Part 2- Achievement Unlocked, Get it on Steam
In September 2015, our team was selected to take part in Media Design School’s pilot program: Media Design School Studios. It was a student accelerator aimed at helping students with commercially viable products take their work to the next level, with the end goal of releasing their game. This article is a summation of the team’s presentation at Play by Play, New Zealand’s first international gaming festival. In it we cover each member’s specialized work on the game and what we did collaboratively to get Split onto Steam.
We felt very honoured to be asked by the organisers of Play by Play to speak about our journey – it was a wonderful opportunity to share our experience with our local industry and celebrate everything NZ game development. We also helped out with a few workshops which will hopefully encourage more young people to get involved in game development. We absolutely loved our experience at Play by Play, and not only because we got to walk away with the Best Student Game Award. The event itself was an intimate collection of supportive, encouraging and all around lovely game developers. Play by Play included an impressive line up of conference talks featuring Liam Esler, James Everett, Matt Hall, Joshua Boggs, Mario Wynands and other incredible industry professionals. There was also a rather enticing collection of home-grown games in an exhibition, along with the conference and workshops. Overall, it was a fantastic week for New Zealand Gaming, with much festivities, wine, good food, great people and not to mention some very well behaved weather – for Wellington that is. It was wonderful to see so much happening and being done around our local industry here in New Zealand.
Our team is still learning, so being involved with industry events like this has helped develop us, both personally and professionally. There is a wealth of knowledge in our industry and amazing people who are so willing to share and help young people. Never be afraid to reach out and ask, don’t be protective of you work and to quote Liam Esler “Just be lovely, you never know how you can help someone or how they could help you”. We know that we have a lot of work ahead, facing the challenges that come with trying to maintain a game while studying full time. There is a reason our talk was titled “Achievement Unlocked”, because we are still yet to have finished our game, but hopefully our journey onto Steam can help others.
Tom O’Brien was our lead programmer on Split, handling most of the gameplay for the development of Split. He handled the behaviours of the cubes, such as splitting, their movement, pathfinding and AI. More importantly though, he gave our cubes personality. He will argue that it was a happy accident, but he managed to get them climbing over one another, trailing behind depending on size and stacking on top of one another. Tom also worked on the puzzle mechanics and functionality, managing to take very simple mechanics and work with our level designer to keep them interesting, alongside other controls, such as the camera and selection. Some other features that he implemented were things such as our beautiful level selection of mini islands and the in-game progress indicator – one of the best being the tools he made for artists to be able to design and add functionality to their own levels without needing to program them. He also helped design the tutorial level and testing the user experience to ensure new players could easily learn the mechanics.
Brianna Fromont was our lead artist, so she focused primarily on the overall visuals for our game. She developed all of the concept art for Split and created an extensive visual guide for the artists to work from. She was responsible for guiding our themes and assets; one of her hardest tasks being reworking the other artists’ textures and geometry to ensure their visual fidelity. One of the techniques she used to ensure the visual flow of the levels was to lay out all of them in a grid to ensure that each level had a smooth gradient to the next. She spent a lot of her time reworking colour schemes and visuals in engine along with touching up textures and level layouts.
Brian Rochat was our lead level designer, he was responsible for coming up with puzzle ideas, greyboxing levels and fleshing out his own levels . Working within the restrictions defined by the game’s scope, he managed to find new and unique ways to twist our already existing mechanics. He was responsible for managing the difficulty curve of our game and ensuring that puzzles where both accessible and difficult. With the game partly designed to share ideas with the variety of puzzles players could come up with in our future Level Editor, Brian designed the game to have a variety of play styles.
Kelsey Scheurich was responsible for the game’s User Interface, implementing a system that could work across different resolutions and settings. Kelsey also designed our logo and business cards as we started to establish our brand. The UI work also included implementing the games French localisation into the build to ensure that players language was reflected based on their Steam language. This was a unique challenge because the design and layout for the UI needed to look good for both languages.
The project management for Split was done by yours truly. I was responsible for communicating between the artists and programmers, testing the feasibility of ideas, managing our team on a daily basis and the overall production of planning out our goals and measuring against our milestones. When we began development, I designed a full production plan and worked on the technical art guide, which detailed the guides for for our artists’ naming conventions, levels, geometry, textures and UV layout. I was also part of the art team, so I worked on creating a third of our art assets along with managing most of our technical art direction, extending Unreal Engine shaders and asset management. I also worked on our community management and marketing while we developed Split so that we would have an established presence when we released.
Going onto Greenlight
Going onto Greenlight was the major first step in our production which went surprisingly well; we managed to get greenlit in under ten days, reaching Top Ten in little over three days. When we went onto Greenlight, we wanted to make sure that our colours and our icon for the game stood out against all the other entries. We opted for a very simple design which included a level from the game. On our page itself, we wanted our game to showcase a variety of levels and aesthetics and for our trailer to showcase the core gameplay. The idea was to show people our game as a vertical slice prototype, explaining in our description where we wanted to take the game further in development. We did a fair bit of marketing on our social media and through our networking at Game Connect Asia Pacific, which went to prove the value of being active in your game development community, in person and online.
Taking Care of Business
One of the trickiest things that we needed to do was register our business. This was a task that pushed back our release date because of the time it took, so I would recommend getting onto this as soon as you pass through Greenlight. Becoming a Steam partner requires various banking, accounting details, and taxation information. Kelsey worked on getting our business ready after Greenlight, incorporating Itsfine as a Limited Liability Company in NZ. This also involved ensuring that the correct structures were in place for later user, which was quite heavy on correct documentation and preparation.
Getting Split Steam ready
A big task for our programmers was integrating Steam into Split. Tom spent time reading into the Steam API, finding the various functionality that we wanted to achieve. A large part of this was understanding how Unreal integrates Steam already into their systems. Tom worked on implementing the game’s Steam achievements, taking into consideration the most efficient way to trigger various Steam events within the bounds of Unreal Engine. Alongside this, Kelsey worked to implement the functionality for Steam Cloud auto saving. Once these systems were in place, Tom began research and development of various extra Steam related functionality for future elements, such as Workshop submissions.
Fortunately for us, Brian is Swiss French so he was able to handle most of our localization into French. He worked closely with Kelsey to translate the game’s interface and he worked with me to translate our Steam page’s description and our website. Brian also helped with the marketing of Split’s launch within the French community, contacting a variety of French Youtubers and bloggers about the game. Without Brian, we wouldn’t have been able to expand our community and we were all able to get very valuable localization experience.
Achievements and Trading cards
Our lead artist Brianna took care of all the visual reward assets outside of the game. This included our emoticons, wallpapers, trading cards, badges and the 14 achievements – both locked and unlocked. Most of the assets were captured in engine and then edited in Photoshop, with the exception of the trading cards which were hand drawn. For the badges, emotions and achievements, Brianna focused on silhouette and shape. As they were very small images, it was important to communicate to the player what the focus of the icon was first, then add some sparkles and fun to them. This is shown clearly within the achievements, which have to be grayscale when locked. By focussing on the silhouette, the cube stands out regardless, with the player being rewarded with the context of the cube’s actions and environment when unlocked.
In the lead up to our game’s release, we decided on utilising a soft launch, considering that it was our first title in Early Access and that we still wanted to deliver a functioning level editor before progressing to a larger-scale marketing push. There were various aspects of Split’s marketings that required a lot of attention from me, such as our Steam page, making sure the content portrayed the game in the most accurate way possible. There were also the tasks of building our presskit, our website and a support page for our players to provide feedback and bug reports.
One of the tools that we used in order to facilitate our release was a Thunderclap campaign, however technical difficulties from their side meant that only a few of the tweets and Facebook posts got sent. I got in contact with the team at Thunderclap and they were very apologetic, and I know a few developers who have had successful campaigns, so I would still tentatively recommend using their service. Another tool that I would absolutely suggest using is a service such as Keymailer. Even though we did a soft launch we were still bombarded with emails and requests for Steam keys for reviews. A service such as this allows developers to manage requests from potential youtubers, bloggers and streamers, as well as filter out potential scammers.
Releasing our game was a scary and overwhelming process, but we have been met with a very positive response. Each team member managed to contribute in their own way toward getting our game onto Steam, which as you can see was no easy feat, especially for first time indies and full time students.
However, not all parts were as intimidating as they could have been. We have always tried to be open to feedback and constructive critique because we know that we are still learning. An aspect of our process that played a big part in our community management was making sure to communicate our development process and our teams position with our audience. We have always been very honest and transparent, which has kept our audience informed about Split’s current state and our situation as a team. This has led to a large part of our community being just as interested in Split’s development process and our various other schoolwork as they are in Split itself. It is only through the amazing support of our mentors, our players and our game development community that we have got this far.