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Matthew Hall: The Challenges and Rewards of Working as an Independent Game Developer

May 7, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Matthew Hall, Founder and Developer, Klicktock

Matthew Hall, Founder and Developer of KlickTock, describes his career as the childhood hobby that never went away. He decided on his career direction at a very early age. He was five years old when he watched a news piece on Atari with some footage of the factory floor. He turned to his parents and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an electronic engineer.”

By eight years old, he was making his own games. Recently, he took out a 30-year-old cassette of these games and was impressed to discover that almost all of them were complete. “These days,” he admits, “I have a lot more half-finished games lying around.” Hall began working as a professional game developer in 2001 and now he can’t imagine doing anything else.

A Hard Choice

Starting out as an independent developer is not an easy choice to make. When Hall decided to start KlickTock, he tells us, “My wife and child moved back to the family farm while I toiled away there on the original Little Things. When the original launch of that title didn’t go as well as I had hoped, it was a pretty dark time.” The problem was not that he had made a bad game, it was that he had made it for the wrong audience. When it was eventually released on tablet, it was very successful. Fortunately, he was able to move on quickly and found a niche for his unconventional products on the App Store.

Video games have always been a source of inspiration for Hall. Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the first Nintendo game he purchased. “I was completely captivated,” he says. Luxor by Mumbo Jumbo inspired him to leave his day job and start KlickTock. Recently, he has been playing Forget-Me-Not by Brandon Williamson and Nuclear Throne by Vlambeer. He claims, “They are the two most inspirational games I’ve played and remind me just how much I have to learn about writing games.”

As an independent developer, Hall especially values being in charge of his own destiny. He believes the best thing about his work is never having to convince anyone that his idea is a great one. But the most difficult thing is convincing himself of its value. He has discovered, “Without perspective that you can rely on, the only way to properly judge your own game is to take a few months off, come back later, and play it again. This obviously makes development quite slow!”

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As an independent developer, Hall especially values being in charge of his own destiny.

A Change in Indie Development

Hall points out that independent developers have been around since the birth of computers, but recently game development has changed in ways that benefit them. Unity and UDK have given independent developers the opportunity to compete with the big studios. Previously, they had to write their own 3D engine to release a 3D game. Now, any major problems can be quickly solved with a search, especially with Unity, since it has such a large development community.

The rise of portals such as Steam and the App store has also benefited independent developers, allowing them to make money, sometimes in significant amounts, from their hobby. Unusual games that were once played only by hobbyists can now find an audience.

Getting Noticed

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Hall has been working on Age of Solitaire, and expects to release it soon.

The biggest challenge developers are facing, both in the indie space and in the mobile space, according to Hall, is getting noticed. Building a great product doesn’t guarantee success. He states, “For the indies, a cult of personality has emerged. Not only does your game have to be remarkable, but your personality also is a factor.”

In the mobile space, he has seen that the issues of a crowded marketplace have existed since the early days of the App Store. He emphasizes, “It’s important not only to build an amazing product, you also have to be ready to pick yourself up and try again if things don’t go well the first time. Building a profile as a reliable and interesting developer takes time.”

He gives this advice to independents starting out: “Build titles! Take a small idea, prototype it to prove it’s worthy of completion, then complete it.” He has noticed that developers are often overly invested in their ideas; playing them can shatter preconceptions of the game in a good way.

Preparing for the Future

Hall sees huge changes coming to the electronic entertainment industry with the advent of virtual reality via Oculus Rift. The original Oculus Rift dev kit has a profound effect on anyone who has tried it. Hall believes, “With the new technology, new genres and new opportunities will emerge. I’m very excited about making VR games, even if it isn’t the wisest business move at the moment.”

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Hall is currently in “development hell” working on Deck War

And the future of KlickTock should be just as exciting. Hall has a wall covered in game ideas ranging from the esoteric to potential top grossing titles. For several months, he has been working on a new title called Age of Solitare, which he expects to release very soon. He also tells us he is currently in ‘development hell’ working on a collectable card game called Deck War and hopes to release it later this year.

Hall will be sharing tips to getting featured on the App Store at Casual Connect Asia 2014! Read more about his session on the conference website.

 

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Ryan Wiemeyer discusses the Organ Trail, Kickstarter, and Indie Game Production

March 18, 2014 — by Nicholas Yanes

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Ryan Wiemeyer

Ryan Wiemeyer is a game designer that has been passionate about videogames since he held his first controller.  After receiving a B.S. in Game Development from DePaul University and making several games on his own and participating in several game jams, he began work as a designer and associate producer at Wideload Games (later a subsidiary of Disney Interactive) where he worked on several games, including Guilty Party. He and others would conceive of a zombie-take on the classic game, The Oregon Trail, and call it Organ Trail. Its initial version proved to be so popularly that Weimeyer and his colleagues would decide to revisit the game and further develop with funds generated from a Kickstarter campaign. Wiemeyer would even quit his job to focus on Organ Trail full time. The Kickstarter generated over ten-thousand dollars more than initially asked for; allowing them to expand the game beyond what was originally planned and begin their own studio, The Men Who Wear Many Hats.

Formally released January 2013, Organ Trail: Director’s Cut has been well received by fans and was successful enough to encourage those at The Men Who Wear Many Hats to make another game. Called Max Gentlemen and another Kickstarter success, this game is an arcade-styled experience centering on stacking hats and extreme manners.

GameSauce was able to recently talk to Wiemeyer about his interests in game development, his approach to gaming, using Kickstarter, and long term goals for himself and The Men Who Wear Many Hats.


The Men Who Wear Many Hats

Gamesauce: Growing up, what were some of the videogames that you loved playing?  Why do you think you were more interested in videogames than other forms of media?

Ryan Wiemeyer: I started gaming on the Atari and never looked back. Any time I could wrestle the TV away from my family to play a game was cherished; it didn’t even matter how bad the game was. I’ve always regarded the agency of video games to be a more enjoyable experience compared to passive media like TV, books, and movies.

I have been impacted by so many games that I feel it’s not really fair to try and mention only a few as favorites.

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue videogame development as a career? On this note, did you begin to learn to program before or after you realized you could make videogame development a profession?

I’ve always been interested the making of games, but I don’t think I realized it could be more than a hobby until college. I’ve been drawing Sonic levels, designing my own broken RPGs in RPG Maker, and dreaming up all sorts of terrible crap since I was little.

I took programming in High School, and even though I always twisted the assignment into a game project, I guess I didn’t have enough understanding of the industry to realize I was taking steps to make games for a living. I guess I thought I would be some generic programmer or maybe an artist…I’ve always dabbled in art. Hell, I have a useless animation minor.

More and more people are going to college to become game designers. Looking back, what are some things you feel you did to help prepare for a career in game development? On this note, what advice do you have for people currently in college and wanting to get into the gaming industry?

I could go on for 10 weeks about this… and I do. That’s why I got hired to teach at DePaul.

I could go on for 10 weeks about this… and I do. That’s why I got hired to teach at DePaul.

First off, there aren’t any jobs waiting for you when you graduate. So either you need to be the best of the best or stop thinking games are for you. I’m tired of seeing people who like to play games thinking that those skills translate to making games. The only crossover is the knowledge base and vocabulary. But the skills are worlds apart. Being a hardcore gamer is almost the opposite of having a good work ethic (because you are probably putting off being productive to consume).

I get students who are going to graduate in a few months, and they still can’t make a game because they are “idea guys” or “producers,” aka they usually have no talent. I think game design is something that only comes from MAKING games yourself. You NEVER know what will play or feel good until you iterate on it a dozen times. The idea that you can just tell someone what to make is…well, it’s the main problem with students right now.

You’ve participated in many game jams. How do you think game jams helped you develop your approach to making games?

I recommend every developer participate in Game Jams. They are such great tests of your ability. You usually fail, but you learn a lot and it’s a safe space to fail in. You learn a lot about scope and how to get enjoyment out of simplicity. These are priceless lessons that you can only learn from experience.

You started working at Wideload Games in 2009. What was your experience at Wideload like? Were there any professional skills that you developed while at Wideload?

Being immersed in a professional environment with so many talented people was life-changing.

Working at Wideload turned me from a shitty game dev student into a professional. Being immersed in a professional environment with so many talented people was life-changing. I recommend everyone get at least a few years of this kind of environment before striking out on their own. All the skills and disciplines you can’t learn in college I learned there.

You began Organ Trail while at Wideload.  Why did you begin working on one game while working at another company? Is it a decision that you’d make again? On this note, what was the inspiration for Organ Trail?

I started a side thing because I was used to the 10-week turn around on games we had at DePaul. Working on the same game for 2-3 years was a little creatively stifling. We formed The Men Who Wear Many Hats very unofficially as a group that just wanted to flex our game development muscles. We wanted to make small free games. Organ Trail was just a funny idea we had, while brainstorming. We’re quite taken aback by how it’s taken off.

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We formed The Men Who Wear Many Hats very unofficially as a group that just wanted to flex our game development muscles.

As Organ Trail started gaining popularity and we realized we needed to put more time into it, it started getting hard to make games and go home and keep making games. Luckily, the success of the Kickstarter let me know I was safe to quit my job. But also, Disney’s policy was that I would probably be fired if the right people found out I was making my own games anyway. That was a policy I fruitlessly tried to change on my way out.

And in regards to doing it again…I’m making side games from my own studio so I don’t think I can be stopped. I have to make games.

And in regards to doing it again…I’m making side games from my own studio so I don’t think I can be stopped. I have to make games.

Organ Trail proved to be so popular that you and the others who worked on it decided to further develop the game and do a Kickstarter to fund it. What was your initial reaction to realizing that you had created a game that was so beloved by fans? Additionally, what difficulties did you encounter while doing the Kickstarter?

It’s pretty cool. Running a Kickstarter is a huge undertaking. I try to warn others that it’s at least two months of full time work from one person. So it throws a huge wrench in any schedules you might have had. The hardest part was doing all of the fulfillment ourselves. Each package was a unique combination of swag, and we hand addressed all of it. And offloading a cart full of packages at the post office was not an enjoyable six hours, either.

Since 2010, you’ve been on the board of Indie City Games.  Why do you feel these types of organizations are important for game developers? Given that you live and work in Chicago, what are your thoughts about how the city can do more to encourage game development?

I’ve noticed that there is a big gap between this “student boom” of developer’s and the “old blood.” It’s really hard to get these older guys to come out and share any wisdom or help build any community. So with the fall of the Chicago IGDA chapter in the wake of EA Chicago and other major studio’s shutting down, we decided we needed something.

Since the formation of Indie City, I have been putting a lot of focus on the community. Chicago is always teetering on the edge of being a great city for developers, and I want to help push it forward. That’s why I started my co-working space and that’s why I teach. I have a lot of other plans that are starting to come to fruition… keep any eye out.

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Since the formation of Indie City, I have been putting a lot of focus on the community.

You and The Men Who Wear Many Hats are currently working the game Max Gentlemen. What was the inspiration for this game? On this note, how did the visual style come about?

Wiemeyer: We had the idea for Max Gentlemen from a spam email with a similar title. We fleshed out this bigger world with lots of “Max Gentlemen”-themed activities. But, lacking a solid 2D artist/animator at the time, we put it on a shelf. Along came the Six Pack Game Jam; a jam about spending a month on a game and putting it on an arcade cabinet.

We took one of the “activities” from that larger game and fleshed it out. We chose the hat-stacking idea because it really matched the name of the company, and we felt it was a good fit for us. The art style came about because I was eager to get my friend Sarah Denis into the game scene. So we gave her a change with the Game Jam and things worked out. Now the full fledged game is like a showcase of her art.

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The team at PAX East 2012

We learned a lot from the Organ Trail Kickstarter. I used those lessons and kind of turned them on its head and did a lot of things people said you couldn’t do.

Our Max Gentlemen Kickstarer was almost a parody of itself. We set a ridiculously low goal and barely showed the game. It was really more about the spectacle and merch. We offered a lot of goofy rewards and made up fake charts and goals for the campaign. It was mostly a marketing push for us; to get Max Gentlemen into the greater known space. But we are actually making and giving out these ridiculous rewards… like the body pillow cover. And people get really excited about them.

The ultimate lesson is that your video is the #1 most important part of a campaign. I think the video may even be better than the game, haha.

Given your experience of working for both a large and small studios, what are your thoughts on the future of the videogame industry? Do you see large studios surviving in their current form?

The middle-sized studios seem to really be on the ropes. I think the current small team space is going to slowly grow and take their place. I find a lot of people would rather buy a $20 indie game. The problem with a lot of the old middle-sized studios is that they made games for the $60 space and their game didn’t need to be that, the market just wasn’t used to the idea of paying different amounts for different kinds of games.

I honestly don’t know what’s’ next. The indie space is getting more and more popular, and while that used to be a great thing… there’s part of me that’s still worried that we are going to get lost in the flood of new games.

Beyond Max Gentlemen, what are some long term goals you have yourself and The Men Who Wear Many Hats?

I just want to make games.

Keep up with Ryan and The Men Who Wear Many Hats by following them on Twitter.

DevelopmentExclusive InterviewsIndieOnline

White Whale Games on ‘God of Blades’ and Being a Studio in Austin, TX

March 6, 2014 — by Nicholas Yanes

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Founded in 2011, White Whale Games is an indie studio located in Austin, TX and currently comprised of George Royer and Jo Lammert. White Whale would go on to release its first game, God of Blades, in 2012. To learn more about White Whale, GameSauce recently talked to its Studio Director, Jo Lammert, about the studio’s history, creating God of Blades, and the studio’s future goals.

Finding the White Whale – The Studio’s Founding

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Jo Lammert

In 2011, George Royer, Jo Lammert, and Jason Rosenstock started talking about videogames and concepts related to this medium. Eventually, the group became so passionate about the ideas that kept coming up in their discussions that they decided to found White Whale Games. As Lammert recollected, “The studio started in summer of 2011 when the three of us just started talking about games and game concepts. One thing led to another, then suddenly we were starting a video game studio.”

While Rosenstock was the only one with standard videogame industry experience, stemming from his time as an artist for BioWare, all three of them contributed to the creation of White Whale. Lammert not only had a Masters of Information Sciences from University of Texas, Austin, but she also brought a vast array of experience in the entertainment industry; including stints at Cartoon Network and the Bold and the Beautiful. Royer brought to the organization a strong sense of narrative and a love for literary classics – one of his favorite books being Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s from this classic that the studio would take its name from. Lammert explains, “It refers to the elusive, precious, and highly coveted white whale of the book.”

What truly helped the three of them come together was not just their complimentary skill sets, but that they shared a distinct vision for what a gaming studio could be. According to Lammert, the team wanted “to design and develop games that thoughtfully present the player with elegant, meaningful, and realized worlds.” She expanded on this point by explaining that “every project we do is deeply thoughtful about world-building, and is something really important to us. Essentially, we wanted to evoke rich stories through a game.”

Keeping it Weird in Austin – Indie Game Development in Austin, TX

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Austin, Texas’ landscape has been important to White Whale’s founding and growth.

Home to the world-renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) and a growing technology industry, Austin is known for a unique media culture that attracts businesses and entrepreneurs from across the world. As such, the city’s landscape has been important to White Whale’s founding and growth. Specifically, the studio has benefited from a gaming industry – both corporate and indie – that has allowed the city to become “rich with talent and good people.”

Austin is also home to Juegos Rancheros, an indie collective co-operated by Lammert with the goal of building the area’s game development community. Lammert feels that this organization played an important role in White Whale’s growth, stating that Juegos Rancheros provided “a supportive, kindhearted space, a place where you can throw out an early build of a game to other indie game friends and get very constructive feedback.” Given the wide array of people and support systems in the area, Lammert believes that “White Whale would look very different if we weren’t in Austin.”

O.R.C.A. – Psychic Frog and White Whale’s Experiment Projects

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The only game that has been released under the O.R.C.A. label is Psychic Frog.

White Whale’s founders wanted to have a means to experiment with games that may not have meshed with their company’s brand. “Examples of this,” according to Lammert, “would be quick game jams, bizarre non-commercially viable games, etc.” To do this, they created O.R.C.A. They settled on an acronym so that when asked what the letters meant, they “could be coy and mysterious,” says Lammert.

The only game that has been released under the O.R.C.A. label is Psychic Frog.  Created during a four-day contest, the goal of which “was to create a fun game with innovative gameplay,” Psychic Frog is a Flash-based game in which the player helps a psychic frog breakout of a secret location. However, while they are happy with the Psychic Frog and do plan on continuing to make experimental games, Lammert did express that they will “probably stop calling them O.R.C.A. projects and just make them White Whale.”

God of Blades – White Whale’s Breakout Game

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The Nameless King

Released in 2012 (and most recently updated in 2013), God of Blades was White Whale’s first videogame. The studio wanted to pay tribute to the pulp fantasy stories that have impacted mass entertainment since Conan the Barbarian was first published in 1932, however, they wanted it to be more than just a violent game centered on a muscular hero.  As the game’s homepage states, “God of Blades asks players to think about memory, culture, and loss in terms of stories, books, and the communities that love them.” The game even goes as far to reward players with unique swords if they visit actual libraries.

Early in the game’s development, they found that look for the God of Blades’ protagonist, the Nameless King, wasn’t what they wanted. The team would turn to their collective interests in David Bowie and other Glam Rock musicians, and redesigned the Nameless King so that he was more of a mix of Ziggy Stardust, Elric, and a Ringwraith. In addition to the commitment of getting the visuals of this game to their liking, White Whale also wanted this game to have an expansive story. Though much of this game’s narrative background couldn’t be layered into the game play, Lammert told GameSauce that Royer “literally created a bible about that universe and all the mythology. It may not be written out in the game, but you can see these tales through the environments.”

Like many of the startups in the Austin area, the production of the game began with little financial backing. As Lammert said, “we were pretty broke in early development, and bootstrapped the entire project.” As such, the game’s initial development was a difficult and stressful period. Similar to many other entrepreneurs, Lammert believes that those financial limitations “helped us make a really beautiful project.”

And Lammert is not alone in her opinion of the game’s quality. God of Blades received widespread positive news coverage, and won awards from Pocket Gamer, Touch Arcade, and was the Pocket Tactics’ Action Game of the Year. Given the popularity of the game and that its narrative framed around a fictitious fantasy book series, White Whale was approached to by an e-publisher and decided to release a series of books based on the God of Blades universe – the first one being written by Greg Moller and titled God of Blades: Hand of the Sable King. Beyond this, Lammert told GameSauce that it’s a “wrap for God of Blades franchise stuff!”

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Lammert feels they created a beautiful project

With God of Blades behind them, White Whale’s current goal is to continue to build things that make people happy,” according to Lammert. While she is unable to currently discuss what these plans are, she did make it clear that studio is planning on expanding outside of the realm of videogames.
 

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What’s John Riccitiello Doing Now?

July 29, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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John Riccitiello
John Riccitiello

Nothing. That is, if you consider that he’s been working hundred-hour weeks for almost thirty years and now he’s working maybe fifty. For him, that’s practically a vacation. Coming off his stint as President and CEO of EA, John‘s kicking back (in a manner of speaking) and watching the fruits of his labors ripen. Many of the games and franchises he presided over at EA are releasing now, and he speaks about them with the pride of a father watching his kids play little league. If there’s any residual bitterness or regret, I sure didn’t sense it.

I spoke with John briefly the other day. It was the first time I had met him, so to speak. It was a pleasant conversation and I found him to be extremely knowledgeable and optimistic – not just about his own future, but about the future of games in general. He is a man full of ideas and opinions, and if I somehow inferred that he isn’t busy, or that perhaps his head isn’t in the game, then let me correct that perception right now. His head is very much in the game, and he’s quite busy.

His focus today is in investing in game companies – primarily mobile start-ups. He acts as an advisor, guru and all-around Obi-Wan Kenobi to fledgling studios that show promise and by promise, he means future-oriented; as in vision and the ability to build products that last. John is bullish on the industry but is careful to point out that it is becoming increasingly difficult to break into the top of the charts and stay there. When I asked him if  there was any hope for an Indie developer just starting out today, his response was not what I expected.

He acts as an advisor, guru and all-around Obi-Wan Kenobi to fledgling studios that show promise.

“It’s not hopeless,” he said. “It’s still possible to do, but it’s increasingly important to create a rich product experience that is well crafted.”

I’m curious to hear his upcoming Casual Connect talk on Tuesday at 1:30 – Fireside Chat with John Riccitiello, where he’ll sit down with the very smart and savvy John Gaudiosi. I’m hoping he’ll go into more detail about what he sees as important for a game developer to consider at this very crucial time in the evolution of the industry, and expound upon his vision. He gave me a lot to chew on, but I don’t want to steal any of his thunder, so you’ll just have to check out his talk.

I did however ask him how he views Casual Connect, a conference that has become increasingly significant as a disseminator of vital industry information and a hub of meaningful connections and influencers.

“Casual Connect is a very important show coming at a very important time,” He said. “Great new game companies will rise in the coming year, and some seemingly great companies of today will disappear. Fortunes are going to be won and lost here. I think it’s important to be there to see what’s happening on the ground. Learn from game developers what is working, what is not.”

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Casual Connect, which is being held in tech-geek mecca San Francisco for the first time, seems to be coming at a very interesting and critical time, when big data and analytics appears to be trumping innovation and pure design.

Judging by this years’ conference line-up, I think he’s right. Casual Connect, which is being held in tech-geek mecca San Francisco for the first time, seems to be coming at a very interesting and critical time, when big data and analytics appears to be trumping innovation and pure design. Will the mobile revolution raise all boats or just the ones with the most resources? Can the Indie spirit thrive, or merely survive? Just what’s inside John Riccitiello’s crystal ball? Drop in why don’t you, come sit by the fireside. I think it’ll be worth your while.

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AutoDuel becomes MotorGun, picks up Gears of War’s Lee Perry, launches Kickstarter

July 16, 2013 — by AJ Glasser

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Indie developer Pixelbionic has a lot going on this week: Its game gets a name change, a new designer behind the wheel, and a just-launched Kickstarter campaign seeking $650,000 in funding in the next 31 days.

Pixelbionic’s game started life earlier this year as Autoduel, an online combat car game that sounds like a cross between Twisted Metal, Interstate ’76, and Guild Wars. Players customize cars and form teams to do battle and complete other objectives to earn more customization options and materials. Co-founders Mike Arkin and Maxx Kaufman were later joined by Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe and Interstate ’76 creator Zack Norman, for an extra dose of authentic car battle game DNA.

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Now renamed MotorGun, Pixelbionic’s team picks up Gears of War and Unreal Tournament Lead Designer Lee Perry to uphold the creative direction of the game and bolster its battlegrounds. Perry plans to design an exclusive battleground for backers as part of the campaign’s stretch goals.

photo_mikeNavigating Kickstarter for a first-time developer isn’t easy, but Pixelbionic has a wealth of successful games campaigns to learn from. Co-founder Arkin (pictured, right) told Gamesauce that the team even received personal mentoring from Wasteland 2‘s Brian Fargo (which closed with over $2.9 million in funding on a $900,000 goal) and HEX’s Cory Jones (closed at over $2.2 million on a $300,000 goal).

“We are very lucky that there have been some great Kickstarters before us,” Arkin said. “We’re trying very hard to take all the lessons that those people have communicated to us and use the advice wisely.”

Over the last eight months, Arkin and his team have planned out goals and rewards for its Kickstarter campaign. Aside from Perry’s exclusive battlegrounds for backers, the upper tiers of funding grant backers exclusive cars as well as access to the beta and even the alpha version of MotorGun. Lower tiers get access to the game when it launches and an MP3 of the game’s soundtrack.

The stumbling block many first-timers encounter is pledging more than they can deliver either in content or physical rewards. Arkin says the team is aware of this obstacle and that he and Kaufman have done the math to avoid it.

“Max and I are experienced developers and we’ve planned the project and budgeted very carefully,” he said. “We’ve been conservative about the features that we’re promising and the stretch goals where we can announce new features we’ve already planned.”

MotorGun is targeting an October 2014 release. After the Kickstarter campaign closes, players can still pay for the game or make donations on Pixelbionic’s site.

“Once it launches, we plan to add content – more battlegrounds, more vehicles, more parts, more game modes,” Arkin said. “We plan to keep adding things… until we stop.”

Look for Arkin at Casual Connect this month during the Day 3 Free 2 Play track and on the floor of the Indie Prize Showcase.

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Indie Showcase: Dragon Game Studio

April 23, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Dragon Game Studio is a Bali-based game studio founded in 2012 by Jonas and Joan Johnsson, who is also husband and wife. After an amazing cliff-side wedding in Uluwatu, the plan was to move to Bali and settle down in the “Island of the Gods.” There was just something about Bali that mesmerized them and, impulsive and adventurous as they are, they decided to take the plunge!

Dragon Game Studio’s new game Balified is in the Indie Prize Showcase at Casual Connect Asia.

Jonas is a self-made businessman and Joan has a background in Marketing Communication. Working together as a couple was a completely new challenge for both of them. They are married, a team, partners and they work together. Not a lot of couples can do this, but here they are, at the beginning of their careers in the game development industry.

There was just something about Bali that mesmerized them and, impulsive and adventurous as they are, they decided to take the plunge!

Before this big adventure, neither of them has been involved in the game development industry. Jonas has always been a typical hardcore gamer, but that’s where his experience stops. Joan started her interest in playing games when Jonas made her play Tetris against him on the Nintendo DS. Before that, she occasionally played games on the PC, but nothing much besides that. This made the adventure all the more exciting.

Setting Up a Game Studio in Indonesia

The first challenge was to find an office. It was necessary that they would get all the help that they could. They found a company with specialized services helping expats starting up their business in Indonesia. What was supposed to take only three months ended up taking one year! The hunt for the office was a tough one, but in the end, they managed to find one that seemed just perfect for the small studio they had in mind.

While looking for a studio, they were also busy finding the right people to build their Dragon Dream Team. Funny enough, the first employee they hired was someone they bought a dog from! He was a freshly graduated student and was looking for a job. By that time, there was not much to do, but they offered him the opportunity to study Corona SDK (in which BaliFied is built) while helping them set up the company.

Then there was the sudden application from their Art Director Gilbert. They were intrigued by his resume, so they went to Surabaya to interview him. Immediately, they realized that Gilbert was the right guy to have on board. After adding him to the team, they also met up with him during Casual Connect Singapore 2012. They felt they learned a lot from CC, and attending made them realize that they had a VERY long way to go before they could reach their goals…

Dragon Game Studio
Everyone is talented and has the great team spirit and attitude that they strive for.

After Gilbert, the other Dragons came in one after another. Everyone is just as talented, and has the great team spirit and attitude that they strive for. Dragon Game Studio nowadays consists of three programmers: Rocky, Jim and Christopher, one Art Director: Gilbert, one Studio Manager / Game Designer: Yon and an intern: Chris.

The first two games

The Harlem Shake vs Gangnam Style Dance Game was released on the App Store on 26th of March 2013 and was made in seven working days. It was a side project to give the team a breather from working intensively on BaliFied. Jonas wanted to do something with the two dance crazes that ruled YouTube. It has a simple gameplay: you choose the role that you want to play, either Harlem Shake or Gangnam and you tap on the right icon as soon as they appear in the white circles at the bottom of the screen.

None of them had released a game on the App Store before, so all this, from the creative journey to the launch of these titles, was perfect to learn about the whole release process by trial and error.

The second game Don’t Steal My Banana was released on 27th of March 2013 after being rejected by Apple twice. But the third time’s the charm! This game was made in five weeks and was another side project for the team. None of them had released a game on the App Store before, so all this, from the creative journey to the launch of these titles, was perfect to learn about the whole release process by trial and error.

Both games were received pretty well. Harlem vs Gangnam got to the #1 position in many European countries and the Indonesian store, and reached the top 10 in the US store free music games category. Don’t Steal My Banana reached the top 50 in the free games category in the Indonesian store and got them a lot of new fans.

The Masterpiece

Balified
A lot of adaptation processes was needed — communication, work standard and learning a new engine were just a few of the hurdles they had to get through.

The masterpiece and the dream that Dragon Game Studio was built upon is called BaliFied – Word Game of the Gods. It’s a project that they hope will blow casual word game lovers away. They are both huge fans of word games such as WWF and Ruzzle, so when Jonas stumbled upon an old board game from 1950s called Bali on the internet, they knew that this was it! They realized that this was something they had to turn into a new and improved word game, with all the multiplayer functions today’s market offers.

The beginning wasn’t easy. A lot of adaptation processes was needed– communication, work standard and learning a new engine were just a few of the hurdles they had to get through. They were a group of people that never had worked together before. Luckily, most of the team members have a background in the game industry, but there still was a lot of stuff that they didn’t have a clue about. The GUI was changed many times before the team was completely happy, and a lot of time was spent on trial and error. After more than three months of developing, they began to wonder: can this game even be finished? But they got through it by dropping the project for a while, and then came back stronger than ever! This is something they recommend every developer to do if they get stuck: take a break from the project for a while, maybe make a few simple projects, and then go back to the main project.

This is something they recommend every developer to do if they get stuck: take a break from the project for a while, maybe make a few simple projects, and then go back to the main project.

When the focus was back on BaliFied, the team was feeling great about it. Fortunately for them, Corona had just released the new Corona Cloud feature at exactly when they needed it the most. Once again, the Balinese gods were on their side! After that, they did some super intensive beta-testing, and finally, Balified was finished and ready to be published. And here they are, ready to launch BaliFied in the summer of 2013.

Developing a game from scratch with little experience from the decision makers, but with all the knowledge from the team was a very hard process. They lived and learned and were not afraid to start over again when an idea was not completely supported by the whole team. It’s a give and take process and at the end, they are very proud of all that they have achieved so far. They are ready to take this new word game to another level! The level of the Gods.

Look forward to the release of BaliFied this summer.

Indie

Indie Winners of Flash GAMM 2012 Game Contest Invited to Casual Connect Europe Conference

January 8, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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During the fifth edition of the Flash GAMM conference in Kiev, Ukraine fifteen indie game developers were selected by the Casual Games Association (CGA) to receive an Innovation Scholarship, including a free airplane tickets and full conference passes to the Casual Connect Europe conference and the opportunity to show their games in Hamburg. The winning games included Red Ball 4, Dino Trek and Zombotron 2.

Besides receiving the Innovation Scholarship, Zombotron 2 was awarded the title “Audience choice award”.
Besides receiving the Innovation Scholarship, Zombotron 2 was awarded for the “Audience choice award”.

95 game titles entered the Flash GAMM Game Contest this year. Casual Connect (CGA) selected 15 indie developers that received Innovation Scholarships for their trip to Casual Connect Europe and Flash GAMM Hamburg. The indie games that were picked to receive the scholarship are: – Goal DefenseSnail BobJelly CannonPheus and MorAcorn StoryTransformerDino TrekDream SymphonyRed Ball 4The Prince EdwardLazermanIntrusion 2On The Flat Of A DreamHordes and LordsZombotron 2 Besides a free accommodation and a conference pass to Casual Connect Europe, the teams are given the opportunity to showcase their games at the Innovation Showcase, an “art-gallery” style exhibition in which twelve games are displayed that are considered innovative. The winners will also have an opportunity to present a short post-mortem presentation about their titles. Flash GAMM is a conference for flash, social and mobile games, which has been around since 2009. Casual Connect Europe will be held from 12-14 February in Hamburg and involves over 1.600 professionals.

IndieStudio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Yellow Monkey Studios on breaking out of India, indie pr & marketing and conquering the world

November 26, 2012 — by Vlad Micu

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Launched recently sandwiched in dire competition between Marvel’s Avengers Initiative and famed indie developer Terry Cavanaugh’s Super Hexagon, Yellow Monkey Studios’ Huebrix has been fighting for the attention its developers believe the game truly deserves. We sat down with Yellow Monkey Studios’ founder and game designer Shailesh Prabhu to talk about the recent launch of their game, the struggle to break out of India to reach a global market and putting Indian indie game developers on the global map.

Made in Mumbai

If you get the game out there in front of people and they see a good solid game, they will take notice of you.

Huebrix’s success might also have a larger, unnoticed impact that many outside of India might be missing. It is giving many developers in India the hope they’ve always wanted: that it’s possible to reach a global audience outside of their own non-existing games market. ”We have now seen that if you get the game out there in front of people and they see a good solid game, they will take notice of you,” he argues. The game is being lauded by the local Indian game press as one of the few Indian games that reached out beyond its borders that the Indian game development community could be proud of. “The Indie Development scene in India is pretty nascent,” Prabhu says. “There are quite a few people who are interested and intrigued by the scene but not enough people actually doing proper work. We run a small Indie Game Development Facebook group here called LIGD; we have about 300 odd members, but maybe only 30 are active. Also, since the local market is virtually non-existent, most of the developers face the issue of actually reaching out and making their presence felt at the global level.”

Staying afloat

The obviously delighted Prabhu receiving the award for “Best Original Idea” for Yellow Monkey Studios’ game Just a Thought at the HoPlay 2011 video games festival in Bilbao, Spain.

Yellow Monkey Studios has been around for over five years. During this time, four members of its team managed to work on three games and release them. In 2007, the studio started off designing and pitching a Nintendo DS based point-and-click adventure called Mortley – A Stitch in Time to many publishers. Regardless of the good response, many seemed to be quite skeptical that an Indian indie studio could complete and polish a game for the DS. “Most publishers ended up telling us to complete the game and then they would see, but that meant a $100.000 US dollars risk for us, and we didn’t have that money,” he says. The launch of the Apple App Store around that time meant a new opportunity for the team and they quickly decided to move to developing games for iOS. The first project to come out of that endeavor was Finger Footie, a top view flick-based Soccer game. Like many other game developers, the team had to struggle to get the game some visibility. So for their second game, Shailesh and his team decided to do something that would definitely catch people’s attention.

The resulting game was It’s Just a Thought, which won them the “Best Original Idea” at the HoPlay 2011 video games festival in Bilbao, Spain. Yellow Monkey studios has been financed in the only possible way most aspiring game studios in Asia are able to: work for hire jobs. “We’ve had to go back to work for hire in between projects or sometimes even during them to pay the bills,” says Prabhu. “The award at HoPlay 2011 with It’s Just a Thought had a cash component to that which, along with the work-for-hire project we did, helped us stay afloat during the production of Huebrix.” Though sales for Huebrix are still growing, the game enjoyed a steady climb up both the iOS and Android charts and has pretty much covered its development costs. Shailesh and his team were recently able to attend their first ever game conference back in May this year, volunteering at the inaugural edition of Casual Connect Asia in Singapore. The event gave them their very first chance to show Huebrixto publishers and meet other international game developers. But after disappointing leads, they decided to release the game themselves after all.

Even in the age of the internet, I think people really do value you more if they know you and can put a face to an email ID.

“We don’t have any publishers who take games developed here to the global market and we don’t have any internationally-acclaimed game development awards or more than one conference here,” Prabhu tells. “Even in the age of the internet, I think people really do value you more if they know you and can put a face to an email ID. It’s financially not possible for us at this point to travel to all these conferences to be seen, but we are trying to do whatever we can.” And until now, that effort to establish direct and strong relationships with the international press has not been in vain.

‘Hindi’ PR at its best

Regardless of all trials and tribulations, Huebrix has become an important milestone for the Indian indie game development scene for reaching the global mobile market, setting higher standards for a game’s level of polish and achieve outstanding recognition by game media from all over the world. They also recently spoke about their journey developing and promoting Huebrixat India’s prime game conference, the Nasscom Game Developers Conference in Pune, India.

One of many art styles that were considered for Huebrix before the decision was made to go for the more slick & simplistic design the game has now.

Prabhu and his team simply did what any indie developer would, and should do. They involved a blogger in game development, and he made their work noticeable by actively posting about their development process. “I think staying active on these channels helped us get noticed by the right people at Apple and we have been able to get on the New and Noteworthy sections on launch day, and even get some promotional banners in some places,” Prabhu agrees. “That helped greatly with downloads. Besides that, we did press releases and had a proper media kit and promo codes ready for anyone who wanted to write a review. We sent those things out in advance specifying the release date and such. We didn’t really have any budgets for promotion.” But that didn’t stop them from being smart about PR & marketing. They were able to involve the well known and beloved indie-friendly PR expert Joseph Lieberman from VGSsmart glory, who assisted Yellow Monkey Studios in writing and spreading their press releases to the right media outlets. “He really loved the game and wanted to help us.” So far Yellow Monkey Studios’ efforts bore all the fruit they’ve hoped for. “We have risen to Rank 73 in iPhone games and Rank 28 in iPad Games on the iOS App Store, and we hope Huebrix will rise even more,” Shailesh says. “It is actually tough to launch on the same day as Avengers and Terry Cavanagh’s game Super Hexagon, but I hope we will still be seen by enough people.” Prabhu and his team also spread the word of the iOS and Android versions by getting a Flash version of Huebrix published on as many flash game portals as possible. Huebrix has been submitted to IGF China and the international IGF as well, and the game also became a finalist in the ‘Best International Game’ category for the Freeplay Awards 2012 held in Melbourne, Australia.

Huebrix’s statistics till this week have been around the following numbers Prabhu and his team were gracious enough to share with us:
iOS: 22k+ sales
iOS ratings: average of 4 out of 5 Stars
Android: over 600k Downloads confirmed by their Android-focused publisher.
Google Play ratings: 4.4 out of 5 Stars
Huebrix’s Flash version:
• 187k+ plays on Kongregate • 207k+ plays on Armor Games
• 38k+ plays on Newgrounds
Flash version ratings
• 3.7/5 (Kongregate) (9100 ratings)
• 4/5 (Newgrounds) (1500 ratings)
• 7.6/10 (Armor Games)

Following features on many popular mobile game websites such as PocketGamer.co.uk and being mentioned on TheGuardian.co.uk, reviews are also appearing on Appspy.com and TouchArcade.com. Huebrix even received a review on EDGE Magazine’s website (a 7/10), marking another giant step for the little Indian indie game studio. Though Huebrix’s Metacritic just went up to 76/100 (it was 74/100 a few weeks before), the young developers at Yellow Monkey are obviously overjoyed by the attention their game has been receiving.

Not the very first, but certainly not the last

Yellow Monkey Studios is currently planning their next title and have launched a major update for Huebrix today. They’re also adding a cool new update to Huebrix today that enables ‘Zen Mode’, a special mode for Color Blind people and the much delayed iPhone 5 graphics. Check out Huebrix for yourself here for iOS and here on Google Play.

Indie

Insolita’s Martin Fabichak on the Brazilian Game Industry and Taking on Big Challenges (part 1)

February 25, 2011 — by Javier

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In the last decade Brazil’s economy has been flourishing, spawning all kinds of new commercial and creative initiatives. Brazil has a fond love for gaming and a growing industry to match it. We had a talk with the cheerful Martin Fabichak, Technical Director of Insolita Studios in São Paulo, to find out more about him, his company and what makes the Brazilian game industry unique.

After Fabichak graduated in Applied Math with a specialization in Programming, he quickly realized that his true passion was game development, leading him to create flash games. In 2008 he joined Insolita where he recently became Technical Director and a partner of the company six months ago.

Size matters

Martin Fabichak's team at Insolita

One of the characteristics of being a young company in an upcoming industry is that you get to create all sorts of games. Insolita Studios has a diverse repertoire, from serious games to teach management skills, to comedic platformers featuring cavemen and devils.

CaveDays allowed Insolita to get noticed in the Brazilian industry, especially after winning the Jogos BR contest.

While they were making three serious games to encourage entrepreneurship in collaboration with professional experts, they decided to make something less serious, yet important on the side: CaveDays. “This cool platforming game allowed the company get noticed in the Brazilian industry, especially after winning the Jogos BR contest for Best Game, a contest organized by the Brazilian government to stimulate Brazilian game design.” Fabichak explains.

To promote their game CaveDays, Insolita published web comics made with the graphics from the game.

The award was the first step to start more, and bigger, projects. Fabichak likes to describe them in superlatives: “Afterwards we made a huge serious game, LudoPark. Pretty much one of the biggest serious games ever made because it’s a real-time multiplayer management game where 40 players compete to manage their business.” Besides this “huge” game, Insolita Studios joined up with the independent Brazilian game developer Abdução to make something “mini” that turned out quite big.

Freekscape from Brazil

Freekscape was the first 100% Brazilian IP in the world market.

The two companies joined forces as Kidguru Studios to work on the first Sony-licensed game in Brazil for the PSP Minis platform, Freekscape. “We’re the only licensees for Sony.” Fabichak explains. “There is no one with a PS3 license here. It’s really hard to get that in Latin America. Being able to get Freekscape on the PSP Mini platform was a unique opportunity for us.”

Developing Freekscape took Insolita’s international relationships to another level in many different ways. “We developed a prototype with 3 levels and took it to GDC in 2009. There we got in touch with the publisher Creat from the US that gave us the opportunity to work with Sony that was looking for games for its new PSP Minis platform that had yet to be announced.” Fabichak recounts.

Sony was really happy with the way Freekscape fitted their original idea of the type of games they wanted to offer on PSP Minis.

Compared to other PSP Minis games, Freekscape was a big mini. “Out of 40 levels we had in this project, only 15 remained in the game,” Fabichak admits. “We did not know that Minis would mostly be smaller-sized casual games. Most games come down to 1 or 2 hours of playtime, with a lot of replay value, of course,” Fabichak explains. “But Freekscape was disproportionately bigger with about 8 hours of gameplay. We believed and hoped PSP Minis was going to be a platform for small studios with big ideas.” Was Freekscape too big to be a Mini? “Sony was happy with the way Freekscape fit into their original idea of the type of games they wanted to offer on PSP Minis.”

Lessons from the little devil

At the Sony booth at GDC 2010. On the left is Daniel, Founder of Abdução, and on the right is Fabichak's partner, Winston Petty, founder of Insolita. Freekscape was a joint project of Abdução e Insolita as Kidguru.

Fabichak is happy with having an odd-one-out on a platform that has tough competition with delivering bite-sized portable games. He is proud of the game it turned out to be, but especially the lessons and relationships they gained through it. “We learned a lot from Freekscape. Especially in maintaining a relationship with an international publisher and a big player like Sony.” Fabichak says. “One of the things we struggled with was developing for Minis at such an early stage. Developing Freekscape before PSP Minis had even been announced, brought some difficulties, specifically nearing the end of our development cycle because the requirements and features for PSP Minis changed from one week to the other.”

Fabichak does not take his hardships for granted, however. “During this time, we had a great relationship with Vicious Cycle Software, who made the Vicious Engine we worked with. They helped us with a lot of issues. They even made some tweaks to the engine to help us out with some of the issues,” Fabichak recounts. “But when it came to one of the specific requirements from Sony, I spent about a month in the engine’s source code trying to solve it. That was really hard, especially since it came out of the blue, nearing the end of development.”

Now we can approach publishers and companies like Sony with much more ease.

“Despite these problems, we had great help from Sony.” Fabichak admits. It also gave them more confidence to step things up. “Through this project we now talk to others on a whole other level. Now we can approach publishers and companies like Sony with more ease. You can’t reach this level as a company without earning your stripes with a previous project. Now we have the credentials to talk to them and prove we can deliver on what we propose, and our partners know that. We feel like we’re on another level now.” Fabichak says proudly.

The second part of Fabichak’s interview will be published next week, including his views on the Brazilian game industry, Insolita’s current projects, and his effort to inform upcoming talents about the real world of game development in Brazil through his podcast, Doublejump.

Exclusive InterviewsIndie

Game Designer Erin Robinson on Free Games and Indie Life

January 27, 2011 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Erin Robinson is a game designer who blazoned her way in the game industry by making much-loved free games such as Nanobots, Spooks and Little Girl in Underland. It helps that she can make her own concept art, too.

Shareware For Life

Robinson being interviewed by Morgan Webb from G4TV
Robinson being interviewed by Morgan Webb from G4TV

Even in her early years, Robinson was a fan of indie games. She played every shareware game that she could get her hands on. “The first game I paid for was The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain and I did chores for weeks to earn the money. Maybe associating video games with chores was the reason I became a developer.”

Despite working in the publisher scheme nowadays, Robinson still believes strongly in her independent roots and free games. “For starters, your audience is significantly bigger. It doesn’t take nearly as much to convince people to check out an offbeat indie game if it’s free,” says Robinson.

“Free games can help a new developer build up a reputation.”

Further, working on her own free games helped Robinson find her style and share it with players. “Free games can help a new developer build up a reputation. The style of your work will become more apparent with each project you release, and can help you find your audience, or help them find you!” she shares.

The Indie Road

Robinson having breakfast with fellow indies during GDC 2010
Robinson having breakfast with fellow indies during GDC 2010
Even with these advantages, free games are not often a viable option for professionals. It can be a tough path to keep afloat financially while investing time and energy into developing free games. However, there’s a payoff. Robinson has been embraced by publishers because of her proven effort.

Finishing a game is a skill of its own, declares Robinson. “If you develop a reputation as someone who gets things done, it will only help you down the road.”
Most importantly, free games are a good way to get established and respond to feedback without incurring the risks of commercial game development.

“It’s the feeling of creating something from nothing that I find so engaging.”

Robinson has also discovered through experience that it is very rewarding to work on a commissioned project and pitch ideas. She experienced this first when designing Puzzle Bots and later when designing missions for social media company Akoha. “It’s the feeling of creating something from nothing that I find so engaging,” adds Robinson.

Into The Future

"Manning (ladying?) my booth at the PAX 10."
"Manning (ladying?) my booth at the PAX 10."

Lately, Robinson is learning how to program in Unity. “It’s going slowly but surely,” she admits. She is tackling programming because she understands how useful it is for game designers to be able to sketch out new ideas on their own.

Robinson is working on a small game that she occasionally updates people about using Twitter. “Nothing has been announced yet, but I can’t help but post concept art sometimes,” she admits.

Finishing a game is still the bane of her existence. “It’s easy to think a project is 90% done and then find your to-do list getting longer every day. It just happens,” Robinson shares. After all, releasing a game is only partly about ensuring a bug-free release. Creating promotional materials and sending a game to the press takes quite a bit of time and pushes budget constraints.

But in the end it’s worth it.

Erin Robinson recently talked about the neuroscience of gaming at GDC China, summarizing findings that video games are increasingly being used in medical and rehabilitative therapy and playing First-Person Shooters improves visual and auditory perception.

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