Xeno bits

Pirate Cat – Post mortem 1/3

Back to 2010 I was working on a WP7 game as I thought it was definitely the platform where to go to have a chance to be noticed as a one man structure. Moreover I was already familiar with XNA thanks to previous professional experience, and I knew that 2d development would be pretty fast and simple using such tool.

Now few month later, in january 2011, I realised that I would not be able to complete this game anytime soon as I had a full time job during the day and only the possibility to work on it on the evening and during week ends. So I decided to give a try to a simple game concept that I wanted to prototype. In my mind it was pretty easy, take 2 of the most popular mobile games, mix their mechanics and see what happens.

That’s how I started the development of project Icarus (now known as Pirate Cat), the game was supposed to be a mashup between angry birds (you shoot things using a slingshot...) and doodle jump (you try to go as high as possible...).

The game is now released since one month and here are the things I learned during this journey.

During the creation

Screenshots of the game at various stages

What went wrong

  1. Project duration

        It started as a 2 weeks project and ended 1 year later (with some breaks in the middle but still).

  1. Time taken to validate the gameplay:

I never thought it would be so hard to mix popular gameplay elements and get something fun to play. The first idea was to shoot birds to make feathers spawn, then use the accelerometer to grab the feathers while falling, but I realised that if you fall too much, you’ll never get really high, and you’ll just spent your time falling, then try to keep flying, then falling again without even being able to reach the point where you first felt. So the first major change was to boost the player up to his highest position after being able to refly.

Also first the player had to fill ¼ of his energy bar to refly, but here again it wasn’t fun to fall then get a bit of energy, refly, and refall immediately after, so I fixed it by requiring to fill the entire bar.

Last major change to initial concept, I introduced a limited time, because I noticed that the game was becoming boring after few minutes without a time limitation.

  1. Time taken to polish the game:

I knew that I wanted to make a game as polished as possible, else it was pointless to release it, but I didn’t thought it would take so long, I would say the polishing itself took me 60% of the total development time.

  1. Budget exploded:

At first I defined a small budget for as much arts as possible, and I will do myself what was missing. In the end it costed me 2 times more that what was planned but I ended with professional quality assets so it was totally worth it.

  1. First users feedbacks:

So you have your great idea, you make a prototype that you find fun to to play, then you put it into stranger’s hands and discover that your game totally sucks and that nobody will understand how to play it. That was a bit of a shocker but it helped me to realize all the weakness I needed to address before releasing the game.

What went right

  1. Standing out from the crowd:

At first I wanted a game colorful with vector graphics like most of the other games on app stores, but the key point is to stand out and be noticed as something different, that’s why I decided to create an early cartoons themed game, I’ve not much noticed such design except in console disney games so it was worth trying, the bad point is it may look boring at first as it is black and white.

  1. Spending time on the icon:

I would say that the icon is the most important piece of art of your game, do a simple test, launch an app store, one that you don’t know if possible, look at the top 100 of any category, and try to find which one you would like to try, that’s basically how most of the users are proceeding when looking for an app, if your icon is not good enough they will not even read the app name nor check its details. Few tips to have an attractive icon:

    1. Keep it simple: do not use a screenshot of your game as icon, often the face of the main character or enemy is enough.
    2. Make it appealing: if your main character is a bit lambda use a kick ass enemy instead, if your character is a girl, use her sex appeal.
    3. Try try try: do as much drafts as possible, then compare them yourself and remove the ones that you don’t find worthy, next ask to someone that know nothing about your game to chose their favorite at first sight, and keep iterating this way until you have something really sexy.

  1. Organisation:

I do not use some advanced work methodology, all I do is keeping a google doc spreadsheet up to date with 4 columns: features, bugs, done and canned. But it works pretty well this way. Also do not be afraid to focus on the core game mechanics and slice any feature that may looks good but will take too much time to complete, to do so setup early in project key milestones like alpha / beta / gold and always stick to it even if it means sacrificing cool features, it will always be possible to add them later.

  1. Tests:

I can’t say enough how important it is, test your game, and more importantly put it in new people hands as much as possible. I found new issues with each people I gave the game to try, and even if not all were relevant it really helped me A LOT to improve the game and make it enjoyable.

  1. Using dev art:

Often when starting a project, I remember how bad I am regarding art, and this tends to discourage me to continue any further as the game will always look like crap. But my new moto is, don’t be ashamed of dev art, spend some time on it to get something close to what you are looking for, but not too much time. And if you succeed to have a fun game even with ugly dev art, now it’s time to look for some skilled artist that will transform this into a killer app.

  1. Finding artists:

I wanted someone with some experience to do this, it’s definitely easier to sell a beautiful game with poor gameplay than an ugly game with great gameplay, we’re talking about mobile gaming here and most people judge a game worthy after checking only an icon and the few available screenshots.

I would have been able to find some friends of friends that were in art school or this kind of things but I chose to go on various 2D arts forums and post my request.

In order to get quick answers and be able to compare the prices easily I defined a basic xls file including 5 or 6 kind of assets that I would need for the game.

After receiving many offers and comparing them I was not able to find someone that would fit in my budget and have the required amount of skill. So I decided in a second attempt to browse the various portfolio available and send them my request, I finally succeeded to find someone this way.

  1. Final result:

Not much to say here, of course there will always be things to improve, fix, or add but if you are proud of the results it’s a really good point!

Coming soon : part 2/3 after the game creation


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