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November 20, 2019
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Indie Postmortem: Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan (2019)

by John Lester on 10/21/19 10:41:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

INTRODUCTION

Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan was released on the Nintendo Switch and Steam on September 12, 2019. Our studio, CollectorVision Games, has been around since 2008 – but this was the first game we developed and released for modern platforms. Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is heavily influenced by the Castlevania and Mega Man series, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Super Mario Bros. 2, and more. 

To date, CollectorVision Games has published and developed more than 120 games for several different classic consoles – including the Atari 2600, NES, Master System, SNES and Commodore 64 – but nothing could have prepared us for the Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan launch.


You might know me as Gamester81 on YouTube. My actual name is John Lester, and I’m co-owner and head of marketing for of CollectorVision Games – an indie studio where everyone grew up playing ColecoVision. Hence the studio name!

                                                 My YouTube Channel Gamester81: 

When we started working on Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan back in 2014, it was supposed to be an NES game. I was one of the project leads and helped with story, character development, game direction, and testing. We love Montezuma’s Revenge – so we wanted to create a Montezuma’s Revenge-type clone for the NES. We’re all fans of the Battle Kid games by Sivak Games as well; if you’re not familiar with these two games, they’re platformer homebrew games for the NES.
 

                                Early Sydney Hunter and the Mayan's Revenge Home Screen

                                                  Battle Kid for the NES Screenshot: 

We had brought on Sivak Games to program the new game project – which we titled Sydney Hunter and the Mayan’s Revenge. The project evolved and expanded; we eventually decided to move it to modern platforms – switching from assembly to Unity. This meant changing the aspect ratio from 4:3 to 16:9, for example. We were already nearly a year into development at this point, so it was a major decision to make – one that would completely change the trajectory of the game moving forward. Once we were done with the move to modern platforms, the game’s title was changed to Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayans.

                                                           Some Early Screenshots: 

In 2015, we got approved to release the game on the Nintendo Wii U and Xbox One. This was a huge milestone for us – and it fulfilled a long-standing dream of ours. Sivak Games would move on to focus on other projects – and we brought on Russ Kumro as lead programmer for this project. We had previously worked with Russ on several ColecoVision games, so we knew how capable he was. Russ also had experience working on mobile games built on Unity. 

Once we decided to switch gears and focus only on modern platforms, we knew we had to create a unique and fun game that people would remember. Our primary focus would be to create a game that featured tight controls, a memorable story, and unique Easter eggs. We wanted Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayans to be a love letter – not a knockoff: a game to be enjoyed not only by retro gamers like ourselves, but also millennials, and even younger players!

                                                                   Early Screenshot:

During development, we eventually changed the name to Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan. We also added new levels and characters – and everything eventually fell into place. The Wii U became obsolete, so we reached out to Nintendo and tried to secure a Switch devkit back in late 2017. It took nearly a year for Nintendo to get back to us with an approval (we thought we were out of luck, of course!) – but to our delight, we were selected. Finally, Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan would not only be released on Steam, but also on Nintendo’s latest console.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

1. Switching Platforms Mid-Development

Going from a legacy platform like the NES to Unity – where the game could be easily ported to modern platforms – was a huge decision for us. It was a MAJOR pain in the ass, too – to be honest. We had to redo every single screen and adjust the aspect ratio from 4:3 to 16:9.   However, we ultimately knew that the game had some serious potential to be received well on modern platforms. We saw how titles like Shovel Knight were performing and saw evidence of the big 8-bit/16-bit platformer resurgence everywhere. Going to Unity was the right decision – and we’ve learned a lot in the process!

                                                  Game on the NES Playing in 4:3: 

                                                     Game on Unity playing in 16:9: 

2. Crafting a Memorable Narrative and World-building

We knew we had to come up with a unique story that people could easily remember and enjoy. Even though Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan started off as a Montezuma’s Revenge clone, we kept some aspects of that game in this one – which included collecting keys to unlock gates. We ended up doing a ton of research on the Maya culture and mythology. The gods you fight in this game are actual Maya gods! Many of the sprites and graphics you see in the game are Maya art that we pixelated and put in the game. The story takes place during the time of “Wayeb” which is part of the Maya calendar year – the five “unlucky days” of the year, according to Maya beliefs. We added plenty of humor to the game, too – such as referencing 80's and 90's pop cluture, and even poking fun of ourselves in the name in game, very early on. We were also torn between two different endings – and we couldn’t decide which one to use … so we decided to include BOTH! Depending on a particular item you may (or may not) get, the game will trigger either a happy or sad ending. We also added a lot of Easter eggs – some subtle … and some not so subtle!

Examples of our research, and how we added things to the game: 

3. Implementing Tight, Responsive Controls

From the start, we knew that Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan would be “retro hard” (because we assumed people would die a lot!), so having reliable controls with pinpoint precision was essential. If players died as often as we expected, they wouldn’t be able to blame it on the controls. This may sound easy – but implementing low-latency, responsive controls is one of the hardest things you can do in this business. Furthermore, we had debated whether to include the “knock back” feature present in many of the classics – including Casltevania. Personally, I was never a big fan of that – so we decided against the knock back feature altogether.  Had we done so, the game would be even harder than it is now. In the end, most reviewers agree that Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is tough but fair – which is what we were going for in the first place.

4. Catchy Music that Never Gets Old

We brought on Ben Allen to compose the 8-bit chiptune music for Sydney Hunter of the Curse of the Mayan. We had worked with Ben previously on other games we released for classic consoles, so we knew he was more than qualified. The music in Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan is catchy and memorable. It doesn’t get repetitive (which we certainly wanted to avoid!) – and it perfectly fits the feel of the game.

5. Leveraging an Experienced Team

We were (and still are!) very fortunate to have an awesome team that really worked well together. We all knew our roles and were very open to new ideas when they were originally presented. Throughout the five years of development, we fed off each other like we were a single organism – a rarity in the industry. We were on the same page with Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan from the get-go. As you’d expect, the game was self-funded by the whole team. We truly believe in it, and we’re incredibly proud of the finished product.

WHAT WENT WRONG

1. Spending Too Much Time in Development

Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan took a little over five years to develop. A lot of the delay was due to us not coming up with a solid story and level design first prior to programming. We kept adding and adding – evolving the game slowly over time (as opposed to coming up with a story and level design first, then programming the game). This was the source of some major delays in development and the main reason Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan took so long to develop. We eventually got to the point where after a new idea would come up, we’d just tell each other to “save it for the sequel.”  In hindsight, it would have been much easier to develop the levels and story first – and then program the game. Lesson learned!

2. Relying on Fellow YouTubers and Streamers in Detriment of Actual Press Outreach

This is one area that pains me, to be honest. As head of marketing, it’s my responsibility to make sure we market this game properly. I’m also a YouTube content creator with a fairly large following. Through the years, I’ve made some good friends and contacts who also have solid followings on their respective channels. I was leaning on them to help push and promote the game – but I quickly realized that it wouldn’t be enough. We needed to reach out to the press well ahead of launch – preferably through a PR agency with established contacts. CollectorVision Games is a very small indie company. We’re just not on the radar with larger media. Editors and reviewers get a lot of emails every day from developers like us, so it would have been good to bring on a PR agency much sooner than we have to help with press outreach.  We have a quality game and good branding: The only missing ingredient is our reach. In the end, we relied too much on the YouTube community and not enough on the media. We have also learned that releasing a game for a classic platform such as the ColecoVision or SNES is very different than releasing on modern platforms.  This whole experience has been new to us.

3. Releasing Several Sydney Hunter Games in 5 Years

In the five years we were developing Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan, we had also released three other unique Sydney Hunter games for classic platforms: Sydney Hunter and the Shrines of Peril (Intellivision, Android, and iOS); Sydney Hunter and the Sacred Tribe (Intellivision, ColecoVision, Commodore 64, Sega Master System); and Sydney Hunter and the Caverns of Death (SNES). Each of these titles feature Sydney Hunter – but they are different games!  There has been a lot of confusion with customers mixing up the games – thinking they’re all one and the same. Sydney Hunter is our main character – just like Mario is Nintendo most recognizable character. We should have been more careful about individual game announcements – making crystal clear to our audience that all the Sydney Hunter games belong to the same franchise but are different titles altogether.

4. Going “Retro Hard” to Fit the Retro Look

When developing Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan, we felt that since the game has a retro look, it should have a retro feel as well. There are parts that sure are challenging. The one big criticism we often hear is that it’s “too hard!”  For example,there’s a mini-game within a game where Sydney Hunter must play a mini arcade game to progress.  This mini-game is actually Sydney Hunter and the Sacred Tribe, which is a Smurf Rescue clone and coincidentally the very first game I ever played. We even made the controls easier than the original – and we even provide hints on how to beat it. Still, players complain that it’s too difficult. This is actually one of the easiest parts of the game ... if you know what you’re doing. The other complaint having to backtrack to collect items. Some players don’t like the Metroid feel of doing this and say it takes too much time. The game can be played to completion without backtracking, but the problem is that some gamers rush through the whole thing and end up unknowingly skipping a lot of areas. To end on a positive note, we’ve been receiving compliments from players who did beat the game who tell us that it felt incredibly rewarding – which was our goal in the first place!

                       Mini game within Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan:

5. Shying Away from the Game’s True Value Proposition

We launched Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan at $19.99. As of this writing, we’re still at $19.99. To beat the game, average players can take anywhere from 7 to nearly 20 hours if they collect all the items. The problem we ran into is that we had initially not communicated the play time and value all that well. People look at the $19.99 price (particularly on Steam) and think that it’s too expensive. The game is relatively small in terms of file size – just a little over 300MB. Some may see the size and think that must mean it’s a short game! If you play through the game – even a single time – you wouldn’t complain about the price. However, if you only look at the game’s file size – and then read that it “only” contains 13 levels you may think that it’s overpriced. We should have done a much better job communicating the true value proposition of Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan, and that’s on us.

                             There are a total of 12 relics to collect in the game: 

IN CONCLUSION

Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan has been a very fun project. We’re incredibly happy we went for it and consider the shift to Unity a major success. Launching on modern consoles and Steam is new for us; we didn’t know what to expect in terms of sales and what’s considered “good” or “bad.” In many ways, it’s much easier to release new games for classic consoles because the homebrew libraries for those platforms are considerably smaller and competition is not as fierce. On Steam and the Nintendo Switch eShop, games get buried fast. Once you’ve been buried by thousands of new titles, it’s hard to get discovered by eager players looking for a tough retro platformer. 

We believe in the quality of our game and know that the people who play it love it. We’ve had some success, sure – but we admit that we could have done better if we avoided some of those early mistakes. At the end of the day, we’re confident that Sydney Hunter and the Curse of the Mayan’s unique setting and narrative, intricate level design, super-tight controls, and rich music will set it aside from other retro-looking titles.

INFO

Developer: CollectorVision Games

Publisher: CollectorVision Games

Release Date: 9/12/19

Platforms: Nintendo Switch eShop & Steam

Team Size: 5

Development Tool: Unity


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