Studio Spotlight

Excamedia: Bringing Retro Style to Modern Gaming

March 31, 2014 — by Casey Rock


Maarten van Zanten has been wishing to make video games since he was six years old. When he and Dwight Lagadeau started discussing the idea for a game, they decided to look for others who were interested and soon founded Excamedia. Maarten talks to Gamesauce about the studio and their first game, A Clumsy Adventure.

the team busy working
The team hard at work

Excamedia loves a good challenge. Hailing from Utrecht in the Netherlands, Excamedia was founded by Maarten van Zanten in 2013 with an emphasis on retro-style gaming as well as difficulty — an element Zanten feels has been lost in many modern games.

“I miss the challenge in most games,” Zanten says, though he understands that many games are less difficult nowadays so that they appeal to larger masses. “In one way, it’s good for gaming as an entertainment medium, but on the other hand, it creates easy games for wider audiences to make big money.”

The Ultimate Challenge

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Zanten faced was founding Excamedia. The studio began in August 2013, when Zanten and Excamedia audio composer Dwight Lagadeau secured a contract with Sony and Nintendo and got into the ID@XBOX program. But before they could secure contracts, they needed a place to call headquarters. “We found that we had to have an office to invite the publishers to, to show our professional approach while being an indie developer,” Zanten says. “The challenge basically was to find an affordable office we could afford.”

Dutch Game Garden banner
Zanten and Lagadeau eventually settled into Dutch Game Garden

Zanten and Lagadeau eventually settled into Dutch Game Garden, a building in Utrecht that the team considers “Europe’s Silicon Valley for game developers.” In addition to providing a place to communicate with publishers like Sony and Nintendo, the office space also provided a central area for Excamedia team members to collaborate in person as well as with their international team members.

Currently, Zanten and Lagadeau, along with four interns, make up the populace at Excamedia HQ. But with Zanten working a full-time job in addition to his work at Excamedia and a team of international staff as well, online communication has become a staple for the company. “We mainly talk to each other through Skype — or if decisions need to be made on the spot, we do a Skype call, Google Hangout, or discuss one on one,” Zanten says.

Everyone brings their own special skill set and job to the table. Focusing on one job allows everyone to do what they excel at. While one person focuses on story-writing in Italy, another focuses on programming in France, and yet another focuses on 3D game elements in Nepal. The team holds weekly Google Hangout meetings to discuss things that need to be improved, things that need to be tested, complaints, workflows, and everything in-between. “Everyone is equal in the team and needs to say his/her opinion. Everyone is valuable during development.”.

In Development

Currently, Excamedia is developing a game called A Clumsy Adventure for the PS4 and PS Vita, though it will ultimately move to other platforms. The company was originally planning to release their game for smartphones, but good publishing conditions convinced Excamedia to release the game for Playstation consoles first.

Dark level new build 4
Currently, Excamedia is developing a game called A Clumsy Adventure

A Clumsy Adventure is a story-driven game and features Zack, the main character, whose clumsiness lands him in an adventure in which he must save Earth from aliens in under 24 hours. “We wanted a character that evolves through the story and behaves like we sometimes do on a bad day when things go wrong due to your own clumsiness — and later you face a challenge you thought you couldn’t,” Zanten says. “The game has a message to never stop believing in yourself.”

Mechanically, the game was inspired by retro games, with the gamer traveling throughout the world fighting various enemies and “epic end bosses, which remind you of the old days.” According to Zanten, the game mixes the fun of Mario with the difficulty of Dark Souls all into an action platformer.

Excamedia plans to split A Clumsy Adventure into four episodes. Every episode will be evaluated by players and the feedback will be used to improve the next episode. “We have a general story to tell, but (game) elements can be added, changed or removed as we go,” Zanten says. “The gamers are the ones who will play it and enjoy it so we want to be proactive towards the gamers and listen to them.”

Funding and Running a Start-up

Finally nice and tidy
Zanten and Lagadeau currently use their own savings to run the company’s day-to-day operations and pay for the office space.

Zanten and Lagadeau currently use their own savings to run the company’s day-to-day operations and pay for the office space, but in April, Excamedia will begin an Indiegogo campaign. They hope to raise enough money to “optimize the development further toward the release of the game and the episodes that follow.”

In the meantime, the company is focusing on game development — which has its ups and downs. Zanten says that “the biggest challenge is to put the ideas in your mind into words. You visualize a lot of things, but sometimes you need to explain it.” However, the upside for Zanten is testing those ideas. “You can really see if what you wanted actually works or not,” he says. “It’s both exciting and tense. If it works out the way you want, it’s very satisfying.”

In addition to developing the game, Excamedia reports its progress to Sony and Nintendo. While the publishers do offer advice, Excamedia ultimately decides whether to incorporate it or not. Zanten notes that Nintendo and Sony treat indie developers very well and lets Excamedia be creative in every way.

In the Pipeline

Once Excamedia has a steady framework for A Clumsy Adventure, the company will begin tackling other projects — a few of which are already planned. One of the projects will be “Skyrim for children” and is based on a book from well-known Dutch writer Tamara Gereads-Grootveld. Excamedia is also planning to build a game around a musical album from music artist Katsuo.

Excamedia would also like to develop a fighting game and complete “Seal Space,” a game Zanten and Lagadeau were working on before the creation of Excamedia and haven’t had a chance to complete. “Although Excamedia is just starting, we have lots of ideas for compelling and challenging games,” Zanten says. “Our games will have a good focus on retro games, so don’t expect very easy games from us.”

To learn more about Excamedia and follow their game progress, visit their page here. You can also check out Excamedia on Facebook and Twitter.


ContributionsGame Development

Post-Mortem: Digital Dreams’ Cowbeam (iOS)

January 10, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska


Digital Dreams is a Dutch indie game developer that designs and develops playful experiences. It was founded by programmer Thijmen Bink, level designer Roy van de Mortel and game designer Geert Nellen. Currently, Digital Dreams is focussing on creating games for the downloadable console market, However, this post-mortem is about Cowbeam: their first, and probably last, iOS game.

Digital Dreams from left to right: Thijmen Bink, Roy van de Mortel, Geert Nellen
Digital Dreams from left to right: Thijmen Bink, Roy van de Mortel, Geert Nellen

How everything got started

Let me start by saying that Cowbeam had virtually nothing to do with our former and current business strategy and portfolio. That is not meant as a disclaimer, but it is important to note because from the start this was an important factor in the decision-making processes during the production of Cowbeam. The idea came together due to very circumstantial and coincidental factors and it just seemed like a cool project to do at the time. In hindsight, this is not the way you want to make important decisions.

We naively started development of Project S because we basically thought everything was settled and done

We started out doing an assignment for another company somewhere early 2011. We were developing a hidden object game with a twist for them, of which the design document and assets had already been handed over to us. Let’s call it Project S. Without actually signing any contract yet, we naively started development of Project S because we basically thought everything was settled and done.
Our team was quite excited about Project S, because not only were we struggling to make money at that point, this was not some lame technical job. We were developing an actual game that we were enthusiastic about, although it was not something we would normally do. That’s why it seemed wise to let one of our team members start with Project S in advance. He created a technical backbone, so production could start off swiftly once we signed the contract.

Two weeks later we received a call from the other company. We were told they had to cancel Project S because of budget cuts. Now we were left with a half-finished game with which we obviously could not do anything due to copyright infringements. We were disappointed. Not only had we already invested time and resources in this project, we planned around the development of Project S. So basically we had nothing else planned in the upcoming period.

So with nothing on our hands, we thought about what code we could potentially reuse to make it not a complete waste of our time. One of the things we already developed for Project S was a simple but elegant system to show the player new objects he/she needed to find, and along with it, a way to arrange, dispose and organize these new objects in the HUD. New items would come into play sliding from the right until they bumped into a previous item that was already in place. Whenever an item was completed it would disappear and all remaining items would slide and arrange themselves into place. This system eventually led to a gameplay mechanic that resulted in the current hint system of Cowbeam, located at the top of the screen.

The arrange, dispose and organize-system that resulted from the left-over code of Project S
The arrange, dispose and organize-system that resulted from the left-over code of Project S

The new concept was called Cowbeam. A quirky little casual puzzle game, which puts the player in the shoes of Hank, a cow-hoarding alien. The player had to navigate a small galaxy and collect hints, which eventually showed on which planet a cow could be found. When the player finds the cow, the level is completed and the cow is shown. A big hook of the game were the cows, which resembled the planet they lived on. For instance: if the planet is red, the cow is red; if the planet is close to the sun, the cow would wear sunglasses or a sombrero, etc. We thought this was fun to see, and it was interesting for the casual audience on iOS as well.

Bringing Cowbeam to life

We had to start thinking more about our future and the monetization of our projects.

After the new concept was pitched internally, it took quite a few weeks for the idea to sink in and the team to pick it up and start prototyping the concept in Flash. The first few weeks of development went swiftly and the game came along quite nicely. We started building Cowbeam in Actionscript 3 with the idea to release it as a free browser game and get our money from advertisements. However, after 2 months of development we had to start thinking more about our future and the monetization of our projects. This meant for us we wanted to start using Unity3D. Another reason to switch to Unity3D was that the game felt not quite right on Flash. Mainly because you needed to swipe through galaxies which just feels weird with a mouse. We thought about releasing a Flash and iOS version simultaneously for a while but a Flash version just seemed redundant somehow.

Development of Cowbeam, after switching from Actionscript to Unity3D
Development of Cowbeam, after switching from Actionscript to Unity3D

We threw away everything we had so far in Flash and started the Cowbeam project all over again with a new engine to build with, a new language to write it in, a new platform to build for and even some new interns to work with. This was the first big change we made to the initial concept. Luckily Unity 3D is an easy engine to learn but this shift really put us behind schedule for quite some weeks, if not months. As an indie studio our deadlines were never really set into stone. However, we did know that by the time we started developing Cowbeam in Unity, we had planned on having the game completed in Flash.

Obviously, moving the game to the iOS platform pretty much meant a complete redesign of the concept as well. This forced us to rethink the game and strip it down to its bare essentials, which is using hints to narrow down your choices of picking the right planet. It cost us a lot of time to figure out what the most fun aspect of the core mechanic was for the player, which was a direct result of making something unique. We could have prevented this if we paper prototyped more, or incorporated playtests from earlier on.

It didn’t really feel like the game was complete and fun to play yet, so we had to make more design changes. A lot of features were cut at this point to make the game fun and suitable for the casual iOS market. These cut features include:
– Resources that could be gathered from planets;
– A currency system to buy hints;
– Time based gameplay and score system;
– Selecting and writing off planets.
Also using Unity3D, which as the name suggests is essentially a 3D engine, meant a complete redo of the graphics as well. Other than the menus and such, Cowbeam was now a 3D game instead of 2D.

On the left: The Flash version of Cowbeam; on the right: The iOS version of Cowbeam
On the left: The Flash version of Cowbeam; on the right: The iOS version of Cowbeam

This shift to 3D actually turned out great for the game itself because we were now able to rotate around the planets. We experimented with this rotation in combination with a number of features. We found the most interesting use of 3D was hiding certain characteristics from the planet out of plain sight. 3D also gave us more space and freedom to make the planets features more visually appealing and identifying.

Mistakes made, lessons learned

It was hard to think about killing our darling

The doubt we had with Cowbeam started to reflect on the team after a while in production: Is this game really going to be worth our time? Is it going to be fun enough? Is it even profitable in the end? Should we release this under our Digital Dreams brand when it’s this different from the stuff we want to make? Eventually it was a casual game, something completely different from the hardcore indie games we liked to make. The most important reasons to complete and release Cowbeam anyway were the amount of time we had already invested, everything we wanted to learn about Unity3D during the rest of development and wanting to have an actual finished game in the App Store. Especially the time we had already invested was a big factor in completing Cowbeam, it was hard to think about killing our darling.

Not playtesting enough fueled the doubt we had. Because we ran so far behind schedule, we somehow, without even really thinking about it, decided to scrap most of the playtesting and finish Cowbeam as soon as possible so we could start with our next project. In the end, we only playtested with visitors at our office and at the Festival of Games, a large Dutch event for people from the industry.

Our primary goal with Cowbeam was to master Unity3D and we succeeded at that

The doubt we had perhaps also lead to not properly marketing Cowbeam. All we really did was send out a pretty standard press release to our press network and hope they would pick it up. Of course we knew about the horror that is standing out and getting noticed on the App Store. But somehow we hoped it was going to be different for Cowbeam, because the concept was very unique and we believed it could stand out on itself. This wasn’t true. Sales were disappointing to say the least. On the other hand, it felt good to know we successfully published a game on the App Store ourselves and raised the bar for ourselves with the GUI and user-friendliness. Our primary goal with Cowbeam was to master Unity3D and we succeeded at that. Therefore we weren’t that disappointed about the sales in the end.

Just a few months ago we accidentally came across some little kids of around 12 years of age playing and really enjoying Cowbeam. This was actually the first time ever we saw anyone genuinely enjoying our game. Although it was a very cool moment it also brought us to the conclusion we should have seen this coming. We should have marketed and playtested for this target audience and maybe even design the game specifically for them.

Development tips

Our biggest pitfall was, as usual as with us indies, the lack of marketing knowledge and execution. Get someone to do this for you, find a good partner or really plan ahead and take your time to do this properly yourselves.
We should have considered micro transactions, freemium or other means of monetization over a somewhat outdated simple pay once model which we ended up going with. The reason we went with this is mainly because of the extra programming and design effort it would take to implement micro transactions. We did try to weave it through the design when we were redesigning the game, but couldn’t really make it click when we did. Again, in hindsight, this time might have well been worth our effort.

We think the chances are very slim we’ll ever return and develop for the App Store. The market is too competitive for a small developer and the marketing power of big companies is killing for us. We believe the only way you can succeed on the App Store as a small developer is to have a really original and well-executed game and marketing plan. Even then, every investment is a very risky one.

Currently we shifted our focus to bigger projects for the downloadable console market, which was the goal of our company from the start. We worked on a prototype for a downloadable console game in the meantime and we are very happy we have an opportunity to work on that project now.

We hope you’ll pick up Cowbeam and let us know what you think!

Cowbeam is now available on Mac as well and has dropped in price in the App Store. Digital Dreams recently moved to a bigger office and is currently working on a new unannounced downloadable console project. They will also be sharing more in-depth insights on CowBeam during their indie-postmortem talk during the Casual Connect Europe conference in Hamburg, Germany.