Greetings gladiators, fellow gamedevs and miscellaneous adventurers!
Well. Time sure flies. This is the first game dev blog post I’ve written in almost two years. Writing blog posts these days is a bit of a labour of love. They’re not read by many people, sometimes you feel like you’re shouting into a bit of a void. I’m not entirely sure why I stopped updating , way back in February of 2015. My last gamedev blog post, The Trouble With NPC Interactions in RPGs, was by far my most popular article, getting picked up by a fair few websites and discussion boards. Not surprising, I guess – I ranted about Skyrim, which remains a beloved RPG ( and no, I still hate it for its bland characters, though I do love the look and feel of the world.)
When you’re a solo game developer, you often find your creative energies torn between many different projects. Consider what is required just developing a game. Your average solo developer will, on any given day, spend some time:
- Coding new features for the game
- Fixing bugs on the game
- Sometimes patching previous games you’ve built based on bug reports
- Dabbling in UI, editing art in Photoshop ( or in my case, sometimes drawing art – though those days are less frequent!)
- Maintaining PR and your social presence – tweeting about your game, Instagramming and Facebooking interesting content to your fans
- Replying to fan emails ( and yes, I do get a few a week – people still love Swords and Sandals!)
- Talking strategy / providing updates with your publisher
- Dealing with software updates / shenanigans with Apple, Google, Steam , whoever ( and yes, there is always some nonsense that will eat up half a day here!)
- Updating your website
- Providing briefs / talking with your artist, musician, any contractors working on your game
- Thinking about other games you want to build!
That’s a hell of a lot, huh! And of course, many days you will spend more time on just one of those things – but you definitely find yourself stretched thinly. Ultimately, something suffers – in my case it has been Whiskeybarrel’s website. You can’t really dedicate all your energies to it, but if you completely neglect it, it dies a sad death.
Thing is, though – I actually love writing, and communicating with fans and my peers. I miss blogging, I miss the creative outlet of just writing down your musings.
So, on that note – it’s time to start blogging again. I thought I’d kick things off again with a retrospective on the last year!
January – Kicking off 2017
The year began with me knee deep in code, of course. In 2016, I’d teamed up with a publisher in New York, eGames.com, to bring the Swords and Sandals series back to life. The games had been dead since I parted ways with my old company back in 2013, and eGames bought the rights to the series and were keen to return it back to the fans. Naturally, I was on board, and signed a multi-game deal to make ‘redux’ versions of some of the best in the series. Of course, this proved a much larger undertaking than I could have imagined – it’s always so much more than just a quick coat of paint! I started rebuilding the games in January 2016, with Swords and Sandals 2 and Swords and Sandals 5 using the same game engine.
Anyway, I’d come home from work and build these games at night and on weekends – so the process was long and tiring. It definitely can take its toll after 8 hours of solid coding, to jump onto a different computer and begin again – but the way I figure out it, persistence pays off. Nothing good comes easy – and relative to other jobs out there ( miners, farmers, nurses, and so on ) , I don’t exactly work up a hard sweat toiling the land. I set myself the goal of just writing a few lines of code every day. Finishing a function here, creating a sound effect there. All small things that progress your game forward – momentum’s the thing.
Late in 2016, some of my work colleagues and I started up a Dungeons and Dragons adventure in the Forgotten Realms. Led by the brilliant storyteller Thomas Gattenhof, our adventure has been going for 14 months now and my character , a grizzled, dour Cleric of Ilmater known as Redkin O’Hara, grows in power and grumpiness. If you’re developing an RPG of any kind, digital or other, I highly recommend doing some roleplaying sessions like this – the scenarios that can come out of it can be brilliant. Situations you’d never think you’d find yourself in can arise just from the various human interactions between your party members.
These D&D sessions have been a bright spot in a brilliantly blinding year, and I’m thankful for them, however long they may last for. Dungeons and Dragons with friends, good for the soul.
February – Swords and Sandals 2 is launched!
After a year or so after I began the project, Swords and Sandals 2 was launched on Google Play and the App Store – and it was well received. In fact, this month it will tick over to over 800,000 downloads across the two platforms. In many ways, I was fortunate to have the game so popular – some huge YouTubers such as Gimper and FlyGunCZ picked up the game and it just went viral. I want to send a special shout out to my friends Dan and Dave at Apollo Reviews, who did the first video review for the game and really helped kicked things off.
The game didn’t receive much press coverage at all, partly because I didn’t really approach many game journalists, went to no game events and so on – in the past I’ve just hit a bit of a brick wall with games websites, because they just get overwhelmed with games, and don’t have the time to play those that don’t look incredible. I can kind of understand why the games press largely ignores my games, they have their roots back in the ‘Flash’ era and they still resemble Flash games, to a greater or lesser extent – this is because they’re built using a framework called Starling, which is basically Flash on Steroids.
How did the game do so well? Somewhat incredibly to me – Swords and Sandals still had a huge following! Particularly in Poland, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Russia – at one point 45% of the downloads of the game were from Poland alone. A successful indie game is often just a stroke of luck, a popular YouTuber makes a video, or it’s picked up by Reddit.
The moral of the tale, I guess, is don’t stress if you can’t get press coverage – try other avenues. YouTubers, Twitchers, Let’s Players, etc – don’t neglect your fans, respond to every email , it can be worth it. The difference between a failure and a success is one lucky break – I haven’t quite gotten there yet, but I’m well on the way.
May – Swords and Sandals Medieval is launched!
This game had a troubled backstory, which I will regale one day – save to say it started off life as a ‘spiritual successor’ to the Swords and Sandals games called You Are A Knight. It was, in fact, launched as YAAK back in December of 2013, but there was a series of unfortunate events that meant I had to remove the game from the stores. For a long time, I thought it would never see the light of day – but a saviour appeared in the form of eGames, who loved the game and thought it would be perfect as a Swords and Sandals game. Big shout out to Aram for his support, enthusiasm and friendship over the last few years. Having someone championing your cause is a real godsend, especially after you’ve worked with too many P.T Barnum / David Brent types over the years.
Over the course of a few months, I dusted off the old code, converted the game to be even more ‘sandals-y’ and re-branded it as Swords and Sandals Medieval. The game, aimed at a younger audience, actually had more depth than Swords and Sandals 2 – it allowed the player to joust, go fishing, have adventures and even assemble an entourage of faithful followers. It didn’t sell as well as Swords and Sandals 2, however. For whatever reason, it just didn’t quite capture the public’s imagination the way S&S 2 did. Still, it has managed a respectable 250,000 downloads in the last 6 months or so. Managing expectations is a big part of contentment as a small indie developer!
Regardless of how well a game sells, the important thing to remember when you ship again is this – You did it! You released a game! No matter how many games I release ( I’ve released 7 games to the App Stores since starting up Whiskeybarrel Studios in December 2013 ), there’s still an amazing sense of pride and achievement in launching a product. Think of all the games that developers start. Most will fall by the wayside, many don’t even get past the prototype stage. So, never beat yourself up if the public didn’t love your game – the fact that you launched it is something you should be hugely proud of.
June – Full Steam Ahead! Oh yeah, we’re having a baby too…!!!
This month, Swords and Sandals 2 Redux made its debut on Steam. It was a moderate success ( but woah, those first few weeks , the money rolled in! ) , and continues to bring in small amounts of revenue each week. It’s currently sitting at a Steam Review score of 76% , or Mostly Positive. I’m actually very pleased with this score – there’s no denying the game has had its fair share of bugs and teething problems. Working hard to fix these bugs, patching the game and communicating with your fans is the key here – you can change review scores by just showing that, in fact, you are a human. People just want to know their concerns are being heard, whether they’ve spend 99c or $99 on your game, they want to know you care about the game too.
Also this month, perhaps the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. My beautiful partner and I found out we were pregnant with our first child. Kind of indescribable how much this can rock your world, in the best possible way. Our little boy is due in about a month, February 1 of 2018. I can’t wait to meet him. 9 months goes forever, 9 months goes too fast.
This news really stoked a fire in me and kicked me into an extra gear – I basically doubled my game development efforts. It felt like every free moment was spent working on the games. Partly because I don’t know how much free time I will have once he arrives, partly because I want to build something great and provide some financial stability for our growing clan. But wow, talk about inspiration!
July, August – Married! Whiskeybarrel goes Part Time!
Six of the greatest weeks of my life. My (then) fiance and I eloped on a grand adventure overseas. We climbed sand dunes in the Gobe Desert, we rode horses on the vast Mongolian Steppe, walked the Great Wall of China and explored the crazy night markets and delights of Hong Kong. On a sunny day in a beautiful park in Beijing, we said our vows to each other and got married. Just the two of us. Something I’ll never forget, and just a pure magical moment. My wife Christine has been the biggest supporter of my game development, and has willed me to keep going on so many occasions.
Having friends and family in your life to support you when you feel like your games are going nowhere can be the difference between launching a game or abandoning it. These friends don’t even have to be people you’ve met. Reach out to other gamedevs in a similar situation to you. Encourage them, retweet their works. Slowly, you’ll build up a great network of peers who will be invaluable on your game development journey.
On another note, travel if you have the means. Travel is good for the soul. Travel introduces you to other places, other ways of life. It forces you to unplug from the digital world ( especially in the wilds of deepest Mongolia!) and reconnect with yourself. This may sound a bit ‘guru’ , but honestly – if you can do it, you should. The experiences will stay with you long after you forget about the money spent.
The other great part of travel? Your mind wanders a lot – and you end up unlocking some awesome game development ideas. Honestly, I take a pen and paper with me whenever I travel, and always come back with dozens of pages of game ideas and notes. It’s so much easier to be inspired outside than in front of the dull glow of a monitor. Travel doesn’t always have to mean an expensive trip overseas. Pack a backpack of supplies and go on an all day hike in your local national park. Walk along the cliffs of a beach in late autumn, watch the waves roll in. There’s so much to inspire you if you’re feeling burnt out.
I also achieved a small milestone with Whiskeybarrel Studios this month – electing to go part time. Two days a week, I now work for myself. I’ve been fortunate that the Swords and Sandals games provide enough revenue for me to do this part time. Having two full days to work on the game is a godsend – your best waking hours and creative energy can now be focused on building your games. Coding games at 9am in the morning instead of 9pm provides an entirely different output. The mistakes are fewer, the work more prolific and prodigious.
As an added bonus, in 2018, I can spend two extra days a week helping my wife with our newborn – not to be underestimated how much work this will be, as everyone is so fond of telling me! 🙂
I’m not sure what the future holds with Whiskeybarrel. Perhaps I’ll continue to go part time, perhaps the commitments of family and my regular job will implore me to return to fulltime work on my day job. Who can say, but I feel lucky to have this opportunity, even for the time being.
September, October, November – Through Dungeons Deep
Back from our adventure, I buried myself in game development. Swords and Sandals V: Grail of Antares, a massive behemoth of a game, needed completing. I can’t say enough how tough this game was to make a ‘Redux’ version of. It was tough enough to build the first time round. Back in 2011-2012, this game was built at my old company. It initially began life as a ‘casual MMO’, similar to an Adventure Quest Online style game, where players could drop-in, drop-out of the world. 6 months of R&D on this, and the scope changed (beyond my control sadly) to take advantage of the explosion in mobile games. A bespoke virtual currency system that would often break, an online inventory/database that was a true battle to work with, amongst other major issues, meant the game was a real hodge-podge. I tried to make the game into an exciting roguelike / dungeoncrawler, only to find the mobile phones at the time weren’t powerful enough to display the dungeons, so I had to shoe-horn a half-hearted arena component into the game.
The game was released in 2012, and although it had a ton of downloads, it had hardly any revenue generated from it, for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the game prompting players to register online before they could even try it out. This was a total gamebreaker, and the game quickly sank into oblivion. Many people don’t even know it exists, compare the amount of YouTube videos on the other Swords and Sandals games to videos on S&S 5, and the difference is startling.
At any rate, I spent these months ripping out the virtual currency, rebuilding the dungeon system to work with mobiles and in general streamlining the game to make it more fun and playable – and I truly believe it is. There’s an epic adventure in there that took me 20 hours or so to play through (!!!) , as well as an endless dungeon crawl mode and an exciting ‘sprint’ gladiator tournament. It’s by far the biggest S&S adventure I’ve ever built and I truly hope it sells well, because it nearly killed me to build it. So many late nights, long after the creativity and inspiration was gone – this game nearly broke me, once in 2012, and again in 2017.
I want to send a quick shoutout to my friend and colleague John Stejskal of Lost Relic games. Over many a lunch and the odd beer or two, we’ve talked game dev more than anyone I know. His ideas, iron will and eye for detail have been a true inspiration. I can’t wait to play his drunken Viking platformer Blood and Mead sooner than later. Watch this space, that game is going to be big!
Almost as an aside, I also launched Swords and Sandals Medieval on Steam. It’s quietly ticking along, bringing in a small amount of cash every day. Each dollar helps, never forget!
December – A Light in the Darkness. Also, Pirates!
In December ( this month, at the time of writing ), I packaged up S&S V Redux and submitted it to Steam for review. It’s due for launch on Steam in January 2018, and I’m so thrilled to see it out there. Regardless of how it sells, it is a victory for me.
One of the great joys in finishing a game, is the clearing of the plate. All of a sudden, you’re free to start something new. The world seems brighter, the possibilities endless.
I told myself I’d take 2 or 3 weeks off the gameDev, to try out my ever-growing library of Steam games. Needless to say, I haven’t done that. I did spend a day or two playing the awesome RPG Divinity II , the ultra complex space opera Stellaris (seriously, you need a month just to figure out what the hell you’re doing in this game! Classic Paradox!) and the lovely metroidvania UnEpic. I should play more games, but I just keep getting drawn back into my own stuff. The curse of the game developer, I suppose.
Being the workaholic I am, I’ve dived right back into production, working on the next epic – a pirate adventure tentatively titled Swords and Sandals: Pirate Lords. For those who remember my 2015 project Ships and Scurvy, good news! I’m back working on it, and indeed welcoming it into the Swords and Sandals family. Characters you know and love (or loathe) such as Sir Belgrave, Wolfgang, HeChaos (boo!!) and Emperor Antares will feature as sea captains battling for control of a vast ocean of islands in the the S&S homeworld of Tritonia. I’m really psyched about this game. It’s gone through a big redesign over the last few years ( even when you’re working on one game, you’re often thinking what you want to do with your others!) , from a story-based adventure to a Civilization / RTS style ‘conquer the realm’ epic.
Final musings on 2017 – Truly a Grand Adventure
I was sure 2016 had been the biggest year of my life. I bought a house with my partner. We got engaged. I started a new job building kids educational software. I signed a deal to build a bunch of Swords and Sandals games.
2017 topped it, and easily. So much has happened this year, from getting married, to the pregnancy news, to releasing three big games on Steam and the App Stores. It’s been easily the biggest, brightest year of my life. Not every year is going to be as incredible as this, as the poets say, into every life a little rain must fall, but for today, I am truly content and thankful.
Whiskeybarrel Studios in 2018
Who knows where we are bound next year?
- Will the baby completely throw into disarray my game dev plans? (Probably!)
- Will the baby be the best thing that ever happened? (Definitely!)
- Will S&S Pirates be released in 2018? (Hopefully!)
- Will I FINALLY learn to use Unity properly and tackle my first big non-Swords and Sandals game? (I say yes!!)
- Will Swords and Sandals get its first major motion picture deal? (Unlikely, but we can dream!)
- Will I start work on Swords and Sandals VI or Swords and Sandals Crusader Redux ? (Stay tuned…)
There’s a ton of games I’d like to work on, either solo or collaboratively. I want to expand S&S beyond the arena ( and I’m totally burnt out on Arena games!) , I want to make a pro-wrestling game and a hex-based adventure roguelike game. There’s so much I want to do, that even if 10% of those ideas see the light of day, I’ll be a happy man!
Anyway, thank you so much for reading this far. To those who have bought a Swords and Sandals game, to those who have sent me fan emails and tweets, to those who have offered game dev advice and shared a laugh – I salute you all. Very best of luck with your own game development journey, I wish you success, health and happiness in the year ahead.
Cheers, Oliver Joyce
December 31, 2018.