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Here's the story of zGames' Pong World, the game that won Atari's Pong Indie Developer Challenge contest.
In March of last year, one of our artists noticed Atari's Pong Indie Developer Challenge contest, and suggested we take a look. We had just spun off Softeq's zGames division into its own independent studio and, despite some of the grumblings from the developer community about the contest terms, we felt it was a great opportunity to get some exposure for our brand and get paid in the process.
Besides, it was the chance to reinvent Pong for mobile. We're talking about Pong... the iconic video game that launched the video game industry... and Atari, pioneers of the gaming industry. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that history?
Who are we? Softeq is a 15-year old contract developer of technical software, firmware, embedded software, mobile apps, and games. We are headquartered in Houston, Texas with development offices in Minsk, Belarus.
We have been active in mobile development for a number of years, stretching back to the days of Windows Mobile, where we ran the iPAQ Developer Program for Compaq. We've been members of Apple's Developer Program since the iPhone launch, as well as active with Android and Blackberry.
Softeq's zGames division has produced some casual mobile titles for The War of the Worlds and Animal Alphabet, as well as contract game development for several studios.
The phased approach to the contest made it a low barrier to entry. At most, we'd spend a few weeks working on a GDD (Game Design Document) to see if we could progress to the next phase.
We have a really good GDD template and process, so after the team brainstormed some ideas, our game designer put together a draft, supported by art from our art team. There wasn't a lot of time for reviews and revisions, but after a few weeks we had a 37-page design doc for a game we called Pong World, and we submitted the GDD to enter the contest.
Page from our Pong World GDD.
We took a traditional approach to designing our Pong version, deciding not to go too far in reinventing the basic gameplay. It should still be recognizably Pong but we wanted to give it a few twists. More about the specifics of the GDD are included in the "What Went Right" section below.
There were 90-plus submissions to the contest, and in May it was announced that zGames was one of 20 semifinalists. That meant a 1 in 20 chance of winning the $100k top prize... not bad odds. Woo-hoo!
As expected, there was quite a bit of press coverage, and it was nice to see zGames getting mentioned by various sites. A little lost in the crowd of 20, but it was a start.
zGames in list of semi-finalists announcement.
After a brief celebration (that "woo-hoo!" about covered it), it was time to get to work. We had roughly a month to create a playable demo of the game, along with a short trailer. We created a mini-GDD that defined only the game demo... not something we'd normally do during the game development process, but something we needed to focus the team considering the short runway for the contest.
At this point, the Pong World team included a PM, a game designer, two developers, and two artists, along with support from our QA department. After a month of constant development, we had a full-featured playable demo consisting of gameplay of a single level. The game came together really well, mostly because of the clear vision contained in the demo GDD... one of the things that went right.
The trailer was put together very quickly at the end, since we needed the demo to be as complete as possible. Pavel, our game designer, roughed out a 30-second trailer using iMovie on the iPad in just a day, which actually looked pretty good. We used that to make a more custom version using Adobe After Effects, but having the initial rough cut helped us do that very quickly.
We submitted the demo app, the updated GDD, and the trailer to Atari at the end of May. We felt we had a strong shot at making it to the finals, since Atari could select 10 out of the 20 semifinalists to be finalists. We didn't know much about our competition other than the company names, and most weren't sharing much on their websites. There was a lot of creativity and ideas in what we could see, so kudos to everyone that entered the contest. Still, we had a 50/50 shot at advancing.
Atari announced zGames and Pong World as one of only seven finalists -- another woo-hoo! And again, we had roughly 50/50 odds at being in the top three, and in the real prize money. Those were good odds, and it was encouraging that most of the community reacted favorably to our concept via our trailer. There was a lot of contest coverage, and our trailer was featured on several websites. Although voting wasn't controlled (anyone could click on the voting buttons, up or down, as many times as they wanted to click), we consistently stayed in the top three for votes and rank.
Now the real work began. Another developer and another artist were added to the team, since we had roughly one more month to get the title to a finished state. This both helped and didn't help, for reasons explained later. We expanded the game from one to four levels, each with a unique look and level features, additional paddles were added and animated, the menu system fleshed out, and gameplay tested and tweaked.
Using Cocos2d as the platform, we supported both iPhone and iPad, in multiple resolutions. The GDD was continuously updated to match what we learned in gameplay tests, and by the deadline we had a nice game. We submitted and waited, and the weeks seemed to crawl by.
Original Pong World paddle concept art.
Our third woo-hoo! came when we learned we had won first place, along with $50,000 and a three-year publishing deal. It was a great feeling to win. After another three months of dedicated development, Pong World was released on November 29th to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pong. As anticipated, we received a lot of coverage from this event, which was a primary reason for entering the contest.