March 13, 2013 2:01 PM | John Polson
The developers behind the ultra stylish and clever The Cat that Got the Milk and The Button Affair freeware games are ready to chase the modern dream. Moonlighters from UK studio Blitz Games, Oliver Clarke, Helana Santos, Chris Randle, and Jon Mann are curious if fans who enjoy their games will support their interpretations of art in games as larger, paid projects.
They're going after their dreams, and that desire has led to how the team wishes to define itself, being known from this day forward as Modern Dream, Oliver Clarke shares with IndieGames.
While Clarke isn't quite ready to talk about his team's next dream, presumably the upcoming game using depth sensing technology listed on his LinkedIn page, he spills the beans on how the two wildly popular freeware titles were created, lessons learned from them, the team's plan to tackle paid games, and the options all developers can implement to make their games more accessible.
What are you going to call yourselves (as listing all the teammates' names is too long)?
Hehe - too true. Originally we wanted to go without a name so that the people that worked on the game were front and centre in people's minds. However, we've now realised from talking with people that...well, that doesn't work. We've since spent the time trying to come up with a name for ourselves.
That name is Modern Dream.
It's a name that has a meaning for us; it's inspired by the American Dream but with a modern take on it. In a first world country where we can pretty much have what we want. what do we want? Modern Dream is about us trying to do what we love. Making games that entertain people whilst popping some eyeballs.
What's the story behind the group of Modern Dream?
We're all game industry vets, having made console games for a number of years. Our age ranges from late twenties to mid thirties. We're lucky enough to be in a position where our employer is a good one and doesn't mind us making our own games out of hours. As long as it doesn't affect what we do in hours, of course!
We got together by the odd conversation and soon found we had a real passion for making and playing games plus a passion for the arts. I'm talking painting, music, films, fashion and crafts. After a while we found we shared a common frustration which is that a lot of games simply look and feel the same. We felt we could make games that take the best of the arts as inspiration.
Our first game The Cat that Got the Milk was deliberately a big sign post saying "Look how great art can work in games!" We felt we just scratched the surface of what was possible by drawing influence from and understanding the work of past masters.
Do you all meet often to work? Where?
We don't meet up to work to be honest. These days with the internet we pretty much work from anywhere we can. Sometimes from home, sometimes out and about and sometimes on holiday which is rather sad I know ;)
What tools did you use for both games?
We only use the bare minimum. The games were both developed using Unity. Aside from Unity we used Photoshop & Maya on the art side. The game was coded in C#. The music was composed in Logic and VSL. We used Dropbox to keep us in sync and make sure we're working on an up to date version.
We try and keep tool agnostic and focus on making solid mechanics supported by strong visuals. I've personally seen a lot of money go into tools to do specific things that players don't notice or care about.
What lessons did you learn in making them?
Honestly, there are so many lessons we learnt. I could and should write up a long post so that other people can learn from our lessons. Here are the most important ones:
-The most important lesson we learnt is how to finish a game.
-To keep going. To not give up. To fight off the doubts that keep you awake at night.
-It's very easy to give up and very hard to keep going.
-To avoid giving up its important to structure your work time. To make sure you wont be interrupted and to have a period before you are about to start work that is simply relaxation.
-I aim to put aside 1 hour and 30 minutes four times a week. The first 30 minutes are to relax, to get in the mood and to focus. The next hour is to work. The hard part is then stopping.
-This doesn't sound like a lot of time however if you know what you actually need to do the game making tools are so good these days that it actually takes very little time to produce a game.
-Its important to realise that the brain is always working away on a problem in the background. The more time you can give it to work out a problem the more productive you'll be in that 1 hour. To which end sleep is very important.
On a technical level we learnt so much about how Unity works. Every program has its quirks. After making The Button Affair we've become very familiar with it. We recognise what it can do well. We now feel we understand how to do some very cool stuff with it which we can't wait to start working on for our next game! ;)
I think we also learnt about game scope. As in, how big a game should be. Its good to have big ambitions but its very important to realise that it can create a lot of work for you if you're not careful. Its important to rationalise and make a judgement as to whether players are really going to enjoy the features you're making. Because that's what its really all about after all.
We learnt a lot about making games for people to enjoy. Quite often what you think is fun is really not. Sometimes what you think is not fun people really love. The best way to get better at making fun games is to keep making games and listening to what players think of them. Then learn from it, adapt and try again. It's hard work but rewarding in itself when you get it right.
We discovered how to talk to people about games. Before making our games I always thought of marketing as a necessary evil. Now I realise I was wrong. I'm a marketing convert. Marketing is what allows us to meet people we share things in common with. By getting out there we have met so many interesting, crazy, passionate game makers. I've also had the chance to meet some game makers that inspired me to give it a shot which has been great. For me it was reason enough to have made our two games. Its a total adventure.
What did you learn from the players playing them?
All the players that played the game in development gave lots of useful feedback. If it wasn't working it was clear. We met some very smart people out there who gave us some insights into why it wasn't working. We took the game away, worked on it and went back to them for more feedback. By working with players through development we improved the controls no end!
This process also helped balance the difficulty curve. We really have improved on difficulty curves since our first game The Cat that Got the Milk. Players were very vocal about it and we felt we had to put the time into getting it right.
I think players input into development is utterly vital these days. It would be impossible to make a good game without it. However for game developers there is definitely a skill in knowing how to take the feedback and making a judgement on how it should be implemented into the game. One wise chap i met said to me that when people are telling you to add features you should check that the features you have in the game are working properly first. It turned out to be very wise advice.
Why do you think both games you have made are popular?
There are two key considerations here. Quality time and fresh perspectives. We respect that people have busy lives and I believe people should live rich lives. The first consideration is that as game makers we should provide quality time for people. We take games as a service very seriously. For us games as a service means we should have a huge respect for peoples time. We believe we have to earn a players time. Which is one of the reasons we started by making short games.
The second consideration is a fresh perspective. We want to make games that invigorate the soul. With our games The Cat that Got the Milk and The Button Affair we have tried to provide both. By looking at past arts masters, there is much they can teach us and we can use to enrich our lives with. I'm dipping my toe in the controversial games as art topic there. I've come to believe that sound, colour, music, movement, shape & interaction are linked in profound ways which we're only beginning to discover in games.
Our hope is to continue to provide the best possible experiences that players enjoy. We want players to feel confident that from the moment they hear about one of our games to the moment they complete it we will serve them quality time and a fresh perspective. We're going to keep working hard at making fun games that grab the eye and our aim is to do nothing less than enrich the soul.
How big of a role did style play in your games for being popular? Do you think most indie game devs understand the importance of both?
When we were making The Cat that Got the Milk we went back and forwards across the different mediums a few times. A level would be sketched out and put in game, the music would be written and then instantly it would inspire a colour scheme or even the shapes in the level. By carefully correlating the different mediums in brave ways I think we managed to make a game that popped out on the screen. And popping out on the screen is very important to ensure that it grabs a players attention in the first place!
What I love about the games I see on Indiegames.com is the diversity. Its great to see so many cool ideas. I think most Indie developers get that they cant compete with AAA in horsepower but have come to realise that it doesn't matter. They can stand out in other ways.
For me, style counts for a lot. But it doesn't count more than a solid core gameplay concept well executed. Both need to work together and in tandem.
Would the games make it if they weren't free?
I honestly don't know how the games would do if we charged for them. However people keep telling us we should be charging for our games so I think that's a good sign.
Our first two games were not developed with money in mind. We tried to make a good game that had a fresh perspective. Our hope is that people want more games from us and we'll be able to make more games in the future sustainably.
But come what may we feel we have to keep going! We've got a taste for it now.
I believe you are going commercial, so would you also talk about the considerations there? Can too many choices and platforms be a bad thing?
Hehe - I think going commercial is probably the wrong word. "Going sustainable" would be a better choice of words.
At the moment it is very difficult for anyone to be confident about making a return on the money they invest into making a game.
It's a huge risk of everyone's time and hard earned money. But we love making games and we want to keep doing it. So for us. Our aim is to keep doing what we do sustainable.
The industry is going through a massive shift. There is no doubt about it. Everyone is asking the question "How can we make this work financially?"
I think this is the wrong question to be asking. I think its about what its always been about.The game. We should be asking ourselves "How can we make a game that people want to play?"
We should start with a solid game mechanic. Make it fun. Make it accessible. Get it right.
Once we get that right, we can work out how to make it pay the bills and hopefully go one further and give back to the societies that support us.
Whatever we build it has to be at the highest possible quality.
We'll keep building and improving on what we've learnt so far. Hopefully we can make this happen. We wont get it right the first time, we'll make mistakes, we'll make bad calls. However I hope players will stick with us on the journey we're on and we can get to the point where we're making games that are fun to play, rewarding to look at and enrich the soul.
Our plans for whats next involve taking what we've learnt so far and looking to scale up the kinds of games we're making. Players keep asking us for more content and we want to serve that up!
In my opinion the range of platform choices available is a good thing. I believe the range of fantastic games out now is a positive result of platforms having to compete for players attention. As game makers I think we should be working hard to ensure our games are available to players as easily as possible. Games as a service remember. If we don't ensure that players can get to their games as easily as possible...that's not good service. I'm looking forward to seeing what the big players do and I'm very interested to see what happens with Microconsoles over the next year or two. I think there could be some great opportunities to give players what they want. Easy access to play great games.
What were the motivations behind the disabled gamers tools? You don't often hear devs making such exceptions. What more can developers do to make games more accessible, without building hardware?
A line of coincidences led to our support for Special Effect.
I remember watching the news about a man who was effectively locked in. Even though he could barely move the emotional pain he was in was clear to see. He didnt want to live. I felt that was utterly tragic. I felt that we should be making technologies available to people that enable them to live a full life. From the research I've done there are a few technologies that could mean that no one has to feel like that again.
Sometime soon after we happen to meet the guys from Special Effect at Eurogamer Expo. From talking with them it was clear they were very caring people who were passionate about opening up technologies for disadvantaged people. Importantly they realised that disabled people didn't want to play games that were adapted to them, they wanted to play games that everyone else was playing. I guess this spoke to the bedroom geek in me and I wanted to help.
After speaking with the guys on our team they agreed that we should try and help. After meeting with Special Effect again and talking about it, we decided that the money from The Button Affair should go to them.
In regards to what other developers can do. Supporting Special Effect is a great idea. They do make a lot of difference to people. All the money from The Button Affair will be going to those guys. Longer term I hope developers and publishers will consider supporting our society by donating a share of profits to causes they believe in.
I think developers should ensure that subtitles are in games as standard.
Generally games should ensure players understand what they should be doing, what they are doing and what they need to do to reach their objective. What ever the input device is, say a joypad/keyboard/mind reading device, it is just a tool to realise the players intention. It should have a very small presence in the players mind. Whether someone is physically disabled or not should not be an issue when playing games. Hopefully with advancements in technology we will see the locked in issue resolved within our lifetimes!