Interview: Pains and Gains of Remote Game Development
When we met three guys from Scarecrow Arts, a multimedia production group that recently has released a fast paced, randomly generated hack ‘n’ slash adventure game The Story Goes On that has already received positive reviews, our story went beyond just the rigorous interview. It turned out that hearing live opinions of three guys can be contradicting and the same time insightful and fun. We dove into indie game developers’ everyday life and found how they overcome game development problems.
This article is written based on a combination of three responces by game development professionals: Anton, the programmer, Brandon, the artist, and Malcolm, the artist and video production manager.
Experience from Experiments
“The project started out with just myself, then I grew lonely and hired my two slaves” – chuckles Malcolm. Both avid gamers and YouTube creators, Malcolm and Brandon wanted to expand their creativity by not only playing games, but making one of their own.
Brandon: “I’ve known Malcolm for a while because we both do graphic designs and animate in After Effects, but one day he popped up on Skype with a Steam key for his new game and said, “Hey, play my game on YouTube, do it.” so I did…and then I said, “Your game looks like shit, but it’s pretty fun.” and he was all like “well, you think YOU could do a better job?” and then I was like “I KNOW I can” and then I did. That’s why the game isn’t super ugly anymore, because he hired me.”
Brandon and Malcolm have worked in the industry as game developers since they were 12, now being 18 years old, and Anton joined Scarecrow Arts when The Story Goes On was greenlit. “I found Anton on Reddit and he BEGGED me to join”- says Malcolm. “Malcolm came to me crawling on his knees, begging for help. I graciously offered my assistance”- parries Anton. As it was Malcolm’s first project ever the game wasn’t in great shape at this point. “I think Malcolm wanted to focus more on the artwork for the game than the coding bit”- says Anton. There is now a total of 3 people working directly on the project, with many testers, both their friends and fans.
In spite of having a lot of frustrating moments when they were stuck with idea of their game, they resisted the temptation to dump it. Instead they drew the inspiration from different games. Malcolm as the fan of adventure games decided to give it off a nostalgic feel the older Legend of Zelda titles trying to appeal to that audience, while supplying intuitive hack ‘n’ slash and roguelike elements trying to produce a more satisfying game experience. “The game concept wasn’t my idea”, said Brandon, “I came onto the project really late, but I’ve shifted gameplay to satisfy a more Castlevania experience: teaching patience and not just being able to run and attack through the whole game. The art I’ve been making to substitute the older images however does have its roots in more minimalistic indie titles.”
They staked on the experience rather than the narrative. “This isn’t really a game you play for the story” – comments Malcolm. “For a game called “The Story Goes On” we really suck at the story thing” – adds Anton. Brandon on the other hand says that since the initial early access release they’ve considered expanding the game by adding lore embedded in gameplay. “During dev calls we may discuss a character’s backstory or where the sketchy merchants came from, stuff like that. We hint at the story as it progresses with the use of trailers and secret areas in-game”.
It started out as an 8-bit title where you kill things and collect loot, as their skills evolved together with a game they realised the game needed real substance. In that regard they add to it constantly and throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks, much like the early development cycle of the now famous Minecraft. “We then became much more ambitious in our design as shown with our HD Update” – says Malcolm. Brandon grumbles: “I usually make something really cool and have really big ideas and plans!…then Anton shoots it down. He hates adding to the file size”.
Being very creative, it seems like the guys argues about the ideas all the time. Not too seriously though. Although they faced a challenge of making the game controls more intuitive and easy to play, they successfully overcame it and shared with us the hallmarks of a good design in their experience:
Malcolm: “Easy to pick up and play, while still offering a challenging experience and a replayable one, too!”
Anton: “Attention to many small details.”
Brandon: “Attention to atomic-sized details. I nitpick.”
Time for Money
Although their game is based in a physics-heavy environment, they try to make it seem as though it doesn’t by making all the actions work in the background.
Anton:“Sometimes the physics don’t let me do what I want. That’s when I tell physics to shut up, go to its room, and think about what it has done. In all seriousness the physics handling has been great and is very easy to modify”.
“Well, the game relies on physics to direct how objects interact, but sometimes it breaks everything. We had this one bug that made the item shop in-game float away into the abyss when you walked towards it. [It was] kind of funny looking, actually”- adds Brandon.
They used GameMaker because it is easy to make quick changes and adjustments. Anton suggested that it solved tedious work for them but still allowed them to program whatever they wanted. It also allows exports to multiple platforms. Some major drawbacks are how it’s single threaded and that heavy operations can become difficult for it.
Although having a recorded file of every version, and every iteration of the game that they’ve ever uploaded, the guys told us that they regret not making a changelog:
“People would ask “What’s new in your game in this update?” and I would respond “uhhhh…I remember I changed an item’s sprite…I think.” Pro tip: make a changelog from the start of production.”
Looking back on the work that they’ve done Malcolm and Anton thought they did a good job managing their expenses for the game spending only a few hundred dollars on it. This could only be possible because they’ve all sacrificed a huge amount of time into this project.
So how do the guys from Scarecrow Arts solve the communication problems that occur during the development of their game? Surely, having a good sense of humour helps!
Malcolm:“You find a happy medium, unless an idea is so good it has to be put in.”
Anton: “We usually have split opinions on things. When this happens we present pros and cons and usually settle for the middle ground. Also Malcolm is referring to the “Whey” item. It’s terrible.”
Brandon: “Usually yelling louder helps, but Skype distorts sound if you go beyond a certain decibel level. So sometimes yelling can also be counterproductive. I’m also pretty sure “Whey” is copyrighted.”
Since the guys live far from each other they use Github and Skype as their project management medium. “Github is super useful in transferring code to other devs and all of our meetings take place over Skype” – explains Brandon.
According to Malcolm, any outsourced work was out of their initial scope.
Brandon agrees but adds that the community can make anything instead. He was actually just a community member before being added to the team. He says: “This game is for you guys, so if you want something, ask, hate something, change it.”
Despite being a very young team Malcolm and his colleagues are all true professionals at what they do. They each have experience in game design, programming, graphic art and animation, so anything they needed to do they could already do themselves. “We only develop what we can afford before a planned update, so we prioritize the most fun elements”- says Anton. “While playtesting, if I needed a bug fix I’d call up Anton, if I had a new idea to implement, I told Malcolm and if they needed a new graphic or animation, they would come to me for it. We basically have split skill sets and utilize each other accordingly” – comments Brandon.
We continue speaking about aspects of game development and the guys are suddenly very serious when we talk about importance of code review while game testing. “I think that it’s everything…well, it’s like 80% at least”- says Malcolm. “Incredibly important,”- adds Brandon. “My original job working on the game was to break the game. Anton would call me up and ask me to break the language translations, or crash the game on purpose, glitch through walls and insta-kill bosses”.
The guys told us that they also gather game testing feedback and application data during the course of the whole game. All game development has been based upon user input and community feedback. They ask people to report bugs and game ideas to them on Steam forums or on their website submission page.
Anton: “We also send the game out to friends and let them play it. We’re all nerds so we have clusters of nerds to reach out to”.
Fighting for the Place in the Sun
As a new indie company Scarecrow Arts experiences some problems with fundraising and now it funds the game itself. “All the money going into the project comes out of our own pockets, and profits directly from early access purchases of the game” – says Brandon. Anton adds that since they’re on PC the only reasonable option for a game like this is an upfront cost. He said that they hoped to break into further markets on other devices.
To overcome game discovery problems, the guys are putting much effort in creating a brand by creating a quality product and promoting it. “Yeah, Steam Greenlight has been flooded in the past year with thousands of duplicates, bad ideas, or good ideas that devolve into an ultimately bad game upon release. The indie market on PC is flooded and we are still working to overcome it. In fact doing this developer Q&A is one of the ways we are attempting to break that barrier”- explains Brandon.“Video games tend to release betas all of the time now, and your input barely ever gets heard, so like, why even test the game with a beta!? The answer is free marketing by calling your game’s demo a “beta”. That’s not how all big companies treat their betas, but that is the general trend and my two cents on the matter. So with our game, submit an idea, give it a week, congratulations, you helped make a video game cooler in every way, you attractive super star, genius…you. That’s how a beta should be, and that’s what we are”.
We asked the guys what do they think makes their game different from others. Malcolm replies that it’s the combo of action, adventure, and creativity. Anton thinks it’s new ideas that they constantly input. “It’s fun to kills things, and with more updates we get more compliments on our unique implementations of items and secret areas making exploration that much more enjoyable” says Brandon. They always use Steam analytics and see where people find their product the most. “People tend to give it the most clicks when we’re featured on the homepage” – says Malcolm. “We try to look at what works and what doesn’t, and compare it with how interested people are with what we’ve already tried” – adds Anton. They make YouTube videos, used friends as a word-of-mouth, as well as their Twitter accounts to increase the awareness for The Story Goes On. Anton admitted that they were also spamming a lot asking people to try their game out – as it’s said all is fair…
Being a newcomer is almost like going blindfolded in the dark and planning is like a flashlight on a forehead. The guys agree they should’ve set plan for the game at the start as this would make workflow much smoother and iron out conflicting ideas from the start. “The way game entities are interacting with each other should have been in line with each other from the start” – says Anton.
The Story Goes On
The three game development experts started with no money, cheap tools and most of them with a very little experience and yet they managed to release a game which has already received good reviews. “As the one who started the whole project 6 months before anyone else joined in, I can guarantee it will be hard for anyone willing to do what we did. I could give an inspirational speech too, but I’ll leave it at that” – says Malcolm.
Being ambitious is what drives the game development industry. Malcolm dreams about creative software development, and games with new ways of teaching people about the world. Anton dreams about big guns and self hosted servers with custom scripting.
Brandon: “3D realistic motion-capture with stock explosions and a button to make your main character’s muscles get bigger. Gears of War 27, confirmed.”
The guys from Scarecrow Arts are young and are still learning, but they are not afraid of the future ahead, having big plans for 2016. Malcolm is planning to finish school this year, start developing creative software/plugins, continue improving as a functional designer. Anton is going to finish his studies so he can become a better coder. “It’s an excuse for me to take a break for a while. Working on a game while studying is a lot of effort” – he adds. Brandon on the other hand says humbly that 2016 and beyond are pretty much a mystery to him and that he is unprepared. But we’re sure that’s not true!
About Scarecrow Arts
Scarecrow Arts is a multimedia production group located in Dallas, USA that focuses on taking a project from beginning to end. They offer game and app development, mixed-media 2D animation, writing and storyboarding, video production, motion graphics, music design, compositing and special effects.
Looking to Tap the Talent Pool in Ukraine?
Interested in a free quote for the tech talent you need? Leave us a brief message and we will provide a ballpark estimate for your dream team within 24 hours.