Rising From The Deep Blue: MetaGolf Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

 

Michaël Lievens, developer of the side-scrolling golf title, MetaGolf, joins TPG for this e-mail interview.  You will read how MetaGolf came to be, his personal success and failures, life as an indie dev and his thoughts on the PC gaming industry.  Here is a preview:

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

Marketing!  It’s a very important phase to let the world know that your game exists. I must admit that this is a tough job that requires great sensitivity and attention.  Personally I prefer to develop games, but I also have financial requirements if I wish to continue in this business and make even more ambitious games!

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

My name is Michaël Lievens, I am the sole author of Metagolf and a passionate about independent games.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I think I was twelve when I knew I wanted to make video games in life. As  there were no studies for this at the time I learned the ropes myself.

Where did the idea for MetaGolf come from?

Believe it or not but I was watching a movie called Deep Blue. I was fascinated by this scene with the abyssal ctenophores and I thought it would be a nice idea to create the physical and visual environment of it. Gradually I created this 2D engine and started to believe it could become a good and totally different game. So I though about something simple that would not take to much time to develop (… that was 4 years ago 🙂 …) and I remember having a soft spot for old games like Marble Madness, or sharewares top-down mini-golf. So I spiced up the idea and take the risk to transpose this in a 2D platform game. I also take my inspiration from iconic titles like Mario, Sonic and old split screen games which I remember playing a lot when I was younger.

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

Actually, I needed to learn everything from development to graphic and design. So in this field it’s a constant success. I already know how to improve my game engine to produce better games and what directions to take. On the failures side, I would say that it takes much more time that you could ever imagine, even if you were prepared for this.

Also learning to make choices between trends and habits of players specially when you are mixing different gender of games like in Metagolf. Some want to unlock levels, play alone, get various challenges while some other prefer playing with friends, having most options unlocked out of the box and something easy to get instant fun. Obviously you can never please everybody, but it is your job to share the best experience ever!

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

Technically it is very close to the desired gameplay with most features already available. Graphically I must admit that I aspire to something a little more elaborate.  I respected the desire to make a game for all age groups with vivid and colorful environments. It was a choice but also a challenge not to use shortcuts by making them from shadows play for example. But I’m not an animator expert so a few things like character design and homogeneity need more work. If the Metagolf beta gets some success, I hope to take some time to improve this, or eventually hire a pixel art artist.

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 MetaGolf and if you faced a similar challenge.

True!  For example, the first time you play Metagolf you will be a little bit surprise by the “aerial” side of the player control. I may of course still need to tweak this, but it’s like playing Mario the first time without using is running ability (after a few plays you won’t take off your finger from this button anymore).

I am used to the controls which is a key feature in all platform games.  But to balance difficulty I give a lot of options to modify the gameplay settings like being able to touch or not the golf ball, changing it into a rugby ball, “Magic ball”, “Death Ball”, etc. Deactivating creatures, deactivating indicator compass, etc. All in all you can customize each courses and that’s a nice feature because it can really change the way you are playing.

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

It’s my first time releasing a cross-platform game between Windows, Mac and Linux. Each OS has very different drivers and configurations. I am still not very comfortable with Linux but I try to get better because I think this platform deserve better games and fits perfectly with the independent sector although I primarily focus on Windows and Mac. Also because my hardware is better supported and I guess this is the case for most people.

But indeed!  Sometimes there are these small platform differences that make the adventure even more exciting 🙂

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

I wanted something exclusively in pixel art. It was something new to learn for me but also because I think it’s easy to maintain and give you a very efficient result for 2D games. Like any skill you try to improve you need to document yourself and give a good trial-an-error session.  Since I’m also redeveloping in parallel my own game engine, every images, sounds or physical data in Metagolf are customizable quickly under the built-in level editor.

In terms of level design, I am playing with something rather fresh and different. I mix old Tilemap mechanics with more recent flat 3D techniques like polygonal shapes. That can give you a nice mix of “natural” organic design and angular feeling in level. Most of the time I plan my level design on paper with a template I created myself which is available to those who want try to create new levels.  I did the sound design myself but since I’m not a musician I buy around 20 quality royalties free license tracks specially for the game.

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

I think it is relative to the country where I grew up. As far as I know here in Belgium, there is no structure, community or advantages for being an Indie. I would even say it’s a bit harder financially to fund your project. This work does not exist and is not even recognized by the Belgian institution, which is a shame because everyone is playing here for many decades.

Therefore, except for the music content that I purchased on my own, Metagolf has no funding.  Right in the middle of the game development, I stopped everything and threw a challenge to myself to see how far I was motivated. I went to see the world for a year, with very little money and a minimal planning. The idea was if I successfully do a world trip and still returned home with this burning passion for game development then I would finish what I have started and do my best. I came back 6 months ago. Since then I never stoped working on my project and probably won’t until it’s done.

My girlfriend, who follow me on this crazy trip was my main and only support to date. Fanny, I love you and thank you very much for all of this.

Will we see Metagolf available on any of the digital distribution platforms?

I’m pleased to tell you that Desura will release my game on his distribution platform 🙂
I was very surprise to receive an invitation from these great Australian folks a few days ago. I worked in this country for months while I was abroad and it gives so much to me !

I also received other propositions but for the moment I cannot speak about them.

1How 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 just try to be fair with gamers and myself.  I currently asking five time less than the average pay-what-you-want donations.

 

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 MetaGolf and the difficulties in doing so.

A demo is important for me. I would personally never buy a game if I can’t try a demo first and be sure it’s working great on my system. I remember essentially having fun with shareware titles when I started using a computer (When I was 16, sadly :)).

Last week, I help someone to install Internet on his Playstation 3. I was very surprise to see that you needed to pay (the minimal price of Metagolf) to download a demo version of a mainstream game… Is it me or am I mistaken ? I guess time are changing and releasing a demo represent a financial loss somewhere. Or maybe they fear people won’t buy the game because of a bad demo ?? Nhaaa…

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

This is important for me! Primarily because I do not have an army of minions to test my game, receive feedback, make brainstorming and reunions (though it would be cool).  But secondly because it’s simply the best way to improve the game.

I’m not making a game to please myself only but to share a gaming experience and having fun with everyone. While I am not overwhelmed with messages I like to take sometime to answer personally to each person that take a bit of their time to let me know something about my work. It’s very rewarding and motivating you know.

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

Probably too much!  For the moment the critics are rather good and constructive, but I know it won’t be like that all the time. I think it’s part of the game, even harsh critics can raises some interesting points.  I entered a key step were I tell myself that it’s me that creating my job and not the other that allows me to exercise it.

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?


My game is currently released in a Pay What You Want model until it’s done.  I think it’s a fair method for setting a price when you are starting like me. When people want to help you because they like what you do and give you a little more than the minimal it’s always the best reward you could ever imagine.  It is the recognition in it’s pure state.

Alternatively, this model of operation is not for everyone and I’m wondering if we are not seeing a contrast appearing between who is allowed to figure in a bundle and who don’t. Of course it depends primarily on the quality of the game in question. I don’t like any form of elitism and fortunately it does not yet concern game independent.

Bundle generally do great things for charity, it’s a nice move to remember.  I don’t remember seeing any mainstream game giving half of its profits to charity (although I am sure it must have happened).

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

I’m against DRM system.  I could be wrong but I would say that DRM tends to disappear over time.  What is the point to harm the player’s pleasure by complicating things?  No one is fooled, there will always be a way around for problems don’t you think?

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of MetaGolf?

I think it’s great!  I’m much more concerned about the tendency to regionalize the Internet and make it a place were your anonymity is no longer preserved. And my gods! All these ads!

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

I’m not against DLC unless this is not an excuse to release a crappy games quickly and then getting even more money by selling downloadable content.  There is some specific place were I think it could extend harmoniously the fun.

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 MetaGolf?

This is something I’m taking in account with Metagolf by first allowing gamers to use the built-in level editor to customize levels, skins, physics and audio. Then by offering a space were they could share all this with the community.

If sufficient content emerges from the community, I would be very glad to release a Community Version of Metagolf along with the official version to highlight the best available work. But it’s up to each persons of the community and of course I will continue to add official content myself until completion.

Metagolf is already available at moddb.com the best source for mods of all kind.

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

I’m trying myself to “break into the business” like you are saying, so it would be a little bit pretentious to give advice 🙂  But I would say that patience and tenacity would certainly pay off! – End

We would like to thank Michaël for his insightful answers.  You can pick up Metagolf or download the demo on the official site.

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