Cute Things Dying Violently Post-Mortem
Posted by Alex Jordan on
On June 19, 2010, I had released my first title for Xbox Live Indie Games, Around the World. AtW was a geography-based quiz game that I'd sunk six months of development time into. I've always been fond of educational games, and I wanted an easy concept that I could bring to market quickly while also learning how to properly design a game in XNA. AtW fit all those criteria. But as I watched the day-to-day sales rapidly diminish immediately following its release, I realized that there was an important objective that creating AtW did not fulfill: the creation and marketing of a game that people would actually give a damn about.
Thus began a 14-month excursion into game design that would prove to be a thoughtful, relentless affair that ultimately gave me a sense of deep yet incomplete satisfaction. The fact that the whole process took 14 months caught me completely by surprise, but each and every moment seemed to demonstrate some sort of lesson. So, hey... if you don't care how the story began but only how it ended, feel free to skip down to the bottom where I share some of the lessons learned during the immediate release of Cute Things Dying Violently. Otherwise, dig in, fortify your position, and be prepared to learn how my twisted little brain works.
Lest we forget, “inception” means “the point of creation,” not “thing-within-a-thing-within-a-thing.” Now that you're not looking for Leo DiCaprio or a spinning top, let me describe how CTDV came about.
The earliest design document dates back to February, 2010. Around the World was still four months away from release, but already I was thinking ahead to what kind of project I wanted to work on next. The interesting thing about coming up with new concepts in February was that, it turns out, I wasn't always starry-eyed about AtW's sales prospects. The AtW concept was always modest in nature, and it was only in the hectic run-up to releasing the game – releasing my first solo game ever on Xbox Live! - that I started drinking my own Kool Aid. I doubt that I thought I was going to make bank or become an indie darling in the days before AtW was released, but I certainly got caught up in my own excitement and adjusted my expectations accordingly (and in the wrong direction). But in the months before I lost my mind, I was thinking realistically and assuming that AtW would be nothing special. And I started planning.
In February 2010, I was already keenly aware that the Xbox Live Indie Games market was not a yellow brick road to success for indie developers. James Silva's A Game With Zombies [sic][I can't believe I had to sic that] had come out in August 2009 and blown everyone away with its popularity and success. In researching what “success” on the market meant, it became readily apparent that Silva's game and the others up there on the sales charts were trading on a few key principles: they were small games, they were quirky, and they were funny. I'd say “they were good games”, but (a) that's apparent, and (b) being good isn't enough to get you decent sales in a market as crowded as XBLIG. But poring over the sales figures again and again and watching the sturm und drang of the XBLIG developers that were getting slaughtered in droves (sales-wise), I realized that I hadn't just identified principles... I'd identified the Ten Commandments (or, uh, Three Commandments) of the market, the only thing lying between your game and it fading quietly into the long night of obscurity.
So I wanted to make a small, quirky, and funny game. Check, check, and check.
I'm not really sure what happened next. The first thing I wound up with was the name, “Cute Things Dying Violently.” Why and how I decided on that of all things, I don't know. But it passed the Laugh Test, and the name had that ludicrous indie sense of “Hey! Pay attention to this silly game!” that is now becoming absurdly popular. (Silva's game, Orcs Must Die, Shoot Many Robots, A Blatant Disregard for Gravity, etc.) For an indie developer, a weird, catchy name is a huge tool for marketing. Which I of course realized, knowing full well that AtW was buried in an early grave in part thanks to a complete unwillingness of gaming journalists to bother mentioning it, let alone reviewing it.
Next up was the important question of “what kind of game will this be?” Again, I'm not sure how I was coming up with these ideas (I'd blame it on drugs or being a sociopath if I could), but the concept of using the Xbox gamepad's thumbstick to control the direction and power of flicking “Cute Things” at their oblivion was a first, and a keeper at that. I've always loved games that experiment with the “analogous” part of “analog” thumbsticks (especially modern sports games), and I wanted the flick mechanic to stand out from other contemporary indie games, most of which rely on traditional control schemes.
Now that I had a name and a control scheme, I started planning out the gameplay. Unfortunately, the first concept was a real stinker: a game on rails, with the screen constantly moving from left to right, where you have to snag Cute Things in the foreground and use the flick mechanics to send them flying at deadly implements in the background: fiery pits, spikes, buzzsaws, angry robots, raging bulls, thunderstorms, tornadoes, Air Force bombing runs, and a ton of other crazy ideas. The methods of death came easily, but it slowly dawned on me that the idea for a game on rails just wouldn't work. Although the skeeball-ish concept of “send things into the distance” held some distinct possibilities, I didn't want to base an entire game around arbitrarily judging distance from the foreground to the background. Even in 3D, the necessary flattening of the plane of action to show a distant horizon would've led to a frustrating and boring game. A full-power flick would've sent Cute Things careening into the background, which might've only been a centimeter of screen space on your TV above where you were actually aiming for. That wasn't going to cut it. Plus, how deep would the gameplay actually get? The first 5 minutes of playing the game would be the same as the next 55.
I kept messing with the idea on paper, just doodling and jotting down random thoughts to see if something would mesh. The game briefly transitioned from a 3D skeeball-on-rails into a top-down, ¾ isometric game that borrowed a bit from The Incredible Machine, where you solve Rube Goldberg-style puzzles with some combination of deadly implements and Cute Things. The flick mechanic disappeared entirely during this iteration, but quickly came back once I realized that this setup didn't hold much promise. Fortunately, though, I was now taken with the idea of making a puzzle game as opposed to a straightforward torture-the-Cute-Things diversion. This was an accidental idea, but a very good one, as puzzle elements and the interactivity between various objects would give me an infinite number of ideas with which to later create levels and add depth to the gameplay.
I hit upon my ultimate formula when I dusted off the work I'd done late in 2009 on an aborted physics puzzler that had been tentatively called The Newton Gun. It had a traditional 2D platformer makeup and lots of the physical interactions that would eventually show up in CTDV. I literally marked my design journal with an Archimedes-style “Eureka!” footnote, having finally decided what kind of game I wanted to make.
The rest quickly came together: 2D. Cute Things. Violent deaths. Physics-based gameplay. Flicking mechanic. Lots of objects that would interact with each other. An integral level editor that would ship with the game itself. An open framework that would support local multiplayer if I so chose. Quirkiness. A good sense of humor.
Now I just had to create the damned thing.
Around the World had taken six months to create (actually, seven months, once you include the delays caused by obnoxious bug hunting). But that was a 3D game, and I was still learning XNA. So, Cute Things Dying Violently should've only taken three months to make, right? After all, I knew XNA pretty well, and it was only a 2D game. It couldn't possibly take as long.
I started properly working on CTDV on June 27, 2010. That was almost exactly a week after AtW had been released and the day I saw exactly how many sales it could expect to get once it fell off of the XBLIG New Releases list: zero.
Throughout June, I'd been working on an engine for a horror game I wanted to design. Absurd expectations for AtW's sales had led to an entirely-misplaced sense of satisfaction with my little geography game, and thanks to that satisfaction I had ambitiously buried myself in volume-based lighting and post-processing shadows and screen space ambient occlusion and all sorts of pie-eyed design ideas that (a) would've taken 2 years just to get up and running, let alone build a game with, and (b) were already available for XBLIG in the form of the commercially-available SunBurn engine.
Yeah, I wasn't exactly being smart or pragmatic with my time.
The cratering of AtW brought me back to earth. I permanently shelved the horror game engine and dusted off the CTDV design doc. I knew full well by this point that XBLIG was too difficult a market to do anything other than knock one out of the park: you either had to go big or go home. So, CTDV it was. I also thought a three month development process was integral to me not losing my mind. If I spent another six months... or, God forbid, a year... developing a game for XBLIG only for it to fail completely in the market, my ambition and my self-esteem would've taken a bullet to the face. Seeing as how I was in no mood to suck-start a shotgun, I decided to quickly bang out CTDV and see how it did.
Prior to having the game itself at my disposal and knowing how it played, the strongest weapon in my arsenal was the name. Naturally, I kept it quiet. I started posting development updates under the moniker of “Project Squish.” My intention was for the game's title to be announced around the same time that it looked good enough to properly market. That way, the name and some awesome screenshots would hit the web at the exact same moment like an angry god, and with about as much subtlety. Thus, I quietly began work on my super secret project.
In the Around the World post-mortem, I used this middle section of the article to document all the various little things I did at each point in the development process. Well, I can't really do that for CTDV. It turns out that 14 months of development proceeded pretty naturally and without fanfare... I did know XNA pretty well by now, and I more or less just banged out everything I wanted to bang out, in exactly the order I wanted. I spoke infrequently about what I was doing and how, and instead used brief development videos to highlight where I was in the process. Here is the timeline, according to my blog and my YouTube videos:
7/20/2010: Video 1, showing physics, flicking, and the limited use of the level editor.
7/27/2010: Video 2, showing Spring physics, Bubble Machine and Bubble physics, deaths by Spikes and Buzzsaws, and the particle system.
8/9/2010: Video 3, showing the blood and oil decal system, fire propagation, animation (fire), exploding Oil Barrels, Live Wires, and breakable walls.
At this point, I realized I was running somewhat behind schedule. It turns out I only anticipated adding one more month to my three month development cycle. Heh.
9/3/2010: Video 4, showing the very first Critter prototypes, Buttons, colored blocks, and the Elevator.
10/14/2010: Video 5, showing the menu systems, a bit more of the level editor, the lighting system, tool tips, the new Buzzsaw bloodspray effect, and object highlighting.
11/3/2010: Video 6, showing oil-dunked Critters, the pause screen, resetting levels, the level Iris Out, and some minor HUD stuff.
12/26/2010: Video 7, showing two Hate Bot battles and the rain effect.
As you can see, I was actually hauling ass for the first few months! The level editor came together quickly, which was important to facilitating the design process. Creating a lot of the objects and their various interactions also went quickly. Having worked on several games in the past, I somehow managed to forget that the most important 80% of the design takes 20% of the programming time. It's everything else that kills ya...
With the seventh and final video (until the trailer), I realized that I had pretty much succumbed to feature creep. Boss battles had never been in the design document, and the fact that it took me a month to plan out and implement two of six different boss battle scenarios (I started during Thanksgiving) made me realize that I should blog about feature creep and the general perils of a project growing beyond its original scope, throwing timetables off.
I took it phlegmatically. I knew that my four month development cycle (once upon a time, a three month development cycle) was gone and never coming back, but I didn't really care. I knew that these new ideas were good ones that would extend the appeal and longevity of the game, so I decided to embrace them and stop worrying about my sanity.
On the programming and implementation side of things, there weren't too many surprises up until this point. Or, through the end of the development cycle, for that matter. Everything that each player takes for granted in the final version of the game – animation systems, the various objects, the physical interactivity, etc. – were conceived, designed, and implemented without much in the way of problems and without major changes to their original concepts. Rather than describe what I was programming when, I'll briefly outline the few surprises that did happen during development:
The flick mechanic: Originally, the player was supposed to determine power by holding down the right thumbstick to charge a shot. A soft shot would take half a second to charge, whereas a hard shot would take 2 seconds, or whatever. The player was also supposed to actually push the thumbstick in the direction they wanted an object to be flicked. Both of those ideas got canned when I hit upon the responsiveness of (a) power being determined by the degree of pulling back on the thumbstick, and (b) that the player should just let go of the stick to do a flick, like with a slingshot.
The Critters: As several people have surmised, the original “Cute Things” were actually supposed to be happy little woodland creatures: bunnies, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, and what have you. The squeaky-voiced orbs came into being by accident... I needed some placeholder art so that I could properly design the various Critter interactions, and quickly dashed off the little white balls in Photoshop. They also needed to be animated, so I added some spindly legs and that ridiculous facial expression. In time, I grew incredibly attached to this design... and, as I'll explain later, I was a little too attached.
At one point, I didn't actually know how my levels would end. Because I live a charmed life in my cave on Mars (apparently), I hadn't heard of Super Meat Boy or Angry Birds yet. Thus, my major concern was in not ripping off World of Goo, wherein the Goos left each level through a kind of suction tube. I eventually settled on using an Elevator, feeling that this accomplished what I wanted it to without being too similar to Goo.
Sooner rather than later, I was done programming the fun stuff, and it was time to slog through the boring, obnoxious code that would actual glue each disparate component of the game together. While I was doing that, I also decided to tackle a major problem of mine...
You know you have a problem when you can't stop doodling in your notebooks, even in meetings with your boss and your boss's boss. I've been sketching and doodling and scribbling for years, and I'd fancied myself a bit of an artist. I'm not sure if that's wrong per se, but it surely had no bearing whatsoever on my ability to generate the art I needed for CTDV.
Fortunately, I recognized right off that my skills were lacking. In early September 2010, less than three months into development, I began working on my painting and coloring skills in Photoshop. Seeing as how I only had a keyboard and mouse at the time, I got nowhere quickly.
I then hilariously (and expensively) misdiagnosed my problem. I decided that hand-drawing and hand-painting things was the way to go, as I was best when freehanding my artwork. So I spent a ton of money on a nice scanner, a pencil set, really good pens, watercolors, and canvas. I was smitten with the pencil-and-watercolor aesthetics of the old game Curse of Monkey Island, which I wanted to recreate.
Being a good doodler was one thing. Having to transition from doodles to watercolors was something else entirely. From the get-go, I knew I sucked, and it quickly dawned on me that I wasn't going to get better in a reasonable amount of time. Also, doing things by hand meant working without an Undo button, which turned out to be intolerable.
Reluctantly, I wound up spending the exact same amount of money on a Wacom Bamboo digital tablet after several friends and fellow developers recommended it to me. I read some online tutorials and pulled a few nuggets from various sources on how to ape the pencil-and-watercolor design I was hoping to stick with. But after several months of intermittent practice with the Bamboo, the whole pencil-and-watercolors thing just wasn't coming together. So what was I going to do?
The Slog and the Salvation
From March until May 2011, CTDV just wasn't doing it for me. Oh, I had absolutely no intention of dropping the project, mind you. It's just that I had overshot my development timeframe by about 200%, the things I had to code weren't particularly interesting, and I was dealing with major goings-on in my personal life. I programmed infrequently, and the Bamboo mostly just gathered dust.
Fortunately, I never stopped altogether. I just moved at a lethargic pace and nibbled at the corners of major issues I should've been bodily throwing myself at. The Multiplayer gameplay slowly came together, despite it being little more than a mashup of the Singleplayer game's elements. Coding for two players (and rewriting a huge chunk of my code to accommodate a second player) wound up being somewhat exasperating.
And then my fellow developers came to rescue me from the doldrums. The Indie Games Winter Uprising had come and gone, but hungry developers started licking their chops and conceiving of a Summer Uprising. Despite the tepid response from the vast majority of the Winter Uprising devs, who had largely shot their wads six months prior, Dave Voyles of Armless Octopus and Kris Steele of Fun Infused Games (and the only vet from the previous Uprising) decided to organize a Summer Uprising, thanks to the goodness of their hearts and the madness of their brains.
This was in late May/early June 2011, and I felt a zap of fresh energy. I'd missed the Winter Uprising completely, as CTDV was nowhere near being done at the time, but with a lot of grit and determination, I'd be able to get it done for the Summer Uprising. I submitted my name to Voyles and Steele and then began an orgy of development that, were it set to an '80s rock ballad, would surely have a lot of references to cocaine.
Note: I don't do drugs. They're just fun to talk about.
As it happened, hurling myself bodily at the new Uprising had one unintended side-effect: the premature announcing of my game's name. “Project Squish” wouldn't cut it anymore. When the Uprising website went live, I meekly gave them the name “Cute Things Dying Violently” and a six-month old development video (video #5, to be precise). The name got a few chuckles, but at that point, with no game previews and no fancypants art to back it up, I just faded into the background noise. And being one of seventy five developers competing for just ten slots in the promotion meant lots of background noise.
Fortunately, I had a family vacation to Aruba planned for early June. That meant lots of time on planes and during airport layovers with which to work on my game. That also meant I was on “island time”, so even with all the swimming and exploring and (ahem) binge-drinking, there were still lazy mornings on the patio where I could hammer away at the code. Finally, the vacation meant direct access to my younger brother, Dan. A fellow nerd and prolific Left 4 Dead 2 mapper blessed with all the design skills that I don't have, Danny playtested CTDV and give me invaluable advice. He also gave me the mockup that would eventually morph into the game's menu design: light gray images in stark contrast to red text and blood spatters.
Actually, that mockup he gave me seemed like a catalyst. When I flew to Aruba, I was dealing with good gameplay that was struggling in a sea of unfinished features and no governing aesthetic principle. By the time I flew back, the menus looked great and I actually had a good-to-great alpha of the game on hand.
The Indie Games Summer Uprising
I was back from Aruba in mid-June. And I had until July 3rd before the Summer Uprising executive committee (Steele, Voyles, Ryan Donnelly at VVGTV, and Scott Nichols at GayGamer.net) would begin judging the games and narrow the contestants down from the original 75 to a much more manageable 25. Basically, I had a ton of work to do.
And it needed to get done. I had planned on timing the name's announcement with several months of public relations work, with lots of good artwork and screenshots getting sent to gaming sites. Well, the CTDV name was out there now, and the Uprising represented far more exposure than I would've hoped to get on my own, especially since Around the World had given me very little street cred. For good or ill, all my eggs were in this basket.
Since I only had about two good weeks before the Uprising executive committee starting whittling down the list of contestants, I had to put my best foot forward: gameplay. I put up a playtesting build of CTDV on the Microsoft App Hub portal which was almost entirely feature-complete. The only thing lacking was the artwork, 95% of which was still placeholder-quality. I (sensibly!) admitted to my fellow testers that the artwork sucked and would be getting a complete overhaul. I asked them to focus on the gameplay in the meanwhile while I upgraded the art. I hoped they'd react favorably to the game, if not how it looked at the time.
I also dusted off my Bamboo and went back to work. I was surprised to find that not only had a learned something in my trials and tribulations over the past few months, but I'd managed to retain that knowledge, despite the months spent away from Photoshop. Priority #1 wound up being the level backgrounds, so I completely abandoned the pencil-and-watercolors approach in favor of a solid color, three-toned approach: matte color, highlight color, and shadow color. I also felt the mania of the Summer Uprising approaching, so I put another oft-used skill to use: patience. I took a deep breath and managed to get through my first full background, staying calm all the while, even when it looked completely terrible. Fortunately, the “terrible” phase quickly gave way to the “good” phase in a manner of hours. Now I had a reliable approach to doing the artwork, so I proceeded to create a slew of backgrounds in my newly-chosen style. I also updated the testers on the App Hub as to how the artwork was coming.
As it stood, the playtest build was received very warmly and enthusiastically. Most people liked the gameplay, some even loved it. I shored up my position further by putting out another test build with the new background art. Then, with July 3rd rapidly approaching, I used a trial version of Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 to put together a good trailer. Fortunately, my brother and I were avid movie-makers in high school and college, and both of us knew our way around a good movie editor. And speaking of my brother, after he got his hands on the promotional artwork of the game's final Critter design (the big blue Critter with the traumatized expression), he then went and provided me with CTDV's excellent box art on his first attempt.
I went into July 3rd with new background art, solid gameplay, a catchy trailer, and the exact box art I wanted. I tried not to get ahead of myself, but I thought I'd done some great work, and I took it in stride when CTDV was selected to be in the Top 25 of Uprising finalists on July 11th. I was thrilled, of course, but I had expected to get in. And I had yet more work to do.
From July 11th through July 18th, the original 75 contestants would all have the opportunity to vote on which of the 25 finalists would enter the top eight slots of the promotion (the final two would be decided by a public Facebook fan vote in early August, making ten total games in the promotion). Voting opened immediately on the 11th, so I had a week to pull things together. I polished off a few remaining items on my programming to-do list and then threw myself at the artwork, using the three-tone style I outlined above and constantly keeping my fellow developers (and judges) appraised of what the final build would look like.
I replaced all the original art in one week. But, crazy as it may seem, I was reluctant to replace the Critters. I'd been staring at their ridiculous faces for almost a full year, and I had grown attached to their design, low-quality though it was. Fortunately, several fellow Uprising developers reached out to me and gave me good advice: that my the placeholder Critters weren't “cute”, and that I needed to do something about it before it was too late. That belatedly snapped me out of my complacency, and I went back into Photoshop and made new Critter art in the same style as the Critter on the box art. After an initial period of adjustment, where I missed my old Critter design for really nostalgic and really stupid reasons, the new artwork clicked. I put up a new build of CTDV for consideration before the final weekend of voting and crossed my fingers that most of the votes hadn't already been cast.
It turned out that most of the votes hadn't been cast. And nor would they be! The 50 developers that didn't make the cut for the Top 25 mostly turned their backs on the Uprising and didn't participate in the voting. Only 40 some odd developers wound up casting votes, which left the margins razor-thin. The winners were announced on July 18th... 3D running game T.E.C. 3001 was everyone's number one choice with 30 plus votes; Raventhorne and SpeedRunner HD each nabbed 20 plus; Train Frontier Express and Take Arms grabbed the middle of the pack; I snuck in at sixth place with 16 votes; and Doom & Destiny and Battle High: Elemental Revolt took 7th and 8th place with 15 votes a piece. That almost gave me an anxiety attack: I was two votes away from not even making the cut! But a win's a win, and there I was in sixth place. I was part of the Uprising! I proceeded to bleed off energy by doing excited victory laps around my apartment.
Approval and Release
The Uprising's schedule nearly drove me insane, but it had an amazing side effect: my game was damn near done. The final phase of development was pretty much over, with that awful ceaseless “just one more thing to fix” period put to bed in a record amount of time so that I could meet the promotion's deadlines. I was slotted to release CTDV on August 24th, so that gave me plenty of time to tie up the few remaining loose ends.
And there were three of them, the first being approval of the game itself. I had belatedly added some animated transition effects to my menus and, knowing full well that even minor changes could lead to game-killing bugs, I put CTDV up for yet another friggin' playtest. Thanks to some astute developers, the game got a good shakedown and the bugs that popped up (some of which were pretty evil) got fixed. Satisfied that I had a stable (and feature-complete!) build, I submitted it for Peer Review.
CTDV was only my second game ever submitted for XBLIG, and I had much less experience with the submission process than I did with, oh I dunno, game design itself. As a result, I walked directly into an unforced error. The game submission webpage on the Microsoft App Hub gives you the opportunity, and even encourages you to provide multiple descriptions for your game in six different languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese.
I already had my English description ready, but then I had an idea. I live and work in Washington, DC, the political nexus of the U.S. I can't go five feet without tripping over a foreign national. I wound up approaching a native German-speaking colleague and a Spanish-speaking game journalist and asked them for game descriptions in their own languages. They eagerly complied, and so I ended up submitting CTDV with descriptions in three languages.
Once CTDV was submitted for Peer Review, a fellow developer came to me in a panic and said, “Did you submit foreign language builds of Cute Things?” I told him no, that CTDV was only in English. I understood his concern... to pass Peer Review on the App Hub, games in multiple languages need to be reviewed by developers who are fluent in that language. They also have to specifically review the foreign language version of the game, not just the English version. This is a huge problem, since some languages – notably, German and Italian – are under-represented in the App Hub, leading to multi-language games sitting untouched in Peer Review until the End Times.
But I didn't submit foreign language builds of the game, so I didn't have anything to worry about. Right? Wrong, it turned out. Despite the App Hub encouraging me to provide foreign language descriptions (not game builds), the fact that I'd done so meant that I needed to get additional reviews from developers who had those languages listed in their profiles. I lucked out that Spanish-speakers aren't that hard to come by. But I still needed additional reviews, and I still needed to find some Germans, who are mythical creatures akin to elves, or zebras.
The penalty for failing Peer Review (or voluntarily dropping out of it) is a seven day timeout before you can resubmit. Seven days would've pushed resubmission to August 22nd, just two days before CTDV was scheduled to come out! Rather than yanking the game now, eliminating the foreign language descriptions, resubmitting, and hoping for approval within 48 hours, I went through all my developer contacts in email and on Twitter and shook everyone down, searching in vain for some Spanish and German speakers. Again, I lucked out... some people knew some people who knew some people, and I got the Spanish and German reviews that I needed. CTDV passed Peer Review, and I now had about nine days to kill before my release.
The second loose end was press coverage. The Summer Uprising had gotten my name out there, and now I had to capitalize on it. I used my newfound downtime to contact some gaming news sites and I wound up doing a few interviews, making new friends in the process. I also expanded my journalist contact list – all the people I wanted to give a free review code to so that I could get some coverage – from the inadequate handful that it had been during AtW's development to about 50 or 60 sites all told. I made sure that defunct sites were removed and that I had everyone's proper contact information. I also shared the list with the other nine Uprising developers, as most of them were brand new to releasing a game on XBLIG.
When I wrote the press releases for Around the World, I had a conundrum on my hands. I'm a reasonably funny guy, but there I was, marketing a dry, simple edutainment game. The resulting press release tried to split the difference and turned out pretty bland, generating no interest whatsoever. However, with CTDV, the shackles were off! I got to market a funny game! With great relish, I wrote up some downright silly press releases (that nonetheless gave journo sites all the info and art they needed to write about the game) and sent them to everyone on my new, expanded contact list. While the major sites like Joystiq, Kotaku, and Penny Arcade didn't deign to respond (as they never do), the smaller and medium sites started getting back to me, asking for review codes and, surprise surprise, complimenting me on my press releases!
The third loose end was music. Up until that point (technically speaking, this came before Loose End #1), I'd been relying on royalty free music that was available without charge online. It was okay, but only okay. What I needed was some really good music that fit the tone of the game.
I was browsing various, ah, expensive music sites when Ryan Donnelly at VVGTV contacted me. He asked me if I'd ever heard of a guy named Zack Parrish, a freelance composer that had recently worked on Saturnine Games' Antipole. I hadn't heard of him, so I wound up spending a lunch break listening to his online portfolio on Soundcloud.
Needless to say, I was blown away. I'd been contacted by several musicians over the past few months, but none of them had Zack's raw talent. That said, I wanted to keep CTDV's budget low, and I'd never hired a contract artist before, and the game was due out soon. Zack allayed all those concerns with some competitive pricing and the admission that he could finish the whole soundtrack in just ten days.
He wound up doing it in seven.
And he threw in bonus music at no extra cost.
Suffice it to say, Zack Parrish will now be my go-to guy for music needs.
The game was done, the Uprising was rolling on, press interest was relatively high for a measly XBLIG title, and I was ready to roll. Somehow, I stayed sane until the evening of the 23rd. That night, over celebratory Ethiopian food and honey wine, I pulled out my phone, went to the App Hub website, and hit the “Release” button.
My second XBLIG title ever had just hit the market, and with it rode my hopes and dreams. Okay, maybe not my hopes and dreams... but a decent chunk of my ambition, it's safe to say. Would CTDV be the hit I hoped it to be?
When you think about how XBLIG titles sell, you gotta think in relative terms. “Success” on XBLIG is a much smaller animal that it is on, say, Steam. So, with that in mind, it's safe to say the CTDV took off like a rocket.
Sales were 700 copies (at $1 a copy, of which I get 70 cents and Microsoft takes 30) on Day One and dipped a bit on a day-by-day basis thereafter. But in one day, I'd annihilated over a year's worth of sales for Around the World. That felt good.
Sales dropped to a low of about 320 copies a day about a week after release, but then started bouncing back. I wasn't sure what was going on in the market... was this the phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell had talked about in The Tipping Point, where sales and the take-up rate of a product start growing after crossing a certain threshold of exposure? I have no idea, but sales were picking up, and I wasn't about to start complaining.
Sales stabilized at about 400-500 copies a day after a week. And then, all of the networking and glad-handing that Voyles and Steele had been doing paid off. Microsoft put up a promotion for all ten of the Summer Uprising titles in two prominent places on the Xbox Live Dashboard, which is still visible as of my writing this. While there wasn't a huge spike in sales, there was definitely a big tailwind, with daily sales crossing the good side of 600 and heading even higher.
Here is Cute Things Dying Violently's sales totals from August 24th through September 11th:
Downloads (Trials): 51,344
Purchase to Trial Ratio: 20.30%
I'm incredibly happy with those numbers. Not ecstatic, mind you... XBLIG is a low-volume market, and those numbers would've been an order of magnitude higher on Steam. But I didn't release on Steam, I chose to release on XBLIG. And much as I hoped for CTDV to become a part of the zeitgeist, an It Game in the vein of A Game With Zombies, that particular game is two years that way in the wrong direction, and XBLIG probably won't support any more runaway successes of that nature. That, plus it's not like CTDV isn't without its own faults.
However, much as I've bitched about Microsoft in the past, and as tumultuous as the whole Uprising was, Microsoft, Steele, Voyles, and the other developers worked wonders and helped me earn the degree of success which I'm blessed with right now. That's something that really needs saying.
My objective was for the game to sell 10,000 copies, and I did that, and then some. As of today, Cute Things Dying Violently is the #3 best-selling indie game on the Xbox.com Marketplace, the #5 best-selling indie game on the Xbox Live Dashboard, and it recently clawed it's way, kicking and screaming, to #46 (of 50) on the Xbox Live Dashboard Top Rated list, having gone from a 3.75 out of 5 rating to a 4.0 out of 5 rating. Hell yes! I hope it climbs the Top Rated list even further.
80 to 85% of the sites that reviewed CTDV had either good reviews, or downright gushing reviews. For those that liked it, the game had it all: a long singleplayer campaign, a novel control scheme, decent graphics, good music, lots of blood, and a great sense of humor. And all that for only one dollar!
Here are some of the comments I got:
Vintage Video Games TV: “I can honestly recommend this title to anyone looking to just demolish cute things or build a level with your friends. Seriously go have fun with this title, I had hours of fun, and it’s replay value for an indie title is very high.”
Indie Gamer Chick: “The ingenuity displayed in the puzzle designs surprised me more than once. The amount of variety on display here is truly stunning, and new ideas kept coming even towards the final boards. How often do you see that in a game, Indie or otherwise?”
Two Fedoras/Armless Octopus: “Cute Things Dying Violently is on the whole, a good action puzzle game. It is polished in ways that many independent games (especially on the XBLIG channel) simply aren’t. The graphics and sound effects are good enough, and the music fits rather well. The mechanics are new and fun, and make the best of the controls required of them. If you don’t mind a challenge, Cute Things is a definite buy for the mindless creature puzzler genre fans.”
IRB Gamer: “This may be the funnest game on Xbox Live’s Indie showcase. Every aspect of the game is amazing, from the ease of play, the difficulty at later levels, the humor, and even the price. Coming in at 80 MS Points ($1.00!), this deal is too good to pass up.”
Indie Games Channel: “The challenge and likelihood of frustration is mitigated by Jordan’s witty writing. Tutorials are included in many of the levels, and they all contain cheeky one-liners and amusing fourth-wall-breaking gags. The critters are written as over-the-top adorable, which makes it that much funnier (or horrifying, depending on your perspective) when you accidentally send one to its doom. Players will also get a chuckle out of the Hate Bot, the game’s main antagonist, as it’ll occasionally mix up its 'Destroy!' calls with a random out-of-context line.”
The Indie Mine: “The overall package of Cute Things Dying Violently is fantastic. This is the addictive puzzle game people have been searching for since Angry Birds started getting old. You have a solid, addictive hook in the mechanics of the game with a layer of wit on top. I think this game is definitely worth picking up and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it eventually end up on other platforms.”
That said, not everyone was blown away. Some people didn't like the graphics, some people didn't like the Critters or didn't think they were cute, and some people didn't even think the game was funny. But the number one complaint amongst those that were unimpressed were the controls. They either had reservations about them or they flat-out didn't like them. The controls wound up being one of the stickier points in several reviews, with many sites going so far as to outright dislike the game, deciding that the rest of its good points couldn't make up for poor controls.
I've become a bit less thin-skinned as the years have passed, and I wasn't particularly bothered by the negative reviews. If there had been more of them, I might've been troubled, but the overwhelming response to the game was a positive one, from both game reviews and end users.
If you're reading this, one of two things have happened. You either read through the whole story that came before this (in which case I'm impressed), or you followed my suggestion at the beginning of the post-mortem to skip the boring stuff and come down here so you could get the summary. In either case, that proves that you read something, so... good job!
What went right:
The name: 'Nuff said. It was my secret weapon, right up until the point it was no longer a secret. Then it merely became my best weapon.
The gameplay: 2D physics puzzlers can be compelling to play? No way! Sure, I recognize that I stuck with a tried-and-true genre, but if people hadn't liked the core game, I would've been up a creek without a paddle. But you liked it, you really liked it!
Rapid development of the in-game objects: Many reviewers have remarked that the puzzles and content stayed fresh even late into the game. I credit that to finishing up the work on 90% of the in-game objects within the first three months of development. That gave me a further eleven months to create levels and iterate at my own pace. It also meant that I had plenty of time to go back and rebalance levels, so that some of them became harder and earned spots later in the game, but showed off some older (and good!) puzzle ideas that I'd came up with earlier. Spreading the fresher ideas throughout the singleplayer campaign reaped huge dividends.
The integrated level editor: Getting that done first allowed me to work faster from there on. Also, it gives players a way to increase the longevity of the game.
The sense of humor: Aside from the cheeky nature of the game's trailer and my press releases, I didn't bill CTDV as a humorous game. As a direct result, lots of players were pleasantly caught off guard by the sheer amount of sarcasm and sly jokes. Lots of reviewers too, it seems, thanks in part to the funny press releases.
The gore and the profanity: I knew right off that one of CTDV's greatest strengths would be in the weird juxtaposition of cute, idealistic Critters and their being sent to bloody ends, cursing all the way. Again, I didn't advertise the fact that the Critters or the Hate Bot talk, so it came as a nice surprise for people.
The price point: I packed CTDV with tons of content (singleplayer, achieve mints, challenge levels, local multiplayer, the level editor), so when I marketed it for only $1, the price in and of itself became a selling point. “And it's only one dollar!” was written by practically all reviewers. At $3, players would be weighing whether or not to buy the game, but at $1, the higher demand curve rewarded what turned out to be a hidden feature!
The Summer Uprising: Thanks to the great work of Dave Voyles and Kris Steele, CTDV got far more attention than it would have if I was on my own. Plus, they got our games on the Xbox Dashboard, which is a huge accomplishment. Thanks, guys!
Twitter and networking: 14 months of development is a hell of a long time, and I spent a lot of it chatting about game design on Twitter. In doing so, for me, Twitter went from a “what the hell is the point of this?” exercise to a bonafide networking tool. Talk about a prominent topic (game design), in a prominent market (Xbox), with prominent people for long enough, and soon you'll have made important contacts with fellow developers and gaming journalists, all of whom are approachable, kind, and more than willing to help you out. Thank you to you guys and girls, as well!
What went wrong:
The controls: I use “wrong” advisedly. Although a discussion on the controls might be better suited for the “???” section, the controls are where I got most of the complaints about CTDV, so they earned their spot in the “wrong” section.
Here's the thing about the controls: they're “analog”, meaning that they're analogous to the player's dexterity. The various reviewers that have complained about faulty controls or hyper- sensitive controls? They're talking their own inability to pull off the necessary flicks, not the games's. The controls are set up in such a way that a lot of people were inferring flaws in their design that don't actually exist.
EDIT: Yeah, the reason that's struck out above? It turns out a minority of players have been getting some flicking issues that really are bugs. I'm flabbergasted, because the flicking algorithm is written to be specifically airtight. It even factors out the movement of the thumbstick rocking back to the center position, so that your originally-chosen angle would be unsullied. These bugs should theoretically be impossible, but several users and reviewers have confirmed them, so now I have the unenviable task of trying to hunt down a bug that I've never ever experienced that only appears infrequently. Great. END EDIT.
But as it stands, that's cold comfort. I didn't set out to design a game for the most dextrous elite. In fact, I failed to consider that some players wouldn't have the hand-eye coordination or the spacial coordination to play the game properly. And although I'm not about to change the controls (EDIT: Except to squash whatever this mystery bug is), seeing as how most of the reviewers and players liked (or at least, understood) the importance of having complete analog control over the flicking, I am busy working on new aiming tools that will give players who are bad shots the opportunity to improve their aim and learn from their mistakes. I hope that will keep the core game intact while also mollifying the reviewers and players who didn't enjoy the game through no fault of their own. I'm not designing for just my fans, I'm designing for everyone.
Too Long/Didn't Read: Aside from the Critter vocalizations, CTDV's main method of conveying humor is the in-game text boxes. My goal was to make teaching new game mechanics fun. Unfortunately, way too many players don't like reading. The second level... the second goddamn level... teaches the player to use the Left Trigger on the Xbox gamepad to hold and drag Critters. But that lesson is nestled inside a text box, and those that got bored reading during the second level missed this entirely and tried to play the game without dragging Critters! Which, needless to say, makes for a terrible game. I've rectified the situation by adding a visualization of the control screen that will be coming out in the next game patch. Unfortunately, I can't also send Ritalin through Xbox Live.
The 100%'ers: CTDV is technically possible to 100% (at least one player has already saved every last possible Critter), but I'm not a 100%'er, so I wasn't thinking in terms of those who were. It turns out that several 100%'ers approached me and admonished me for making some of the last levels so impossibly hard to do perfectly... it's a feat to save just one Critter, let alone all of them! But now that I know that there's an active community of completionists out there, I'm going back and rebalancing some of the more obnoxious levels. Oh, and speaking of which...
Obnoxious levels: It turns out that some levels have easy-to-deduce puzzles that require an unreasonable amount of trial and error to actually complete. Even with good control of the flick mechanics, certain levels – particularly number 4-8, “Quick Dip” - can only be beaten with once-in-a-lifetime shots. I'm rebalancing those, too.
What went ???
Cute Things doesn't have cute things? Cuteness and attractiveness is subjective, I guess, but I didn't realize that I'd staked a pretty large chunk of my game's appeal on the “cuteness” of the Critters. It's right there in the title, for chrissakes! I'd better be right about it. And while most people did think the Critters were cute, a notable chunk of reviewers disagreed. In fact, some figured out that I'd originally been shooting for the little woodland creatures and wondered why they hadn't made the cut.
Hey, this reminds me of... Yeah, I get it, the flicking is a lot like Angry Birds. But you're doing me a disservice every time you suggest (thinking you're the first to do so) that CTDV would go great on a mobile phone. I'm sure it would! But aside from Windows Phone 7, porting to other mobile devices is a pain in the ass, especially for someone with a day job. Also, you're doing CTDV itself a disservice by ignoring the degree of control that two analog sticks offers you. I'd like to see you pull off some of the game's more precise shots with just a quick finger swipe...which, of course, would also obscure half the play area on a mobile phone.
The graphics: Talk about damning with faint praise. I can't begin to tell you the number of times I saw a reviewer say, “The graphics don't bring the game down”, or something to that effect. Only one or two of them actually liked the graphics. The rest just considered them workmanlike, but nothing to detract from the game itself.
Local multiplayer: While it doesn't hurt the game, I've heard almost no feedback on the local multiplayer whatsoever. If it was Live-based multiplayer, it probably would've been a bit more popular.
Too Long/Didn't Read, Part II: If a funny game conveys most of its humor through text boxes that you didn't bother to read, is it still a funny game?
ApathyWorks and my blog: In addition to being an aspiring game developer, I'm also an aspiring writer. I've always hoped that designing and releasing games would also send attention to my blog, but this is the second game in a row that's failed to do that. The funny side effect is that people recognize CTDV and even “Alex Jordan, the federal employee who makes violent video games” much more than the whole ApathyWorks/writing side of things!
Gimme a break, you don't need a conclusion. You have everything you need to know! The number of pages listed on the bottom of OpenOffice is 14, okay? That's a lot!
I'll be blogging more about what comes next for Cute Things Dying Violently and for my game design goals, but let's stick to the basics. This is a post-mortem... CTDV is dead, long live CTDV. I have so much more to do, and there ain't no rest for the wicked, but I'm psychotically happy with how the past 14 months turned out and all the great people I got to meet on the way.
I hope this was instructive!