3 years ago, the team at Graphite Lab set out on a crazy adventure to make a game called Hive Jump. We envisioned friends playing together, controlling retro styled space marines as they faced off against alien hordes on a mission to liberate pixel-planets for the good of humanity. Though we’d never developed an IP of our own we were an experienced contract developer with a lengthy list of published titles. Beyond that, we’d recently seen buddies of ours peruse indie adventures of their own with success, so, why couldn’t we? We shared plans for our little “con-troid” shooter (that’s Contra meets Metroid btw) with the community at Kickstarter in early 2014 and asked them to help us fund our dream...
One of our earliest screens of Hive Jump circa Feb 2014
It did not go well. A combination of bad timing and underestimated workload led to a very weak first attempt at crowdfunding. We pulled the plug on the campaign early, but didn’t lose heart. Our fans supported our intent to improve our campaign and return to Kickstarter. They offered suggestions on how we could strengthen our offering and come back victorious. From this failure, we learned a lot about what makes an successful Kickstarter campaign.
In August 2014, we came back with our entire plan expanded. You want better art? We got it. We up-resed the art from a “8-bit” style to a gorgeous 16-bit style. More game Modes? Check. We added on to the core game mode (which was multiplayer arcade-only) with an in-depth single-player campaign featuring “advance-wars-like” battle animations and a territorial strategy map interface. You want this on your Wii U? Hell yes. We added to our original platform list (which was PC only) by including the Wii U in our core campaign goal. After all, most of our contract portfolio was released on Nintendo platforms – it seemed like our experience and the fans were leading us to this choice.
The reaction from fans on this second campaign was amazing. We overfunded our new Kickstarter goal with days to spare. All told, nearly 40% of our backers were showing up to support the Wii U platform. Our team would have to stretch to meet all the extra expectations we just set for ourselves, but we didn’t waiver. The team was pumped up and energized.
We set our first goal of bringing Hive Jump to PAX South in January 2015 for a true showing of the core game mechanics. Players would face off against the Crusher Boss for the first time and we would get to see how they reacted to the mechanics, the controls and the overall game feel. Fans loved it and we received some really promising feedback. Encouraged, we felt our PC fans were really happy and enjoying our work, but we still needed a way to share the game with the Wii U fans.
Our wish was granted. Nintendo invited us to include Hive Jump among their 2015 Nindies squad alongside Shovel Knight, Fast Racing Neo, Runbow and a handful of other amazing indie titles. We were invited to show the game at PAX Nindies @ Night in front of a huge crowd of Wii U fans. We were included in Nintendo Direct features and we demoed at IndieCade. It was an amazing way to get Hive Jump noticed as well as connect with all the Wii U fans who’d helped us reach our goal the year before.
As we worked through the second half of 2015, the pressure began to mount up as we discovered some of our features weren’t ready to ship after all. We had to reconfigure major game systems such as the physics and AI as well as optimize just about everything to improve performance. As the weeks came and went, so did our first Wii U release target of Q1 2016. The next few months weren't looking much better. We needed to keep the team dedicated to the project and had to implore several tactics to fuel our fire and keep our passion project going. While we felt “ok” about our plan for a STEAM release, there was some whispering going on throughout the interwebs that had us worried about our work on Wii U…
“Uh, guys, what’s the Nintendo “NX”…?”
Maybe it’s a phone? What if it’s a new handheld? Could it replace the Wii U? While we didn’t know what the NX would be, we knew STEAM wasn’t likely to change and we were already making great progress improving the core game through the EARLY ACCESS program. We simply had to focus on the known platform while we waited to learn more about the unknown Nintendo NX. We finished the core game, designed the remaining bosses, and worked with our backers to create rewards such as NPCs who would appear in both versions.
Then, in the fall of 2016 the Nintendo Switch was revealed to the world. Should we leave the Wii U behind and attempt to roll our work into this new hardware? Well, you can’t exactly sashay into Nintendo HQ and demand that your cute lil’ indie title be the first drop on their newly announced system, especially when we’d been behind on Wii U development to begin with. Past that, we knew from our contract experience that any change in platform would delay the game even further. Would our game engine even work on Switch? Wouldn’t additional features be needed to make the game feel intended for the platform? How long would it take to go through certification? All of these questions swarmed our minds as we tried to make sense of it all.
Ultimately, there were too many unknowns to make any sort of statement at the time, so we pressed ahead with our STEAM release plans. We happily launched Hive Jump on STEAM January 18th, 2017. Release went well and we racked up an 80%+ “Very Positive” user rating along with some nice press reviews for the game. Though we were still fixing a few bugs with this version we felt the game was solid and it was finally time to dedicate ourselves completely to the Wii U.
Once again, we surveyed the battlefield. In November, fellow developers at Concerned Ape announced that their plans for bringing Stardew Valley to the Wii U were scrapped. One month later, Playtonic announced that Yooka-Laylee was also dropping its plans for Wii U as well. We believed Hive Jump would be a great game on the Wii U. But now that the time had come to invest even more hours and more money into the platform… should we, really?
We put ourselves in the shoes of our backers. It didn’t feel fair to our Wii U backers who didn’t have (or couldn’t get) a Switch to ask them to get a new console just to play the game they backed in 2014. Beyond that, we knew that making good on a promise to get Hive Jump on Wii U wouldn’t prevent us from getting on the Switch down the line. In fact, many of our fans have already shared that they would love to have the game on both platforms since there wasn’t anything quite like Hive Jump out there. We already had a lot of the development complete, so why should we drop a platform that shows off the game so well? We doubled-down and dove head first into Wii U development, optimizing, adjusting, tweaking and tuning the experience to get it the best we could.
It wasn’t without some sacrifice. Early in our Wii U development we announced plans to implement specific challenge rooms which could be unlocked using select amiibo. Knee deep in production, our time was running painfully short and our coffers were running equally low. We couldn't dedicate time to both amiibo and the other Wii U exclusive features we were planning. The function of the mini-map and off-screen play was far more beneficial to players and so we chose to put those features in priority and had to drop our plans to support amiibo. Plans for dynamic lighting features offered by Sprite Lamp also had to change. Hitting a performance target of a solid 30fps with so many projectiles flying around and swarms of aliens was no simple feat. In order to achieve this benchmark, we had to remove Sprite Lamp's dynamic lighting from the Wii U version. This required more balancing of the visuals to ensure that the hives on Wii U still looked incredible.
None of it was easy (or on time for that matter) and I'm sure we made at least a few poor decisions along the way. Still, I'm happy to report that we're just a few days from launch and that Hive Jump will release on Wii U September 28th.
Hell, maybe this determination would resonate with the community. Maybe we’ll get a few high-fives along the way for not giving up. Or, maybe we’ll flop and get a whopping “we told you so” from all those who told us to turn away. Or, maybe, we’ll simply entertain a loyal of group gamers who will call their friends over, and enjoy controlling retro styled space marines as they face off against alien hordes on their mission to liberate pixel-planets for the good of humanity.