Nov 20, 2013
This article is part of 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!
Lost Decade Games are an award-winning independent game company co-founded by Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett. They are responsible for the titles Lava Blade, Lunch Bug, Onslaught! Arena, and the upcoming A Wizard’s Lizard. They pride themselves upon being easrly pioneers of HTML 5 gaming, caring deeply about gameplay and game design.
Gaming IQ had the chance to speak with Matt Hackett, who has previously worked at Yahoo! and Raptr, but now enjoys the freedom of indie game development.
Gaming IQ: In the past, what have you found to be the most challenging part of development?
Matt Hackett: The marriage of unique game mechanics, compelling theme, actually coding up the game, all while keeping it simple — that’s hard. Each individual task is difficult enough on its own, but for a game it’s also important that all these elements work together in harmony. Juggling all these balls together is extremely difficult.
gIQ: What do you consider to be the biggest advantages of HTML 5?
MH: 1. Its openness — nobody owns the spec or a single implementation. Tools like Flash or Unity are great but they’re proprietary platforms.
2. Cross-platform out of the box — HTML5 will run (though not always very well) on almost any modern device, and the native support is getting better every day.
3. Rapid development — we can tweak some things, refresh Chrome, and BAM we are playing with the changes.
gIQ: Any drawbacks you have come across?
MH: Fragmentation is a big issue — there are many devices and many browsers to consider (e.g. Mobile Safari on iOS, Chrome on Android, stock Android browser, Firefox on Linux, etc.). Audio is a mess, especially on mobile, but our biggest issue is that we often hit the performance ceiling.
We like to add lots of particles and polish to our games, but sometimes we have to pull back on that because most HTML5 implementations are pretty slow (especially on mobile).
gIQ: How have you found the Chrome Web Store, compared with the Mac App Store?
MH: CWS has some issues — discoverability is particularly bad, and it’s saturated with low quality apps. The perception is still a problem, as most users see purchasing apps there as “buying bookmarks,” which is a hard sell. We’ve launched several games there but haven’t seen any meaningful revenue. We’ll continue to launch games there just because it’s so easy to do.
Mac App Store has Apple’s typical gatekeeper issues, including a nebulous submission process. Discoverability is again a big problem, as MAS feels like it’s more geared towards AAA games or well-known indies. Our game Onslaught! never saw any real revenue so we made it free.
gIQ: What do you find to be the best way of creating publicity for your games?
MH: If you find out, let us know! Just kidding… Live demos! We’ve demoed at California Extreme, Indie Prize Showcase, and most recently, Good Game Club. Each of these events has been educational and terrific for establishing connections with both fans and press.
gIQ: What did you learn from creating Onslaught! Arena that you managed to implement in your other titles?
MH: The biggest issue with Onslaught! Arena is that it has no macro game — after battling monsters, there’s nothing for the player to do, such as upgrading a castle or moving the story forward somehow.
The actual gameplay itself is pretty compelling, which is why we ended up making A Wizard’s Lizard in a similar fashion. The primary thing we took away from making Onslaught! Arena is that the macro is critical to keep players engaged.
gIQ: How have you found the experience with Steam Greenlight? How much would it mean to your company to release on Steam?
MH: The only game we’ve put on Greenlight is our mobile-centric strategy RPG Lava Blade. It did really badly, getting only about 17% upvotes and collecting a ton of nasty comments in the process. This, combined with horror stories from other indies, has made us lukewarm on Greenlight. (We currently have no plans to launch a Greenlight campaign.)
Getting on Steam could very well mean the difference between having to take a contract to pay the bills or not. However, with Valve accepting up to 100 games/week now, we feel that, by the time we made it onto Steam, it will already be saturated with indie games. So it may end up just being another drop in the bucket.
gIQ: Would you consider porting all your games to mobile? And why did you choose Android over iOS for Lunch Bug?
MH: We certainly would, although not all of them are mobile-ready. We actually ported Onslaught! to iPad, so it’s totally doable.
We always ship on Android first because it’s a billion times easier. No gatekeeper, instant deployment… compared to iOS, it’s done as done. We will eventually launch Lunch Bug on iOS as as freemium game, but first we need to find the time to do it!
gIQ: Are simple gaming experiences like Lunch Bug best suited to the mobile platform, in your opinion?
MH: Simple gaming experiences can be enjoyed anywhere on any device. Mobile platforms can definitely provide deep experiences, but it’s the way that people play mobile games that makes devs focus on simple interactions. Many mobile gamers want quick games they can enjoy in small bursts like waiting for the bus or train.
gIQ: What made you choose to release A Wizard’s Lizard on Wii U? What potential do you see in this console?
MH: To be clear, we cannot actually submit a build to Wii U as of this writing. We are, however, officially licensed Nintendo Wii U developers and do plan to launch on Wii U eventually. I actually have one and think it’s pretty great, but it’s pretty clear that the sales haven’t been as strong as expected.
gIQ: Would you consider bringing it to other major consoles, such as the PS4 or Xbox One?
MH: We certainly would, as we love console experiences. Xbox One is particularly interesting to us, as we can launch our HTML5 games as native applications on Windows 8, and it seems that eventually Xbox One will have similar technology.
gIQ: Would you ever consider releasing your games for micro-consoles such as the OUYA?
MH: OUYA actually sent us a dev kit (thanks guys!) and we’ve been working with a company called Ludei to ship our HTML5 games on OUYA. We hope eventually we’ll ship A Wizard’s Lizard on OUYA.
gIQ: What are your thoughts on initial purchase vs. freemium methods of monetization?
MH: We’ve dabbled in freemium because clients and partners have pushed us in that direction, but we don’t like the freemium model. To me as a gamer, it’s prolonging this awkward conversation about money. I recognize that developers need to get paid to survive, but I want to make that decision once and move on with my life.
Is Spelunky worth $15? Yes, I can now enjoy the game forever. In the freemium model, I’m constantly pulled out of my immersive experience and I have to reevaluate a purchase decision, which isn’t fun for me.
gIQ: What do you see in the future for HTML 5 gaming?
MH: Broader adoption — as it matures as a platform, the tooling gets better, and more studios become aware of its advantages, it’ll grow and browser-based gaming will be a more common place to sell demos and retain players.
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 Lost Decade Games, and for indie developers in general?
MH: We haven’t had a lot of use for QA and localization yet because we’re a small team making small games. The lion’s share of our bugs and issues come in from our forum and alpha testers. Regarding localization, we’ve actually done this for many of our games, but it’s always at the request of a client or publisher. Our inclination is probably that we want to first make a hit within our own locale before moving into others.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring indie developer, what would you say?
MH: Start small, start VERY small. Get really good at game jams before you ever consider making even a medium-sized game. Make tons and tons of small games. Other than that, do not quit your day job unless you have a year or more of life expenses in the bank. Be prepared for your games to suck for a long time. It’s not all doom ‘n gloom tho — we work very hard for extremely little pay, but we wouldn’t trade it for the world. The freedom and creative outlet just can’t be beat.