“Sleep soundly, young Rose. For I have built you a good ship, strong and true.” – Thomas Andrews
Sometimes I feel my game development journey on Ships and Scurvy RPG is like I’m at the helm of the Titanic, steering blindly into a North Atlantic night. The giant iceberg of failure and obscurity rushing towards me as I ignore all the warning signs ( “the market is too crowded”, “the game is too ambitious”, “you need a bigger team” ). Moments of pure joy as friends try and love the game ( “I’m the king of the world!” ) , moments of acknowledged mistakes as you test systems that aren’t working ( “There are not enough lifeboats on this ship – not by half”) .
I’ve said a lot over the last 6 months that this is probably my last big shot at making a successful game. Since December, I’ve basically been working on Ships full time, supporting it with the occasional bit of contract work and slowly eating away at 10 years of hard earned savings. As many of you know , indie game development takes a big toll on your time – relationships get strained, your actual regular career is put on hold, your finances take a big hit. There’s a huge turbulent storm inside your mind – you feel like that every moment away from the screen, you are further and further away from the game being done, and even if you finish it, to what end? Does the world really need your game?
One of my game development friends, the inspirational Christer Kaitila ( founder of One Game A Month and a huge source of encouragement to gamedevs like myself) posted recently that even he suffers the same fears as I do. “What if the game is not good enough?” , “What if my game never succeed like my friends’ games do?”, “Am I really cut out for this?” . It’s a fear so many of us solo developers face. The odds are stacked against you because historically the bar has never been lower to making a game. There’s never been more people making games. There’s never been more competition out there for the audience’s attention – and you are constantly comparing your game to every one of them.
But you know what?
I believe in myself. I’m going to succeed. Why shouldn’t I? I have something unique. Nobody else can make a game like me, with my sense of humour, with my oddball game design philosophy and unorthodox approach to world building. There’s a moment early in the game when Adrian Galassi’s delightful music score kicks in and your little raft sails off from the first island, into a vast blue ocean full of possibilities and my heart soars. That’s what game development should be about.
I’ve never been more excited at where Ships and Scurvy is at. The game is barely past the early prototype but already it’s by far the favourite of all my creations, including Swords and Sandals 2, which was played hundreds of millions of times by countless people.
This journey doesn’t have to be doomed. Fate is never sealed. Icebergs can be swerved and that triumphant homecoming on the shores of America can be realised.
Anyway, enough of the Titanic analogies ( I’ll admit it – I loved the movie, I cried like a baby when the string quartet scene played) and onto actual game development news.
The latest from Ships and Scurvy
Since the last update, there’s been an absolute mountain of work done. I look back at June’s teaser trailer and the game feels vastly different already. I sent an early prototype to a few trusted friends and game dev associates ( big shout out to Tom Gattenhof, Richard Csala, Silas Rowe, Mauno Vaha and Mattheui Senidre ) and received some absolutely invaluable feedback that changed some fundamental parts of the game. You’ve heard this before and you’ll hear it again – get others to playtest your game as often and as early as you can. (On the flipside , you don’t have to take on board all of their comments, you’re the one with the vision.)
Off the top of my head, here’s a list of the major changes.
First up, the ship in the early build of the game was way too big and too fast. It made the islands feel tiny, it was harder to spot other ships before they were right on you and it didn’t quite ‘feel right’. By reducing the ship to 50% of its original size and shrinking it, the world feels more epic ( and seamonsters scarier!)
The first incarnations of the shops and taverns felt a bit clunky too. For example, to hire new sailors for your crew, you had to go to the tavern , click on “Sailors”, click on “Hire New Crew” , go to yet another screen, then click on the sailors you wanted. Too many levels. I decided to combine several screens into one, so you can buy a drink, eat a meal, hire sailors all from the one main tavern screen. I kinda love the new tavern now. The rumours the bartender give you actually can lead to you getting a lot of gold early in the game if you pay attention to them. I have to admit, I took some inspiration from the SEGA classic Wonderboy In Monsterland for the tavern scenes. (“Ale or mead?”)
Finally, there’s an experience points system and ‘Character level up’ screen in the game. Every league you sail, every time you set foot on a new island, every time you win a battle at land or sea, and so on, your character will gain experience. When you go to bed at night, all that XP is tallied up and your character will level up and gain new skills like the abililty to hunt animals on islands, go diving for treasure, to talk to bartenders and get special rumours, to improve the combat skills of your soldiers, and so on. I’ve still got a bunch of skills to add, there will end up being 40-50 possible skills to learn I would imagine – meaning that every adventure and every sea captain will be pretty different.
The tutorial prologue is now in the game
Yeah, I know. Nobody enjoys a tutorial, least of all me. Problem is, this is a big, sprawling game that has a few complicated systems that need explaining. Back in the 80’s or even the 90’s , this wouldn’t be a problem, you’d just ‘figure it out’ but these days attention spans are shorter, people are less forgiving and the window for hooking players into your game is a lot smaller. Hence, the need for a tutorial.
What I’ve done, is turned the ‘prologue’ part of the game into a tutorial. You wake up on the island and the game’s basic systems and UI screens are explained to you. You learn how to explore, how to harvest wood and build a raft. You fight your first battle, and then you learn how to sail. It’s a 5 to ten minute section that is pretty enjoyable and kind of sets the scene for you without completely feeling like too much of a trial.
All 50 island adventures have been written and there’s artwork for them
This took absolutely ages, a lot longer than I thought. My lovely girlfriend and I came up with most of the scenarios while on holiday in Bali in Feb and I started coding them up when I got home. It’s now July and they’re only done. The sketches were actually pretty fun to do, but time consuming as it’s been years since I’ve drawn on pencil and paper and my art skills have become very rusty. Here’s a sneak preview of a few of my favourites.
The food system has been overhauled YET AGAIN!
Third time’s a charm. Finding food, trading for food, keeping your crew fit and healthy are important parts of the game,but I got the food system wrong twice already. I kind of went full Peter Molyneux and went overboard on the importance of food. For all 150+ food items in the game, I had a weight, a nutritional value, a disease resistance, a god-damned USE BY DATE for them!!! Looking back, it’s kind of hilarious but at the time I thought that this would be something that interested the player. I’ve gone back and stripped that out. Now, all foods count as ONE unit each. Each crew member needs one food unit, 3 times a day. If they dont eat, they starve and you face death or a mutiny. It’s that simple.
Oh, and breakfast beers are awesome.
And many, many more changes.
I’ve done a stack of little changes to the game to make it more playable. I want to try and get it as refined as possible before I add in the next two sections of the game , the captain vs captain sea combat and the dungeon exploring components. Arguably these are games all alone in their own right – hell, 1 vs 1 combat is kind of all Swords and Sandals was, right?
For me, its key that I get the world around these sections right, so when I start on them, I can focus fully on making them as cool and as fun as they can be. Imagine, taking a crew of diseased, starving and mutinous crew members into a lost jungle dungeon in search of a legendary giant iguana. Tempers will flare, but the promise of treasure and fame might just hold them together until they can return to the ship wealthier and happier.
That’s it for now.
Also, I’m still working on the best way forward for marketing. I’m looking at approaching some publishers real soon – if you work for one and want to discuss teaming up, I’d love to hear from you! This is a step I need to think very carefully about as it can make or break the game. I’ve been talking with Colm Larkin, creator of the brilliant Guild of Dungeoneering about the right approach to publishing, I want to give a massive shout out to him for his invaluable advice and support. You’re a true inspiration.
Thanks again, thanks for staying with me until the end of this epic post and I promise you, this will be a grand adventure unlike any other.
Cheers and happy journeys,