Show Me Your Demo

Flowing beer. Dimmed lights. Passionate, driven people.

This was the scene as Austin and I worked our way through the room at a recent Seattle indie dev meetup at the headquarters of the indie studio 17-Bit. We had a great time at this event meeting other local indie developers and talking to them about their experiences and struggles. One of the best things though was playing all of the demos that were set up there. We got to try out some really cool stuff from Sportsball to Galak-Z.

All this fun made us realize – we really really need to create a playable demo for AOTW. Going to this event was great, but it would be so awesome to be able to show people our game in the moment and get instant feedback. And the thing about it is, we realized we’ve already got most of the gameplay in place to make this possible. However, there is still a lot that needs to be done to make this demo look good. So, for the last couple weeks we’ve been shifting our production focus on all fronts to focus on completing a quality, playable demo as soon as possible. We debated this approach a little bit because we want to be careful about crippling our long term plan by focusing too much on cosmetic things for a near term demo. However, I think that a demo is so hugely important from a marketing perspective that this is a strategic risk worth taking.

From an artistic and design perspective, we’ve created a specific list of art assets that will be needed for the demo, and our artist has been working through those. Until now, we’ve been using placeholder art from one of Austin’s previous projects. These are fine, but we want all new art for AOTW. This push to get new art assets in place has actually helped us begin to develop a good long term art production process. It has forced Wu-Gene to refine his process for creating 2-d sprites out of 3-d models, and it has forced Austin to re-design a lot of our thinking on unit types in order to make the art creation burden less overwhelming.

On the dev front, Rich is focusing primarily on getting a HUD system in place for our demo. He’s got some really fun ideas in the works for a HUD that immerses the player in the action yet is minimalist in its impact on the player’s field of view. This focus on the HUD does take Rich away from other things. However, the HUD is something that would need to be completed somewhat independently of other processes anyway, so I don’t think this will be too much of a diversion.

From a business perspective, I’ve been focused mostly on talking about the demo and looking important at meetings. However, I do have some really substantial demo work on the horizon for myself. Once all the pieces are in place and Austin has given me a refresher course on our Construct 2 engine, I’ll be doing the design for the demo level. We think that it makes sense to have the marketing guy design the demo level since demo levels are so oriented toward getting the word out and making a good first impression on players.

So, stay tuned for a kick-ass demo. However, you don’t have to wait until then for new content. We’ve also been building out our Media and Universe pages with content from the AOTW universe including character bios, environmental concept art, and of course — tanks!

Thanks for reading.

All Hail the Master Feature List

Perhaps certainly we are young and naïve, but we never thought our lives could be this controlled by a single Excel sheet. And by “our lives” I mostly mean Rich’s life. About a month ago in an attempt to improve our organization, we formalized our dev master feature list into a series of Bitbucket tickets along with an Excel tracking sheet. We then semi-strategically selected several of those features and declared that these features to be our dev production target for the next month.

Well, that month has come and gone, so I want to give you a brief update on what we accomplished. We will be continuing with this monthly internal release strategy – we like having solid shorter term goals in order to make consistent progress. I plan to write an update blog post after every one of these internal releases going forward. While these releases are obviously very dev-centric, I will provide a brief update about where everyone on the team is at in their own work.

Dev Update (Rich)

Most of the dev features that Rich completed in this release were focused on fleshing out AOTW’s RPG system. He completed a lot of essential foundational features. The game now supports tank customization prior to each level and also allows you to add equippable parts that modify player stats. Beyond that, Rich added a feature that every good RPG needs – a mission timer. Rich also completed a more specific custom tank ability. I’ve heard that you’re supposed to build suspense for things like this – so I’m not going to go into too much detail, but let’s just say it involves things with weapons hovering in the air. Boom, suspense built.

I know what you’re thinking – “man, sounds like things are going awesome and super easily for Rich and he encountered no problems whatsoever in this dev iteration.” Sadly, this is not quite the case. While I do think Rich has made great progress on the dev front, it would be remiss of me not to mention a bit about his suffering. While working on this release, Rich encountered one of his first major AOTW bugs. My eyes may have glassed over a bit while he explained the finer points, but long story short – this bug causes all tank stats to re-set to default at random times. While this does lead to some amusing hypotheticals (imagine your stats re-setting to default in the middle of a battle), it is definitely something that needs to be fixed before dev progresses much further. So, fixing this bug will be one of Rich’s first priorities in next month’s internal release. After that, he’s got all kinds of crazy sci-fi tank weaponry to create.

Story (Austin)

It’s hard to provide really in depth story updates without throwing up spoilers left and right. So, for now this update section will be short. But trust me, Austin has been working – a lot. The story of AOTW takes place in three acts, and Austin is nearly done with Act II. Besides the sheer volume of writing required of him, the biggest challenge for Austin right now is that the character development arcs of many of the main characters are about to reach climactic points. So, basically, this next week of writing is going to be a very emotionally stressful time for Austin. He needs to unleash some heart wrenching fate on these carefully crafted characters, and he needs to do it in a believable way. I don’t envy that task.

Art (Wu-Gene)

You’ve heard a lot about things on the art front recently, but Wu-Gene continues to work away. He’s finished up concept tank art for most of the primary factions. He’s also experimented with some sweet character concept art. The next big step for Wu-Gene is going to be figuring out how to efficiently convert concept art to 2-D sprites that can actually be used in game. We need the sprites because by the time of our next internal release, we want to have real screenshots so that we can start giving people a sense of what things are going to look like in game. I don’t think the conversion process itself will be very challenging, but the real trick will be to set it up in an efficient, scalable way because there will be a ton of sprites to create once we are in the art production phase

Business Stuff (Mike)

Most of my time has been spent dreaming of being an international businessman. I have also done a few things related to AOTW though. Outside of meetings and helping with our long term planning, most of my time in the last month has been devoted to writing blog posts and improving our website. I recently made some pretty big changes to the site, and I definitely think it is improved. However, there is still a lot to do. I have a long list of site features that I want to add. WordPress has been very helpful with pre-built themes and a lot of editing features. However, to really take things to the next level I’m going to need to do some of the CSS editing myself. This week, I learned what CSS stands for, so I think I’m off to a strong start.

The Future

In conclusion, we are kicking ass and taking names. I think we are starting to hit our stride and enter that project phase where you really start cranking things out – “steamrolling” as Austin puts it.

However, there is a long long long long way to go. It’s always a bit overwhelming to think about the big picture. So, after posting this, I’m going to put my head down and start working on next month’s tasks. Cascading Style Sheets, here I come.

Making the Relationship Official

On the death, adjudicated incompetence, or bankruptcy of a Member”…

You know things are starting to get real when that’s the first thing you read on a Sunday morning. This lovely line of prose came from the brand new LLC operating agreement language that I was reviewing for our team this last weekend. It was under the section titled “Death Buy-outs.” This line really struck me in a morbidly humorous way. After all, it’s not as if death and buy-outs aren’t already heavy enough subjects on their own. It would probably take a pretty sick person (a lawyer) to combine the two.

However, despite the not so subtle and somber undertones of the operating agreement, I’m actually really excited to announce that we are officially forming an LLC to make our team a real, legal game studio. Assuming that the Evergreen State finishes reviewing our paperwork, we will soon be known as Reluctant Koala Studios LLC. I know — kind of a random name. But, I don’t want to take too much time to explain it right now, especially since the Koala part is so obvious.

Having a certificate of incorporation that reads “Reluctant Koala Studios LLC” is reward enough for going through the process of learning about and forming a corporate entity. However, we do have other reasons behind making a real, legal business entity for our endeavors.

One obvious benefit, for instance, is that having our own LLC will help us with more “grown up” business things like having a business checking account and keeping business expenses separate from personal expenses. Additionally, we also think having an LLC is important from an expectations and “friendship-bro-liability” standpoint (which is definitely a real legal term). After all, we were all good friends going into this endeavor, and we would generally prefer for that still to be the case afterward. We don’t need any Zuckerberg v. Winklevoss  style lawsuit fests. So, we decided it would be worth sitting down and setting out some of our expectations in terms of decision making power and profit sharing in writing. I think we will be glad we did this when things get more hectic in a few months. Moreover, it makes the project seem even more real, official, and concrete – which is great for our motivation as well. After all, it’s hard to just let a project slide when the state is knocking on your door asking for an annual report.

Along with forming a legal entity, the project is also starting to feel more and more official because of another big change that will be happening in our lives soon. We need to bring an artist onto our team.

I can’t overstate how exciting it will be to have a talented artist that can really bring to life the characters and environments that Austin has created. Yet, bringing a new team member on board is also a bit scary. After all, Austin, Rich, and I have known each other for close to 6 years. We know each other’s personalities, styles, and quirks. We have no idea how a new team member will fit in with our team vibe. For example, how will the artist deal with Austin’s burning love of 80’s music? Will the artist understand any of Rich’s obscure internet references? Will the artist be stressed out when Mike touches his or her computer and it immediately breaks?

Until now, we’ve been able to get by naturally with the friendship we’ve built up in the past. But once we bring on an artist, we will also need to focus on building relationships while working on the game. Bringing a new team member in arguably makes this project feel even more official than all the LLC paperwork in the world. Because now, this isn’t just something we work on together as friends – it is work that we are also sharing with another person. Moreover, we are asking another person to dedicate substantial amounts of time and effort to our vision.

We recognize that making it as an artist in the videogame world is obscenely hard. An artist has to build up a great portfolio, and he or she only has so many hours in the day to work on this. We take the responsibility of offering this person a quality opportunity very seriously. Knowing that our project could affect the future of another person’s career definitely puts things in perspective and makes our hopes and responsibilities for this game very real.

So, given everything that’s at stake, I’m glad that we are putting in the effort to formalize our game making venture. Going through this process with close friends does feel a bit stilted and overly proper at times, but in the end I think we will be glad that we made our relationship official in the eyes of the law. We still haven’t made it Facebook official though – after all, we wouldn’t want to jump into this thing too quickly.

What is this “Game” you speak of?

In our first three posts, I’ve reflected a lot on the game making process as seen by first time indie game makers. However, for this post I would like to switch tack and start talking a little bit more about the actual game, lest anyone begin to suspect that it is… errrmm…not real. Have no fear loyal reader – this game is no mystical unicorn (yes, I know all unicorns are mystical). It is very real, and we’ve made some great progress in the last few weeks!

Our game,  Armour on the Wastes, is a 2D vehicular combat game with strong RPG elements.  The story takes place in the vast reaches of outer space, in a galaxy recovering from an apocalyptic war.  As the player, you will have a customizable, multi-component tank at your disposal that you will use to battle your way through a diverse range of planet types and foes.

While we owe a debt of gratitude towards pure action games, we are striving to make our game more than just an interstellar shoot’em up. To that end, our writer Austin is putting heroic amounts of time into story development, to make sure we have a rich universe and fully built out codex to back up the main plot. AOTW will also feature a branching storyline in which the player must make morally difficult choices between imperfect options with imperfect information (because you don’t get to do enough of that in real life already).

We have a few over-arching goals for this game in terms of player experience. First, the game has to be fun. I suppose this goes without saying, but I think it’s important to keep that objective fixed firmly in mind as an end in and of itself. Furthermore, we want the game to be so fun that it’s actually addictive. We want fans to go back and re-play the game, to try out various combinations of tank parts, to build different characters, and to make different decisions in the branching storyline. Last but certainly not least, player agency is a huge driving force behind the vision for this game. We want players to be able to make choices that legitimately influence gameplay, and we want to set the game up in such a way that there is no truly wrong way to use your wide array of customizable tank options.

If you’re an avid gamer yourself, I hope these goals have reminded you of various games that you have viewed as fun and influential. Our vision for the game has certainly been molded by a lot of amazing work in the gaming and sci-fi arenas, both independent and mainstream. To truly talk about these  guiding lights in a meaningful way would probably require a separate blog entirely. However, if I were to name a few of our biggest influences in terms of plot, atmosphere, and player agency, I would start with  the games I Miss the Sunrise, Mass Effect, Homeworld and the perennial classic, Deus Ex.

I’m confident that players will feel these influences, as well as our own unique style, once they have the game in hand. But since the game is not ready yet, I want to give you something tangible to get a better feel for the vibe of the game. As you may or may not recall, Rich, in addition to being our developer, is also a musician and is creating the entire soundtrack for AOTW. He has several full songs already completed. The sample below will likely be one of the feature tracks in the game, and is I think very representative of the overall feel of the AOTW universe. So, hit play, sit back, and immerse yourself for the first time in the AOTW universe with “Blood and Iron.”

In exciting news on the development front, Rich and Austin finished a tech-demo level this week. I played it a couple days ago, and it’s really exciting to have a playable level running for the first time. As I  moved through the game, taking damage left and right, I thought to myself “damn, this is real!” Right now, the tech demo features placeholder art, customized in MS Paint by yours truly. However, we are on the warpath to find a real artist, because if I were to illustrate everything in the game, your typical battle scene would look something like this:

Lol_Terrible Tanks

However, rest assured, we will find an outstanding artist (by the way, if you are a super awesome artist, you should definitely email us for more details at hiring@aotwgame.com).

In fact, while it adds a lot of pressure right now, the need to bring on a new team member is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise. It forces us to clarify our goals and vision for the game so that we can communicate this to potential artists and to all of you readers. Above all, no matter what we achieve with these goals, we sincerely hope that you will enjoy playing this game once it is released.