Conducted By Adam Ames
Over the last several years, the Hidden Object games have grown into big business. Total Eclipse Games and their work on The Clockwork Man Series has shown just how far the genre has come by putting their own innovative spin on things. TPG was lucky enough to grab Argiris Bendilas, CEO of Total Eclipse Games, who talks about the development of The Clockwork Man, life as an indie and various topics about the current state of the PC gaming industry.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of The Clockwork Man series.
I’m Argiris Bendilas, the CEO of Total Eclipse, a game development company in Greece, that focuses on casual games for Windows, Mac, Linux and as of recently, the iPhone & iPad.
During the making of The Clockwork Man series I was responsible for the production of the games. As the Producer I had to oversee both the in-house team, as well as the freelancers who we worked with us at the time. In reality and as is common in small teams, I “wore many hats”, often doing tasks from different departments, to help progress in any way I could.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I started out as a gamer at the age of 11, back when a 8086 PC with a black & white monitor was considered top of the crop for home computing. My brother, the co-founder of Total Eclipse, was 9 at the time, and together we explored the great beyond that computers had to offer. It was truly magical!
Although we had lots of fun playing games, we soon wanted more; in fact, we wanted to make a game of our own! And so we delved into the inner workings of programming, starting with GW Basic, moving on to Quick Basic, then Pascal, Delphi, until years later, in 1999 we finally started making websites professionally at http://www.zefxis.gr, our first business endeavor.
We worked from home at first, but soon we moved to a nice, small office that would soon host our first team. We were really passionate about what we did, sucking knowledge out of every possible source, always priding ourselves on the quality of our work.
At that time we were exploring the Flash platform, still when Macromedia was at the helm, which seemed like a good tool to make a game. You see, we had never forgotten how it had all started and we still wanted to make a game of our own. In 2005 we decided to get serious about it, so we launched Total Eclipse, with a focus on casual games with a worldwide appeal. This was a rather bold move for a small team in Greece, where there never has been a game development industry, like in other countries, but it proved to be our best move so far! Our first game was soon being distributed in major casual game portals and Total Eclipse was in business!
Where did the idea for The Clockwork Man come from?
We were close to finishing Fashion Boutique, a Time-Management game we were working on at the time, when my brother and I were attending a casual games conference in Kiev. We had set up a meeting with a couple of Publishers to which we’d be pitching a casual adventure game. In 2008 that seemed rather daring for a market saturated with Match-3, Time-Management and Hidden Object games.
The Publishers didn’t try hard to hide their reluctance for funding such a project. Back in our hotel room, we realized we needed a plan B. That night we came up with the basic mechanics that would later form the core game play of The Clockwork Man games.
As for the universe of The Clockwork Man, that was all an idea of our writer, Robert, who at first suggested making a game like Cogs. In it, the player would take gears and springs to put together parts for a massive mechanical structure, a clockwork robot that would eventually become animated and move around and maybe even help finish itself.
Luckily for all involved, we later combined our mechanics with Robert’s exciting storytelling and ended up with Miranda and Sprocket exploring Victorian London and beyond!
More on Robert’s work on the games can be found on our blog.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing The Clockwork Man series?
The first Clockwork Man game introduced scrolling and zoomable scenes to the Hidden Object genre, which was a world’s first. That meant that we had to both develop the necessary technology, as well as test it to see if it was something that could actually work.
Although the engine’s development happened in parallel with the work on game play and graphics, it cost us a lot in terms of time and money. Also, a scrolling scene would usually cost 3 times as much compared to a static one, also in terms of the graphics and level design. In essence these new features proved to be a great game play asset, but also very expensive to make.
You can read more about the making of the games and the difficulties we faced during production on our blog.
In its current form, how close are The Clockwork Man games to your initial vision?
Due to the additional cost introduced to the production by the scrolling and zoomables scenes, there came a point when we were running out of time and had to finally release the first Clockwork Man. This made us leave out some of the scenes/puzzles that we had planned for the game, which would eventually leave some players with a feeling of an abrupt ending.
In the sequel we had the main engine already in place and although we had to extend it a lot, in order to offer more adventure game play, we planned things better and we believe we’ve offered a more complete experience to the player, pretty close to our initial vision.
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 The Clockwork Man games and if you faced a similar challenge.
I believe this happens to both indie and huge teams alike; there comes a point in production that you’re so much into it that you expect the players to see what you’re seeing and act as you are acting in the game. This is hardly ever the case though.
Although we did lots of play testing for the first Clockwork Man, it turned out that some of the hidden objects we were asking the player to find on-screen were too small and considering our core audience, which was between the ages of 35-60, it turned out to be an issue for some. Thankfully, it wasn’t anything too bad to cause any major disturbances in the player’s experience. In the sequel we made sure to eliminate this issue altogether.
During both games we performed focused usability tests and later on, large public betas with the help of the Publisher, that helped us fix what wasn’t working as well as fine-tune things that could be improved upon in the time left before release.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring The Clockwork Man games would run on the various PC system configurations?
Both of the Clockwork Man games are made in Flash and wrapped with Zinc, to be made into an executable file. This meant that our games would be playable on every system that supports the Flash player, which also included Mac & Linux machines.
Working with Zinc allowed us to have the game running on all 3 platforms, but there were times when something that would work flawlessly on one, wouldn’t work the same way on another. We ironed out as many of those differences as possible and with the imminent release of Zinc 4 we’ll try to make the Mac & Linux versions as identical to the PC one, as possible.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I think that making a game is always the fun part! The challenges you face during production will soon become milestones you achieved, considering you got a great team to go with. The toughest part for us and probably most indies as well, is cash flow. Unfortunately, when your mind goes from how to make the game to how to ensure you’ve got enough money to go on, you lose focus from what’s important; the creativity that fuels your work.
We still haven’t reached the point where the income from our games is enough to let us take a break from continuous productions, while we experiment on new things. But we’re hopeful for the future!
How did you create funding for the development of The Clockwork Man games and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
For both games in The Clockwork Man series we got funding from a Publisher, however it turned out that this wasn’t enough to fuel production. As I explained earlier, the cost of our games was many times that of other hidden object games, so in the end we spent money from our pockets as well, in order to complete both games.
Our family has always been there for us, providing both emotional support, as well as financial help, even if that meant a loan from the bank was involved. When things get tough and the days ahead look desperate, it is very important to have people to love you, believe in you and help in any way they can. It’s enough to keep you going until your project is completed.
Tell us about the process of submitting The Clockwork Man games to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
When you are certain of your game’s quality you will do whatever is necessary to make it available on every possible distribution outlet. Sometimes it takes more effort to secure a deal with a certain distributor, but the more you get your game out there, the easier it is to achieve more deals in the future. Having established a name in the market is also very important, and since The Clockwork Man games weren’t our first, whatever resistance was surely less than if we were just starting out.
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?
I believe it’s very important to know both the value of your product, as well as the market you’re selling in. Given that, there are places where you can set the selling price and others (such as the major casual games portals) where prices are fixed for everyone and there’s nothing you can do about that.
Having the freedom to set your own prices is very important, as long as they don’t skew too much from what people expect to pay for the product.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Digital distribution is responsible for many of the good things that are happening in the game industry today, the most important one being the ability to sell your products to a huge array of players worldwide and on different devices.
This is a truly unique time for game developers who, for the first time perhaps, can choose to publish their games on their own and distribute them via the many available channels.
Although I personally love to hold in my hand a game’s box, manuals and special trinkets that may be included in the package, the future is digital and retail sales may eventually end up catering just to special edition collectors.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for The Clockwork Man games.
The team responsible for the making of a game can really define the end product. Given the same GDD (game design document), another team would most definitely produce something different. I’m grateful to have worked with talented individuals who all gave something of their self to the making of the Clockwork Man games.
I believe the art style of both games is something unique, for which I mainly have to thank Peter and Zsolt, our background artists. In this age of 3D graphics we insist on making hand-painted ones, because we just love the quality they offer to a game.
Our work here was very traditional. We started with rough concepts, moved on to more elaborate ones, then cleaned up the line art and finally painted the backgrounds. Our goal was to immerse the players in this exciting world and we believe the graphics played major part in achieving that.
The music of the games was also very important for us. Personally I enjoy orchestral music a lot, so one of my priorities as the Producer is to make sure the player’s experience is further enhanced through music. Once more, we worked with talented musicians who managed to bring the game to life with their score and give it that Victorian aura that we needed. For the sequel we even invested in individual music for each cutscene, which, we believe, gave them an animated film quality, as well.
Level design is always a challenge for a team, as they have to balance many aspects of the game play to produce a fine result. In the first Clockwork Man the focus was on hidden object scenes, with the occasional puzzles taking place in-between. Our effort here was mostly focused on hiding the different objects well and in ways that made sense. Before The Clockwork Man other hidden object developers would just place objects wherever they liked (i.e. a banana on the ceiling or a zeppelin in the water). I’d like to believe we helped change that trend, so nowadays you see more logical placement of such objects.
In the sequel we decided to do more of what we loved; so adventure game puzzles came into play, full force. The casual games audience had matured enough to be able to handle these new interactions, so we were more than happy to see our players embracing them, as they squeezed their brains to find a solution to our riddles. If we were to do a 3rd game in the series now, it would definitely have even more adventure game play in it.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost ever indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why you released a demo for The Clockwork Man games and the difficulties in doing so.
As consumers we’d all love to be able to sample something, before we fully commit to it. A demo allows a player to get a glimpse of what the full game has to offer and from the player’s perspective that’s something very valuable.
At Total Eclipse we’re both game developers and gamers, so we want to treat our customers the way we want to be treated ourselves. Offering a free demo of The Clockwork Man games was something natural for us. It only required some time to define what the player’s experience should be like and then a quick implementation of that experience.
How important is it to get instant feedback about The Clockwork Man from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Game developers and players are more connected today than ever before. The available channels of communication offer many opportunities for us to listen to our customers more closely, see what it is they like in our games and offer them more, but most importantly, find out what they didn’t like as much, for us to change in the future.
The major difficulty is really keeping track of everything that’s being said about you and your games, so as a team grows larger someone who’s more dedicated to this communication may become eventually a necessity.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review The Clockwork Man games professionally?
Every professional reviewer has a gaming background, so it’s important to take that into consideration when reading a review about your games. For instance, someone who reviews hardcore games for years will probably find The Clockwork Man games somewhat lacking, since they’ll be comparing them to the AAA productions they’re used to. However the same games may be getting high ratings from casual reviewers who are used to playing such games.
Although objectivity is important, in the end the reviewer’s background may be more important when they take a game apart to present it to their readers.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
This type of promotions are really something unique and I’m always in awe when I see the great work for the Humble Bundle, of the guys at Wolfire, for example. Not only do they offer a great incentive to players by giving great games at –usually– very low prices, they also support charity and that’s something you don’t often get in the same package.
Some argue that such devaluation of your product can harm it, harm your brand, your company. Others say that people who buy at such low prices may not even care for the game itself, as much as for the offer at hand. Whatever the truth is, it’s all about the psychology of the buyer, who in the end doesn’t differ much from the one giving out $3 to get a great game on the App Store.
You’d think that once your game is on all major portals, you’d have made it available to as many people as possible, however the opportunities of digital distribution really seem endless. We’d definitely want to participate in such a bundle in the future and see how it would go!
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole is dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
When we first started making games we would secure them with some kind of DRM (serial number, activation code, etc.) since it was our most valuable property.
As we gained more experience and insight from the market, we realized that those who don’t plan to pay for a game would most probably pirate it. Even if the game were given to them for $1, some people would still decide to pirate it. There’s nothing you can do about those people. Chasing them is fruitless. Adding DRM protection is also fruitless in the long run, but even more a burden for your true supporters who want to pay for your game and enjoy it, no strings attached.
From The Clockwork Man onwards we decided to take better care of our customers, so we’ve adopted a DRM-Free philosophy. All of the games that will be distributed by us directly will ¬¬be free to play on all of the player’s household’s PCs and will require no activation. Ever.
Sometimes thinking as a gamer is the best thing to do, when deciding your company’s strategy.
Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year, which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about individuals outside of Total Eclipse posting videos of The Clockwork Man games?
Although copyright is very important for a company’s assets, community building is equally important. Having your customers talk about your product and spend time promoting it through such videos is something every game developer should wish for. As long as nothing illegal is going on, in regards to one’s copyrighted material, I think that allowing such involvement from the fans can only benefit the developer.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
That’s a tough question. I like DLCs provided that they don’t scream ‘give us your money’ and that they don’t withhold significant gameplay from the player. I find them perfectly reasonable in free-to-play games, as in i.e. extra characters or costumes, the developers have to somehow make money. I also enjoy them when they offer that something extra to the gameplay, loads of maps or a whole new adventure. In my mind, the latter is the equivalent of the ‘old’ expansion packs.
There has been a lot of furore recently about the ethical correctness of DLCs – if one has paid for a game, why should they pay more for what –supposedly- had to be already in the game. In the end both developers and players have to strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, developers should not release every miniscule change as a DLC, and when they do release one, it should be worth every penny. On the other hand the players should understand that games do cost a lot of money to be created and sometimes, for a significant expansion, the developer is within their rights to charge.
In closing, I must say that I greatly admire the efforts by CDProjekt Red, creators of the Witcher who have pledged free DLCs for the Witcher 2. This approach (if you can afford it) can only win you a lot of loyal fans (EA listening?)
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 mods created for?
First of all let me say that we do not have modding tools for The Clockwork Man games, nor have we ever received requests for modding so I am unable to comment on our series specifically.
However, modding games and the resulting modding community can only be an extremely positive thing. Not only does it allow fans to tinker with their favourite game and see how things work but it also is an avenue for experimentation and collaboration. Many mods have evolved to quality sellable games themselves (Counter-Strike /DoD and LoL/Dear Esther).
The relationship between players-turned-modders and developers is also strengthened. I think it is a perfect playground to learn game development and also discover the effort that original developers put into creating the engine and its assets.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Have a dream and believe in it! Believe in yourself too, because if there’s anyone who can make your dream a reality, that’s you! Work hard. Really hard! Be thankful for both successes and failures that come your way and never give up! Oh, and have a backup plan; that’s always a good idea. – End
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