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Deadweight v Steam Greenlight

My little first person shooting game, Deadweight, was greenlit on Steam on June 25 after I submitted on June 10. I put my submission together in about 2-3 days. It was a mad dash.

The reason for the rush? I wanted to get a few days ahead of E3. I figured people’s heads would be spinning so fast from all the eye candy and exciting news coming from E3 that scarcely anyone would bother paying notice to some games sitting in Greenlight. I think that assumption wasn’t entirely correct, though. The day after I submitted, Steam Summer Sales kicked in and probably brought on more traffic to Steam than usual and thus more eyes on Greenlight games in general.

The truth is, the internet and the world has more bandwidth to process lots of games than I expected. E3 wasn’t the attention hording black hole that I thought it was. Over 17,000 unique visitors looked at my Greenlight page and over 7000 of them voted ‘yes.’ So I’m glad things turned out the way it did. I think the timing was good overall, and submitting it a few days earlier or later wouldn’t have made much of a difference. It did mean that I hit the submit button before I felt my page was completely perfect.

In fact, at the beginning the ratio between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes wasn’t looking too hot. It was about 51% yes and 49% no. Yikes. I looked at the comments written in and I saw why. People called out the lack of content indicated by the trailer and description. Guilty as charged. Partly inspired by “mini games” like Five Nights at Freddy’s, I thought that I, too, could get away with putting out a tiny game with very little content and still offer a compelling product as long as I priced it commensurately cheap.

Not. The. Case. The people visiting my Greenlight page the first few hours were not having it. But rather than panicking, their complaint was rather a relief. The only reason I restricted the scope of my game so tightly was because I was afraid of wasting time on a game that not many people would be interested in. I wanted to make a tiny game, ship it as quickly as possible, and use the modest revenue to make a bigger and better game. Baby steps, I thought. But the comments criticizing the tiny scope of my game actually gave me the confidence to expand it significantly.

It wasn’t for a lack of ideas. I had tons. Now I had a valid reason to pursue them and put them all in the game for a meatier, more substantial experience. I knew what I had to do. It was time go big or get the fuck out. I put up an announcement on the Greenlight page in addition to updating the game description to reflect my decision to pivot and make the game bigger and better with way more variety than I was presenting in the trailer.

That’s when the needle turned and the ratio between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes suddenly turned in my favor. It eventually hit 60% ‘yes’ votes over the course of the next few days! And the comments coming in were positive, enthusiastic, and very supportive. You can imagine how that felt after months of working alone in the dark with hardly any feedback. The month prior I put my game in front of a few friends and watched them play. That was pretty exciting, but going through Steam Greenlight was something else. The whole world chimed in on something with my stamp all over it. Literally. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to copy and paste comments into Google Translate.

Just a day over 2 weeks since I submitted, I got the email from Valve that my game got greenlit. In the days prior I knew it was only a matter of time. So what came next?

In the afterglow of the Greenlight campaign – and I think it’s unfair to call it a campaign because I mostly sat back and waited, replying to a few comments here and there, while the rest took care of itself – I suddenly had the balls to do something I never considered doing until just a few days ago. To do a Kickstarter! Not to fund the game development directly but simply to handle some ancillary aspects of the game that I’m better off recruiting help for; music and voicework. I’m putting the finishing touches right now and I’ll be submitting probably the next day as of this writing.

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My E3 Excitement Overview

This week during E3 was a time for our collective minds to get blown away by what all the big boys of game development have in store for us. Full disclosure: I was never there. I watched from the comfort of my own bedroom. :-)

My personal favorites during the event in no particular order:

Uncharted 4 – The opening hiccup as the demonstrator failed to assume control of Nathan was a potent reminder that all games, even those of the highest pedigree, are in the end made my people just like you and me, not perfect robots. And to Naughty Dog’s credit – at a time in gaming history when I and perhaps many others are tiring of linear one-off scripted experiences – they somehow still manage to keep me excited for this particular brand of gaming even as I roll my eyes at other games that have adopted this style of play.

THEY SOMEHOW STILL MANAGE TO KEEP ME EXCITED

Fallout 4 – This game’s presentation was handled eerily similar to an Apple keynote. A buildup of anticipation, surprises, and more surprises. Todd Howard even pulled off the famous false-ending-followed-by-a-surprise-announcement that Steve Jobs was known for. What I like about Todd is that he has a charisma that is rare in game developers who typically sound awkward and rehearsed on stage. And that man and his team know how to delight audiences. There’s a feature in Fallout 4 during the presentation that struck me as being similar to Deadweight’s gameplay. I’ll be taking a few notes on that, thanks Bethesda!

Halo 5 – I like that 343i is really making this franchise their own. Looks like their taking a bit of Metal Gear Solid 2’s approach by putting you in the shoes of someone other than the series’ main protagonist. I know a couple of peeps working on this game as environment artists so it’s extra exciting to see something of such high quality come partly from the result of their contributions.

Doom – After the initial excitement of seeing something so graphically advanced, I realized how this game is really just the same hundreds of FPS’s I’ve played before with a different skin on it. I did admire it’s purity, though. That’s what sets it apart. No dizziness inducing UI clutter, no heavily scripted sequences, no chatterboxes yelling objectives at you. Just you, your weapons, and your enemies. Simplicity is something we could use more of in games these days. Like when you walk into a Ramen shop and there’s only 2 items in the menu. There’s a pleasant elegance to that.

THERE’S A PLEASANT ELEGANCE TO THAT

Hitman – IO interactive pulled off the old and tiresome trick of we-don’t-have-anything-to-actually-show-so-here’s-a-cg-trailer. This marketing tactic no longer has the umph that it used to now that gamers are smarter than to trust that the quality of a cg trailer can accurately reflect the quality of the final game. But I am excited about their release date being just a few months away. They’re planning to roll out content as time goes by instead of waiting to complete the game before letting anyone get their hands on it. It sounds like a smart move that’s probably financially motivated but it’s also great for fans like me.

5 Stupid Myths I Used To Believe About Game Development

When I began my indie game development journey at the tail end of 2013, I had an array of beliefs regarding what qualities in a game merit critical and financial success. And in my path toward achieving such lofty goals in the quickest, laziest, most efficient way possible, I have expelled more than a handful of inaccurate myths I had swirling about my head. I am, of course, not speaking from personal successes or failures – neither of which I’ve gained just yet – but from careful observation of other projects that have come and gone during 2014 and 2015. They are as follows:

1. GAME NEEDS STORY. Actually, no one gives a shit about your stupid story. Nobody cares how well you write dialogue, even if by chance, you can. It’s great to have enough story to provide some context for the game, but beyond that you’re probably wasting energy. Whenever a new Gone Home wannabe game pops up I can feel my stomach pushing food back up to my throat.

2. GAME NEEDS TO TAKE MANY YEARS of development to be fun, polished, and brought to its full potential. Or you might waste years on a game that makes you no money. Years you could’ve invested in other, better games. Even if you spent 5 years to make the perfect game and it does really well, you’ll be so burnt out that you’ll never want to make another game.

3. GAME NEEDS TO HAVE 50 LEVELS, 30 locations, 25 weapons and items, and an upgrade system, etc. That’s a lot of busywork that might not payoff in improving the game. At all. You might just be adding a lot of gunk to cover up the fact that the core game sucks. Just maybe?

4. GAME NEEDS TO MAKE ANNOUNCEMENT MONTHS BEFORE RELEASE and deliver slow PR drips of teasers, interviews, booth presence, press announcements, etc. Just release one trailer 2 weeks before release and let that do 90% of the marketing for you. That trailer better kick ass, though. If not, ignore this one.

5. GAME NEEDS MONEY TO MAKE. Mom? Dad? Kickstarter? Gimme money, please! Game needs your lazy ass willing to learn what you don’t know/never tried before and do as much as possible by yourself. Trust your brain’s ability to acquire new skills. It is scary good at learning. At least mine is – you know, hi IQ and all. Maybe yours is, too!

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When is Deadweight?

I’ve been making magnificent progress on Deadweight. Looks like I’ll be releasing the game later this summer, most likely July. I have some obligations in August and October that I don’t want ruined by the anxiety of still having work left to do. Plus I want the money sooner than later. I know as an “artiste” indie developer I’m not supposed to be concerned with my financial well-being and be in it purely for the creativity, but we all know deep down inside that that is bull. I want money and lots of it. There.

That said, I want to finish Deadweight on the cheap and on the quick. I DO NOT consider it my masterpiece. I have little intention to make it spectacular. But why? Why not kill myself to deliver the absolute best game I can possibly deliver?! Let me make a pop culture reference to our beloved superhero icon, Iron Man, for a sec. In the beginning of the first movie he is held captive in a cave with nothing but time, scraps of metal, some basic tools, and extreme self-reliance (along with a helper who I don’t want to mention because it doesn’t serve my point). The Mark I suit he made was an ugly tin can that served only one purpose: escape from that hell hole of a cave.

Iron Man returned home and now under more favorable and comfortable circumstances, he began work on a sleek and shiny version of his suit, the Mark II. Don’t you think that it would’ve been foolish of Tony Stark to attempt making this sleek shiny Mark II back in the cave? A supremely unintelligent exercise in futility that would have resulted in our watching the entire movie of him still working in the fucking cave.

To bring the analogy back around to my point… I am in a cave right now. I’m cut off from friends, girls, and any semblance of a social life. I’m broke, and haven’t bought a brand new $60 game or a pair of new clothes in ages. I live with my mom. And there’s only so much quality I can muster for my game working completely solo. So Deadweight is simply my rough-around-the-edges Mark I, an escape vehicle to return me back to civilization. To a metropolitan city full of creative like-minded people, friends, culture, excitement, and a social life. To good financial shape so I can live independently and perhaps hire some help on future projects.

It’s under those favorable and comfortable circumstances in which I can begin work on my absolute best video game I could possibly deliver. But Deadweight is still gonna kick ass and take everyone by surprise the way Iron Man’s Mark I did*.

*No guarantee, of course. I am, however, actively stacking the odds in my favor as best I can. :-)

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Be Lazy!

I frequently struggle to restrain myself from building more art assets, throwing in more detail, geometry, variety, features, and so on into my game. The reason I don’t is two-fold: I know it won’t add real value to the game and, because I’m the one who’ll be doing the work, I get lazy and find another way around the problem with a quick and easy solution that requires little to no extra work.

This isn’t just in the service of my laziness. There’s practical value in it, too.

I’ve observed that there is no correlation between a game’s density of content and its sales. In fact, over the course of many months habitually checking the Steam charts, concocting my own crude math algorithms for coming up with ballpark sales figures of countless games (no need for that anymore thanks for steamspy.com), I learned that some games are made quickly with little content and massive sales, while others were developed for years with heavy content and abysmal sales.

Why? The devs who slave over a big but boring game put stock in things that ultimately don’t matter. Things that don’t add true value for the audience. The devs who work smart only put their chips in things that provide the biggest return on their investment of time, energy, and other resources. I don’t scour the charts on Steam everyday to find out which game genres are trending or what the formula for a good game is. There are no trends or formulas. Rather, I look for what successful indie games DON’T have.

It let’s me know what I could get away with NOT having.

How can devs differentiate between what’s important and what’s a waste of time and money? Well, the most resource strapped devs will not have any choice but to spend their time and energy sparingly to the things that absolutely matter while cutting everything else out. The devs that have some more resources are bound to waste it on something that strokes their ego more than it serves their game.

As much as I’d like to show off my sweet 3d modeling skills, I also hate putting in more time and effort than I have to if there won’t be a noticeable difference in the value I provide to the audience. From my very first playtest of DEADWEIGHT, I realized how little players pay attention to your art and detail. That piece of furniture you built in painstaking detail for weeks? Players will zip past it with hardly a glance. So much for all that extra care you put into the normal maps and the material shader. No, my rule of thumb is minimalism.

When it all comes down to you or a few others to execute everything, your laziness will guide you to focus on a few things while letting go of others. That’s why if you’re a solo developer or part of a small team with no money to spare, you cannot help but be significantly more creative in your execution than others. I’m sure you could think of a few film directors whose movies became worse when they had bigger budgets to play with. The indie developers’ perceived weakness is actually an advantage.

We see opportunities mainstream devs cannot. Their big budgets and large teams often blind them to these opportunities. That is precisely where us indie devs can thrive.

No Shame In Not Being A Programmer (When Making An Indie Game)

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Programming was the first major roadblock I ran up against when I tried making games on my own at the tender age of 11. Back then the tools were laughable and markedly aimed at the amateur crowd who, like my 11 year old self, had no chance of producing a marketable game that will sell and earn money. Of course, that wasn’t the point then either, but relying on pre-made templates defined by the poor selection of game making software wasn’t something I was interested in. And learning how to program? Aside from taking a few classes in middle school on basics like how to get a computer to print out the words, “Hello, world,” I simply didn’t have the patience or wherewithal at that young age to teach myself.

So instead I took up other hobbies and creative pursuits, namely piano and then filmmaking. Less technical hurdles and easier to get right into.

Many years have passed since then and now our collective heads are spinning from all the rich selection of powerful and proven game engines at our fingertips. Documentations are aplenty, with thriving 3rd party markets springing up in these game engines’ wake, offering time saving shortcuts to lower the technical barriers way down where they’ve never been before. And as luck would have it, I found a plug-in that takes care of my lack of programming experience not unlike Ruby on Rails. In fact, it is due to the hard work of highly skilled programmers who understand the plight of non-programmers that someone like me can even have a semblance of sophisticated logic that my work-in-progress game enjoys. Ruby on Rails, for those of you wondering, is as the name implies, a framework of code that makes Ruby a much more accessible coding language to non-coders. It’s what indirectly gave birth to such revolutionary pieces of code like Twitter. The two dudes who built it hashed it out in a matter of days without a programming background.

That’s power.

Like giving someone a car so he can save himself the trouble of training how to ride on horseback (which is not easy and takes time, believe me I took lessons). Start the ignition, steer the wheel, step on the gas pedal and you’re on your way to going from point A to point B in just a few minutes of learning, not months of hard training. Likewise, instead of laboriously working through a C# or C++ bible only to get a grasp of it a couple of years later, I learned how to implement logic, behavior, and features into my game within months.

The term for this concept of taking something difficult and having it simplified or made more accessible is abstraction. We all live on top of layers of abstraction all around us. The operating system on our computers, the paved roads we drive over, and the food available at groceries, all represent high levels of abstraction that save us from speaking in 1’s and 0’s to our computers, driving over rough dirt roads, and hunting and growing our own food. The use of visual node-based programming in games allows artist/designers like me to get on with our lives and focus on our areas of interest without having to “hunt for our own food.” What a miracle we live in these days.

Development Insights – Use Deadlines As A Tool

I’ve been making very rapid progress lately on my game and in the video I explain the tool that used to make that happen: self-imposed deadlines. I realized that games that come out in a reasonable amount of time probably designed the scope of the game to match how much time devs were willing or allowed to spend. While aggressive deadlines are often seen as the culprit for rushed and flawed games, like any tool with with a sharp edge it could be used to harm or to benefit. Deadlines and other limitations can have the positive effect of influencing creative and design decisions to be lean and focused. It forces you to carefully consider what is and is not important to the game.