Category Archives: development tricks

Using different artists in a game

A complaint I heard (not too often to be honest) about Cursed Lands, was that some CG look different. Indeed, another artist did them, so that’s the reason.

When writing the game, the original content was much less (in truth it’s hilarious to say this, considering it was still around 200,000 words!!!). In case you don’t know, I added about 30-33% more content myself, in particular “extra romance scenes”. I felt the original script while was good telling the main story and characters backgrounds, didn’t go deep enough in the romances, and especially the “after”. In many games (including mine) the romance subpath ends when you make love/kiss/unlock the final scene with the love interest.

In Cursed Lands (and I plan to do the same also in future games) I wanted to break this system, since I also think romance scenes in which you’re already engaged or in a deep relationship with the love interest could be a nice bonus.

However, I faced a problem: the art was made by the same artist as Loren, who unfortunately doesn’t work for me anymore (luckily I managed to ask him all the art for Loren sequel and several more NPC/character art before he left). So the only option was to find a replacement artist for these new CGs. I think she did a good job, even if she clearly draws females better than males. Sylrissa and Nuala extra CGs in particular looks very good, while I think for example Jasper’s could have been better.

I think overall I made the right call, since from the feedback I got, the vast majority of players didn’t mind to have a different art in exchange of more content for the game. I could have just written the scenes without art, but would have been worse in my opinion.

More outfits, please!

A different situation instead is when you only add more outfit/poses to existing characters, and that’s what I’m doing with Planet Stronghold 2. I’ve already posted in the social media some images of character with new outfits (like Damien finally in a proper uniform suit).

Haha the image above shows one of the most fun bugs (though for some it might be a feature…lol) that is using a wrong variable to set the outfit of a character! Anyway, the nice underwear Lisa is wearing is one of the many new outfits added by another artist to the existing characters. Also a bit harder to notice, but even Rebecca’s pose is new: the old characters only had one pose, holding his gun in one hand. This one with both her hands on her hips is a new one.

They’re small details and maybe not immediately noticeable (well apart in specific situations like above haha) but they all add variety and if you can find an artist who has a very similarΒ  coloring style (like in this case) the result is always going to be worth it!

Conclusions

In an ideal world, you would first write all the story, and then commission the art. However, during my career so far, I found out that this is a risky approach if you want to be able to release at least a game a year. Artists can disappear, or take long time. So maybe you wait 1 year for the big 150,000+ words script to be finished. Then, once it’s done, you commission an artist, who can take another 6 months or more (depending on how much art is needed of course). As you can see while it can work, it will delay the release, instead of using the approach to produce the art in parallel or almost with the writing (even if this has other problems too).

And it’s not uncommon to find yourself adding more content to the game as you write/code it. It happened to me for example in my old game Spirited Heart, in which to be honest the different art styles shows clearly too much (it was one of my first games though…).

Personally I’m not sure what is the best method. Whenever I found a good artist I commissioned him/her a lot of art, and then adapted the story to the existing art (I had already a basic plot planned though). After all, that’s what we did with Loren and it has worked well it seems πŸ™‚

Perceived vs real success

I want to talk about an aspect of indie development/business which is very often ignored, but in my opinion is important: the perceived vs real success of a game.

Recently I released two games, Cursed Lands and Love Bites. As always I got some positive reviews but also negative ones (it’s inevitable). Beside some obvious troll-reviews, one thing that always amuses me is when a player decides if a past game was successful or not depending on his/her own tastes or perceived success.

For example: I like sci-fi, so if you make a game that is not sci-fi, I could say “you should do another game like Bionic Heart which had really an original plot, was popular, etc etc”. If I like card games, I could say “instead of making a new RPG you should do another card game because clearly did better” and so on. Assuming results that are real only in the mind of the person who is writing it πŸ˜›

A popular game is not always the best selling one

This seems strange, but it happened to me in the past, and I also know of other indies who had the same experience. A game could be popular, meaning that has a big following, many people tried the demo, people and review sites talk about it, youtubers do let’s play, but… it’s not as successful as you might think. Maybe a smaller, hidden niche game has made definitely more money than the other, for a variety of reasons (game price, bundles, platform, time of release, piracy, luck).

I could make some examples with my own games: my game Bionic Heart was definitely more popular than Heileen (the first game of 2008). It appeared in some japanese sites, many bundles, has more Steam reviews…Yet, Heileen sold almost double its amount!

Another case is when a game, for some unknown reason (really, sometimes we developers have no clue ourselves!!) sells very well on a specific platform, that screws up perception. Loren did well both direct and on Steam. But if we exclude Steam and consider only direct and mobile, Roommates did better than Loren. So as you can see it’s really hard for the users to know how a game really did simply because only the developers have the whole picture.

Steam reviews are also very misleading, since people assume that a high rating means it’s a better game, or a game that sold more. It’s true in many cases, but also not true in many others. Personally I think that rating is high if the product meet people’s expectations. That’s why you see many short, super linear, but erotic VN with 90% positive: people know what it is, they buy it, they like it and leave a positive review. If you start to add gameplay, non linear plot (or, an ACTUAL PLOT haha), allow to choose the gender, have many romances, the score will decrease. It’s ironic but making simpler and shorter games will be rewarded much more on Steam (and that’s why most of other indies I know doing VN follows that system).

Also, back in 2014 or even earlier, releasing a game on Steam automatically meant a LOT of exposure. Right now things have changed completely. So a better game released now could perform much worse than an average game released back then. As you see, there are many things to consider.

The morale is…

The morale of this story is that if a developer says something like “from now on I’ll only make yuri games” (no, don’t worry it’s not my case…yet) there is a reason. Maybe that developer saw that the 90% of the top selling VN games on Steam are yuri, and this for sure had an impact when planning their new game(s).

Or if the public clearly want content of a specific type. It’s no secret at all that more sexy/erotic contents in VN does better. Like, a magnitude of order better. I think that nowadays if you make a VN that doesn’t at least have a sexy component, you could save your efforts (obviously exlcuding already famous indies) since it will be wasted time. Luckily, in this case I can solve it “simply” by having suggestive content on/off in options screen, so it’s not something drastic as deciding to have only a specific romance type.

Of course everyone has their own favorite games or themes, settings, romance types and it’s normal to support your own ideas, you should totally do it. But ultimately, since this is a business, the choices are made usually thinking about profit.

So far, I moderately ignored the “profit factor” when making games. Spending 10 months making SOTW RPG part, or all the time doing Amber’s crafting without a clue if was worth it or not (spoiler: it wasn’t). Making a yaoi only game (Heirs & Graces) when every dev I knew told me that was a bad idea (and from profit point of view, it definitely was!). Trying ot make BIG games with a lot of love interests and protagonist gender choice, when almost every other developer is making much more money doing MUCH shorter games with just one gender and less romances and erotic content.

All of these choices nowadays make little sense from a business point of view, but I honestly hope to be able to keep going like this thanks to the generosity of people supporting me in various ways, buying the games full price, being patrons on Patreon, leaving positive Steam reviews even if they’re not completely happy about the game, and so on.

We’ll see how it goes in future, but remember, very rarely the decisions of an indie (serious ones doing it for a living) are taken because of personal tastes or randomly. When players think of an indie as truly independent artist, I laugh. Maybe in the beginning we were, but right now if you don’t obey to the market’s laws you won’t stay in business for long.

Doing sequels is a good or bad idea?

First of all, a small announcement: like all years I’m doing a Summer Sale! Here are the links:

https://itch.io/s/11532/summer-sale-older-games 75% off for older games
https://itch.io/s/11536/summer-sale-newer-games 50% off for games released in last 2 years

Back to the post topic: as you know I’m working right now on Planet Stronghold 2, a sci-fi RPG sequel of my first RPG released back in 2011 (you can see a video showing some alpha gameplay above). I often asked myself if doing sequels is a good or bad thing, and this is my experience so far.

Why is a good thing

The most obvious thing is, if your first game did well and got a following, it’s worth doing it just because people who liked the first game, would probably like the second too, as long as the gameplay/story remains more or less the same.

I did this with Heileen (3 games) and Bionic Heart. For Heileen, it worked more or less well. The games are different (also because they were made over the course of several years and the last one wasn’t written by me directly) but the setting and main characters are the same.

For Bionic Heart instead, it didn’t work as well because while the setting is obviously the same (sci-fi) the general mood of the game is different. The first game had more humor and insisted more on the robotic-love fetish, while the second had more sci-fi elements and mature settings (murder, mass murder, grim/dark world, etc).

Of course it’s not a strict rule that you MUST make all games in a series using exactly the same mood/setting/characters/whatever but personally I believe it’s probably better.

Oh, and don’t make the mistake to plan a series without knowing before if your first title (basically the idea, a sort of equivalent of the “pilot” episode of tv series) will be liked by enough people. I did this back in 2010 with Vera Blanc:Β  I started working on the second episode even before the first was out, and the first sold terribly but I was already halfway through the second that I just had to finish it even if as you can imagine my motivations were zero…

Why is a bad thing

Apart the case above (doing a sequel without knowing how the first title does) there are also other problems. First of all, if you have a game with romances, or tough choices, what happens? do you let player choose at the beginning of the new game who they romanced and what choices they made? if you allow this, you already know that writing the story is going to be a pain. Both in Heileen and Bionic Heart I just picked a “canon ending” and no romance would continue. I was smart.

For Planet Stronghold 2 and Loren 2 instead the plan is to let the player decide the starting romance/events. For example in PS2 you can choose if you sided with Rebels or The Empire, and the story will be different based on this choice (not completely different but many scenes will change).

So this already increases production costs and potential headaches by a LOT!

But it’s not just that. There’s also players’ expectations. For PS2, I am confident enough I can do a good job since the first game is really old, done in times where my English was much worse than it is now (I will use an editor of course) and I didn’t know well what my players wanted. But in any case, when people play a game and they like it, they build a sort of fondess to its memory. You forget about all the problems a game had and you only remember the best things. I know this happened to me with the old games I played when was younger. Then recently I tried to replay some of those games (back to C64 and Amiga times) and… they were unplayable! I wouldn’t even bother playing them for more than 5 minutes now! Still, I remember about those times with great pleasure.

All this rambling to say that probably for Loren 2, no matter if I’ll do a good job with it (I don’t know yet, but I’ll try my best as always) it’s completely sure that a big amount of people who played the original won’t like it, saying various things like “it’s not bad, but the original…” or “I liked the first one better…” and so on. This is basically inevitable. It’s a no-win situation πŸ˜›

Conclusions

Even if in certain cases doing sequels is a good thing, personally I’m almost sure that I’ll never make a sequel to a game anymore. Especially reusing same characters, and especially RPGs.

Doing other games in the same world/setting/lore? Sure, why not! That’s what I already did with my various fantasy games set in Aravorn. Doing cameos is also fun. But full sequels to existing games… no, because the cons greatly outweight the pros.

The ‘vocal minority’, feature creep and keeping yourself sane

One of the many custom screens I added to Cursed Lands. Feature creep? yup

I always wanted to write a blog post about the topics in the title, so here I am. First let’s start with a premise: what makes a successful game? of course gameplay, art, music, etc. But if we want to analyze a game’s success there’s a simple formula: a popular/successful game is a game that matches tastes of as much people as possible.

I think the above statement is inconfutable: the more people like game X, the more copies will sell and more successful will be. Then of course if the company doing it spent too much time, or money, it could still be a financial failure for them, but it still would be a popular game.

OK now that this is clear, what is the so called ‘vocal minority’ and how can impact the development of a game? Nowadays is very common to have an open development, with alpha/beta demos, early access, etc. Almost everyone is doing it now, but the same principle works even if you’re doing a closed beta with only 20-30 testers.

Now let’s say that the 10% of your fans/betatesters want desperatelyΒ feature A. They’ll start posting in forums, sending you emails, and so on. It’s like if they’re fans of a soccer team. “Really, you should implement feature A because the game will be SOOO much better!”. In some cases, they even know it will be easy, even if maybe they have no programming skills whatsoever “I could program it myself in an afternoon”. And so on, even with veiled threats “If you don’t implement feature A I’ll ask for a refund!” or “your game won’t sell a copy!” etc πŸ™‚

If you’re a developer, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with all this, and if you’re a player or an user, trust me, this really happens (but probably you saw such posts too).

Note that I’m using a fun tone while writing this, but for the person on the other side, the developer, the situation is often dramatic: maybe they invested a lot of money, mortgaged their home, or simply spent already so many hours on their game. But for the player of course this doesn’t matter (it shouldn’t, since they’re judging the game and not how much the developer worked on it or how much money they spent).

Anyway, what happens now? The developer can either follow the suggestion, think about it, or refuse to implement the new feature. As you can imagine the last option will result in an uproar in forums and some insults to the developer. But even if developer agrees to do it, is in all cases a good choice? No, it depends.

Back to the starting point: if the feature A that the 10% of people want is something that once implemented even the remaining 90% will like (the so called “silent majority”) then, all good! But what if the new change is disliked or even worse, hated by the other 90% or part of it?

That’s the big issue that developers have to face on a daily basis. In some cases the suggested changes are obviously a good idea. In others, devs have no clue themselves: is making the RPG more complex a good thing or not? Is using randomized items a nice feature? better turn based or real-time? etc etc.

There is no clear answer in some cases. It’s a bit random, really. Unless your game is selling so well that you can afford to do changes on a new beta, gather new feedback and just in case revert to previous version, then it’s a minefield. You could implement the feature and risk losing players, or you could gain more fans. But in most cases developers aren’t sure themselves about what is going to happen, while one thing is sure: adding the new feature will cost time and money.

The devs are the only ones to know well how much time and money they’ve already spent, how much money and physical/mental energies have left. And they must not fall into the famous “feature creep” for which they keep adding feature after feature, thinking to make the game better, when maybe that’s not always the case. Or simply, it’s not worth all the extra time/money spent to add the features.

In summary, I’m not writing this blog to say that players’ suggestions are bad. I have added a lot of nice features in my RPGs exactly thanks to players’ feedback. What I’m saying is that as developer you need to learn when to say ‘no’. When you have no more money to spend. When you have no more time or energies (because adding a feature when you’re burned out it’s not a good idea, trust me). When to say “OK, I know I could probably keep working on this game for years, but I must release it now.”

And as player, you need to understand that (in most cases at least) when a developer tells you “sorry but can’t do this”, it’s not because he’s a bastard, he’s lazy, or he necessarily disagrees with your idea: it’s very likely for the reasons stated above.

I’ll end with an analogy because many players find odd that someone would want to stop working on a game, adding new features they suggest because it will likely make the game better. To make a comparison with a game developer, imagine if one day the boss at your daily job calls you and tells you that you should stay in office doing overtime every day for the next month. At the end of that month, and only at the end, you might get paid for the overtime, or not. You don’t know before, but the boss still asks you to do it, insisting saying that “yes, maybe I’ll pay you more”. What would you do?

Now maybe you understand why, sometimes, us developer don’t add all the new features you request, especially if they require a lot of time/money to implement them πŸ™‚

Amber’s Magic Shop officially out!

First of all, public service announcement: after a month of very intensive testing, my dating sim with optional crafting gameplay Amber’s Magic Shop it’s finally out!

You can download a demo and get more info at the game’s official page: http://winterwolves.com/ambersmagicshop.htm

As usual, if you buy from my site you’ll also get a free Steam key once it’s out there (not sure yet when, but should be in the next months). A mobile version is also planned and should be out probably around June on Android, followed by the iOS version later.

Gameplay and prototypes

Today I also wanted to talk a bit about what I’ve learned in the past months. As you know I like to try different things. This lead to two “experiments”: Queen Of Thieves’ randomized missions, and Amber’s Magic Shop crafting simulation.

While I know many people who liked both games gameplay, I am the first to admit that the result was less fun than I originally planned. Talking with people in forums and other devs, I think I found some basic mistakes I have done:

  • First of all, for both games I had the story written BEFORE the gameplay, and that forced me to tweak the gameplay based on the story and not the opposite
  • I didn’t really make any prototype for both games. I did one for the combat of Queen Of Thieves, but not for the whole “robbery missions” thing. Doing prototypes is essential to know if a game is fun or not early during development
  • Last but not least, I don’t enjoy particularly sim games. I mean I like playing them, but I’m not obsessed. My tastes have also changed with age: when I was 20 years old I remember playing very long games with Civilization (can’t remember which version was). Nowadays? I can barely play for a few hours. While for example I played a lot games like Horizons: Zero Dawn, starting the final battle at level 44… πŸ˜€

The conclusion I can draw from those observation is simple: if I decide to try again doing a game with more different gameplay, I should really either have a beta prototype to get early feedback from players, or at least code it myself first, and then worry about the story later. Otherwise, the final result it’s never going to be as good as it could have.

For VN/RPGs the thing is different, since you can tweak the battles as you play/read the story, that’s what I did both with Loren and SOTW, and both games are the ones which got more praises for gameplay. Same thing for PSCD, which probably has the best gameplay of all my games (unless you really hate card games…!).

In summary any kind of game that has a story mixed with combat/fights at certain key point of the story it’s safe to do for me. For other kind of games, I really need to try a different approach, to have a better final result πŸ™‚

Last but not least, Love Bites coding/playtesting is progressing well. Below you see a fun scene where Brandon tries to invite Viktor to dance πŸ™‚