Year One of Whiskeybarrel Studios: Learning To Be An Indie Game Dev

Greetings friends and fellow game developers! It has been far too long since my last post. With the sun rapidly setting on 2014, I thought I’d share some thoughts and reflections on my first year as an indie game developer. Partly this update is for posterity, for myself to look back in the years to come , and partly it’s to perhaps impart a few bits of advice to others who find themselves in a similar position.

* This is a long blog post – for the TL/DR summary, just skip to the end! *

December 2013

2013 ended tumultuously, and no mistake. I was working fulltime as a game developer for a small studio here in Australia. I’d had some big success earlier in my career with Swords and Sandals, but circumstances change, as they do. I set to work building a game for myself. The game was called You Are A Knight. The game took all year to make, but I wasn’t able to release it due to various complications – and a damn shame too as it was a hell of a game. The end result saw myself and the studio part ways and the birth of Whiskeybarrel Studios.

One day I’ll tell this tale in more detail.

January 2014

After a much needed break away from the computer, I decided the best way to deal with the loss of my game was to go back to basics. To get a game released onto the App Store as quickly as possible. I set myself the challenge of building a game in 14 days , the results of which I journalled here. To those familiar with game jams, this is actually a fairly long time, but coming from a studio background where projects took months, this was a big challenge for me. The end result was Captain Fishblock, and it went live in mid January. Fishblock was a physics puzzler in which a grizzled sea-captain loaded blocks of fish into a leaky boat. I used AIR and Starling to build the game, with PhysInjector/Box2D for the physics.

 

fishmonger_5

 

Surprisingly to me, the game was actually received pretty well for something I’d barely publicised. It reached #9 on Google Play’s top new games lists and sold a few hundred copies. Later in the year it would go onto further (relative) success. For now, this was enough for me. Whiskeybarrel Studios had it’s first official game. I put this game up on the major app stores, Google, Apple, Amazon and even the Samsung App Store – this was a great learning experience, each store has its own peculiar way of handling apps.

February – May 2014

It’s a daunting proposition, starting from scratch. For 9 years, I’d had the total security blanket of a company behind me. A steady pay cheque and a constant stream of work every month. Now, nothing but uncertainty stood before me. I had some savings, thankfully, but I figured I had better get back into working. The plan was to split my time between freelance work and building my own game, but for now, there was no game to build. You Are A Knight had taken it all out of me, mentally and spiritually; at the time I just didn’t have a big game in me. The natural thing to do was to find a bit of paid work to distract me while I planned my next move.

Luckily that work came quickly as I teamed up with Yolk Interactive to build an interactive educational comic book for Sydney University, University Heroes. It felt great to be working again – the next three months passed quickly. Freelancing is a great way to get contacts and forge business relationships – stuff I’d taken for granted when I wasn’t running my own business.

sydney_university_heroes

 

June 2014 

After spending a decade learning Flash, I quickly realised the market had changed. HTML5 was the latest buzzword for interactive sites and games, and though I’ve long fought against it, I decided I’d better learn a bit of Javascript. Somewhat unpredictably, I was actually offered a freelance project from my old studio. The brief to make a platform game for Nickelodeon. Jumping at the chance to improve my HTML5 skills, I took the project on. The end result was Force 10: Camp Orange, and I’m told it did pretty well – I’ve no doubt this is because of Nickelodeon’s considerable marketing budget rather than any skill on my part.

Force10_1

 

Six months had passed, and Whiskeybarrel Studios had but one game to its name. I’d been tinkering around with a litttle mountain climbing prototype in my spare time. It involved a giant, tile based mountain and a climber who you could flick upwards, gradually getting higher and higher. This game never really reached the scope I’d originally planned for it ( a Spelunky / Donkey Kong mix ) but the end result was a fun little platformer called Monkey Mountain. This went live in mid June for Android and iOS – a little freebie supported by AdMob ads. It had a couple of hundred downloads also but got lost in the sea of new titles out there.

Funny enough, this game actually has had a fairly long tail, it gets 30-40 downloads a week still – I’m told little kids love it because it’s really forgiving and easy. It’s easy to get down on yourself when your game goes out there and doesn’t get much traffic, but remember you’re going to have many more failures than successes. You learn something from each of them and get better as a game designer.

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July 2014

In July I was contacted by Chinese publisher wozlla.com – they were keen of a localised version of Captain Fishblock. A few weeks of back-and-forth translating and Fishing Big Battle was born. This was a great learning experience in localising games and dealing with foreign publishers – the game itself didn’t gain much traction in the Chinese market because it wasn’t a freebie ( the Chinese market is an entirely different beast to the west ) and I don’t really feel like they knew how to promote it properly. I was kinda disappointed that it didn’t really take off but you have to take these opportunities when they arise.

logo_China
At this point I’d built two client games and two of my own games, but Whiskeybarrel Studios was yet to do anything really substantial. I’d been toying around with a few different ‘big game’ ideas in my head but I kept coming back to a whimsical team-based, combat RPG called Everyone Gets Treasure. I decided to throw myself into this, and I started a development diary which you can read here. Teaming up with my old friend, illustrator Tony Lowe , we quickly built an early prototype of the game ( check out the video here ) in Adobe AIR.

Looks pretty cool, eh!

arena_mock_new

 

August – September 2014

Progress moved swiftly on Everyone Gets Treasure. I got really serious about this game, for seven straight weeks I really powered ahead… but then I got spooked, technology wise. There’s been so many “Flash Is Dead” posts out there on the internet, eventually you start to doubt yourself. Despite the fact that great games like The Banner Saga, Centripede, Machinarium et al, have been built with Adobe AIR, the industry doesn’t care for it. All year I’d been worrying about skilling up, learning other technologies like HTML5 and Unity. If I was to spend the next six months on EGT, with only one HTML5 game under my belt, I’d be in a bit of trouble.

So, I put the game on temporary hold – much as it pains me – and switched over to learning Unity3D. I started building a basketball shooting game, mucking about learning Blender for 3D modelling, teaching myself C#. Everyone always told me how much they loved Unity, and I wanted to love it too. I could totally see the benefits of it , but in practice and in truth I just didn’t enjoy working with it – especially for 2D it just seemed counter-intuitive and its performance underwhelmed. Still, I persisted, and started work on a marble maze game in 3D.

Meanwhile I’d flirt with my old loves Adobe AIR and Starling ,building a little game called Timber Mania – this little clone actually brought in a bit of ad revenue, so that was nice.

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October 2014

At this point, I’ve made hardly any money from Whiskeybarrel Studios and we’re ten months into the year. And then, lo-and-behold, Amazon decided to make Captain Fishblock their free app of the day. The game was downloaded over 50,000 times in a single day. At $1.00 a pop, that’s some serious cash! Except for the fact that Free App Of The Day is exactly that – free. You don’t make a cent off it – however I was thrilled with the exposure, Whiskeybarrel was now on the map as a real game developer. Later in the month it would be downloaded another 15,000 times as Amazon Europe and Japan’s free app of the day.

I built my second HTML5 game this month, a training quiz for McDonalds. The marble maze game in Unity was making slow, but steady progress. I continued to fight with Unity – as easy as it is for some things, other basic features are just head-scratchingly difficult to achieve; though I feel like a big part of this might be ten years of developing things a different way.

I took a few days break from it to build a quick puzzle game in Adobe AIR, A Trip To Space. This game totally disappeared – hardly any downloads at all – mind you, I didn’t really promote it. More on this at the end. To be honest, I think I messed up with this game – I didn’t quite get the puzzle element right. It was a tricky but not particularly engaging game – the difficulty spikes were way over the place. You’re going to find this in game dev, some ideas that are great on your head just don’t work well when finally put together.

 

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November 2014

Another month of freelancing, I teamed up with SlikTrik and Tribal DDB to build Das Auto Tennis, a HTML5 tennis game. This was my first ‘real’ HTML5 game and proved a huge learning experience. I started out pretty green on this one but by the end I came out confident of building pretty much any 2D game in JavaScript. After years of doubting myself in other languages, that’s a great feeling.
dasAutoTennis

 

December 2014

Finally, finally, the marble maze game was ready to release. A play on words of the immortal Dark Souls, I christened it Dark Rolls and released it early in the month to Google Play. It’s still under review by Apple, but early download figures have been fair – not great, but there’s something there. It’s a tough , unforgiving game. Dark Rolls was a real struggle for me because I got bored of building it – each time I loaded up Unity it felt like a real trial. At some point you have to make a call whether to release something or abandon it, but part of being a successful developer is staying the course – completing projects even when you’re not inspired by them anymore. It’s the classic ‘the last 10% is as hard as the first 90%’ line.

darkRolls

 

Final thoughts: 2015 and beyond ( the TL/DR summary)

It’s been a hugely productive, if not successful first year for my independent business. In the last 12 months:

  • I built 5 independent games, Captain Fishblock, Monkey Mountain, Timber Mania, A Trip To Space and Dark Rolls.
  • One of these games was Amazon’s free app of the day and has been downloaded over 65,000 times to date.
  • I’ve made under a thousand dollars in sales and ad revenue from all of this.
  • I built four HTML5 games and one large Android/iOS app for clients. Though I’ve earnt less than I would have full time, I’m still doing okay!
  • I’ve learnt a bunch of new technologies: C# and JavaScript, Box2D, Blender , Phaser and Unity.
  • I’m so much more confident as a game developer / designer than I ever was.

Most importantly, I can stand on my own two feet now. My games this year have been simple, but solid – puzzle games, platform games, action games. There’s variety and ingenuity in them – I’m still absolutely hopeless at  PR and promotion, but I’m going to .

Lessons I’ve learnt:

  • The longer you are in one job, the more complacent you get. You get fat and comfortable and your skills need sharpening
  • Whenever you think you’ve got it all figured out, there’s going to be a spanner in the works – be prepared
  • Don’t be afraid to learn new languages and technology. You’re a coder, your skills will transition, you’re way more adaptable than you think
  • Game development and design is one of the hardest things there is to do well – its easier and easier to build a game, but that just makes it harder for yours to stand out
  • Running your own business is hard, but not impossible. Start small and lean, let the word spread, build up contacts and forge friendships
  • Don’t build games you don’t truly believe in. I wasted a fair chunk of this year building games I thought the public wanted, rather than games that inspired me
  • You’re going to have many more game ideas than you can build – write them down , you never know which one is the million dollar idea

And this final, most important lesson:

Building a game is no guarantee of success. You’re basically just creating your own ticket into the lottery – but with that ticket, the world can be yours.

So what next? I’ve got plenty of client work lined up next year – funny enough , much of it in Adobe AIR! I’ll be continuing to build on my HTML5 skills and dabble some more in Unity – it’s great for 3D. I plan on revisiting Everyone Gets Treasure further down the track, when I regain the fire for it.

However, best of all … I’ve got a new game in the works for 2015. Between client projects, I’ll building one of the most ambitious, awesome RPG games I’ve ever come up with.

I  call it Ships and Scurvy , and I believe it could be the game that puts me on the map. I’ll be blogging about it regularly and sharing progress and builds with everyone who’s interested. I’ll be going to game dev meet-ups. I’ll hire a PR person. I believe in this one. My game dev career is a bit like the premise for the game. One boat, a vast ocean, and hundreds of islands of possibility. All waiting to be explored. Fame and fortune on some, danger and failure on others , the tradewinds in our sails.

 

tinyBoat

 

Thanks for being part of the Whiskeybarrel Studios adventure so far. Best of luck to us all in 2015.

Happy journeys,
Oliver Joyce

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