Nov 8, 2013
Over the coming weeks, Gaming IQ will be publishing a fortnightly column that spotlights the latest & greatest the indie gaming developer community has to offer. Stay tuned for highlights from the most exciting and innovative indie studios!
Bytebin are an Indie gaming studio from Chicago, creating games mixing all things new and old. They are credited with developing Smasheroid and Deepworld, with the latter being a massively-multiplayer sandbox adventure game on iOS, soon to come to Windows and Android.Gaming IQ had the chance to speak with Quinn Stephens, the co-creator and artist behind Deepworld.
Quinn Stephens: All of it! There were three of us developing the game, me, Mike and Jason. The two of them had done a lot of work developing web applications, but this was the first time they’d done a massively online game before. I’m sure the biggest challenges were the ones they were doing in the beginning, as that’s when I was doing just the art so I can’t speak for them! Creating the infrastructure from scratch from scratch was an enormous challenge.
I think it was kind of helpful that they were able to come at it from the perspective of a web application rather than having an established game. They could think outside the box! We’ve had a few crises and explosions on our server, but mostly fairly stable. Figuring out how to do this from scratch is the biggest challenge then, I’d say.
gIQ: What are your thoughts on iOS controls used for Deepworld? And how do you think this could evolve if game-pads became widespread?
QS: Oh I would love it if that would happen! On iPad it isn’t that big an issue as we have a lot of real estate to work with on the screen, but definitely the phone controls have suffered because of the small screen. We’ve done our best to work within those constraints but it’s been a challenge. We know that the iPhone experience is not as smooth as it could be, due to the controls. I believe Apple are working on some kind of official controller, and if that gets popular enough that it’s something we can support, then we will definitely do that. It’s always such an incredible challenge when covering half the screen with your fingers, and I think a lot of iOS games struggle with that.
One of the advantages for us was as far as the building and mining aspects go, it can be easier and more intuitive to push on something with your finger than use a directional control. But everything else including movement and combat is a challenge on the touchscreen.
gIQ: Apple and Google have announced gamepad support soon. Do you think Game-pad integration could improve the experience, and potential for mobile gaming?
QS: The real challenge is of course that we are always going to have to have on screen controls, as even if it became incredibly popular, you don’t know if someone is going to pick up your game on the go, and the won’t have the controller with them. But it’s promising; they sense the need there too, which is good to see.
gIQ: What made you release the games on iOS before Android?
QS: It’s a much stronger market. I know Android has gotten stronger, and we haven’t looked into it heavily as none of us are Android users and arenot as personally invested in it as a platform. But we do recognise there’s a lot of gamers and demand on there; it’s just that historically, people have not been as willing to pay for games on Android.
Free games have done pretty well, and our game is free-to-play, but the challenge is to get people to pay you on that platform, and that’s why we went for iOS. Also Mike released a few games on iOS and was more aware of developing games for the platform, and very familiar with cocos2d which is the framework we used. It does have a cross-platform version but it’s fairly new, and we used the older version which is only used on Mac and iOS. For our new version on Windows and Android we are using Unity£D Game Client so that can go everywhere, pretty much.
gIQ: It’s been in the news that Google Play store has more downloads yet less revenue than Apple’s App Market! At least it shows there’s demand for Android.
QS: Yeah there certainly is, the challenge is how to find paying players investing in your games. Although that’s the challenge everywhere so, nothing really new there!
gIQ: So regarding the Mac App Store, what has been your experience with that? I haven’t experienced it much at all before.
QS: I think very few people have. We do very little of our business on Mac, and we don’t see a huge advantage to being on the Mac App store as opposed to direct downloads. It’s nice having a centralised place and being able to get ratings, and there’s very little opportunity to get featured, although that hasn’t happened to us.
Compared to something like Steam, it’s not nearly as huge. Everyone who plays games on their computer is going to go to Steam first primarily before the Mac App Store. It’s good being on there for pushing updates easily, but Apple has been able to replicate the success of the iOS store at this point.
gIQ: What’s your experience with Steam Greenlight?
QS: It’s on there now. Votes are trickling in, it’s much harder than it probably was. It’s still new but there’s a lot of games on there and getting noticed is tricky. We’re fairly confident we can get there eventually, but we may need to build our audience on PC first through direct downloads and marketing. The whole process is still a little bit mysterious; you get a certain number of votes to get to the top 100, and they tell you how far you’ve come, but they don’t tell you what happens once you get high enough to get noticed. There’s still some kind of approval process on their end and it’s kind of a black box, we don’t know what goes on there.
We hope they like our game! We’re not too familiar with a lot of free-to-play games on Steam either, I think that’s fairly new to them. We’re pretty much focusing on actually getting the Windows client functional and then we’ll worry about Steam after that.
gIQ: A lot of people have called Greenlight a form of popularity contest; how important is building a community behind Deepworld? I noticed you allow fans to submit ideas and vote on potential updates!
QS: Yeah in fact we just built a new elegant system for submitting ideas, where people can upload and vote for them. We will use our forums to gather people and get them to go there. We think that it’s been really helpful with people doing their own polls on features, and this should allow us to quantify it a bit better, and see what people want the most.
The community is hugely important, as our game is all about community as an online game. We depend and thrive on our user base; we have a great core of players who are very active on our forums and seem invested in the game. They’ve been very helpful for us! It’s useful because often we lose sight of what actually playing the game is, because we are busy adding new features and fixing bugs, but they are on the ground essentially, experiencing the game everyday. They’re fantastic, and we’ve very grateful to have a community like that.
gIQ: In your experience, what has been the best way of gaining publicity for Deepworld?
QS: Marketing, honestly. We started working with the European Games Group back in the Spring, and they are now our publisher. They understand games marketing quite a bit more than we do, and they have been far more successful than traditional PR and press, and getting reviews and stuff. We got a big bump every time there was a write up, but that’s not something we can rely on. By putting some actual money into marketing and get to players directly has been far more effective for us than publicity.
gIQ: I also saw Smasheroid, would you say mobile gaming is best utilized by simplistic games? Or is there room for highly polished, AAA titles on tablets?
QS: I think it depends. Candy Crush is still killing it in the App Store, and that’s obviously a very simple game. I think if you’re looking for that absolute huge cross-market appeal where everyone can play your game, then yes you can use something simple. The kind people can play in bite-sized pieces when they’re on the train. I think that tablets and phone AAA games, or even our game that’s a little more complicated, are going to be niche. Although Infinity Blade did really well, but that took a console experience and simplified it quite a bit, and made it more bite-sized. Which is something we were always trying to do with Deepworld.
We played a lot of Minecraft, and got really into that. Obviously there is Minecraft on tablets but there wasn’t when we first started developing this. We wanted something that gave you the crafting and sandbox experience, with the social experience of an MMO, but keeping it fairly simple and allowing you to jump in and out at your discrepancy based on how much time you have. That’s why we allow players to carry their inventory all the time, and we don’t have containers in the game the way Minecraft does, partly because we always wanted you to have your stuff when you logged on. That’s also why we don’t allow penalties for death, although we are considering adding more as it may make the game a little bit more dynamic and interesting.
gIQ: What is your experience with the free-to-play model with a premium mode? Did you consider any other monetization methods?
QS: Our publisher has the most experience with this and they understand the analytical side, so as long we we’re with them, which is what we’re planning for the time being as we’ve had a good experience, we would probably stick with free-to-play. It’s interesting though, because we did not originally intend for this to be a free-to-play title. We considered having in-app purchases as being a big part of the game, but we did want the game to cough some money up front. We actually couldn’t do that as there was no way for us to verify the purchase the device through Apple. We can do that with in-app purchases to stop people cheating and stealing the game. This was right around when free-to-play became the “de facto” monetization model for games so we kind of just stuck with it.
I think it’s good and bad, it’s cool people get to play the game and experience a lot of it firsthand, and nicely lowers the barrier to entry. That’s important because there’s so many other games out there, and it can be hard to convince people to pay up front unless the game has a lot of press and word-of-mouth to it. So that’s positive.
But there’s challenges there too, some people resent being asked to pay after a certain amount of time and we don’t want that to be the case; we want people to feel like what we’re selling has value. And it’s tricky too because we need to limit the amount of things people can do for free or they’ll never want to pay you anything. But you don’t want to seem like you’re pinching pennies or giving them such a stunted experience you don’t give them anything interesting to invest in the game either. I think this is what we will stick with for the time being, it’s something we’re coming to understand and it’s working pretty well for us so far.
gIQ: I saw you put in some H.P. Lovecraft references, and I saw you’re a writer! I actually wrote a piece on how important story and narrative is in gaming so, how important do you feel story and narrative are to gaming in general?
QS: I think it really depends on the game. I don’t really play a lot of MMOs myself, and I think the ones I have played have really struggled with story. The one’s I like, and respond to the most strongly are single player games, as it’s much easier to tailor that experience and the narrative to one player rather than thousands who are interacting with the world and changing it in real time. On something like World of Warcraft the world is being built and destroyed and changed by the players, even the literal landscape.
We’ve been limited by how we introduce story, we have some ideas written about how the game goes, as it’s post-apocalyptic so we have an idea what caused the apocalypse. We’ve been piecing it together as the game develops, we didn’t start with a grand overarching story, which is better for us. I like giving the players a lot of room to fulfill their imagination too, I don’t want to be too didactic about how we present the game. They come up with some really fun ideas, as we’ve already had people post fan fiction in our forums with theories on why things are the way they are. When you have that many people around, you want them to feel like their experiences fit in that narrative, so we don’t want to go against things they discover in the world.
I think it is good to fill the narrative in slowly and leave a lot of gaps. Fill in who the enemies are and how they behave, which can be a lot more interesting than a cut-scene or a text scrawl of where they came from. I would say narrative is important, but it’s got to take the shape of the game. The game has to define the story more than the other way around when you’re dealing with an MMO like we are.
gIQ: I thought it was interesting how the game has lore in itself which is quite something for a mobile game. It also has a very unique stlye. How important would you say it is for indie developers to have a unique style to stand out from the crowd?
QS: I think it’s less important than we thought it was. Most people have responded pretty positively, but it’s been pretty polarizing. We decided early on we didn’t want to do pixel art because that remains this incredibly popular way to do game graphics. We didn’t have the resources to do full lit and shadow 3D models. It was going to be me doing all the art and animation at least in the beginning. So it needed to be 2D and it needed to be simple.
But we did want it to have a unique style and fit the Steam-punk aesthetic, so i went with this vaguely woodcutty-crosshatch-heavy woodcut or pen and ink kind of style. I have tried to keep it the same throughout the game but it has gotten simpler over time. A) Because it’s incredibly time consuming and hard to do, and B), once you shrink it down to a certain level you don’t really see it anymore, you lose a lot of the detail. I didn’t want it to distract from things.
I do know that based on comments on our videos and Steam Greenlight there are a lot of people who don’t like the style, and they’ll say flat-out that’s stopping them from trying out the game. I don’t know if they’re in the majority or not. I do know what we thought would draw them in was “oh hey look how weird and cool and unique this style is” doesn’t seem to be a selling point, rather an extra or bonus for some people. A lot of people ignore it and focus on the game-play. But yeah, although I totally would encourage other developers to use their own style, I like seeing different styles, but maybe it won’t make you stand out as much as you think it’s going to.
gIQ: In the run up to our own organised QA and localization forum in San Francisco, we have been asking developers how important it is. How important is quality assurance and localization for Deepworld, and for indie developers in general?
QS: I think it’s going to be really important, QA is going to be really important for Windows as we haven’t done much of it formally. We have a beta list, and our own staging servers where we can test out new things with a small group of players. It’s been interesting on iOS as it only allows you 100 devices per year, so we could never have more than 100 players beta testing, and a lot of them would sign up and not do it, so it was hard to swap out devices of people who weren’t active. Windows won’t have that limitation.
As far as localization goes, we haven’t really started that yet. It’s on the horizon, as there’s big game markets like Brazil we don’t have a prescence in yet, due to language constraints. That’s going to be a big deal. We don’t have a lot of text in the game, chatting with other players is going to be challenging, as we’re going to have to work out how to deal with that. We will probably want to put players with the same language in the same area, but we haven’t really planned how that’s going to work out. It’s going ot be important, but not in the first stage of development yet. That’s largely because we are an American studio and the US is a large market, so we can focus on them and that’s okay. But in the long run it will be very important to us.
gIQ: If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring indie developer, what would you say?
QS: I would say make friends. Be very social. Because I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you, and this wouldn’t be my day job if I didn’t know Mike and Jason. We all brought in our own unique skills to this. If you want to just do your own indie thing, then that’s great and you should absolutely do that.
But as far as making a career out of it, one of the most important things to do is get to know a lot of people with a lot of skills as connections, who you can collaborate and build something with. That’s been huge for me personally, and I think for all of us.
gIQ: Well thank you very much for talking to me. I hope it makes it onto Steam soon and that I can play it on my Android device shortly!