At Casual Connect Europe, Yoeri Staal showcased their game, Wild Ride West. This game is designed as a trilogy, with three episodes to be released on many platforms, something which has not been previously attempted by any indie.
Yoeri Staal, founder and producer at StaalMedia, tells us the most fun part of being involved in the games industry comes from the constant stream of new materials. He says, “As I’m working on a project, any day at any time, I can receive a message from an artist, a composer, a programmer, or any other team member telling me they added a little piece to the huge puzzle that is my new game. It’s like finding a present under the Christmas tree at any random moment.”
As founder of StaalMedia, he started the company making games by himself. Then he began hiring the right person for the right position inside many projects, a modus operandi he is still using today. He is also a teacher of computer science, and finds understanding children, what they want, and how they need their information shaped, highly advantageous skills when designing games for this particular audience.
Doing What We Love
His passion for the industry comes through clearly when he insists the proudest moment of his career came at the Speaker Dinner at Casual Connect USA when he realized that a “silly piece of software”, which he only planned to entertain people without any thought of commercial success, had brought him and a few other game designers to an elite location. He emphasizes, “It was confirmation that we indie developers could reach a very high level while doing what we love.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that this game developer spends any free time playing games. He considers his PSP as the favorite platform he has ever owned. Its strong processing, for the time, and its ability to store a multimedia library made it his personal treasure before the age of smartphones, so much so that he gave it a custom skin and matching wallpaper. But now, of course, it is completely outclassed by his smartphone. Last year, he did buy a PS3 simply to play GTAV, so he sees no need to move to PS4. And he prefers to keep his use of Microsoft products to an absolute minimum.
What is Fun vs. What is Valuable
Staal recognizes the dichotomy between what is fun for the player and what is commercially valuable for the publisher as a huge challenge for the games industry. He notes, “The company that creates a really fun game, without constantly bullying the player into buying in-app purchases, could easily rise to the top of the charts.” At StaalMedia, there is an entirely different focus. All games are completely free for players to use, with no in-app purchases, no paid unlocks, and no “silly” premium hats. Instead, sponsors are the clients, and they pay to have their logos in the game.
Because touchscreen is the latest trend on all tablets and smartphones, StaalMedia designs all games to support touch controls. Staal believes the coming trend will be even more sophisticated ways of control, such as motion control combined with virtual reality. When smart watches and glasses have sufficiently penetrated the market, he will be designing for these technologies.
Yoeri Staal founded StaalMedia as a freelance webdeveloper. While finishing his MSc in Computer Science, Yoeri developed the innovative puzzle game Flooded Village in his spare time. New to the game business, Yoeri has an idealist’s passion to produce original and high quality games.
Early in 2012, I was finishing my master’s thesis in Amsterdam. In my spare time, I worked on a little Flash game prototype, where the player draws a river to connect houses to a source of water. I enjoyed digging on the beach and studying the path of water through the sand as a kid, and hoped to trigger that same feeling in the player. Only a few drastic changes were made in the game; most of the final mechanics were already in the very first prototype. I posted the prototype on Flash game website FGL, where other game developers were able to review and criticize the game. The response was better than expected. People played for a while, eager for more levels, and began telling me to publish the game. No matter how good you think your concept is, show a prototype to other people, and you will discover if it’s viable.
Rather than fill the game up to a certain number of levels, I created more levels than necessary, then cut the ones that were the least fun. This resulted in optimal quality. Level design was pretty tough, because there is only so much you can do with a limited number of tiles. Personally, I hate clones with a passion, even the highly polished ones. To test your own originality, try the following: Write your game concept down in a single sentence. If that sentence also describes an existing game, think of something new. For example, the sentence for Flooded Village is “Dig rivers to flood a village.”
“To test your own originality, try the following: Write your game concept down in a single sentence.”
A few more things were changed in the game. At first, the game was called Village Flood, which I mistyped one day as Flooded Village, and that name stuck. An experienced app developer would probably have called it “Flood the Village” to sound like other popular apps. Another major design change was replacing the houses with trees. It made more sense for them to be trees, but in the end, there were no houses in this village. To compensate, I put three houses into the game logo.
Forming the Team
The team that created Flooded Village consists of only three people, and is completely virtual. I have never met the other two in real life. I did all the design and development, then hired an animator and an audio engineer to polish the game to professional standards. After all the programming was finished, animator Ionut Ghenade (better known as PixelChunk) overhauled all the graphics in the game. Rather than dictate what to do, I asked him to draw his vision of the game in one single painting. A few elements from this sketch made it into the final game, including the bird and goat, which add absolutely nothing to the gameplay.
The game was now very polished, but still completely mute. Sound effects and music are widely available and free to use, but Flooded Village is one of only a few Flash games with a dedicated audio engineer on the team. Dan Millidge voiced all characters and recorded all sound effects and music himself. He created a unique and consistent atmosphere, with everything from birds to pirates, water and wind. From this game onward, I treat the Flash games I create as high quality works, even if the players see them as throwaway products.
Future and After Future
Flooded Village was finished; now it was time to earn some money. We did this through the FGL auction system, selling advertising rights to a sponsor. The bidding process started slowly, and even though many developers were eager to see the game, sponsors seemed scared to buy something difficult to classify. Eventually, I had a choice between a bid where I would keep the ad revenue, and a significantly higher bid, but without ad revenue. I emailed the first sponsor (BigDino), who then raised his bid to match the second. It was easy to accept the top bid with additional benefits. A few months later, I pitched BigDino with the idea for Flooded Village Xmas Eve. The semisequel was sold even before the team was reassembled. This was three weeks before Christmas, and we managed to create and launch the new game within 10 days. This new creation included replacing all the artwork and audio and adding new levels and game mechanics.
Sequels can be one way to improve a game. In the first Flooded Village, players were unable to destroy blocks of ice. Playtesting showed that some players at least clicked the ice, hoping to break it. I used the ice destruction mechanic in the semisequel Xmas Eve (which featured a lot of ice), changing one of the basic rules of the game. Changing a basic rule means you have to rethink a few designs, but opens up more design space. Some levels from Xmas Eve would be impossible if inserted into the original. Contradicting variations on a game mechanic should be delayed for sequels, to avoid confusion. For example, if the next Flooded Village features a switch that flips based on a timer, rather than a mouse click, that game will not include a switch triggered by a mouse. Flooded Village had mouse only controls from the start, with redundant keyboard controls just to speed things up (like restart and back to menu). It’s a lot of work to change a control scheme to fit on a mobile device, so mouse only controls are much better fit for porting. And yes, the Flooded Village port is already in development.
One thing all business tutorials and guides for entrepreneurs have in common is a chapter about networking. I never realized its true potential before entering such a network. On just a regular day, I received an email from Yulia Vakhrusheva asking for Flooded Village to be featured in the Innovation Showcase of Casual Connect in Kiev. My first response: Where is Kiev? The capital city of the Ukraine, outside any map of Europe I usually see. It took me a few weeks to take the leap and fly to the Ukraine. It was a life- and mind-changing event, to meet other developers and people related to games. Networking helps in finding the right people for a job and getting more exposure for your product. It also boosts your confidence and creativity, as you get in touch with many different ideas and methods. Create your own flow, but take others along for the ride.
For more information on Staalmedia, check out their website. Keep an eye out for Flooded Village on mobile!