Workin’ Past 9 to 5: Crystal Hunters Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

The top brass from DreamRoot Studios took time out of their busy schedules to discuss the development of their top-down puzzle game, Crystal Hunters.  You will read about how Crystal Hunters was born, life as an independent developer, their take on various topics surrounding the PC gaming industry and much more.  Here is a small preview:

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

Caleb: Definitely finding time. We all carry full-time jobs and made this game on the side. Tuesday’s and Thursdays nights we’d all meet at the local Panera and work on the game till close. Every other night we were usually working from home when we were in the middle of development. But, our persistence eventually paid off, and I think it was worth the sacrifice.

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

Caleb: I’m Caleb “Togi” Crawford, and I come from a game development background. I went to Full Sail to study Game Design and Development, and have been working in the industry for about 4 years now. Currently, I’m working in the military simulation side of the industry, which is what gave me the free time to start work on Crystal Hunters and form DreamRoot Studios with two other friends.

Oscar:  Same as Caleb, I studied at Full Sail and ended up working as a programmer in the military simulation industry.  I do a lot of the artwork and special effects programming on Crystal Hunters.

Cindy: I have a degree in traditional art from UT Austin, mostly had plans to go into graphic design. I didn’t really like it, and had always been a fan of video games. I knew that Austin was a big gaming city, took a few 3D art classes, and entered the world of QA testing, with hopes to move into art. I did the menu art and the character drawings for Crystal Hunters.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

Caleb: While I was between jobs, I was looking for something to do between interviews. I naturally gravitated toward XNA, given my coding background. XNA was such an easy system to get my head around, so it cleared me up to code exactly what I wanted. It also has the added benefit of being able to be ported to the 360, something we are working on for Crystal Hunters right now!

Oscar:  Once Caleb got a job at the same company as me, I saw what he had been working on.  Mostly it was colorful blocks and debug rendering at the time, but it had the gameplay all sorted out.  The game just needed a face.  I offered to put some art together for it and we just went from there.

Cindy: I started working at the same company a week or two after Caleb, and we were on the same project. I heard him and Oscar talk about working on a game, and thought it’d be fun to help out. I didn’t really want to ask, since I felt this was something they started at Full Sail and were building on. Luckily – one day they asked if I wanted to do some art for the game, and I said yes.

Where did the idea for Crystal Hunters come from?

Caleb: One of my favorite NES games growing up was The Adventures of Lolo. To this day I still have every level from the first game memorized. When I started work on Crystal Hunters, I took the concepts from that game and went from there. Little things evolved out of the design, such as lasers, doors, and switches.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Crystal Hunters?

Caleb: The biggest success that came from Crystal Hunters was the fact that we were able to bring a game from scratch to sale on Indievania. None of us have any sort of business background, so that was the biggest hurdle to overcome. And we’ve learned a lot from it. Personally, my biggest failure was my constant resistance to a tutorial in Crystal Hunters. I wanted to believe that the levels were fluid enough to teach the player, but we found from play testing that there were still some nuances that had to be taught. Thankfully, we got the Tutorial in, and the game is so much better for it!

Oscar:  In my opinion, our biggest success was in just finishing the game.  I’ve tried this before with other groups and it’d last a few months maybe, but it always proved too hard to push through to the end.  Somehow, the three of us had the magic required to actually finish the game.  For me, a meeting/work schedule was key to our success.  We decided to meet 2-3 times a week and we kept at it.  That really gave us the momentum we needed.  As for failures, like Caleb said, all of us were lacking in a business background.  We knew how to make a game, but we had no clue what to do once we had the game ready.  It’s been a huge learning experience and I’m sure we have a lot left to learn, especially in business and marketing.

Cindy: Finishing it and making some sales would be the biggest success. Like the guys mentioned, none of us know too much about business, so that was difficult. Luckily my brother-in-law has a business degree, and actually likes talking about that kind of stuff, so was a big help and source of information. I would also say a mix of success and failure for me was the amount of art I did. I always try to keep drawing since college but it’s hard. Finding motivation and staying inspired can be tough, but Crystal Hunters gave me plenty of art to focus on, but I feel some of it was rushed. I came on the project after Oscar, and didn’t want the game held up waiting on me. That didn’t happen – I actually would have had time to go back and make edits, just never did. I figure I’ll just keep going forward and contribute better art with each project!

(Cindy pictured above)

In its current form, how close is Crystal Hunters to your initial vision?

Caleb: I still have the original design document sitting on my hard drive. The final game is pretty much exactly how I initially envisioned it. There were some features that fell off due to either development constraints or design problems. For example, there used to be multiple Crystal powerups. The first one to get cut was the Jump Crystal. It would allow you to jump over certain obstacles, and could only be used once or twice. It got cut early mainly because I forgot to implement it in the map editor! The other powerup was a Time Slowing Crystal. This one being cut saddened me the most. It worked perfectly in the game, but I just didn’t use it in enough levels. Out of the 40 original levels, probably only 4 used it. We decided it was too ignored, so we cut it and redesigned those 4 levels. Maybe it can come back in an expansion in the future!

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 Crystal Hunters and if you faced a similar challenge.

Caleb: I mentioned my resistance to putting in a tutorial. It’s funny, because you as a developer are so close to the game that you can’t understand why other people can’t manage to beat some of the challenges you’ve created. Organizing the levels in Crystal Hunters in order of difficulty was probably the hardest part of the entire process. It probably didn’t happen early enough, since art was heavily dependent on the order. After the level order was set, there were only a few levels that got changed.

Oscar:  It took weeks to convince everyone we needed a tutorial in the game.  And even with a tutorial, we had to go back and simplify some of the levels.  It’s easy to make levels that just throw “gotchyas” at the player.  And no one likes to play a game where it just kills you to slow you down.  So we went back, found many of the “gotchyas” and removed or replaced them with more clever ideas, things the player could think themselves through.

Cindy: Since I had no part in coding or programming the game, I can’t say much for setting the difficulty, but I do remember once when Caleb was concerned the game was too easy. He said something about finishing all 4 chapters in about an hour, and worried people would blow through the game too quickly. This was when I was completing my first play-through of Crystal Hunters, and nearly each level on Chapter 4 was taking me 15 minutes to solve! I assured him it was quick for him just because he made all the puzzles.

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

Caleb: Since we used XNA for development, we didn’t ever worry too much about system requirements. The game is entirely 2D and not very demanding on system resources.

Cindy: I was a bit concerned because I don’t own a PC. Luckily the game ran without issue the first time I booted up in Windows XP on my Mac, so I could actually playtest and see the game as it came together.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Crystal Hunters.

Caleb: I can speak to the level design. I’m still dumbfounded that I was able to get 45 levels into this game. My method for designing levels was quite random. I’d sit down with a 25×19 image in Gimp and pull up a palette of colors that represented game objects: Walls, enemies, crystals. Then I’d just draw the level. Usually I’d start with a shape, and build a path around that. Throw some puzzles in here and there, a switch and a door, and something would come out of that. I’d pull that into the map editor and block it out, then run it in the game and test it. It was a fun process, and I’m really looking forward to the potential to go back and design some new levels for DLC!

Oscar:  We went for an old school pixelated feel for Crystal Hunters.  Something you might have seen playing Zelda on a Game Boy.  I mostly worked on in-game art while our other artist worked on the front end menus and GUI.  It was a bit of a challenge to merge our individual styles together, but we ended up getting the game to look like we wanted.

Cindy: Like Oscar said, he already had the in-game art done when I started the menu art. For the scrolling menus I pretty much went with a pixellated look, not really trying to match any current art. When I did the characters, however, I tried to do a combination of what Oscar had with the sprites plus a bit of my personal style mixed with some of the sketches he had of the characters. It took a bit to get it right, and it was a new style for me, but I think we ended up with something pretty nice. I also did the ‘movie homage’ posters you see in the options menus- but I mostly tried to mimic the original movie poster art, just replacing the characters with ours.

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

Caleb: Definitely finding time. We all carry full-time jobs and made this game on the side. Tuesday’s and Thursdays nights we’d all meet at the local Panera and work on the game till close. Every other night we were usually working from home when we were in the middle of development. But, our persistence eventually paid off, and I think it was worth the sacrifice.

Oscar:  Time and people.  Finding the right people to bring this together was also a challenge.  Just the three of us can make the game, but we needed others to test it, give feedback, offer business advice, etc.  Luckily we all knew just enough of the right people to get to the finish line.

Cindy: I gotta go with time, also. We tried to meet Tuesdays and Thursdays after our 9-5 job to work on the game. Sometimes we couldn’t make it, and would end up making up for it on the weekend or some other free time. Lots of free time becomes game dev time.

How did you go about funding Crystal Hunters and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?

Caleb: Crystal Hunters was developed completely without funding. Since we all have stable jobs that allow us the benefit of working on our own projects, we were able to work at our own pace for this first game. Our friends and family were very supportive of the game, and still are now that it’s finally released!

Oscar:  The most money spent on Crystal Hunters occurred at our local Panera Bread restaurant.  They had wi-fi and food, so we ended up having many dinners there over the last year.  Other than that, we took the route of free software, in-house art, and programming at the kitchen table.  There’s no need to throw a lot of money at an indie game up front.  We waited until the game was finish to found the DreamRoot Studios company, and now we are having the PC sales pay for getting the game on XBox Live Indie Games.  Nowadays there is usually a free or very cheap way to get your game up and running.  Once you have a proof of concept that looks promising, then you can feel better about putting some money behind it.

(Oscar pictured above)

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

Caleb: We submitted to Steam first. It took them a while to get back to us, but we were ultimately rejected. They didn’t give us any specific reasons, as that’s against their terms. But we do hope to submit to Steam again someday, bolstered with sales data from other outlets. The submission process to Indievania was incredibly painless, though. We’re very happy to be available through that service. We’re currently going through the submission process with Xbox Live Indie Games, but that’s just beginning, so I can’t speak to it as much.

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?

Caleb: Indievania gave us full control over the sale price. We didn’t do any direct research into prices, but we’re aware of trends in the indie gaming market. Our initial plan was to sell the game for $5. When we got closer to release, though, we decided to do a Pay What You Want deal, since Indievania allowed for it. So far, it’s been working out wonderfully for us!

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 Crystal Hunters and the difficulties in doing so.

Caleb: I think, by this time, the console market is dominating in respect to demos. The fact that all the major consoles have some sort of storefront built-in makes the distribution of demos a no-brainer. Unfortunately, outside of Steam, the PC doesn’t have something to facilitate the ease of access that PSN or Xbox Live provides. Most bigger name games can exist solely on their advertising on PC. I think that’s where Indie games benefit from the demo. We released our demo for the sole purpose of marketing. There were a couple of code related headaches while generating the demo, but it was a very valuable experience in creating a distributable version of the game. Plus, it gave us some of our best player feedback and directly resulted in the creation of the Tutorial.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Crystal Hunters from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Caleb: We LOVE hearing from fans on our Facebook! We’re a very young company, so there isn’t much interaction right now, but we’re doing what we can to incite fan interaction as much as we can. Going forward, we’re definitely going to use Facebook and Twitter to help get feedback on our next project(s).

Cindy: Feedback is awesome, and we always are looking for more! We actually have quite a few pages with DreamRoot/Crystal Hunters media – like Google+, YouTube, and some art on my personal deviantART page. Facebook by far gets the most comments, but I’m excited to see activity on any of them.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Crystal Hunters professionally?

Caleb: In terms of publicity, it’s like gold to us right now. Like I said, we’re very young. We need as much exposure as we can get. We’ve already been contacted by a couple of sites asking for review keys for the game. We’re hoping to get some to send out soon! We’d love to hear what people think about our game, because no matter what, it will make our next game even better!

Cindy: We’re just starting to get contacted for stuff like that, and it’s great. I can’t wait til I see Crystal Hunters being talked about by people other than us! I worked at a comic book store during college, and know some people who review books. I kept wishing some of them reviewed PC/Xbox games as well – because we really do want to know what people think of the game! And we appreciate actual feedback, not just praises! Like Caleb said – it’ll only make our next game better. And personally, 5 years of art school get you pretty used to being critiqued, so I’d say I have a pretty thick skin about it all. (But of course there’s nothing but good things to say about Crystal Hunters!)

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?

Caleb: I see the Pay What You Want pricing scheme as a great boon to indie developers like us. At our stage, we don’t care if you pay $1 or $100 for our game, we just care that you PLAYED our game. Word of mouth is the best sort of publicity, and Pay What You Want has a low-cost of entry. But it doesn’t prevent someone who respects the work that was done from giving a little bit more.

Oscar:  “Pay What You Want” has been one of our best marketing decisions so far.  It’s nice to see people you know buying the game for five or ten dollars, but it’s really nice to see a dollar or two come from someone you don’t know.  It’s a sign we are breaking into the indie games market and I feel “Pay What You Want” is key to that for now.  Until we make a name for ourselves, we want to be as open to new players as possible.  It’s highly likely our future projects will follow this trend, as long as we are trying to build our fan base and development stays cheap.

Cindy: I’d like to see what Crystal Hunters gets bundled with someday.

(Caleb pictured above)

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

Caleb: For larger companies, I can understand the reliance on DRM. Some reactions to certain types of DRM are a bit overblown, in my opinion. But for indie developers like us, the added work of adding any sort of DRM to a game is not worth it. In the end, DRM will just make it harder for the end-user to play your game, and that’s the last thing you want as an Indie. The bigger companies can deal with the lost sales of a few people who decry systems such as the infamous “Always Connected” DRM.

Oscar:  I think we’d all be happy to hear someone stole our game and is playing it for free.  That at least means someone wants to play it.  And I imagine before one person pirates a game, many others have purchased it.  I have no proof to back that statement, but I’m still happy as long as players are playing and learning our name.

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Crystal Hunters?

Caleb: As indie developers, we’d welcome it. And trust me; some of the levels in Crystal Hunters are going to need video walkthroughs!

Oscar:  Yes, by all means, post as many videos of Crystal Hunters as you like.

Cindy: That bill seems silly… I agree with Oscar!

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

Caleb: I love that DLC allows developers to justify adding content to a game post release. It gives continued income flow to a studio to keep developing a product, and even has the ability to revive cut features. We’ll be using DLC for Crystal Hunters, though it probably won’t be monetized.

Cindy: I’m actually not much of a PC gamer, but a console gamer. Personally, I love DLC for 360, and never quite get the people who whine about it (I see a lot over Street Fighter). I’m someone who rarely sells back a game, so getting more content for a game I love is awesome.

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 Crystal Hunters?

Caleb: I love mods. My love of game development began with mods in games like Half Life 2 and Morrowind. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the communities around those games. It would be nice to see mods made to Crystal Hunters, but there is no direct path to do that yet. A level editor release was discussed around midway through the project, but it got dropped in favor of actually finishing the game. Maybe someday it will resurface…

Cindy: If I played more PC and less console games, I’m sure I would have gotten into modding. I probably would have learned a lot more about making games quicker than I have, if I did. So I guess what I’m saying is, “It’s cool,” and it’d be fun to see fan made media for our game.

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

Caleb: Starting is easy, finishing is the hard part. Crystal Hunters was pretty much code complete in April or May of 2011. That’s when I brought in Oscar and Cindy to do the art, and most of the work beyond that was to support the art they did. It isn’t easy to finish, but it’s the most important part. Oh, and try to make friends with a business major. The business side of things is pretty cryptic on the surface, but it’s a lot easier than it looks when you get a little bit of help!

Oscar:  It’s going to take time, lots of it.  Don’t get disheartened because it’s taking forever to get something on screen or because you have to go back and redo something you already finished.  If you think it’s going to release by June, it’s not going to until December.  You have to have patience because there’s a thousand other things you have to do that you aren’t thinking about at the time.  Try to get away by spending as little money as possible.  It’s tempting to go purchase Photoshop or 3DS Max if you have the money, but wait until later.  There’s plenty of free software out there to get you going:  Gimp, Blender, Visual Studio Express editions.  Prove to yourself you are going to finish the product before reaching so deep into your pocket.  Most importantly, you have to be willing to learn.  You may be the best game play and graphics programmer in the world, but your game is going to need a lot more than that.  Be ready to start a web site, learn how to make installers, learn new languages, etc.  Indie developers tend to be smaller teams so everyone will likely need to chip in to do new things.

Cindy: Pardon the fortune-cookie-ish tone, but here’s some advice. Finish it. Even if you never show another soul. Finish what you start; you’ll only get better as you go. And, stay focused on the current game. Keep it simple and true, no matter how many other great ideas you come up with. You can get around to those in later games! -End

TPG would like to send its gratitude to everyone at DreamRoot Studios and wish them nothing but the best in their continued development on future titles.  You can pick up Crystal Hunters via Indievania.

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