By Craig Pearson on February 25th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.
Few failed Kickstarters have filled us with much sadness, but one that did was the incredible-looking gravity-bending physics and construction, MaK. Craig talked the the team behind it, Verge Game Studio, and asked them about what lies ahead for a project after a failure to the secure the funds they needed, and what their success on Greenlight means for the fate of the game as a whole.
RPS: Can you tell us a little about yourselves?
Sebastian: My name is Sebastian Patric. I’m a 3d artist with some game industry experience as a character and prop modeler. My responsibilities on MaK have included game design, 2d and 3d art, programming, and keeping the project on track. I have a deep passion for art and for games as an artistic medium.
Mick: My name is Mick Orbik. I’m the lead programmer at Verge Game Studio. I have no previous game industry experience. I have no formal CS training… I taught myself everything I know. I’m 23 now, and I’ve been programming since I was 9 years old (started with QBasic then to Visual Basic, moved up to straight C when I was 11). My background consists mostly of contract work with several companies, spanning work in embedded programming in straight C all the way to web development. I’ve been an avid gamer my entire life, and have been dabbling in game programming since I was about 15 years old, when I wrote my first simple game engine. Since then I’ve been closely following the Indie development scene.
Mark: My name is Mark Orbik. I don’t have any professional experience in the game industry, but I have a degree in game art and design and have done freelance work in the field as well as teaching. My responsibilities on MaK have been creating a lot of the 3d assets along with Sebastian, and helping to conceive the overall aesthetic and direction of the game.
RPS: Your Kickstarter was one of the most heart-breaking I’ve ever seen. Everyone I know that looked at the game loved it, but there was no traction. Do you know where you went wrong?
Sebastian: The response we got during our Kickstarter campaign was overwhelmingly positive. But we didn’t manage to reach a large enough audience.
A month earlier, we had set up our Greenlight page and put out a video that got some press and attention. It seemed like a great thing at the time, but I think it made our Kickstarter effort, the following month, a non-story for the gaming press, because they had already commented on our game. This made it harder to get the word out. Besides, we had spent most of the project, up to that point, largely under the radar. So we didn’t have an established fan-base going into our Kickstarter campaign. When you take a casual look at Kickstarter, it may seem like a lot of projects pop out of nowhere and become hugely successful. That isn’t typically the case. Most of the successful projects, or their authors, have a significant presence and following well in advance of their crowd-funding run.
We had done a ton of work in the run up to Kickstarter. We made our prototype as solid and pretty as possible. I think it gave some people the wrong idea that what they were seeing was close to what the finished product would be like. Whereas we were looking for the funds to produce an ambitious game on the basis of the proof of concept we were showing.
Kickstarter projects that show nearly complete games (ie. Project Giana, Ravaged) tend to do well, because they show a polished game that you basically pre-order, with some cool perks to sweeten the deal. Early concepts do well, too, because their potential, at that point, is not bolted down to specifics and people’s imaginations fill in the rest. This is especially true for games that draw on existing genre niches and intellectual properties, as well as ones being pitched by well known companies or personalities. They can afford to be a bit vague, or even opaque, albeit charismatic, in their pitches, like Double Fine’s Tim Schafer. I think we fell somewhere in the middle and people didn’t know what to make of it. Advertising this early in development is a new phenomenon, with Kickstarter and Greenlight at the helm. We had a nice looking proof of concept for a project designed to reach a great distance beyond it.
Mick: Looking back, I believe that we mishandled the run-up to Kickstarter. We were hoping to generate a surge of interest right at the time we launched. The problem with this plan was that, while it did generate an initial surge of investment, there were not enough of a core fan-base to carry us further than that initial bump. You look at some of the more successful Kickstarter projects, you’ll notice that these people typically have large fan bases & established communities to draw on for support. I think, if we were to do it all again, we would have started aggressively building a community (by releasing video & picture updates of our progress throughout development).
Mark: Yeah, it was hard for us too. Based on the response we got on Greenlight and from other websites we were featured on, we thought that we had a good chance of making it. Especially after Notch gave us the seal of approval.
As far as where we went wrong, I think the major problem is that we don’t know much about marketing. We thought the momentum we had going into Kickstarter was strong. As you go through your Kickstarter campaign you realize that it’s a numbers game, and you need to get people to your page. Although we have a core group of dedicated fans, to reach our goal we needed to appeal to more people. In hindsight, we should have probably approached people with marketing know-how.
RPS: How did you calculate what you needed for the Kickstarter?
Sebastian: We took into account a minimal salary for ourselves. We added estimated contractor costs, software, hardware, office space, legal expenses, the Kickstarter rewards, a booth at a gaming convention, and the roughly 10% Kickstarter/Amazon cut. We cut it as close as we could, but we also wanted to make sure that we would be able to really deliver if we reached our goal.
Mick: When we first started discussing our goals on Kickstarter, there were a few different schools of thought. We figured that we ought to ask for as much money as we would truly need to take MaK where it needed to go. What we did was come up with a very realistic estimate of exactly the amount of money needed to get our project to completion. Nothing would go to waste, and nothing would be left over.
We figured it would be worse to set the goal lower, make that, and fail to complete the project, rather than simply setting a higher goal in the first place. We felt it best not to misrepresent the true cost of developing a project like MaK to the community.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that making a game at the calibre of MaK can cost a lot of money. At the point that we launched the Kickstarter, we had all been working full time on a project for exactly zero pay. I was so busy, personally, that I could no longer accept contract programming jobs. We were scratching by. We wanted MaK to succeed, but we were all in a position where we needed actual money to take the project any further.
RPS: You went rather quiet afterwards. The reason I got in touch was to see if the game and company were still kicking.
Sebastian: After Kickstarter, we spent a month tying up loose ends and producing a fancy pitch for publishers and investors – our plan B.
We were hoping that getting Greenlit on Steam would help us make our case to potential investors. When we didn’t make it into the first batch of Greenlit games after Kickstarter, we were disappointed. This second letdown caused a dip in morale. At the time there were three of us active on the project. Having worked very hard with no success, the guys began to feel like they needed to do something to secure their futures. We’re dreamers, but we’re bound by the realities of college loans and living conditions, not to mention the lukewarm job market.
I spent a couple of weeks working on the game by myself. Then, without any particular fanfare, the Steam community gave us our first victory. We got Greenlit last month. I spent a good bit of time afterwards e-mailing and calling publishers (including THQ, before they became officially defunct). In short, we’re still looking. Our very capable team is ready to leap back into action if it becomes financially feasible to do it.
RPS: How far along was the development when you Kickstarted?
Sebastian: When we ran the Kickstarter campaign, we had a pretty robust prototype. We wanted to get the core features across, and give an explanation of the long term gameplay goals, along with a first pass of our art style. We had competitive game modes with local multiplayer, too. We approached the process with the long-term goals in mind. Rather than making something that just demonstrates the concepts, we laid down a framework for the complete game. That way, we’d be able to drop straight into game modes, level design and asset development the moment we could afford it.
Mick: We waited until we had a really polished prototype to Kickstart. We were a year in development (much of it part-time) before we Kickstarted. That time was a grueling development process, doing everything we needed from scratch, solving technical hurdles to get the game engine to behave in exactly the way we needed. We spent a lot of time writing, rewriting, and polishing our Gravity, tether, and building mechanics. What is interesting is that during the Kickstarter campaign, we made a lot of really substantial progress. We were providing updates that included several new features. We were working full-time, and then some, pulling several 24 hour days to get those updates out to the community. It was by far the most work intensive month in my life.
Mark: We wanted to go into Kickstarter with something that was actually playable. We had a playable Bombing Run mode that was pretty much feature complete. All the cubes we have featured in the videos work and the gravity system is pretty much finished. Nothing you saw in the videos was tricky editing or done in post. Everything worked as you saw. Four players can play the game together on the same machine. As we stand now, the low level programming and most features are there. We just need to pack it with content and develop systems for networking and such.
RPS: What’s it like developing an indie game?
Sebastian: Indie development is intense and entirely self motivated. This tends to mean that people will focus their best efforts on the features that the team gets most excited about. Its important to strike a balance between harnessing that driving force and the practical considerations of delivering a coherently designed experience.
Something I really like is that on a small team, the job demands that you develop a good understanding of the entire process and structure of a game project. Nothing is compartmentalized, and you get to do a little bit of everything, interacting closely with each discipline involved. In that sense, it has been an priceless learning experience.
As for funds, so far, we haven’t found any source of funding. We’ve mostly been living off of savings and odd jobs. Taking on a large and complicated project without financial backing is daunting. The more limited your resources, the more significant every decision becomes, because you get fewer opportunities for course correction.
Mick: Funds? What funds? Haha. We worked on this as a passion project with the idea that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We knew that a Kickstarter would be a tough road, but we did not anticipate such trouble reaching an audience. We trusted the quality & appeal of our project and went after our vision head on. I think that’s how a lot of indie games get made. Shut the world out, dig in, and work until your fingers bleed on a project that you want to succeed.
RPS: Any chance of re-Kickstarting?
Sebastian: It’s unlikely. Running a good Kickstarter campaign is more than a full-time job. That said, we don’t want to rule anything out, should our situation change.
RPS: There are some obvious inspirations. Garry’s Mod, Little Big Planet. What about creative games is it that made you want to make your own?
Sebastian: As creative people ourselves, we want to share the most enjoyable aspects of the creative process with others. Art is always about connecting with people on some level. I love to tinker with electronics and mechanical parts. As a kid I spent countless hours building elaborate contraptions out of Legos. More than anything, I hope that we can create a space that encourages, enables, and provides a context for that kind of experimentation. We want MaK to be a big box of all the gadgets that you’ve always wanted to play with, and they’re all conveniently shaped to fit together.
And we want to make a game that continues to be engaging in the long-term, providing surprises that emerge organically from its systems. Giving players creative inputs makes for virtually endless interactions within a finite set of mechanics. The human element is always more sophisticated than the canned systems that run a game. Creative games hand more control to the player and get variety in return.
Mick: I like games like Garry’s Mod because they allow you a virtual place to engineer crazy things. I’m an engineer at heart (whether it be software, electrical, mechanical), so anything that allows me to see a design realized in an inventive way is very appealing to me. When we first started adding the mechanical functionality to the game, we were absolutely blown away by the depth that it added immediately to the building system. Up until that point, we had always planned on including mechanical components, but until you can actually play around with them, it can be hard to imagine what can come from it.
RPS: What else inspires you? Any not-so-obvious game inspirations in Mak?
Sebastian: The less obvious inspirations for MaK are actually the more relevant ones. I’ve had some great times with Unreal Tournament. It managed to create very fluid and fast-paced gameplay and it was a very memorable multi-player experience. We definitely want to focus on creating awesome multi-player moments and making our gameplay feel similarly intuitive and quick.
Half-Life is another great touchstone because of how it seamlessly switches gears between action, horror, and humour, all without ever leaving the player’s perspective. It’s one of our main goals with MaK to juxtapose different environments and moods, and to tell an interesting story with these methods in our tool bag.
Another less than obvious inspiration is Angry Birds. It’s a game that focuses on the fun of executing a simple plan against a rule/physics based simulation. Although we take it to more elaborate heights, we rely on the fundamental appeal of confronting one’s carefully laid plans against the twisted reality of a simulated world, with results that are pretty funny most of the time.
RPS: With Minecraft, people generally build structures, Gmod is skewed towards more mechanical creations. What’s your own take on what you’re making. Will it be distinct from those two?
Sebastian: The design goals behind MaK are quite different from both. If we didn’t think that we’re making something unique, we’d make something else.
We do use cubes, like Minecraft, because they’re a good modular shape and they establish a baseline scale for the visual and interactive fidelity of the game world. We put an emphasis on physics and logic, like Garry’s Mod. Except that we do it in a more ordered and streamlined way. MaK is more strictly a game. The creative tools exist as part of a larger set of overlapping mechanics and interactions designed for action-oriented, goal-driven gameplay. Building devices is one way to travel and interact with the world, but the gameplay is not driven by it exclusively. We provide a broad set of creative tools, but they are all couched firmly within the game world, its fiction, and the overall gameplay design. The player character, navigation, movement, and interaction with the world and other characters, are all key to what the game is about.
Mick: Minecraft, as you said is very much static. I’ve never played Minecraft before, but I’ve seen my friends enjoy it quite a bit. Garry’s mod can be really fun, and from what I’ve seen with some of the mods, the contraptions can become very, very intricate. I think in MaK what I personally envisioned, it would be more about using simple building blocks to interact with a unique world in ways that force you to think outside of the box.
We have plans for blocks of all sorts, which include things that directly influence the environment. Part of the fun of the game was meant to be sharing your creation for others to see, and we were really looking forward to seeing what people would come up with.
Mark: I’d say what sets our game apart is that although you can build whatever you want, what you make is the catalyst that moves the game forward. To get to new environments and move the story forward, you’re going to have to get creative and build some kind of machine to solve the problem.
RPS: So what’s possible with the building tools? How simple is it to make something elaborate?
Sebastian: You can build anything from defensive structures, to airships and boats, simple computers, weapons and traps, and automatons. The building system is made to be user-friendly and the rules are specifically there to make it fun to figure out clever solutions. We try to make building a strategic exercise, but also an accessible one.
As we flesh out the arsenal, more efficient and compact building methods and tricks crop up. There are a couple of things we haven’t shown off yet that really turn everything on its head, in a way I haven’t seen done before. I hope we get a chance to continue exploring these possibilities.
Mick: The building tools are quite extensive. It’s all meant to be very simple to snap the cubes together. There are a few simple rules to how the cubes get triggered, and what they do once they are. It can get very complex quickly when you try to build something elaborate, but that’s part of the fun! At least it was for me. I really got a kick out of trying to design new & exciting objects using the same set of blocks… in ways that we’d never planned for or seen before. When you come up with a design, and then you say “Oh, I wonder if I could make it simpler, more efficient, etc.,” that really drove up the entertainment value for someone with a creative mind.
RPS: I love the asteroids, and the idea of looking around and seeing people at odd angles building things, sending rockets to and fro. Aside from the aesthetics, what do they add to the game?
Sebastian: The gravity effect adds a lot to the game. For one thing, we’re able to build levels that branch in all directions. It changes how you navigate and what you’re able to see from the frame of reference you inhabit. So it affects how you explore the environment. The game also tends to make you want to monitor your surroundings carefully because things may be happening in an unexpected position relative to your character.
None of this has to be stationary, either. Planets can be set up to spin and orbit one another. The entire level can be in motion, changing its layout and spatial relationships.
Every planetary object exerts gravity. You can throw things into orbit or pluck them out. You can use gravity wells to curve the trajectory of weapons. You can use your tether gun to lift objects in adjacent gravity wells. You can suspend objects between gravity wells. You can help your team-mates by tether pulling them from one planet to another. Those are just a some examples.
Something else I’ve noticed is that while in most games falling out of a level is a bug, In MaK we get to experiment with open space, where the maps are just groupings of planetoids. You can fall out, and quickly rappel back in, or hope that the combined gravity of the planets in the level pulls you back in before you freeze in vacuum.
Mick: The gravity system in MaK is part of what makes the experience really unique. We had always planned on including a story-driven campaign mode with MaK. During development, we decided very early on that we would not focus on the campaign for the first prototype because of the extensive requirement for art content. We were more interested on getting solid & innovative gameplay mechanics programmed, working, and feeling good. We decided the best way to do this would be to focus on smaller multiplayer game modes, with a sandbox mode as the main platform for testing.
The way we envisioned the campaign mode, which would consist of combat, platforming, and solving puzzles (with the aid of the cubes) would have many rich interactions with the gravity mechanics and the environment in general. We, unfortunately, did not have enough time to really demonstrate these things during Kickstarter.
RPS: Can you talk a little bit about your game modes. What you’re including, and what you expect most people to spend their time on? I’m guessing a co-op sandbox mode is probably the highest priority.
Sebastian: We want to experiment a bit to see what will get us the most bang out of our core mechanics. So we have plans to include a few typical game modes alongside some experimental ones. In the former category we’ll have our takes on Deathmatch, Bombing Run (a la Unreal Tournament), Invasion (our take on Horde Mode), and a variation on CTF. In the latter category, we’ll have a territory defence game where teams seize planets and accrue territory by planting flags. We’ll also have an escort mode, where one player per team is designated as a target for the opposing team. We’ve played with the idea of a competitive resource gathering game, as well. We’re not sure which of these will make the cut and what else we might come up with, but our code-base is built specifically with rapid game mode implementation in mind. This may be something we’ll be able open up to the modding community.
We’re very excited about the possibilities of a cooperative multiplayer sandbox featuring large, living, exploreable spaces and mixing in goals, traversal challenges, and enemy encounters. This could easily incorporate mechanics from some of the other game types I mentioned. If possible, we would like to tell a story via an episodic campaign consisting of connected sandbox levels.
Mark: Co-op sandbox is definitely high on our list, also co-op story mode. Mini multiplayer games such as bombing run, king of the hill, capture the flag, maybe something new and exciting, all the while enjoying beautiful environments, and gravity that adds an extra element to all of these.
RPS: How will people play the game? Are there local servers, online servers? What control will they have over their experience?
Sebastian: We’ve been considering several options. We’ll definitely allow for local servers. And local multiplayer on the same machine is definitely in, as well . We’ve even speculated on including a browser based component to the game.
As for what level of control the player will have – We’re big fans of modding, so accessible mod support is high on our list of priorities. Depending on resources, we’d like to build a SDK and expose our tools for the community.
RPS: When will people be able to play it?
Sebastian: If we secure funds, we plan an 18-month production cycle, with a Beta preceding release. If we can’t find an investor, we might try some other kind of crowd based solution. Whatever happens I’ll continue to work on MaK whenever I’m able.
RPS: Thanks for your time.