Loud Panda Games is a year-old mobile games studio from the Philippines. Critter Camp is their first game, which is currently in soft launch on iOS, and the company’s Product Manager Jon Roque shares the story.
How the company started
Loud Panda Games used to be a part of a larger short-lived tech startup that also dealt with other non-game related properties. After a bit of restructuring, the gaming team was recreated as a new company, which now focuses solely on making mobile games.
SMALL CHANGES GONE BIG
We were already midway in development of a game called Reel Monsters while with the previous company. It shared many similarities with what would eventually be Critter Camp. Reel Monsters also has monster collecting, training and questing. It drew inspiration from the Philippine cockfighting industry, which pits roosters against each other in an arena. It was a very gambling-themed game concept with training taking place using slot machines, and where players could bet on monster battles.
We initially thought it would be a simple rebranding and a bit of gameplay tweaking.
Having started over, we initially thought it would be a simple rebranding, and we’ll just tweak the gameplay a bit and continue development. But after we were done with the reconceptualization, only the battle system was left mostly intact. The slot machine training system was changed. The questing system was also changed. There was also a pivot from fewer critters with many skills and different skill paths to more critters with fewer skills.
Teamwork battles challenges
Our first major challenge was when after a month in production our Product Director Marvin Apacible was diagnosed with lymphoma and had to be out of office for several months while he underwent chemotherapy. This caused some major production issues. The team had to rely on the game design document to bring the idea to life, as there were periods of time when the Product Director was out of reach. Nonetheless, the team stepped up to the plate.
The team brainstormed whenever they encountered a design issue and decided together on how to move…Tweet Me
The team brainstormed whenever they encountered a design issue and decided together on how to move forward. It is not the optimal setup and may have caused some design inconsistencies, but it also empowered the team to take charge of important product decisions.
Another challenge is that as we get deeper and deeper into development, we realize we might have bitten off more than we can chew. We started with only two developers. We expected to hire two more within a month of operation, but had some trouble with hiring competent Unity developers. It took us more than 6 months before we added another developer to our team, and this caused a major delay from our initial estimates. On top of that, due to our game’s genre, we might be compared to mobile games such as Puzzle and Dragons, Summoner’s War and Brave Frontier. These are huge games with a significant amount of content. With our limited resources, we had to be very conscientious in deciding where to apply our efforts.
We had our soft launch at the end of December 2014 after 10 grueling months of hard work. We’re very proud of what we accomplished. The graphics are great and the amount of content that we were able to put out was remarkable, considering our manpower at that time. But soft launch release was of course just the beginning. The next few months have been a particularly tough time as we started supporting a live game. Some players encountered connectivity issues that were difficult to replicate internally. Up to now, we are still hard at work improving the game’s performance and stability. We’ve also released a PvP system and more critters during the soft launch.
It was a great privilege for us to be part of Casual Connect Asia 2015’s Indie Prize Showcase. It was our first time attending such an event. It gave us plenty of opportunities to show the game to publishers, investors and other developers. More importantly, the energy exuding from the passionate developers in the event inspired us to keep becoming better and better at our craft.
The team is currently porting Critter Camp to Android and is still in discussions with several publishers for possible partnership. Nothing certain yet though, and they’re still open for talks, the developers say. Their Product Director Marvin is in remission and back to work, Meanwhile, the game can already be played on iOS devices.
The explosion of indie gaming in the past decade has not only allowed for smaller companies to enter the gaming market, it has allowed for people from various background and unique games to have a place. One such person and game is Erin Robinson and her game, Gravity Ghost. To learn more about Gravity Ghost, Gamesauce has talked to Erin Robinson about her background and developing games.
From Researcher to Game Developer – Leaving the Academy for Games
“If you want to get fans and create fans from your players, its about treating them like a fan,” Morgan Hall summarized during a panel she moderated at Casual Connect USA 2014. “It is about being accountable to these people.”
Morgan Hall, co-founder and creative director at Vancouver-based mobile app studio, Hidden Door Interactive, has been involved with games since she was first introduced to them at the age of five on her father’s work computer running DOS. She believes this experience has shaped her social life, her hobbies, and her career.
While at university, she had an internship with Electronic Arts, and has been in the industry ever since. She considers herself fortunate, saying, “I am encouraged by the way it allows me to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities as well as remain in a constant state of learning. My favorite part of the industry is that it is never boring!”
Paying It Forward
Hall feels the greatest satisfaction in her work when she is able to pay it forward to others in the games industry. Her opportunity came when, on behalf of her company, she sponsored a women-in-games event in Vancouver.
With her partners, Hall founded Hidden Door Interactive to make their game, Happy Flock!.In the process, they discovered how well they worked together, and since they have enough ideas to last for a lifetime, they are on to their next project.
Hall is also a producer/designer at East Side Games, a mobile games studio in Vancouver. Prior to that, most of her experience had been with console games, starting with the internship at Electronic Arts. From these experiences, she has learned what it means to be a professional game developer and the amount of hard but rewarding work it takes to create ‘fun’.
For her own gaming, Hall is currently playing Tiny Town, saying she loves the art style and is intrigued by its design. Her first choice of platform is divided between her iPad and her 3DS. Besides these, she also owns Xbox 360, a Steam Box, and a PS3, and she plans to purchase a PS4 soon.
She appreciates both Android and iOS, enjoying the power of holding the internet in your hand that both offer. But for her work, she finds that iOS has the right combination for her team’s skill set, size, and budget. She stresses, “We’ve had nothing but good experiences developing for Apple’s platform.”
And when she is not spending her free time gaming, she loves skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and fishing and hiking in the summer.
A Fuzzy Future Ahead
When Hall considers the future of the games industry, she points out that it is particularly hard to predict. Today looks completely different from only two years ago. But she expects the current mobile-first trend will continue getting stronger, pointing out, “You can’t be successful without a first-class experience on a device you hold in your hand.” She also believes VR could be big if the technology improves, explaining that a device more like Google Glass than a fighter pilot’s helmet will be needed before VR can succeed.
She emphasizes that whether or not her predictions are correct, there is an important lesson in making them. “Thinking about the future teaches me to be nimble. We have to see the trends forming and respond to them, even if this means drastically changing plans. We’re in an industry where taking risks is a necessity.”
At Casual Connect USA, Hall announced the worldwide release of her game Happy Flock! It is an adventure and animal-collection game for all ages, available on iPhone and iPad. The game came about through a lot of hard work and long hours by the team at Hidden Door Interactive.
“Along with the in-app purchase benefits of minigames, there is a big retention component,” Ilya Nikolayev said during his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “Essentially, you can use minigames to drive users back into your products.”
Ilya Nikolayev is the co-founder of both InAppFuel and Tapinator. InAppFuel is the minigame SDK for mobile developers, powering the casino layer for mobile developers. It allows developers to quickly integrate minigames that increase revenue and engagement, while working seamlessly with their existing virtual currency. At present, InAppFuel offers slots and scratch-off games since these are the best monetizing types, but a number of other minigames are in the works. Nikolayev founded this company about a year ago. The need he saw for minigames as a developer himself inspired him to create a product to help other developers increase IAP revenue and retention.
Tapinator was created in 2013 to take advantage of the opportunity in mobile games. They are focused on operating their own titles, publishing properties where they have substantial ownership positions and making strategic investments in promising mobile companies. They have quickly become a leader in the mobile game industry, with more than 40 mobile titles and over 20 million users.
Nikolayev became involved in the application industry when he launched Family Tree in 2007, when Facebook first launched its platform. One of the greatest moments in his career was seeing this application reach 45 million users. But when he saw the transition from Facebook applications to mobile apps, he was inspired to join the games industry. Watching someone pick up a product he has designed or built is what gives him the most happiness in his work.
The games industry is fast-paced and fast changing, a situation that offers plenty of opportunity. If he were not finding these opportunities with games, he would still be building a tech startup in a different space.
He believes the industry will soon see increasing prominence of IAP and the need to improve retention. Their goal with their minigames is to help developers with both these challenges.
When Nikolayev is not involved with work, he enjoys a variety of activities, including auto racing, billiards, tennis, mountain biking, and gaming.
Currently, he is playing Balance of the Shaolin and Impossible Road on his iPad. He has been an iOS user since the first iPhone, and finds the platform, overall, more polished than Android. He plays everywhere, even in a race car at Watkins Glen, although he admits they were moving slowly at the time.
He also plays on consoles, owning both PS3 and PS4, because he enjoys racing simulators. He hopes to set up a racing rig soon.
At Casual Connect USA, Nikolayev announced that InAppFuel’s Unity plugin is now available on Prime31.
“Humans are storytelling creatures and we all seek to amuse ourselves through the means of stories,” says Himanshu Kapoor during Casual Connect Asia 2014. “They are a great form of entertainment, and they have the ability to resolve anxiety or tension by making use of invoking emotions. They have the ability to inspire us, it can heal us, and it can transform our thinking.”
Himanshu Kapoor, a game developer at Fleon Labs, has become so busy that free time is something he can only dream about. Usually, he spends any extra time thinking about new game ideas and refining the ones he already has. And free time is not the only thing he dreams of; he claims some of his best ideas have come to him in dreams.
Call Me A Dreamer
So perhaps it is not surprising that he describes himself as a dreamer. In fact, one of his most ambitious game ideas is called “Dream”. He calls it an abstract experimental thought with a simple premise: “What if dreams and reality switch places? What you thought was real suddenly becomes a dream, and your dreams become a reality.” And sometime in the future, he would like to execute it.
Kapoor started in the games industry in 2009 when he made his first flash game and submitted it to Flash Game License for sponsorship. He was very excited to find himself actually making money doing what he loves the most. He says, “The best part about making games is the feeling you get when you see someone playing your game and it evokes emotions in them based on the content in your game. It’s a feeling that can’t be put into words.”
At this point, Kapoor works part-time developing games and does not yet have a company set up; his full-time job is Front End Engineer at Wingify, the makers of Visual Website Optimizer. He feels working at this startup and facing challenging programming tasks every day, even though they are not directly gaming related, has given him valuable experience.
For his own gaming, Kapoor is currently playing Pokemon X. His preferred platform is Nintendo 3DS; he owns two of them. So he hasn’t invested in either Xbox One or PS4 because he is such a Nintendo fan.
In the race between iOS and Android, Kapoor comes out strongly in favor of iOS. He notes that, although Android has sold more devices, the number of paid apps and paying customers is higher on iOS. He has also found that the best and most creative games are iOS only or are launched on iOS long before they are available on Android. His best experiences have definitely been on iOS.
A New Reality Ahead
Kapoor believes the next big trend coming in the games industry will be virtual reality, especially since Oculus VR has been acquired by Facebook. He says, “I’m very interested in discovering how this will turn out.”
When he takes time away from developing and thinking about games, he writes random thoughts on his blog. And because he appreciates the language and culture of Japan, he spends time teaching himself Japanese.
He tells us the proudest moment of his career is presenting at Casual Connect Asia, addressing an international conference for the first time.
Incuvo is a game development startup created in 2012 by Wojciech Borczyk and Jakub Duda. Previously, they bootstrapped an indie gaming startup and successfully exited to lead a large console development studio for a major Polish publisher. However, they decided to get back to their roots and start something completely new. Jakub shared the story about its flagship project, Createrria.
It’s Always Been Games
I knew who I wanted to be in life when I was ten. This decision came shortly after I got my first 8-bit computer and started playing games. I didn’t have this “firefighter or policeman” dilemma. I wanted to create games – these magical windows leading into different realms. Their creators were giants to me. But at that time, I couldn’t fulfill my dream. Something scary, called 6502 assembler language, stood between me and my desire to create games. I eventually learned BASIC language, dropped the game developer idea for some time, and returned to it a few years later, sometime around 2004.
When we were looking for a new idea, I discovered that Wojciech and I share the same childhood experience: fascination with early computer games and frustration with the development learning curve. At the same time, we started looking at the rising popularity of tablets and amazing possibilities of touch interfaces. That decided us. We wanted to bring the fun of game creation to millions of mobile players who have no time or desire to learn game programming and master all the other skill necessary to create a game now. They could already create great photos, music, and even shape virtual pottery on tablets, but mobiles were still missing a great game creation app.
Thus, Createrria was born.
We wanted Createrria to be an easy-to-use, fun, no-skills-required game creation app for mobiles. From the beginning, we wanted it to be 2D experience designed for touch screens, not controller/mice/keyboard input. Also, it needed to be social – everything created should be instantly shareable with friends.
When we started Incuvo, everything was new: the company, the office (We worked without walls during the first week), the team (with some long time friends who decided to share this adventure with us), the platform (we were purely consoles in the past), the engine, and even the genre. The first few weeks were crazy. Things took shape slowly. We started with a cross-platform engine evaluation (Unity3D won!), then started working on a playable prototype. This prototype was to determine if our idea was at all achievable. We were afraid of ending up with something overly complex and hard to use, just another developer tool masked as a user app. Fights over game details went on for hours and were fierce. Then we started having our first moments of triumph (“The physics engine is working!”) and despair (“it crashes every ten seconds!”). But finally, our first tech demo appeared. With four graphic themes, several different gameplay types, initial cloud sharing (added as a last-minute hack), and early iOS and Android support. The biggest success was a lack of an external game editor. We initially planned it as a support for an in-app editor – but first attempts were successful enough that we could drop this idea entirely and design everything inside our app. This was a breakthrough and our first milestone.
Createrria was growing fast. Still accompanied by fierce and passionate fights over every feature, we iterated over every single thing. Long live agile development! The biggest challenges proved to be character design and cloud backend. The first challenge was strictly a design one. How could we create likeable, customizable and universal characters, also meant to be used as avatars, without copying existing games? We went through dozens of options, ranging from hamsters running in balls (easy to animate) to fully customizable avatars with exchangeable mustaches. Eventually, we managed to work out our own recognizable style: humanoid avatars, with detached limbs, based on one shape, but extremely customizable. Yes, we love them, and yes, we want to have more. Luckily, one of the cool things about mobile games is the easiness of updates – we can always add exchangeable mustaches later.
F2P or not F2P?
Free to play seems to be a very controversial topic these days. For most developers, free-to-play means robbery. Is it really that bad? Of course not! Createrria is a pure free-to-play game designed in our way: “Game first, money second.” Don’t blame the sales model – blame those developers who abuse it. We believe that well-balanced free-to-play games may bring pure joy to the players and pay our bills by the end of the day. Still, I sometimes feel like a dinosaur when I look at how much the business model has changed since we developed our first console titles.
The Journey Ends
Createrria‘s development was a long journey and great adventure for us. Now it is ready! It will be released for iOS in the second half of October 2013, with Android following shortly afterwards. We hope you will share the fun and adventure with us – playing the games we created with it and creating new ones we could never have imagined.
Find out more information about Createrria on Facebook!
Winning Blimp specializes in science-fiction themed games with a 16-bit era flavor. Based in both Osaka, Japan and Florida, USA, Winning Blimp was founded in 2012 and is headed by Bear Trickey, a former game designer from Kyoto-based studio Q-Games, and Alex May, a multi-discipline graphic artist and musician. Alex May tells the story of Mosaique, a cerebral puzzle game.
The Birth Of The Blimp
Mosaique was a critical project for us as a team, as its development runs parallel with the formation of our company and solidified an excellent collaborative relationship between us as developers. Despite Mosaique being our second title, it was actually the first game prototype that we worked on together. Bear had been toying with a simple mechanic that involved a shooting device that traveled around a spline and shot projectiles at various obstacles, somewhat like an orthographic Tempest.
Bear was working with an old iPod Touch at the time and was having difficulty with the layout logistics of the smaller screen. It just wasn’t possible to get both controls and captivating level design into that small screen area. He decided to shift the concept from an action game to something more cerebral, his hope being that the puzzle genre might accommodate the limited screen area better. This resulted in the next prototype; the shooting device was now rotating around a square grid and the objective was to shoot objects in the middle with a limited number of shots.
This was the first prototype that Bear showed me, and incidentally the catalyst for the beginning of our relationship. Like many other game companies, it all started with a “Hey, could you help me out with some graphics for this?” The Blimp was born.
Without any concrete ideas for the context, we just threw together a quick placeholder virus-buster type setting where you control some kind of TRON-like unit zapping viruses on a grid. Highly unoriginal, but as Bear says, sometimes it pays to just jump first and think next. We coined the name “VRAXIS”, which was a mash-up of “Virtual” and “Axis”. I knocked up some quick graphics to get some momentum going.
For about two months, we wrestled with this idea, but it was like a greasy pig, constantly slipping from our grasp. After numerous iterations, we just couldn’t seem to find a good direction to take “VRAXIS”. Bear experimented with ideas involving disappearing and reappearing targets as well as a few other quirky twists, but in the end, we concluded it was all just feeling too ordinary. Who knew that Blimp cockpits had shelves that were so handy for storing sad, failed prototypes.
From The Ashes Of A Brick-Breaker
One day during a session working on “VRAXIS”, a frustrated and distracted Bear was struck with an idea for an action game that was a mixture of Pong and Breakout: a dual-paddled brick-breaker game that was played on a vertically scrolling play field. Bear showed me a loose prototype, and we both agreed that this idea had the potential to become something great. Our first pivot ensued (airships can turn really quickly when they need to, you know). For whatever reason, ideas came fast, and before we knew it we were releasing our first ever title: Ambi-ON.
Ambi-ON was less than successful. We had produced a game that looked good enough, had a killer soundtrack, and played well, but due to a few key shortcomings in the game design, too little effort put into marketing, a lack of practical experience with freemium models, and perhaps just a general lack of attention for the entire brick-breaker genre itself, Ambi-ON simply failed to secure any lasting attention.
This was the birth of Mosaique. Frustrated that our beloved Ambi-ON failed to garner any popularity, we wanted to seek revenge on the entire industry and create Ambi-ON‘s exact mirror image; an “anti-Ambi-ON” if you will. Where Ambi-ON was a dark action game with a particularly sadistic tone (it even has an “Ultimate Pain Mode,” as well as a cyborg that pops up to insult you and all humankind at Game Over), it was only fitting that Ambi-ON‘s opposite should be something that was serene, calm and light. We concluded that with some judicious massaging, “VRAXIS” had the potential to become this. Back onto the workbench it came.
Our Music-First Approach
For no particular reason, during Ambi-ON‘s development, I actually created the music first. As it turned out, doing it that way served us very well. We found that using music as a guide to keeping the various elements of the game consistent was actually extremely effective. Compared to post-it notes on a whiteboard or concept art, music has a far stronger capability to evoke emotion, and it’s that emotion that can be used as a compass to guide the design of a gaming experience. In addition, centering a game around the music also makes the planning and tweaking of game pace and momentum very easy. To fit with the profile of being Ambi-ON‘s opposite, I created a 10 minute long semi-ambient electronica track in 5/4, aiming for a peaceful, sophisticated and also accessible feel. This would become the spine of the game.
Bear started to work through ideas for puzzle mechanics that were more relaxing and fitting with the music. A game that came to his mind was one of his old SNES favorites Zoop, which had a great colour-matching mechanic, but was time-based and very stressful. He injected that Zoop colour-matching mechanic into “VRAXIS”, but left out the other white-knuckle aspects of the system. Our game was to have no time limit and very little pressure put on the player, but still needed some way to get a Game Over. We resurrected the original limited shot count idea from “VRAXIS”, and added it as a gauge style shot counter.
In line with the music, the mantra was “sophisticated yet accessible”. Puzzle games are all too often totally abstract (with good reason, in most cases), so to retain some sense of accessibility, we decided to ground the visual interface firmly in reality. This called for a design that resembled an actual hardware device instead of a software interface. The idea was that you would hold in your hand an actual functioning puzzle game, not a mobile phone running puzzle game software. This was the result:
Further tweaks were made to the colour scheme to pull it closer to the music’s slight tinge of sadness and melancholy. And finally, the name “VRAXIS” had to go. It was an awkward remnant of the old setting. We decided on the name Mosaique, intentionally choosing the French spelling for no other reason than it feeling more sophisticated to us (you guessed it, neither of us speak French) without seeming inaccessible or foreign.
The core mechanic to the game was completed, the music was done and the interface was in place. Unfortunately it was at this late stage that we realized this game would be a great experience once, but didn’t inspire much incentive for replay. Bear then had the idea of introducing a mechanism that would encourage the player to play the game every consecutive day for bonuses. As the game was completable in 10-minutes (to match the length of the soundtrack), this was the perfect complement. The short game length would impart little burden on the player’s daily schedule, and directly giving them incentive to play just a bit every day would keep them coming back.
Again, as a reaction to our inability to create a successful freemium game in Ambi-ON, Mosaique was to be proudly premium. 99¢ would buy you the entire experience. No limitations, no wallet-fondling, just good old fashioned value for money.
Mosaique Takes Flight
The release of Mosaique went extremely well. It was featured on a number of high profile sites (including Gamespot, C-NET, Joystiq, Gamezebo, and Touch Arcade), and also had a consecutive run of three weeks on or near the top of Apple’s App Store (New & Noteworthy, What’s Hot and Popular Puzzlers). Also, this:
Yes, that is Mosaique in Craig Federighi‘s demo of iOS7 during the Apple’s 2013 WWDC Keynote. Of course, an accolade like this does not lead to much in the way of downloads (who would see that screen and then go and buy the apps on it?!), but it certainly was a thrill for us and makes for a great story.
The 99¢ price point has meant that Mosaique hasn’t been hugely profitable, although it has successfully recouped all of our marketing costs. Regardless, we are simply happy to have achieved some modest success with a “proudly premium” game in the casual puzzler genre; a genre that is so saturated with high quality freemium alternatives. It’s also been a deeply gratifying experience having some degree of popularity for something we created together. It showed us that there is merit in the process we followed, and also great potential for the future of our creative relationship.
Patience is a Virtue
There was one interesting road bump in our development process for Mosaique: when you follow a process that involves a rough playable prototype that is eventually refined with finalized graphics, do not lock down the graphics too early. If there is any additional work required on the prototype to improve user experience, game features or replayability, by adding final graphics too soon, all you are doing is creating inflexibility and possibly reluctance to consider all options.
The visual and interactive elements of Mosaique were all fully formed at the time we realised the game needed more replay incentive. Had the game still been in a light, flexible and adaptable prototype stage, I’m sure that there would have been potential for a far greater range of solutions to the problem of replayability, and also greater freedom for brainstorming.
So for our future games, we intend to try and complete a fully encapsulated prototype prior to adding any finalised graphics. Hopefully this way, all the core elements of the game will be more visible without the distraction of pretty graphics, and drastic changes can be more efficiently applied if necessary.
Winning Blimp is gravitating towards platforms that are conducive to more interactive bandwidth and extended play sessions. They are always looking to connect with players, developers, and artists, so feel free to get in touch through Facebook or Twitter.
The MADFINGER team, founded in 2009 by four game industry veterans who were sick of the over-managed development process of big console and PC games, received a lot of praise for their mobile games Samurai and Shadowgun, and within two years, grew from four to thirteen members. Then in late 2011, they started thinking about a ‘side’ project, which MADFINGER could develop along with the planned multi-player game Shadowgun: DeadZone, to use to experiment with new features, technologies and gameplay ideas – or simply kill after some time, if it wasn’t viable. Petr Benysek, Senior Programmer, talks about how the Dead Trigger project started as an experiment and where it went from there.
Since there weren’t enough people for two projects, Mara, Emeth, Babec and Robotom, the founders of the company, decided to hire three more people, who could be fully dedicated to this new project, along with Emeth, the graphic artist and project leader. We are all long-time friends and have worked together in the past, so it didn’t take me a lot of thinking to take this opportunity and join the team in February 2012, along with two coders: Tomas Stepanek and Martin Capousek. Since we joined MADFINGER right after finishing a big console project, the first thing we actually did was to go on holiday. You can hardly be creative and fast when you are tired, and fortunately, MADFINGER is a company where people know this (we all have seen the results of infinite crunch too many times). There were several goals that this yet-to-be-born project should try to achieve:
o To serve as a training ground for the three of us, who already had a long history with games development, but not with mobile platforms and the Unity engine.
o To experiment with short and quick missions, as opposed to the huge areas and story-driven gameplay that we had been used to.
o To explore the new field of In-App purchases.
o To develop new technologies, such as cloud service and social network integration.
We had a time budget of 3-4 months to finish it. Coming from a ‘triple-A’ industry, I saw this as a joke more than a serious plan. Just imagine having to master the new engine, get familiar with C# (which none of us was seriously using before), create a completely new game and publish it on two platforms we didn’t have any experience with! But Mara’s answer was just: “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”
Fortunately, we could stand on the shoulders of the Giants. We got support from Babec, the character artist, Robotom, the sound engineer and Ondra, the animator. We also got the full range of MADFINGER’s talent at our disposal for the last month before the initial release, and the entire team stayed onboard for few more weeks after the release to help us with our first updates. We were able to draw from the extensive knowledge the other team members already possessed of Unity and iOS/Android platforms. That way, we wouldn’t have to spend more than a few minutes looking for an answer to our questions. Mara was also able to take the code base from Shadowgun and establish the roots of the project, with the game’s framework and some tools. Of course, I also have to mention the Unity engine itself. I’m still blown away by how fast you can iterate, how easy and intuitive it is to extend and to add new things. Working with complete and satisfactory technology is essential when you want to make things fast and well.
The first thing we actually did was to go on holiday
The Design Decisions
We had neither much time or people at our disposal, so we had to be wise with our decisions. What kind of theme would it have? Zombies, of course! People like them, it’s positively necessary to mow them down and they don’t need to be super-intelligent, so you can spend less time debugging your AI. What about mission size? That had to be small, of course. Small missions can be created or redesigned quickly, and you can stuff them into the memory without the need to stream. As for gameplay, we went with several gameplay modes plus generated missions, with the possibility to have scripted story missions. Players should level up as well as the enemies and be able to unlock new game content.
Next step: story. Having one would be nice! So we ended up with our apocalyptic version of the events of the apocalyptic year 2012, creating the Dead Trigger story. For the main menu, we chose to have a city map, which would allow us to connect the missions, story, shop, equip menu and other areas that the player could visit. It’s clear and expandable. As for the devices it should be played on: anything that will have enough memory and power to render our environments with six zombies spawned at the same time. After some tests, it turned out that we could run it on the iPod 4 Touch and comparable Android devices if we used lower level detail models, environments and shaders. We also created an ultra high-end version for the Tegra 3 and the newest iOS devices.
Small missions can be created or redesigned quickly.
One of the great things of the Dead Trigger project was that nobody was forcing us to do anything. It was all up to the few people determining the direction of the game to discuss and decide what we were going to make. There were no publishers with their “amazingly cool ideas” that we had to implement, no producers trying to stuff ideas from other games that they just played into our game, no management guys cutting things they didn’t believe in, no design documents (that usually become obsolete as soon as you finish what’s in them). There were no designers, we all were designing the game with the passion of those who have the freedom to create what they wanted. For this reason, there was very little to cut or redesign and most of it was done on paper, before we even touched our keyboards or other input devices. For every considered feature the first criterion was: can we make it on time? If so, is it worth the effort, compared to other features?
With this simple approach, we’ve selected the most wanted features for the first release and left the others in our backlog for future updates. Knowing the limits, we wanted to achieve a scalable building set, composed of a game core that can be extended with any number of missions, types of gameplay, enemies, weapons and so on. We also wanted to re-use our environments as much as possible, so we created a system for defining spawn zones, gates, objects, enemies and objectives. On top of that, we created a data-driven game flow manager which generalizes the randomized missions and provides scripted story missions based on the player’s rank. In our first release, we had four different types of gameplay and just four maps. With that, we were able to generate over 60 unique gameplay configurations, which resulted in about 10 hours of fun.
…no management guys cutting things they didn’t believe in…
As we were approaching the end of our four month deadline, the game was shaping up and it became apparent that it really is possible to finish and release a solid product within that timeframe. Still, we had a lot left to do, and we knew that some really cool things would probably have to wait until future updates, so the company decided to pause other development and allocated everybody to Dead Trigger for the last push. It was a huge help, because they contributed with new content, by polishing existing stuff and also by testing (it’s always a good idea to ask your friends’ opinions, since you will lose your objectivity after some time).
Paymium vs. Free2Play
One of the last things to decide was the business model. We definitely wanted to make the game very user friendly and affordable for everybody (we really disgust pumping hundreds of bucks out of players for virtual goods as some other games do), so the prices in the game were set fairly low, and we paid a lot of attention to balancing the game. That way, it’s playable without the need to spend money, while keeping it interesting for those who want to enjoy the game even more with premium weapons and gadgets. In the end, we set the price at $0.99, keeping the option to raise the price after release or to change it to a Free2Play model.
After four and a half months of development, full of expectations, we hit the release button and went to a pub to celebrate! We already had a few beers when the first player reviews started to appear and we finally knew that we did a good job, because all of them were fantastic! Nearly all aspects of the game, as well as the price, blew people away.
We finally knew that we did a good job
Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned
Although we’ve played it safe with most of our decisions, there were several areas that we had yet to explore, to learn how we could use them to our benefit and that of the player. One of those was In-App purchases. We’ve realized that some people didn’t expect them in the game (Dead Trigger was the first MADFINGER game with those) and were giving us one-star reviews just because of that. Unfortunately, somehow they didn’t realize that they could earn enough funds just by playing the game and don’t need to spend anything! Lesson learned: highlighting such facts clearly in advance should prevent any confusion.
We’ve also recorded a significant drop in players after the first few missions, so after some research, we realized that the game gets too hard for players who do not have any experience with First Person Shooters on phones or tablets. Another lesson learned: make it even more casual in the beginning and slowly increase the difficulty. At the same time, provide harder difficulty missions for hard-core players. Related to that previous point is one of the things that we’ve omitted for our first release: the tutorial. It’s usually a pain in the ass to make, and most players skip it anyway, but it definitely helps the casual audience along, and there’s a lot of casual players on mobile platforms. Yet another lesson learned: to provide a tutorial even when you think everybody will understand your controls anyway.
Last but not least, we wanted to give players an easy way to contact us, so we added a mail form to the game (the Post building in the City). But we underestimated the number of players who would actually use it and moreover, didn’t expect so many (iOS) players to click “Send” rather than “Close” when they change their minds. The result was our mailbox getting spammed with hundreds of thousands of emails with just a preset signature in them – and some really important messages from players got lost (at least for week or two).
The Day After
The success of the Dead Trigger game exceeded all our expectations. The initial interest players took was amazing, and it only increased enormously a few weeks later when we decided to make the game free, relying just on the in-app purchases. Since then we’ve released around ten updates for each of the platforms, adding new content and improving the existing features in each of them.
Within nine months we’ve achieved seventeen million downloads (iOS +Android)
Within nine months we’ve achieved seventeen million downloads (iOS +Android), and even now have over fifty thousand daily installs and more than five hundred thousand daily active users. The game got several highly regarded awards, of which I should mention at least Unity’s Best Technical Achievement and Community Choice, Apple’s Hall Of Fame, Editor’s Choice or App Store’s Best of 2012 Showpiece Games, which we really, really value.
During the few weeks after the launch, all of us got back to work on Shadowgun: DeadZone (a great and challenging multi-player project), while revisiting Dead Trigger from time to time to work on updates.
MADFINGER Games successfully released Shadowgun: DeadZone back in November 2012 and right now are working on support for both Dead Trigger and Shadowgun: DeadZone, while also creating two new games; one of them being Dead Trigger 2.
At Casual Connect Asia, Alexander announced that they have formed a partnership with NHN, and will be releasing their first free-to-play game together. Alexander Dubrovin, VP, Sales and Marketing at Alawar Entertainment, has been in sales and marketing for the past 15 years for several companies, so this was the perspective he brought to Alawar when he joined the company in 2009 and became responsible for market research and analysis and promoting the company’s online resources and game brands. In 2011, he was appointed VP of Mobile Platforms, and in 2013, as the company was restructured, he was still responsible for iOS and Android mobile, but also became involved with leads and branding for the company.
The Effects of F2P
Alexander emphasizes the importance of the free-to-play model, since now one game can generate over one million dollars in revenue each day. He sees examples of this in Alawar, pointing out that, even though they do not as yet have cross-platform capabilities, when they release an iOS game in Android, they immediately see their sales in iOS begin to rise. Alexander tells us, “This is because if we release a game on two platforms, players can play each other simultaneously, growing more and more users for the game.
The most important emerging trend in the game industry, as he sees it, is “Google, the 24-hour company with free-to-play cross-platform games.” Alawar expects to become involved this year with ten new titles that Alexander hopes will be cross-platform free-to-play games. At Casual Connect Asia, Alexander announced that they have formed a partnership with NHN, and will be releasing their first free-to-play game together. At the last Casual Connect Asia, he met for the first time a guide from NHN. Soon after, Alawar and NHN signed the partnership contract, with the new game coming soon. Alexander expresses that he is excited to work with Casual Connect Asia and believes that it is one of the best events in the world. Every year, they find new partners, new projects and new ideas, so they really enjoy the event.
Challenges of the Mobile Market
The mobile market in Asia is very important to Alawar. China, Japan and Korea are among the top ten in their sales. Alexander tells us the market is huge and rapidly growing. The Japanese market in particular continues to increase in the app store and Google Play, until now it could be bigger than in the US. It has become one of the biggest and most important markets in the world.
He feels the biggest challenge he has faced in his career has been starting to work in the mobile game market. This market required making mobile games from scratch, although they now have big publishers in PC, Casual, and Mobile. They have now received solid reviews and have great games. Another tremendous challenge for Alexander has been meeting the company goal of doubling their sales each year, but he has been able to fulfill this expectation. During the last year alone, they released over one hundred games, a fact which definitely helps increase their sales. With the excitement of such a dynamic company, he believes the greatest fulfillment he will receive in his career is still in the future.
The Voxel Agents are developers of original handcrafted games for “on-the-go” fun. They are one of the most exciting indie teams in Australia, and are situated in the game development hub of Melbourne. Creators of the smash hit Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat, The Voxel Agents are proud producers of addictive game substances for millions of players worldwide.
How Puzzle Retreat Started
Puzzle Retreat has gone through many iterations and has changed a lot from it’s inception 21 months ago. Yangtian Li, our in-house artist at the time, pitched to the team an elaborate design for a lumberjack-come-carpenter game. The player had to fell trees in a forest, bring them home and make furniture.
Henrik Pettersson, one of our former designers, was immediately inspired by the puzzle potential of felling trees in a forest. His first design was a puzzle game where the trees fall into each other and knock each successive tree down like dominoes. The second design, and eventual winner, focused on your player character who stands behind each tree to push it over. There must be enough space to stand behind the tree to push it down and there must be space for the tree to fall into. This puzzle design requires you to find the right order to knock all the trees down whilst keeping the appropriate spaces free, and not locking yourself in.
The team really liked the potential depth of puzzles this mechanic presented, and the simplicity of the interaction in the very first playable prototype. The theme of cutting down trees in a forest on the other hand, did not rest well. We decided to explore over 20+ designs in art styles and themes and finally decided to stick to the original forest theme, but instead of cutting down the forest, the player was saving it by cutting down evil degenerative trees.
We’re BIG on Playtesting!
Our development process has always had a significant emphasis on playtesting, whether it be in-house within the studio, taking our tablets out on to to the friendly people of Melbourne in the city streets, or even amongst other local game developers. Playtesting can be heartbreaking at times, because it can reveal the hard truth that your design does not work. Being mobile players ourselves, we understand the importance of designing games that are easy to pick up and play straight away and playtesting let us verify this.
Early on, players struggled with understanding the objective and how to interact with the game. Some players were able to work out what the objective was and how to progress. However, some players weren’t able to without any assistance during playtests.
Players were also getting confused between what they could and couldn’t interact with on screen. For example, the affordance of non-interactable wooden logs, produced after cutting down a tree, made players try to pick them up and move them. We discovered that wood cutting wasn’t a great metaphor for the game mechanics and that the third-person character was a major distraction from the actual logical puzzle solving.
A Minimalist Design Approach
In the end, we adopted a minimalist design approach and stripped the game back:
– We removed the third-person character.
– We replaced the core mechanic with one of it’s variations, where trees were covered in ice and could slide over icy logs.
– We removed the ‘stand behind rule’ to cut down trees, this helped with opening up a larger space for puzzle designs.
– We reworked the theme into something much more simple and understandable.
The game received a much more positive response from playtesters after removing rules and making the game much more simple.
We managed to get the game down to two simple rules:
1 Slide the blocks to fill the holes.
2 Use all the blocks.
Relax, Unwind and Focus
While we were stripping back the design, we took the opportunity to look broader at who plays these types of ultra-minimal, logical puzzle games. We found that the audience of these games is more mature and predominantly female. The majority of logical puzzle game players solve puzzles to relax, unwind, de-stress and get some “me time,” the same reasons why we play. With this in mind, we crafted a world free of stress and distraction. By letting the gameplay be the focus, and pushing the art into the background, the game could really shine.
Through our journey, we have learned that the very best logical puzzle games leave very little in between the player and the core problem. All the information to solve the puzzle is directly in front of you, and you just have to solve it. By carefully handcrafting each puzzle and cleverly pacing out the puzzles in each pack, we have been able to give players a great euphoric feeling and make players feel really smart after solving each puzzle.
Puzzle Retreat is available on the AppStore and Google Play. The Voxel Agents still have a dedicated team adding more content and features to the game. The plan is to bring Puzzle Retreat to more platforms in the future. The Voxel Agents also have another game in development that is planned for release later this year.