Finding A Way To Stand Out: Syder Arcade Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

Marco Di Timoteo from Studio Evil talks to TPG about their newest shoot’em up title, Syder Arcade.  You will learn how Syder Arcade was funded, the trial and error of setting difficulty levels, success and failures of being an indie dev, plus much more.

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

I’m basically the one who created the main bulk of game art and designed the core gameplay mechanics. (So all those wrathful mails about difficulty levels are directed to me, thank you :P) I also did most of the level editing and data entry, and I manage the studio website. We are a small team and every one of us has to work on many different aspects of the game. When we are not overwhelmed by the things we have to do, this is actually a good thing because many of our skill sets overlap and this improves our communication and teamwork.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I was interested in-game development since high school. I used to play a lot of games on my Amiga and I started creating digital art with Deluxe Paint and a mouse. I got into modding in 2001 when I joined the development team behind Holy Wars, a mod for the very first Half Life. Starting from that moment, I did my best to keep my bond with game development strong. Here in Italy game development is a small reality with very few opportunities, and it was only 3 years ago that I was able to get a full-time job in the industry.

By that time Studio Evil already existed as a “project”, and we worked night-time on several game ideas an prototypes. Eventually, in June 2011 we were able to find some private funding to actually start the company.

The new opportunities created by digital delivery helped a lot in this process and PC is one of our favorite platforms: it’s one of the most technically accessible and graphically powerful … And as a game-artist I’ve always loved state of the art graphics in games!

Where did the idea for Syder Arcade come from?

When we started working on our main project, Syder Universe, we were thinking about a way to get more visibility on the web before releasing the game. We thought about creating a small arcade game that could be easily developed on a web player. One morning, my teammate Christian showed up with a demo he made the previous night, he masked part of Syder Universe 3D assets with a retro visual effect filter that made the game look like the intro of a C64 game. Everything had a ridiculously cool chiptune music theme on the background … I started laughing like and idiot, the damage was done.  Links to the original prototypes here and here.

That was the idea we were looking for! We started working on what we called a “Syder Universe and Uridium 2 lovechild”, same Syder setting, with all the huge capital and the characters we were already creating. That’s how we ended up working on a small project that we called “Syder Retro” at night, while Syder Universe development was progressing during usual work hours.

Despite our wives malcontent, after a month we had a playable prototype we showcased at GamesWeek fair in Milan. People loved it, even more than the alpha preview of Syder Universe, and we decided to focus our energies on it. Now, about six months after that day, Syder Arcade has been released and we hope people will start to know Studio Evil.

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

Well, we completed our first commercial game in 6 months and this is definitely a great success.  We learned a lot of things on how to build and release a game, like the importance of creating proper tools for level editing and how not to rush for a release date when you still have to start building your launch trailer. Mainly we learned from our mistakes: for instance, our content/marketing/release coordination during the game launch was pretty terrible. But hey, we will do better next time!

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

Our initial idea of the game was pretty different. Graphics were extremely simple and the retro visual filters were a core feature because we wanted to remark the  old-school flavour of the game.

It went from a small marketing game to a full production in a small amount of time, and in the end we are pretty happy on how it turned out.  The game seems to polarize the audience completely, some people love it unconditionally and other people hate it with all their might.  I like to think that’s because we managed to squeeze in a different and somewhat quirky approach to classic shmups mechanics … And this is definitely one thing we wanted to achieve with Syder Arcade.

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 Syder Arcade and if you faced a similar challenge.

We definitely are members of that club. Being a small team also means that it’s harder to reach enough testers. We had almost 60 people helping us testing the game, but they were mostly friends and not full-time testing professionals. We wanted the game to be hard, as every respectable shoot ’em up should be, but the first release was simply too damn brutal for new players. We quickly released a patch to add an intermediate difficulty level, that is now the default one when you start the game.

One of the advantages with digital delivery is that allows us to improve the game even after its release, and as we get more feedback from our players we will hopefully be able to improve the game further.

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

Having the game run properly on different PCs was definitely one of the most important tasks we had during the game production.  We used Unity 3D for this project and many hardware related headaches were already covered by the engine itself.

A fast-paced action game like SA has to run smoothly be fun ,if the game drops below 30 fps the experience begins to suffer greatly because the lower frame rate makes avoiding enemy fire much harder.  It was very important to us that the game could also be playable on older PCs or Laptops.  This required some careful tweaking of our game assets, among other things we created custom scalable shaders and particle systems that are able to gracefully devolve into simpler graphical effects.

Actually this is pretty common practice when you work with realtime 3D graphics, and Christian and Luca both love this kind of low-level technical optimizations … I suspect for them it was more fun than challenging after all.

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

Everything in Syder Arcade, form art to music, ship design and even the shape and movement style of many enemy formations is a love letter to old school Amiga and pc shoot em’ ups from the 90’s.  It’s a “retro future” vision with bulky ships and colorful aliens made of simple shapes.  Games like Xenon 2, project-x and Uridium 2 were our main source if inspiration, we wanted this game to feel like a game from the nineties reborn within modern hardware.

Those titles were among our favorite games from our childhood, and we wanted to bring some of their magic back with us in our first game. Our “roots” as gamers are extremely important for our team.

Of course we also wanted to bring something new to the genre, and we did this with small tweaks in our level design. Basically at its core the game is a pretty straightforward side scroller, but in campaign mode every level has a slight difference to its objectives. This changes the pacing of the game, for instance, while the first level is a classic “kill all enemies” situation, in level 2 you have to defend the Carrier Orinoco,  level 3 is a time survival mission, and so on. We wanted every level ho have the same furious dose of  action, but also a little something that made it unique.

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

The toughest part is definitely letting the world know care about what you do.
If you are a new team coming out for nowhere It’s easy to get literally wiped out by the sheet amount of games that are coming out these days.

You have to find a way to stand out, and often it’s not just about the quality of your game, but about how you are presenting your game to the people. There is a lot of social networking to do, and It’s offer easy to forget about that when you are super focused on technical issues.

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

Studio Evil is a start-up company funded by private investment. I’m the youngest member of the core team and I’m 33, Chris and Luca both have families to attend to, making games in our spare time was not an option anymore because we are no longer a group of young students.

Last year we were able to secure a small amount of private investment to fund our startup company and so here we are. I’s been almost a year of super hard work on our projects. And when you work day and night, and during week ends you are not sacrificing your time alone, but that of your loved one as well. By the fact that they did not kill us, you can easily imagine how huge and immensely important has been the support from our families and friends for all of us.

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

The process of submitting the game is actually pretty easy, once you have a decent build  it takes a mail and some info about your project. The hard part is getting answers.
Basically these days the distribution platforms are flooded by new titles from both indie and big companies. They have super huge backlogs of games that are awaiting to be reviewed for approval.  If you contact them just from their website it takes  weeks even to get an answer to your email.  That of course if you don’t know anyone inside the company you are trying to get in touch with… but we are completely new to the scene, so that was not the case.

Speaking about our project, we actually encountered a pretty intense resistance caused by the fact that Syder Arcade is a shoot ’em up. As it’s considered a “dead” genre, “extremely hard to sell” , some stores refused to sell SA based only on this aspect of the game. At least they were kind enough to write us a mail explaining their view of the market. Unlike Steam, you monster.

To be completely honest we expected the whole distribution process to be a lot faster. We learned on our skin it takes weeks if not months to get your game out there on the PC.
We have still a lot to learn about self publishing and digital distribution, but basically the lesson here is simple. If your game is for PC and you are not on Steam, you are in big trouble.

Right now Syder Arcade sales are pretty good (for our standards) on the Mac App Store, we’ve also been featured by Apple in the games section, but at the same time we are getting incredibly poor results on PC … Even though we are distributing the game on almost every store out there.

In my opinion the big difference here is the size of the involved communities. Basically distribution platforms with small communities living around their stores have a lot fewer visitors passing by that might be interested buying in your game, and this leaves all the marketing weight on the shoulders of the developers.  You have to bring customers to your store page by yourself, and for a small company it’s a pretty complex task.

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?

To define the price of the game we simply looked at similar titles already on the market mixed that with our perception of the game value, in the end we settled for 7.99$  that is halfway between the usual 9.99$ and the lower standard “tier” at 4.99$.
We are now experimenting a little with price drops to see if we can gather some more visibility in order to kickstart PC sales, but we don’t have enough data to have a clear opinion yet.

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 Syder Arcade and the difficulties in doing so.

I’m no expert here, but I think this might come from several causes.

First of all building a demo costs money, it’s not like you just cut away a part of your game and you have a demo. I’s a different kind of software you have to craft and keep up to date. It’s also an extremely important piece of your marketing campaign, it has to be carefully crafted, because it’s what people will play when they are curious about your game.

Another reason might be the fact that game marketing these days is based mostly on established relationships, franchises and hype. Basically they are just spending the money in a different form of advertising, maybe that’s because they’ve got some metrics somewhere telling them that brainwashing is more cost-effective than a proper demo.

In a small production like Syder Arcade, the costs of building a demo are limited, while a proper multimillion brainwashing machine tends to be pretty expensive. We choose a classic demo, in  a traditional PC fashion.

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

Community feedback is a fearsome beast, it can easily destroy a new and small team like Studio Evil with a brief angry glance. However, we believe it to be of absolute importance. Creating games without caring for community feedback is like driving blind.
Getting instant feedback trough social network must be handled carefully, you must listen to everyone, but think before acting, as a developer tt’s extremely important to keep your focus on your own vision of the game.

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

Usually we listen carefully  to every voice. The voice of a professional journalist is surely one we better listen carefully.  That being said, as in every job there are people who are good at what they do, and people who are not.  I did some game reviews myself  for a couple of  italian game blogs several years ago, and it requires time, dedication and deep understanding of how a game is created, I have a deep respect for this kind of job.

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?

Maybe the indie bundles scene got a little bit overcrowded lately,  but I actually like these kind of promotions. They are  a classic win/win situation.

Gamers get many great indie games at an incredibly low price, and developers are able to reach broader audiences while gathering precious resources for their projects. Some bundles also raise money for charity and this is a noble and welcome extra.

It’s no mystery that several indie teams are now extremely well fed thanks to those bundles.  And of course we would love to join one of those bundles in the future, but as with distribution platforms, I’m afraid this kind of decision is not up to us 🙂

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

You cannot fight piracy, with our current technology making a copy of any software is extremely easy and it’s even easier to share it with the entire planet.  I believe that the act of buying a game Is something a customer does willingly, not because it’s forced by some form of DRM … Also trying to “force” people to give you money it’s silly and it’s utterly wrong.

This is the reason why you can buy Syder Arcade without any form of DRM from our website. We invested every coin we had for this project  in actually building the game and not in implementing something that could possibly damage our paying customers and be completely ignored by those that chose to use pirated software.

Making your software easy to buy and download, a fair price and respect of your customers are a pretty good DRM recipe in my humble opinion. That, and not selling games at 70€ like they do here in Italy, which is completely insane.

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Syder Arcade?

We love them! I mean, when the userbase cares enough to start building content about your game you must have done at least something good. We feel honored when people create videos of our games!  It’s also great for marketing, one of the greatest ways to support your favorite indie devs,  is making videos of their games!

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

Actually, as a gamer myself, I pretty much hate how DLC is being abused lately.

It’s not the concept of additional content coming at a price that I don’t like, it’s more about what content comes at what price.  I loved the “old school” expansion packs, huge content packages that actually added a large chunk of game features to an already solid product.
I’ don’t think gamers are afraid to pay for good entertainment, but what we are seeing these days is lacking games sold without key parts of the storyline that are accidentally “expanded” a few weeks later as a paid DLC.

Micro-transactions and F2P business models are a different kind of beast, I actually like them … In a way.  I find them extremely interesting, trying to create some sort of fair F2P business model that does not exploit people’s compulsive behaviors would be great.
I’d love to experiment on this one day, but I’m afraid this is completely out of Studio Evil’s reach at the moment. … Luckily for all of us 🙂

How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Syder Arcade?

I started my career as a wannabe game developer 10 years ago in the Half-Life modding scene.  I would be super mega happy to find out people are modding Syder Arcade.  Sadly we cannot actively support modding with tools or documentation for this game, our resources right now are extremely limited, and that would be a gargantuan effort we could not afford.

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

Making a living in the gaming industry as an independent developer is extremely hard task if you come out of nowhere, and it’s going to be a long way.  Be prepared to prove people you are worth their love and money, several times.  Give everything you’ve got and learn from your mistakes.

Let your independence be an advantage because you are in charge of your actions and not a liability because you are alone on your own. Find yourselves in a position where you are deciding what happens next, and try not to rely too much on external tech or organizations unless you are absolutely confident they are available and up to their task. Have always a plan that does not involve waiting for others.  Also, make friends in the gamedev scene and the press, lots of them, you are going to need every possible help.

We would like to thank Marco and everyone at Studio Evil for their great insight into indie PC development.  You can pick up Syder Arcade via Desura and Impulse.

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Follow Studio Evil on Twitter.

7 thoughts on “Finding A Way To Stand Out: Syder Arcade Interview

  1. A very honest, interesting and passionate interview. I’m pretty gutted for them that Steam didn’t give them a reply because I think that would have given them a lot of exposure. This is actually the first time I’ve heard of the game and I mainly use Steam, which I guess sums up their difficulty with promotion. Looks a bit too retro-hardcore for me, but I wish them all the best with it.

    • Steam is great and Valve is a great company, but they have such a stranglehold on the PC gaming market. If you are not on Steam, for the most part, you will leave a lot of money and exposure on the table.

      • I like to say that Steam is the new AOL. It came into an emerging technology with heavy funding and very aggressive marketing, it became so widely accepted that it was synonymous with the new tech even to the point where many people didn’t realize that there were other options. (What do you mean you don’t use AOL? How can you possibly go online with out AOL?) Eventually however being top dog stifles innovation and the smaller companies rise up and the once leader in the field disappears into obscurity.

        When I tell people that I don’t like Steam they go into a tirade about how Digital Distribution is good for gaming/saving PC gaming/the unquestioned wave of the future. Okay, but Steam is not Digital Distribution it is simply a digital store with a lot of extra baggage; just as AOL was not the internet just an ISP with a lot of extras. While AOL boosted the popularity of the internet all those years ago it was not until they got knocked down a few pegs that the internet began to grow into what it is today, and I believe that Digital Distribution will likewise not be able to achieve it’s full potential so long as Steam exists in it’s current state. The very notion of “I won’t buy it unless it’s on Steam” suggests that there is a market imbalance.

        As to the interview, this looks like it could be a pretty good game. I like the sort of R-Type side scroller shooter feel to it. Once again I see that it is Unity 3D and once again I find myself torn between trying out this new game, advancing in one I’m already playing or firing up Unity 3D myself and polishing off one of the pet projects I started. Is this the point of these interviews? To guilt me into finishing what I start? Did my mother put you up to this?

      • I agree with the notion of Steam becoming a monopoly. Those who only use Steam to purchase games are missing out on some quality titles. However, when other sites have their own clients which must be logged into in order to play, I can see the frustration of having your games available from one central location. I enjoy sales offered by Steam and believe Valve has done a good job with the application. Now, I rarely use any aspect of Steam other than the Store and to play my games so I may not be privy to other community features which may require more work. There are several stores who have popped up over the last few years like GOG, GMG, Desura and Impulse has been around longer than Steam. I do dislike the exclusive deals with games like New Vegas and Skyrim where Steam is mandatory.

        What I miss in this era of digital distribution is the dwindling availability of boxed retail copies. I love owing a physical disc, manual, box and so forth.

        I talk to your mom everyday. She told me as a child you had a tendency to leave food on your plate. I have been put in charge of helping to curb that pattern with your gaming life. She told me to tell you she still loves you.

  2. Personally I don’t see how Steam is stifling innovation. No-one is stopping any other company from starting up their own distribution platform, and a lot of indie developers have been given a way to distribute and promote their games whereas previously they would have been at the mercy of publishers who seem to not be able to help themselves but get involved in the dev process and try and change games. I also like the chat client, and the voice chat isn’t too bad either. Starting or joining MP games is usually pretty simple, though some games are a nightmare, but that’s more down to the game than Steam.

    The Steam sales have enticed me in to buying many games that I wouldn’t have thought twice about at the prices they were originally marketed at. If I buy a new hard drive I can just copy & paste my whole Steam folder on to the new drive, and it all works – no more having to re-install every single game because the serial key is missing from the registry, not to mention I can log on to any other PC and install & play games that I own. My games are also patched for me, and in the case of Skyrim, the Steam Workshop has made installing mods a doddle.

    I do own one game on Desura, one from Gamersgate and quite a few from GOG. I can’t see how preferring Steam has in any way stopped me from purchasing games from any other online store. The only things that are likely to put me off are GFWL and Origin – in fact those 2 platforms (well one platform, and one unnecessary bit of malware) have swayed my decision in buying games, notably Arkham City, Battlefield 3 & ME3. Don’t get me wrong, I have no brand loyalty whatsoever, but Steam does what I want, and it does it well so that’s good enough for me until they mess things up.

    Still, for the sake of Studio Evil, it’s a shame that they didn’t get a reply from Steam. I’m sure it would have done very well on it. Sadly it’s not my kind of game any more.

    • I wish we could know more about exactly why Steam did not reply, but in their defense, they must get tons of game pitches everyday. Not excusing Valve on this, but I could understand Syder may have gotten buried.

      In fact, I have personal experience in something similar. There have been a few times sending interview/review code requests to developers who do not respond. When I follow up a few days later, I will get a reply saying they were sorry and my e-mail got buried or they simply did not see it come in.

      • Let’s pretend that I am a super awesome programming genius and I make my own platform called STAGE (Stevens Totally Awesome Gaming Environment) and market it as the best Staging area for all your gaming needs. It would have all those same features that Steam has plus more, perhaps mod/configuration setups and cloud saves could be shared with other users or improved leader boards for better matchmaking. Technically nothing is stopping me aside from my lack of awesomeness, but from a practical standpoint this would be a very hard sell as I would be unable to support ME3, Skyrim, Starcraft 2, GTA 4 or just about any of the recent AAA titles that have been irrevocably tied to another service. If I were to get exclusive rights to a new AAA title it wouldn’t be me competing against the other services, it would be the new game attracting players willing to put up with me. Since the idea of needing a dozen different services for playing games is not really palatable to anyone I would like to, at the very least, see a way to decouple games from a service and take them to another. This would ensure that the service itself is actively trying to gain your favor through quality of the site and of the support staff amongst other things. The choice of which service to use, if any at all, should be made by the individual player rather than the publisher. Ask yourself this; If Steam, Origin and GFWL all offer similar services but have different catalogs, Are they really competing with each other?

        As to Syder Arcade, which was the point of this whole thing anyway, I have downloaded the demo and will be trying it out this weekend. I’m hopeful that it is something I will enjoy and subsequently purchase.

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