Winning the Global Game Jam is cool, but how do you conquer the commercial market with your game? It's not as easy as it sounds. As the former producer of one of GGJ2012 winners, I had the opportunity to experience the process first hand. I would like to share my insights in this blog post.
How Did I Become The Producer?
As the crowning glory on my career as a student Game Development, I did my final internship at a young game company formed by veterans called Gamious. Originally I applied for the Game Design position, however Gamious was confident a 'Producer' role would suit me a lot better.
Gamious is a unique blend of a game developer and game publisher. For every game project they carefully select the most suitable artists, developers and designers. They call themselves the Collaborative Game Company. The Global Game Jam is a great place to find innovative and fresh game concepts. This is where Gamious made contact with the team that made the GGJ12 winning concept 'Size Matters'.
As of February 2013 this game was still in production. I was appointed as producer on 'Size Matters', and could start the engines to accelerate development. There was something special about running the 'Size Matters' team. Normally, teams come together on a physical location. This team, however, operated on distance through Skype calls and such. You could call this a ‘virtual team’, which is an extra challenging element for a producer.
Who The Hell Is This Guy?
Let's be clear about one thing. Introducing new people to a project is fine, but in a process that already takes so long to complete, it's more like ‘who is this new guy, and what is he going to ruin in order to delay the game’s release?’ That’s the feeling you get when you gain control over an established team working on Size Matters. Don't get me wrong, I am not a 'shy' guy; on the contrary. But to butt into a team without first taking their unique synergy in consideration simply doesn’t help. My approach was to prove to this team that I was to be trusted with their ‘child’… especially because I have the final responsibility as a Producer.
(original GGJ12 Size Matters)
Oh Boy, They're All Programmers?!
I wouldn't say the Size Matters team was balanced, let alone a perfect formation. I think its best explained as the fact that they were a special combination of people, and a great challenge since they were all programmers. I am sure some of you would agree programmers can be very persistent ;). I had to face 'four' of them! I thought it would be wise to get to know them a little bit better. What moves them? How do they work? What do they like? This, because I am a motivator at heart and want to stimulate each one the best way I can. After all, these four programmers managed to create a very special game in 48 hours.
If you want to convince a programmer you're worth it, you better start working your ass off. Surprise them with knowledge you have about development. In my case I had some hands-on experience developing and releasing games in Unity, therefore I could assist in many ways. I was capable to execute and fix elements myself. You can summarize me as a 'jack of all trades'. It helps understand different disciplines like artists, designers, composers and programmers. Not all the team members had an equal amount of time at hand. That’s why the development took a considerable amount of time. It was essential to divide the to-do list in small portions.
After being accepted as a worthy team member, I was finally able to exert some pressure and get stuff off the ground.
Size Matters is a game heavily leaning on great "levels", especially because the mechanics are very simple. It’s a platformer where you can't jump. You control a ball and are able to size it up and down, a concept that’s really quite intuitive if you’d ask me. But when I looked at the levels designed by the team and others, it occurred to me we didn't exploit the mechanic enough. It was necessary to create some meaningful level packs, and to implement a curve of difficulty.
Luckily I had an intern companion who in my opinion greatly exploits mechanics like this. I even made some levels myself to showcase different possibilities. Some existing levels were lovely; there were just not enough of them. I remember us eventually discarding 50% of the designed levels, leaving us with 150 great ones.
Opinions Versus Skill
It's not possible to please everyone in the project. Opinions and feedback are great on a certain level, but when you leave too much 'space' it's dangerous for progression. As producer I was always bouncing between different visions. All of them with their best interest for the game. Sometimes it was simply a matter of wanting too much detail. Other times it was a matter of conviction. There were also times it was a matter of skill. As an artist you do not directly argue about code, programmers do not directly have to argue about design… it’s best to stick to your profession at times.
What better way to test all these elements at a large conference? It's great to leave some unresolved discussions in the middle, and test them with the target audience. The opinion of the target audience is tantamount to the final decisions concerning a game. In my case, one of the discussions was about how we 'control' the ball in the game. You have a "rolling ability" and a "sizing ability". Some said it was best done under one stick of the gamepad. Others said it was best if you used two sticks. The target audience was very clear on this, two sticks are required to achieve better chances reaching "flow". Results also showed our target audience was definitely a 'hardcore audience' – this judging by the curve of difficulty and their familiarity with gamepads. Any last deliberations concerning the game were hereby resolved.
Polishing Versus Perfection
It's great if you have a healthy perfectionistic drive, it raises the bar of quality. When you are in a polishing phase, extreme perfectionistic behavior could be very annoying and slows down the production process. It's not something you have to get mad about as it’s, once again in the best interest of the game.
As a producer you have to deliver a finished product. Endlessly tuning elements does not help finishing it, it delays possible release builds. As a developer it's easy to lose yourself in your own project, because you’ve been looking at this game for a long time and stuff gets old. Leaving the project for a short while could help you straighten your focus when you return to it. Tiny details could be a serious issue in the team, but in reality they do not matter that much. Some would say not much has changed compared to the original. All these critical changes are hidden within details, performance and design.
Where And How Do We Release This Baby?
When the bugs were fixed, new mechanics were introduced and levels were designed, it was time to think about possible release platforms. Some were convinced this game would work on mobile devices and they were right, provided that controls were tested excessively to reach the amount of control you feel when using an Xbox360 gamepad. This game, of course, was initially intended to play on a console or pc using a gamepad.
The game has a dark, tronlike style. This style is focused at a 'mid-hardcore’ audience. You can find these audiences mainly at Steam, XboxLive and Playstation Network. As mobile devices are played on by a large casual audience, and mostly women in the 35+ age range, I was curious if there would be a market for this game on mobile devices. According to some, there exists a 'midcore gamers' audience and the team found it worthwhile to try and reach this mobile market. However, a mobile release for this game should be a 'secondary' platform. In spite of the fact that it's easier to release on mobile platforms, I encouraged them to speak with Microsoft, Sony and Steam to get this game on one of their platforms… especially because it's the 'home' of our target audience, the hardcore gamer.
Aside from these already established consoles, a new android driven mini console market opened its doors. Platforms such as OUYA & Gamestick both armed with gamepads were a great opportunity to release "Size Matters" on. We started talking to OUYA associates and were able to cut a deal, where we could do some cross-promotion. If we want this game to work on larger consoles, OUYA could be a great 'test case' to see if the game works out.
We decided the game will debut on OUYA. Logically Steam, iOS and Android releases will follow. The wish to release on XboxLive, Playstation Network, and PSVita, is still part of our roadmap.
Does Size Really Matter?
It does in terms of mechanics and amounts of available level packs. As a name it can be interpreted differently (if you know what I mean). At some point we agreed on the name "Expandaball" an iteration on 'Expanding The Ball'. Still we were not completely satisfied and decided to create a contest addressing this name problem.
We launched the contest this week and offer 5 free levels to play. We also opened up the possibility to come up with your own name for our game. By doing this you will be enclosed within the game's credits, how cool is that?!
If you are interested in the outcome of this story, you can find the contest and a playable demo at the following link:
Name The Game (Contest page, trailer & playable demo)
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