Last week I had the fantastic chance to sit down and talk video games development with Dan from Double Stallion games. We spoke about all sorts of games development, and every game that they’ve made. We also talked about the games that influenced him and his team in their development of their media.
1. How are you, and can you tell us a little about the game you’re working on right now?
I’m great! I can’t tell you a whole lot about the game we are working on right this moment, since it’s top secret, but I can tell you about Luna which is a game we recently announced. Luna is a puzzle-exploration game about uncovering the secrets of the moon through science and the power of film. It traces the story of Miss Wells, an astronomer of the early 20th century who is fired from a cannon and ends up stranded on the moon. There, she discovers a doomed civilization of moon-people. She must use all her wit and cunning to uncover the many secrets of this fantastic world and return home.
The game’s core mechanics explore the workings of a film camera. Players can adjust the focus, zoom, exposure, etc. to change the physical world around them and navigate through moon caves and mushroom forests. Luna has an art style reminiscent of the silent film era and Fleischer-style animation.
2. What inspired it?
Luna takes a lot of inspiration from early cinema, specifically George Méliès’ “Le Voyage dans la Lune”. This is one of the earliest films and it demonstrates the irrefutable charm of early cinema and science fiction. Visually, the game is black and white, but players will progressively unlock new colors which will add themselves to the mix. Animation didn’t exist when “Le Voyage dans la Luna” was made, so we had to borrow our animated style from the 1920s Fleischer-era with characters like Popeye and Betty Boop. The early-film aesthetic also inspired the camera mechanics of the game. We’re in early development with Luna so it won’t be coming out for a while, but we post development updates regularly.
3. What has been the easiest part of development?
We’ve got quite a bit of experience developing games at this point, so getting what we want to appear on the screen usually isn’t too difficult. The programming and art tend to go smoothly, provided the game is scoped properly.
4. What has been the hardest?
The hardest part of developing a game is usually the design, and making decisions. How fast should the player move? What control scheme should we use? Is this a fun mechanic? Will players understand this UI? These are the really hard questions and usually where we end up guessing until we can actually get the game in front of players. We do play testing regularly, and take as many notes as possible on the player’s reaction to the game. Often, it doesn’t play out like we imagined and we have to make a bunch of changes to get the game working the way we want. This is the meat of game development, and the hardest part of the process.
Coming up with ideas and a clear vision for the game is also very difficult and something we struggle with. You want to avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen, but it can also be discouraging not to be able to shape the development of the game at all. Whoever holds the vision for the game needs to listen to everyone, but ultimately make the decision on their own, and the team has to buy-in to that vision.
5. How was the game funded, and did this add extra stress to the development?
We went through an incubator here in Montreal called Execution Labs to complete the development of our first game, Big Action Mega Fight. After graduating from that program, we received some funding from BDC Venture Capital in the form of a convertible note. It’s really uncommon for indie studios to get that kind of funding, but Execution Labs was instrumental in getting us in front of the right people. We used that initial chunk of funding to develop the concept for Luna and submit it to the Canada Media Fund (CMF). The CMF has funded a ton of games in Canada through the Experimental Stream, and we were lucky enough to be selected to further develop Luna.
The CMF is a great organization, and accepting their funding hasn’t added any extra stress up to now. It’s a very competitive and difficult program to get into, and preparing our application took many weeks. I would recommend it for any indies starting out though, because it forces you to look at your project from every angle and build a budget, cash flow, and business plan very early in the process.
6. Do you wish you had gone with a publisher to deal with anything? Is being an indie beneficial over that?
We don’t have a lot of experience with publishers, but we have heard a few horror stories. It really depends on whether or not you are able to strike a good deal with a publisher that adds a lot of value. If you are doing it just for the cash advance, you will be disappointed. We haven’t worked with any publishers yet, but we would look for one that can guarantee us a minimum investment in marketing and that has access to players who might like our game. Having a partner that specializes in marketing and distributing your game can be really great, provided they invest in your game as much as you will.
In most cases, I feel it’s beneficial to stay indie. If you can build up a brand where you don’t need to rely on a publisher to push your game to audiences, that’s a much better situation to be in. Publishers have also been tightening their purse strings lately and it is harder and harder to get promises for marketing or development money.
7. Is there anything you’ve learnt during development that you wouldn’t have learnt otherwise?
That’s a really tough question! I’d say that I learn a lot every day we are on the job. The most interesting lessons I’ve learned are about how to run a team, keeping everyone motivated, and building a healthy studio culture. I think that as a small studio, our success hinges as much on our team and their happiness as it does on the games themselves. People who are angry, sad or disappointed don’t make great games. This is something that is often overlooked. I’ve seen so many studios fall apart because of bickering, arguments or lack of leadership. It’s really important that you find the right people and then treat them well.
My second lesson would be that not only is building games hard, but making the right game that will actually succeed in the market is even harder. Double Stallion hasn’t seen a huge hit yet, though I feel we are on our way to one. In the end those things are unpredictable. You have to do your best to make a remarkable game that is as polished and entertaining as possible, but in the end you don’t know how the dice have landed until launch. We treat failure as an important learning opportunity. Having a good team and dealing with the pressure of failure to finally come out better than before is how you build successful studios.
8. What indie games do you like to play besides this?
I really enjoyed a lot of the indie darlings like FEZ, World of Goo and Braid. Those games have a ton of charm and excellent gameplay. I also like to play games like Minecraft and Garry’s mod with friends, since they are a great creative outlet. My favorite recent indie game has been FTL: Faster than Light. The combat in that game is incredibly well balanced and it’s different every time. I’ve just always wanted to be a starship captain!
9. What is your favourite game of all time?
For me it’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I played it the first time when I was much younger, and I remember the feeling of awe at how huge that game was. I played it from start to finish again many years later. At that point I had started a career in game development. I noticed so many more of the little details that made Ocarina of Time amazing. The structure of that game is brilliant, and the mechanics are executed perfectly. It’s always been my favourite!
10. Is there anything else you’d like to say? Where can you and your current project be found?
Thanks for sitting down and talking with me, Dan. Good luck on your next project, and we’ll see you here soon.