Conducted By Adam Ames
One of the fine gents at Dapper Swine Games, Jason Brown, spoke to TPG about their upcoming online castle assault title, Blasted Fortress. You will read about his start in the PC gaming world, his lessons in video game design, thoughts on being an indie developer and more. Here is a glimpse:
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Blasted Fortress professionally?
It’s hard to say until the game is released, but generally I take professional reviewers with a grain of salt. When I go to mainstream review sites, I typically ignore the editorial piece and go straight for the user reviews… the users aren’t getting paid to write their opinions, giving them free rein to say exactly what they mean. No strings.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Blasted Fortress.
I’m Jason Brown and I’m the programmer, designer, artist… well, almost everything-doer of Blasted Fortress. The Dapper Swine team grows and shrinks as needed between 1 and 3 people, but I’m the guy that’s always here. One of those people helps me sometimes when I get designer’s block and with additional testing, and one does backup art.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
The first time I ever created a video game, it was off a bootleg version of an old RPG creator that was only passably translated into English. Around the same time I found ZZT, which was a DOS-based game that let you create custom content. I used “click together” systems for years before deciding to buckle down and learn a programming language, which took me from Visual Basic to C# where I am now. In all, my interest in making games has spanned across roughly 13 years, and over those 13 years I’ve picked up skills in nearly every area of game design… 3D modeling, texturing, programming, use of tools, story writing, you name it. Well, as long as you don’t name music. I’m tone deaf.
Where did the idea for Blasted Fortress come from?
I wanted to create where the physics were as free as possible to behave naturally. I also needed to ensure that I didn’t burn myself out on a long project. I decided to make a side view “castle destruction” game based around using a cannon with some RPG elements. Every time I describe the game, someone says “So it’s like Angry Birds?” and the funny thing is that I’ve never actually played Angry Birds, so I can’t say how the two games might be similar. If the idea came from anywhere, I’d say it’s more based on old basement-developer Flash games where you launch trebuchet shots at little physics platforms and army figures.
I also drew a lot of inspiration from Animal Crossing’s simple yet often ignored design idea to tie events in the game to the actual system clock, and so we added a lot of little features that play on that… so it detects how long it’s been since you last played and can give you a recap of something that might have happened while you’re away, sometimes positive, but also sometimes negative to keep you from “maxing” yourself indefinitely. You might get some of your skill levels downgraded as the result of a catastrophe that occurred while you were away, and you’ll have to play to get them back up again.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Blasted Fortress?
I’m a bad painter, and so one of the lessons I learned about halfway through designing the game is that when you put more time into a texture, and don’t rush it, the results really do pay off and I manage to impress myself with artistic ability I didn’t realize I had. Painting all detail manually and not resorting to filters or spliced stock photos makes a huge difference. Every time I took a shortcut, I was disappointed with the outcome. I no longer take shortcuts.
One great success had been in the area of internal design… making everything “modular” so it can be tweaked on the fly makes an incredible difference in my ability to polish individual features at the exact time I’m building them.
A failure that’s fun to note is never let a physics engine run without any rules whatsoever. All our buildings in alpha fell apart into heaps because we had no rules for what constitutes structural integrity. Now the buildings stick together somewhat and don’t feel like hitting a Jenga tower with a baseball. That’s a good thing!
In its current form, how close is Blasted Fortress to your initial vision?
It’s extremely different, but mostly as far as the art style goes. At first I was going for toon shading and very simple textures, but as I became more comfortable painting textures, I reverted back to normal shading with hand-painted textures… with an end result similar to WoW or Dungeon Defenders (with about 95% less artistic ability behind it).
There was also a very early prototype of the game that was in full 3D, but it didn’t work out too well for performance reasons. Turns out using 10 times more blocks really kills your processor.
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 Blasted Fortress and if you faced a similar challenge.
Developers always have the advantage so long as we understand how the internals work, so you have to make the game about 5% easier than what you think is just right. We’ve mitigated this a bit by “exposing” a lot of how the game works to the player, so that they have similar information to us. For instance, we used to hide how much damage was being done when you hit bricks with a cannonball. Now we show the damage with floating numbers. This lets players get instant feedback on whether their strategy is working, and the strengths and weaknesses of certain projectile/block combos. We also clearly state what the strengths are of each projectile.
This has the added bonus of making the game a lot more fun for hardcore gamers, who might enjoy thinking about tactics and efficiency.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Blasted Fortress would run on the various PC system configurations?
The Unity engine is great because it just works, and there so far haven’t been any issues whatsoever. Fiddling with screen resolutions can be a tricky thing, especially when you don’t know what aspect ratio the game is going to be played at. You have to be careful not to leave anyone out. My personal computer actually still has a 4:3 CRT monitor because I prefer the color accuracy and clarity, but I understand that 95% of PC gamers have a wide, flat screen. This is why I’ve done a lot of work making the game look nice on any display (for instance, giving widescreen users more visible area to the left and the right and not just letterboxing).
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Blasted Fortress.
In Blasted Fortress the “levels” are defined as structures that you have chosen to assault. You select from small, medium, large, and epic sieges and the game randomizes which structure of that size you get to take down. The structures are built-in a tiled fashion on a 2D plane, so it’s almost like building a scene out of Tetris blocks. We have the most fun when we can do something fun like take out a load-bearing block and cause entire pieces of a building to crash down, so we’re experimenting with how we can make things like that happen as a reward for smart thinking.
It’s a real head-scratcher creating structures that provoke thought in how to approach sieging them.
The music has been rough because our team doesn’t have a “music guy”, but luckily there are a lot of good musicians who allow small-timers like us to use their music for free. This is the option we’re using until we make our second game, at which point we can afford to hire someone who’s awesome at this sort of stuff.
The art style is basically just a lot of hand-painted textures. The villagers in particular are very cylindrical and doughey, often staring into space like they’ve just had a lobotomy even while they work diligently, which I find perhaps a bit too amusing. They used to be silhouetted sprites, but I wanted something more lively and animated.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Not being seen by gamers who would like what you’re doing if they knew you were doing it, and knowing you can’t do anything about it is the toughest thing, by far.
Whether or not you become popular quickly is often simple luck… and sometimes it’s about having other more popular indie developers as friends to give you a shout out. If Tiy was making Starbound without Terraria existing first, he would be facing a huge issue right now of nobody knowing about all of his great work. So a lot of it is sadly hand-me-down popularity, the playing field isn’t exactly level, and if you aren’t lucky enough then your fight for people’s attention will be uphill. An 89 degree incline. In the snow.
There are a lot of good developers we’ve never heard of, and they’re struggling, fighting, clawing to get out of obscurity. Many, if not all of your readers have never heard of us before today, but it’s not really their fault.
Even sites that claim to specifically be interested in indie games prefer to stick to what’s safe; stuff that’s already popular and doesn’t need help, but can, through a contrived technicality, still be considered “small” and are therefore appropriate for the site. The Minecrafts and Braids of the world who get all the media coverage even when the whole world already knows they exist.
Great games, by the way. They’re popular for a reason.
So, that’s the hard part, and it’s still hard to this day as we hover around 20 Twitter followers after 6 months of hard work. We’ve done all we can to reach out to media sites and tell them we’re here and willing to dish up nearly anything they could ever want… preview builds, exclusive media, etc. Too often they rob their user bases of being allowed to discover new developers because it isn’t sensational enough to make a story out of. Sites like TPG are incredible because you’re driven by an actual intellectual curiosity, not ad revenue.
How did you go about funding Blasted Fortress and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Kickstarter is the big thing everyone seems to be doing. For now we have a budget of $0. From my years on the ol’ interwebs, I’ve accumulated enough free or open source tools that it’s actually possible to make every asset without paying for any software at all. Open source is the unsung hero of indie development.
Does this mean we won’t break down and start a Kickstarter? Reply hazy, ask again later. Seriously though, a lot of people who don’t need to be kickstarted at all and already have a huge base of adoring fans have been using it lately, and we don’t want to feel like we’re just lumping ourselves into a bandwagon that might soon have a bad reputation. Granted, among developers who desperately need a kickstart, we’re pretty high up there… if we do it, it’d be a very small amount. Just to cover licensing costs, essentially. We’re intent on making as much of our money as possible off the sale of our finished work. Then we can dive into our second game. Besides, we find that a game’s quality is never in any sort of proportion to its budget.
What is your thought process in terms of pricing for Blasted Fortress?
We want to price our games based on what we think the game is worth. The thought process is an easy one for us: If we were buying this game that we’re making, what would we consider a fair price? We’re aiming for $10. That’s kind of the “standard” price for an indie game anyways, so the shoe fits.
Will there be a trial for Blasted Fortress once you move out of beta?
We’re so busy worrying about finding beta testers that we’re just not thinking of a demo right now. We’d love as many people as possible to enter our closed beta process though because we think of that as a demo… if I’m to be honest, the game really isn’t terribly buggy and I’ve had difficulty breaking it, myself. In that respect, we really do just want people to play the beta almost more to demo it than anything and talk to us about changes or additions that we can make to improve the game before it releases.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Blasted Fortress from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Super important. The effects of burnout are a real danger when you’re a small team, and morale being high is a huge boost to productivity. The feeling when we reach out to players and they’re reaching back is wonderful. Players often underestimate how important it is to just cheer by the sidelines. We’re extremely eager to connect socially with our future players.
We also very much want to build a forum community, because it’s the easiest way to directly talk to people. We have a forum already set up on our site, and people can also go there to sign up for our beta, which we mentioned above.
Lastly, Twitter has been invaluable for giving us a snapshot of just how many people are actively paying attention. We’d definitely urge people to follow us.
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?
Would we ever take part in one? No idea, but I’m leaning towards yes. It seems to be a win-win. The developer sells more copies of their game, and the buyer pays what they want. And some people are unbelievably generous.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Modern DRM is a nightmare for users. It’s the result of a great deal of paranoia on the part of publishers who have trouble getting it through their heads that nothing is uncrackable, and so every dollar you spend developing draconian DRM is automatically thrown away. The only money that we developers stand to lose from piracy is the money we spend buying or developing pointless DRM, and the money lost turning away legitimate customers in an effort to keep them on a one inch leash.
If you treat your customers with respect, they will generally return the favor. Beyond what is required for digital distribution such as Steam, we will never use DRM.
Notch summed up my feelings very well when he said (and I’m paraphrasing a whole lot) that he hopes people do pirate Minecraft, because they’ll see how great the game is and want to buy it. Sure, the honor system may not have a perfect record, but it’s a lot better than treating your paying customers like parolees that need an ankle bracelet to play a single player campaign.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Blasted Fortress?
We definitely encourage it. Just not during closed beta. 🙂
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
My disposition is bitter towards DLC. Truthfully, it wasn’t so bad about 5+ years ago when it was more benign, but over time it has grown into a hideous beast… almost all DLC is already done and on the disk, but you have to pay to unlock it, which often entails just changing a registry string. Even as a game developer who likes making money, that puts a sick feeling in my stomach.
Stand-alone games followed by expansion packs were, in my opinion, the best business model. The developer can release a giant chunk of extra content and the customer doesn’t feel like they’re being nickel and dimed to death with pointless bits and baubles that not only didn’t take long to create, but may have even been stripped from the main game for sale later. For expansion packs, there was never any question that it was all created after the original (and fully functional) game initially shipped, and that it’s worth the purchase price.
The only time I’ve ever thought DLC was a good idea was in the case of Killing Floor. All the “functional” DLC is free, and the cosmetic skins cost money. Nobody is ever left out, but you can chip in some money for a little face lift. We’ll probably never do DLC, but if we did, we’d be doing it Killing Floor style without hesitation.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Blasted Fortress?
If people could figure out how to mod Blasted Fortress, we’d find that quite interesting and would certainly do nothing to stop it. That being said, it’s almost unmoddable. Not on purpose, but it’s not really that sort of game to benefit from modding.
We love mods, though, and use them all the time. The modding community keeps games alive long past their expiration date.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Reach out. Connect with people. Show off your work when you can. Be honest. Try new things. There are always people out there who like what you’re trying to do. The challenge ahead is in helping them find you. Stay dapper, my friends! -End
We would like to thank Jason and everyone involved at Dapper Swine. We wish them nothing but the best moving forward. You can check out Blasted Fortress on the official site.
Follow Dapper Swine on Twitter.