If you follow Game Revenant on social media, you’ve already seen a lot of spam this week about the Bit Awards. However, I wanted to make a quick official announcement on the blog about this contest, and what YOU can do to help.
Every year, Playcrafting hosts an award show for the indie game community in the New York City area. We’ve been to the Bit Awards at least twice now, and it’s always a fun time. You can actually buy tickets to the show here: www.thebitawards.com
Since Where Shadows Slumber was nominated for Best Mobile Design way back in 2017, we weren’t eligible for that category again this year. (But congrats to all of those nominees!)
However, they surprised us with a nomination for the Player’s Choice Award. This one works differently from the others – instead of being chosen by Playcrafting’s judges, this award is voted upon by you, the loyal fans!
…so how loyal are you?
Vote for us by completing these simple instructions:
1. Click this link: bit.ly/VoteBit 2. Scroll down… 3. Choose “Where Shadows Slumber” 4. Enter the required info 5. Press “Submit”!
Betray our trust by completing these other, much worse, instructions:
1. Click this link: bit.ly/VoteBit 2. Scroll down… 3. Choose literally any other game, you traitor 4. Enter the required info 5. Press “Submit”!
The choice is yours! Whatever you decide, we hope you’ll come to the award show this Friday and celebrate with us anyway.
Best of luck to our competitors, and all the nominees!
Hello, loyal readers! If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve been teasing a money post for quite some time. The fateful day has arrived! Spreadsheets, I summon thee!
If this is the first time you’re reading this blog, thanks for tuning in! My name is Frank DiCola, and I’m the CEO of Game Revenant. I was the artist and animator for Where Shadows Slumber, a premium indie puzzle adventure game that released late last year on the App Store and Google Play. We have a whole archive of posts going back two years if you want to take a look at our design process! However, this post is dedicated entirely to examining the financials of our launch window on the global mobile market.
Why put this information out for the world to see? Well, something that impressed me about Monument Valley back when it originally launched was how open the developers were about their income & expenses. Jack and I vowed to do something similar once Where Shadows Slumber launched. Of course, at the time, I hoped to also make as much money as Monument Valley, but as you’ll see below that didn’t exactly pan out. Even so, I expect this blog post will be really informative for indie developers who are just starting out. I wish I could tell you once your game hits the store, you’ll be rolling in money. But it’s probably better for you to hear the truth, in plain black in white.
This blog post will chronologically address the income and expenses related to publishing Where Shadows Slumber, covering the following:
Our pre-marketing budget
Our development costs
The revenue Where Shadows Slumber made
Our break-even point
The marketing effort going forward
This is going to be a dry one if you came here for art, programming, music, or other fun game design stuff. The part no one tells you about running your own indie studio is that you spend a lot of time examining old bank account statements and crunching numbers in Excel to get your taxes in on time. Read this post if you want to know what it’s like spending money to promote your game!
DISCLAIMER: The income and expenses here are 100% related to Where Shadows Slumber. Costs related to running a business (paying an accountant, office supplies) are not included in this post!
2016: The Early Days
If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve heard us talk endlessly about how we started our development with a demo / vertical slice version of the game. Because that didn’t launch until late 2016, this year was mostly spent in heads-down development mode. And since Jack and I were working together on the game for free (well, for future revenue share) there were no salary-related expenses either.
In fact, there were so few expenses in 2016, I can just list them in a sentence: we paid for an IndieCade submission, bought a standing display banner, entered into the PAX East Indie Showcase, bought the Where Shadows Slumber domain name, and started an Apple developer license, for a grand total of $402.15 for the year.
2016 Expenses: $ 402.15
2016 Income: $ 0.00
With nothing to sell, and no ads in our (unexpectedly popular) free Demo, we didn’t pull in any money during 2016. That’s fine though, because we weren’t expecting to make anything that year! Things get exciting in 2017, though…
2017: Hitting The Road
This was the year we started to really spend money on the game’s development, as well as pre-marketing. We spent a few thousand dollars, so it’s worth going category-by-category to discuss where we allocated money. The largest categories by far were Contract Labor and Travel Expenses, as you can see below:
Our Advertising budget was mostly spent on physical stuff we hand out at shows, like drop cards and Where Shadows Slumber buttons. The reason Contract Labor cost us so much is because Alba and Noah came in during the end of this year to make the game’s audio (worth it!), but we also paid our friend Zak Moy to make the logo and got our Demo professionally translated into multiple languages.
The number you see quoted here for Events actually reflects event submissions, as the only event that really cost money was the original PlayNYC at Terminal 5. You can see how team Meals really stack up over time, but the big culprit for doing events is Travel Expenses – it’s hard to get hotels and train tickets for cheap! Between travel, hospitality, and then stuff like parking and Uber receipts, we racked up a small fortune in travel expenses. The totals for this year were:
2017 Expenses: $ 10,456.74
2017 Income: $ 0.00
Once again, we didn’t do anything that would generate income. The game would still need another 9 months of development before it was ready for prime-time, and Game Revenant didn’t sell anything related to Where Shadows Slumber like T-shirts or plushies. No income yet, none expected!
2018: Finally… Money!
2018 was the year we finished development and launched the game on the App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon App Store. Our marketing efforts before launch consisted of a ton of travel, as you can see below. Contract Labor and Travel Expenses dominate once again, making up nearly $12,000 of the budget!
The Contract Labor section is dedicated entirely to paying our hard-working musicians, and the other categories fall into predictable camps (internet ads and swag for Advertising, full game translation for Professional Services, and Event fees for spots at Play NYC and Gameacon) The reason we racked up so much in Travel Expenses is because in 2018 we went to MAGFest, SXSW, and PAX East. Actually, most of the cost is from SXSW because of the flights to and from Austin. Driving to shows is really important!
2018 Expenses: $ 15,105.04
2018 Income: $ 21,229.24
We finally had some income now that the game was made available to the general public! While it felt good to have income for once, the total amount was sort of underwhelming. Premium games are a dying breed, and we knew that going in. Lots of people told us to fill the game with scummy ads and videos instead of charging up front, but we didn’t want to do that to you. Integrity comes at a steep cost though – our income from 2018 left us still at a deficit, meaning the game cost more to make than it made in revenue! I’ll talk more about that in the next section, but first let’s examine some details about the launch.
We launched on iOS on September 20th and then on Google Play on November 20th of 2018. I expected the App Store to make more money than Google Play, but since we released two months earlier on the App Store these numbers are a bit skewed. Apple got a head start, no fair! Even so, my gut tells me that Google Play will continue to under-perform the App Store as time goes on. As you can see in the Tasty Circle chart above, iOS dominated our sales and it wasn’t even close.
But what really disappointed me was the abysmal performance we had on the Amazon App Store – I knew it would be bad, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. The number shown there is from two sales, one of which is me. (I needed to get the game onto our Kindle and that was the quickest way)
The area graph above gives you an idea of the bumps in sales we got, as well as their impact. Don’t be mislead – although the line is hugging the bottom of the graph and sales are poor, we get a tiny amount of money each day. I don’t think we ever had a day where no one bought the game, which is good.
We hoped the buzz from Launch Week, where we were featured on top of the Games Tab, would extend forever. But once we left that prime-time slot, sales plummeted and never recovered. We were able to boost sales with events like the Halloween Sale and Cyber Monday, where the game was offered at a discount. Then we got surprised with the Game of the Day announcement in early December. Kudos to Apple – they really did a lot to promote our tiny indie game, and I’m sure they’ll include it in a few articles sporadically throughout the coming year. But it’s really hard to get eyes on the game without them holding our hand, as much as I hate to admit that.
(There isn’t enough interesting data to show from Google Play yet, so I’ll have to put a chart up for that sometime later this year once there’s more to see.)
2019: Break Even, Break Out
Starting on January 1st, 2019, Where Shadows Slumber needed $4,734.69 to hit our break-even point. It doesn’t pay to list that number in terms of “units required to break-even” because sometimes the game is on sale, and other times people buy the game in other currencies that don’t convert neatly into $5. Here’s a better way to put it into perspective: Apple is going to send us $2,764.77 on January 31st, and Google already put $879.87 in the company account on January 15th. So we’re already down to just $1,090.05 before we break even, which I predict will be reached by the end of February.
Of course, breaking even is pretty lame since sales are just barely trickling in at this point. Ideally, we would have broken even a long time ago and found a nice rhythm where our daily sales can lead to a good projection for each quarter’s revenue. We’ll break even without any extra effort just because people are randomly finding out about the game – but in order to break out of this slump, it’s going to require more effort. One cause for optimism is that we haven’t launched in China yet, though a publishing deal has been in place since 2017. (Not their fault at all, obviously!) Now that the blockade on new government approvals seems to be ending, we’ll get up-and-running in that country hopefully by Q3 2019.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, I recently told the team my plan to re-invest the money Where Shadows Slumber made back into marketing so we can escape the doldrums. Only this time, that money won’t have to be paid back to the company. Game Revenant isn’t in debt or danger of bankruptcy, so we can use this money to boost the game. Then, each quarter’s revenue will go directly toward profit sharing so that everyone (including myself) can finally get some money in their bank accounts.
So, if you haven’t purchased our game yet, please do so! Hopefully our next financial report will be a bit more exciting. For those of you who are already super-fans, be on the lookout for some related merchandise coming from us in the coming weeks…
Now that our game has launched on Google Play, I’m making the rounds on Reddit showing it off to as many communities as possible. Do you have a Reddit account? Would you mind giving these posts a boost?
I realize this is kind of scummy – the whole point of Reddit is that the community decides what to upvote and downvote based on their hive-mind interest. But… we’re part of the community too, right?
Also, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to brag about how popular our game is on the /r/IndieGaming subreddit after posting just one GIF. Read on, and thanks in advance for the help!
Boost These Reddit Posts!
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to upvote the following posts:
We did really well here already. Shout-out to Grant for recommending we post here and giving me advice about how to get on the top page. My initial post was boring, long, and corporate – we shortened it to basically just a website link and let the game speak for itself. Nearly 5,000 people viewed this, and it only cost me a few minutes of my time. I’ll have to come back to this sub more often!
This post was dead on arrival, sadly. For a community as large as /r/Gaming, you’d expect more upvotes and comments. I doubt your help will get us on the front page, but you’re welcome to try. The front page of this sub is usually gaming memes or really popular titles.
Solid engagement here from a community that I confused with /r/IndieGaming. This sub is all about the developers, and the process of making games. People seemed to like our trailer!
There’s more where that came from. Comment below with your favorite subreddit – if I can somehow tie it to the game, I will. Next up, I’m going to post rainy GIFs to /r/ImaginaryRain and see if there’s a snow subreddit too. (I’m not kidding! Tell me your favorite subreddit and I’ll work a plug in somehow. As long as it isn’t a NSFW subreddit…)
BONUS: Robert Adams of TechRaptor Reviewed Us!
We met Robert a loooong time ago during Playcrafting’s Spring 2016 arcade event. He’s kept in touch with us all this time, eagerly awaiting the game’s release.
I feel bad that it took so long to get a build out to him, but he’s on Android instead of iOS. So when our game launched on iOS first, it took a while to get him a copy. Now that we’ve released the game on Google Play, he published his thoughts on TechRaptor. Here’s a sneak peek:
Where Shadows Slumber is a game that I’ve been following for some time. I first saw a tiny poster with intriguing art at a Playcrafting event and got to talking with one of its developers. Since then, I’ve anxiously followed the game’s progress and was finally able to get my hands on the final release. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely.
We want to extend a very hearty “thank you” to all of you Android gamers who patiently waited for our game to launch on your platform. It’s a shame we couldn’t do the App Store and Google play at the same exact time, but this strategy was a bit easier on our small indie team.
Note: If you get a strange message that the game needs to access the storage on your device, you can press “Deny” and the game will still work. We’re looking into why that false alarm is being triggered.
We Need Your Help!
First and foremost, grab a cup of tea and curl up on the couch with Where Shadows Slumber. You’ve waited a long time to play this, and we spent a long time working on it. You deserve to savor the moment.
When you’re done with that, go leave a 5 star review on the game’s store page! Look at it right now. One review?* Get in there, people! Let’s make this as popular as Monument Valley so Jack can retire and fulfill his lifelong dream of replacing author Stephen King and taking over his life without anyone noticing o_o. That’s a secret, but you read these blog posts for inside information, right? We trust you.
Seriously, go leave a review and share this link with your friends:
It’s always good to share some beautiful artwork of the game with your friends, instead of just shouting at them. Here’s the YouTube link to our promo video. Check it out, and share it on Facebook or Twitter! You can also boost our original post if you want to see how many Shares we can rack up on that bad boy.
Amazon Is Happening!
As we speak, our game is chugging along in Amazon’s review process. It’ll be there for another day at least, so if you have a Kindle… just wait longer! You’ve waited all this time, what’s one more day? If you want, you can keep furiously scanning the store page. It may randomly show up sometime during the evening!
Don’t worry – the game is coming to the Amazon App Store. I can’t promise that anyone will actually buy it there, considering it’s the smallest market, but it’s coming! Maybe we should have a stretch goal if we sell 10 units?
Thank you for your patience, Androids of the world. Your time to rise up and take your rightful place is finally here! We hope you enjoy the game [ ^_^]
Now that the development phase of our product life cycle is behind us, the Where Shadows Slumber team is putting all of its focus behind advertising the game in anticipation of our upcoming launch. Last night, I met with Alba, Noah, and Caroline at Buzzfeed’s NY headquarters to discuss our strategy. (Jack is knee deep in wedding preparation this week, but we sent him our notes afterward) Shout out to Caroline for hosting us and giving us a tour! The Buzzfeed offices are awesome. I made sure to line my pockets with free candy every time I said I was “going to the bathroom.”
We’ve been pretty transparent about our process these past two years. Though I won’t reveal our planned iOS release date in this post, I can share with you everything we discussed at our marketing meeting last night. I hope this give you a sense of how small indie teams try to spread the word about their products. You’ll notice we’re leaning heavily on free / earned advertising, with a smaller focus on paid advertising. You may also notice that this is a ton of work. As we say all the time, marketing is really a full time job! If you can get someone on your team who does that around the clock, go for it. Wearing multiple hats is pretty stressful.
OK, enough whining! Let’s dive into the details…
Teasing With Teasers
The standard formula for movie promotion these days seems to be:
Release a tiny teaser video that builds anticipation for a new product
Release a short video that announces the movie’s release date and builds anticipation for the next trailer
Release a trailer video that hypes up the final product once consumers can take some kind of market action (e.g. buying a movie ticket)
We decided to do something similar with Where Shadows Slumber. Over the next few weeks, you’ll see a few different videos go up on YouTube to announce the launch of the game. Alba composed different musical tracks for each video, and I’m going to film portions of the game to line up with them. (Play the audio file above to hear the rough cut – don’t worry, there isn’t supposed to be a video with it yet!)
Apple has a button on iTunes Connect that allows us to make the game available for pre-order. This wasn’t what we originally planned, but it seems like games that are available for pre-order are featured on a special part of the App Store. (Now that I have a bunch of iPhones lying around, I check the App Store constantly) If we can get on that pre-order list, we may be placed directly in front of a few million people each week. That would be awesome!
I’m not a big fan of pre-ordering games, personally. I tend to wait until games have been out for years before buying them. But I understand there are a lot of fans out there who don’t want to miss our game and want to play it the second it comes out. Also, any chance to get the game in a premium spot on the App Store is one we can’t afford to pass up. Stay tuned to this blog for more information! Teasers, trailers and announcements will all go up here as well as the Game Revenant Facebook Page, Twitter feed, and Instagram feed.
Journalists and Children First!
There’s another standard industry practice we decided to go with: emailing codes to reviewers ahead of time. Apple will give you 100 free promotional codes that allow iPhone users to download your game even if it’s not released to the public. As long as the build is in the iTunes Connect system and has been approved by Apple, they can use the code to get the game for 28 days.
Journalists will get the game ahead of time, and we’re going to insist that they don’t release their reviews before a certain date. (This date will be prior to the full release of the game, but will likely be after pre-orders have begun.) This is usually referred to as an embargo. I used to think it was a dirty word, but my feelings have changed now that I’m a publisher instead of a consumer. The purpose of an embargo is to make sure that smaller outlets don’t get left in the dust by big sites like IGN. You also want to ensure that people play your game thoroughly instead of rushing out a review. By telling people that their review can’t go live before a certain date, you’re giving everyone else time to catch up with the big boys.
We have no way of enforcing this. If Polygon decides to scoop everyone else, there’s nothing we can do against a media giant. I guess I just hold a grudge forever, and don’t send them a code next time? It’s a bit weird. Anyway, if you think an embargo is something only shady game developers do, I think you’re mistaken. If we insisted on a Day 1 embargo, though… that would be a different story. Reviews for the game will definitely come out before the game is playable by the public, have no fear!
The Where Shadows Slumber World Tour!
Ok, not really.
But at our meeting, we tried to list as many local educational institutions we could possibly think of, so we can go on tour giving lectures about the game. That probably doesn’t seem like something that would attract a massive audience, but I think it’s important. First of all, we’re all dying to talk about our game! We’d love to do a talk at the NYU Game Center, Stevens, some NY high schools, and any podcasts that would have us. We have so much knowledge to share!
More importantly though, we need content to post on our various social media channels to keep people engaged. We can’t just post GIFs of the game, or we’ll eventually give every one of our secrets away. So even if Jack and I talk about the game to a small room of 25 high school students, that video can then get posted to Facebook and reach 4,000 people. There’s really no speaking engagement too small or insignificant for us: everything can be spun into a good social media post.
Our list wasn’t very long, sadly. A lot of these institutions would rather see us become a success before booking us, rather than helping us attain success. No problem – I totally understand. We’ll see how the game does at launch, and try to jump from one talk to another. Hopefully we get to the point where people are dying to book us!
Do you have a classroom, podcast, or event that requires a speaker? Email me at contact@GameRevenant.com with details! We’re doing this pro-bono, so there’s no need for speaker fees or anything.
There aren’t too many conventions happening during the remainder of 2018, other than some Playcrafting stuff. So we’re definitely going to whatever Dan Butchko is throwing at the end of September / mid-October! If we put together an actual “tour,” I’ll put some kind of cool map graphic in a future blog post for you to all see. We might try for PAX East 2019, too. Man, it feels weird typing that. Remember PAX East 2017?
A Website Overhaul
Caroline mentioned last night that our current website could use an overhaul – it’s basically just a splash page right now, because that’s all we really needed. Fairly soon, we’ll be ready for the professional website to go live with screenshots from the final game and a few new features. I’m really excited about that! Web design was never my specialty, but it’s so important for putting on a good first impression.
Most people will experience our game for the first and only time through the App Store. But, for those fans who find out about our game via social media or some kind of ad, they’ll probably get sent to the website. What we have up right now is kind of like a demo website – it shows off the team, some awards we won, and our demo screenshots. We’ve also had a presskit up for a year or two, but I don’t know how many journalists availed themselves of that resource.
The new website should hopefully have a separate section for the team (so it doesn’t clog up the main stretch) as well as some sweet parallax effects. We checked out the Firewatch website and got a little jealous. Don’t be surprised if you see us do something similar in the future…
Wait – Are We Spending Any Money?
So far, everything we’ve mentioned has been free advertising. Since we don’t have any paid conventions planned, and the cost of train tickets to Brooklyn doesn’t really count, none of the above counts as “paid advertising.” That’s a good thing, because our tiny indie coffers are a bit empty these days.
However, we’ll be making use of a few sources of paid advertising. These ad networks let you dip your toe in the water with a little bit of money first before going crazy, so we’ll run some test ads on Facebook, Instagram, and Google Search. If you’ve ever wondered how these companies make money, this is how – from us! I also won a contest last year and was awarded $1,000 in credit for advertising on PocketGamer.com, so we may pick up one of their indie bundles.
Our budget is pretty low here: we’re talking less than $3,000 across ALL of these platforms, for the weeks leading up to launch and then a few weeks afterward. Personally, I would love to see the game make a ton of money before doubling down on these ads. I also need to check the stats on the ads themselves to see if people are really clicking through them to the App Store. If you aren’t careful, internet advertising becomes a dopamine game: put money in, see some orange bars fill up, get happy, and repeat. I want results! We may do an entire blog post about our ads if we get some interesting findings. Stay tuned…
Now that we have this plan in place, we have to actually do all of it! There’s still a few things left to plan, however. I want the team to have a spreadsheet listing every action item we need to do on launch day, with labels for who is responsible and the time this needs to go live. (This is stuff like “when do we post an announcement blog?” and “when do we all change our Facebook header to an advertisement for the game?”)
And of course, I need to plan out a whole series of teaser posts for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Our Instagram in particular could use some love… I’m just learning how to use that app, and we barely have any followers. I haven’t really spammed those channels over the past few years, but now is the time to let people know something is coming down the pipe. I always hear that you need to see something about 20 times before you’ll buy it. I’ve heard that at least 20 times, so it finally makes sense to me!
Jack and I first met in a sketch comedy group in college back in 2010. In that group, and in theater troupes around the globe, the week before opening night is usually referred to as “Hell Week.” For big productions, some things can only really be done at the last minute. (Lights, sound, final props, rehearsing on a real stage instead of a temporary space, catering) That means the final week before “showtime” is often spent running around like crazy doing a bunch of little tiny things that have been put off until now.
Is it procrastination? Is it just how this always goes? Who knows! Jack and I have only ever done this once before, years ago, when we released SkyRunner on Google Play and the App Store. (It has since been removed from the App Store because we let the Jack and Frank’s Magical Cruiseline Developer License lapse. Whoops!) Back then, things were much more relaxed. No one was really anticipating our fledgling student project. And we were fairly certain it was never going to go anywhere – we were just proud to make a game. We built it on a Saturday, hit submit, and never looked back.
This time around, things are different. There are a lot of moving parts to game development. Everything starts off cool and slow when you’re first testing out an idea. Then, international partners become involved, and a real schedule is expected of you. For the past few months, we’ve been emailing Apple saying “don’t worry, it’s coming, we just need more time!” This past week, we made good on the most recent roadmap we sent them.
Early this morning, we submitted Where Shadows Slumber to the App Store for review!
To celebrate, let’s explore what Hell Week looks like for a small team of distributed indies collaborating online to finish a game…
A Week Full of “Do It Later” Tasks
I must admit that I’m a severe procrastinator. My skill is to take something (like, say, a cutscene) and do a really great 80% job on it. Then, because there’s no one watching me to tell me to finish it, I’ll go: “Cool! Looking good. I’ll finish that later.”
As it turns out, the week before you build your game for the last time is what experts commonly refer to as later. This week, the tasks I put off for so long finally fell on me like a ton of bricks. I spent the majority of this week finishing the game’s remaining cutscenes as Jack optimized the game’s final Levels and cutscenes. Because my work wasn’t done, it held up his progress on optimization. For reference, optimized Levels look like the image above – they’re solid black since the lights work totally different in those Levels. That means it’s impossible for me to work in those Levels, so Jack needs to wait for me to finish my work and then duplicate the scene in Unity and optimize that. By Friday, I was finally able to get those done in time to review the text translation sent to us by Logrus IT. Jack put in the new text file and tested the game to make sure the final build worked as a cohesive whole.
Alba and Noah spent Hell Week adding the game’s final missing sounds and improving the cutscene audio. We neglected to put sounds into the game’s UI for a long time, just because there’s an unspoken rule that you do UI last because everyone forgets about it. Whoops! This is also the time to work on the “mix” – which they described to me as the audio volume of every different sound as they work in tandem together. Without this crucial polish step, sounds can crash on top of each other during gameplay. Alba and Noah worked to make them weave together smoothly.
Everything came down to the two build days – two days, Saturday and Sunday, focused entirely on testing and small changes. We were in Jack’s apartment huddled around his desktop as Alba and Noah worked fiendishly from Miami and Queens, respectively. I counted a total of over 18 hours over the course of both days spent just optimizing the game and doing a bunch of final changes! (Shout out to Jack’s fiancée and her sister for bringing us food on Saturday :D)
Like I said, some things have to wait until the end of the project before you can really do them. The weekend was spent putting in Jack’s final optimizations so the game runs smoothly on all phones. Then, those changes had to be tested on all of our iOS devices to make sure they didn’t cause other problems. I didn’t work nearly as hard as Jack did in these final hours, but it was important that I was there to give the artwork a final check. During optimization, a lot of the art rules changed: lights that used to stack on top of each other now blend smoothly together, for example. That looks awesome, but some tiny tweaks to their intensities and colors had to be made before we could ship it. That’s just one example of many little things we did over the weekend.
(Shameless plug: if you want us to come give a talk at your school, organization, or church, email me at contact@GameRevenant.com! We would love to go into more detail about how hard it is to make games!)
I don’t know if Jack knows this, but the main reason I wanted to work on games with him is because of his determination. Going into this Saturday build session, it didn’t look like we’d be able to send the game to Apple. The optimization process caused an unexpected crash on one of the game’s middle Levels, and I was pretty certain we’d need to delay internally again. But Jack never gives up, so we handled that bug, found some more, crushed them, and got everything done in time!
App Store Monday
Monday was another “put it all together” day, and it was technically the day Apple was expecting to receive the game. I spent all day putting our Store Listing together in iTunes Connect as Jack finished some tests and Noah and Alba worked on “mixing” the sound. Since I submitted the game early this morning at around 3:30 am EST, I guess it came in a bit late since that’s 12:30 am in California. Some things never change!
But even with all the stress, I can’t help but be astonished by what we’ve created. Look at the pictures up there, from our iTunes Connect submission. Seeing these beautiful images lined up like candies gave me a feeling of pride and accomplishment that I haven’t felt in a while! I’d totally buy this game if I saw it on the store… wouldn’t you?
At this point, our app is In Review,which means that the App Store employees are checking it for egregious errors or incompleteness. They’re strict about what they allow onto the store, but I have no worries that our app will be approved. Whether it will get promoted by Apple, or even the vaunted Editor’s Choice tag, is another story. We’re not releasing the game on iOS anytime soon, so they have plenty of time to look it over and decide amongst themselves. But the hard part is over – our game is fantastic, it’s uploaded to the App Store, and I’ve never worked so frantically before in my entire life!
This is also a long-winded way of saying you shouldn’t expect the game on Android anytime soon. Testing and perfecting for iOS took longer than we thought it would. (What else is new? LOL!) How long do you think it would take to test the game on Android while simultaneously not breaking anything we already did for iOS?
Please be patient with us! One of the coolest things about Where Shadows Slumber is that it is a labor of love created by hardworking indie developers collaborating remotely across the greater NYC area. That also means everything’s going to take a bit longer than you expect. You can send us nasty comments on Facebook about how Android owners are being treated like second class citizens, but that won’t help us make the game faster! (Besides, Jack and I both have Android phones, and we’d like the game on our devices one day too. Lighten up!)
Now, we enter an exciting new project phase. Jack and I are going down different paths now: I can only help him so much with the Android release. While he’s testing the game on tons of Android devices, I’ll help however I can with all-night testing sessions and really detailed QA reports.
But my job now is to coordinate our team’s marketing efforts and make the most of that iOS launch “bump.” We’re going to meet as a team to brainstorm ways to make the most of our upcoming release. We’re also working on a launch trailer that will make die-hard fans proud, and newcomers interested. It’s going to be epic! And yes, when the trailer launches, you will finally know our release date! Thank you for waiting so patiently.
This is the progress update I’ve been dying to write, and it’s finally here. The whole team is eager to show off the final game when it comes to iOS, and we’ll be working hard to make the Android version really awesome.
Next week, we’ll dive into our marketing efforts and the plans for our trailer. Or is it… trailers? Find out next week!
We’ve come to the part of the development cycle that no artist ever enjoys: the gold-stamping process. What is this mysterious “gold-stamping?” Why do artists despise it so? You thought it was just fixing bugs and making small tweaks, didn’t you? Well, read on to find out…
You’re reading the development blog for Where Shadows Slumber, a puzzle game coming to iOS and Android later this year. Check out our free Demo here.
Gold Stamping: The Point of No Return
Every project must come to an end eventually. In order to make sure your game is ready for the whole world to see, every piece of it must be tested individually. Then, the entire game has to be tested as one unit. Before we can move on to that final testing phase, every Level, Cutscene, and Menu in the game needs to be approved by three teams: Art, Sound, and Development.
The Art team is just me – and the Development team is just Jack. Alba and Noah work on Sound together. That means we need threeapprovals for each Level, Cutscene and Menu. Approval means “I’m done working on this Level forever – there is absolutely nothing left to do. Put it in the game.” (See the screenshot above for a look at our spreadsheet that has each Level listed as well as the “Gold” stamps)
There’s a specific order we have to do this in, as well. I need to put my “Gold Stamp of Approval” on Levels before Sound does, because I’m in charge of the game’s visuals. If I add a blazing torch to a Level after Sound has “gold-stamped” that Level, they’ll need to come back and give that torch some kind of looping audio. Art and Sound need to gold-stamp the Level before Jack takes over, because he’s duplicating each Level in the game into a separate file and running an optimization process on that Level.
This optimization process takes time, and destroys the editability of the scene. (By way of analogy, consider what happens to a Photoshop file when you Flatten it into a JPG file. The JPG takes up less space on your computer, but you lose the editable Layers from Photoshop) Jack is able to lower the time it takes your phone to render a frame of the game by “crunching” these Levels. If your phone can render a frame faster, the game will feel smoother. Players hate lag more than they hate bad graphics or design, because it interrupts the flow of play. Everything we’re doing now is to make the game run smoothly even on older devices.
But you can see the problem: if Art or Sound has to tell Jack that they made changes to a Level, one of two things happen:
(a) We need to make that change in both the original Scene and the crunched Scene
(b) OR… Jack needs to start the optimization process for that Scene over again
Option A introduces the possibility of human error. Have you ever made a mistake copying something down by hand over to another sheet of paper? Imagine that with a bunch of tiny numbers and sliders in Unity! Unfortunately, Option B wastes time we don’t have. And since “crunching” makes these Levels unable to easily edit, there is no Option C.
In the late stages of the project, we’re in a mad dash to finish each Level and hand them off to Jack. We’re a bit on top of each other at the moment, and tensions are high. Some of our beloved changes won’t make it into the first release of the game and may have to be stealthily added as a patch later on. (Shhhh don’t tell anyone I said that, blog reader)
Those are all the downsides of gold-stamping. Enough complaining: let’s talk about why this process makes the game so much better!
iPhone X Stretching
We began working on this game long before the iPhone X was announced. Since we designed the game in portrait mode, we planned for it to work in 9:16 resolutions as well as 3:4 resolutions. The plan was simple: we would assume you had the tiniest screen there was (9:16) and make sure you could solve the puzzle using everything you saw. And then, if you had a large screen, your screen would show more of the artwork surrounding the puzzle… but not any more key information. (Our demo works this way. Download it for free on a few devices to see what I mean.)
The iPhone X dashed our hopes when it launched, since it has a very thin and tall screen. When we booted it up on an iPhone X earlier this year for the first time, we noticed that key puzzle information was being cut off! Furthermore, there were sections above and below the Scene that I never planned for human eyes to see. We had to fill those sections in with art, or iPhone X users would know the game wasn’t made for them.
Here’s another analogy: imagine if you were designing the set for a Broadway musical. You do all your work, and then a week before opening night your director comes to you and says: “Listen, we’re lowering the stage by 2 feet and extending the ceiling by 2 feet above the stage. Do you think your set will still look good?”
The correct answer is: “yes, but I need to extend the artwork so it doesn’t cut off!” It’s ok if your art bleeds over into a section that human eyes will never see. But you can’t have your screen bleed over into artwork that isn’t finished or cuts off arbitrarily!
Fortunately, Jack solved our width problem by writing a Camera Resizing script that adjusts the Orthographic camera size to the proper width depending on your hardware. (Thank God for Jack, lol. Just that script alone would take me the full 3 years we spent working on this game to complete) I am solving our height problem by extending the shadowy silhouettes on each Level where appropriate, and adding more art where it’s necessary.
Low Poly Means Low Poly
When you set out to make a low-poly game, you aren’t just deciding on an art style. You’re also setting boundaries for how much the game will need to handle. This is why you’ll see a lot of cartoony artwork on mobile games and MMOs. Both of those are situations where you want the game to run on low end devices like old phones (mobile games) or old computers (MMOs). Cartoony graphics let you show what you want without having high-resolution textures or incredibly detailed model topology. It isn’t just an artistic decision – it’s also a marketing, business, and programming decision.
However, just because I said that I would do low-poly art doesn’t mean I kept my promise. There are a lot of Levels that go wildly above our Triangle / Vertex budget. (See the screenshot above, with emphasis on the Tris and Verts) Unity counts the number of Tris and Verts that are displaying on the screen at one time. Jack wants us to be well under 100k of each. That may sound like a high number, but you’d be surprised by how even simple scenes can skyrocket to 150k. When he finds Levels that are egregiously “over-budget,” he sends them over to me so I can make reductions.
Fortunately, Tri / Vert budgets are not like monetary budgets. If Jack told me not to spend $100,000 dollars, and then I bought a yacht, we’d be $100K in the hole. (But, we’d have a boat. Jack, I urge you to reconsider this proposal.) With polygons, as long as I cut down on fatty models before the game launches, no one will ever know. Except for the readers of this blog, of course. But you’re sworn to secrecy! Don’t share this post.
There is one more thing about this I discovered: Unity’s lighting system counts polygons in a very strange way. You can’t always trust their readout. I discovered that multiple lights require Unity to count the same object multiple times. If a cube has 8 Verts and one light is lighting it up, Unity will show 8 Verts. If there are six lights on it, Unity will show 48 Verts. So there’s some Levels that Jack will reduce once he does his big crunch, since he rewrote how our Lights will work to make them all act as one super-Light. (More wizardry, I’m sure.)
We’re doing all we can to make the game run fast on your phone. If it’s still lagging, get a new phone!
File Formats and Compression
This is the kind of boring stuff that puts artists to sleep, but it’s important. Unity imports textures, models, and audio files according to a standard. You can set the standard somewhere, but we never did. Instead, I am going through every file in the game and asking the had question: does this really need to be as large as it is?
The answer is usually “no!” which is good. I’m crunching a lot of textures down from 1024 x 1024 to 32 x 32 pixels, Unity’s smallest maximum size for images. Noah and Alba also did a bunch of audio crunching that I can’t really explain properly. You’ll have to wait for their revealing tell-all novella (Where Shadows Is Grongus: Nightmare Stories From Development Hell) for all the juicy secrets!
One more thing about textures: it might not be super necessary for me to make these textures smaller after all. Jack is actually doing this crazy optimization thing where we have every texture on one big image called a Texture Atlas. This image is as small as I can make it and has every texture in it laid out like a grid. We have one of these for every Scene in the game (Levels and Cutscenes) and when the game wants to render an object that uses a texture, it’s going to go to this image and pick from the proper coordinates.
This is insane and Jack explained it to me once and it’s insane and I’m sure it will make the game run super fast. If I’m remembering correctly, Jack told me that the rendering system needs to pause and switch gears every time it has to render a new Material. (So if the grass is GreenMaterial and the tree is TreeMaterial, the renderer needs to pause and switch) If it never has to switch like that, the rendering process should go way faster. The way to do that is to make one Material with the Level specific Texture Atlas called “Scene-0-2-Atlas” or something and put that on each object with the right coordinates. We’ll have fewer batches to render, and you’ll never even know what’s going on under the hood!
I’m going to stop giving the layman’s explanation here before I embarrass myself by showing my limited knowledge. But look forward to Jack’s upcoming tell-all blogella (Life With Frank: The Man Who KnewNothing) for all the juicy secrets!
See You In Hell
This is going to be a rough week. This lengthy process is taking longer than I would have liked, and I’ve been pulled away from animating the final cutscenes. I desperately want to get back on track so Alba and Noah have enough time to work on the audio score for the final cutscenes.
Thanks for reading this blog post – I have to get back to gold-stamping!
We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s development. Have a question about aesthetics that wasn’t mentioned here? You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.
Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber.