John Nielson, head of Bacon Wrapped Games and developer for Ancients of Ooga, was able to set aside some time to offer some insights on indie development, DRM, piracy, DLC and how Ancients of Ooga came to be.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Ancients of Ooga.
The name’s John Nielson. I am founder and owner of a small game dev studio based in North Carolina. Like I said, we’re small, so concerning Ancients of Ooga, I worked on a bit of everything. Primarily, I am a designer, artist, animator and programmer, but I worked on everything from the character’s dialogue to testing and even sound editing. When you’re running an indie studio like this, you definitely learn skills in a lot of areas by necessity, and that’s something that I never came even close to when I worked for larger studios. I don’t want to take too much credit though, we did have a lot of help from talented people on our team. At one point we got as big as 12 people which was huge for us.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
Well, as a kid my dream was originally become a Disney animator and I spent a ton of time drawing, but when my dad brought home our first computer, a Commodore 64, I immediately fell in love with gaming. I used to love to play whatever I could get my hands on. This was before the internet was around, so I had to be a little more creative in finding games to play. My older brother dabbled in programming and taught me a few things. A few years later, even though we didn’t know what we were getting into at all, we decided to make our own game. My younger brother said he’d work on some of the artwork, so that left me to do the programming. After about six months, we had created this fighting game in the style of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat which only ever sold one copy after we released it on some local bulletin boards, but it opened a lot of doors in the industry. My little brother went on to become an artist who currently works at Disney and me a programmer, ever since then, I’ve kept the passion for creating original titles and pushing the limits of what can be done on an indie level.
3. Where did the idea for Ancients of Ooga come from?
After finishing Cloning Clyde, I wanted to work on something that took advantage of the engine we’d worked so hard on, but that was very artistically different and fresh for us to get excited about. You see so many sequels these days, and I understand why. When you’ve got a hit, it’s definitely the “safe” bet to make a sequel, but I guess I feel that if I’m going to be making original games, I’d rather go all out on originality, and not just keep producing the same game over and over with a few changes here and there. Although we’ve called Ancients of Ooga a spiritual successor to Cloning Clyde, it really is a completely different and original work.
4. What are some of the successes and failures you’ve learned in developing Ancients of Ooga?
I feel that our biggest success was how our technology progressed. Our engine, which we call the “Continuum” engine is really getting robust and powerful which should make developing games in the future go a lot faster and smoother (fingers crossed). The biggest failure, in my opinion, was how long it took to develop. We didn’t cut any corners on the tech, knowing that we were building a foundation for this and future games, but this definitely cost us a lot of time, and I feel like we missed some release opportunities that could have made a big difference in the overall sales of the game. To put this into perspective, Cloning Clyde took a year and one month from start to finish. Ancients of Ooga took 4 years! That all being said, now we’ve got some pretty killer tech, so hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end.
5. In its current form, how close is Ancients of Ooga to your initial vision?
Interesting question. You know, it’s different in a lot of ways. Originally Ooga was going to be a lot more of an action game, and was going to be a lot more serious and dark on the visuals. The dark look just wasn’t working, and eventually evolved into what it is now. We ended up adding a lot of humor although the humor is a little more bizarre and “dark” (e.g. cannabalism) than Clyde’s slapstick cartoon feel.
Another drastic evolution was the story. Originally, we were going to have just one “flying through the cave watching heirogyphs” story at the beginning of the game, and zero dialogue from any of the characters (way more similar to Cloning Clyde.) But after trying it out, we just felt like the world needed more depth and the tribes needed more story. This was a massive undertaking, but people seem to really love the dialogue and humor of the Oogani tribes.
6. Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Ancients of Ooga and if you faced a similar challenge.
Well, for most people Ancients of Ooga definitely does not suffer from being too hard. If anything we’ve heard more feedback that it could stand to be harder. For this game, it was one of our goals to not make the game too difficult. We did end up playing the game a lot, but what kept Ooga from ever getting to difficult is that we put it through tons of user testing. We’d get neighbors, friends, strangers, whoever we could to come and play the game, and we’d silently study and watch their reactions and then move forward on development accordingly.
7. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Ancients of Ooga would run on the various PC system configurations?
Yes definitely! Our studio has done primarily console games before the release of Cloning Clyde and Ancients of Ooga on the PC. On the console there are never issues with compatability. Since we’ve been working on the engine for so long, and since we’ve always developed a PC version along with our console versions, thankfully most of the issues have been worked out little by little throughout the years, but if you add them all up, there was definitely a LOT of hardware specific issues to deal with particularly in the graphics system, and we’re still learning of little issues that get reported here and there and releasing updates as needed.
8. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
By far the toughest thing is getting spread thin. As mentioned earlier, I had to work on SO many aspects of this game, and that was the case for everyone on the team. But beyond just the development of the game, there’s having to worry about managing a team, maintaining relationships with partner companies, marketing your game, supporting previous releases, and trying to build a name for yourself. For me, it’s always really tempting to want to just ignore everything and dive into what I love most – developing the game. But things always get pretty backed up when I do that.
9. Tell us about your relationship with Valve. How did making Ancients of Ooga available via Steam come about? Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.
Valve was great to work with! I’ve been really impressed with how thoughtfully and thoroughly they’ve put their distribution system together. It was a little tough initially getting through the door. Our partner NinjaBee had some contacts there, and put us in touch. After that, we had to send them prototypes of the games and a lot of information about their potential. I’m sure they have a lot of people constantly approaching them trying to get onto their service and it’s a big job for them to weed through it all and decide what will generate success and be worth the effort of getting it up there. Anyway, once we got approval, they were really great, helpful and easy to work with. We created all new achievements specifically for Steam. This was exciting for us because XBLA only allows 12 achievements for titles while Steam has not limit. Their system was really well put together and tying into it all was relatively painless.
10. How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We did a little. Since both Cloning Clyde and Ancients of Ooga are available of Xbox Live Arcade, that was a factor in determining the price point as well. For the most part, however, we went with and trusted Valve’s decisions on pricing. They know their service inside and out and monitor all sorts of stats concerning the games. They’ve been really helpful concerning pricing.
11. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
I am a HUGE fan of it. My opinion may be heavily weighted, but I feel like it’s the future of media. Everything’s going there, and for me, it can’t go fast enough. It just makes sense. In my opinion, digital distribution has also opened a lot of doors for indie people like us, and having indie successes adds an element of creativity and innovation to the gaming industry that just wouldn’t come from the giant studios who generally minimize their risks and would hesitate making a game that was too different from what’s already out there.
As I stated earlier, we had originally planned on the visuals for Ancients of Ooga to be a lot more serious and dark. As we got into it though, EVERYONE kept commenting negatively on the darker visuals, so we tried brightened things up, but still got negative feedback. This continued until we had really changed the visual look quite drastically to what it is now. I’m EXTREMELY happy with the art style and “look” of Ancients of Ooga, but man, was it a pain to get there!
As far as the music, Mike Nielsen, from NinjaBee was our composer and put together our original score for the game. Once he saw where we were going with design and and our visuals, he had no trouble putting together the music which I feel matches quite nicely.
13. You released a PC demo for Ancients of Ooga in an age where demos are becoming scarce. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
We put a LOT of work into creating the demo. It’s certainly a challenge to balance giving the player a good feel for the title as a whole in a short demo, while at the same time giving them necessary training all while not delivering too much or not slowing down the pacing. We probably spent almost as much time on the demo as we did on the rest of the levels. We re-did the demo levels over and over trying to get them just right. Demos are required for the Xbox Live Arcade, so we were going to have to do the work one way or another. Adapting it to the PC was not extremely difficult, but I think we would have wanted to do one even if they weren’t required. I just really like the idea of people being able to try the game out before they make a decision on purchasing it. I know that could potentially cost sales if people were convinced from a promo trailer, and then didn’t like the demo, but our end goal is to make our fans happy and satisfied, and not to just get the sale.
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Ancients of Ooga from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
VERY important. We have already patched the game a few times because of this type of feedback. Since we’re small, we don’t have the ability to try the game on a million different systems, and so even though we try to thoroughly test, issues sometimes slip through the cracks. Ninjabee is great about helping us watch the forums and we’re committed to supporting our games the very best we can.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Ancients of Ooga professionally?
I always totally value and appreciate peoples opinions. I mean, at the very least, you’ve got to appreciate that they spent that time playing your game and writing up their opinions. I think the trick is to try to listen using more reason than emotion. Although I don’t always agree with everything they say, I really try to not shut it out when it’s negative or get too big a head when it’s positive. This can be REALLY hard do because you give so much of your life and passion to developing a game and when people don’t appreciate the sacrifice, effort or decision process that went behind everything and blurt out negative things, it’s easy to get downhearted, and to feel high when they rave about how good something in the game is. At the end of the day, that can really be a roller coaster ride and can weaken the artistic integrity of what your working on, so I try to remember what my basic goals and passions are and not let myself be swayed too much by every little opinion that comes up, but if you can listen without shutting yourself off, I think there’s a lot to learn from reviewers.
16. How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Yeesh, I’m not sure I could get behind that. One time we left a bucket full of halloween candy outside our house with a note that said “please take one” and then took our very young daughter trick or treating for a few houses. We came back a few minutes later and the bucket was completely empty. So, I guess I feel that if everyone had the sense of taking just one piece of candy a model like that might work, but I guess I’d worry that people would not see “Pay What You Want Pricing”, but rather “Free Games!”
That being said, even though I personally wouldn’t be super excited about that type of pricing, I could be wrong! Maybe it could work great and that is the exact type of experimentation and innovation that indie development brings to the industry.
17. What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
It’s a tough battle and always has been, and that’s something that really we rely almost completely on larger companies like Valve or Microsoft to address. I’ve sadly arrived at a bit of a defeatist attitude and even though I don’t like it, I have to accept that it’s going to happen. Just know that if I see you on the street and find out that you’ve pirated one of my games, I’ll karate chop you or poke you in the eye and justice will finally be served.
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
It’s another brilliant element of digitally distributed content. Of course it depends on the game and what content is being downloaded, but I totally love the idea that my favorite games can keep delivering even more. I believe there is still a lot of untried DLC ideas that will succeed in the future.
19. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Ancients of Ooga?
It’s an area that we eventually want to do. We developed a level editor for Ancients of Ooga in hopes that it would one day be released to the public. Large studios spend a LOT of time and money making their tech mod-able. It’s something that I hope is just a matter of time because I really love the idea.
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
I could probably go off for days on this, and I have written some blog posts about it on our website Bacon Wrapped Games.
If I had to pick just one area of advice, it would be to carefully pick your battles. I’ve learned through sad experience that trying to compete with studios that have 50 times the man power and 50 times the funding that I have is a hard thing to achieve. I’m not saying I’m done trying, but I’ve seen a lot of indie titles succeed because of one area where they did something super well, or super creative. If you can find that, put your eggs there and make your game awesome within a limited scope. Sometimes the simplest ideas or elements can bring success in huge ways.
We would like to thank John for allowing us a peek into the world of a great PC indie developer and what it takes to make it in the business. You can pick up Ancients of Ooga via Steam.
Interview conducted by Adam Ames