful and cinematic. I developed a pipeline and processing technique to pre-render and bake all of my graphics to keep the quality up and the mobile processing power down. I almost finished the game.
“Your First Game Will Fail”
As I came closer to finishing Quest, I started doing a lot of research about best practices for launching mobile games. What I learned was disheartening: my game would fail. Apparently, it’s pretty difficult to successfully launch a mobile game these days. With thousands of new titles hitting the App Store daily, the new kid on the block has almost no chance at success. So I decided to start working on another idea I had – a simpler gameplay mechanic that I perceived would be less time-intensive to make than a visually detailed game like Quest.
Glint was the game that would consume my post-Quest game development time. Initially, my goal was not to create the game that exists today, but instead, rapidly create a simple version to test the waters of the App Store. Of course, I should have known that my obsessive nature wouldn’t allow me to release a game that I didn’t feel was polished. So, Glint became my new Quest.
A Great First Playtest
In the early days of development, I had people test the game mechanics frequently. It’s an exciting feeling watching someone play your game and become addicted to something that is so rough it’s barely playable. I installed a version of an early prototype on my roommate’s girlfriend’s iPhone since she really enjoyed the gameplay. A few weeks later, my roommate said “all she does now is play Glint, and when I try to talk to her while she’s playing, she clearly isn’t listening to anything I say.” That was an amazing compliment.
I continued to iterate on the gameplay and design for months. Each level in Glint is created based on a set of parameters and colors. I knew that I wanted to create a level editor that would allow me to quickly build and tweak each level. Something I picked up at ILM was the incredible advantage that quick iterative changes introduces. Building tools to support that concept assisted me, as a solo developer, in creating many aspects of the process. Still, though, it was important to build out each level and understand how the game felt.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been in a situation like me, you know that game development can be maddening. Many nights, I would drink while coding, trying to hit that elusive Balmer Peak. As I would test the game, I took frequent notes of things to tweak. One night, in particular, I was slightly intoxicated and super thrilled with one particular level, as recorded in my notes.
I immediately switched gears from developer into marketer, something I knew nothing about. I started putting a lot of effort into creating “irresistible marketing material”, which is something that Emmy and other marketing professionals speak about often.
I began reaching out to the press and asking, begging, if they would preview Glint and write about it. My initial efforts paid off with AppAdvice requesting to cover the launch exclusively. They published a great write-up two days before the launch and published a phenomenal review of the game on launch day.
After the release, the game was covered by PocketGamer, TouchArcade & Apple’N’Apps – which was amazing. I decided to launch the game right before GDC so that we could promote it at the week-long conference. One of the nice things about getting press coverage is that you can use quotes to create better marketing materials.
In the End
Glint launched on March 6th and is available on both iTunes and Google Play. In the first month of sales, Glint racked up about 10,000 downloads. Not nearly enough to hit critical mass, but a much better “first launch” than I expected. I hope that other developers and designers understand the importance of both marketing and polished design in an ever-more-crowded App Store.
Ryan would love to hear your thoughts and connect with you. You can shoot him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with him on Facebook.
Amazu Media is a Danish games studio creating personal storytelling worlds. It houses a duo of directors running different in-house productions around a common goal of approaching meaningful issues through fantasy. Shrug Island, an adventure game about friendship, nature, and the power of communication, is the studio’s second project and the latest part of many projects in an environmental fantasy universe called Shrug Worlds. Alina Constantin shares the story of its creation.
A Frozen Vision
The first idea for Shrug Island came during a walk in the nature, on a still day in the middle of February, as frozen as it usually gets in Danish winters. I hadn’t had a fresh idea for months… Suddenly, I imagined the frozen plants around me being people. People stopped in time. The reason for this would be the mystery to be solved. The tools, hidden around these human plants, would need to be found in order to sing to the nature — so that it would raise its icy hand and awaken the people again.
From Clay Houses to Game Concept
Many years before, I was an animation film student between France and Norway. I had been painting and telling stories since I can remember, and I put this, along with my love for nature, into an environmental fantasy world.
On a magical island, creatures called Shrugs lived and migrated, shifting their shapes to adapt to their changing world. This would become a 2D short film named Shrug, finished in 2009. It was awarded by a youth jury at the Annecy International Animation Festival and went around children’s festivals worldwide: RedCat in Seattle, Beginning Film in Russia, and CICDAF in China, to name a few. This was a first huge encouragement after years of solo student work. Using watercolors and nature’s sounds, stylized shapes, and minimal music, I tried to use a poetic approach to discuss our relations with our environment.
And it worked somehow. Many people would give me very personal interpretations of the film, and I was amazed by the feedback. But it could only reach exclusive audiences of festivals, and I’ve always wished to share stories with larger circles of people.
I was just starting my career, and it was too early for me to know how to follow this up. So I left the Shrugs, my freelance jobs, and the world of media for a while, let life happen, and somehow found myself living like my characters, building clay houses in a sustainable community in Sjælland, Denmark.
On that winter day, as I was walking by the frozen reeds and river outside the ecovillage, a new Shrug story after many months arose in my head. It wouldn’t be a film, and I wasn’t going to make it alone. I’d involve the audience, but it would take a while before I knew how to make it.
Open Workshop — Transforming from Animation to Game Design
In the end of 2011, I was accepted to the lively Open Workshop art residency. It’s a department of the Animation Workshop, a renowned school and center for animation development in Viborg, Denmark. (Like other art residences throughout the globe, one applies with a creative background and engaged project, and, if selected, receives workspace, some material, and counseling to take a project further). For a time, I was given a creative context and opportunity to experiment towards the best format to bring a new animated Shrug story to life.
A year of sketches, pitches, masterclasses, morning dances, music jamming, and a few teaching jobs later, I had designed a full family of Shrugs to choose from, along with dynamic island locations. And I knew this was to be a game.
The diversity of Shrug characters, their transformations within their world, and its musical language – it was all really made for multiple choices, ambient puzzles, and player involvement. Researching, I stumbled upon the indie adventure scene, and “Games for Change”, so I stepped off the deep end. My plan was to turn Shrug Island into a meaningful adventure game.
Amazu Media – Adding Wings to a Dream
Having been already been involved in a few idealistic endeavors, I knew I needed collaboration and experience. I attended events, played more, went to game jams, and wrote to different foundations. I saw how much was ahead before I or anyone would be ready to start this large adventure. Igor Noronha, a friend in Viborg, suggested I build another game with the Shrug world, something smaller and casual. If I did that, I’d be welcome in the game company he had recently started, and he´d help me make that game. In the middle of 2012, I joined him at Amazu Media, and the idea for Shrug Tides was born. This was a simple sidescrolling platformer, with one little shape-shifting Shrug, for mobiles. I’d get game design experience, grow an audience, and get to Shrug Island later.
The Long Haul
This was much easier said than done. Gaps between animation and games, in terms of design and production, proved deeper and deeper, and Igor gave me more control than I expected. The first programmers I worked with were nearly as baffled as I was. But I kept learning, optimizing, and adapting a painter’s mindset to level designing and 2D animations for triggers and event calls. Meanwhile, still researching larger games, I visited schools and university staff all around, and even crunched a first two-week prototype for Viborg’s Learning Games Expo in 2012.
It was great to see people around an iPad, playing a Shrug scene for the first time, trying the game and being surprised by its characters. But there also came sobering realizations. No matter how early a concept and how much I tried to involve both the audience and teachers from the onset, Shrug Island would not be easily used in schools. It did engage people, and could become a nice game to discuss natural, social, or even musical subjects, but the learning was not practical or measurable enough. I wished to keep outcomes of game challenges open for interpretation, let the player decide and make conclusions. That left defined curriculums out. Unless I narrowed it down to one subject, and let the Shrugs illustrate the textbook, which was too literal a usefor this story to work.
So Shrug Island wouldn’t end up as a learning game, and practically, I also stepped away from the funding that educational institutions could have offered. To make a large game, I needed to keep a team. If not a core educational market, I’d have to show that it could reach a commercial audience, so I followed Igor’s advice to try for mobile.
Shrug Tides became more important. It could be my first step into a possible market. I kept working on its production, as programmers came and went.
Scandinavian Game Developers – the Magic of Harmonizing
In February 2013, a sauna changed everything. Igor and I were at the Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen. On a weekend away from our projects in Viborg, long challenges and computers, we were board game jamming with a few lovely game-makers.
An amazing character by the name of Nicklas Nygren ran by, looking for company for the sauna. I decided to join. The two of us started something mostly resembling a music jam with a bunch of other grinning Nordic developers between the wooden walls of a tiny sauna, and I felt the magic was coming back into my world of game development.
Two weeks later, I invited this talented Swedish developer by the code name Nifflas to Viborg. We game jammed for a week, reused some assets from Shrug Tides, and came up with a new little game called Shrug Song. The closest I had ever gotten to my initial vision for a game: 2D transformations, ambience, and music puzzles. After a few months of working separately on the game in our free time in various parts of the country, we released it online on Nicklas’s website.
I was overwhelmed with the response! Game magazines picked it up, people posted personal YouTube videos, and, with a few exceptions, the experience was exactly what I wished to create. The sound atmosphere was again a core part of the Shrug worlds. Shrug Song became the core mechanic for one of the characters of Shrug Island. The game was starting to get its shape, and we received a little development funding from the DFI game scheme in June 2013!
Shrug Island Finally Begins: Reuse, Recycle, Return
With the DFI funding boost, we had six weeks to make a prototype. Unfortunately, Nicklas had other projects and could not stay with the team. I discussed my plans with him, got advice wherever I could, and found two young programmers to move forward with me.
The summer went by in a flash. Our aim was taking two Shrug kids from previous prototypes, strengthening their individual mechanics, introducing the island in a few scenes of exploration and puzzles where the player would switch characters, at the end of which the two friends would meet. It was to be an alpha for the game’s beginning, before the crisis arose on Shrug Island, the mystery thickened, and the large puzzle adventure was unleashed.
Even with constant checks and scaling our ambitions, we realized we had too many challenges. The first one came with recycling assets. Being the only artist in the team as well as the game director and team manager, I had to reuse everything I could. Half of the assets were designed for smaller, closed prototypes, so re-adapting that code was discarded in favor of starting from scratch. More challenge followed in 2D design.
Character moves had been designed differently: one in profile for a sidescroller, another one in 3/4 for exploration. So they couldn’t walk on the same ground. I found visual tricks to include them in same scenes, and two individual pathfinding systems were built. Certain animations of the island proved too large to run on iPad. On the other hand, this created interesting solutions for a bigger game. Yet it turned out too costly for our short schedule. We all lacked experience, and, when scaling the plan down, I chose compromises for team spirit over design. It was greatly felt in the result: an attractive, but very segmented experience, which didn’t fulfill the game’s objective of a connected world. Nevertheless, we got to confirm in tests that the aesthetic parts of the experience still fulfilled their purpose.
Players would pass the game to each other, stay around, interpret, and help each other out. We managed to create a shared feeling in an adventure game, while many games from this genre provide a solitary experience. Eventually we got close, but not enough.
A Responsive Background
A core feature was missing for the island to feel as the living breathing character it is. The background world needs to consistently respond, grow, and sing back to the player. This wasn’t implemented well enough for testers to feel it.
Funding ran out. Production stopped, programmers left, and I had a half-finished prototype, still far from the vibe of the game.
Something great came out of this as well. I no longer simply had a vision, I had a road map and a toolbox defined through experiences of testing, successes and failures. Now I knew what aspects of the Shrug world’s magic was meaningful in game language, and to a certain extent, how I could better guide a game production team to unfold this together.
It has always been my objective to have the audience involved. So came the next step to get this done: going to Kickstarter, and with humble aim and proper preparation and give my all.
Grounding the Story and Continuing the Journey
I started building up a message and online presence in the last months of 2013. I returned to the casual platformer, and, with a last little push, finished it. Amazu Media released Shrug Tides for free on Android in late December 2013. A few months later, it reached 30,000 downloads. Yet it remains true to itself, an unpolished experimentation of a first product, made to learn.
I remind people these are all different games. Shrug Song, the second, though earlier released, minigame, is closer to the larger adventure, but is still research. You’ll meet the same characters in Shrug Island, but the gameplay is different. I’ll let the Kickstarter campaign confirm if all of this has given the right direction, and if Shrug Island has reason to take the last step to come alive.
It took two years to begin to see myself as a game designer and understand how to define the game I once saw on a winter’s walk, the one I dream to share. I was always dedicated to learning, and I’ve certainly gained an invaluable understanding, from production and funding schemes of a game to its audience outreach. I’ve learned what is and isn’t worth compromising, and the value of the right team. The real adventure is only beginning. I look forward to it.
On March 23, Shrug Island has been successfully funded on Kickstarter. Alina is currently building the final team to get Shrug Island back into production and release the first chapter of the game on desktops and tablets in late 2014. Alina’s first Shrug game with Igor is freely available on Android, a casual spin-off of Shrug Worlds called Shrug Tides. Shrug Island’s early core mechanic and “feel” demo called Shrug Song is available for PCvia Nifflas’ website. To keep updated on the development, follow Shrug Worlds’ Facebook and Twitter.
Mingle Games is an independent game development studio with main focus on mobile gaming. Based in Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, the company was founded in 2012 by two experienced game developers Vladislav Spevák and Jiří Formánek, who worked for game companies as Disney Mobiles, Centauri Production, or Lonely Sock. Vladislav shares the story of developing the company’s third game, Dark Lands.
Before Dark Lands, Mingle games released two games: a physics-based logical-action game called Save The Birds and a hammer tossing game called Dwarven Hammer. While Save The Birds had some success with over 1.7 million downloads, Dwarven Hammer was pure failure. It was our good learning process though, where we put all the lessons and experience into Dark Lands. I am a programmer turned game designer and producer, while Jiri Formanek is still focusing mainly on programming. We hired Pavel Konfrst as artist to be part of a team.
After we failed with Dwarven Hammer (which was simple and quickly made), it was like a cold shower to wake up and stop doing things that we believe might have been popular, and instead focus on something that is a part of us and what we wanted to really play.
Creating Our Own Feel
We are all fans of fantasy as well as dark and horror themes, so we wanted to make something that would have unique look and artistic feeling, while not spending too many resources on complicated art. At the time, I was playing Limbo and was fascinated with the possibility to make a very strong atmosphere with just silhouettes. From that moment, I felt so inspired that I decided to also try to make a silhouette game, but with a different approach than Limbo. We also love Frank Miller as an artist, so we were inspired by his Sin City and 300!
We started designing the art style and felt it was the way to go. Pavel did a great job bringing all our ideas to life and also putting little details in it that matters. Finally, we believed we had what it takes to be different and still minimalistic with a noir feeling. As a big fan of old games like Another World and the first Prince of Persia, we wanted to make more complex movement so we chose to use skeletal animations instead of sprite, as this allowed us to make way more animations without a great loss of memory.
As I love to play runners, I was playing with an idea to twist the gameplay a little and bring in a fight mode to the game to make it a hack-and-slash runner. I found that games like Punch Quest have a nice fighting model inside, but wanted to make it little more tactical while still using full scale of movement such as slide, jump, double jump, etc. Gameplay was the biggest challenge in the end. We decided to use gestures for running, so a simple swipe up was set for jump and double jump, while swipe down was used to slide, just like in games such as Temple Run. Incorporating a fighting system to this was the most difficult. We tried to use gestures over enemies to slash them (think Fruit Ninja), but that produced chaos in the control and was mixing with other gestures. We even tried virtual buttons for attack and block, but again, it didn’t feel good to mix virtual buttons with gestures. After many fails, testing, and changing of gameplay, we ended up with the simple control we have now: swipe up to jump, swipe down to slide, tap to attack, and two fingers hold to block. It just felt natural, and people we have tested it with finally liked it.
The issue with all development processes is always budget. We wanted to create a high-quality game, but time was ticking, so we could not spend too much time on it. We knew that creating another fast game would just result in failure, and we could expect to close the company right after that. Then came AppCampus, and everything good happened from there.
We applied for funding from the AppCampus program, and we were lucky enough to be selected! This was something that we needed, as we believed we had a great idea in Dark Lands and while we put all our knowledge and skills into its creation, we also knew we needed extra time to make it stand out from the rest. They helped us not only with funding, but also mentoring and education that helped us spend way more time on the game and brought in new ideas. We had to release Dark Lands exclusively for Windows Phone for period of three months, so we focused on this part first.
Feature Hell and the Release
As we knew from our past projects, it is very easy to slip into feature hell and get killed by it. So we have been very strict with Dark Lands, making only the core gameplay, a limited amount of bosses and enemies, and two worlds. We wanted to release the game to see if our ideas and our game were what people actually wanted. It is always easy to think that your game is great, but the truth is, only the players will decide if the game is good or not. So we took all the necessary features we believed were needed to make the game feel complete and made those as perfect as we could as fast as possible to release it. Quality is always more important than quantity.
After a few extra months of development (six months total), we felt we finally had a core game that was ready to release. We self-published on Windows Phone (WP), and we had just a small marketing budget. The game went live on December 12, 2013 just before Slush 2013 in Helsinki. Before release, we were so scared of releasing another failure that we spoke loudly about closing the company after its release. But luckily, the game gained popularity right away. With support from the press as well as promotional help from Nokia and Microsoft we reached over 1,600,000 downloads to the date and became the most successful project of AppCampus. We reached the Top 1 Paid App spot in most of the countries, and also the Top 10 Free spot (we have been setting the game free for promotion). With thanks to all AppCampus team, namely: Paolo Borella, Timo Mustonen (Nokia), Ron Ellington, and rest of their hard working team, we had our breakthrough in mobile gaming.
We’ve been lucky that our game has gained mass popularity in a mostly organic way, so we didn’t have to spend money on promotion. But we released just the core game, and people wanted more. We felt it was time to bring in all the extra features we wanted to do: a level based mode, multiplayer, and new art, enemies, bosses, worlds, etc. Also, we needed to port the game to iOS and Android, so that after the three months WP exclusivity, we can release the game there as well. As the game has had great success on WP, we have had offers from multiple world class publishers for Dark Lands. We chose to go with Bulkypix, as their offer sounded fair, and we’ve known them for a long time. Now we have finished the port, and soon we will bring the game to the iOS, followed by Android, while we carry on updating WP.
As our company is very young, we learned that only hard work and dedication is the key to success. It is necessary to analyze heavily every step and decision to make things happen. Everything we do, we ask yourself why we want to do it, why it is important, and how that can bring interest to the game. It is also important to try it on other people before it is decided for full development. Prototyping is the key and throw ideas away as soon as they doesn’t look as perfect in reality as they do on paper. Not only have we been learning business by our mistakes and failures, but we are also learning how to be more effective, how to not get overworked, and how to not lose time on things that are not important. All this also comes with a large amount of stress and starting a game company is definitely not for everyone, so I would not recommend it if that person doesn’t feel strong urge to do it and is ready to fail and to learn from failure and keep improving. It is a tough business, but it is a beautiful and worthy effort. We are very proud of Dark Lands and how we were able to cooperate to bring it to success and we are so happy to have positive feedback from players. It is so pleasant to read all the mail fans send us. Having the game rating over 4.6 is fantastic and unexpected. But we are only at the beginning of the journey and many hard obstacles are in front of us. We have won this battle, but the war is not over yet.
Mingle Games is preparing lots of updates to content, gameplay and features to Dark Lands, with the iOS and Android version coming soon. Keep in touch with them on Facebook and Twitter.
Based out of Los Angeles, The Hohng Company is a one-man development studio created in 2011. Sangwoo Hong, the man behind the company, had worked with entertainment industry leaders such as Pixar, Squaresoft (now Square Enix), and Electronic Arts, but decided to break out on his own as an indie. After making a few games on his own, he teamed up with a partner to create The Asteroids Are Coming!, available for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire.
Starting Off and Finding The Tools
Ever since I got a Commodore 128 as a birthday gift, I’ve been interested in creating my own games. I’ve fiddled with too many pieces of tech to remember since then, but I eventually found the one that works for me in early 2011. The years I spent banging my head against XNA paid off. After watching some tutorials, I grokked Unity3D and saw that I could make a game with it for real. So I did…or so I thought. I made prototype after prototype, but then I ran into a problem. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to finish any of the prototypes, at least not in a reasonable amount of time for me to be able to make a living doing so. I realized that I needed to explain to myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, or else I won’t be getting anywhere fast.
I realized that I needed to explain to myself what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, or else I won’t be getting anywhere fast.
Game Tiers: Seeing My Place in the Industry
By now, you might be wondering what does any of the above have to do with The Asteroids Are Coming!, the game to which this article is supposed to be a postmortem to, as well as what I mean by a Tier 2 game. The Asteroids Are Coming!, or TAAC for short, is the fourth game I’ve released since my first game Cubistry in August 2012. I’d like to think that a single man company putting out four games in a year and a half with just one external collaborator is pretty good. But things could have easily gone differently. I might still be hacking away at some unfinished game with no end in sight. But I knew I didn’t want to do that. I needed to ship games in order to start building up my business. And the thing that helped me do that is seeing my place in the game industry’s scheme of things, to know what tier of game I’m capable of creating for now.
I’m not sure exactly when I started seeing things in tiers. What I can say is what I consider to be, at least for the moment, the five tiers of games that are out there.
–Tier 1: These are very simple games with a single game mechanic. Good examples would be the original incarnations of Tetris, Bejewelled, Columns, etc. This tier also includes many classic early console games like Missile Command, which of course has a direct connection to TAAC, a Missile Command-like game with Asteroids.
–Tier 2: These are simple games with a meta game component. TAAC fits here because it has missions to accomplish and ranks to earn. A very good example of a game in this tier is the wonderful mobile game 10000000, which was the direct inspiration for adding the meta game to TAAC.
–Tier 3: These are games irrespective of game mechanics that have a certain amount of content which would be too much for a couple or even three or four people to put together in a reasonable amount of time. An example of this tier of game would be the excellent mobile game The Room.
–Tier 4: Games in this tier are what would have been “AAA” back in the days when single player games ruled the roost on consoles. Games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill come to mind. Early 3D games like Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time do as well. One would definitely need a larger team, say 10 or more, to accomplish games in this tier in a reasonable amount of time.
–Tier 5: Sky’s the limit once you arrive here. Anything and everything which is now referred to as “AAA”, from the Halo series to League of Legends, which literally takes hundreds of people to put together and maintain, fall into this category. Obviously not something for the “traditional” indie developer.
Once I began to see games in tiers, I quickly came to see that the prototypes I put together were for Tier 3 and above games, with no chance of being finished by myself.
A Fresh Start
Once I began to see games in tiers, I quickly came to see that the prototypes I put together were for Tier 3 and above games, with no chance of being finished by myself. I needed a clean break and a fresh start. So I put all those early prototypes aside and started from scratch. I created Cubistry in a month’s time and shipped it first on PC, then on Android and iOS, and it’s been keeping the lights on for me since. But the goal for me is not to make Tier 1 games for the rest of my life. I needed to move on to the next level and that’s where TAAC came in.
After completing my last Tier 1 game, which is a simple free-to-play game called Fairy Artillery (a more direct clone of Missile Command with a fairy theme), my art partner on the game NVS Pixel asked if it would be okay for him to work on a space-themed reskin of Fairy Artillery. Having seen the quality of his art work and the professional manner in which he delivered them, I jumped at the chance to work with him again. And being a big fan of 10000000 by then, I decided to take the plunge in to Tier 2 with TAAC by adding the meta game component.
TAAC of course is not the end, but rather a stepping stone. I will take what I learned from TAAC and apply it to my upcoming games. Some of these games are Tier 2, a few are Tier 1 still, and there are even Tier 3 games which are now spinning up with new found partners, thanks to the success I’ve had in Tier 1 games. Will I ever attempt a Tier 4 or 5 game? I certainly hope so. But for now, I am content in knowing that I am continuing to grow as a game maker because I’ve made the choice to take things one tier at a time.
Sangwoo Hong is currently busy working on his first Tier 3 games, Space Chicks and The Tomb. You can find out more about Sangwoo and his current and future projects by visiting http://hohng.com.
Located in the US, Basilisk Games is an independent game developer with the mission to produce old-school computer RPGs. They have been working on the Eschalon trilogy since 2005, and released the last chapter in February 2014. Thomas Riegsecker, owner of Basilisk Games and Lead Developer of the Eschalon Trilogy, shares the story.
A Dream Project
Way back in 2005, I decided to take my notes from years of developing role-playing game ideas and turn them into a computer game. Originally called Under a Riven Sky, the game was going to be a trilogy based on secret societies, the end of the world, and an enigmatic race of creatures so advanced as to appear to be alien to the player. The game would feature pen-and-paper-like game mechanics, an open world, and a genuinely unique turn-based combat and movement system. Before I knew it, I was living off my savings account and working full-time on the game that would eventually be renamed Eschalon: Book 1.
Encouraged by an ever-growing fan base who had seen screenshots and read about the game mechanics, I worked night and day for two years to complete the first game of the trilogy. In November 2007, I released the game to the world and was genuinely surprised by the response. The game earned back my full investment in three months and made enough in six months to fund the second game in the series. Not to mention, I was officially a successful indie game developer. Working from home, earning a solid paycheck, and making games was a dream come true.
2007: A Very Different World for Indie Games
When Book 1 launched in 2007, the gaming scene was very different than it is now. There were no tablets or smartphones back then. Computer displays were predominately 4:3 CRTs, and even the few LCDs that were available were not widescreen formatted. Indie gaming was in its infancy and the market was uncluttered. Eschalon: Book 1 was right at home in this market, and it sold very well to gamers who were tired of the path that mainstream RPGs had taken over the previous decade.
However, between 2007 and the launch of Book 2 in 2010, things changed dramatically. Many people had dropped their old CRT monitors in favor of a 16:9 wide-screen LCDs, yet others still clung to their old, beloved square CRT displays. This was a problem because the Eschalon game engine (which I was committed to reusing for all three games) used a fixed resolution with bitmap sprites. It was not particularly flexible and trying to make the game look good on these different displays was difficult. Although I did increase the native engine resolution up to 1024×768, I did not adjust it to a 16:9 format which was probably my single biggest mistake at that time of Book 2‘s development.
A Crowded Marketplace
The most dramatic change between 2007 and 2010 was that indie gaming had exploded during this time. When Book 1 launched, we had all the media coverage we could want. The game was featured in mainstream gaming magazines and websites, and not a week went by that I wasn’t asked to give an interview or write an article about the development of the game. But by Book 2‘s launch in 2010, we were just another indie game among hundreds, and our fixed resolution engine no longer looked as good to gamers who were accustomed to seeing high-resolution 3D graphics. I had to work much harder at promoting the second game, which ate into the first year of my development time on Book 3.
Of course, by the time Book 3 launched in February 2014, the indie game scene had become an out-of-control monster. The market is now over-saturated, with dozens of indie games coming out weekly. This has driven the sale price of indie games to an all-time low, and even then, many customers will wait for the 50 percent discount that they can expect over the summer and holiday sale drives. It seems that as the indie scene grows more popular with the mainstream gamer, “niche genre” games are pushed further out of the spotlight for games that feature tried and true, familiar elements. And remember that mistake I had made in not converting Book 2‘s engine into widescreen format back in 2010? In 2014, many gamers refused to even try Book 3, citing the lack of widescreen support to be too jarring to be able to enjoy the game.
Reflecting Back and Looking Forward
If I am honest about what has made Eschalon a minor success, it’s because it is a game series that caters to a very narrow spectrum of gamers. Many of our customers are over 30 and grew up on pre-Diablo style role-playing games, and they are looking for a very specific type of gaming experience now. These are the customers I focus on because if I tried to appeal to the mainstream gamer mass, I would be neglecting the customers who have supported Basilisk Games from the start. It’s a challenging path to follow, and more than once I drew the ire of Eschalon fans for trying to add a feature that I hoped might draw in new customers. Catering to this niche market has limited the game’s appeal to the general gaming audience, though it is the very reason for Eschalon‘s successes as well as its failures.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent nearly nine years working on Eschalon. From the earliest design phase in 2005 to the release of Book 3 in 2014, it has been a long and difficult road marked with many highs and lows. I’ve been asked by many people, “Was it worth it?” I assume that people want to know if the money I’ve made from the games justified the ridiculous, unhealthy number of hours I worked to develop them. I can’t really answer that right now – not until I’ve had a chance to decompress from this final game development cycle. Although, I will give some advice to other indie developers: do not let a large project take over your life. It’s very easy to find yourself working day and night, weekends and holidays, all towards the dream that your game will be loved by all and will sell a million copies in six months. That kind of success is extremely rare and the mental burnout that you experience from such an extended, crushing workload can have long-lasting, negative effects.
Our fans are already asking us what is next for Basilisk Games, and the truth is that the future is more clouded than ever. Everything depends on how well Book 3 sells in the next six months because this will determine the budget of the next game. One thing is for sure: Eschalon is done. There will not be another Eschalon game, and the Eschalon engine will not be used again. Beyond this absolute truth, I am honestly just as as curious as our fans are to discover what is next for Basilisk Games!