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Raymond Teo agreed to take part in an e-mail interview for us about his new indie hit, Tobe’s Vertical Adventure. Raymond also talks about piracy, DRM, life as an indie dev, Valve, digital distribution and more.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Tobe’s Vertical Adventure.
I am Raymond Teo of Secret Base, and an indie developer from Singapore. I guess you can say I play the role of producer for Tobe’s Vertical Adventure, but being indie means you have to be involved in as many aspect as you can, which means I was also the artist and game designer.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
I used to work on advert games back when I was working in a multimedia design firm. After I left, the local government started funding local games development. Nobody here had the experience at the time, so I guess my experience in advert game somehow got my project selected, and I’ve been working on games ever since.
3. Where did the idea for Tobe’s Vertical Adventure come from?
I wanted to make a platformer because that’s one of my favorite genre as a kid. I went into research and started googling for retro games, top 10 8bit games and stuff, which eventually lead to the retro influence in the game, particularly Ice Climber, where you get the warping environment, the vertical layout and the alternate character, Nana as a tribute.
4. What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Tobe’s Vertical Adventure?
Mainly the development flow. When we began working on the XBLIG version, the coders, Ikhwan and Yi Heng were straight out of school, and working on their first game. None of us knew the best work flow, and kinda just smash our way through to make things work. This in turn cause issues later when we realize certain designs weren’t working, and every change we needed take so much longer. This problem was part of why the port took forever to realize.
5. In its current form, how close is Tobe’s Vertical Adventure to your
Pretty close actually. Things like “vertical platforming” and the “2 phase of travelling down changing to escaping” were pretty much things we wanted right from the start. The one key element that was removed was that Tobe was supposed to be a lot more agile, with much more moves and environment interaction to play with, and maybe even to the extend of being a parkour athlete. It was my vision then to create a vertical version of Sonic the hedgehog, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. Shame, but I hope to get there eventually, maybe with a sequel or something.
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 Tobe’s Vertical Adventure and if you faced a similar challenge.
Tobe’s Vertical Adventure was pretty hard on the XBLIG, but I always felt that it was due to bad controls and collision. When we brought over to the PC, we fixed that a lot, to the extend it ended up a little on the easy side, and that’s how I left it.
Nowadays, I just try to lean everything on the very easy side irregardless of what I felt during then. They eventually lead up to being more difficult than we envision, and otherwise, you can just add on to that.
7. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Tobe’s Vertical Adventure would run on the various PC system configurations?
We had a demo for the game, thinking that everyone gonna try the demo before they buy, but we were lucky enough that people bought the game without even trying. In the end, we have a few bugs and crash reported. We’ve fixed most of them now, but I guess that’s a problem with indie, not having all the necessary equipments to prevent things like this completely. I also learn that with Steam’s forum and my own guest book, the players are actually pretty understanding and forgiving if you try your best to fix up the game.
8. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Probably a little off topic, but the hardest part for me was coordinating. Depending on the size of the team, there might be a lot of coordinating involve. Making sure that everything is in progress, that everyone is on the same page, all the way to securing a spot on Steam and Gamersgate. That’s a very different jobscope as oppose to making a game, and a very tough one.
9. Tell us about your relationship with Valve. How did making Tobe’s Vertical Adventure available via Steam come about? Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.
Their submission listed exactly what they need, so I guess once you send in with the necessary materials, they are willing to take a good look.
The guys at Valve has been great to work with. Professional, quick response, I can barely find anything to complain about. The APIs were also rather quick to work with once we got the wrapper with help from Spyn Doctor Games who made Your Doodles Are Bugged!
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?
One of my earliest tester told me he’d gladly pay $10USD for the game, which got me really happy. But talking to the guys from Valve, they suggest that since we had the game previously on XBLIG, I shouldn’t price it too far from the original. I never push for it because his suggestion was… obviously true. But anyway, I wasn’t under the impression that I wasn’t allow to.
11. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
It seems pretty good for me so far. The wide reach of audience, lower budget and the real time feedback are just great. Some people might be worried about piracy, but at least that’s something you have to worry about after the game is released.
12. Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Tobe’s Vertical Adventure.
Part of the style was influenced by Cave Story, sharing the big head and all. Even the character design were inspired by Nanako Studio (also where Nana got here name again) aka Annabelle Kennedy, who did lots of Cave Story fan art herself.
The theme was retro game tribute, so I looked into older games to spot some key elements. Things like repeated pattern and irregular shapes for the background was taken from Sonic, and things like have a “theme color” for each world was also something I observe. This 2 approach specifically also helps to lower the workload involves.
As for level design, both the warping screen and the 2 phase (going down and then escaping) makes the design a lot harder. Having to make sure the left works with the right, and going down is as much fun as coming up. Changing one changes the other, and changes were hard because the level editor was rather primitive at the time.
There was 3 things I want to achieve with the levels, mainly multiple paths, paths you can only reach items, and paths you can take for speed run. I also spread the game such that each world has a new key element to play with, and previous key element serve as a supporting element in later stages.
Music was done by Adam Alonso, who’s great to work with. Can’t say much on my side, except that I gave him 2 links to the BGM of Ice Cap Zone and Lava Reef from Sonic 3 & Kunckles. We got 2 version for each, 1 of a slower pace, and another upbeat one for the escape sequence.
13. You released a PC demo for Tobe’s Vertical Adventure in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
I didn’t know demo are scare actually. I did it simply because I prefer trying a game out before buying it, and thought that’s what everyone else would do. But there are some pros and cons to it though. For example, people can try the demo to see if their system can run the game, which is good. But then, if they run into a bug/ crash, they might just give up on the game completely, when we can probably fix it up with a patch real fast.
But I think the best part to the demo is that it gives us an extra space on the front page (for Steam), and front page is always good.
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Tobe’s Vertical Adventure from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
I don’t think I utilise them very well. Mostly for some feedback and crash / bug reports. In that case, it’s great because you get to react to the problems, and quickly fix them up. Players do see that we are trying our best, and appreciate the effort, instead of dismissing you, and walk away from all your future products. In fact, some even mention that they are even more willing to support us in the future and that’s just amazing.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Tobe’s Vertical Adventure professionally?
At my age, I’m so busy working, I don’t have time to run through every game. The best way to streamline the process is to watch/listen/read their reviews while I work. I’d imagine this is what many players do too.
Also, as indies, we don’t have a huge budget for marketing campaign, so the reviews might very well be the only kind of exposure we get most of the time. Plus these reviewers are people who play hundreds of games a week, so you got a good measurement of good your game actually is at capturing a very tired gamer, and what they like and hate about it, so to improve on your next project.
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?
I’d imagine if someone don’t make a donation, it’s not because they’re against the idea, but because they “didn’t find a reason to”, but the humble bundle is a great reason. You support the developers you love, you get the games you want, and you help people. People do want to do that, and I hope to be part of that.
I actually wrote in to ask to participate before, back during the tsunami in Japan, but my email was probably lost in the crowd. I tried reading up on how it’s done, and wanted to organize one myself, but realize it’s a lot harder than I can handle.
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 obviously don’t know the solution to it, but I don’t think DRM is much help in my case. I just try to make the game as good as I can, and hopefully make everyone so excited they have to buy it.
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
On a developer point of view, I think it’s a good reason to work on those contents / features we put into our list of “do if we have time”. A lot of these are usually great ideas that makes a difference but left out so not to complicate the production. At least that’s how I’d implement it. Of course, there are also things like extra clothing and whatever, but I see it as one of those things you can just buy them as donation and show your support for the developer.
Without DLC in the past, we have to decide to drag the development longer, or move on to our next game for our bread and donuts.
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 Tobe’s Vertical Adventure?
I do love the idea, but Tobe’s Vertical Adventure is a rather small game, so I’m not sure if mods are really necessary. Perhaps when we move on with the franchise, and make a bigger game of it, we can include one of those replays or level editor. Like I say, I think it’s fun for player to get involve and be part of it.
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
The same old, I guess. Get started, then make sure you finish the game.
Thanks goes out to Raymond and all of the guys and gals at Secret Base. You can pick up Tobe’s Vertical Adventure via Steam.
-Conducted by Adam Ames