Here’s a little secret - we never thought we would actually release Thunderballs. Initially, we thought we would spend a few months learning the tools, making something cool, and then use it to get support for a larger project. It was early 2018 and we were still learning about the changing realities of the VR entertainment market (we still are!). We thought that with a prototype game we may be able to pitch a hardware manufacturer, game publisher, or IP holder on a bigger project.
We signed up to attend GDC 2018 with the plan to show off the project in its nascent state, and see what connections we could make. None of us had been to GDC before but we knew that, worst case, we would learn a ton about the industry and get to see some cool games.
We agreed we wanted to add a bit of polish to the prototype before GDC, and decided on creating proper models and textures for the three weapons. We rang up our friend CJ, who had contributed artwork to Endgame, and started working with him on the visual concepts for the mortar, cannon, and handgun.
Designing the weapons was the first time we had to make some decisions about the overall aesthetic of the game. I’d like to say we had some super tight, cohesive art direction at the beginning, but we absolutely did not. We liked the semi-realistic destruction of things blowing into physical chunks, and we liked smoke and fire effects. That led us towards a realistic look for the weapons themselves. Metal, mechanical, dirty, but with some anachronistic elements thrown in.
We liked the concept of future-primitive, mixing of the historically familiar with the future fantastical. And conveniently this flexible aesthetic approach seemed to give us a lot of freedom when it came to other decisions, like picking a heavy metal branding and a spaghetti western soundtrack.
By the time GDC came around, we had one weapon done - the cannon. We did a quick capture of a play session from the hotel, cut the footage in Premiere, and within a few hours had a trailer for our work-in-progress game that still had no title. With the trailer on an iPad, we hit the GDC expo halls and showed it to anyone we could.
[Stills from our GDC 2018 trailer]
The trailer, however rough, was a big asset in our conversations with folks like Brandon with Windows Mixed Reality and Rita with the Oculus Start program. Both of them were kind enough to invite us in their indie developer programs. However, as we had more conversations with industry insiders, we learned that the days of cash floating around for indie VR developers was over. The hardware manufacturers still wanted to seed the content market, but they had refocused their support to bigger name developers and titles with familiar characters and IP.
It was looking less likely that we were going to get anywhere with a half-finished game. In the wake of GDC, we realized that our best option was to develop the prototype concept into a finished product and see the game through to a public release.
So, we decided to double down on Thunderballs. We knew that, even if the final product would be relatively simple, we still had a ton of work to do. The core mechanics needed refining, there was lot of basic infrastructure missing, like matchmaking, we needed to find some help in the graphic design and PR/marketing realms… And, oh yeah, we still hadn’t decided how you actually win a game of Thunderballs.