Relive Your Childhood: Toy Cars Interview

Eduardo from Eclipse Games talks to TPG about his fun and addictive racing game, Toy Cars.  You will also read about his life as an indie developer, where his passion for games came from, DRM, piracy, and what others can do to break into the business.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Toy Cars.

Hi, my name is Eduardo and I’ve been the main developer of the game. I’ve done, well, art, code and design. Lucas, a friend of mine did the music and Truman, another friend, did some testing and most of the PR work.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

Well, I started programming mini games in basic when I was 11, with my first computer.

I am now a professional games programmer or have been for 7 years until I lost my job at Black Rock a couple of months ago. Ever since I was little I’ve enjoyed developing games. I’ve got some artistic skills (definitely not enough to make a living out of it) and I think I’m a good programmer. So I’ve been doing games and little side projects even while working for other big games. I just like it a lot. And one of those projects was Toy Cars. I decided to try to finish something and put it onto the XBLIG marketplace and, well, I did it!

When showing this game to some people, they suggested me porting it to the PC, and since I already had it working on the PC I did so. I must thank Michael Rose for his help when looking for examples on how to self-publish on the PC.

Where did the idea for Toy Cars come from?

Even though it may sound odd, the idea comes from an old game called… “Death Rally”! Yeah, I know, you’d expect me to say Micro-Machines, now wouldn’t you? But the truth is that it was originally intended to be an arcade racer with some shooting involved. Then I decided that the micro-machines approach to the art style fit better my artistic skills (seemed easier to me at the time) and then, finally, since the game went on, and I had little time to spend, I decided to trim features so that I could finish the game “earlier”. It took me 2 years to finish it because it was a side project I invested only my spare time (and I didn’t always have that to spend).

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Toy Cars?

Well, in the part of successes I’d say that doing the game you want to play is the right move. I did Toy Cars because I like top-down old school racers, and I thought that there would be more people like me. It looks like there are. At least over 8.5K people thought it was interesting enough to purchase the game. We also have a 22% purchase/trial ratio, that is, people who try the game normally like it and end up buying it. That’s over the average and it’s a good indicator that the level of quality the game provides for the price ($1) is good. Or that’s my take on it at least :o). Graphics wise most reviews have been very positive too, so I guess we did it right with the art style.

Regarding failures. Well, first off I’d have to say that I misjudged the difficulty of properly balancing and implementing a good handling model for 9 different vehicles. Lots of people have complained about it and with good reason I’d say. The handling is not horrible, but it’s harsh when you start and it’s not probably rewarding enough. Also, it’s quite obvious (to me at least) that the game could do with a bit more of variety of gameplay. More game modes, weapons, elimination, maybe some sort of point based game mode…

Oh, and I think I’ve to improve a lot the menus. At least the usability, but the presentation could be a lot better too.

In its current form, how close is Toy Cars to your initial vision?

Well, art-wise it’s pretty close to what I had in mind. Menus could (and should) be improved but I like the overall feeling the art of the game provides. Gameplay-wise, as discussed above, it’s not that close to what I had in mind. I was thinking it would have weapons, several more varied game modes, etc. Hopefully that’ll be in the second game ;o)

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 Toy Cars and if you faced a similar challenge.

Well, regarding the handling model I’d say that’s what happened. You just get too bogged down on your game that you lose all perspective. You don’t realize that what you think it’s a “fair” challenge it’s really too hard for most people. It’s something I’ve definitely learned from this project and am putting some means to try to avoid it in our current project (LightFish). We’re doing a lot more of user testing and gathering metrics and feedback to try to avoid that.

On the other hand, the AI adjusts itself dynamically both in between races and inside the same race. I think the AI gives a fair challenge most of the time and that makes up for the extra challenge the handling model presents.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Toy Cars would run on the various PC system configurations?

It’s definitely harder to work for the PC than for a closed platform like the Xbox, but XNA makes your life a lot easier. It’s really a joy to work with.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

I guess it’s going to be the lack of stability. You just do your game and hope for the best.

It’s also very tough to be knocking doors all the time to try to port your game to different platforms (PSP Minis, Steam, PS Vita, DS…) etc,. but it takes like forever to get answers. It’s completely understandable since those guys have to deal with big companies all the time and we only signify a very small part of their business, but it’s tough for us none the less.

Tell us about the process of submitting Toy Cars to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

Well, XBLIG was pretty much straight-forward, apart from the time it took to review (3 weeks). It’s a format that I already knew and has pros and cons, but you know that if you your stuff right, you’ll get published.

We’ve tried to reach other markets and we’re in the process of publishing the game with one major PC digital distribution system. I’m not sure I can disclose any information about that here, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t. That’s being a lot slower than I expected. The game is supposedly approved but I’ve been waiting over 2 months to get an Id that allows me to integrate the game with the SDK they provide. As I said before I understand they have other priorities, but it’s a very painful process for us and I still think there’s a bit of room for improvement.

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?

Well, we haven’t done too much research, but we did our bit. Then we decided we wanted the game to reach as many people as possible and thus left it at the lowest price point possible in XBLIG and for as much as you want to pay in our website. Then other sites like Desura or Indievania have a different price point because that allows us to do bundles and sales. Not that we’ve done a lot of that so far… but that’s the theory anyway :o)

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

I think it’s a great opportunity for smaller dev teams to get a chance to sell our games to the world. These are really exciting times to be an independent developer. Technology is not growing at the pace it used to and the market has widened a lot so now virtually everybody is exposed to some sort of the interactive entertainment, be it through a home console, a hand-held console, the PC, Facebook, smartphones, a tablet, or (the most common case scenario) a combination of the previous.

There’s the possibility to reach a lot of people, but it’s also a very tough time due to competition. There are loads of amazing games out there and you have to compete with those.

I can only be so thankful to those companies like Apple, MS, Sony or Valve that give you the opportunity to place your game there (if it’s good enough) for the people to buy it.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Toy Cars.

Regarding the art-style. I had it clear in my mind that it should be cartoony, just like the old micro-machine games, in 3D (because I do model better and do 2D art) and that I should cover my lack of artistic skills with my coding skills (that is, with shaders). The game has a lot of post-processing of the image so that it looks like it does. It certainly was more of shader writing feat than a 3D modelling/texturing feat. You got to know what you can do and make the most of it.

The level design was… well, I just tried to remember how Death Rally or Micro-Machines tracks looked like, and do something similar. Not a huge amount of thought went into that.

Finally, the music was composed by a friend of mine. I like it but I think that we need a couple of songs more if we’re to publish the game in a bigger, better distribution platform. My friend agrees so hopefully at some point Toy Cars will have more of that lovely music ;o).

Please tell us why there a demo for Toy Cars is not available?

Well, I don’t have a proper demo for Toy Cars on the PC. It’s trivial to do that on XBLIG using XNA but on the PC I didn’t have the time to implement it.

I think that the same that happened to me happens to big studios. The cost of the demo doesn’t cover for the extra sales it generates. It’s sad, and if you plan to release a demo and architect your code from the start with that in mind, it becomes so much easier. I didn’t do it with Toy Cars (but we’re definitely releasing a demo of our next project LightFish). I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes and will make up for them in the future.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Toy Cars professionally?

Well, we value them quite a lot. When you develop a game you lose a lot of perspective. Sometimes it’s easy to spot where you could do better or what parts are still not quite polished, but some others you just can’t say. Getting professionals to play it and review it is great and we certainly value their opinions. We made a list with the most common and important problems found in reviews and will fix them in the second game.

I must say that we’ve had very positive reviews too (I think our reviews average at around 7-8). That’s been very encouraging and satisfying.

How do you feel about the various indie bundles and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

I love those sort of bundles. I’ve been buying the Humble Indie Bundle ever since the second “edition”. Not only have I bought it for myself, but for the rest of the members of Eclipse Games (that amounts to unbelievable quantity of 3 copies!). I think it’s a great opportunity to get your games to a truckload of people and getting a bigger chance of being discovered.

Sometimes you won’t feel attracted to a game for whatever reason: it’s not your ‘style’, it’s not the genre you like, you don’t like the trailer, or you simply don’t like the box-art. But then you get the game as part of a bundle like this and discover a game that’s a hidden gem. You wouldn’t have discovered it if it wasn’t for the bundle.

I’d love if one of our games ever got to the humble bundle. I’d quite honoured actually. I’ll probably try to contact the Humble Bundle guys after releasing LightFish since I believe that game could fit in there well.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

Well… I don’t have a strong opinion regarding piracy. I was quite surprised when Toy Cars got to the torrent. I wasn’t expecting people to deem their time worth putting our game there. So I guess it was flattening somehow. In the file they also ask people who like the game to pay for it to support us. So I think it’s ‘partially fair’. Moreover since we don’t have a PC demo (my fault).

I don’t think if it wasn’t for piracy we would have more sales. Possibly even a few less. I’m not sure about bigger companies with bigger games, but as far as I’m concerned piracy is not a problem but DRM is annoying and has put me off buying some games (ie., Command & Conquer 4).

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

I think it’s a great opportunity to expand your world and your games and doing it in a way that may even pay back (if you charge for the extra content). I’m still a bit cautious about charging for DLC, I’m not sure that’s always good. You may end up alienating your audience too.

In any case, I think it’s great that you have that possibility and that it’s so widespread that people see it as something normal and interesting.

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 created for Toy Cars?

I always feel it’s flattering. People expend their time trying to extend your game… that means they loved your game and want more of it! Man, I can only wish one of our games will end up like that. I’d definitely give as much support as possible to anyone trying to mod any of our games.

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Hell, I don’t know! We’re not properly successful developers. Ahm… probably we’re not successful developers at all yet.

Anyway, if you ask me, I’d say that you should be constant. That you have to set a target and aim for it. And put all you’ve got into that idea you have. Believe in yourself and work hard. Hopefully it will pay off some day… That’s what we do anyway! – End.

Thanks goes out to Eduardo and the whole gang at Eclipse Games for taking the time to interview with us.  You can pick up Toy Cars via Desura.

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