Chilly breakouts and warm bouncy castles: creating IPs after years of work-for-hire
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
A Brief Introduction
We are HeavyBoat, a game development studio from Buenos Aires, Argentina. In little more than five years we’ve managed to build a nice catalogue of 25+ web games, plus 7 mobile ones such as Adventure Time’s “Super Jumping Finn”, Jake and the Neverland Pirates’ “Treasure Trek”, and Lego’s “Mixels Rush”. That’s right: we’ve concentrated our efforts in producing games based on third-party IPs, working for clients like Cartoon Network and Disney.
Back in April I published an article here at Gamasutra about the bittersweet end of HeavyBoat’s year-and-a-half long expansion experiment, which coincided with the development of our latest Regular Show mobile game, “Grudgeball: Enter the Chaosphere”. That particular piece of writing saw the light just as a small group of HeavyBoat’s “surviving” members were picking up the pieces from the failed experiment, and moving back to our previous, smaller office… unsure of how things would work out from that point on and how long we could actually sustain the company.
Well, it’s been four months since and we’ve just released “Winter Fugitives” (Android, iOS) and “Bouncy Kingdom” (Android, iOS), two free mobile games which happen to be the product of our second attempt ever at creating original IPs. At the end of the previous article I promised I’d eventually check in to tell you how we’re doing... so here it is: the story of why we stopped trying to create our own IPs years ago, why we’re coming back to it now, and what the real odds of our studio still existing by year’s end are.
HeavyBoat’s First Original IP
Our association with CN and Disney has allowed us to work with some of the most coveted TV IPs for young audiences today. Yet the single question we’ve been asked the most in five years has always been the same: “when are you going to do something of your own creation?" The answer has never changed: all our games have been our own creations. Clients have always let us play around with their toys with as much freedom as we could hope to get, and we were never put in the position of having to simply execute someone else’s design.
All the international IPs we’ve made games for.
Nevertheless, the appeal of creating your own characters and developing your own fictional world is so strong that many people still view the work-for-hire model we adopted as a kind of consolation prize, almost as if we were all secretly dreaming of the day we would be finally be “free to do our own thing” but couldn’t openly admit it. Well, the fact is, we did give it a try once… years ago. Bear with me while we take a very quick tour back in time.
The second game HeavyBoat ever released was actually based on original characters. “The Moops: Combos of Joy” was an online flash game published back in early 2011 in several game portals (you can still play it in Kongregate if technical issues permit), and its commercial underperformance inevitably informed many of the decisions taken by the company in subsequent years. Some of us still love the game, not only for sentimental reasons (personally, it was the one that got me a steady job with the guys as a sound designer), but for the simple fact that we still think it’s one of the most entertaining games we’ve managed to pull off.“Dirty Moop” spreading combos of joy.
And though it didn’t turn out to be the hit we were hoping for, we did give the project another try a couple of months later. By then we were already working on our second game with Cartoon Network (the original web version of “Jumping Finn”), and were also about to embark on our first collaboration with Disney Latin America… so, abandoning our own little fictional creation for good in exchange for a full-time dedication to third-party IPs was beginning to look like a no-brainer business choice.
Yet, there seemed to be a place where The Moops could actually find a second life…
With Little Help from our Facebook Friends
Remember the time when Facebook games were hot and Zynga was King? (yeah, pun intended) With just enough faith left in our little creatures spreading happiness by shooting at sad blocks in the sky, a partnership was made with another company to provide the necessary servers, and the Facebook game “The Moops Challenge” was born. And then died. Quickly.
It was essentially a port of the original game with slightly modified rules and improved visuals, plus -naturally- the addition of a social media system to compete with your Facebook friends. But users didn’t exactly flock towards the game, and as soon as it was clear we did not have a hit in our hands, our publishing partners forgot all promises made and basically vanished.
Thankfully though, our business relationships with CN and Disney were flourishing at the time, and being able to rely on their IPs and marketing structure lead to the decision that we’d better take the chance to focus on what -we thought- we could do best: delivering a professional game in time, and within budget. Also, who wouldn’t want to make games with Finn and Jake?
Work-for-hire it would be… for the next four years.
Out in the Cold: Birth and Development of Winter Fugitives
So, back to the present.
As I recounted in my previous article, our plans of expanding into three teams developing mobile games in parallel ran into all kinds of trouble, and became impossible to sustain. After peaking at about 25 employees, the writing was on the wall, and an early reaction took us back to being just 8 people. With the smallest number of projects on the horizon ever, it seemed like another try at making our own IPs had again, after many years, become the best way to go… considering the resources available.
About a month and a half passed from the time the painful reduction in size was announced to the day it became effective. During that period, while most of the studio was putting the finishing touches on several remaining projects, two of HeavyBoat’s founders concentrated on developing as many prototypes as possible, from which our next game –and first original IP in years- would emerge. Nothing to build from but the “casual game” guidelines we’d always tried to follow: they should be easy to learn, hard to master, and be played in short sessions.
Around five different Unity3D prototypes were designed in that period, and the one we all agreed stood out from the rest was a combination of “Crossy Road”’s endless style with the stealth aspect of games like the “Metal Gear” franchise, or the wonderful “Commandos” series. Once this particular prototype was chosen, the core of the game –with nothing but placeholder art - took another month to develop.
The game at different stages of development. Yeah, our lead character was once Santa!
The game’s contextualization was the subject of one of the very first meetings after changing offices. Virtually all the elements of the final game were already there to work with: a stealth game to be quickly recognized as such, some form of ingame currency, enemies with fixed paths, labyrinthine walls, and boosters like jumping walls or teleporting ahead. There would be no discrete levels, but a sizeable number of “chunks” to be combined procedurally during gameplay.
A number of concepts were quickly rejected: a “Die Hard”-style action protagonist, a funny-looking guy pretending to be a ninja, a horror theme, or having the game take place in the dark. Soon we hit on the idea of an escape, which seemed to work very well with the existing elements, particularly with the need to keep moving ahead in order to avoid being caught by the vertical scroll. Turned out a couple of members of the team had at some point visited the same famous prison (now a Museum) in Ushuaia, the “southernmost city in the world”. So although the final game doesn’t take place anywhere in particular, the idea of a prison in the snow, the uniforms, and many old-style aesthetic decisions (the place was shut down in 1947) sprung out from that particular inspiration.
That way, “Teleports” became underground tunnels, “terminals” you could hack for currency took the shape of small shelters, and the end result would be known as “Winter Fugitives”.The game trailer was a great chance to play with the game’s art.
The visual style of the project was born from the basic design as well. To keep the size of the game at bay, models and textures would have to be as simple as possible, but there was a conscious decision not to take it as far as the voxels style commonly associated with “Crossy Road”. The boxes we had in the prototype, sliding from tile to tile within a grid, slowly transformed into a simple animation style which harked back to the old Tiger Handheld LCD Games, as shown in the trailer above.
Development -not counting big updates we’re currently working on- took around five months. There were many gameplay adjustments along the way, but nothing that turned the original concept upside down. For example, Tunnels started being few and far between, before turning into a frequent alternative to running around - at the expense of covering much shorter distances. Boosters, which originally lasted the entire game session, became time-limited. And you could always see the walking paths of the guards in the beginning; an ability which took the form of another booster in the release version.
The “fugitives” that the plural title alludes to also became more important than intended at first. There was always a plan to have a number of secondary characters the player could “rescue” along the way, in exchange for some benefit like currency. Once the prison-in-the-snowy-mountains idea was firmly in place, those characters became fugitives who had tried to escape on the very same path your character is now taking. Born out of the need to offer an additional incentive to keep players coming back, they became the center of a narrative built from the small pieces of dialogue they offer when encountered. There’s a mystery surrounding the massive breakout, and an actual ending to that story in the game; after which -of course- you can just keep playing. We’ll see how those elements do when someone gets there!
Super Bouncing King: Our Favorite Kind of Monarchy
While around half of HeavyBoat was working on “Winter Fugitives”, other members were focusing on closing remaining commitments. But the plan was for them to get their shot at prototyping as well, and that became a reality around June.
The end result would create a nice contrast with our escape in the mountains in both theme and simplicity. "Winter Fugitives" had evolved from its casual core to gain a pseudo-hardcore flavor to it, as the stealth elements kept growing in importance. Enter “Bouncy Kingdom” - a simple game concept we found so fun that we decided not to mess around too much with it.
HeavyBoat doesn’t endorse the idea of royal blood, but THIS is something we could totally live with.
Aside from collaborations from other team members in certain aspects of the game, “Bouncy Kingdom” was basically the product of one designer and one artist working for three months. Out of 20 ideas conceived 12 were turned into prototypes, and only three survived as viable options in the end. This choice in particular had everything to do with a solid, fun core gameplay, and extremely simple controls: there’s a single action available (tapping to give your character a little boost) to get every ring on the screen.
The main addition to the original concept was an enemy that would end the game when touched. For a while, before any kind of contextualization was decided, there were deadly spikes at the top and bottom of the screen, which would slowly close in on the character. But testing proved they caused the game to become virtually unwinnable at a certain point, so the spikes vanished and the idea of an enemy was brought back to life… which sounds funny if you consider it remained a ghost in the final version, as a nod to the beloved Boos in “Super Mario Bros. 3”.
User feedback was at the center of most of the tweaking and adjustments done over the following weeks, especially around teaching the player that the rings he/she had to catch were there only for a limited time... and how to foreshadow their dreaded explosion. Contextualization was not defined until a month and a half into development, when the little bird we’d used as a placeholder became a ragdoll in a bouncy castle. From then, it was a question of producing a nice number of unlockable characters, to offer a certain degree of content variation.
So What's Next?
HeavyBoat’s vaults have enough fuel for the studio to continue at least until November.
Anything else depends on both the commercial performance of our two new games, and the possibility of getting a third-party offer creatively and financially attractive enough to consider returning to the road we’ve travelled for years. We’re still occasionally collaborating with Cartoon Network, and our overall goal is to find ways to keep growing.
So spread the word: “Bouncy Kingdom” is just out of the gate, jump in and have some fun! And we’re also currently working on a big update for “Winter Fugitives”, including new playable characters with new abilities.
Whatever happens, we’ll be taking it one step in the snow at a time.
-- Guillermo Crespi