Postmortem: ArcherFire Duet of Aces – js13k 2018

ArcherFire: Duet of Aces is a game I made for the js13k 2018 contest, you can check it out here! (and the source code is here)

I decided to write one final piece of text about my second participation on the contest. I already described my journey in detail here and here, and also did a dissection of the source code, but I wanted to record some lessons learned which may come in handy for other people or myself in the future.

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The story

Whenever I participate in a game jam or contest, I ask myself what is my motivation:

  • Learn a new language or tool
  • Create something cool
  • Win the contest prize

This was the second time I participated in the contest; results from last year had been a bit disappointing (regarding the ranking given by the jurors), and I knew my development time this year was going to be very limited. Still, I aimed to rank high into the lists.

The theme for this year was OFFLINE, as mentioned in my first blog post, I started off with a vague idea of a space… thing… where you could collaborate with other players offline to advance through the game.

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On the first day of dev, I created some foundations work looking forward to having some kind of space sandbox thing with arcade elements (Similar to this entry, which ended up being one of the contest winners). However, given the constraints I had, I decided to follow my own advice from last year’s postmortem and create:

  • An arcade game bringing full action from the first second of gameplay
  • Complete music track

And that’s precisely what I ended up doing! Interestingly, and maybe because of what I set to do and my experience from last year, I didn’t have any issues with the 13KB limit so I didn’t have to cut around any corners. I incorporated the OFFLINE theme by allowing 2 players hot-seat offline play.

However, the results were even less encouraging this year. Despite receiving good feedback from the jurors, the game didn’t even end up in the top 100. (Last year it ended up #40 overall and ranked well in the Community and Social lists). Since this was the first year where some constraints were put on the prizes model (only top 100 entries would get prizes) that meant that effectively I lost the contest. There was a total of 270 entries, and mine ended up ranked #105.

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Unlike last year, this time I don’t really have some big factors I think led to this result. I contented myself in thinking that the jurying process is not perfect, and there may have been very good entries this year. Still, here’s what I think worked and didn’t work.

What went right

  • Seeded Procedural Generation: Managed to create an infinite, increasingly harder, top-down shooter level which was the same every time you played (So, in theory, the more you play the game the more likely you are to memorize the hazards and get farther)
  • Pseudo 3D Effect: Everyone loved how cool the ships looked when soaring around.
  • Straightforward action-packed: The game is pretty responsive and quick, with lots of action on screen. No need to explain anyone how to play because it’s obvious!
  • 2 players hot-seat mode: I couldn’t test this much because I have no friends, but I saw some people have fun and yell at each other afterward.
  • A solid, finished entry: No bugs, no feeling of being an “incomplete game”, it is what it is and it doesn’t break.
  • Music: One of the game highlights, and I didn’t do it myself 😀 it was all thanks to Ryan Malm. I just gave him a reference and some ideas, and he came up with the track. Thanks again!

What went wrong

  • Floaty Controls: Since my foundational work on a simple physics engine had support for acceleration, I stuck to the end with the idea of the ships being “hard to control” as a “challenging aspect” for the player. I knew it was frustrating, but I waged on the players trying harder to learn how to control it. In the end, it ended up being too hard and too different to the standard. A model where the ships had less inertia would have been much more playable and enjoyable. Maybe I need to start making easier games!
  • Balancing: Some people reported the game was a bit too hard. In part, this may be closely related to the controls, but also could have lessened the hit points of the enemies or made the difficulty curve less step.
  • Lack of theme: Yet another space shooter, no plot, maybe went too much into the arcade direction? So that aspect was pretty uninteresting. There were also too few types of enemies, mainly because of the time constraints I had.
  • Graphics too simple: I am not an artist, and the game had high-resolution vector art. Unlike last year where I could go around that by using shadows in the darkness, this year I went for colors and maybe it didn’t look too nice. One thing that could have worked would have been using WebGL filters to post-process the bare graphics, which has worked great for other games in the past.

The Future

This is not the end of the story for Duet of Aces… I plan to make it evolve into a more complete game, keeping the core design but adding better art, sound effects, more music, a complete plot and more importantly, adapting it to social media mobile platforms. More info soon!

Also, some things I want to do next year:

  • An easy game, rewarding players without requiring lots of skill.
  • Gorgeous visuals.

Interaction++ 2018.4 and some indie dev marketing tips

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Interaction” is a video game development meetup. They organize conferences in Medellín (my hometown) where they invite local developers to share their experience with both fellow and wannabe developers.

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They are now an official Unity User Group, and they are planning to create bigger and better events. Interaction++ 2018.4 was the first of these events, where they had three talks instead of a single one as usual.

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The first talk, “Introduction to Indie Marketing”, was given by Jorge Castaño of Amazing Soul games. It was an ambitious talk and it went well over its time limit, but it was pretty interesting.

Its first topic, foundations of marketing, gave an overview of some elements involved in the marketing of the game along with some useful  tips:

  • Create a compelling synopsis/summary to convert visits into installs.
  • Have at hand your Unique Selling Points: What makes your game different. This may help change a first negative / neutral perception and make the player give a second chance to your game.
  • The biggest markets like Steam, Play Store and AppStore are extremely competitive and it’s extremely hard to be noticed, smaller stores can even provide help with marketing.
  • China is a very attractive market for mobile but the AppStore and Play Store are dead there. Tencent is the biggest store, but rules are different.
  • A clear target market is a must to create an effective marketing campaign.
  • Set a target to be in the top 200 of the store (it’s impossible to get to top 10 without +100.000USD daily marketing or a lot of luck)
  • A great target for a small company is 5000 USD / day for 1 month. It should cover the investment in the game.

They also dug into some of the tasks of a publisher:

  • Localization (not only language but also cultural) can drive a lot of installs. For example, Games in China must be properly localized, and including Dragons as enemies into the game may be perceived as offensive. For Japan, 80% of the players will only play the game if it’s in Japanese.
  • Customer Care: Retention, especially important for freemium games in mobile. Some publishers provide a  support team.
  • Acquisition: It’s only part of the publisher task. Invest money to get more players.
  • Marketing: Material such as trailers, icons, screenshots, they often have a specialized team.
  • QA / Testing
  • Monetization: Make the game make money.

They also had some recommendations for Indie Publishers:

  • Tiny Build
  • Indie Fund
  • Adult Swim Games
  • Devolver

Publishers will normally take 30% to 60% of revenue, and it’s currently hard for them to give money upfront.

Some advantages of using a Publisher:

  • Better distribution channels
  • They have useful contacts with the industry
  • Higher visibility
  • Cross promotion, they will leverage players in existing games.
  • They assume part of the risk of investment
  • Years of experience.

If you don’t have a publisher, you must cover all the above by yourself to a certain degree.

This includes creating a marketing campaign to generate interest of the game even before it is launched.

Some things that help here:

  • Create a plan for your campaign with weekly goals and channels to be used every week.
  • Use analytics to update your plan. What is working and what is not.
  • Make a list of the websites, streamers or youtubers you want to cover your game. Start with the smaller ones, that will eventually bring interest to the mid-sized and the bigger ones if you are lucky.
  • Create a presentation template to get in contact with writers

Sucess doesn’t depend on money alone, being aware of all the different tools at hand helps greatly.

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In the second talk the guys from Dreamhouse Studios shared their experiences building three VR products:

  • A training program for the Colombian Army FLIR program. (Infrared scanning)
  • A multiplayer tower defense Halloween game.
  • A training program for the local tram system

They mentioned their second game has provided them with some cash flow by renting it to be used in malls and events in the city. They shared some details of their development process.

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Finally, the third talk was about the upcoming optimizations to appear on Unity to leverage on its Entity Component System to increase its performance greatly. This, in order to allow Unity games to run in lower-end devices, as well as extending its capabilities to manage a LOT of objects moving and interacting on screen.

All in all, I recommend their conferences especially to students or people looking forward to starting into the video game development industry.