Feb 6, 2017

Past, Present, Future - By Josh

We’ve been meaning to write a development blog for a while and now feels like a good time to do it. I read and watch a lot of content from other developers about their projects and the lessons learned from their experiences. I’ve always found it helpful and reassuring in way, to know that everyone making independent games is in the same boat to some extent. Individual circumstances vary of course, but it’s nice to know about the similarities and think “so someone else had to deal with this too!” or “at least they found they same thing difficult”. So we might as well do the same and who knows, maybe someone will find it helpful? There’s a total of four working on our new game: Me - Josh (Game Design, Programming, Business, etc.), Chris (Lead Programmer), Tom (Art) and Luke (Audio). Me and Chris are full-time Raredrop Game team and Tom and Luke are contractors helping us out. Chris is going to write his own dev blog entries, to give more insight into the technical aspects which he’s handling so I’m going to try and counterbalance it by talking about the direction and design of the game, some business stuff and running a small indie team in general. That said, I’m a programmer by trade so I’ll probably end up tapping into the technical side of things as well.

-- Starting Out --

So, here’s a little background on us and the company.

In 2015 I decided to go indie and opted to try making a couple of games for mobile to start out. I’d spent several years making software for mobile platforms, it was what I knew so I thought mobile was a good place to start. My first release, titled Classy Quest was an endless runner with a twist, you could become various archetypal RPG classes and each of them had different powers you could use to defeat enemies. Having seen things like Crossy Road, I naively decided on making it free and having incentive-based video adverts - specifically Unity Ads. In-app purchases had such a bad rep at the time and there was a general negativity about the whole subject in the indie scene that it put me off IAP entirely.

Screenshot from Classy Quest
Classy Quest

In hindsight, that was definitely a mistake, I shouldn’t have cared about any of the stigma and just put in IAP because the video ads made no revenue whatsoever but the game had some decent download figures considering it was from a virtually unknown developer. In fact, players on the Touch Arcade forums were actually asking me to put IAP in the game because they wanted to be able to contribute directly, as well as unlock their favourite classes. It’s not a masterpiece but I’m still proud of Classy Quest, aside from the audio (which the awesome Luke Thomas made) I created everything in the game from scratch, all of the rigged and animated 3D models, the user interface and 2D artwork and code. So Classy Quest represents a personal achievement for me, even if the financial rewards are scarce. To top it off, it was the first game (at least not for a client) I’ve ever made that has had articles written about it.

-- Second Game --

A few months later, I was trying to find inspiration for my next project and decided to take part in GBJam which is a Game Boy inspired game jam. I was actually staying in a cottage in Wales at the time but I had my laptop with me and whenever I had a spare few hours I would work on my jam entry. The rules of GBJam require the game to fit a 160x144 pixel resolution and use only 4 colours, so it adds some interesting constraints when trying to come up with a concept. I ended up making a puzzle-platformer where you move various blocks around to make staircases to reach a goal. I think the combination of being around castles in Wales and hearing the word “throne” on the radio lead me to the conclusion that the theme of the game should be a king trying to reach his throne. It was pretty simple in the beginning, I made 20 levels and a few block types which later became 54 levels and several block types.

For some reason I was pining to write something natively for iOS so I chose to write the game in Objective-C using SpriteKit. I guess I hadn’t really decided that this game would be a full release and was still kind of making it for fun. Again, in hindsight I should have used Unity like I did for Classy Quest because I have a lot of people ask why there’s no Android version but it’s hard to justify making a port from scratch at this point. Anyway, the game really started to come together and I asked Luke if he would write the music again as he’d done a great job on Classy Quest. Honestly, the music Luke sent was almost too good for the game and I felt like I had to really polish the game to justify having such great music. So I spent a lot of time adding small effects, tweaking animations and tidying up rough edges. Eventually I felt like the game was ready so I began showing it to a lot of people, testing it through TestFlight and getting feedback.

Claiming an emblem fragment in To The Throne
To The Throne

-- Chris Joins --

In July last year, Chris, a friend and ex-colleague had just left his job and asked if we could team up. I decided that in order to make better games and attempt more ambitious projects I needed someone passionate and like-minded to join full-time. So Chris came on-board and we headed to the Develop conference in Brighton to show people the new game I’d been working on, now titled “To The Throne”. We had a ton of feedback from fellow developers and showed the game off to some of the press which resulted in a few articles.

Chris busy working at our office in the Bristol Games Hub

So on returning to Bristol I set to work making improvements based on the feedback we’d had from peers. About a month later we were ready for release. Everything was set to go on the app store but on the release day I woke up to discover that the game hadn’t been published because of an issue with the international tax forms. I was convinced the release was going to be delayed for around a week while we waited for the paperwork to clear and announced the delay on Twitter. Luckily in the afternoon of the same day, the paperwork had cleared by some miracle and the game was released. This time around I wanted to try having a paid game so To The Throne was released with a pay once price and it’s done considerably better than Classy Quest despite having less downloads. We had some decent articles and reviews about To The Throne and I’m really proud of it in terms of the quality that it represents.

Me, Chris and friends at Develop Brighton
Develop Brighton

-- Clients, Funding and Being Indie --

We’re a self-funded studio at the moment, so that means taking on various pieces of work alongside making our games. It’s not ideal, sure, but we don’t have much choice! We apply for external funding when possible, government grants and such. But you’re competing with a lot of other studios and almost all of them are better known than us, so we just can’t bank on it. Much easier to get funded when you’ve already had some degree of success, you have contacts and revenue. I think having that first success is where you really have to fight and those are the developer stories I’m most interested in.

I’ve seen a few articles from other developers saying that you can’t mix game development with contracting work because it detracts from the game. But honestly, what other choice do new developers have? There so few things you can do that will afford you the flexibility and earnings needed to devote a significant amount of time to developing a game, and taking on freelance work is probably your best bet.

Working on a game in your spare time with a full-time job is incredibly difficult and I did try, for a long time. Making a game is hard enough, but trying to do it after (or before) a long day of work and maintaining motivation requires some near-divine level of perseverance and patience. Evidently I was lacking sufficient quantities of those two virtues because it wasn’t until I went full-time game developer that I finished and released a game. Being self-employed just seems to be the environment I needed, having more control over my time and being able to focus on a single idea.

-- Where We're At Now --

So fast forward past the contract work we have to take on and we arrive at me and Chris having lunch in the pub and discussing what we should be doing with the company. We’d been developing a concept for a game which had domestic surveillance as it’s core theme and we’d gone so far as having some concept art done and designing a fair bit of the game. But I came to realise, we both did, that we needed to make this game later to do it justice (despite how topical it was at the time).

Early concepts for our surveillance game, now on hold

Instead we decided we needed to do something different, smaller scope, with an online multiplayer aspect to it. Usually when I get a game idea I want to store for later I’ll make some mock screens (basic though, I’m no artist) and a while back I’d made some screen mock-ups for a tactics style game I’d been thinking about. Sort of Final Fantasy:Tactics but with mechs (later I’d be reminded that such a thing as Front Mission exists). So we sort of ran with the idea and it evolved into something else, something better; and that is what we’ve been working on these past few months. In that time Tom and Luke have joined the project to produce art and audio respectively and it’s really starting to shape the game. I’m watch a fair bit of anime and I’m a fan of the Gundam franchise so I really wanted to show those influences in the game. Hopefully this comes across in the mecha and the characters to some extent. While Chris has been responsible for the majority of the technical development up to this point, I’ve been building the game world, writing the lore and (probably much to the annoyance of Chris) evolving the game design.

Awesome mecha Xmas card from Tom Waterhouse, artist on our current project
Xmas Card

We’re a few months into our latest project and just about reaching that stage where it’s starting to feel more like a game and less like a tech demo. In the coming months I’ll write about the progress of the game and some of the design decisions we’ve made as well as anything else that comes to mind.

Thanks for reading!