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Developing Space Lift Danger Panic! for the 3DS

Today we release ‘Space Lift Danger Panic!’ for 3DS! It’s available right now on the USA eshop for $2.99, and should come to Europe in about 1 month.

If I look back on my career as a game developer, this is a pretty huge milestone for me, and something I never really expected I would achieve outside of the framework of a corporation.

I guess to a lot of people, releasing a game on 3DS might seem like not such a big deal, but to me it’s up there as a huge life goal!

I guess to understand why I feel like this, I’ll have to explain my whole history of games…you might want to stop reading now, and just go to the eShop and buy our game, rather than read this slightly narcissistic pile of words.

Anyway, before I started trying to actually understand game development, the idea of building a game was like magic to me. It’s one of those things that was so mysterious I didn’t have even the slightest idea of how you would do anything at all that contributed to making a game.

Eventually through a huge volume of hard work I started to figure out some stuff, and through the luck of the gods, I landed a job at Full Fat in the UK. The first released game I worked on was Dave Mirra BMX2 on the Gameboy advance.

This was in 1999, I entered the office with an open mouth, in awe of the AGB development kit that sat on the lead engineer’s desk. This was one of the early “wideboy” kits ( http://www.nesworld.com/n64-wideboyagb-1.php ) this was essentially an N64, torn wide open with wires flowing from every corner and fragile circuit boards sticking out the top. For me, I felt like I was entering some super-secret club, and being given the luxury of playing with prototype hardware that barely anyone in the world had been able to get close to.

wideboyagb-1

Eventually we got the actual dev kits, which still had a few fragile wires sticking out of the, but they were essentially production GBA units stuck to giant boxes. They were luminescent pink, and made of slightly different plastic to the ones that were finally released to the public. So to me they were still very special things, and they were as far as I could tell kind of expensive, which is why I was never allowed one on my desk! Only programmers had them, and Id go over and test my work at a programmer’s desk, before running back to my seat and using an emulator or something to try and figure out how the game worked.

Our compamy mainly made games for GBA, and I think while I was there I worked on a crazy volume of games for the system (to my memory it was 18) including:

Dave Mirra BMX2
The Land Before Time
Dave Mirra BMX 3
BeyBlade Ultimate Blader Jam
The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy
Rock em sock em robots (the worst rated game ever in the history of the GBA!)
Pacman world 2
Pacman World3
Ms Pacman Maze Madness
Sim City Advance
Monopoly Advance
Backyard Skating
Punch King (which was about as stereotypical a game you can imagine…I kind of felt it was maybe a little racist at the time we were making it!)
Freakstyle (EA Big)
Aggressive inline skating

There were actually a few more than that, I just can’t remember them all right now.

But seeing our games in the store, was pretty spectacular!

We went on to the DS, and I worked on several more games including the Sims, Sega Darts and a Biker Mice From Mars game, that features me doing some really terrible sound effects as I try to impersonate cats getting punched in the face.

DS was also really exciting, back then a touch screen was actually pretty cutting edge as far as gaming was concerned. Remember, the iPhone didn’t yet exist, so for me when I got to design games for touch screen it was like entering uncharted territories! And trying to figure out how to use two screens was also a super interesting challenge.

The first DS dev kit we got was even more crazy than the GBA one we had before, it was just a bare circuit board with a single screen on it. The lead engineer who was using it tried to build a housing out of cardboard with a hole in to show the screen (which wasn’t even a touch screen!).

Console development has always been so much harder than PC development, or mobile dev. All my formative years of game development were spent working on Nintendo systems. And when we were at Lucasarts I was lucky enough to work on the Wii-U for a while before the console got released, ultimately the project was cancelled, but getting my hands on pre-release hardware was once again unbelievably exciting. Most of my fondest memories of game development (and playing games) are deeply entwined with Nintendo, which is why making a nintendo game now, feels like going full circle, in a time when mobile is king.

So I think this is the 33rd shipped console game I have worked on,and the 40th game I have shipped when including mobile! The amazing thing is that out of those 33 consoles games, only 4 were on consoles not made by Nintendo! So this is my 29th Nintendo game! Which is pretty crazy.

So this achievement is amazing for a couple of reasons, firstly, I never imagined I could get through the hoops to become a registered Nintendo developer, and then secondly, being a programmer who only knows how to use C#, I imagines that getting something on the C++ only 3DS would be impossible. For that, I can thank my colleagues at Springloaded (paul and Alan) for building a semi cross platform solution that allows my code to run on the console.

I may have made a lot of games on Nintendo systems, but I never even for a moment thought it was in the realms of possibility that I would be able to do it in my own company! But here I am ticking off a very satisfying life achievement!!

I have no idea whether doing this was a good business decision or not, bit I guess in the next couple of months we will find out! I really hope that it is a viable market that we can do well in, and we will only know for sure by making a few things and not giving up too soon!

So what is net, well we hope to launch heart beaten on the 3DS in February, for which I rewrote the game from the ground up especially for 3DS, (although we may do a Vita version too), then after that we plan to just carry on making stuff….2015 is going to be pretty crazy for us! We are trying to do an insane volume of stuff, which is as rewarding as it is challenging.

Springloaded Corporate Entity

So what’s it like running a company? Pretty horrible, and pretty amazing all at the same time, on the horrible front, the dreaded burn rate comes to mind, How much does the company need to continue paying everyone, right now we need to generate about $1000 a day to break even on staff salaries. Which is pretty hard seeing as we only have one game out there shifting units, thanks go to Kongregate as they are helping us push the game all over the place, but we are seeing the game in decline overall, so we need something new and exciting!

My somewhat crazy approach to all this is to try and build as many revenue streams as possible, and hope that something surprises us along the way! Which is part of why everything is so much fun, we are currently developing six games! And a lot of those are multiplatform…which makes things even crazier!

It just means we have lot’s of new and exciting challenges every day, whether it be working out how to make a 3D banner icon for 3DS, or working through the horrors of server client coding for mobile, there is never a shortage of interesting challenges around.

Obviously some people say I should focus on one thing, but if I do that and that one thing fails, then we are over, so by taking this approach we struggle a lot now, and hopefully find some kind of stability in the near future! I don’t deny that trying to manage so many projects / people is a daunting task especially when I still have my own code to write, oh and I also teach on Thursday nights! So I am a bit crushed by it all right now, but we will hopefully see things cool down by the end of January…(which is also when I think we run out of money, unless one of those new revenue streams kicks in!)

I must say I hate thinking about money, or company stuff, I just want to make games, that’s what I am good at, but I have to spend precious time doing things that aren’t that, like working through tax issues, getting localization or arranging staff parties! Thankfully I sometimes delegate this stuff to other people, and what makes this easier is that now one of our 11 people is a one day a week magi-queen of filling in forms and helping manage our corporate affairs! I wish she had started months ago, but after only 2 weeks she has already done great stuff like apply for a new office and set up digital staff levy payment.

OK so we are making all these games, what are they!

1 – Space Lift – 3DS / PSVita: we are about finished with Space Lift Danger Panic on the 3DS, which means we will start the Vita version some time next week (providing the GPP gets approved by Sony)

2 – Warmachines iOS / Android / Web: we still don’t have a final name for this game, but it’s our huge mobile game that makes Tiny Dice Dungeon seem like a small and simple project! It’s finally reaching a stage where it’s playable as we are throwing everything we have at this thing!! I must say the art work Cindy has done is fucking magnificent.

3 – Hiragana Pixel Party – Xbox One / PS4 / PSVita / Steam / 3DS / Wii-U: this pur test run game, we will launch it on everything, and learn about the process of releasing a game on all these different platforms, and see how things turn out. Once out, we will start making something a lot bigger for consoles, we have it running on everything except Playstation right now, but we are only waiting for a software license from Sony, and once we get that everything should be pretty easy. We are also doing a kickstarter for this, which has been a pretty interesting and not to great an experience so far!

4 – Tiny Dice Dungeon Web / iOS / Android, obviously we continue to poke away at this game, adding new monsters and stuff, I feel like I could have done o much better with the deign and flow of this game, I really hope one day we get to revisit it for a sequel!

5 – SG50: Ios/Android, I am not sure if I am allowed to talk about this, but we are making a prototype of a game for the government! It’s hopefully going to be a super fun pixel art adventure set around Singapore, to celebrate the Singapore’s 50th birthday. The way it works is that we get some money to help develop the prototype for the end of January, and if it’s gopd enough we get selected to make the game in to a full project and release it at the end of July, it’s a lot of work, and unbelievably, I am actually pretty excited about doing it! Obviously working on something like this is pretty weird for us…as it sounds super corporate, but rest assured, our game will be pretty far from what other people might expect.

6 – Atomic Test Pilot: 3DS / Vita, I am the only one working on this right now, as I am just tidying up the PC code to make it have more content and work on two screens…but we should start production in a week or so, and I am targeting a 4 week turn around to submitting to Nintendo, we might actually make Nuclien instead first…we will decide next week I guess!

So there you have it, and insane volume of work, for such a small company, it goes without saying that to achieve all this everyone has to be exceptional in their roles, and I ave to do some super-ultra-project management. Right now we are drifting behind on a lot of our milestones, so I need to try and get us back on track….anyway wish us luck!

Speed Post

It’s been about a year since I wrote anything on this blog…so I should probably do an update! The longer it gets, the more epic I think my return to posting should be….

But I don’t think anyone wants me to write a book length post about every tiny detail related to finding a publisher and starting a company.

So I will keep it brief…here we go in quick fire bullet points. Speed Metal Style…let’s do the whole history of everything from the start until now…

2012:

1 – Leave job as lead designer at lucasarts after well over a decade of having a job designing games….and go indie.

2 – Do some coding, I am a designer not a coder, but I somehow make 5 games on iOS:

  • Hiragana Pixel Party
  • Nuclien
  • Space Lift Danger Panic
  • Atomic Test Pilot
  • Heart Beaten

3 – Get two part time jobs, being a designer on a serious game, and a game design teacher, essentially they both form a full time job, but somehow I still found the time to make some games..

2013

4 – Realised that my part-time full-time work status meant that I wasn’t really getting anything ambitious done, so I took a step back and started making an amazingly huge epic game of epicness….set in space.

5 – At the end of February I took a few days off my epic space game to make a mini game jam game on my own…I just wanted to release something new before I got back to the big game. 4 days later I had a prototype…but not a game ready for shipping. I was now double screwed, as I had two giant games. I called the new game Tiny Dice dungeon, and decided I could finish it in a few weeks.

6- In May Casual Connect came to Singapore, I got some free tickets and the chance to demo my game to publishers….Gasp!!! my little game was popular, I wasted no time in signing with Kongregate, because among other things they liked Pixel art.

7 – it took a couple of months to get the contract worked out…I had to start a company, because for legal reasons Kongregate (or probably any publisher) aren’t going to engage in business with just me. (epic space game collects dust)

8 – Employed Cindy, and Chiny, Cindy helped balance the game, and eventually started drawing better art than me and become a vital part of the games development. while Chiny helped part time with networking. (as in network coding, not hanging out and getting drunk with strangers)

9 – Interns came and went, Chiny went, Eggone came and took over the network stuff, and a few other technical things and dwarfed me with his giant brain…I also eventually stopped teaching, making Springloaded my only job (even though it’s one I wasn’t being paid for)!

10 – we launched to test markets in November (I think!? which was a little later than originally scheduled) and the game did OK, we got around 30K users, and the game showed potential…so our mighty publisher suggested we spend more time on it…(we felt we could spend a lot more time on it!)

2014

11 – Sam Barnard joined the company, and shares the same name as my sister, but is a man not a girl, and is not related to me in anyway (as far as I know).

12 – The game got selected for the showcase at PaxEast, so me and Cindy went to Boston.

13 – Tiny dice came out globally in April on iOS, got a feature and landed well over half a million downloads.

14 – The game came out in May on Android…(later than we planned)…and that is where we are!!! Kongregate have been a massive part of getting us here, and this is hopefully only the beginning!

 

Secondary Narrative:

Obviously that is the story of Tiny Dice Dungeon….other things that happened include:

1 – Became a licensed Nintendo developer

2 – Started making a brand new game for Wii-U, but eventually put it on hold as we were too busy.

3 – Became a Playstation developer, and started planning the future….

4 – Signed some contracts with Microsoft….

5 – Got a new team, the Console team! A dynamic duo who are focusing on taking our games to console.

6 – Started a new mobile game….

7 – Had a new hire, Tommy, who started on coding playable web things…(it is currently his second week)

 

There are now 9 of us here, although there aren’t actually enough desks for us all…so that makes things pretty crazy. As you can imagine we have more work flapping around us like suffocating fish than we know what to do with, so I haven’t really been updating my blog, it’s just work all the way!

While I started as a full on solo indie developer, the company has kind of become a real company, and the people that work here are as much a part of any game as I am. I am forever in debt to the folks that felt it was worth jumping in working with me, from publishers to developers…while it is far from easy, and even further from smooth sailing, it’s a pretty amazing / exciting spot to be in.

I will try and write some more interesting things on this blog in the near future, however, I probably can’t be as open as I used to be. Before I was just writing about my own ups and downs, but now there are other people involved I don’t feel it’s fair to say anything about them seeing as they aren’t writing it themselves…but I am sure I will still have things you can find interesting….

Heart Beaten….

Well, it took a really long time, but it’s finally out on iOS, we launched the game this morning…by launched I mean, released it at $0.99 when it was intended to be free…no doubt this will give all the download figures a large bout of gangrene…but it doesn’t matter because the game can’t actually make any profit anyway (I sincerely hope no one paid for it, if they did I owe them a beer, or whatever % of a beer 70% or $0.99 gets you…).

We are so busy working on tiny dice dungeon that we clearly shouldn’t have taken the time to launch this, however I got one of those apple emails “If you do not upload a binary for your app by 02 August 2013 (Pacific Time), it will be deleted from iTunes Connect. The app name will then be available for another developer to use.” Which means I can never use that app name again (see how clearly that is mentioned in the description)…so I set about getting it working the other day only to get hit by a huge last minute engine bug, which Chiny and I fixed at some late hour of the eveing…we have also finished it on PSM hurrah….where it will actually cost you $0.40 when we eventually release it…no doubt huge riches await with that price point, and the popular entertainment theme of punching a semi realistic open heart repeatedly.

Anyway so I am slowly being pulled into the corporate world, I have gone to the bank to set up an account for my company, which I failed to do, and now have a pile of forms on my desk collecting dust, which means all the “expenses” continue to come out of my personal account, which while not particularly different means that I can’t get sertain benefits that come with spending money through a company(ie it’s an expense and not just me spening money)

We applied for Nintendo developer status recently, I hope it comes through soon so we can order some dev-kits and start making proper console games! The way I see it is that Android /iOS are so saturated that we have zero chance of success without a publisher, but consoles are a lot more untapped, so once we start launching games on empty marketplaces (like the Wii-U) we stand to get some OK numbers, no doubt if you are any kind of normal company with larger overheads etc it isn’t worth it, but for us it should be OK, plus selfishly it’s just a lot of fun. Which brings me to my next point, having a real “company” is intended to be a serious affair, I just love making games, I only have a company because I needed one to work with the tiny dice dungeon publisher…my main goal in all of this is just to make games, if we make money, then we will spend most (if not all) of it on making more games! Essentially, it’s hard for me to not get excited by things that are cool regardless of whether they have the potential to generate profit (ie Heart Beaten)….so I find myself a little torn between just having fun and making games (which would be considered a hobby by anyone who has any sanity about business) or being all corporate and thinking about strategies for making money. I really hope everything works out and we reach a spot where we can pretty much do what we want, and I guess that only comes from keeping our costs low to extend our operating lifespan until we start turning a profit.

I keep on saying we, it’s because “we” have a little office, and the company is no longer just me on my lonesome…while I am the only full time employee (although employee means I get paid…and I don’t get paid, so I guess Springloaded has no full time employees), Chiny is the primary programmer guy who deals with all the complex stuff I can’t do and teaches me things I don’t know about C# when I look confused, and Cindy has just joined as a designer / pixel artist. Before she started I didn’t know that she was into pixel art, but now I feel my art power diminishing every time she does something. It takes her half the time it takes me, and usually comes in at twice the quality…for example, my explosion in Atomic test pilot looks like a flower / crossed with a fried egg….while she managed to do some metal slug inspired piece that is just amazing! Finding like-minded people is really hard, and I am incredibly lucky to be working with these folks….

I was going to talk about starting a company in SG…I will some time soon, lus I will start giving out a few more details about the game…I really need to write more blogs!

The Big News:

Well after months of secret mysteriousness, I can finally say that we have a publisher for our next game! While the contract stipulates that I can’t share the exact details, I can say that this means that Tiny Dice Dungeon has the potential to reach a huge amount of users!

Signing a contract is a terrifying thing, even though bits seem terrifying under a cacophony of what-if scenarios, ultimately you just have to jump in with good faith and sign the thing! So this morning at 8:40 am under a fog of drowsiness I committed my virtual signature to virtual paper! (which is pretty weird, I have never done that before, you wiggle your mouse around in some shape approximating your signature, and it applies a fancy calligraphy effect so you look a little less like you have the handwriting of a 4 year old with Parkinsons disease).

I have a countdown of doom to help keep me awake at night, you can see it here: http://www.onlinecountdowns.com/countdown-clock/show/Tiny%20Dice%20Dungeon%20Due%20Date|52484e80|3 That isnt exactly as it seems, it isnt the due date for when you will be able to play it, it is a due date for something though…so jon me in wishng the Springloaded corporation luck!

Next week I will tell you all about the experience of starting a games company in Singapore!

Also as an aside, I guess we had a review of Nuclien somewhere, because from having zero sales a week we suddenly hit $50 a day this week! Hurrah!

Why don’t you write anything anymore?

Why havent I updated my blog in over a month….well I think I will have some fairly awesome stuff to annunce very soon, and I am so busy working on that that I can’t even stop to write a blog.

Right now, I am in the middle of trying to start a company in Singapore, and all that goes with it…it’s a bit terrifying giving up an employment pass that will last me until the middle of 2015, and swapping it for one that will expire 12 months from now….

Just to ensure this blog has something to do with games – here is a picture of a monster:

Image

Casual Connect

Arrrgh! I am really sick, I think standing in an enclosed space for three days with hundereds of people lead to the spread of some high-class death-germs. I also didnt sleep much whsih doesnt help.

I have to say,  I wouldnt have gone had it not been free, and I can follow that up with I will now pay every year. It was really fantastic. I think the good thing is that my games were all there to play, and my new game “tiny dice dungeon” wasnt in too shaby a state.

I got a table pretty much to myself, as the guy beside me never showed up. The first day I was too busy to really set up my stuff, but on the second and third day it looked like this:

DSC_0751

Nuclien was a top 10 game for the show (out of the seventy or so games, it was deemed worthy to make it into the top ten – which was humbling.) People seemed to really enjoy all of my games, I had people who kept coming back to play thengs, different people got hooked on different things. Atomic test pilot – the game I was always last to show even has a regular player by the end. The event got me a few more downloads, but it asnt really about that.

I also won a competition, more on that later

I met some amazing people, and who knows, I may end up working with some of them. It’s all pretty exciting, I just wish I wasnt sick, and awake at 4:30 trying to finish the demo build of TDD.

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