Making an indie game isn't an easy task. It takes energy, passion, resilience a great deal of your personal life. Here's a story about how I wandered around the cemetery of dead games and lost hopes while I was developing Into The Dungeon.
Some of my friends who know I'm a game developer keep saying things like: - "Wow! Such a cool job! Best work ever!” when they see what I do. Although I humbly take the compliment, I always bring them down a little bit by letting them know game development might sound cool and all, but the work behind all of that is absolutely a crazy hell. Often, not the most fun. It's actually routine-based, monotonous, and frankly, tiring. However, very very necessary.
Yeah yeah, many of you will say there are dozens of games out there making millions but nobody gets to see what's going on with thousands of other projects not so successful. I'm talking about the cemetery of dead indie games and lost hopes. Success does not succeed the first time. Failure is one of the components of success.
A little about me
I've been in game dev for 4 years now. I've managed to work in projects such as Iratus: Lord of the Dead, Utopia Syndrome, and a couple of VR projects. At the moment I work at CrispApp Studio, where most our work is on the creation of hidden objects games.
The development of Into the Dungeon began, probably, like any indie game with a simple dialogue:
- “Arthur! Let's go make a game!”
- “Yeah, Let's go! ”
If I knew what I had to go through during the year that went into developing the game, I would... still agree without hesitation. Self-realization is a demanding lady and her demands are great. And I won’t trade that for anything.
In the beginning
We start with an idea. My friend, Alex, found an old electronic board game called Labirynth. Inspiring by this game's interesting mechanics, we thought about bringing some of it to our game. You, my kind friend, will probably say "Booo! You just copied gameplay from an old board game and just added new graphics!", but don't be so angry. Yes, we used its core gameplay, but added many other game mechanics, features etc. The core gameplay is as simple as a Kojima game (no) - you have a square-shaped box divided into tiles. You select any starting tile, after which a maze is randomly created around it. At a moment - the walls of the maze are invisible. Next, the player will explore the maze (we walk only in a straight line), stumble upon the walls (the collision ends your turn) and look for treasures under the protection of a ghost (a dragon in the original game). If you step on a tile near the treasure - the ghost wakes up and attacks the player, in an attempt to prevent them from stealing the treasure honestly earned during his life.
The main task then was to diversify the gameplay, and not overdo it with a bunch of content that would only ruin the game. There were many ideas we wanted to throw in. Many of them made it to the future updates list (would be enough for 4 major updates, no less!). On the bottom line, we came up with 6 heroes (1 base and 5 unique, with their own characteristics and skills) and 4 types of traps with their bonuses counterweights. Did you get stuck on the web? It doesn’t matter. Hold the torch and burn it to hell! Did you get poisoned by toxic fumes? Look for the antidote faster! I think you got the point.
At this moment, we were faced with the first problem, but we will see it only after the release. I’ll tell you later what that is about as we keep following this story chronologically.
The implementation went out quickly. Alex, the Programmer, wrote the code. Arthur (@skybasta), the Game Designer, made prefabs for the environment; made the animations, and the particles. Everything was so cool!
As a result, we finally got a playable version, but we were only at the beginning of a long journey!
Its gameplay turned out to be really cool. We came to the conclusion that this was not going to be a casual game, but knowing well how its target audience would react to it, we kept our confidence. We were on the right track. This is when the second problem happened, which I will discuss later, so hold on tight there.
Running to get it released
Development took a lot of our strength and nerves. The project was like a vampire, draining out the last drops of life from us... Bugs climbed like gooks from the jungle of Vietnam. The UI kept getting bigger and bigger. The new gameplay was tested, changed, tested again, changed, 10 times in 3 sets.
There were many internal conflicts. So far this year, we had a lot hard times. The battle between the GD and the programmer is still ongoing. There have been victories and defeats on both sides, but as for me, such iterations have never yielded a negative result. For example, I often got stuck into the complexity of the gameplay. I wanted to do the leveling of the heroes, upgrade their talents, which I was told "Wow, wow, man, easy! It's hard to implement, let's try it easier" - and it worked. Although we wanted to frame it as an RPG, the game remained a puzzle and all of the above elements were useless. This, by the way, is the third problem.
Showcasing on Devgamm and polishing
Our game got better and better each day and the next step was about finding a publisher. We showed the game to the folks at CrispApp studio, where we work, and they agreed to publish the game. The next 3 months were simply unforgettable. If you ever decide that localizing a game in 11 languages is a good idea, hit yourself in the head. This certainly benefits the whole application as you're able to make the game loyal to audiences from different parts of the world, but making perpetual changes to the translation table, checking the game in all languages, selecting the right fonts for them and uploading 220 screenshots to the AppStore, Google Play is like getting yourself into a rabbit hole. Just be prepared for that, but I'm digressing from our topic here. Let's get back to it.
At the same time, we were realizing how we were running out of energy. We took a breath of fresh air during our trip to the Devgamm Minsk exhibition. By that time, we wanted to release the game already (hahaha, that's so funny, I can’t stop laughing now just from remembering about how excited we were). Of course, nothing came out of it. The game was a damp. We had to put it out on a little lower heat and we got there with the beta version. We printed business cards with a QR code for the jump, prepared a beautiful poster and hit the road.
If you ever ask yourself "do I need to go to a game exhibition?", your answer is definitely YES! Devgamm gave us some very good feedback. We accelerated the game development 2 times faster (now on the old version it looks like everything is moving in slow-mo), finalized the tutorial, improved the graphics, squashed some bugs... the list keeps going on and on.
We had a positive attitude about it during the exhibition. We saw that people enjoyed it. They were become emotionally involved with it and that was evident. Players feedback were priceless: they had fun, which means we were on the right track. We've never been so wrong. Four problems so far. Are you counting?
And so, that crucial day finally came. December 13th. A Friday. A symbolic release date for a game about exploring a dark dungeon. Very random coincidences.
Anyway, we submitted the files and the game flew to the stores.
Post-Release and Marketing Campaign
You never rest after the release. Do you hear that? Never! If you think that after the game hit the stores we sat down and drank some beer and waited for millions of downloads, you're wrong. No, ladies and gentlemen. Immediately after the release, I began to actively work on promoting the game.
For that, a resource pool had already been assembled, where our potential audience sits. We had an ace in our sleeves - the "RPG Humor" group at VK (it's like the Russian Facebook, never mind) with an audience of 80k+ subscribers, which my friend Boris let me use for promoting it. The scheme is simple - we write to different bloggers, media, groups, and we offer some barter and we all win.
In general, this is not a very generous business and here's why: audience, sites and blog editors are generally divided into three types:
1) Cool guys - you write to them, they answer you quickly enough (1-3 days), agree to advertise, make a post - get profit. Thanks to everyone who made the promotional posts about our game. You really helped.
2) Honest guys - you write to them. They also respond quickly like the first ones, but they say - “sorry, we only have our content. If the product is interesting - we’ll write“ or ”we only promote for money. Good luck with your project”. There is no cookie from them, but they honestly answered our message. No complaints.
3) Bad guys - my “favorite”. For a long time I thought about a good name for this third group. I didn't want to be mean to them. In fact, they make up about 50% of the entire list and this is what they are like:
First, they won't answer you. They're hard and tedious. You write to them, then you get 3 days of silence. You write again - 2 days of silence. For some, I spent 2 weeks of my time, reminding myself and trying to get an answer. Silence. Okay, okay, maybe they got into an accident, lost their hands and can't answer me in writing. Sometimes I would understand it that way.
Second - they are greedy and there is a great example. I contacted one gaming channel on Telegram (a Russian messenger like Viber\ Whatsapp, never mind) to ask their help to promote the game. They wrote to me on the same day, saying - "Yes, we could make a post on our channel." I joyfully replied back with some questions about the publication, such as what the would need from me and when it would go live. Then I got 5 days of silence. Then when I finally got a reply, this is what I got: "Throw off the advertising text, screenshots, we make a post."
While they were still on the hook, I threw off everything necessary for the publication and ... they put up a price list for me. What for? Unclear. I always mentioned that we are indie developers, we have no money, but let's barter. They decided to cook me for a week before they set the price. Well played guys. The funny thing is that they only have around 5k subscribers when I contacted them. I understand a gigantic audience like usually gets you busy with multi-million dollar contracts.
I had never made a marketing campaign before. It was something new for me and it taught me some important lessons. The main lesson I learned during this small marketing campaign is that you need to bang your head to the wall until you crack your forehead.
There was this wild feeling of importance when it was possible to get a post on IGN Russia, with 200k subscribers. A month later, the marketing paid off, although modestly. ~ 6000 downloads on iOS\Android, a couple of times getting into the top 150 on the Board games category in the Appstore, the first inApp Purchases, but, unfortunately, the expectations were completely not met. App retention was too low. People do won't stay in the app at all and I have 4 reasons to explain why. Now we are moving on to the problems that I have so persistently pointed out above.
Problems and solutions
The first problem - too much randomness. Initially, the gameplay emphasized calculation. You would explore the dungeon, calculate the possible position of the ghost, take the treasure and leave the dungeon. An element of chance was introduced by invisible walls, but they could also be calculated. Having understood the tactics of preliminary research of the area around the starting point and unhurried progress along the underground, the player would have a partial vision of the structure of the maze and an understanding of where and how he should move to.
Adding traps made the dungeon a dozen times more random. The calculation of moves was pointless since circular saws could cut you on any tile. Yes, we had the Thief who informed the player about a trap in the next tile, but the player had already deleted the app after 2 levels. It was decided to transfer the Thief's talent to all the heroes, which greatly improved the gameplay. The player received the information about the traps and could anticipate dangerous moves for him.
Plus, we made more mechanics for exploring the dungeon: we scattered bonuses a little more, added the selection of additional gold in the form of bags of money in random tiles, and most importantly, now passing the 3-star level depended not on the least number of steps taken, but on the number of deaths. If, previously, the game pushed the player to the fastest possible passage and therefore chose the shortest and most dangerous way, now the player could safely explore every corner of the dungeon before meeting the Ghost.
The second problem - the game was too hard. Our blind belief that making games for geeks/nerds implied an increased complexity was fundamentally wrong. Yes, this is not hyper casual, but the player is not a telepath. Neither the tutorial, which essentially dumped a bunch of text on the player nor the first levels that dumped a bunch of obscure entities on the player, was helping the player understand the game. “Learn by yourself, mortal!", the Ghost would say if it were real. I had to recreate all levels for introducing new game entities more gradually.
Even the ghost’s location has been made visible to the player at easy levels. Then, we enter the 1st type of traps. The player would follow along 3-4 levels with them, then the 2nd type of traps would show up and so on. The wider the reach of your audience, the greater the likelihood that your application will not go to the cemetery of forgotten projects. The idea is obvious, but it didn’t come to us immediately, which is a shame.
The third problem - the game presentation. Initially, we presented the app as a turn-based tactical RPG, but it is not an RPG. The role-playing element with the heroes does not help convincing the players that Into the Dungeon is an actual RPG. Because of that, many people got mad gave us 1-2 rating stars. Most of them simply dropped off, thinking they had been cheated. Moving to the Puzzle category and positioning the game as a tactical Puzzle should improve things. I say it should, since we only fixing that with the release of the update, which is about to come out as we release this article.
The fourth problem - me and myself only. As I had previously mentioned, during the exhibition I was sure the game was fun based on my observations of other people's experiences with it. So everything was ok, right? Forget it. If someone playtesting the game by your side says they're having fun, that doesn't mean the game is necessarily good. That doesn't even mean that person will play the game again tomorrow. Testing and showcasing are definitely important if you want to figure out the quality of your product. Observe, talk, get feedback and, if everything looks alright, keep doing more and more analyses. Maybe those players didn't understand the game at all and just wanted to make you happy by telling you they enjoyed it? Who knows!!
A new wave of promotion and weekly statistics paid off. The indicators improved slightly. We even got some in-game purchases (so rare and so welcome). Unfortunately, a large flow of new players has not yet arrived (I never left my wet dreams). There has been an increase only in the daily number of players + the average duration of the game session. The problem with the tutorial remains. We already have ideas on how to make the game even easier and more accessible. We are moving on the right direction and it should only get better (haha, well, again, it's too funny. Let's stop!). Now we are working on a new update, adding new gameplay mechanics and making versions for Win\MacOS\HTML5\Xbox.
In the End
Phew... there was a lot of writing, but I believe that those who read to the end must've learned something like we did. I think no one will find big revelations here, but it’s very useful to have a perspective at your own mistakes. Into the Dungeon is waiting for an update that will either push the app to a more or less sane level or lower it to the bottom. In the meantime, you can evaluate the game yourself. Don't forget about the 5-star reviews! 😉