Sometimes game development can go right down to the wire, with ongoing tweaks until just weeks and days before the planned release. Other times, a developer will complete development earlier, and stew over the whole experience for a while.
Calvin French of Kitty Lambda took that stewing period to whole new levels with his adventure game The Real Texas. Released last month, the game had actually been finished and ready for play for around a year and a half.
The Real Texas throws a parody spin on exploration-focused adventure gaming classics like Zelda: Link to the Past and Ultima VI, with an emphasis on customization and comedy situations. It's caused quite a stir within the indie game scene, thanks to its pure open-worldiness and unique methods for approaching certain elements of game design, such as an unusual combat system.
"I implemented the final boss battle in January 2011," French tells us. "After such a long haul, the temptation is to release right away.
What I did, however, was take another full year and let it kind of 'simmer.' This simmering involved a lot of player testing, and also gave me space to address some bigger issues."
Thanks to this waiting game and blasting through the game multiple times over a long period, the developer slowly came to realize small plotholes and oddities that would no doubt end up confusing players, including a bewildering end game and a rather large gap in the story.
"These were major changes that involved months of work," he adds. "If I had been focused on just getting the game out, there is no way I would have fixed this properly. As it is, players have been very appreciative of both the plot points in question and the ending. So letting it 'simmer' definitely made a huge difference in the final outcome."
If he had rushed to get the game out from the moment it was "complete" back at the start of 2011, he would have disappointed both himself and his players, he notes.
"Without the time and space away from it all I would have been blind to this."
French says that he has no major regrets as far as this long testing period is concerned, nor does he regret the decisions he made with the game's combat system, which he admits has frustrated some players.
"I took a chance on innovating in the combat system," says the dev. "Hopefully they also appreciate that there are completely new mechanics for the most part, so that the novelty can outweigh the 'not quite right'-ness of it."
But he adds, "I made the game I really wanted to make. I have had a life as well, outside of game-making. I'm married now, and I got to do some traveling. When you work on a big project like this, you get night-terrors on a semi-regular basis. I don't mean this as a joke, it's real. The game seems like it will never end, never be finished, and you are getting older."
"It is legitimately terrifying. So if any other devs are reading this, feeling this way, maybe my only actual advice would be don't make your life be just about your game!"
The Real Marketing
Marketing for indie games is always a hot topic, and French is more than happy to share how he has tackled the dreaded M-word.
He released a teaser trailer for his game around six months before the game's launch. This helped to keep the game on peoples' radar, he suggests, and he felt very encouraged from the feedback he received.
After releasing the trailer, he then went for what perhaps appears to be a rather counterintuitive approach -- he simply stopped talking about the game at all.
"I personally get very weary of the endless 'hype cycle' for every game on every platform," he explains. "I suppose it is necessary for triple-A titles that have to make back their money in the first few weeks, or flop. But even for games I'm really already hyped about, it can be tiring."
The over-the-top hype before the launch of games can feel a little patronizing, he adds, especially if the game then goes on to be delayed and has its release date pushed back.
Where he did do marketing, he once again took a slightly different tack to your usual promotional information, choosing to show off the game "as it actually was," rather than splicing together bits of action from the game and pretending to players that this was how the entire game played out.
"I made sure to accurately portray the game," he notes. "Rather than show people what I thought might convince them to buy the game, I took the tack that I should show people what the game was, so that if they purchased it they wouldn't be disappointed. Since there is no demo, this is doubly-important."
He adds, "The release trailer devotes like eight seconds to the player sitting in a chair and eating chocolate. That's the big payoff!"
His sale methods were also important to his strategy, as he chose to sell direct from his website rather than through third-party digital distributors - at least to begin with anyway.
"I do want to see the game on other services, of course," French says, "not only to sell more copies, but players want it, too. But a direct sale let me address bugs more quickly since I could just talk to the players about it directly, and it also made it easier to get the game updated since I only had three packages to worry about."
This release included a 40 percent off sale -- "why would I punish people who purchase the game first, and/or encourage them to wait before purchasing it?" he notes.
While he believes that this approach to marketing has worked well for The Real Texas, French is aware that certain aspects of the release didn't go as smoothly as a result. For one, he didn't send review copies out to the press in advance, meaning that the game launched with no reviews.
For the most part, however, he has been pleased with his "player-focused" launch, and plans to expand to other digital distributors and get the word out more once the initial bug-killing has concluded.
The Real Texas is available to download for Windows PC, Mac and Linux.