A Wizard's Lizard: Postmortem of an HTML5 Game on Steam
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
A Wizard’s Lizard is a twin-stick action and exploration game for desktop computers, released on June 16, 2014 on Steam. Since we recently began seeking funding for the sequel, this seemed like a good time to finally do a postmortem.
A Quick History
A Wizard’s Lizard was initially created as Crypt Run and was partially funded by a crowd-funding campaign July 12, 2013 where it earned $9,013
The first public version launched January 22nd, 2014 on Humble
A Wizard’s Lizard: Immortal Edition (same game with new features and content) launched on Steam on June 16th, 2014, where it has sold over 20,000 copies
What went right
1. A Wizard’s Raga
A Wizard’s Lizard is a name that I find inherently “sticky” because of its rhyming, repetitious nature, and unexpected element (“wizard” is an extremely common word in a game name, but “lizard” less so). Additionally, its main character Raga was designed to be super cute and attractive to the eye.
These elements seem to have resonated with its audience, and has even led to a healthy dose of fan art across the web. With a forgettable name like Crypt Run (the original title), and without the main character Raga, we’re sure AWL would have disappeared into obscurity.
2. Timing and Market Placement
Usually when players of indie games find A Wizard’s Lizard, they are reminded of The Binding of Isaac, a mammoth hit of an indie game. Although AWL was not inspired by Isaac, but instead shares the same roots (The Legend of Zelda + Spelunky), the similarities are undeniable. Both games have cartoony graphics, overhead projectile-based combat, and room-by-room exploration of dungeon maps.
Our theory is that these similarities, however unintentional, helped AWL attract more players. AWL was released at a time when Isaac was selling like hotcakes and being promoted heavily across Twitch and YouTube. But it had been a while since its release, and some players were hungry for something new. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was a long ways off and so AWL enjoyed a brief period of organic discovery.
3. Unique Death Mechanic
During the time our game was called Crypt Run, the tagline was “Death is just the beginning.” Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? We could have done a better job delivering on that hook, but when a game does something other than end when you die, that’s interesting.
When you die in AWL, you get to wander the world as a ghost, and monsters that were previously hidden in the background join the heat of battle. There are also secret quests that can only be completed using this death mechanic. Having a unique feature like this definitely helped the game stand out, which is something that we feel is nearly mandatory in today’s gaming climate.
Across Steam Greenlight, Kickstarter, Twitch, and even YouTube, we were pleased with the response AWL received after its launches on both Humble and Steam. It was Greenlit on Steam in about a month, and Kickstarted during the standard 30 days. Additionally, dozens of fan comics were posted on our forum, showing a sign that we made something that captured people’s imaginations.
Prominent Twitch streamers like LethalFrag and CobaltStreak played our game in front of thousands of viewers. Northernlion was also doing a series of AWL videos after the launch, which we’re sure was significant in driving sales on Steam. We lucked out here on the promotional side, something we’re guessing is attributed to #2 (Timing and Market Placement), as almost all of these video content creators are serious Isaac players.
5. Solid Core Gameplay
All of the exposure in the world wouldn’t have helped AWL if its core gameplay wasn’t fun. Nobody would have made positive video content about it, that’s for sure!
The core mechanics in AWL -- moving, throwing weapons -- are pretty solid, and since the whole game is built on that, most of it feels good. It’s probably not until deeper into the game that the bad parts reveal themselves...
What went wrong
Using this technology felt a bit like patching together a Frankenstein’s monster each time we wanted to do a build. Based on feedback and Steam reviews, it’s also crashy and very slow on many computers. While this game’s existence demonstrates that it’s possible to use this approach, we found corralling the technology took valuable time away from development of the actual game.
Other game studios with HTML5 games on Steam such as Greenheart Games have since switched to Unity (something we’re doing ourselves), which shows that this tech isn’t always the right choice. We still love web tech, we just want to focus on game development instead of solving tech problems ourselves.
2. Hurt Me Plenty
Many successful games are difficult; some even advertise their intense difficulty as a main selling point, such as any Dark Souls game. But AWL is difficult in such a way that it hurts the accessibility of it, and can feel unfair to many players. Indeed, Northernlion’s video series may have been cut short because it can be time-consuming to progress and unlock new, fun content to explore and demonstrate for viewers.
In his GDC talk There and Back Again, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night director Koji Igarashi offers this wisdom:
“The programmer for any boss must be able to beat it without taking a hit!”
Sounds reasonable to me -- if a competent player has intimate knowledge of a game’s systems and content, she should be able to master it. AWL fails this test, as both Geoff and I play it often, still getting hit during levels and especially on boss encounters. It’s just tuned too difficult which understandably turns off many players.
3. Macro Game Design
Above we mentioned that the core gameplay in AWL is pretty solid, but what about the macro game loop? To progress in the game, there are many tasks players can complete, such as rescuing townsfolk to increase their starting gold, buying blueprints to diversify starting item choices, and defeating crystal bosses to unlock shortcuts to later dungeons. Each of these tasks are relatively satisfying in isolation, but when combined create a rather grindy feel that turned off many players.
Blueprints especially are problematic because they can create scenarios like this: a player might get a blueprint for their favorite weapon, and once they have enough starting gold to afford it, they can buy it before each run. During these runs, when the game offers new weapons as rewards, the player is usually given something they don’t want, as they’re already happy with their weapon of choice. This creates an environment of unsatisfying rewards.
4. The Super Castlevania IV Problem
If you haven’t seen it before, now’s the time to watch the excellent Sequelitis video about Super Castlevania IV. My favorite point in this video is that Simon’s whip is such an excellent, diverse, and long-reaching weapon that it makes the subweapons almost useless.
In AWL, the player’s core projectile attack is infinite and very powerful. This trivializes the player’s other abilities, such as their soul powers and totem drops, making them extraneous and polluting the overall game design. In retrospect, we should have either placed a limitation on the core attack mechanic, or at least cut one of the subweapons and doubled down on the other.
With a roguelike design and (of course) procedural generation, AWL was designed from the ground up to be highly replayable. Even the name itself is repetitious, so it was intended to be a core feature that the game excelled at. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to deliver on this as well as we wanted.
Dungeons start feeling samey after too few sessions, and since weapons and other pickups don’t change gameplay dramatically, some players felt that the game got stale quickly. We’ve made some improvements to this with the upcoming v2.5, including more cohesive and harmonious dungeon generation, but the itemization needs a lot of work to feel fresh each session.
(That said, some players have logged over 500 hours of game time, so this feeling isn’t universal!)
Overall, A Wizard’s Lizard has been reasonably well received, and we’re satisfied with it as our first major first-party offering. Using the standard baseball analogy, it wasn’t a homerun for us -- it was more of a first-base hit.
Our goal from the beginning was for AWL to be successful enough to fund our next game. As one might guess from the presence of another Kickstarter, we failed to reach this goal. Since the original made less than $10k on Kickstarter, it’s pretty clear that we found other means to pay for the bulk of development, so that’s something it’s looking like we’ll have to think about for the future.
We’re excited about this game concept, as we think that medieval fantasy is a timeless genre, lizards are awesome, and games about death and the afterlife are intriguing. Hopefully our passion for gaming comes through, our ability to iterate and improve will prevail, and eventually we’ll be able to deliver a sequel that stands head and shoulders above the original.