Tuesday, July 30, 2013

JumpCore, or How I Became an Indie Dev

For the past 6 years I’ve been trying to get an original zombie IP off the ground. “Six years!?” you say, “Good god, man!” And it’s true - that’s a long time. Of course, I’ve done some other things along the way (freelance work, released a test iOS game and had it banned, learned all about the Source SDK, learned some Objective-C and built a native iOS app from scratch, learned some C# and became something of a Unity ninja, got married, had a son - you know, stuff), but through it all there has run a river. No, wait, not a river . . . through it all has run a penchant for rotting flesh and oozing brains. Yes, that’s it! Zombies, that is. So . . . that’s either a true passion for my game project, or just a ridiculous level of stubbornness, to just keep beating my head against that particular wall for so long. Truthfully, I’m not really sure which - you be the judge.

JumpCore Productions, Inc. officially got started back in mid 2007, and for the first year or so it was pretty much just me trying to figure out what to do next, after finally having divested myself from my holdings in Cryptic Studios. I wound up writing a design doc for a zombie themed MMO that used an asymmetrical RTS/FPS mechanic and allowed players to play as human (FPS) or the undead (RTS). At the same time I was doing a survey of game engine licensing and tech, building a first zombie character, and trying to learn C++. They only taught C when I was in school, which was the last time I had programmed before this time, so learning OOP principles has been a challenge for me. Coding toolsets have changed drastically since last I coded, as well - mostly for the better, but that also required some learning.

Going into the second year, I picked the Source Engine as the tech of choice. Kind of regret that, actually, although I learned a lot and my reasoning for the decision at the time was sound - mainly that Valve had the only major engine at the time with a free version, and I did not want to blow the company’s money on a demo license that would only last six months (which describes both the Unreal Engine and the Hero Engine of the time, my other front runners). Unity was just getting started then, and, though I did look at it briefly, I have to admit I wasn’t impressed. I did not see Unity as distinguishing itself from all the other second tier game engines (led by Torque). So the Source SDK became our platform of choice.

Most of that second year was spent learning about the Source Engine and the thriving mod community that surrounds it, getting some sample levels up and running, setting up a server for multiplayer play, working on my C++, and animating/editing/recording a teaser video for "Undead Online", the working title for the MMO design. Along the way, I ran the idea by what few contacts I have in the VC industry, but with the recent and spectacular failures of both Flagship (RIP 2003-2008) and Perpetual (RIP 2002-2008), funding for MMO ventures was even harder to come by than usual.

Note: The guy who did finally raise more VC money for an MMO was Lars Buttler, who did so by going even larger than either Flagship or Perpetual, and has to date raised more than the GDP of at least a couple small nations. I met with Lars early on, when he was just getting going with Trion Worlds' first $30M round, and he liked my MMO design quite well, but was already looking for entire functioning companies to engage (they wound up doing a deal with Petroglyoph first, if I remember correctly) - as opposed to a single guy with some cool ideas. Still, had I known that Lars was a fundraising wunderkind, I would surely have put more effort into sucking up to him. :-)

In the third year (2009 now), I got somewhat more serious about JumpCore (partially at the urging of my then girlfriend, now wife) and started trying to get other people involved in the effort. The initial crew consisted of myself and three other guys - a solid 3D modeler and art generalist that I knew from my days at Atari, his brother (another solid senior artist), and a coder that was recommended to me by another old Atari acquaintance. Each of us a seasoned game developer - a good team to start putting together a playable demo.

By that time, I knew that the Source Engine was not a flexible piece of technology. Rather than being built as a general game development platform, it was built to be really good at helping Valve to make first person shooters. Having not had much luck with VC funding for an MMO play anyway, the plan then morphed (in entrepreneurial jargon, that’s called a “pirouette”, but try not to picture me in a tutu - you'll sleep better) and we started working on a demo for the first episode of a story driven episodic first person shooter (one that just happened to tell the back story of a character that was based on one of the classes from the original MMO design - go figure).

What I didn’t realize at the time, though perhaps I should have, is that Valve had already largely abandoned the story driven FPS in favor of multiplayer gameplay driven FPS games . . . and, of course, Steam. That was a very wise move on their part, for a number of reasons, but it left some of their engine tools somewhat abandoned and atrophied. They also decided to Wikify their docs for the SDK, leaving the community largely in charge of them - something that they spun hard and were quite proud of at the time (twice as many wiki articles! woo!), but that actually strikes me as one of the stupidest things I’ve seen an engine maker do, ever. The Source Engine docs were atrocious, to be kind - full of information that was outdated if not just flat out incorrect. Maybe the docs have gotten better since then, but that was my experience. I found myself forced to figure out how to properly complete art pipeline tasks by stepping through code - significantly less than an ideal situation. On the one hand, it’s awesome and praiseworthy that the whole engine (even a slightly outdated one) was/is out there and available for tinkering, with all but the lower level code available to read and tweak and learn from - and let me be clear, I have the utmost respect for Valve, their products, their culture, and their team. On the other hand, as a small indie team, we found it difficult to wrangle the Source SDK the way we thought it should be wrangle-able. You might think that we were just too ambitious for our own good, and I might be inclined to agree - if it weren’t for our subsequent experiences with the more mature version of Unity that we eventually switched over to using.

So, lacking the hindsight that would eventually prove it to be a bad idea - we spent two years building our FPS demo using the Source SDK. It wound up being a fully playable level, with in-game cinematics, crashing airliners, secret stuff to be found, exploding zombie heads, fountains of gushing blood - and was generally pretty cool, we thought. We launched a website to let people know about it, and even put together a couple of teaser videos which were still up on YouTube until recently (we archived them just a few days back, not wanting to have them confused with our more recent gameplay trailer). We were going for a semi-stylized, slightly cartoony look, though, and unfortunately it wound up just looking outdated, as the one person who commented on YouTube was quick to point out. Here's a screen shot that we released from that demo . . .

We showed the game demo to some VCs (“Why aren’t you building a Facebook game?”), we showed it to some publishers (“It doesn’t look like Infinity Ward spent $30M on it.”), we even showed it to an agent to see if he would show it to some publishers for us, and theoretically would do a better job of pitching it than we had (“We don’t like the art style.” said the agent’s minion - guess that guy on YouTube was right).

So we took a hard look at the game, the team, and the market at that point. We were proud of what we had accomplished so far, even if there did not seem to be a market for it, and we did not want to give up - but we knew that the game needed a new direction. We decided that Unity was doing amazing things in their quest to democratize game development, and that the multi-platform aspect combined with the agreeable licensing terms was too good to resist, and decided to switch over to using Unity. We decided that mobile gaming was growing by leaps and bounds, that the iPad was a cool device with interesting prospects for cool touch screen interface design for RTS gameplay, and that we should go back to the idea for asymmetrical gameplay that had made the MMO design seem interesting. We were still, however, stuck in the mindset that we should make a playable demo and then pitch that demo to either publishers or VCs. More likely publishers, because at that point I had largely given up on ever getting funding for a game from a VC - they are much more interested in middleware and service plays, in my experience.

Note: Clearly, there are exceptions to the rule of VC not investing in individual games IP, but they are relatively rare. Most VC games investments are in platforms, publishers, engines, and middleware. I don't think it needs to be that way, personally, and I have seen some signs recently that it could be changing, but that's another story.

Off we went, then, and spent another year and a half building a new demo in Unity for an online, multiplayer RTS/FPS hybrid where you could be a human running around down in the world from a PC/Mac, or you could control a horde of zombies pursuing those humans from an iPad (or a PC/Mac, but the cool part was playing on an iPad). If that seems like a long time, that's because it is - but remember that development is slow for our team since we are almost all part-time - which drastically reduces our burn rate at the cost of drastically reducing our implementation speed. It makes for glacial development, sure, but also makes for a game that evolves very organically and receives a lot of testing and feedback over time.

In early 2012, we attended GDC Play, and did our best to pitch the game to any publishers who would listen. Which was a fair number of them - a benefit of having a bit of history in the games industry, I guess. This time we got a couple of the same kinds of reactions we had gotten with the previous demo (“It doesn’t look like Infinity Ward spent $30M on it.”), but we also got a whole new category of rejection which went something like this . . . "We love your game, let us know when it's finished and we would like to publish it for you."

It seems that the advent of an active indie games scene, combined with the availability of multiple digital distribution outlets, had created a new class of publisher - one I like to call the "Cherry Picker Publisher". Of course, it's been a valid business strategy for decades at EA to acquire what they cannot create internally, and usually it's after the fact (Westwood, Maxis, Bioware, etc.). But the advent of a large and ever changing crop of indie games on the market has made it much easier for mid-level publishers to adopt a wait-and-see attitude towards small developers. In some cases these Cherry Picker Publishers were former AAA console publishers fallen on hard times, in other cases they were publishers that were weaned on the cherry picker mentality as they grew up in the web downloadable (or "casual") games space. Either way, they weren't going to be much help to us in raising funding to build out our demo into a full game.

Once again we found ourselves in a position to reevaluate our position. For a time we continued to push ahead with the multiplayer game as the various potential publishing contracts we had initiated at GDC sputtered and then eventually fizzled out. At that point, we had to face the fact that there was no way in hell that we could finish an asymmetrical game (effectively building two games at once, and tuning them to work together) under our own power. So, being the stubborn crew that we are, we decided to reduce the scope of the game to a single player zombie RTS (with the twist of being told from the point of view of the zombies), and go for an indie release.

Another year has gone by since then, and the game has expanded back out a little in scope during that time in the pursuit of moment-to-moment gameplay fun. It's still the same game from a high level perspective, though - what we're calling a Zombie Dominion RTS. But now we find that we are finally coming to the end of our rope financially (even a mostly part-time team has expenses for software licenses and various small needs that add up over time), and that the sheer weight of years becomes a heavy load after a while (not to mention that my wife may well crack my skull open and eat my brains, if I don't rally to ship this game!). So we need a shot in the arm, we need something to kick start this project, although in our case it might almost be called a kick finish. The finish line is in sight, you might say, but we really need a glucose boost to make it there. Pick your metaphor.

So we said to ourselves - let's run a Kickstarter campaign, and see if we can't raise some money (and our hopes) in that way. We had been watching the evolution of Kickstarter, but it initially seemed like something that was only for very famous people or teams that were re-booting (as a "spiritual successor") an already successful game IP. The past year or two, however, it has started to seem that quirky game teams can catch people's attention through sheer originality and hard work. "Sir, You Are Being Hunted" comes immediately to mind, but there have been many others. We want to join that crew, if at all possible.

The last couple of months have been spent in preparation. We’ve been researching physical rewards production and costing (a strange and interesting task for us - we normally deal strictly in virtual goods), sussing out the pitfalls and traps that others have fallen into, and taking note of successful projects. The key elements seem to be a cool game idea (check), an accomplished and trustworthy team (check), and effective communication of the project's current state and future goals to a large enough audience.

That last bit is going to be the biggest hurdle for us, especially the "large enough audience" part, and so we've begun to try and build a community around the game before we launch our Kickstarter campaign. We set up Facebook, Google+ and Twitter accounts for the game, and we're updating them regularly. We launched a website with screenshots and info about the game. We installed a set of forums where I can yammer about issues very specific to the game, and where we can have a conversation with our fan base (once we actually have a fan base! :-). We started participating in the growing Screen Shot Saturday tradition, and we're exhibiting and demoing the game everywhere we can. We put together our first gameplay trailer (what we think of as the "hook" portion of our Kickstarter video), and then in a fit of impatience launched it on YouTube and IndieDB this past weekend because it looked so cool that we just couldn't resist showing it off!

On a very positive note - after the release of our gameplay trailer on IndieDB, our new page broke the top 100 games and wound up climbing briefly to #69 out of ~11K games on that site. Of course, it subsided significantly once our gameplay trailer was not on the front page of the site, but it still bodes well that we got that much traffic for the video on IndieDB. So far, all the comments have been very encouraging, which really helps motivate our team.

So . . . here we are, years later, having watched an indie revolution take place, benefited from the rise of some amazing technology, and seen the game industry perform the business model equivalent of a contortionist act. Against that backdrop, we’ve built and mothballed two playable demos, and through trial and error we're finally pushing our way through to a slightly pre-alpha version of what looks to be a very fun game. Chances are good that we’ll ship this game eventually - we’ve come too far not to carry through and ship something. But the Kickstarter campaign has significance to us in another way, too - as a market-based proof of concept, and a way to ask the gamers out there if this quirky, irreverent gore-fest of a game that we’re working on is something that they really want. The money from a Kickstarter campaign would be a tremendous boost, allowing us to speed things up hugely by pulling on more full-time team members. But the vote of confidence it signifies could be just as important - the social mandate gained from completing a successful Kickstarter campaign is, after all, fantastic motivation for a game team.

If you’ve made it this far, hopefully you’ve found this short history to be amusing and even somewhat enlightening of the craziness that can sometimes take place in the games industry, particularly in the last half decade or so - a time that bears many parallels to the giddy early days of the games industry. With a little luck and a lot of help from the gaming public, our Kickstarter campaign will complete successfully, and I’ll get the chance to yammer at you further about the ongoing journey.

For now, thanks for listening!


P.S. My first thought for a title for this post was "JumpCore, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being an Indie Developer". Thinking, you know, that I was clever - that a cool Dr. Strangelove reference would be hip, yo. But then I did a quick search and realized that everyone and all their aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers and cousins and unborn children have already used that reference in blog titles ad nauseam. So I bailed on that idea. Thank you, internets! ;-)


Edit: It was rightly pointed out to me that there should be some sort of call to arms that goes along with this discourse. At this point, that largely amounts to an invitation to join our game's community in any way that suits your online habits, and help us spread the word of the coming of the Undead Overlord as we continue to feverishly prep for a Kickstarter campaign:
website:   http://undeadoverlord.com
Facebook:   www.facebook.com/undeadoverlord
Google+:   https://plus.google.com/100966230197445063424/posts
Twitter:   https://twitter.com/JumpCorePro
presskit():   http://undeadoverlord.com/press/


Hi there,

My name is Cameron, and I'm a game geek.

Sounds like an introduction at a 12 step program, doesn't it? Not that I've ever been in a 12 step program - I don't need a rock to solve my problems for me. That's an obscure Penn & Teller reference, in case you're wondering (and you ought to be - it's a pretty damn obscure reference).

A bit about me is probably in order to start, I suppose, since this is my very first blog post . . .

I studied computer science and studio art in school, got my first real job in the early 90s working for the last remnants of the original Atari, and helped build two successful games there (Primal Rage, San Francisco Rush). Then I helped to co-found Cryptic Studios as founding CEO and Producer for City of Heroes, which was a whole drama unto itself, but in the end I consider that another success. After that I worked briefly at EA as an associate producer on expansion packs for The Sims and pretty much hated that (also a story unto itself - good people, caustic culture), and between the cracks I've done a number of 3D art and game design freelance gigs. Lately, I've been working a lot on my scripting skills and building a zombie dominion RTS game called Undead Overlord.

When I'm feeling egotistical, I think of myself as having a strong track record of building original IPs from scratch and successfully launching those IPs into crowded marketplaces across multiple genres and hardware platforms. Of course, all of those accomplishments were based on the efforts of large teams of people - but I played a key role in each one. I've plowed through dinosaurs, race cars, and superheroes so far - and now I'm hard at work trying to bring some much needed rotting putrescence to the zombie apocalypse. That, of course, is another story - and will be the subject of my very next blog entry . . .

I'm sure that more about my game development adventures will seep out, too - as I write more of these blog entries. At least, that's part of the idea for this thing - after 20+ years in the games industry, I have a lot of good stories to tell! Another reason is to use this venue as a soapbox from which to yammer about my experiences over the last several years - as the games industry has gone through yet another turbulent time. And lastly, we ought to be able to draw some interesting conclusions by comparing the past to the present and extrapolating towards the future. I mean, I know past proceeds are no guarantee of future results, and all - but making an educated guess is key, right?

I use the royal "we" here, because I figure that some of the people who read this stuff will no doubt be smarter than I am, and will leave comments correcting me where I'm wrong - and illuminating ideas that haven't occurred to me. At least, one can only hope! ;-)