Conducted By Adam Ames
The gang from Exit Strategy Entertainment joined TPG for a discussion about the development of their indie titles, Pirates of New Horizon and Planet Buster. You will read about their thoughts on the PC gaming industry, life as an indie dev and much more. Here is a small piece of the pie:
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Planet Buster?
Planet Buster was being developed on and off and neglected for a long period of time, which was a shame, because it’s a really fun game. The problem was that the contractor was paid for porting the game to Unity, but the game itself was far from done. Asking him to fix bugs and add features like the special items based on favors wasn’t really getting anywhere and who can blame him? The lesson learnt is that you either pay someone to do the job in a given timeframe, or you do it yourself.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Planet Buster.
Sönke: My name is Soenke Seidel but in the modding community I’m better known as “warby”. I kicked Planet Buster (formerly known as “Chain Reaction” and “Stargazer”) into existence to help fund my bigger game development endeavors: “Pirates of New Horizons”!
Michael: I’m Michael ‘Zacker’ Schmidt and for Planet Buster I have been on the tech side of things. I went to lead the technical efforts a few months prior to release. At this stage development had been going on for a while but there were bugs everywhere and still quite some features and changes missing. So my task was to implement the remaining features while fixing up the game up to a polished state – essentially taking it through the alpha and beta stages.
Friedrich: Hey, my name is Friedrich – I am the Producer and Managing Director at Exit Strategy.
Skjalg: Hi, my name is Skjalg Sturlasson Mæhre. I met all these guys through the modding community at “MapCore” and together we have been working on our upcoming game “Pirates of New Horizons” together for almost 2 years now. With Planet Buster I spent most of my time testing and commenting on the games design.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Sönke: Modding with the good old Half-Life editor … those were the days
Michael: My start with PC game development goes back a good 10 years in the days of the Half-Life modding community. I wrote about level design for major sites such as Planet Half-Life and Counter-Strike Central while also doing level design on the side. I got involved in a mod called Sands of War where I ended up being promoted to Game Director. After that it has been one wild ride through IO Interactive (Kane & Lynch, Mini Ninjas), various start ups and now Exit Strategy Entertainment.
Friedrich: Same as the others: Half-Life got me into modding and games development in general. After school I joined Crytek to work on the first Crysis as a Level-Designer for three years, before going to university for a degree in Media Economics. In retrospective that was merely a break from games development though, because here I am creating games about space pirates with these three other guys.
Skjalg: It’s safe to say that Half-Life changed my life. I first started creating levels for an unknown (at the time) mod called Counter-Strike. Even though none of my levels got featured in the official download there were always some German or Norwegian servers using my levels in their rotation. After a while I moved over to the source engine but slowly realized that I wanted to do something more logical, so I started to learn how to script levels while attending school to learn how to program. After my education was done I started helping Sönke out with this small game that he was working on and now 2 years later we have a company together working on the same game.
Where did the idea for Planet Buster come from?
Sönke: Development actually started a long time ago at a time where the name “Pop Cap” meant something to me but to nobody else on the internet. Casual games just started to become popular and to be a viable business. A friend of mine asked me if I had an idea for a small game that could get finished in a relatively short time. I played a lot of Rocket Mania Deluxe at the time (rather unknown Pop Cap “GEM”). I loved the reward system in the game … it was super addictive. The plan was to make something that combined that feeling of reward with the strategic depth of another game we both competitively played at the time: “Puyo Pop Fever”. I was convinced that this could be done “over the weekend”…
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Planet Buster?
Sönke: Now 4 or 5 years later I can tell you no game gets made “over the weekend”. Also with each revision it moved closer and closer to the always popular Bejeweled. So close that at a first glance it may look like a bejeweled clone, which offends me a little when people say it, but I guess I should have stuck a bit closer to the original vision rather than listening to outside feedback. I guess you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Michael: The coding part of production was initially outsourced (as we were busy with PONH) which seemed to work great but it hit us hard when progress halted and we had to take the project in-house. Here we learned that the codebase was a huge mess and we spent quite some time fixing it up. If we ever outsource anything again, we will both a) perform an in-depth analysis of a contractor and b) much more tight tracking of the codebase.
Biggest success I would say is the fact that we finished something which is a really good feeling. We have been working on our other big project, Pirates of New Horizons, for about a year and we still have a long way to go there before release. So Planet Buster was a nice change from that, as the overly long productions was one of my original reasons for leaving triple-A and starting an indie studio.
Friedrich: Planet Buster was being developed on and off and neglected for a long period of time, which was a shame, because it’s a really fun game. The problem was that the contractor was paid for porting the game to Unity, but the game itself was far from done. Asking him to fix bugs and add features like the special items based on favors wasn’t really getting anywhere and who can blame him? The lesson learnt is that you either pay someone to do the job in a given timeframe, or you do it yourself.
Eventually we decided to do the later, but we underestimated the amount of work. We should’ve known better: the last stages of a project usually suck up the most time (and nerves). Now the game needs to sell more in order to compensate for the additional work hours we put into it instead of our 3D Jump’n Run-Action Adventure. In terms of sales the average amount spent on the game is higher than what we expected, so in that sense the “pay what you want” deal paid off, but I expected more hits and purchases. One has to consider that we’re still in the early stages of distribution, we haven’t uploaded the game to third-party portals yet and we’re going to release the game on mobile platforms as well.
Overall generating awareness for a match-3 title and attracting new users who have never heard of PONH is definitely not the easiest thing to do, but we knew this. In terms of rallying supporters of PONH, giving them an opportunity to support the game’s development financially and in return give them a fun game to play in the meantime, in that regard I believe we succeeded.
Skjalg: Distractions are bad, very, very bad. We set out to create Pirates of New Horizons then had the idea that it would be good to have a small game on the side that could sustain us through some of the development. We all thought it was an excellent idea that would not distract us much from the original game that we were working on but it did.
In its current form, how close is Planet Buster to your initial vision?
Sönke: Funny that you ask! It has moved quite a bit away from it. The input was supposed to be very different in the beginning: it was all about shifting rows and columns and the gravity in which directions tiles would fall was supposed to shift. But this didn’t really work for the strategic planning of your chain reactions so that idea got scrapped.
Some 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 Planet Buster and if you faced a similar challenge.
Sönke: I don’t think the game is too hard but we are also very well aware of the issue. I often had to stop myself from tweaking a value to make it more challenging even though I really wanted to. I’d advise every developer to run your game through the “mom” test. Not just for usability feedback but so that you can remind yourself during those moments how wide the skill spectrum of players can be. I heard from a friend who works on Black Mesa Source that the difficulty level that they work on first is the hardest to get right. To ensure that it’s tough but beatable and then they just go down from there for the other ones. I think that is a very clever approach but only applicable if your game has multiple difficulty levels. In case of a doubt make it too easy rather than too hard!
Michael: All along the development of Planet Buster we continuously had lots of user testing running. Judging difficulty is something that even we with 10 years of game design experience still struggle with, so there is no away around lots of user testing in this regard. We both sent builds to friends around the world and also had in-house testing sessions.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Planet Buster would run on the various PC system configurations?
Sönke: Originally the game was written in an obscure java 2d engine long before “Unity” was out on windows. It suffered from a terrible frame rate and barely ran on any kind of operating system, but when we switched to Unity all those woes went away. If you want to deploy on as many systems/platforms as possible then Unity is your middleware!
Michael: The game itself is fairly simple and we are lucky to be powered by the great middleware called Unity so not many challenges on that side. We are also working on a release on mobile platforms and here there are quite some more challenges.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Planet Buster.
Sönke: It’s all closely tied to the world and art direction of “Pirates of New Horizons”. That seemed to make the most sense since that’s the project Planet Buster is supposed to fund. The art direction of PONH I like to refer to as “Pixar meets Studio Ghibl”. The colors and lighting fidelity of the former with the attention to detail and amount of brushstrokes of the later. If we are quite there yet I let you be the judge. The music is the same as in the main game – it was composed by a freelance composer named: Harry Mack. The levels are all auto generated … actually that is a lie we PRE-scrabbled a couple of game fields to make sure you don’t actually start a level with an insane chain reaction that solves the level for you without making any input…it happens more often than you would think!
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Sönke: Getting food on your table and getting people to notice you … there are so many games out there these days.
Michael: Getting on the consoles with a reasonable publisher is a very tough process which we are still not anywhere done with – and this despite our triple-A background with a great network among our former colleagues at major production houses. Consider this an open invitation, if you can get us a proper deal on console publishing then you got a job right here!
Without any kind of backing by an investor nor publisher it means that we are super tight on money which has some implications on us being unable to scale the team to the size we would like it to have. We are still hoping to find some funding and if not we will have to cut down on some of our original ambitions for a huge and epic action adventure.
Friedrich: On the PC, the publishing/distribution part is much easier than on consoles, that is true. This is something publishers usually can provide, but you still need to generate awareness for your game, no matter which platform. So to compensate for the marketing muscle of a publisher, you need to come up with unusual ways to market your game. This can be lots of fun but also quite challenging at times.
How did you go about funding Planet Buster and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Sönke: It’s all self-funded. Otherwise it wouldn’t be indie!
Michael: A big thank you will definitely have to go out to my great friends and family who had to put up with an at times fairly burned out version of me!
Tell us about the process of submitting Planet Buster to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Sönke: That is going to happen after the “pay what you want” sale on our website so the answer is “not yet”.
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?
Sönke: I am not sure if I understand the question correctly … but we definitely looked at the pricing of other match 3 games.
Friedrich: We also looked at previous “pay what you want” deals by other developers and concluded that this is something we would like to try with Planet Buster as well.
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Planet Buster and the difficulties in doing so.
Sönke: It’s extra work which costs big studios tons of money. The more complex your game the more expensive it is to “crop” out a piece. We almost shied away from it too. Bottom line is the cost of making the demo must be lower than the extra dollars that you will make because of the demo.
Michael: Big budget studios still release demos, they just call it ‘betas’ these days.
Friedrich: If you don’t have a multi-million dollar budget to create fancy video trailers, you try to persuade your customers in other, less expensive ways to buy your game. Maybe indie developers are more convinced that their games are fun than the AAA studios? But like Michael said, “Beta” seems to be the new “Demo”.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Planet Buster from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Michael: That was very important to us! In the hours around release we were pretty much non-stop monitoring what was being said about the game around the net. We also have an internal document with a link to every site and forum which has some of mention of Planet Buster, this allows to easily track feedback.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Planet Buster professionally?
Sönke: I haven’t seen many reviews yet, I guess everyone is busy reviewing “annual christmas fps 3” and the likes.
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?
Sönke: Love ‘em! And yes absolutely!
Friedrich: I think indie bundle promotions are perfect opportunities for indie developers to team up and help each other. I think our readiness for “Pay What You Want” promotions is pretty clear by now, so yeah, we’d love to do more of this in the future, also in a promotion with other developers.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Sönke: Vote with your wallet, people! I only buy games that have non-intrusive DRM or none at all. Trying to “fight” piracy on the other hand is as pointless as trying to get blood from a stone. I can never help but laugh at the people who equate number of illegal downloads to number of lost sales. I used to know so many kids who flatout didn’t have the cash to pay for all the games they pirated so if perfect DRM was in place they would just be locked out of the gaming experience. No extra dollar would roll. This is anecdotal evidence of course but all the “adult” pirates I know fall into one of these 2 categories:
A) pirates out of compulsion, but hardly even watches/listens to/only plays 0.1% of the stuff he/she leeches. There is no way each download would result in a purchase if pirating wasn’t an option.
B) pirates as a way to “demo” stuff without restriction. The good stuff that they can be bothered to play longer than 5 minutes they will actually buy so these fellas show up on both stats (sales and illegal downloads). So the only effective way to “fight” piracy is to make your games better! If they are good, people who can afford them and care will buy. How did Gabe Newell say it? “A pirate is just a misserved customer”?!
Bill S.978 was introduced to the United 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 posting videos of Planet Buster?
Sönke: Facepalm … u.s. senate .. seriously … facepalm.
Friedrich: Nothing to add here.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Sönke: I do like downloadable games a lot. That’s my preferred method of buying games. But downloading and paying more often for smaller and smaller chunks of content is really inconvenient and annoying to me. Especially when you know that the content was stripped out of the game that you paid the full price for and that the DLC was already in submission and ready to go before the game was released. I propose the opposite direction: I want developer lifetime subscriptions! Let’s take Double Fine for example. These guys could have a lifetime subscription to my wallet if they wanted to! Pay once or pay an amount annually and get everything they create! That would be so awesome! Take the hassle out of buying stuff, don’t increase it! I don’t want to have to flash my visa card every 5 minutes and type in those long strings of numbers.
Friedrich: I think it’s commonly known that DLC has established itself as a mean to extend the lifetime of a game and it’s a viable way to give fans new content post-release. The Magicka guys are pretty good at this for example. But like Soenke said, there are times when you can’t shake the feeling that the creators became greedy and want to charge extra for content that could and should have been included in the standard release. Right now we’re more interested in how to share downloadable content with users pre-release. That is an opportunity you don’t have on consoles and with the success of Minecraft and other alpha-funding initiatives I feel this will become more common on the PC in the future.
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 Planet Buster?
Sönke: Everyone at Exit Stratgey is a modder, so naturally we love the modding community, but games have become so complex these days and time-consuming to make. If you are interested in modding and have the time and expertise to pull off what has essentially become a “full game” then just make an indie title instead! 😉
Michael: We love the modding community and all of us have a background as modders. Unfortunately exposing modding functionality is quite some work and therefore not something we have much room for promoting in our games.
Skjalg: Modding is an incredible way to both prolong the life of a game, but to also get new creative minds into the gaming industry. It’s not necessarily a hard task to make it easier to mod a game, it can be as simple as storing all the player values in an xml file that people can edit. Stuff like what the gravity should be or how much damage weapons should do is all pre-stored numbers anyways. Creating your very own level editor on the other hand is a really big task, one that I doubt we will ever do with Unity as our game development tool.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Sönke: Which business? Triple-A or indie game development ? Well, the answer is the same: download Unity or UDK and get cracking!
Michael: There is one classic saying which is as valid as ever: “Release early, release often”.
Also, when coming from either university or a regular job there is one critical thing which you will lack when becoming an indie developer: Someone to bounce ideas up against and help you set goals. There used to be either a boss or a professor to mentor you but suddenly there is just no capacity like that – unless you do some leg work to make it happen. So make sure to find some experienced sparring partners and line them up as either advisors or mentors.
Skjalg: Stop dreaming about doing it and start doing it. I have talked with so many people that get a smile on their face and talk about how they have this and that game idea and that they wished they were developing games for a living. The only thing I tell them is that if they really want to they should just go and do it. I’m not going to stop them, I’ll probably even help you along the way when you do it.
Friedrich: If you enjoy fast-paced, snack-sized gaming and things that go “boom”, go to Planet Buster and check out the game! If you like 3D Jump’n Runs and/or Action Adventures and would love to play a game set in these genres on your PC, we’re going to have some very interesting news for you on our website next month. We can’t spill the beans just yet, so bookmark it and drop by our site mid-December. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get to play something… 😉 – End