Been a while since I took the time to write a proper entry, even more so in this journal (The Week of Awesome III was a summer 2015 gamejam entry after all). But today is different....
After building up my own freelancing business for a decade now, I'm more than happy to report than I've spent the last few months doing it fulltime, which is a lifetime achievement for me, and something I've been contemplating / building for a long time now.
But this entry is not about how great life is on the 'other side', but rather, about a very specific project.
A New "Death is Useful"
In 2015, I made an entry in the 'Week of Awesome' GameJam hosted here at Gamedev.net titled "Death is Useful" (which was also the theme of the competition). It wasn't my best entry as far as results go (I actually managed to score 4th position on both Week of Awesome II and IV) but I felt it was the one with the most potential to scale into an interesting game.
Some time ago, I even revisited the title with the intent of researching the 'new' and 'improved' WebGL exporter now bundled with Unity3D. Suffice it to say that, back then, I was anything but impressed with the results (as can be read in my previous posts). I chose to let the project to rest and resumed work on a variety of other exciting ideas (some of which you'll be hearing about soon-ish).
The WebGL Exporter Strikes Back (if you're not tech-savvy, you may freely skip ahead!)
By mid 2017, I was put in touch with the reps over at Unity through a client and ended up doing some R&D with the actual WebGL exporter and it had come a long way since I had last used it. So, little by little (working fulltime as a freelancer leaves very little spare time for passion projects) I ventured a bit deeper with the exporter, to see how I could polish & optimize the results.
I think a word on the state of HTML5 is in order here, as one might be wondering why anyone would even bother using WebGL to begin with:
I don't think there's 'one single truth', but I've been involved with a sufficient amount of projects through a relatively large client sample to know that, right now, HTML5 is 'popular', but it does not deliver. The reality is that there are few efficient engines to work from, meaning most projects end up being made up from scratch, or from a new unknown tech, making development very slow and costly. The problem is that HTML5 was meant to be the 'Flash killer', and as far as I can see and hear, it's simply not 'as fast' and 'as cheap' as making Flash games yet. I've been working with a lot of businesses that have tried and failed to make HTML5 a truly viable alternative, and so far, I'm unimpressed by everything I've seen.
I would not consider WebGL a true contender here either, had it not been from the fact that it was Unity's fallback solution to having the Unity Web Player blocked on major browsers (primarily Chrome), nor would I even consider it an alternative had it still been in the state I 'found' it in a few years back, but clearly, things have changed.
As developing in Unity (an established engine) is very fast, I was hoping to gauge how much time I'd need to invest in optimization and troubleshooting to make it work. Turns out that's roughly 10%, which given the alternative (HTML5 would've probably taken 2-3 times the amount of time it took to make the game in Unity, once again based on similar documented projects) is fairly cheap.
Let's face it, there are a lot of people out there wanting to make their digital presence felt (I'm thinking about industry giants such as Disney, Warner, etc.) and HTML5 is making a serious dent in their marketing budget to achieve these results, so I was somehow hoping that the WebGL exporter would be an 'easy sale' but needed one or more proofs of concept. Death is Useful was going to be 'it'.
The Return of Kongregate
Another 'question' I've been asking myself steadily over the past few years is whether the so-called death of web games was real. With the relative decay of Flash, I felt a lot of people had assumed this meant the end of web portals, and for the most part, I think this is somewhat accurate, and the short-lived Unity Web Player didn't really endure. Players have come to expect a certain level of quality in their web games, which HTML5 couldn't really do on a budget, so in theory, that death was inevitable.
On the other hand, some few key accounts from local and remote indie developers with whom I'm acquainted tested that theory. For obvious reasons, I'm not going to name names here, but the thought of turning up a profit of more than $ 8000 USD per quarter is certainly not something you'd expect from a 'dead' market. I understand a lot of developers couldn't justify a tech pipeline geared at web development for 'so little', but for the smaller teams, that's a very enticing offer. Though most of these revenue figures game exclusively from incentivized ads (ads that are tied directly with in-game rewards), I was curious about the demographics of the web games world in general and wasn't going to be very specific.
Kongregate was a platform of choice for this 'test', as I've been a member since 2010 (and a lurker for much longer) and also participated to the release of a CCG that became #1 at some point (even though it was merely a port from a different platform). Suffice it to say I was well acquainted with the platform and knew the opportunities there. Kongregate was unique in that it provided a very healthy ecosystem for players with some metagame implications.
All I needed was a project to test this platform, and it soon became obvious that Death is Useful was a perfect opportunity. Testing both a market and a technology at once may be risky, but I wasn't bound to any deadline, so it made sense.
The Red Cell Awakens
Death is Useful became 'Red Cell', rebranded after the decisively retro visuals and audio. I was born a bit too late to really experience the Atari and early Commodore days and always had a fascination for that era. I wanted to rebuild the game as something that would've fit a late 70s / early 80s arcade without limiting myself to the technology that existed then. The game concept was perfect for this, but the original perspective was fundamentally flawed as it was a 3D game. Besides, it wasn't really making great use of that 3rd dimension, so the switch was all the more valid.
It took some heavylifting to reuse what had already been done (quite honestly, I should've gone full tabula rasa mode) but it helped me appreciate the kind of legacy code game-jams can generate. I wanted to give the game a 'Super-Hexagon' feel, as something that's infinitely replayable and simple to grasp, where most games take but a few minutes to play. Super Hexagon had opted for longevity through more patterns, faster game speed, etc. Given I'm an avid speedrun fan (and have some reasonable PBs on some of the retro titles) I wanted to make a game that was finite in nature, but one where you could beat your own score repeatedly.
Kongregate was a great platform for this as they have a built-in score API which took some getting used to but was relatively easy to implement. Once I landed the 'best the game as quickly as possible' score idea, I felt I should also give other players an incentive to play, and added a few more score options (most mobs killed in a game, most mobs killed all time, etc.)
Kongregate has something called Badges, which are achievements you can earn in games that give you a boost in the Kongregate user metagame. Unfortunately, developers can't make achievements, they can only expose scores and hope the editor picks the game up and implements 1-3 achievements based on the scores already implemented. So having more scores (some of them invisible!) was my tactic for trying to get the editor's seal of awesomeness, and the potential traffic that goes along with.
I've developed the game on and off in my spare time for the past 2 months (alongside many other personal projects) and completed dev about 2 weeks ago. Given Kongregate has monthly contests, I figured I'd wait until the new month, and what better day than the one right before July 4th to release? (arguably, that release is very random, and I'm not quite sure how July 4 will play into monthly traffic).
The Last Build
All of this just to say the game was released today. It's not the most amazing thing on earth, but it is a fun minigame that has some potential (as far as web games go). It's also a business test I'm making on two different fronts (Platform & Technology) which, in itself, has a lot of value. As a result, I didn't see fit to make In-App Purchases, and chose to distribute the game for free (as in FREE free). I might get some minor revenues through conventional ads, which won't pay back for the time invested, and that's quite alright. I'm just glad it's finally out and people get to see it.
The game is currently open to more development. I had a local 1v1 and coop 2 player game modes which I've disabled right before release. They work, but I feel they should have a few more features before being worthy of the game (chance to revive your friend when he dies in-game, etc.) I have ideas, but limited time, and quite honestly, I'm waiting to see whether the game gets any traction before investing more time into it.
If you care to give it a try, here it is: