Zach Kehs from Sunny Katt took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his fantastic indie hit, Koya Rift. In this e-mail interview, you will get his take on DRM, piracy, life as an indie dev and much more.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Koya Rift.
I’m Zach Kehs. I’m an 18 year old guy currently studying computer science at a university, and I’ve been developing Koya Rift single-handed for the past year and a half (with the exception of the music). I’m a big computer nerd and I’ve been interested in indie game development for a really, really long time.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
I was maybe 12, or 13. I really enjoyed video games, and all other sorts of creative media (books, movies, etc.). But video games were my favorite, and I wanted to look into how they were made. So I did some googling and made an effort to teach myself to learn how, and eventually I was successful. This method of learning took much longer than if someone else had taught me, but reflecting back I think that if you teach yourself you end up having a better grasp on the material.
3. Where did the idea for Koya Rift come from?
I was brushing my teeth one morning. Currently I had been playing a lot of Borderlands – and I was fascinated by procedural generation. I was thinking of other games that had procedural content, such as Spelunky. And then my mind suddenly thought of a way that I could combine weapon generation and customization with generated environments in an alien-hunting sort of way, so I went and wrote everything down. The final game has changed a lot over the course of development, some areas for better, some for worse.
4. What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Koya Rift?
A huge, HUGE failure I’ve experienced and learned about was marketing. I underestimated how important the marketing aspect of developing a for-sale game is. Unsurprisingly, it’s very important that people actually know about your game. Up front, this seems like common sense, but I owned a devlog, and I had a few people following me, but I didn’t realize that there was so much more I could be doing. When the game finally released sales were completely awful because the game is relatively unknown, and they’ve been awful since, despite me trying to promote it here and there.
5. In its current form, how close is Koya Rift to your initial vision?
The initial form grew into the current form, without much being taken out at all. The initial PLANNED version of the game is very different from the final one, though. Initially, instead of “levels” you were going to be placed in just one giant world that just added and detracted randomly as you went on, sorta like how generated worlds in minecraft work. You would run into “shops” to buy procedurally generated weapons and upgrades, and have to occasionally go attack the enemy, or defend an allied stronghold. As I planned details more in depth for what I wanted to do with the game, this style seemed to work less and less and I eventually went with a deployment per attack system.
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 Koya Rift and if you faced a similar challenge.
I know the feeling from developing past experimental games. I tried to make Koya Rift have a unique difficulty adjustment system, where it would contour to the exact difficulty capabilities of a player over time. It takes roughly 10 matches to get fitted mostly (in my experience), but it has worked pretty well. Some buyers of the game reported that it doesn’t ease up on them as much as it cranks it, making it a bit merciless later on and forcing them on missions they can rarely beat. If they lose a lot in a row, it will curb back down, but the main complaint was that it wasn’t curving down fast enough. All in all, I view it as a successful system.
7. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Koya Rift would run on the various PC system configurations?
I was programming the game in GML, so by default I knew I would be very resource-limited and the game would be something of a performance hog no matter how I optimized it. GML provided me with access to only one core of the processor, and very little hardware-accelerated drawing that I could task on to the videocard. I had to make many optimizations to make it run smoothly, and it only does on a relatively modern 2.5ghz per-core processor. Quite tasking for a 2d game, but considering the effects and the fidelity I achieved using GML, I’m proud. I changed collision systems once or twice, I changed the way decals (background objects) were loaded and drawn twice, and I shortened up rendering systems for units on multiple occasions and re-wrote AI scripts to work more efficiently off-screen multiple times. In a way, the need for speed here cost me extra development time.
8. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Doing something you love, but not getting enough money to ensure that you can keep doing it. If I like making video games and I’m good at making video games, it would make sense that I could find my place doing it and making enough money to sustain myself. But I’m a student right now, and as an unknown indie dev I can’t make enough money to pay my bills. This is making me work more at a part-time job, and less in the game development market where I want to be. It really sucks that way.
9. How did making Koya Rift available via Desura come about? Do you plan to release Koya Rift on other digital distribution platforms?
Digital Distribution platforms are (in my experience) usually a nightmare of trying to contact and deal with. I planned on making offers to Desura, Steam, Impulse, and a number of other distributes. As a word of warning to other developers – only send the finished copy to steam. I send an older, less polished copy to them (the menu looked ugly and other aspects looked unprofessional, for example), and they said it wasn’t “a good fit” for steam. Doing some research on other developers that were turned down, this may be because they are on-schedule to receive too many other games in the near future, they’ve filled a quota, or they just plain don’t like it. Once you’ve submitted one for review you aren’t allowed to send a newer, much better copy later; negotiations are done. So I looked to the other distributors I had contacted already. Two of them didn’t even respond. One said to come back in the fall because they’ve been overloaded after a website upgrade. And Desura is the only one that did respond, and they were happy to distribute it. So we got that set up, and now the game sells from both sites. It makes slightly less on Desura than on my home page, but this really isn’t that great of an estimate because they both make so darn little in the first place, ha! I’m still going to try to remain in contact with the distributors that haven’t responded, or told me to check back later, so it’s possible it will come to another distributor. Either way, I’m not putting DRM on it, so you’ll always get the same version.
10. Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
I didn’t really “research” anything, I looked into other indie games and their prices. Originally the game was going to include multiplayer and co-op, but the technical limitations of the engine prevented that, so I lowered my price to 7.99 USD. It was originally going to be 13 to 15 USD. I may be forced to reduce the price in the future, or at least have sales often if I’m going to sell more copies. Anything that will make it stick out, because people still don’t know about it.
11. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
It’s a fine system, but it’s not an even market. Steam pretty much has a big scary monopoly on the whole thing. So if your game gets on to steam, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will make enough money to sustain yourself, but your chances are much improved. If you don’t get on to steam, there are other options for you, but you are forever put in the danger zone, and you don’t want to rely on your game for any part of your income then. If the distributors had build one big fancy client, like the steam client, but inside of it people could shop around at the different stores for the best price, that would be a much fairer market system. Of course, I’m just being naive. If if all your friends are on steam and it has the most games, what are you going to use?
12. Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Koya Rift.
When I was a much, much younger kid, before I got into game design, I would draw all of the time. The primary thing I drew were dragons – and as a result, I’ve developed a strong liking for these powerful dinosaur-dragon-like jawbones and skulls for all sorts of monsters. I wanted the enemies to be phantoms, but I figured if I had that kind of jaw structure it would add to the look. I’m quite bad at pixel art, so I grabbed photoshop and my trusty wacom tablet and did digital art for the whole game. I tried to use similar techniques and brushes on all of the art assets, so they ended up having a similar style as was intended. As for level design, I spent a LOT of development time working on the procedural generation algorithms that would churn out caves that were the most fun to play on, while trying to eliminate anomalies. The music was done by my friend Richard Thomas, of whom I totally think is an excellent musician. I showed him the game and told him a techno-intense feel would most likely work out best, and he whipped up music out of thin air and gave it to me. I think I’ll be using him as an asset for a long time to come. In the future we may patch the game with alternate randomizing tracks (so it doesn’t sound as repetitive) as some people requested.
13. You released a PC demo for Koya Rift in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
I released a demo because the people requested a demo – and hopefully if I do what the people want they will reward me by buying the game. And yeah, the demo was surprisingly difficult to develop. The engine isn’t built to use baked (not-generated) levels, so I had a very repetitive, annoying task of manually making a script to build a level that was the same every time, using the helper methods of the generation scripts. It took quite a while to get everything looking nice and working fine, and along with the fact that I was grumpy and sad that my sales sucked I worked slower as a result, and I finally delivered the demo weeks behind schedule. Go Zach!
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Koya Rift from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Super important! I wish I had let people play alphas of the game so I could shape it more effectively from the start instead of keeping it closed in. I feel like it would have turned out differently, but for the best that way. I love feedback and I wish there was more of it. But unfortunately and like I’ve said before, nobody knows about the game.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Koya Rift professionally?
Well this depends. The game isn’t for everyone, whether you see it as a good game or not heavily depends on your preferences. I’ve had one reviewer who absolutely hated the game and thought it was terrible, where every other review has been positive, and two of them absolutely loved the game and thought it was wonderful. Who is right? It depends on what kind of player is reading the review. If you play games for the experience and want a casual shooter to enjoy, then it’s most likely right for you. If you play games through just to finish them and you care about the story and characters, the game is probably not for you. I tried to make this clear to reviewers when they request copies (or I send them copies), but the idea doesn’t always get through. I can’t blame them, if you played a game that didn’t speak to you then you wouldn’t say it was good either. But I still take everything they say to heart even though I know that things they point out that are flaws with the design or an overarching concept the game is missing or not getting across properly, I can’t fix it. The game is done, I’m moving on to other projects. But I’m learning for later, and that’s what’s important.
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?
Pay what you want pricing is a fantastic system IF you have a lot of attention. For me, the very few people that do find my game sometimes buy it, but with the amount of coverage the game has received it would be very bad for me to do pay-what-you-want. I would be glad to be a part of a humble bundle of any kind in the future because they DO get the attention needed to make that pricing style successful, the organizers just need to contact me in time!
17. What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I am not a fan of DRM, but I am even less a fan of piracy. In my opinion people who pirate games already have no soul, no morals, and no respect for those who made the game. They’re going to take it illegally from you whether you put DRM on or not, so in my opinion, don’t use DRM. It will just piss off your legitimate user base. I wish other companies saw things this way – they can use a simple registration key system, but their DRM schemes are getting way out of hand.
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I think DLC at its core can be a great way to add content to a game that people already like. But developers seem to be getting away from this core idea – instead they’re releasing stripped-down games and then requiring people to pay for all the features that they’re releasing as DLC. This is just a money-grabbing technique that they really should stay away from, they’ll only lose respect from their players. If you’ve already made a game that’s feature complete, but then want to add new content that will add to the experience, DLC is still a great way of doing it short of an expansion pack.
19. What are some of the games or genres you like to play? Are you a fan of other indie developers?
I’m a big fan of indie developers. Some of my indie favorites are Cortex Command, before progress pretty much halted and the game became laggy and messed up (I’m glaring at you right now, Dan), Spelunky, Minecraft (of course), Mount & Blade, Super Meat Boy, and a bunch of various freeware ones. My favorite freeware developer is Robert “Darthlupi” Lupinek, but he’s seemed to stop or at least slow down in developing games over the last few years. As for AAA titles, I like FPS games, so I’m a huge fan of the Battlefield series. I also enjoy the elder scrolls games, but honestly I haven’t been buying many AAA titles lately, just one here or there. They’re very expensive and often I don’t get as much fun out of them as the smaller games I research on my own and enjoy playing.
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Remain very active in the community! Make sure people know about your project, take feedback seriously, and always keep pressing for more attention. If you’re developing a game for-sale, the market is very tough. If the game takes off you could be rich, but if you can’t get anyone to know about it you’ll make far too little for the time you’ve spent on it. Just make sure you enjoy what you do, that’s the most important part.
We would like to thank Zach once again for allowing us to see the indie gaming scene through the eyes of a talented developer. We hope to see more from Zach in the future. You can pick up Koya Rift from the official site or Desura.
-Interview conducted by Adam Ames