Our Demo: 1 Year Anniversary

One year ago, on November 1st 2016, we released a free Demo build of Where Shadows Slumber to the world. This marketing build has just 10 Levels and a cutscene at the end, yet it’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times by gamers all over the globe. We don’t get a chance to talk data often, but this post is dedicated entirely to discussing the performance metrics of our Demo. Towards the end, we’ll answer the burning question on your mind: was it worth it?

 


 

 

google-play-logo-2016

Google Play Lifetime Stats

The Demo performed the best on the Google Play store. I have a feeling that’s because the Demo is free, and people on the Google Play store tend to be younger / less willing to pay for games. When they see a free game that looks beautiful, of course they’re going to download it! Let’s dive into the Google Play Console and check out some of our stats…

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Left: the chart of app installs. Right: the chart of app uninstalls.

Installs and Uninstalls

First, the obvious: we’re two no-name developers living in Hoboken, New Jersey and 250,000 PEOPLE DOWNLOADED OUR GAME ON ANDROID!!!

\[ 0_0]/

*Ahem*

The lifetime chart of the Demo on Android shows that it went live in November and hit its peak in December, probably due to the Christmas holiday. I think it’s interesting to note that the first two months an app is live appears to be “prime-time.” Look at all those downloads!

Yet, even though we hit our lowest point (since the November we launched) in May 2017, we’ve consistently gotten more downloads every month after that. Rather than plateau, the app continues to outdo itself month after month. That’s crazy. I’m proud of that, and I hope this month’s downloads eclipse October’s, which is 26, 467. That’s pretty tough to beat!

Of course, the downside is that nearly everyone who installed the app promptly uninstalled it, most likely after completing it. I’m not shocked by that. This is just a demo. People want to play it and then get rid of it – it doesn’t really deserve to stay on their phone. I expect this behavior will continue with the final game, save for a few thousand people who feel sentimental and can’t bring themselves to delete it. I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to clearing space on my phone’s hard drive, so I don’t blame people for not sticking around. You might say our “retention” is terribly low. But I also don’t think it matters for Premium games the same way it does for Free games.

 

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Top: Our rating. Left: A chart of our rating over time. Right: A sample review.

Ratings and Reviews

As you can see in the charts above, our lifetime rating is quite high and we’ve received thousands of ratings. People have responded very positively to the Demo! The majority of our ratings are 5 Stars (4,149) with only a sliver of negative 1 and 2 Star reviews.

The graph of our rating is interesting. Starting with a perfect 5 Star rating at launch, we slowly drip down to a 4.6 (the bottom of the graph is 4.6, not zero!) by May 2017. Then, as indicated, the build adding a finale cutscene goes live. From there, our ratings steadily increase to the point we’re at now.

This is a really important moment in time, because Jack and I were nervous about how the story would be received. It’s a bit off – not quite what you’d expect from a puzzle game made in the image of Monument Valley. We expected more negative reviews. Instead, they’ve been largely positive. We kind of left people on a cliffhanger and they’re eager to find out just what the heck is going on.

At right, you’ll see a common review. Most of them are like this: people love the game, say they’ll buy it, but are disappointed that this is just a Demo. Truly, I have no idea how people missed this! The title of the app is Where Shadows Slumber Demo (Beta). There’s two keywords in that title that would tell you this is not a finished thing! But you can file that under “nothing is too simple for people.”

If you want to read more reviews, go to our Demo’s Google Play app page and flip through them. I could read them all day, but it would make my head get too big.

 

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The top 5 countries that downloaded our Demo.

Who Is Playing?

The top five countries that downloaded our game are South Korea, India, the U.S., France, and Mexico in that order. France and Mexico are nearly tied, and the U.S. isn’t too far ahead of them. But India has double our installs, and South Korea blows everyone out of the water. What the heck is going on?

It’s important to note that Jack and I went through the arduous process of paying for 14 languages of translated text and put them into the Demo. That means Indian players see the game’s app page in Hindi, as well as the in-game text. That’s a big deal. It means we’re meeting people where they are across a global market. We didn’t translate the game into any African languages, so it’s no wonder that entire continent is grey except Egypt. (We did translate the game into Arabic…)

Free games are really popular in Asia. To the extent that this Demo is a “free game,” that explains its success in South Korea and India. After all, it is a game that costs no money. So it is technically a free game! I do not expect this same success once the game costs $0.01 or more. We’re going to have to target the Asian market with a lower price than normal, or perhaps even a try-before-you-buy method where the first half of the game is free. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that these people downloaded our game and clearly loved it. But when the business model flips and we ask for their cash up front, I don’t expect to see South Korea or India to even make it into the top 10 list.

 


 

 

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App Store Performance

The App Store’s analytics aren’t quite as easy to decipher as Google Play’s… also, our performance on Google Play dwarfed the App Store in every possible way!

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From iTunes Connect – a chart of our App Units.

App Units vs. Impressions

Our performance on Apple makes more sense to me. We only “sold” 32,285 app units. We got over 200,000 lifetime impressions, but I don’t know what that means! That may just be when someone sees the game but doesn’t necessarily act upon that.

The chart of our downloads follows a pretty standard “flash-in-the-pan” trajectory. This may be partly because we were never able to upload our language translations to the App Store. I’ll discuss that a bit more when we get to my conclusions, but that’s my guess as to why we plateaued in May and never really rebounded.

It should be stated that App Store customers are the polar opposite of Android people – App Store customers probably want paid games and see “Free” as a mark of low quality. I expect these numbers to swap when the final game is released.

 

Apple-Review

Our dashboard for monitoring reviews. Note the total in grey on the right.

Ratings and Reviews

We didn’t get nearly as many reviews on the App Store – just 26 in one year. That’s probably all an indie developer can expect, but it doesn’t explain the disparity between this and Android. The reviewers were quite kind, and we have a 4.9 out of 5.0. However, with such a small sample size, that’s not as impressive.

 

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Who Is Playing?

Surprisingly, China is our top country on the App Store. I didn’t even know we had access to the Chinese App Store! I don’t know if we can trust those numbers. In second place we have the United States, and then Russia, Japan, and South Korea. These numbers are too small to really tell us anything meaningful, except that we should focus our efforts on China for the iOS release of this game!

 


 

 

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Amazon App Store Performance

The Amazon version of our Demo went up earlier this year, but there’s no way to really see how much traffic it has gotten. My guess is that no one besides Jack and I have seen it, since the only review is one that I left on the company account.

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My very serious review

If you have a Kindle or a Fire, please check out the Demo there! We’re doing a lot by trying to be on as many platforms as possible, and we could use the testing feedback.

I hope things will be better in the future with Amazon, but this isn’t promising. The company has gifted us four mobile devices to use for testing, as well as a guaranteed spot on the Amazon App Store feature banner at a time of our choosing. Let’s hope they have the install base to make it worth our time! We will not be coming to Windows Phone since those devices have been discontinued – I hope the same fate does not befall Amazon.

 


 

 

WorthIt

Retrospective: Was It Worth It?

After having our Demo available for free all this time, people often ask us “was it worth it?” What’s the point of releasing a demo so far in advance of the actual game? Don’t you want those people to pay for the real version? Won’t they forget about your game by the time it launches? Does anyone even make demos anymore?

That’s true – mobile gamers who stumbled upon our Demo a few months ago probably already forgot about us. They’re not eagerly anticipating the release of the final game. It probably isn’t even on their phone anymore! Just because this game is the center of our world, that doesn’t mean we can expect the same loyalty from some people who played a 15 minute trial. (Shout out to everyone reading this blog, because the previous paragraph clearly does not apply to you!)

It’s fine though, because none of that was ever the intended purpose of the Demo. All we needed were the following things:

  • A proof of concept that shows we can actually make something great
  • Something that claims the name Where Shadows Slumber before anyone else
  • quickly deployable version of the game to showcase at events
  • An easily submittable build that we can send to judges for contest submissions
  • Something that gives us experience dealing with the App Store and Xcode.

By these metrics, the Demo was a whopping success!

We proved to ourselves and our fans (and shadowy unnamed figures who can’t be named) that we can put together an awesome small indie game. Making something a little larger would take more time, but we already had the talent and the drive.

Judging by a Google search of “Where Shadows Slumber”, no one else has been able to claim that digital territory except for an old song from 2007. We’ve been in Google’s search algorithm for over a year, which can only help us in the long run when people try to find us online.

“The Demo has given us an air of legitimacy that many indie developers never consider when releasing their game into the wild.”

Any time we go to an event and the current build of the game isn’t ready to show real people, we just default to the Demo and it’s no problem! In fact, those events go even smoother than when we try to show off the development build. As for contests, having a no-strings-attached build out in the wild makes online applications a breeze. I’ve already got a folder filled with screenshots, videos, and a recent .APK that I can throw in there. I don’t know how many festivals want to feature our Demo, but at least they’ll remember us when we return next year with a finished game.

The App Store is an odd one. Technically, our Demo shouldn’t even be on there because Apple forbids you from submitting them. We slipped through the cracks five times! I don’t think that’s an endorsement of our talent, but rather an indictment of Apple’s system of judging builds. Perhaps we’re on borrowed time, and they’ll delete it any day now. Who knows? It doesn’t matter – between our Demo and the previously released SkyRunner, we’ll be Xcode pros by the time we jump in there a third time for the final release of Where Shadows Slumber.

In the end, it was definitely worth it to produce our Demo. Yes, it’s maddening to watch our game grow better every day knowing that people’s only conception of it is a year-old marketing build. But it will all be worth it in the end when we get to show the world what we’re working on! The Demo has given us an air of legitimacy that many indie developers never consider when releasing their game into the wild.

In the meantime… (I’ll have to train myself to not say this automatically, because I’m so used to it by now) …download our Demo. It’s free!

 

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Thanks for reading this long-form business analytics update. If you came here from Reddit, please be kind! You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.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.

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Hacks Versus Designs

I remember back in the day, when computers and programming were first becoming somewhat ‘cool’. Back then, the coolest thing you could be in the computing world was a ‘hacker’. Hackers were awesome renegades who could tear down opposing systems using nothing but their superior intellect. Being able to hack was one of the best skills you could have. Now, after studying and working in computer science for a while, the term ‘hack’ has taken on a very negative connotation.

When you’re writing code, there are several things that you’re aiming for. The two broadest and most important of these are:

  1. The code works – it does what you intend for it to do.
  2. The code is good – it’s efficient, understandable, and easy to use/improve.

It seems like these two things would go hand-in-hand, and for well-designed code, that is often the case. However, the road to that ‘well-designed’ code is often fraught with terrible, terrible code. So, what’s the intrinsic difference between these two goals, and how does it lead to bad code?

 

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Hack First, Ask Questions Later

When you’re working on a large, intricate system, and you need to add something or make a change, these two goals lead to two different types of results – a hack, or a design:

  • A hack is a piece of code with only the first goal in mind – you’re just trying to ‘make it work’. You don’t want to put a lot of thought or time into the implementation, you just want it to work.
  • A design has both goals in mind – you’re spending time to come up with a good solution. You’re willing to work a little harder to end up with a more robust, long-loving solution.

Designing a solution to a task leaves you with good code. It’s easy to understand, easy to use, and easy to update. The algorithm makes sense, not just in terms of “does it do what I want”, but also in terms of “does it make sense with the theory behind it”.

Looking at these two descriptions, it’s pretty easy to see – designs are better than hacks. So why would anyone ever want to use a hack to get something done? There are a few reasons.

Designs take more time. You have to come up with a solution, consider its long-term viability, consider how it will interact with every part of your system, present and future, tweak it accordingly, and make sure that it still matches the theory of your application. A hack, on the other hand, involves simply coming up with a quick and dirty solution, and implementing it.

Designs require deeper understanding. In order to fully understand the impact of your newly-designed code, you have to completely understand the current state of your application, remember all of the assumptions you made when coding it, and ensure that your new stuff won’t interfere with any existing stuff (Note that this is much harder to do on a larger team, as there are areas of the code you may not be as familiar with).

Designs are often much larger in scope. When designing a solution, it will often involve creating a ‘system’ or ‘engine’ of sorts. Not only does this take longer to think through and implement, but it also opens the door to a lot of subtle interactions between systems. Hacks are (usually) much more localized – “I’m gonna make this hack here, but I won’t use it in other places”.

You don’t want to spend a lot of effort on code that will be replaced eventually. This is really just a combination of the above points, but it’s an important reason why hacks exist. If you have to update a small piece of code, but you know that you’re going to come in and change the whole thing next month anyways, why would you put a lot of time and effort into designing a solution when a quick, hacky fix will do the trick?

Looks about right Cropped

This is what happens when you leave hacks in your code!

 

Here’s An Example

Let’s say you’re you’re working on a pretty simple game in a pretty simple game engine, using a pretty simple programming language (hint: this means I’ll be using pseudo-code rather than real code). You’ve got your character on the screen, and you want to make him move back and forth along some flat ground whenever you hit an arrow key. You might start out with something like this:

if (keys.leftArrow) {
  dudeGuy.position.x -= 10;
}

if (keys.rightArrow) {
  dudeGuy.position.x += 10;
}

Pretty simple and straightforward – if you’re pressing the left arrow key, move your dudeGuy to the left, and if you’re pressing the right arrow key, move him to the right.

So, you use this code for your movement, and it works, and you continue working on your game. Then, suddenly, you have an epiphany – what if your dudeGuy could jump? You add a variable and hook it up:

int jumpingTimer = 0;

...

if (keys.spaceBar && jumpingTimer == 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y += 30;
  jumpingTimer = 3;
}

if (jumpingTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y -= 10;
  jumpingTimer--;
}

As you continue making your game, you design some levels where you realize that you want the gravity to be less strong, so you have to account for that:

float gravity = 10;

...

if (keys.spaceBar && jumpingTImer == 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y += 30;
  jumpingTimer = 30 / gravity;
}

if (jumpingTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.y -= gravity;
  jumpingTimer--;
}

Then you realize that your back-and-forth movement looks pretty choppy, so you decide to add some ‘smoothing’, so your dudeGuy speeds up and slows down:

int movingLeftTimer = 0;
int movingRightTimer = 0;
int jumpingUpTimer = 0;
int jumpingTimer = 0;
float gravity = 10;

...

if (keys.leftArrow) {
  if (movingLeftTimer < 3) {
    movingLeftTimer++;
  }
} else if (movingLeftTimer > 0) {
  movingLeftTimer--;
}

if (movingLeftTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.x -= 10 / (4 - movingLeftTimer);
}

if (keys.rightArrow) {
  if (movingRightTimer < 3) {
    movingRightTimer++;
  }
} else if (movingRightTimer > 0) {
  movingRightTimer--;
}

if (movingRightTimer > 0) {
  dudeGuy.position.x += 10 / (4 - movingRightTimer);
}

if (keys.spaceBar && jumpingTimer == 0) {
 dudeGuy.position.y += 30;
 jumpingTimer = 30 / gravity;
}

if (jumpingTimer > 0) {
 dudeGuy.position.y -= gravity;
 jumpingTimer--;
}

And,  before you know it, with only a few changes to what we were trying to do, we end up with a piece of code that’s incredibly messy, almost impossible to understand, and prone to bugs and off-by-one errors. Honestly, I just wrote this thing, and I have no idea what it’s supposed to be doing.

Now, this example is a bit of an esoteric one, just to prove a point. However, it is definitely not the worst code I’ve ever seen (or written), and that’s saying something. What should we have written instead? Well, if you couldn’t guess, the above code is an example of a hack (or a number of hacks put together). Rather than examining what it was we needed in the long run, we repeatedly implemented something that did the job in the short term. So, let’s make a design for this use-case, and think about what we need overall.

We want to be able to move left/right, jump, have different values for gravity, and have smoothing on our movement. This sounds a bit like actual physics, so lets steal some important concepts from them – acceleration and deceleration. We’ll determine some rules that match our design, modify the dudeGuy’s acceleration in each direction based on those rules, and then move his position all at once:

float maxSpeed = 10;
float acceleration = 3;
float jumpAcceleration = 10;
float gravity = 3;
float friction = 5;
float minY = 0;

float vx = 0;
float vy = 0;

...

// If the left arrow key is down, accelerate to the left
if (keys.leftArrow) {
  vx -= acceleration;
}

// If the right arrow key is down, accelerate to the right
if (keys.rightArrow) {
  vx += acceleration;
}

// If the spacebar is down and the dudeGuy is on the ground, accelerate upwards
if (keys.spaceBar && dudeGuy.position.y == minY) {
  vy += jumpAcceleration;
}

// Accelerate downwards for gravity
vy -= gravity;

// Decelerate for friction
if (vx > 0) {
  vx -= friction;
} else if (vx < 0) {
  vx += friction;
}

// If we're going to fast to the right, slow us down to the max speed
if (vx > maxSpeed) {
  vx = maxSpeed;
}

// If we're going to fast to the left, slow us down to the max speed
if (vx < -maxSpeed) {
  vx = -maxSpeed;
}

// Update the dudeGuy's position based on our current velocity in each direction
dudeGuy.position.x += vx;
dudeGuy.position.y += vy;

// If the dudeGuy is below the ground, move him up to ground level
if (dudeGuy.position.y < minY) {
  dudeGuy.position.y = minY;
  vy = 0;
}

While we have a similar number of lines of code here, it’s much clearer what’s happening on each line. Every block serves an easy-to-understand purpose, and making changes to the ‘rules’ of movement is very easy. There are a lot of different ways to improve this code, depending on your game’s overall design, but this is a decent, and most importantly simple, place to start.

Another important feature of this piece of code is that it is well documented. Every block is pretty small, but it still has a comment describing the purpose of the block. This is an extremely important part of programming in the context of larger systems – you want to make sure that you (or anyone else) can quickly understand what your code is doing, especially in complex cases. Even though some complex logic might seem simple to you, it’ll definitely seem more difficult when you come back to it in 6 months!

 

A Necessary Evil

Unfortunately, hacks are a necessary evil. While I would love to only ever have to deal with and implement beautifully-designed code, that world doesn’t exist. There’s always a timeline, there are always changing assumptions and new features, and there’s always someone who wants it to be finished yesterday. Inevitably, you’re going to have to write some code quickly, implement a feature that’s likely to change, or come up with a simple ‘solution’ to a difficult problem. In cases like this, you’re forced to use a hack.

Hack

I mean, it works… technically…

It’s not all bad, though. While hacks in general are pretty bad, they can be manageable if you make sure to use them correctly. In fact, I would be willing to bet that any system currently in production (of a certain size) contains quite a few hacks. There are certain qualities that hacks can have which make them a little bit more manageable, and you should try to aim for them whenever you find yourself implementing a hack:

  • Understandable – It’s important that, whatever your hack is, anyone else looking at the code can understand what you were trying to do, and how your hack works. This means leaving a lot of comments around your hack, as well as simplifying the logic as much as possible.
  • Localized – If you have to hack something in, you want it to only be in one place. Every time that code path is used, there’s a chance that something will go wrong. If your hack only touches a small part of your system, then its negative effects will be much less noticeable. This means that frequently-used code paths should never really have hacks in them, while hacks in rarely-used code paths are more acceptable.
  • Known – This is, to me, the most important part of making a hack. If you hack something in and then forget about it, when your system starts failing, you won’t know where to look. If you make sure you remember it (by writing it down somewhere and then telling every person you know), then you’ll know where to look if something goes wrong. On top of that, you’ll always have that hack in the back of your mind, so you’ll be more likely to think of a good design to replace it.

If you follow these guidelines and make sure to try to go back and fix them, then putting hacks into your code won’t end up destroying you.

I hope this was helpful to those of you just starting out in game development – or anything which involves designing complex systems! For those of you who already know a little something about computer science, I hope this at least reinforced your burning hatred of hacks!

 

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If you want to know more about how to deal with hacky code, or what kind of hacks are in Where Shadows Slumber so that you can exploit them, feel free to contact us! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

IndieCade 10 Disappoints

Directly after my trip to Unite Austin, I flew straight to Los Angeles for IndieCade. I had never been to the show before, even though I’ve known about it for a few years now.

Ever since the Mr. Game! days, I’ve submitted games to their contest. It was a long-shot to assume that SkyRunner would make it in, but I thought we had a better chance with Where Shadows Slumber this year. I’ve never made it in to the showcase, and this year was no exception, but I’ve always wanted to figure out what kind of games IndieCade is looking for. On the bright side, they allowed me to show off the game during one of their show and tell segments! More on that later.

Jack and I went to IndieCade East a while back and really enjoyed it, so I thought I would do some field research on the main event and get some game testing in at the same time! Unfortunately, as I sit here writing this at my desk back in New Jersey, I’m struck by this awful realization: after 10 years in operation, IndieCade still doesn’t know how to put together a well-run event.

 

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Red Flags From The Start

Friday morning was incredibly stressful, and that feeling lingered on for the rest of the day. When I went to pick up my badge in the morning, I was dismayed to find a long single-file line that lead to a tent where one person was slowly handing out wristbands. As we all burned in the unforgiving Los Angeles sun, I started to freak out. IndieCade scheduled a talk with me and Oculus that morning and it didn’t look like I’d make it in time. Fortunately, Anita swooped in at the last second and just brought me to my meeting.

Oculus’ outreach team wanted to meet developers at IndieCade, and not just the ones presenting. Even though I’m working on a mobile puzzle game, I was able to meet Chris Jurney of Oculus! I tried to meet him at GDC 2017, but he was in meetings all day. But this time, I was the meetings all day >:). We discussed Where Shadows Slumber, and my post-release plans. Although this game can’t really ever come to VR, I do find the virtual reality medium pretty intriguing. They’re going to hook me up with an Oculus headset, which is insane. I’ll take it!

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From there, I went over to Game Tasting. Although Where Shadows Slumber was not an official IndieCade selection, they were nice enough to invite me to show off the game between 12 pm to 2 pm during the Game Testing segment. This is like IndieCade Lite, a quick look at some games that didn’t make it. To be honest, I liked the games near me even more than the ones at the official showcase! But we’ll discuss that more later.

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How can you say “get out, bum” to this face?

Due to some persistence (and my innocent baby face) I was able to get a second Game Tasting slot later that same day between 4 pm to 6 pm. In between, I saw a depressing talk about how Xbox Live Indie Games as a service is going to be shut down. That’s the first time I ever heard of that! It went offline the next day.

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After I fulfilled my obligations to IndieCade, I finally got a chance to grab dinner and explore around 7:30 pm. What I saw did not impress me. Although the Japanese American National Museum is a beautiful building, it makes for an awkward venue. Games seemed to be strewn about haphazardly, taking up space in crowded rooms while other larger halls remained inexplicably empty. Perhaps the most striking visual dissonance I witnessed was the IndieCade banner standing in front of a reproduction of a Japanese Internment shack. The banner screamed Enjoy some unique cool games! while the shack screamed Franklin D. Roosevelt violated the constitutional rights of over 100,000 American citizens and some people still say he’s their favorite president.

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Recreation of Japanese internment shack (left) and IndieCade’s banner (right)

It appears that this is their first year in this new venue, so I’ll cut them some slack on that end. They need to find their footing by next year’s IndieCade though, because this could really sink them. Many times, the exhibits on Japanese-American history were more interesting than the games being shown next to them. I don’t know why IndieCade has chosen to distract attendees from their games by putting them right next to compelling American history displays. Many times I found myself walking away from the dry non-games being exhibited to read more interesting plaques about Japanese immigrants coming to America. Perhaps the choice of a museum is to remind everyone that games are art and not just commercial products, but the venue put unnecessary strain on a show that’s already hanging by a thread.

 

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The Main Showcase

The main showcase of IndieCade had some of the strangest games I’ve ever seen. I believe that is the point of the show – to showcase the odd side of video game innovation. There were role-playing games that used only food and speech as a medium. Some games had unique controllers (like a giant inflatable sphere you played inside) that could never be mass produced and sold, which is why they can really only be displayed at IndieCade. A few games required large spaces to play in, or elaborate setups like a mock office area. As my friend said to me on Saturday, “IndieCade is good, because if they didn’t showcase these games, how would anyone else find out about them?”

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He’s right, of course. However, these games lose their power when stacked on top of each other like this. Although they may stand out at a conference like PAX East, at IndieCade everything blurs together into a politically left-leaning parade of grad-student quality propaganda. It’s hard to stand out when you’re put next to 29 similar games in a room titled LOOK AT ALL THESE THINGS THAT ALL STAND OUT!

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“The Hackers of Resistance (HORs) is a queer transfeminist hacker collective of artists, activists, researchers, cyborgs, witches, and technologists, of color.”

The strangest thing I “played” was an interactive experience called “Hackers of Resistance” that took place in a 10 x 10 area enclosed by pipe and drape. The designers of the experience decorated the room like a makeshift hacker den out of something like Mr. Robot. As we hacked our way to destroying the Trump administration, I couldn’t tell if I was taking part in a delusional liberal fantasy or brilliant conservative parody. (Seriously, read that caption again and tell me that doesn’t sound like something Kat Timpf would write)

Given the setting, I decided it must be the former, but the dreadful acting of the performers kept me guessing until the very end. Since this game is essentially an interactive installation that requires a physical space, you can see why IndieCade is just about the only place it could be setup. That’s fine by me! But I can’t help but think that IndieCade is doing its political messages a disservice by painting them as obscure. Think about it – they’re highlighting the strangest elements of the left-wing game industry and then purposely branding them as “weird” and “strange.” Don’t they want their political beliefs to be seen as mainstream instead? In its desire to seem weird, it makes them seem weird, too.

I’m quite used to blatant political messaging in the game industry these days, so that wasn’t even my biggest problem with IndieCade. What bugged me is that the show seemed dreary. The showcase was supposed to stay open until 10 pm, but by 8:30 many developers had abdicated their booths. I don’t blame them – many said they had been there since 4 pm. Giving people a long shift like that at the end of the day is bad planning on the part of the organizers. I would have liked to play more, but the venue depressed me. Around this time, a show like Unite would just be getting started with fun parties that last until 1 am. IndieCade was like an old man who was up past his bedtime at 9 pm, and went up to bed before his guests went to sleep.

 

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It’s Not All Bad

Before you think that I’m just a mean-spirited wet blanket who flies across the country to have a miserable time on purpose, let’s talk about my favorite three games from the showcase!

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Bit Rat is a cool futuristic puzzle game for PC where you play as a rogue A.I. construct trying to escape your company. I didn’t get a chance to play it because the tables were always packed, but you should check it out! The pixel aesthetic really works for the type of game this is, and the puzzles seemed quite difficult.

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Keyboard Sports: Saving Qwerty is an absolutely hilarious PC game where you use the keyboard to control your character’s position. That may not sound special, but I mean that quite literally: you don’t use keyboard keys to issue commands like “go right” or “go left.” Instead, the keys on your keyboard are mapped to physical locations within the game! See the tutorial level above, for example, where the spacious couch (hehe) is mapped to the space bar. There’s always an overlay on the screen so you can kind of gauge what to do, but it’s constantly changing which adds to the humor.

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Detention is a point-and-click horror puzzle adventure game set during a dark period in Taiwan’s history. I could have used less jump scares, but the overall experience is really tight. The actual mechanic this game uses for its monsters is one of the creepiest I’ve ever seen, but it’s apparently pretty common in China. You hold your breath to avoid being captured by ghosts! I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s very scary and I wish more games would do stuff like this. Incorporating folk tales into games is a great source of inspiration.

These three games showcase what IndieCade should be about, in my opinion. Alternative control schemes like the one found in Keyboard Sports are innovative, but still accessible to a wide audience. Cultural inspiration, as seen in Detention, doesn’t have to be overly preachy. Games can be weird and still be very well-made and polished, like Bit Rat. Too often, games at IndieCade use their “strange” identity as a shield to protect against the criticism that all game developers have to deal with. There’s no excuse for bad artwork, buggy code, or toothless gameplay – the label “indie” does not mean “I get away with delivering a lower quality product.” Anyway, instead of castigating more of IndieCade’s worst offenders, I’d rather show off the ones I enjoyed playing. Best of luck to these three games!

 

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By Sunday, The Nominee Gallery Vanished

By the final day of IndieCade, the Nominee Gallery was closed because an unrelated event was taking place in their room. (It seemed to be a Japanese-American dinner honoring some of the elderly in the community, but I didn’t pry too much.) Standing outside the venue, I heard quite a few people complaining.

“I was going to see the Nominees on Sunday, but they’re gone!”

The only thing more disappointing than not enjoying the official showcase is being robbed of an entire day to experience the official showcase. It’s just another bad choice by the staff – why wouldn’t you make sure your main showcase runs all three days? They were forced to do this because of the previous bad decision to host the event in a busy museum. Fortunately, I saw all I needed to see of the Nominee Gallery. But put yourself in the shoes of someone who bought a Sunday pass!

 

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The Talks Depended on the Room

I stand by the statement above: your experience going to the panels and talks at IndieCade will vary wildly depending on which ones you attended. The deciding factor seemed to be the room you chose.

I quite enjoyed the puzzle talk by Linelight creator Brett Taylor and Semblance creator Ben Myres. There was a talk about how to make “AAA Indie Games” by husband-and-wife team Tristan and Aby Moore. “50 Ways to Fail in VR” was a ton of fun, a great talk by Mike Murdock about hard lessons learned making virtual reality games. What did these games have in common? They took place in small classrooms with a simple projector screen and whiteboard. They also filled up quite fast!

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Brett and Ben tell us a bit about their games before their fireside chat about puzzle design.

The talks that served only to waste my time took place on the main stage; a large theater-styled presentation area with a massive projector, a tech booth, and tons of audio equipment. The IndieCade staff seemed woefully inadequate at operating this room. One talk started fifteen minutes late due to technical difficulties. At one point, ten minutes deep into technical drama, an exasperated technician scolded at the audience:

“Does anyone have an HDMI to VGA cable?! That’s what’s holding us up here!”

…as if I flew across the country and booked a hotel in an expensive area of Los Angeles just to personally hand-deliver you a cable you had months to purchase. Seriously, dude?

 

It Gets Worse Before It Gets Worse

But by far, the worst talk at IndieCade was the final one with Keita Takahashi, of Katamari Damacy fame. This was supposed to close out IndieCade with an intimate chat between the audience and a veteran game developer. Instead, it served to expose more flaws in the organizational structure of IndieCade. Find it online if you want to waste 50 minutes of your life.

I don’t have anything against Mr. Takahashi. He seems like a cool guy, and he has a wonderfully child-like sense of humor. But they evidently didn’t give him an agenda for this talk, because he began by trying to find his childhood home in Google Earth. As he struggled to do this, I realized both he and Brandon Boyer were trying to run the talk via their mobile phones for some inexplicable reason. This would become a recurring feature of the talk – waiting for the screen to slowly load whatever was on their phone.

The decision not to give Mr. Takahashi a translator was also mind-boggling. I felt bad for him – English is not his native language, and he is not fluent by any means. With no talking points or written speech, he spent half the talk fumbling around in Google Maps until that got old and they transitioned to Question and Answer time. It’s a shame they didn’t focus more on the few interesting bits of the talk, like his inspiration from Japanese sculptor Taro Okamoto. Without a solid plan, I can’t blame them for bombing on stage. When it comes to stuff like this, I usually blame whoever is at the top making the decisions that cause people to fail.

 

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Next time, Visit charming Little Tokyo, but skip IndieCade.

The Final Verdict

I’m not going to submit my games to IndieCade anymore, and I can’t see myself returning to the show any time soon. If you’re still interested in it, follow my guidelines below and I can help you avoid disappointment.

Should I attend IndieCade? If you live within walking or brief driving distance, there’s no reason not to go. Don’t spend money on a hotel or air travel, though. This show doesn’t deserve national or international attention in its current state. As a local show, it would be pretty awesome though.

What kind of pass should I get? I can’t see any reason why you would need more than a single day pass, probably Saturday. That had the biggest crowd. The games were all there. Besides, your wristband could probably get you in on Sunday too. They were all the same color.

Should I submit my game to IndieCade? Unless your game is as weird as some of the other stuff they highlight, don’t bother. There are two caveats: If your game is brazenly political and decidedly left-of-center, you’re good. Also, if you can modify your game to be super weird just for this show, go for it.

Will I fit in at IndieCade? Probably not. For a show that brags about its inclusive nature, it operates more like an exclusive club. IndieCade isn’t for everybody, whether its organizers want to admit it or not.

 

IndieCade Isn’t Fun

Before I went to IndieCade, I didn’t think all games had to be “fun.” I assumed that was a corporate label slapped on the industry that only applied to mass market games. “Games don’t need to be fun! It’s enough if they’re just engaging, interesting, or weird” I thought to myself. Oh, Frank-of-Last-Week… you were a fool!

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After playing scores of dull games at IndieCade, I’ve flipped my stance. I think fun is more important than ever, especially when you’re trying to make a game that deals with hard problems. I saw a lot of games that promised to tackle heavy issues (“this is a game about dealing with mental illness,” etc) but the only things the player could do were (a) walk around a 3D environment and (b) look around a 3D environment. That’s not innovative, and it doesn’t keep its promise either. The Spaces exhibit at IndieCade featured at least three of these. We wouldn’t stand for that if a AAA studio did that. Why do we accept this from indies?

What I think they’re missing is that fun is an important numbing device that helps people through painful topics. Without it, your work will just end up stressing people out and repelling them.

That stressful anxiety I felt since Friday morning was still with me by the show’s end. I felt it as I left the museum and passed by the ghostly faces of Japanese-American prisoners one last time. Death seems to haunt IndieCade, and I wonder if the show will be over for good sometime in the next few years. You’re either growing or dying, and IndieCade did not project strength during their 10th year in operation.

 

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Frank DiCola is the founder of Game Revenant and the artist for Where Shadows Slumber. The views expressed in this blog post are his own and do not reflect the opinions of anyone else on the Where Shadows Slumber team.

An Indie Developer’s First Trip to Unite

I’ve been an avid Unity user for nearly 5 years at this point. Without this creative tool, I would not be making games. It’s as simple as that. I owe a lot to this engine; it’s making my dreams come true. It’s even changed the landscape of the commercial game engine market. (Remember when the Unreal Engine 4 had a monthly subscription?)

Despite my love for Unity, somehow I never had the chance to attend Unite, their flagship conference. At Unite, they gather developers, influencers, sponsors, speakers, and Unity employees under one roof for two days of workshops. I finally decided to go when I saw they were holding one in Austin, Texas. Just a short plane ride away, compared to some of the other places they hold this show. Just in the next few weeks, they have three events across the globe: Unite Melbourne, Unite Singapore, and Unite India!

Have you ever been to Unite? No? Then this is the blog for you. It’s a straightforward account of my travels this past week to Unite Austin 2017. If you’re deciding whether or not to go, I hope this honest blog helps you make a decision.

 

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Day 1: “Keynote? Never Heard Of Him.”

Time to confess… there is one problem with this blog: I completely missed Day 1 of Unite, so I can’t tell you what it was like!

I meant to be there, but my flight got rerouted in mid-air to Dallas because of weather in Austin. We stayed at that airport for 2 hours before taking off again. I was supposed to have gotten in around 4:30, which would have been just enough time to check into my hotel and walk across the street to the Austin Convention Center. Instead, we landed at 8:00 pm… right when things were wrapping up and badge pickups had already closed. Damn!

Perhaps you can consider this a cautionary tale. If your travel plan relies on everything going perfectly, you’re not planning – you’re dreaming.

You can check the schedule to see what happened, because your guess is as good as mine. There was a keynote talk, and I’m sorry I missed it! They put it online here.

 

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Day 2: Party Time!

Day 2 was my first real day at Unite. This was my chance to familiarize myself with the main showcase, the talks, and the crowd. My first impressions:

  • Unity gives out free food at breakfast and lunch and it’s really good
  • There weren’t as many people as I was expecting. Or perhaps Unity chose a convention space that was a bit too large for this show?
  • The main showcase seemed underwhelming…

The negative first impressions didn’t really last though. As I went about exploring I found there was plenty to do and tons of people to meet. In fact, Unity scheduled some meetings with me prior to the show, which surprised me! Their Analytics team wanted to meet face-to-face to ask me user questions. I really appreciated that, even if I didn’t personally gain from it. The fact that they want feedback that badly shows me they care about constantly improving the engine, which is a good sign.

The schedule for the talks is online (you can find them here), but if you were wondering what was in the main showcase, I saw the following:

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(a) This live talk show segment being filmed that you could watch

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(b) A live demo area that was for mini-classes

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(c) An Ask The Experts section where you could sit down with Unity employees

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(d) Unity demos with members of the company nearby to explain the tech

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(e) The usual showcase of professional, released games Made With Unity

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(f) A separate showcase for VR titles Made With Unity

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(g) A gallery of printed images, which I was not expecting!

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(h) Booths for sponsors and partner companies, like Nintendo

I didn’t realize this, but Day 2 is also party night apparently! Unity knows how to throw an awesome party. I went to three! First, there was an Amazon App Store party. I believe they invited us because the Where Shadows Slumber demo is on their store. After speaking with one of their developer outreach leads, they even gave me an Amazon testing device!

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What an unexpected surprise!

Then I went to the Unity Analytics party, which was a happy hour before the real deal – the Unite party. It was insane, man. They rented out an entire venue called Fair Market and had the whole thing catered! There were taco stations, chili bowls, dessert food trucks, an open bar… I went a little wild. I didn’t leave until 10:30. :0

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It might seem weird to keep mentioning the parties and the food, but it gets to the core of what Unite is. Don’t go into this expecting some kind of staid business trip. You can totally get a lot done – just networking with Unity employees was worth the money. But I think the real way to enjoy Unite is to treat it like a big gathering of indie devs who just want to talk, hangout, and get to know each other. I wish I knew that going in.

Recognize that the price of admission also covers events that are meant to promote bonding and companionship. Take the name literally! It’s not just wordplay – this is really about remote developers coming together and uniting!

 

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Unity takes their food seriously.

Day 3

By Day 3, I found my footing. I went to a steady stream of talks, with time in between to attend some of the mini-lessons given by Unity. Their employees are so friendly! I missed an entire talk about the Unity Profiler, so I went up to the presenter and asked for help. Not only did he help me, we went to the Ask The Experts section and spent a full half-hour going over Where Shadows Slumber and how to optimize mobile games. It was incredible!

The talks I went to definitely varied in quality. There were some I was looking forward to that really disappointed me (the “Lessons Learned from PSVR” one was not as fun as the description indicated), and others that didn’t seem relevant at first, but totally inspired me. By far, the best one was a talk about this Walking Dead mobile game by Jason Booth of Disruptor Beam.

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Go find this online when he posts it. There’s so much information coming at your face, your face is going to leave your body to find a new one. And that that body will EXPLOOOOODE WITH KNOWLEDGE! He wasn’t shy about the parts of Unity that he didn’t like. That just made me trust him more! Essentially the talk was all about how they got this ridiculous massive world to show up even on lower-end mobile devices. His command of graphics and optimization was impressive.

 

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Hoping to Return

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Los Angeles. (I went straight to IndieCade after Unite) Now that I’ve attended my first Unite, I’ve got just one piece of advice for anyone attending: fill your schedule. When I planned this trip, I allowed for gaps in my schedule to explore the main expo hall. I was expecting something along the lines of GDC – a massive expo hall you could never possibly see all of. Instead, I found it to be a bit lacking. I was able to make the rounds in an hour or two. So, avoid gaps in your schedule and fill your time with meetings or talks! You’ll find that more helpful than wandering around aimlessly.

I hope to return to Unite America next year! (I’m calling it “Unite America” because I don’t know if they’ll be in Austin again.) However, my one condition is that I’d like to return to give talks about Where Shadows Slumber and maybe have a booth in the Made With Unity showcase.

Which reminds me of another talk I saw, all about Unity Connect… time to jump on that!

 

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You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.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.

State Of The Art – September 2017

Welcome to State Of The Art, September 2017 edition! This monthly progress report is written by Frank DiCola and is focused entirely on how the game’s visuals have improved in the past month. Without further ado, let’s explore the major leaps forward we took in September!

 

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World 3, Aqueduct

This World has been started and is looking promising so far. It’s one of the easier ones on the list, since this World is mostly deep water and narrow pathways. Compared to some of the other ones I did this month, that’s a cakewalk.

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The Aqueduct is a cavernous waterway built by humans that Obe explores midway through his journey. The Levels here often make use of light sources that don’t come from Obe’s lantern.

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This World is not 100% finished – but nothing ever is, at this stage of the process. Jack is currently modifying a water plugin I downloaded from the Asset Store to work with our strange lighting system. There are also highly specific items I still need to model. That always gets left as the last thing…

 

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World 4, City

I’ve been looking forward to working on this World for a long time. I loved the cool mountain desert aesthetic we had in the Demo, and it’s a shame that didn’t make it into the final game. This is even cooler though – a pueblo style city in the middle of a sandstorm! What’s not to like? (Sandstorm sold separately)

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Creating these detailed environments takes time. As I sat down to write this, I realized that 3 of the 5 Levels in the City aren’t even in good condition to show the public! While every Level in this World is functional and the art has been started, very few of them are complete.

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Get out of there, Obe! Nothing good ever happens in alleyways…

This World tells a complex story in a short amount of time, and a lot of highly specific artwork is still in the works. Look out for those missing Levels in a future update, and accept my apologies. I spread myself quite thin this month in order to cover a lot of ground quickly.

 

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World 5, Hills

I really stretched myself this month by going even further and starting World 5, the Hills. I hadn’t originally planned on doing this, but I got artist’s block on the City and decided to move on. This is usually a good idea – by the time I return to my previous work, I’ve had some kind of epiphany for what to do.

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The Hills are modeled after the dreary cliffs of Ireland. We’ve decided to make this like one long graveyard, with mechanics to match: little tombstones that turn into ghosts when they’re covered in shadow. By the time you shine a light on them again, they turn back into tombstones… but they’ve moved. I think you can get an idea of how puzzles might work here. This is our own twist on the Boos from Super Mario, which behaved differently depending on whether Mario was looking at them.

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The Hills require a ton of very specific modeling to complete, and have proven really challenging so far. I prefer to use modular tool kits because you get more mileage out of them. Even so, you can’t argue with the results! I threw out the aesthetic seen in the Level above because it was too formulaic. It obviously made use of one piece over and over again and I got sick of looking at it. Now the Levels in this World will all look more like the image below.

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This is now my favorite Level in the game. I hope you can see why! (And it’s not even done, I still need to add little grass bunches)

 

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World 6, Summit

Since I was feeling insane this month, I actually got started on World 6, Summit. This is basically the top of a snowy mountain. It’s really not done yet – you could hardly call it “started”. I don’t even have any screenshots to show you! But maybe you can get a sense of what they’ll look like based on my Concept Art drawings of Jack’s finished prototype Levels.

Obe ventures out into the freezing cold. He’s completely alone… except for the ghosts of the damned! (Ghosts of the Damned sold separately)

 

 

Don’t Expect Much From October

I apologize for the lack of video this time around. I usually like to keep myself to the high standard of showing footage of the game instead of screenshots. (Video is harder to fake, which means I have to own up to failures in the game’s visuals.) This time around I took the easy way out, since I’m leaving today to go on a crazy week-long business trip. Speaking of that…

September marks one of the greatest leaps forward the game has taken aesthetically so far. To be honest, I was overcompensating for the fact that October is going to be a slow month. Because of this trip (and another during the middle of this month), I won’t have as much time as I normally do to make artwork.

In a perfect world, I would finish World 6 and 7 before we get to November, but I doubt it. Between Unite 2017, IndieCade 2017, and the Mobile Games Forum, I’m missing an entire 2 weeks of work this month. That’s insane! At least you get to hear my thoughts on the shows in next week’s blog post… [ ^_^]!

Just warning you not to get too excited. See you at the start of November for another recap!

 

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We hope you enjoyed this update about the game’s artwork. 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), Facebookitch.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.

Introducing Our Audio Team!

We’ve been waiting a few weeks to announce this, but now it’s official: Where Shadows Slumber will have professional audio designed by Alba S. Torremocha and Noah Kellman. Please extend them a warm welcome to the team!

It would be a shame if I spent this entire announcement post blathering on instead of handing the spotlight over to them, so instead I’ll let them write their own introductions. Take it away, you two!

 

Hey all!

“Here we are! Finally! The last pieces of the Dream Team, reaaaaady to rock! And roll. Mostly roll, since we’re recording A LOT.

Everybody knows that sound guys are always the coolest, but let us introduce ourselves
real quick so there’s no doubt left about it.

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Alba was expelled from Hogwarts for using her wand as a baton.

Alba S. Torremocha (Music & Sound Design) Alba comes from a highly-refined background in classical composition and orchestration. She walks around with an eyebrow raised because well, that’s what snobby classical musicians do. She studied violin for 10 years and then Classical Composition and Conducting in Europe for 4 years, with a strong focus on French orchestration techniques (hence the raised eyebrow). In the US, she won the residency of the NYU Symphony in 2016, and recently received the Elmer Bernstein Award. Her pieces have been premiered and awarded around the world, and she always makes sure everyone is aware of this at all times. Her alter ego appears under the full moon and is a kick-ass film and video game music composer. She recently collaborated with the renowned video game composer Tom Salta (Prince of Persia, Halo, Killer Instinct…) on one of his latest projects. More: www.albastorremocha.com

 

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Noah spits fairy dust when he’s excited. No one knows exactly why.

Noah Kellman (Sound Design & Music) Noah comes from an intensive jazz piano background. He toured the country at the Brubeck Institute while working with many jazz greats along the way. He spent year after year striving to be the best until someone finally said to him, “Your music sounds terrible and I don’t understand any of it, so it must be the best jazz I’ve ever heard!” At that point, Noah knew he was a true jazz master and he decided to pursue becoming a master of other things, including filling his medicine pouch in Horizon Zero Dawn and driving with cruise control set to 11 mph collecting rare Pokémon in NYC. But, in his glorious return to professional sound creation, Noah began creating electronic cinematic soundscapes using acoustic instruments to create strangely familiar yet unrecognizable timbres. Although he works intensively as a composer and sound designer throughout the film and game world, his pride, joy, and utter financial downfall is his independent Cinematic Post-Rock project “Nozart”, which has also garnered him attention as a songwriter, producer and performer in the Indie world. More: www.noahkellman.com

 


 

We often work as a team because, as you can see, we come from very different backgrounds and, when we combine them, really cool stuff happens. Also, it’s more fun to have someone else to blame and panic with when the deadline hits your face. We first heard about Where Shadows Slumber at Play NYC. We played it and were instantly amazed, but we quickly noticed there was no music or sound design.

When we asked them about it, they said: *slo-mo, camera closeup on their lips*

‘We’re looking for a Sound Team.’

(Actual footage of the moment)

Then, a choir of angels appeared and bonded us to this sacred quest. Next thing we know, we’re recording lantern sounds in our living room.

We knew right away that Where Shadows Slumber called for an exceptionally unique sonic landscape. After discussing this in great detail with Frank and Jack, we understood that Obe’s story takes place in a world that bears some nostalgic resemblance to ours, but is actually full of creatures, inhabitants and landscapes of mysterious origin. We wanted our sounds to be surprising, alien, and yet somehow recognizable. We tried to accomplice that goal by using unconventional methods to reflect familiar creatures and landscapes. For example, in the following video of World 0, we used a combination of synthesis and acoustic flutes to create the birds throughout the atmosphere. The two types of birds function differently within the game, bringing the soundscape to life.

We also wanted to break the barrier between music and sound design. Instead of an
inanimate loop that plays over and over, we created a soundscape in which both music
and sound design breath together, affecting and changing with each other as the player makes decisions in the game. For example, different layers of music are activated (or deactivated) with the player’s progress (or backtracking) in solving the puzzle throughout the level.

Overall, Where Shadow Slumber is an exciting challenge, and we love nothing more
than helping transport the player into a completely new, beautiful and immersive world.”

-Alba & Noah

 

Look Forward To More Audio Updates

Jack and I are thrilled that we’re able to bring Alba and Noah aboard! Our game has been a silent vacuum for quite some time, and it gets a bit soul-crushing. Hearing the birds chirping in the Forest for the first time suddenly made the game feel alive in a way that it hasn’t since the Demo days. It really is incredible how one missing crucial piece, like the sense of sound, can cripple the experience.

Well, no longer! Look forward to more audio updates as time goes on. We’re all working on different sections of the game right now; Alba and Noah are making their way chronologically though the Worlds starting from the Forest, as Jack finishes up the game’s ending Levels and I’m somewhere in the middle doing artwork. In time, we’ll converge and show our fan(s) the combined effort of everyone’s talents working together. Until then, you’ll have to be patient!

 

EDIT (Sept. 26, 3:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly contained the wrong video file showcasing the game’s audio. The video has been updated.

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More audio updates are coming in the next few months. Until then, you can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, ask us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Dream Team

As Frank mentioned a few weeks ago, we’re getting closer and closer to the release of Where Shadows Slumber in Spring 2018, and as such, we’re going to try to take on a bit more of an active role in terms of publicizing the game. To that end, I’m going to take some time today to answer a question I’ve been asked a few times, that’s very vaguely related to the topic of publicity. “If you guys were to start another indie game development project,” they ask, “how would you want to expand your team? What skills and responsibilities would you want from your new team members?”

This is an excellent question – pursuing a decently-scaled project requires a lot of forethought and planning, and none of it is more important than designing your dream team. After all, you’re going to be working with these people for a while – so what does your dream team look like? The best way to answer this question is with experience. I’ve been working on this project on a two-person team for over two years now. What’s my dream team?

a-team_1

I will never cave and get Photoshop or something else “professional”!

 

In The Beginning…

When Frank and I first embarked on Where Shadows Slumber, we felt like we already had a pretty good team. Our personal dynamic was good, and we knew that together we had the set of skills that would be required – I would do the programming and design, and Frank would do the art and sound. Boy were we in for a rude awakening!

You see, for our first project, SkyRunner, we did the same thing. We built and released it, and it never really felt like our team had a gap in skills. It didn’t do so well, but we viewed it as a learning experience either way, so we never felt that we had failed to do anything in particular. When planning Where Shadows Slumber, we tried to do the same thing – design/programming, and art/sound. What we didn’t realize was that there was a huge gap in our skillsets. One of, if not the most important skills was something that we simply didn’t possess. We’ve been managing okay without it, but everything would be going a lot smoother if we had thought about it up front.

 

Where We Are Now

Before I get into the things that we don’t have, let’s talk about what we do have. We have a very lean, very agile team, with pretty strong design, artistic, and programming skills. There hasn’t really been a point when I’ve thought “man, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to implement this” or “wow, I really wish Frank were better at art” or anything. These are our strong points, and these are the things that we’ve consistently done well throughout development. I don’t think we need to do anything to improve on these skills at the moment.

On the flip side, there are a couple of areas where we are lacking. You’ll notice that I previously listed ‘sound’ as one of the tasks, but I didn’t mention it above. That’s because neither of us has any training or experience in sound design. Frank heroically took on the sound for the demo, since it sort of feels like a more artistic endeavor, but we quickly realized that we would need someone else to do the sound design for Where Shadows Slumber if we wanted it to have a real professional sound.

However, sound isn’t the thing that we were missing at the beginning. We’ve been looking for sound people, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to incorporate great sound design into the game. No, there’s something else, a huge blind spot, something that could potentially destroy us all and leave us with nothing, something that we never realized we needed, but can’t live without. There’s one more task that encompasses everything we’ve already talked about, and is perhaps more important than all of them put together.

 

Publicity!

A successful game is one that a lot of people download. The idea is that if your game is really good, people will download it. Unfortunately, this idea doesn’t always pan out – in order to get people to download your game, you need to give them some reason to. This is where a marketing and publicity expert really helps.

press

“Our game really speaks for itself.”

This can be a tough pill to swallow – paying someone who may literally never contribute to the actual game itself can feel pretty awful. Despite this, your publicity expert will probably end up being the most important person on your team.

Think of this person as a salesman, helping you sell your product. It doesn’t matter if you have a billion units of the best product on the market – if you don’t have someone to sell it for you, you’re not going anywhere. Infrastructure like the app stores make this a little easier, since you can publish a game yourself, but you still need someone advocating for you and getting people to download the game.

We don’t have the experience or know-how to actually do this. It seems easy – just talk to people, tell them about the game, take any chance to promote it. But the reality is much more difficult. In reality, it’s a full-time job. Talking to bloggers, reaching out to potential publishers, doing interviews, even writing blog posts, all of it adds up to a lot more work than we had anticipated.

In the same way that your game’s name is the first thing people will see about your game, any efforts you make at publicity – ads, going to shows, posts on Facebook – are going to be right up there in your first impression. Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to make sure you make the best first impression possible? It doesn’t matter how great your game is if no one feels like they want to play it!

 

“Doesn’t Play Well With Others”

Getting back to the question at hand – what would I take into account when picking out my DREAM TEAM?

Well, clearly, more people working on any aspect of the game means that the work will be done faster, right? While this is true, it’s also subject to diminishing returns. This means that two people doing the job will get it done faster than just one, but not twice as fast. In the same way, the third person on the job adds even less.

This effect is compounded by the fact that coordinating the implementation of a complex system is a tricky business. If I’m the only one working on my game, then I completely understand the whole system, and I know what changes I need to make and how they will affect the rest of the game. As soon as someone else is involved, we each have to coordinate all of our changes and work to understand the whole system. This overhead can slow things down quite a bit, to the point where it seems like it might be more efficient if just one person were working on it. You’d have to ask Frank, but I assume the same thing goes for coordinating artistic styles and assets.

how-complex-systems-fail

“Alright, new guy, here’s our system. It’s really pretty simple…”

Now, it probably sounds like I’m a crotchety old programmer who refuses to change or take a second opinion on my work. I like to think that this is not the case – I work with a handful of other programmers every day at work, and we do awesome stuff. The difference is one of scale, timing, and goals:

  • Where Shadows Slumber is a small enough project that one programmer can conceive of and manage the entire system. If I were working on a bigger project, you bet I’d want more programmers, just so that we could wrap our collective head around the tasks at hand.
  • We are nearing the end of development for Where Shadows Slumber. There’s still a long time and a lot of work left, but we’re about 80% of the way through development. Bringing someone on now would require spending a lot of time bringing them up to speed. Since there’s so little time left anyways, adding another programmer might actually cost us time, rather than save it.
  • As the only programmer and head designer for Where Shadows Slumber, I think of it as my baby, my brainchild. When working on it, I have very specific ideations and goals – hiring another programmer would mean there’s another person with their own ideas and goals. If they don’t line up with my own, then we’re gonna butt heads a lot throughout development.

Hopefully these points do a good job of explaining why I’m still the only one doing any programming work on Where Shadows Slumber. If I were to start another project, these are the things I would think about when hiring a programmer.

 

The DREAM TEAM

DREAM Team

Dreamin’ of the Dream Team

So, if it wasn’t obvious from everything above, my first addition to the team would be a professional, dedicated marketing and publicity person. Alongside that, I would want a sound designer – which, fortunately, we are actually working toward.

Those two roles, in addition to Frank and myself, would put us in a pretty good place, in my opinion. If I were to continue expanding the team, my next move would probably be to get another artist and programmer to help with the heavy lifting. The best way to avoid diminishing returns, I think, would be to divide the work into discrete parts – for instance, the art could be divided into the art for the game itself, and the cutscenes. If I were to bring on another programmer, I would want someone with expertise in graphics and aesthetics, since those are my weakest areas.

So, if you’re looking to put together your own dream team, my recommendations are to make sure that you don’t overload any one person, and to definitely, definitely not underestimate the value of a dedicated publicity expert. Otherwise you’ll end up posting blogs full of crappy MS Paint art and thinking “Eh, it’ll be fine”.

 

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If you want to know more about how our team is put together, or are curious about building your own dream team, feel free to contact us! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebookitch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber