A version of this article was also submitted to the go-to game industry shop talk site, Gamasutra.
If you’re not familiar with the tradition of postmortem write-ups in the game industry, it’s not a negative term. It’s the practice of writing about the design, development, and the launch of a game, including reflection on what went right, and what lessons you learned along the way. What follows is the official postmortem for my educational indie game, Letter Taps.
If it isn’t obvious from the gap between this post and the last one, many things are happening!
Letter Taps Is Out Now!
My indie educational game, Letter Tapsis available in the Google Play and iOS App Store now! This is the product of my last six months and I can’t tell you how good it feels to have it up for download and receiving positive feedback. Beside some very kind reviews and personal messages, one endorsement in particular really made my day (and many days since).
This super cool new app for kids does simple things beautifully! Engaging-by a guy who grew up inspired by Clarissa! https://t.co/3S4xsViwnS
Yes. That’s Mitchell Kriegman of Clarissa Explains It All and Bear in the Big Blue House fame, and too many other accomplishments to list here. I wrote last year about all the hilarious homebrew PC games Clarissa made on her show in the 90s and Mitchell liked it enough to share it around. When I reached out about what I’d been up to since, he couldn’t have been more gracious.
Seriously, go support everything Mitchell Kriegman does.
Kid Tested, Teacher Approved!
As part of launching an educational indie game and product line, I searched high and low for opportunities to gain insight and feedback on what I was doing. I knew my game helped teach my son to count and recite the alphabet quickly, but I wanted to go further in the play testing department.
Luckily for me, certain schools here in the Greater St. Louis region have unprecedented levels of commitment to getting kids interested in and excited about technology, and software development specifically.
I was blown away when the Francis Howell school district invited me to be a guest speaker for students and parents just as I was preparing to release the game. My wife got to join me and grabbed some great photos. We had a blast! Sure enough, kids and teachers alike expressed enthusiasm about Letter Taps as a learning tool. I was sure to set up the app for optional bulk licensing for registered educational organizations in both app stores.
Great thanks to all those involved in those phenomenal two days at the Francis Howell school district. I will not forget it!
Lending my voice at Gamasutra
Finally, I put together some thoughts about launching a studio, carrying out a game development project, and launching a product line revolving around young kids over at Gamasutra. The post falls squarely within the “shop talk” category but it’s the kind of stuff I love reading from other studio heads. I hope it’s of use–or at least some entertainment–to other newcomers working their way into the game. Please feel free to comment or even share it around if you find it useful!
More soon! CodeWritePlay is still designated as “home” for keeping up with my appearances and work around the web. Hoping to do some more development blogging in the very near future as things start hopping again.
If you happen to follow me on Twitter, you may have caught me sprucing up my “developer art” during a coding break, thrilled with myself for very quickly improving the backdrop of my card game prototype. If not, here was the tweet:
Now, clearly this is not game-changing artwork–though I like the Contra level 1 thing it has going on–but the speed with which I created something appropriate was a huge win. I thought I would share a couple of tricks for anyone interested. You may or may not consider this technique production-quality, but it may be a lifesaver during your next game jam weekend.
Quick and Dirty 2D Textures
For demonstration purposes, let’s say I need to come up with three materials to use, yesterday. I’m going to quickly create ground, water, and rock textures that won’t look out of place in a retro-style 2D game. To follow along as closely as possible, you will need just about any version of GIMP.
Quick note: I will not go into TONS of detail about the individual steps. These are all pretty routine tasks, and if you’re unfamiliar with them, they’ll be easy to look up.
Create a new white image – The size is up to you.
Fill the image with your desired base color – I’m starting with grass, I’ll use green.
Create a new transparent layer on top
Fill the top layer with a pattern – Use your imagination and pick a pattern that might create a nice texture with a little tweaking. Worry about its texture, not its color. You’ll get better at this with a little experimentation. I chose Walnut.
Note: There are good tutorials out there for adding patterns to GIMP if you need more to work with.
Adjust the pattern layer:
Start with Opacity at 50%, tweak as desired.
Set a layer mode that improves the look. For my purposes, Burn usually looks good.
Don’t worry if you’re not quite loving the look yet, we haven’t yet applied the dirtiest shortcut of all…
Apply filthy, fake pixelation:
Click Filters > Blur > Pixelize…
Experiment with the Pixel Width and Pixel Height settings until you like the look in the preview window.
Make final opacity and layer mode changes as desired
There are any number of tweaks you can make to this recipe, including gradients on the base color layer, scaling up the pattern layer for an even more pronounced retro/pixelated look, etc.
Here are my other two patterns and their ingredients:
Pattern: Leopard Pattern Layer Mode: Burn Opacity: 20% Pixellization: Around 4 Height/Width Other Tweaks: Pattern scaled up to 250% height/width
Pattern: Burlwood (Whatever that is) Pattern Layer Mode: Difference Opacity: 50% Pixellization: Up around 10 Height/Width Other Tweaks: Pattern scaled way up, saturation reduced, contrast increased
Now go make some textures, and let me know if this kind of post helps!
itch.io has launched Refinery, a toolset it promises will allow indie studios to conduct early game releases with the flexibility to set their own terms.
If this sounds like a shot at Steam Early Access, that probably isn’t a coincidence.
“Early access ‘programs’ have long been an issue for developers looking to get feedback and build communities around their in-development games,” itch said in press correspondence. “They have overly competitive environments, sometimes hostile and unwelcoming communities and non-existent sales model flexibility. For games releasing in these ‘programs’ just to get playtesting and grow, it’s a disaster.”
The solution, itch leadership believes, is to give studios the freedom to customize the distribution model of a game’s limited release.
“Whether that comes in the form of an open paid alpha with limited keys or a closed beta playtest with select testers, the toolset allows a developer to customize their program,” said a representative via email. “The toolset allows for limited key quantities, tiered purchases, digital rewards, private playtesting, and community forums embedded right on their customized game pages.”
In addition, itch announced five upcoming indie games that will utilize the Refinery toolset for limited release purposes, including Overland, Manifold Garden, Jenny LeClue, hackmud, and GoNNER. There appears to be no word yet on the nature of those releases, but each should give players and developers a unique look at the capabilities of the Refinery system.
itch.io week began Monday the 9th and wraps up today. The event revealed other features such as support for studios to hold sales, create product bundles, and utilize The Widget, which will allow developers to easily embed itch promotion and purchase information about their games on other sites.
itch also made recent headlines when the official itch.io desktop app appeared on Steam Greenlight on April Fools Day. The listing was not a joke, but a fully functional client, which Steam subsequently blocked.
After discovering game development in college, Philip Devine wanted to give other content creators a head start on the unique career opportunities available in gaming. He set out to create a club for programmers, musicians, and artists, that grew to about 25 members in its first year. He credits this experience with building the confidence he needed to start his own major development project.
Now a Chicago-based IT professional, Devine is leading his team at Riveted Games through the last stages of development on Falling Stars: War of Empires, a 4X PC strategy game already greenlit on Steam that he expects to release within the next few months.
For those unfamiliar, 4X is a genre of complex strategy games in which players control an empire by eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating.
Falling Stars: War of Empires is likely to please a diverse crowd. 4X strategy players beg for games with substance from anyone who will listen. Space games and board game-like experiences requiring diplomacy and intellect rarely have trouble finding an audience. The game also follows on the heels of a movement in the gaming community that recognizes and celebrates a game smart enough to offer new and different experiences to long-term players.
“That feeling when you lay out a really intricate plan and try to carry it out against your friends is something that is totally missing in video games right now,” Devine says. “It just doesn’t exist in a format that is conducive to multiplayer. My goal was to make a challenging multiplayer game that rests on the same intellectual and diplomatic skills as modern board games, and what we have now is way better than I’d ever imagined it would be.”
Based on the concepts Devine demonstrated to me in the most recent build, Falling Stars will give many of these players what they’re looking for.
Development for Falling Stars began in earnest in October of 2012, when Devine started devoting his travel time on Chicago’s public transportation system to working on his game. He says that he developed 90% of the game on his work commute. Though the workspace wasn’t ideal, he says there was an unexpected benefit from working in this setting.
“Kind of a cramped development environment,” Devine says. ” But it got lots of ‘organic marketing’ that way by talking to people who have never seen a game being actively developed.”
This grit has served him well in the years that followed. Falling Stars was almost completely redeveloped on two occasions, his first child was born (now two years old, with a second on the way), and he now manages one full-time developer, two artists, one composer, and conducts business with his new publisher, Lock ‘n Load Publishing. Thanks to the help of industry friends like The Foundry’s Simon Pickles and Hungarian developer Daniel Karsai, Riveted Games now boasts all the benefits of a AAA development workflow without the time constraints that hurt products.
Devine’s refusal to rush Falling Stars and his unending communication with players has led to a positive relationship with the community. The game has been in private beta since December and he says testers have helped make big positive changes and contributions to the game. Devine has also reached players during several promotional campaigns.
“Steam Greenlight went great, given my game and company were relatively unknown, and working in a niche genre,” Devine says. “We laid out a strategy ahead of time and timed a bunch of campaigns all at once. I had a fairly active twitter account that I built up a few hundred followers on, I had a Facebook page with about 100 people, and I posted about the game everywhere people were talking about games in my genre. The ‘kicker’ was I also launched a Kickstarter campaign the same day and put my link at the top. That’s what helped give that huge spike in the beginning. After that, I focused a lot more attention on development and the game was greenlit on its own after about 3 months.”
To other indies working on their first big projects, Devine suggests putting one’s focus on the true finish line. He says the core mechanics and a playable game are far from all you need to plan for.
“You spend all of this time developing the game you want, so why settle just to release it when things get hard?” Devine asks. “I’m a runner, so I think of it like running the first 20 miles of a marathon, and then quitting right when it gets hard. Don’t quit when it gets hard, and the end result will be worth it…Finishing the game is the first 20 miles, and thorough testing cycles are the last 6. Make as many fixes/optimizations/user experience enhancements as you can, break down core mechanics if you have to…you’ll know you’re done when you’re happy with the feedback. It doesn’t have to be perfect, no game is, but you’ll know when the game feels right.”
Mission Massive Migration is a 2D retro action game created by Iber Parodi Siri under his Rombosaur Studios label. It was released to a quietly positive reception on the Google Play store in early January. Though the game is still listed in the 500 – 1,000 Installs range, an average review score of 4.45/5 across a current total of 36 reviews marks a well-received first effort for Rombosaur. Between the game’s retro charm (think of Solar Jetman from the NES days) and Iber’s personal background, I was curious to learn more about the project and find out what’s next for his studio.
Iber lives in the Tolkienesque Bariloche, Argentina where he tests and develops software professionally. His free time is a whirlwind of electronics projects, music and video production, art, blogging, and code. He says the journey began early in life and his passions have naturally led from one to the next.
“I’m a guitar player. I built two electric guitars when I was 15 years old,” Iber says. “I also build my guitar pedals. I’m into hardcore punk, metal, thrash, alt rock, indie rock, and synth stuff…I had multiple bands in the past. My latest was called DAR (“Desafiando a la Realidad” or “Defying Reality”) but I quit because of a lack of time. I wanted to program more and focus a little bit more on college. Programming is a passion for me, as well as music. I guess I like to create things.”
In this area, Iber is greatly accomplished. In casual conversation he was able to point me to a YouTube channel, a blog, and a Bandcamp profile all full of his creative and technical projects. He participates in a variety of online communities and offers up many of these creations simply for the enjoyment of others.
Iber views game development differently. Though he made Mission Massive Migration available for free, he views creating games as a way to earn income and dictate the next direction for his professional career. To get started, he drew inspiration from a small team famous for shaping their destiny through game dev.
“At the time I started creating [Mission Massive Migration] I was playing Doom: BFG Edition, that comes with Doom, Doom 2, Doom 3, and expansions for all the games,” Iber says. “Doom 3 blew my mind away. I had never played it before…I put like 88 hours into this game. I became a little bit obsessed about it, watching YouTube videos about the creators, reading interviews, and finally reading a book called Masters of Doom. That was the final motivation I needed to make it happen.”
With that motivation, Iber described the 10-month development of Mission Massive Migration as straightforward. He had a specific vision for an Android game with a virtual game pad, and a 2D character to make jump and shoot. He got started with placeholder assets from the internet, while learning conventional game design and development strategies.
Iber says the discovery of some public domain graphical assets created by Adam Atomic gave him an opportunity to focus on development while creating a small amount of retro art to supplement the freely available graphics he had found.
“[Adam Atomic’s] assets contained laser doors, batteries, and powered cells,” says Iber. “Basically I built a game around the art assets I found. I drew the final boss and the first scene on Earth. I’d say that sometimes, if the planets are aligned right, I can make decent retro art.”
This strategic decision allowed Iber to complete his first game in 10 months. He published the game officially on January 7th, showing his work proudly to some of his online communities including Reddit and Twitter.
Iber’s sense of accomplishment gave way to feelings of disappointment.
“To be honest, the game didn’t reach the amount of people I would have liked,” Iber admits. “It got almost 400 downloads in the first 2 days due to a post on reddit/r/gamedev, but then it just dropped to two downloads per day on average.”
Not to be deterred, Iber has remained incredibly gracious with critics and maintains a positive outlook about the road ahead.
“This is definitely the beginning of my career in game development,” Iber says. “I went all in on this game. Of course it has flaws, but I’m really happy with it. I’m already learning new technologies to make better games.”
Iber says he’d like to tackle darker material in the future like his heroes of Doom fame. He acknowledges his flaws in art creation and has an interest in teaming up with a dedicated artist for his next project.
As for fellow aspiring game developers, Iber has both technical and philosophical advice to offer. For programmers interested in creating games, he recommends Java with the Flixel-GDX engine for its clear code and helpful documentation as a free introduction to object-oriented, multi-platform development. For aspiring developers with little or no coding experience, he recommends learning Love2D, a LUA programming language engine that’s simple to learn and allows newcomers to achieve small objectives quickly, which helps with the learning curve.
“That was technical,” Iber says. “But the most important advice I can give is, your first game should be a game that you like to play, a game that you are proud of making, a game that you’re motivated to finish. If you don’t finish a game, you’re not a game dev! You learn a lot by finishing a game. There are a lot of details that need to be taken care of. There’s the publishing part, and the criticism part too that you need to learn how to extract the valuable information from.”
Iber’s social media accounts make it clear that he isn’t resting after his work on Mission Massive Migration. He remains active in the game dev community, still encouraging others to keep pushing and discussing new work of his own. His work ethic and his unfailing optimism make him a great bet in the indie scene’s near future.
“It’s just a dream I have that I will try my best to make it come true,” Iber says. “We’ll see what happens on the way.”
When I first encountered Garry Hamer, he was eagerly showing around the alpha for his upcoming sci-fi shooter RPG, Push for Emor. We had a lighthearted chat over Twitter–I offered my condolences upon hearing he had just purchased the $600 Oculus Rift–and he jokingly described explaining it to his sobbing girlfriend. We went our separate ways after I offered to play the demo and get back to him.
The Push demo impressed me with its ambition. There are some slightly rough placeholder models to overlook and some knowingly goofy dialog to take in, but it quickly became evident that Push for Emor has great bones. My first play session sent me from a command ship down to a planet’s surface where I joined up with local resistance fighters, retrieved a quest item from a cave dungeon worthy of an Elder Scrolls title, and sabotaged enemy installations in a mech walker. Then it was off to dogfight with space pirates and board their creepy ships before taking over my own space station. After finishing the alpha demo, I was curious to learn more about this project.
Hamer, I learned, is a full-time commercial C# programmer from Blackpool in Northwest England. He has no prior game development experience and is developing Push for Emor completely alone in his spare time. This has carried on for around 18 months.
“I had always been intrigued by game development,” Hamer says. “It was all very voodoo and mysterious to me. I picked up a copy of Unity, started noodling around with a concept I thought might be fun, showed it to some friends at work, and they liked it.” The satisfaction of seeing friends enjoy his creation has kept him working diligently ever since.
Hamer’s efforts appear to be paying off. The Push for Emor site advertises a launch version featuring 11 planets spread across five solar systems for players to explore and organize against the enemy. In addition to creating content and perfecting the game’s core flying, shooting, and interaction mechanics, Hamer has natively supported both standard PC monitors and the Oculus Rift since the game’s earliest playable demos.
When I asked if Push in its current state lined up well with Hamer’s initial vision for the game he told me that, if anything, the game includes more than he’d planned. He says he only pursues new features that can be added with very little schedule deviation and that he feels the game’s core mechanics–missions, inventory, dialogue, combat, driving, and flying–are working and complete, save for some polish.
“These are things that, once done, are repeatedly used throughout the game in a drag-and-drop manner,” Hamer says. “This means that I can get on with the job of creating new environments for the player to game in and new characters for them to interact with.”
While Hamer takes development and the game itself very seriously, he wants to have fun with Push for Emor and he’s loaded it with thematic jokes and nods to his favorite sci-fi influences. He has listed influences like EVE and Borderlands in press material and discussed growing up with Star Trek, pointing out his game’s subtle tribute to the Enterprise crew in sending the player from planet to planet with no idea what to expect upon arrival. He hopes this is as rewarding for players as it has been for him.
“I have come to realize that I have this opportunity to spoof up some of the gameplay elements and I have a massive catalog of popular works to draw from,” Hamer says of the game’s easter eggs. “I am very serious about Push for Emor but the game itself is quite tongue-in-cheek. It’s a sad truth that hardly anyone reads mission text or watches cutscenes all the way through but, for those that do, hopefully Push’s interactions will raise a wry smile.”
As a former professional software developer and hobby game dev myself, I know progress like this doesn’t come without a cost. I asked Hamer to tell me about the impact the project has had on his personal life and how he’s striking the right balance between work, game development, and life.
Hamer’s description of what he calls “game dev madness” is a familiar one. He says he doesn’t always let sleep interfere with his development time. When his girlfriend notices his prolonged absence she visits his “man cave” to check on him and occasionally stays to share some red wine. She does this with trepidation, he says, as it usually results in his putting a Rift visor on her to have her check out new features.
Despite the hardship, Hamer credits his relationship with enforcing healthy boundaries and maintaining the strength to continue the project.
“Luckily for me, my [girlfriend] is very understanding, but at the same time she does not take any BS from me,” Hamer says. “She keeps me grounded and encourages me when I need it but, more importantly, she forces me to step away from the keyboard every once in a while and remember that there is more to life than making alien worlds: friends, laughing, and usually alcohol. She has become very adept at gauging the game dev madness in my eyes and, when it looks like it’s taking over, I get my ass kicked into the shower. Then she drags me down to the local pub whether I like it or not! I’m pretty sure I would have burnt out by now if it wasn’t for her.”
Though Hamer hasn’t pinned down Push for Emor’s exact release date, he’s cautiously optimistic about the near future. He’s hopeful about implementing a few crowd-pleasing final touches like massive space battles requiring the player to command from the mother ship and jump in a fighter to join dogfights as needed.
“I can see it in my mind’s eye,” he says. “I just need to get it onto the screen.”
Just a quick post to announce the Inside Indie Dev interview series! In these posts you’ll get a look at new and upcoming independent projects and interviews with the creative minds behind the games.
Later this week you’ll hear about the upcoming shooter RPG Push for Emor. I chatted with creator Garry Hamer and gathered his thoughts on the great sci-fi influences of our time, developing for PC and VR simultaneously, and balancing life and game development when you’re already working full time. You won’t want to miss it!
If you haven’t yet, this is a great time to subscribe via e-mail (which you can do on just about any page on the site) and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Keep an eye out!