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Shufflepuck Cantina: Enjoyable Game vs. Money Draining

October 1, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Agharta Studio was created in November 2008 after the current team members left their respective game development studios: Etranges Libellules for 2D artist Valerian Taramon and creative director and game designer Alexandre Leboucher, and Eden Games for CEO and programmer Aurelien Kerbeci. Jean Edouard Fages, formerly of Arkane Studios, joined the team in 2012 to give a hand on 3D and design for Shufflepuck Cantina, the game whose story Alexandre shares.

In 2008, right in the beginning of the AppStore, we released the first episode of the 1112 series, which sold very well along with its two sequels. In 2010, in between two episodes of 1112, we tried the publisher route (a catastrophic experience for us) with a game in the style of Advance War (Nintendo DS) called Rogue Planet. Each of our projects has been large in scope, and took a year on average to complete.

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The 1112 series of games sold very well, including the sequels.

Taking the Initiative

For me, there’s always been a dream project. I remember fondly the years spent on Shufflepuck Café back in the 80’s-90’s. The game was one of my all-time favorites along with Dungeon Master, Ultima, and Wizardry series. The year before we started the project, I stumbled into Legend of Grimrock, which was a reimagining of one of the legendary games of my youth. The game sold almost a million and generated a lot of buzz on the internet. Tired of waiting for a Shufflepuck Café remake, I decided to advocate the project within my own team.

With the Grimrock argument, lack of direct competitors, and a huge untapped market ahead, they quickly agreed to make the jump. At the time, I also tried to reach the original creators of Shufflepuck Café, but they seemingly had disappeared from the surface of the gaming world.

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“Tired of waiting for a Shufflepuck Café remake I decided to advocate the project within my own team.”

The Biased Market of PC

We had to choose a market where the game would have the biggest impact. We would have loved to make it on Mac and PC to reach the fans of the original, but at that time, everyone told us it was suicide to market a game on the PC without financial means or a publisher to back us up. This was before the start of Valve’s Steam Greenlight program. So we went for iOS, considering our strong backgrounds on the platform and the ease of producing a game on it. But in the PC community, there’s a bias against games successful on iOS (which are considered ports), and this consequently undermined the press coverage and general interest in our game.

From 2D to 3D

At first, I was aiming for a simple remake in 2D, since high-quality digital paintings have always been our strong point. The 1112 series and Rogue Planet were mostly 2D with scarce 3D elements.

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The example of 2D in 1112

With the arrival of Jean Edouard, we were able to make 3D assets on a completely different scale, so we decided to go full 3D for the project. The game development schedule was doubled, and we entered the uncomfortable position of looking less and less like a traditional indie game. Most people didn’t realize that we were only are a 3-4 person team. On a side note, we used Blender to make all of our 3D assets and we tried (without any real coverage) to speak about it in the Blender/free software communities. However, that didn’t give any noticeable results – those hangouts aren’t full of gaming enthusiasts.

Own Engine: Hard to Make, but Worth It

The main drawback of making our own 3D engine is the amount of time required to develop it and the tools to exploit it. Aurelien had already created a functional 3D engine at the time, and we used it on our previous productions.

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Blender was at first used for 3D assets, but promotion within free software communities didn’t result in anything significant.

There was a lot to do, considering the amount of needs we had for Shufflepuck. We had to invest a lot of R&D time and budget in that engine, especially for the PC version, with features including deferred rendering, dynamic lights and shadows. In the end, it really proved itself, and the game is ultra-optimized with no loading time at all, which is a feat on mobile devices when compared to all Unity/Unreal engine games out there. The other positive aspect is that if we decide to keep using our in-house engine, most of the R&D is already done, which will save time in the future, especially for porting, as the engine now supports Windows, Mac OS, iOS and Android frameworks.

Pros and Cons of Non-Aggressive IAPs

Another big hurdle was how to choose the pricing model. The game has a lot of content and was designed to be a premium title, but we decided to experiment with a freemium model since we never tried that in the past. Adding a monetary system was quite natural for the game, but I really wanted to avoid pressure on customers, so we handled the in-app purchases with care, only requiring one IAP to double all amount of the in-game currency, which gives the player exactly what is needed to grind through the game the same way a typical RPG would.

Only one IAP to double all amount of the in-game currency.

And then the game was out! Luckily, the team at Apple immediately noticed the great quality of the title and we had good coverage in US and Europe for a week, and minor coverage for the following months. Within the first two months, we managed to reach 1.2 million downloads. However the IAP ratio was catastrophic! Since we didn’t choose an aggressive IAP strategy, few players were compelled to make an IAP.

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The original Shufflepuck Cafe game.

The game was being played very often; we had some players who played more than 300 hours. I immediately thought that we should limit the access to the game tables with the money system, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being a money-hungry machine at the detriment of the player.

Still, players seem to love the game with 9000 reviews at 4.6 out of 5 average, and the press mostly rated the iOS version quite high.

The Big Mistake: Forgetting Ads

And then we realized that deciding to not include ads in a freemium game is absolute suicide if your game is not heavily marketed. Two months after release, we added ads in the game: Chartboost and NativeX. The latter is non-intrusive and allows players to earn in-game currency if they agree to watch some targeted ads or videos.

Immediately, the cash came in. Ads were giving roughly three times more than IAPs! But it was a bit too late; we weren’t heavily featured anymore. As of today, we’ve reached 1.6 million downloads for Shufflepuck Cantina on iOS and only 400,000 units were delivered with ads. We somehow managed to earn $150K anyway, but we would’ve earned 2-3 times more if we had just included the ads at launch time.

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The developers didn’t want to turn the game into a money-draining machine, and eventually forgot about ads, which turned out a mistake.

The Android Debacle

Still frustrated by the missed ads opportunity, we started to listen to friends who kept asking for an Android version of the game. The numbers were huge everywhere we looked: Android was said to be selling big; there was information about many people switching to it as well as about the market having 10 times more users. Android at that time looked like a brand new Eldorado waiting for us to make some good old port cash. The task took a lot longer than expected due to inherent Android technical issues including horrible fragmentation. We had to rent 20 different devices with different OS versions, and at launch, the game was working on only half of those Android machines.

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Character design for Shufflepuck Cantina.

I made contact with some Google guys to get us featured, and we finally launched the game. Since there are not many professional Android websites, press coverage is even worse than for iOS, but the worst of all was the editorial team at Google. I spent three months exchanging emails with guys who seemed interested in featuring the game. Still, the Google Play homepage almost never changed during those three months. They kept featuring low-quality pong games and had nothing about a premium quality Shufflepuck Cantina. In my opinion, Google needs to hire a lot more people and start looking at what’s going on at Apple.

Despite having excellent reviews on Google Play (4.7 out of 5), the free version of the game was only downloaded 10,000 times – 150 times fewer than the iOS version. And, worst of all, the ad revenues were 10 times lower than on iOS for the same amount. To this day, we somewhat managed to only get $1,000 – $2,000 on the Android market in a whole year.

Getting Greenlit isn’t Fast

Shortly before starting the Android version, we tried to apply for the Steam Greenlight program for a potential PC version. After all, the PC version always was the target we had in mind to reach, for the original PC/Mac players of Shufflepuck Café. At that time, there were thousands of games waiting in the Greenlight queue, and only 3-4 were released each month.

There were thousands of games waiting in the Greenlight queue, and only 3-4 were released each month.

We didn’t have any big hopes about releasing the game on Steam anytime soon. Still, we tried hard to make a great PC version of Shufflepuck Cantina, enhancing the engine, creating a big boss, and a real ending. It took six more months to finish the PC game, which was about the time needed to be greenlit. We didn’t have time to make multiplayer, but planned to add it and more interesting mechanics to enhance gameplay once the game is sold well enough.

Struggling for Press Coverage

The game became available on Steam just one week after the two behemoth consoles from Microsoft and Sony came out, so all the press was solely focused on those. Even with a lot of contacts in the press industry, we didn’t manage to have a single review of the game neither at launch nor during the following months. Once a game is out and doesn’t have any buzz at launch, the press is not interested. The game slightly benefited from being featured in Steam’s news section for a few days, but this was only enough to sell a couple of thousand units. On the other hand, this seems to be okay in the PC crowd for indie titles. The player reviews are really good so far; 86% positive reviews out of 300.

Once a game is out and doesn’t have any buzz at launch, the press is not interested.

After a couple of months, we were harassed by “bundle” websites, and delivered 50k units that way, which was another big mistake. The revenue share from bundles is next to nothing and it’s basically destroying your “waiting for sales” user base. Of course, we were never featured on “winter/summer” Steam sales since they only feature game that are already selling well to increase their cash.

Oculus: UI and VR Restrictions

We have owned an Oculus for a year now, and we paralleled the development on it because we think it’s most certainly the media of the future. We scored a good spot at last summer’s Oculus jam with Epic Dragon, and made a very nice demo version of Shufflepuck Cantina (available through Steam) for it as well, hoping to make the full version if the game was successful enough on Steam. It was an interesting take on user interface and VR restrictions, I strongly suggest new Oculus players to try it out, and Epic Dragon as well.

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The demo of Shufflepuck Cantina for Oculus is available through Steam

Mixed Feelings

I have mixed feelings about the whole Shufflepuck Cantina launch and development. We managed to port our technologies and knowledge over all mobile devices as well as desktop machines, learned a lot about freemium vs premium, set foot inside Steam, gave a huge boost to our online community (9K followers on Twitter, 25K on Facebook), met a lot of interesting people, and generally improved our tech.

On the other hand, the creation process was a bit unfocused: we added a lot of core features into development a bit late, spent too much time on detailed metagame mechanisms few players really cared about, didn’t communicate enough before the game was finished, wasted six months on Android for nothing, and, last but not least, emptied the company’s treasury instead of making it viable.

The Agharta Studio team is now working on a full Oculus DK2 version of Shufflepuck Cantina (hoping to be one of the very first full games compatible with the DK2), and on a very cool iOS Rogue-like game. The developers say they’re going to try pushing the full Oculus version of the game and using the earnings to move to all possible events to show their games and communicate more with the press and public.

 

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnlinePostmortem

Doggins: A Game Started With a Text Message

September 23, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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“We are not your typical video game developers,” says David Condolora, the programmer and sound designer of the Brain&Brain, company of two. When David and his wife Brooke (artist and animator) set out to make their first game Doggins, their day jobs had seemingly nothing to do with game development; David was an assistant editor who worked on blockbuster animated films, and Brooke was a graphic designer with a lot of web design experience. “We had no idea what we were doing, but the one thing we did have was naiveté. So when I sent Brooke a message from my desk at work that said ‘You and me are going to make a game,’ her response was simply ‘Okay!'” David recalls as he shares the story of creating Doggins and teaming up with his wife under the name of Brain&Brain.


When Gamers Become a Family

Before I even knew the term “adventure game,” the worlds of Myst and Monkey Island absorbed and inspired me. I grew up exploring those worlds and solving their riddles, usually alongside my sister. We’d make smoothies together and then run upstairs to play on our old CRT monitor. The adventures I had prompted me to create worlds of my own, worlds meticulously mapped in my notebook and brought to life via computer graphics.

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David used to work on blockbuster animated movies, while Brooke was a graphic designer

Hundreds of miles away, Brooke was exploring worlds of her own. The open-ended environments of the Zelda games were her playground, and she giddily probed their depths. When were were dating, I introduced her to The Curse of Monkey Island, and we’ve been playing adventure games together ever since, from Day of the Tentacle to Kentucky Route Zero.

A Touch-Centric Adventure Game

It’s safe to say that we both love the genre: its stories, humor, and inventiveness. So when we set out to make Doggins, we naturally wanted to make an adventure game. But there were things that we wanted to leave behind. We had grown tired of dialogue trees; we wanted to completely eliminate the UI (or at least be as close to this as possible); and to make touch-centric puzzles that emphasized direct manipulation of the game world.

Almost no UI, but touch-centric puzzles emphasizing direct manipulation of the game world.

To that end, Doggins is a bit different from most adventure games. There is no dialogue, written or spoken. Almost all storytelling is done visually, through character animation, camera movement, and environment design. There is no on-screen UI. You do have an inventory, but you can’t see it unless you swipe the screen, which causes it to elegantly slide into view.

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You do have an inventory: swipe the screen, and it to elegantly slides into view.

There are a few “item-combination” puzzles typical for adventure games, but most of the puzzles rely on interaction with the environment as if you were really there, swiping the screen to slide dresser drawers or tugging on a boot stuck to the ground by gum.

It’s a different approach, and we’re really happy with how it turned out. While not totally original, we feel like we’ve helped in a small way to push the genre in a new direction.

Right Brain/Left Brain

We may have had non-traditional jobs for game developers, but those atypical skills really helped shape Doggins. My background in animation editing meant that I had a lot of experience with sound design. In animation, as in a video game, you get nothing for free; every sound must be created, and that experience telling stories with sound helped bring our game to life. Working in editing also helped me pace our cutscenes as well as the overall game, and was even valuable when it came time to compress audio and video files for the game.

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Animation experience helped David with creating sound for the Doggins game

Brooke is a true artist: she draws, does block and letterpress printing, creates motion graphics, and even occasionally paints. All of these skills merged with her expertise in graphic design to give Doggins a clean, designed look, with touches of screen-printing and echoes of vintage science-fiction posters. And her unorthodox sense of humor ensured that everyone who plays our game laughs out loud at least once.

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Brooke is a true artist: she draws, does block and letterpress printing, creates motion graphics, and even occasionally paints.

Of course, we were also forced to step outside of our established skill sets. I had taken some programming classes in college, but had never fully coded a game before. Brooke had read a couple of books about animation, but had never put her knowledge into practice. A few months into development, she had animated her first walk cycle and I had coded my first game engine. All the while, we were cheering each other on.

Events as Deadlines for Indies

We began our journey to the Moon and back in April 2012. Throughout our nearly two-year development cycle, I had a full-time job in the film industry, and for much of that time, Brooke had other work both independently and for clients. A typical week of production meant me rising at 6:00 every weekday morning to put an hour in on the game before heading off to my job, Brooke working throughout the day, and us working together on weekends at various coffee shops on our island in the San Francisco Bay. It was a fitful production schedule, full of stops, starts, and sprints.

It can be hard to stay motivated without a real deadline, so we decided early on to submit to the Independent Games Festival with whatever we could finish by the submission date. We ended up not being able to submit (a story in itself), but having that deadline forced us to press hard and make substantial progress. Throughout development, we continued to use festival submissions as milestones and deadlines, which made the project more tangible.

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Festival submissions are being used as milestones and deadlines.

One of those festivals was the SXSW Gaming Expo, which we submitted to somewhat on a whim, as the entry was free. We were shocked and elated when we received a notification that we had been nominated for the inaugural SXSW Gamer’s Voice Award, and simultaneously terrified when we realized we were probably about six months from being done with Doggins. That festival ended up being our biggest motivation of all: we had to finish the game in time to release it at the festival. Anything else would be squandering a huge opportunity.

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The game should be finished to be released at a festival.

We talked through a rough plan and set to work. I started getting up at 5:30 a.m., working on the game over my lunch break, and putting in a couple of hours together with Brooke at night. Our weekends were completely given over to Doggins. Somehow, we crammed six months of work into about two, and finally submitted the game to Apple. We took a week off, and then feverishly prepared for the festival and flew to Austin.

Our weekends were completely given over to Doggins. Somehow, we crammed six months of work into less than three.

When we made Doggins available on the first day of the Gaming Expo, we were even more shocked to see it on the front page of the App Store, in the “Best New Games” category. There was even a small Doggins banner on the “Games” page! We had wistfully talked about this possibility many times while walking our dog Oliver (the game’s inspiration) over the two-year development cycle, but always dismissed it as impossible. Yet there was our game on the front page.

The reviews came in, hundreds of players came by our booth (with many staying for up to an hour), and we had one of the best weekends of our lives.

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Oliver, the inspiration for Doggins

Community and Videos are Critical

We’re really proud of Doggins, but there’s a lot that we want to do differently with our next game. First, we’d like to release on our own schedule. If we had been able to choose a release date, rather than rush to finish the game in time for a festival, we could have spent more time properly marketing the game prior to its release. We’ve learned that the first few weeks of a game’s release are by far the most important, and wish that we had been more prepared.

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The first few weeks of a game’s release are by far the most important.

Second, next time we’d like to cultivate more of a community. While we had a social media presence, it was sporadic and light. Next time, we’d like to more consistently update our blog, be more active on Twitter, and in general, interact more with both developers and players. It’s critical to begin building a community for your game long before it’s released; they will be your strongest advocates when you eventually release your game to the public.

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Begin building a community for your game long before it’s released: it’s critical.

Finally, we’d like to use video more effectively. You would think that with a day job in animated films, I would have created a ton of videos for Doggins. But we were so busy developing the game that our trailers ended up being more of an afterthought. We would have liked to create more videos that focus on the characters and quirky nature of the game, as well as what the game itself plays like. Video games are a visual medium, and a moving one at that. Watching a video is the next best thing to actually playing the game.

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Video games are a visual medium, and a moving one at that. Watching a video is the next best thing to actually playing the game.

Doggins began with a simple text message, and turned into an adventure that has yet to end. Brain&Brain has gone from husband-and-wife with separate jobs and worlds, to a game design team, traveling the country and watching people smile as they experience what we’ve created. It’s been challenging, exciting, and humbling. We can’t wait to do it all again, and are already in pre-production on our next game.

Doggins is currently on iOS (iPad and iPhone), with Android (Google Play, Amazon Appstore, and more) releasing on September 30th. Oliver, the inspiration for the game and the developers’ family pet,  hasn’t let his newfound celebrity go to his head. He still enjoys eating, sleeping, and chasing villainous squirrels in the park. :)

 

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Own Kingdom: A Game Remake that Built the Team

September 22, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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In July 2011, Eldwin Viriya took a leave of his job as a lecturer of basic algorithm and data structure for a semester to take a GRE test for the master’s degree. Having passed it successfully, Eldwin discovered he had a lot of free time. He decided to use this time for self-development and made DragManArds in 1.5 months. This Flash game really sparks the light of game development spirit in its author. Later, his company, Own Games, created DragManArds’ remake Own Kingdom, a fantasy medieval strategy game where you need to protect the kingdom from waves of monsters. He describes it as an experience of tower defense games with a taste of war games.


Get the Taste of Making Games

When I first created DragManArds, I used MochiAds for monetization, since that was the only monetization option that I knew at that time. I didn’t even know about Flash sponsorship back then! The result turned out interesting: I got a lot of feedback from real players in Kongregate, some fan messages and suggestions, and also managed to earn more than 200 USD in the first month (which was cut down to only a quarter in the following month, and to almost nothing for the rest of the month).

It felt amazing to actually experience the thrill of launching a game, but the best part was when DragManArds dragged me into the gaming ecosystem of Indonesia. Groups such as Gamedevid allowed me to get to know game developers of the country, as well as big companies like Blackberry and Nokia.

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The current Own Games team: Raynaldo, Jefvin, Eldwin, Okky and Agustian

Remake DragManArds: More Features, Better Graphics

In late 2011, Nokia held a game developer competition for their feature phone platform. I asked Jefvin Viriya, my brother (who was still in high school) to help me make the game in time. Having submitted a mini game named Beyond the Well, we came out as the third winner in the competition, and since then, we continue developing games together under the name of Own Games.

We started attending local gamedev events here in Indonesia, one of which was Game Developer Gathering. After this gathering, Kris Antoni from Toge Productions invited me to a meeting with Mochi Media. I got a chance to show DragManArds to their representative and received good feedback about the game. He said he was interested in being contacted again if there’s any sequel to the DragManArds. This meeting made me believe that my game has a lot of potential within.

The meeting with Mochi Media made me believe my game has a lot of potential.

At that time, working on a new Flash game would have been really hard for us. Firstly, Own Games already had a good amount of players from Nokia Store, and we want to keep them happy with our creations. Moreover, I was also busy with my day job as a lecturer, and my brother got overwhelmed with his high school final exams (not to mention that he didn’t understand ActionScript at all). So we continued our life as usual after that time.

A few months later, Nokia launched Lumia, a Windows Phone smartphone. Until this day, Own Games was focusing on feature phones only. We were working in native J2ME and were not really familiar with modern game engines. Then I noticed that one of my juniors had graduated from the bachelor program, and I invited him to work together in Own Games. The first thing he did in the company was port DragManArds to Lumia. The results turned out great: DragManArds  got a gold medal in the Lumia Apps Olympiad in December 2012.

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DragManArds’ gold medal in Lumia Apps Olympiad in December 2012.

Then I finally decided to quit my job to completely focus on Own Games. On April 1, 2013, Own Games transformed into an official company. Agustian, a 2D artist, also started to help us out. It was really a big move for us: before he joined, we were short on manpower and, what is more, he had a degree in arts and experience in making games. The first objective became clear: remake DragManArds with more features and better graphics.

Learning From Mistakes and Feedback

DragManArds already has a lot of versions: Flash, Windows Phone, Blackberry 10, and even J2ME. Having received a LOT of feedback, we planned a lot of stuff that we wanted to implement in the remake. It turned out to be a lot of tasks. But as Agustian is a talented artist with experience in game industry, I could fully dedicate myself to improving the gameplay and user experience, and our programmer had proven himself successful in making the Windows Phone and Blackberry version of DragManArds, we believed we’ll make it.

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The DragManArds remake, Own Kingdom, needed much more effort than expected.

I was too optimistic back then, and set the deadline to 3-4 months (DragManArds was made in 1.5 month by me alone, right?). But we weren’t able to finish everything in that time. As any new startup, we faced many challenges, both technical and not. I often argued with Agustian about how he used a lot of time to draw some tiny details that cannot even be clearly seen in the final game. Meanwhile, our programmer had to work remotely from another city because his father had a serious illness. In the end, he realized that he didn’t have enough time to develop anything and left Own Games. So we lost our programmer, our art assets production took more time than planned, and my entrepreneur’s soul was still on a very early development stage. I used to get a salary each month, now I had to pay salaries each month – It feels totally hard in the beginning even though you are already aware of the risk.

I used to get a salary each month, now I had to pay salaries each month. Feels hard in the beginning.

A few months after our programmer left the team, we met Ray Naldo, a former junior in the university where I worked. But we didn’t want to give him the pressure of developing a game as big as Own Kingdom for his first time. So we decide to make Eyes on Dragon, a 3D endless runner. During its development, we also got some help on 2D art assets from Okky, Agustian’s junior.

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Eyes On Dragon: project for the new programmer to adapt.

Meanwhile, Jefvin was learning C++ and tried to make Own Kingdom for Windows Phone 8 using Cocos 2dx. The WP8 version eventually became the finalist of the Indonesia Game Show. During our presentation at the competition, the judges called Own Kingdom’s gameplay a unique and promising one, but pointed out that the program was crashing and the buttons weren’t working smoothly. Even though we didn’t win the competition, this encouraged us to go on with Own Kingdom. But, sadly, once again, we had to put development for WP8 on hiatus when we realized that Cocos 2dx for WP8 didn’t support mp3 files.

Back to an Abandoned Game

A few more months had passed. Eyes on Dragon was published. We were happy with what we made, and decided to go on with the development of Own Kingdom. Ray started learning Unity 4.3 for 2D, Agustian and Okky made more art assets for the game, and Jefvin and I kept improving the game design, level design, and also the whole gaming experience.

The second development phase was not easy, but definitely better than the first one. Continuing the game that was once abandoned is for sure not an easy task, since most of the courage is gone. What is more, there were two desires we struggled with: to make the game better but, at the same time, finish it as fast as we could. Yeah, that’s shameful. Nevertheless, coming back to Own Kingdom had positive sides, too: we already knew that the game is worthy and that a lot of people wanted to see it completed. What is more, now we had a bigger team and some experience. Eventually, we managed to finish Own Kingdom in April 2014.

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In April 2014 Own Kindgom was ready.

The development of Own Kingdom is a long journey, and we realize that it has not ended yet. But we are really happy with the growth of each of us. Agustian has started to become more efficient and effective at allocating his energy to finish the work in time. Ray got a lot of experience in making the game using Unity in both 2D and 3D, which opened the possibilities to reach more platforms. I became more familiar with project management, and got a whole new experience in leadership. But the most valuable thing that makes me really grateful is how Own Kingdom turned Own Games into a more solid and powerful team.

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Own Kingdom turned Own Games into a more solid and powerful team.

Own Kingdom is available in Windows Phone Store and Nokia Store (Nokia X only), and has recently been launched on Android.

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Simply Twisted: Hand-Crafted, Engaging Puzzles

September 10, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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After finishing his Word Crush Mania game, Tom Kier, the founder of Endless Wave Software, wanted to create a simple casual puzzle game. Being a solo indie developer with no budget meant that the project had to be simple enough for one person to do all the work, yet he wanted the game to be challenging and entertaining, Tom recalls.


Puzzles with Multiple Solutions that Keep Players Engaged

The original idea was to create a simple casual game about untangling lines. The gameplay would be twisting and turning a set of tiles so that a path gets connected between two dots on the game board. Each tile would contain path segments, and once all the tiles are rotated in to the proper position, the path through the tiles connecting the dots would reveal itself.

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A game about untangling lines

Inspired by other popular puzzle games like Flow, Strata, and Lyne, I wanted my game to be easy to pick up and learn, yet provide challenging puzzles. It had to be casual enough that most puzzles could be solved in a couple of minutes or less, yet be challenging enough to keep users coming back for more. Most importantly, I wanted each puzzle to generate that “aha! moment” when the pieces finally rotate into place and the solution reveals itself. This meant each puzzle’s solution needed to be unique and challenging. I did not want to have dozens of similar puzzles that have little variation.

Another important design goal was that I didn’t want users to feel stuck and get frustrated if they were having a hard time solving a particular puzzle. I wanted to make sure it was enjoyable for players of all different skill levels. So I decided that each puzzle would have multiple solutions, with some easier than others. I settled on the typical three-star scoring system. Solving the puzzle with a simple solution would only be awarded one star, two stars for more difficult solutions, and three stars for the most difficult and challenging solutions.

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Original concept art with square tiles

Balancing Complexity and Simplicity for Casual Players

The original prototype used square tiles, with four path segments running through each tile. I built a puzzle generator tool that allowed me to create custom board layouts for the tiles, and then the program itself randomly made the path segments for them. The first playtest showed a couple of problems.

First of all, generating random tiles was not working as desired. Sometimes the puzzle had too many solutions and was too easy or, on the contrary, only a single one or very few that were overly difficult and challenging for some casual gamers. I understood that in order to get that “aha!” effect for each puzzle, and also enable multiple solutions, I’d better craft the puzzles by hand and tune each to make sure it has a unique and challenging set of solutions. So I modified the tool to allow more manual control over the tile generation.

In order to get that “aha!” effect for each puzzle I’d better craft them by hand.

The other problem was with the tiles themselves. A square tile had two path connectors on each side, which meant there were four path segments on one tile. This produced lots of interesting and varied path designs, but again, made the puzzles too complicated and overwhelming. I experimented with using only one path connector per side, which meant only two path segments per tile. That did reduce the complexity, but also made the puzzles too simplistic. I needed a way to get three path segments on a tile. Using a hexagon tile with one path connector per side solved the problem.

If the game catches on and there’s demand for more puzzles, I may do a puzzle pack with square tiles for those looking for more challenge.

Design Makes Players Sleepy, Gameplay Keeps Them Awake

Once the switch to hexagon tiles was completed and the updated puzzle generator started working, it was time for several weeks of long evenings building the 120 different puzzles in the game. Turns out that creating puzzles with multiple solutions is harder than I originally anticipated, so it took longer than planned.

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Example of solved puzzles

Along the way, I introduced new elements such as path teleporters, which transport your path to another tile, and puzzles with multiple dots to connect. This allowed for increasing challenge and variety for the higher levels.

Once the puzzles were done and tested, the whole thing became a matter of completing and polishing the visual design. This is where I made my biggest mistake. Being a solo indie developer with no budget to hire external helpers, I have to wear numerous hats: game designer, developer, graphic artist, and sound designer. I am a much better developer than graphic artist. I wanted to go with a minimalist look, inspired by the new iOS 7 visual design and the style of games such as Letterpress and Dots. But unfortunately, this didn’t work. As Jordan Minor at 148apps.com wrote, “Simply Twisted‘s looks could probably put a player to sleep. Fortunately, its smart gameplay will keep them engaged and alert.”

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Original design vs new updated design

An updated version of Simply Twisted  has recently hit the Apple AppStore. It includes a new updated visual design that hopefully won’t put people to sleep, the developer says.

“I thoroughly enjoyed creating Simply Twisted,” he recalls. “Each new game I create comes with its own unique challenges. Simply Twisted was no exception. Even with my missteps, I believe it is one the best games I have created to date. I am currently exploring different ideas for my next game.”

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Hopeless: The Dark Cave – Horror Game Gone Cute

September 9, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Upopa Games is an indie games company from Israel. The three team members, Niv Touboul, Or Avrahamy, and Gideon Rimmer, met in Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and formed an instant bond due to their mutual passion for games. Hopeless: The Dark Cave is their first game (though they’ve since released two more games, and others are on the way). Gideon Rimmer, game designer and artist at Upopa Games, explains how to make a horror game cute and not depressing.


Hopeless: The Dark Cave is a cute and funny horror game. The player controls a single blob, standing alone and scared in dark room, waiting for its doom. Shadows creep in from the edges of the screen, and you must decide quickly whether it’s a monster coming to eat you or a friendly blob giving you more firepower (and another body in the way). Shoot a monster and you’re safe (for a while), shoot a friend and you’ll have to face the consequences.

Non-Tragic Deaths

As Hopeless: The Dark Cave is the first game we published as a team, and we are a very small team, we wanted to keep things simple. The game had to be 2D, endless, with an intuitive and simple mechanic, but also to stand out and be memorable.

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Upopa Games are a small team and want to keep things simple.

True horror games create anxiety in a safe environment by making the player feel disempowered. Hopeless: The Dark Cave is all about disempowerment as well, but in a casual, humorous way that tries to appeal to a wide audience, and doesn’t conform to the “horror game” standard grim and realistic look.

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The blobs have been designed to evoke strong emotional reactions in the players.

We knew right from the start that we want the game to evoke strong emotional reactions in the players, making them feel a real connection with the characters. Our art director Niv Touboul designed the blobs to be cute for the player to relate to them, but not in a childlike manner, so their deaths would be funny and not tragic. I drew the monsters, which needed to provide a strong, clear contrast to the blobs: big, red, dark and angry, vs. small, yellow, poorly armed and timid.

Terrified Blobs Lose a Life

The gameplay in Hopeless: The Dark Cave is mostly about fast reflexes, with a fair amount of luck and some strategy thrown in for good measure. In order to keep the game exciting and challenging, we had to limit the number of blobs that can be accumulated and the number of shots the player can fire.

The blobs represent the number of lives one has in the game. Run out of blobs and lose, so we couldn’t just give the player an unlimited number of them. We came up with the idea of saving a bunch of blobs once the player gathers a certain number of them. This not only kept the difficulty level in check, but also provided a further sense of achievement and progression.

We considered an ammo mechanism to limit the number of shots, but that seemed too cumbersome, and running out of ammo would mean ‘game over’ within seconds. Our solution was giving the blobs anxiety levels: the more shots missed and friends killed, the more terrified the blobs become. Get them too scared, and eventually they wouldn’t be able to take it anymore and will blow their own little heads off.

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The anxiety levels of the blobs

Instead of an “anxiety meter,” we made a separate animation sequence for each anxiety level, making it visually clear that the blob is scared, and giving them more character. And of course, the suicide animation had to be funny and cartoonish.

Publishers considered blob suicide a risk

We love to see players reacting to the blobs killing themselves. However, while it came to marketing the game, the suicide which we thought to be one of the best moments in the game was viewed by potential publishers as a risk. And so we decided to go full indie and market the game ourselves with no budget.

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Monsters have been designed as opposed to the Blobs

One Million Downloads on a Tight Budget

We decided to release Hopeless on a Friday 13th (December 13th, 2013), because we knew that game reporters and reviewers would be looking for horror games, especially ones with a unique theme (i.e: everybody’s fed up with zombie games!).

”Everybody’s fed up with zombie games!”

Our emails to game sites and bloggers struck home, and we got some great initial press coverage. Later, in order to break the 500k barrier on Android, we cooperated with companies such as AppGratis and App of the Day, which highlight an app and give players who download it something for free. We like the model these companies offer because everybody wins: the players receive free content for their games, and the developer gets lots of new players without having to harm the game experience or spend a lot of money.

An unexpected ‘bonus’ to the large numbers of initial downloads on Android was lots of pirates! Pirating is a problem for every game developer, but I’m not sure how crucial it is for free-to-play games. In our case, the pirates actually did some of the work for us; when we released the game on iOS, we got a massive wave of legal iOS downloads in the countries in which we were most pirated.

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A massive wave of legal iOS downloads happened in the countries in which Upopa Games’ products were most pirated.

Listening to the Players, Exploring New Tools

After the initial release, we had to tackle two main issues: performance and players’ demand for more content.

When we first built Hopeless, we used sprite animation (the monsters were actually drawn frame by frame). It looked great, but the game slowed down and lagged just as the action peaked, especially on older devices. Our developer, Or Avrahamy, found Spine 2D, a great tool for creating bone animation, and we set to redoing the whole game animation. The process was very tedious and time consuming but well worth it. With bone animations, the game ran much smoother even on slower devices, and we could now easily add new skins and weapon options. It also halved the size of the APK, resulting in a much faster download, while still looking just as good as the original animations.

With bone animations the game ran much smoother even on slower devices, and new skins and weapon options can be easily added.
With bone animations the game ran much smoother even on slower devices, and new skins and weapon options can be easily added.

The original version of the game was well received but didn’t have much depth. We considered plenty of different ways to add more content to Hopeless, but soon learned that the balance between ‘too easy’ and ‘too hard’ is very delicate in such a simple game. We eventually opted for more weapon options, which we added over time, and a completely new game mode that is faster and more intense than the original. Combined with an in-game currency which we implemented later, these items give players something to aspire to and tangible achievements rather than just a higher score.

Working on Hopeless: The Dark Cave was a great experience. The team learned not only about making and marketing games, but also how to run an indie games studio.

In the months following the launch of Hopeless: The Dark Cave, Upopa Games released two sequels, Hopeless: Space Shooting (iOS/ Android) and Hopeless: Football Cup (iOS/ Android) which have somewhat of a different atmosphere. They’re now working on some other, very different, games they hope to release in the near future.
Hopeless: The Dark Cave (and its two sequels) are available on the iTunes Store and Google Play. The game is currently undergoing a massive update, which will be released very soon.

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OmNomster: What Works And Doesn’t Work In Shake-Based Mechanics

September 8, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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The developer of OmNomster, Olaf Morelewski, is an architect by trade, has worked as an art director making TV commercials, and since 2013, he’s been a game director making mobile games. This might look as if he can’t decide what to do in life, Olaf admits, but then explains: he always wanted to create or invent new things. A choice of the particular creative field wasn’t that important. Now Olaf runs Made It App, a studio based in Warsaw, Poland. “This is what I decided to do since I found that in making games, all creative fields meet together,” the developer says as he shares the story of OmNomster.


Feed OmNomster – The Hungry Monster [Official launch trailer] from Made It App on Vimeo.

A Game To Practice Programming

I decided that I’d try to make games on my own. I don’t mind working in a team, but after several years of doing only that, I wanted to make something by myself. The problem was that I had no programming background at all, so I enrolled for a programming methodology course at Stanford University on iTunesU, and after a month of studying a whole semester of lectures, I decided it was time to start making my first game.

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Practicing programming on Censored Files

As I was a programming noob (I still am BTW), I thought it would be better to start by making a simple text game. That’s how I came up with Censored Files – the game where a player reads crime stories and has to guess the blacked out words. I made the graphics and wrote the code, and my beloved wife wrote the crime stories (OK, so we were a team after all).

Two months later, the game was released on iOS… and didn’t sell at all. As I was doing it mainly to develop my programming skills, I wasn’t disappointed that much.

No Success in AppStore? Enter competitions!

„Fail harder”, says Nike’s headline. And so I got up and started making my second game right away. Still simple, yet more complex than the first one. It was OmNomster – a casual arcade game about a hungry monster who eats trash. I came up with an idea of shake-based mechanics. The player needs to shake the phone to bounce the monster on the walls and feed him trash.

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Shake the phone to feed trash to OmNomster the monster

I did the game design, UI/UX design, game art, and programming, and this time also decided to record all the SFX. So when you hear OmNomster eating trash — it’s me biting a watermelon mixed with me biting cornflakes. The sound of OmNomster hitting the walls is made of nine mixed tracks with different sounds of metal and wood items which I slammed against each other.

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Olaf creating sounds OmNomster makes in the game

Then I composed the music. “Composed” with a small “c” because it’s more of a 30-seconds quirky melody than real music, but anyway, it fits the game style.

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OmNomster eating trash: the sound of developer biting a watermelon + sound of developer chewing cornflakes

In three months after the first pencil sketch, the game was finally ready and the iOS release day was approaching. The Big Day! The game was published as a freemium one, and on the first day, it had 2k downloads, which I considered not a bad number. But since I didn’t invest in any serious marketing (apart from making a professional website, a game video, and emailing reviewer sites), every following day the download number was cut in half. In a few days, it came down to 10 downloads. Watching OmNomster drown in the Apple AppStore was really sad. He was alone and hungry.

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In three months after the first pencil sketch, the game was ready for release on iOS.

Even though the game didn’t do well on the store, I decided to submit it to some indie game competitions that I found on the Internet. The game was chosen for Indie Prize Showcase Amsterdam 2014, but first, I got selected to participate in Chartboost University (CBU) classes in Fall 2013. This was the game changer! In San Francisco, we were consulted by the top professionals from the game industry on how to design and monetize games in a sustainable way.

Through Chartboost, I met some super cool indie game devs from around the world. I remember a day when I heard about the AppCampus funding program from the devs from Wayward (Canada) and Headnought (Finland). It’s Microsoft and Aalto University joint funding for Windows Phone apps. So after I came back from San Francisco, I decided to submit Feed OmNomster – The Hungry Monster (aka OmNomster 2) with exclusive content and new features that we came up with during CBU sessions.

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The improved version of OmNomster got accepted by AppCampus three months after submission, when the developer already thought it didn’t fit.

But I had no answer from AppCampus for several weeks, so I thought that my idea didn’t fit in the program. Though three months later, when I was visiting my newborn son in a hospital, all of a sudden I received an acceptance email! That moment I felt that all my previous work was finally acknowledged, and it gave me hope that what I had been doing for the last year had sense.

Redesigning Controls and Monetization

I started developing new features which I promised to Microsoft right away. The changes were crucial. First of all, to the rather chaotic shaking game mechanics I added a more controllable slow motion mode, where the player can tilt the phone to move OmNomster more accurately. This was due to repeating feedback I got for the first version: shaking is fun, but it’s not skillful. In this new, better version, OmNomster is getting bigger and unlocks new features as the player’s experience grows.

And, finally: OmNomster now has the ability to shoot, and there are five diverse levels instead of just one.

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Now OmNomster can shoot, and there are five different levels instead of just one
Shaking is fun, but it’s not skillful, the players said.

I also redesigned the monetization mechanics. In OmNomster 1, there were several appearance customizations that could be bought, but it didn’t give the player any real benefit. Now the player can buy shields, unlock weapons, and upgrade time warp mode, so everything he/she buys is making the game easier. “Pretty obvious”, many might say. True, but for me, it was a huge progress that I made thanks to the CBU course. Now playing the new game is much more fun.

Feed OmNomster has been exclusively released for the Windows Phone Store, and the first game of OmNomster can be found at Made It App’s website. Meanwhile, Olaf has submitted the game to some more competitions and believes that the furry monster character design gives an opportunity to make physical merchandize toys. But he’s first going to focus on marketing Feed OmNomster in Windows Phone Store properly.

 

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Zaboodles: From Five Gamepads to PC and Mobile

September 5, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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They could have spent $30 on some posters for the Indie Prize Showcase; but instead they spent 30 plus hours hand-painting cardboard cutouts to replicate the game background. They could have sought funding for the game; instead, they worked late into the night to find time between work and school. They could have said “Eh, screw it!” after realizing there was no way it would pay for the hundreds of hours put into the project.

“But to be honest, none of that stuff even crossed our minds”, says Kurt Waldowski, the founder of devsAnomalous, as he shares the story of Zaboodles. “Budget, time, and a bulletproof business model are not a concern to us. Our only concern is making Zaboodles the best game it can be, and getting it into as many hands as possible. Zaboodles isn’t being created by a company. We are just two pals that met in the dorms in the beginning of the freshman year, and decided to pour our energy, love, and dedication into making the best game possible.”


A Neighbor Who Loves Games

Throughout my four years in high school, finding time to make games was easy. But during the freshman year of college, the University of Michigan seemed to steal all my time and motivation. I would often sketch characters in class, or babble to my friends about various game ideas. But at the end of the day, no real action was taken. Hell, I barely had enough time to meet my dorm room neighbor, Daniel.  However, I did know one thing about him: he loved to play games.

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“Playing outside”: Kurt is programming, while his twin brother is producing music.

On December 1st, 2011, I stumbled across a competition hosted by The Experimental Gameplay Project. The week-long contest called for games that would be played with five pads lying linearly across the floor. Not being able to keep my mouth shut about anything, I ran into Daniel’s room and started rambling about the contest. To my surprise, he took extreme interest. He had no real experience making games or programming, but that didn’t stop him. We grabbed a whiteboard and began sketching stuff. Due to a misinterpretation of Daniel’s ideas, we stumbled upon a solid concept: jump around dodging enemies while utilizing various power-ups to clear them and earn points. This was not only the birth of Zaboodles, but also of a long-lasting friendship.

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Making cutouts instead of posters for the Indie Showcase

1 Week, 1 Developer, 5 Buttons

It took an interesting opportunity and a motivated friend to help me discover what could be accomplished in the late hours of the night. Every evening at 10 o’clock sharp I would wander into Dan’s room, plop down on his couch, and start programming. Despite the competition requirements of only one developer being allowed to work on the game, Dan was essential to the process. Not only did he contribute great ideas, but his enthusiasm and interest kept me motivated. Many times we would stay up until four in the morning crunching the game out. Sometimes, I even fell asleep sitting up!

Every evening at 10 o’clock sharp I would wander into Dan’s room, plop down on his couch, and start programming.

After one week, we had a submission we were both proud of. It went on to be selected as a finalist, was shipped off to Germany, and was played in an empty swimming pool on a giant projector screen. Man, do I wish I could have been there!

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Fun fact: The first art asset made was the background, and the entire style of the game was based on it.

Zaboodles for More Players

We fell in love with Zaboodles. After the contest ended, we wanted to push the game to its highest potential and release it on the PC for everyone to enjoy, not just the people over there in Berlin! Sure, playing Zaboodles by physically jumping from space to space was awesome, but I didn’t have the technology to play it that way. To test the game, I had to jump around on five pieces of paper taped to the floor, while Dan simulated the input with an Xbox controller. So, it was time to optimize the game to be played on the computer.

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Playing Zaboodles by physically jumping from space to space was awesome, but Kurt and Dan didn’t have the technology to play it that way.

After our freshmen year ended and the competition was over, we started adding more to the game. Different boss battles and updated graphics, among other things. Notice how I said “we”. Once the single-developer restriction was lifted from the contest, Daniel joined the team full force. Despite having little to no programming experience, he jumped right into the fire. He learned at phenomenal speed, dug through my spaghetti-code mess from the contest, and produced the entire achievement system with little trouble.

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Graphics and bosses of Zaboodles were updated once the freshmen year was over

Throughout the summer, Zaboodles were being created everywhere. I remember working on the first boss while partying at my older brother’s house. I created various art assets during group work sessions at my friend’s house while he was producing music. I even worked outside at parks with my twin brother. Zaboodles got inspiration from tons of people, resulting in a wacky game with a unique personality. My computer and trusty card table moved with me wherever I went.

Mobile? Challenge accepted!

It was Halloween 2012, but we weren’t out partying across campus. We were putting the final touches on Zaboodles and preparing for launch. After programming the website in an overnight coding spree, we released the game. I was a zombie in class the next morning.

Despite not reaching the largest audience, Zaboodles received fantastic reviews. People really liked our quirky game! However, one thing was consistent throughout every review: this game would be amazing on a touch screen. The computer controls were clunky. We had no experience developing mobile games, so we knew we had a challenge ahead. After a long hiatus, we decided to go for it.

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Reviews mostly said: “This game would be amazing on a touch screen.”

User Testing Shows the Potential

I had been crashing on Dan’s couch for three days a week, and we crunched out the game. The development cycle of Zaboodles was always in sprints; we would work casually on and off, and then suddenly, boom! We would work from sun up to sun down for a week non-stop. These waves of development really kept the game going.

As we were porting the game to mobile, we noticed things that needed to be tweaked or added. However, our biggest concern arose while showing the game to friends. Those who had played six or seven rounds were in love, but more often than not, after a few tries, they would set the game down. They couldn’t see the potential. User testing is essential. It opened our eyes to the fact that our game was unable to entice people fast enough. We needed a solution.

User testing is essential.

From then on, there was no shortage of user testing. The game was tested on friends, family, and even random people on the bus. After tweaking the gameplay and three iterations of tutorials, we finally were able to see users catching on. Yet there was still work to be done. The importance of user testing didn’t dawn on us until the game was on our mobile devices in our pockets. It was so easy to show to people, and testing on real players revealed the disconnection between our vision and reality. This forced us to push the game’s release back, and we are still working on it today.

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Testing the mobile game on real users showed the weak points of Zaboodles, so Kurt and Dan are still improving it.

Zaboodles is nearing completion and is planned for release in October 2014. So much was gained from the development process! The project inspired Dan to major in Computer Science, giving him a direction at the University. We discovered the amount of discipline it takes to see a project through from start to finish the way it was envisioned. It even inspired me to start doing freelance mobile game development.

The devsAnomalous‘ plans are still up in the air, but Kurt is sure about one thing: he will be making games. They hope to bring together a community dedicated to sharing skills, knowledge, and experience, turning independent developers into interdependent developers.

 

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Fearless Fantasy: When the Market Changes During Development

August 4, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Fearless Fantasy began in 2012, when animator/director Andrew Kerekes, encouraged by a couple of Flash RPGs that made a splash at the time, decided to create an RPG of his own. Its unique selling point would be a skill-based gesture mechanic which would replace the random number generator and create a more immersive experience. More than two years later, the originally humble Flash project got released on Steam, with plans to bring it to mobile devices soon. Daniel Borgmann was responsible for the development side, and now shares the experience of creating a game in an ever-changing market. 


The Beginning: A Tempting Offer

I joined the project when Andrew was looking for a programmer to implement his concept. At this point, I had just decided to dive into full-time game development. While I was working on a couple of projects of my own, his offer was too tempting to pass up, so I jumped at the chance.

At this point, Andrew had mostly made a name for himself through animation projects, but also contributed and created a few smaller Flash games, the biggest one being an elaborate hidden objects game called Memohuntress. I remembered this game for its unusual atmosphere, and the prospects of creating an RPG with his unique style were exciting.

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The prospects of creating an RPG with the unique style Andrew showed in his most popular game were exciting.

The plan originally was to finish the entire game in about three months, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t a realistic projection. We both still believed in the concept though and, because we were working well together, decided to change our arrangement to a 50/50 profit share. At this point, I wasn’t feeling too much pressure yet, as I had some savings left and was confident that our hard work would pay off in the end one way or another.

Collaborating Across the Globe

A distinctive feature of our collaboration was that the majority of work was done exactly 12 hours apart; by Andrew in Hawaii and me in Berlin. Everything considered, we dealt with the time difference pretty well. It probably helped that both of us occasionally confuse the moon for the sun. We kept working this way for many months, while the game went through various stages and we both also dealt with some significant personal changes.

It probably helped that both of us occasionally confuse the moon for the sun.

Realizing how much work it would be to implement the original vision, we started to aggressively cut down features to focus on the essentials. One of the first things that had to go was the world map. After a few iterations, we ended up with a simple level-select screen so typical for casual and mobile games. This was a natural fit for our game, given that its core is the unique battle system and ease of play.

With this renewed focus, things really started to fall into place. We changed the battles to have multiple waves of enemies, which created a nice amount of challenge without becoming frustrating. We tweaked the upgrade system to allow unlimited re-specs, and even changed the shop to allow buying and selling items without experiencing a loss. In many ways, we were turning the game from a pure RPG into a skill-based game “with an RPG element”.

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A simple level-select screen so typical for casual and mobile games made a natural fit for our game with the core of the unique battle system and ease of play.

The Ever-Changing Flash Market: The Good and Bad

As the months went on, we both started to reach our limits. Both of us dealt with some personal issues, and the pressure already started piling up. We now had to rely on our families to keep us going, but we knew that this couldn’t go on any longer.

For me, the hardest thing to deal with was my marriage falling apart. I tried to avoid resolving it until the end of the project, but eventually it just affected me too much. After the separation, I went through a short slump but had a lot of time to reflect. So, when I had pulled myself back together, I knew it was time to bring things to the logical ending.

After one last major push to add a layer of polish and quality, we were finally ready to present Fearless Fantasy to potential sponsors. By this time, we had put so much of our personalities into the game that we didn’t really expect it to be profitable. Nevertheless, we were hoping to get an offer good enough to keep us going for a while, while we worked on sequels or new projects.

The Flash market just wasn’t where it used to be when we started the project.

We contacted a few sponsors and received some phenomenal feedback, while the exact offers turned out disappointing. We had to realize that the Flash market just wasn’t where it used to be when we started the project, and our prospects looked grim. We were ready to cut our losses and put our hopes into a quick sequel or mobile release, but then we met tinyBuild.

tinyBuild’s Vote of Confidence

Alex Nichiporchik from tinyBuild played our game and liked it enough to offer us a publishing deal. He brought up the idea to get the game on Steam, like they did with their own Flash game No Time To Explain before. We had considered this before, but going through Greenlight looked too daunting given the situation we were in. tinyBuild’s vote of confidence and the possibility to bypass Greenlight convinced us to give it a try, and it’s not like we had anything to lose at this point. Of course, this also meant a few additional months of hard work.

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Getting ready for Steam: the biggest task was to properly support high-resolution full-screen displays.

The biggest task was to properly support high-resolution full-screen displays. What helped us was the fact that we had already chosen a rather large resolution for the Flash game, and used bitmap graphics exclusively, so we could set the stage quality to low and get reasonable rendering speeds from Flash. But we were already pushing Flash to the limits, and increasing the pixel counts to potentially very large numbers still posed a real problem. Our solution was to sacrifice disk space (which now was much less crucial) for the sake of performance by pre-rendering complex characters into a number of static frames.

We had already chosen a rather large resolution for the Flash game, and used bitmap graphics exclusively, so we could set the stage quality to low and get reasonable rendering speeds from Flash.

The remainder was more straight-forward, and tinyBuild was able to help us out with their experience. We used MDM Zinc to package the game for Windows (incidentally AIR was not an option because it does not allow low stage quality with the desktop profile for some reason) and used a Steam extension they provided to implement achievements and cloud storage. Of course, we also improved the quality of the audio and graphics, and bought a few more music tracks since we could now afford the disk space.

We used MDM Zinc to package the game for Windows, and a Steam extension to implement achievements and cloud storage.

A Bad Surprise on Release Day

Finally, we were ready for the big release. After everything we went through to get to this point, I couldn’t even tell whether I felt more relief or anxiety. It was probably the strangest feeling I’ve ever experienced. Then, on the day of the release, Gamasutra posted a feature about how Steam is being flooded with games, and what this would mean for small game developers. Reading this on the actual day of our release was a bit surreal and, as it turned out, we released simultaneously with a large number of games, some of them highly anticipated.

We released simultaneously with a large number of games, some of them highly anticipated.

For this reason, it’s difficult to tell how we felt about the release. We didn’t get an impressive burst of sales we were cautiously hoping for from a Steam release. On the other hand, feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and this keeps us optimistic that the game can be a success, if we manage to get people to talk about it.

One thing we learned from the release is that the Flash rendering just isn’t good enough. Despite the hoops we went through to keep performance as high as possible, some people ran into issues, and our performance workarounds also led to relatively high memory usage, which could lead to stability issues. We had already planned to move to Starling and DragonBones eventually for the mobile version, so we decided to prioritize this. It would provide a huge number of advantages, from better performance and graphics to increased stability and the ability to use AIR.

As soon as the Daniel and Andrew are done with this, they’ll try again to get the word out, and then work on the mobile version. Additionally, they’re planning to add a survival mode for long-term value, and considering the possibility to release it as a free demo version for web and mobile. Fearless Fantasy recently won the Best Art Award at Indie Prize at Casual Connect USA 2014.

 

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentIndieOnline

Formula Wincars: Building a Racing Game Meant for Everyone

July 8, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Founded in 2013, DragonJam Studios is a newly established Spanish video game studio in Madrid. With a team of 10, they are currently working on their first game, Formula Wincars, an innovative MMO arcade racing game full of adventures and surprises in every circuit. Jesús Luengo, Formula Wincars’ game designer in charge of game mechanics and level design, tells us about how Formula Wincars came to be.


Ready…Set…Go!

Formula Wincars started as a prototype developed by Jairo Calleja. Jairo had already been developing games on his own, when suddenly a small publisher asked him to make a racing game. Though the project was finally cancelled months later, Jairo was quite confident with the product, so he managed to keep it alive by cooperating with another interested company.

When he first contacted me, I was still living in Barcelona, immersed in the design of another game. Yet when he told me about designing a racing arcade game, I couldn’t help feeling very excited. I have always been a great fan of Sega arcades, such as Out Run and Sega Rally. And above all, Mario Kart is my favorite game. Having the opportunity to fully design such a game was a dream I couldn’t refuse, so I immediately moved to Madrid and started to work closely with Jairo. Sooner rather than later, the game design started to grow up, turning Formula Wincars into a more ambitious game than it had ever been before.

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Having the opportunity to fully design such a game was a dream I couldn’t refuse, so I immediately moved to Madrid and started to work closely with Jairo.

Building Up the Team

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Our little family is complete.

One of our first challenges was to build up a new team. We are a small studio, so we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes recruiting new members for the staff. Fortunately, all the people who have joined us are great and enthusiastic professionals. The first two to join us were Angel Arenas as the 3D environment artist and Eduardo Lozano as the game programmer — young talents who had a Master Degree in Games Development. I already knew them through a Game Jam in Madrid. In a very short time, Javier Pajares and Rubén G. Torralbo joined us as the concept artist and the 3D cars and characters artist.

This was the core of the team during the first months, but as the game kept growing, we quickly had to incorporate new members: Antonio Rodgríguez as backend programmer, Elena Fernández as 3D environment artist, Darío Muga as a game programmer and Javier Bargueño for the social media and PR. With all of them, our little family was complete.

Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Once we had built the team, we felt ready for everything. But the first challenge we had to deal with was the online synchronization. Jairo had a hard time developing the core of our game. It is one thing is to have an online game working, and another to have it working online properly. He had to deal with authoritative servers, online prediction, and all the stuff necessary to accomplish a satisfactory gameplay. We knew that without that, we had nothing, so Jairo put in a lot of effort to reach the gameplay feeling we are proud of nowadays.

Today, he’s still trying to improve it. Physics engines are non determinist, but as long as our game is online, we need the same things to happen in all clients. This is an issue Jairo is still polishing. He is developing our own physics engine in order to accomplish deterministic responses to guarantee a better online experience.

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Today, Jairo’s still working to improve the online gameplay.

Design Decisions

As the game started grew and became more complex, I realized we couldn’t limit it to eight vs. Races. Formula Wincars is a free game, so it must be engaging and addictive. We cannot hope to have thousands of players just by being funny. We had to provide a deeper experience. And that’s when I thought about League of Legends. It is one of the most successful free games, so they must have done something right. I broke it down to what it is all about: strategy, team building, and progression – things players like to have.

I have a theory that all of us as human beings need targets to drive our lives. This was what we were missing in our game. Our game was fun, but we needed something else, something deeper, without ruining the core of the fun in Formula Wincars. That’s why we added such ideas as sharing skills among members of a team, upgrading them during a race, or exploring the circuits to gather emblems. All this stuff is transparent for the newcomers; everything happens naturally, and they won’t care about it. But those looking for a deeper experience will discover that Formula Wincars hides a lot of features for them while they progress through the game after a few races.

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Those looking for a deeper experience will discover that Formula Wincars hides a lot of features for them while they progress through the game after a few races.

The Kickstarter Experience

When we realized we had a very ambitious project in our hands, we decided to run a Kickstarter campaign. It seemed the right thing to do, because it could give us the extra months we needed in order to polish the game. Besides, it could introduce new players to Formula Wincars. Javier worked very hard trying to get Formula Wincars funded, and while we were close, we were unable to reach our funding goal.

Perhaps Kickstarter wasn’t the right place for us. Though we claim to bring back the classic arcades feelings, this game aims to be for all kinds of people. Besides, it is a free-to-play game. And just let me say, when we say free, we really mean free. We want our players to enjoy our game, and to pay only for aesthetic items such as skins or stickers for car customization. But it was difficult to express this through Kickstarter. However, we were able to speak with some private investors through the Kickstarter campaign that allows us to continue with our release as planned. Another benefit of the campaign was the ability to show our game to the gamers all around the world, and we hope them to give it a try once we release it.

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Another benefit of the campaign was the ability to show our game to the gamers all around the world, and we hope them to give it a try once we release it.

Still Working

Nowadays, we’re still working to accomplish an amazing experience. We are exploring new paths and our circuits are becoming more and more interactive, full of destroyable elements, shortcuts, secrets, alternative paths, and special events. Besides, we are including some fantasy elements which will affect the races, such as dinosaurs or skeletons. Because of this, we’re starting to say that Formula Wincars is, indeed, an adventure racing game. Up to now, it has been an adventure for us to create a game like this. But we hope the best part will start when, at last, it is released and people can download it and play. We are pretty excited looking forward to this moment.

DragonJam Studios plans to release Formula Wincars for PC, Mac, and Linux, at the end of 2014. Follow along with the team’s progress on their Facebook and Twitter.

 

ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentOnline

Yatzy Ultimate: A Classic Game With a Trendy Look and Za Za Zu Flavor

July 7, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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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 UltimateMarija 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.

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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.

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It was time to make the game more social (and keep pace with the latest industry trends).

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.

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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.

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.

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“Pretty good. Needs some za za zu”.

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.

 

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