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You Must Build A Boat is not exactly a subtle game.
From its exhortation of a title to its brightly-colored playfields and its remarkable blend of infinite runner, match-3 puzzler and upgrade tree mechanics, every aspect of this game is designed to draw a broad swath of players in and keep them playing.
Sure enough, when indie developer Luca Redwood launched it across Steam, Android and iOS from his home in London last month, it quickly sailed up the sales charts on a wave of positive reviews and word-of-mouth from fans of his prior match-3 puzzle RPG 10000000.
But 10000000 launched in 2012, and in the intervening years a rising tide of game releases has made it more difficult for developers to surface their work. Steam is particularly swamped with games, and in a conversation we've been having over email in the past few weeks Redwood admitted that his perspective on the game industry has changed; now, launching on Valve's platform seems like less of a sure-fire bet.
"It's different now," he tells me. "Before Greenlight people were still willing to take a punt if it had got Valve's thumbs-up; not so much any more, even with Steam refunds in place."
That's part of a larger conversation about refining the design of You Must Build A Boat to appeal to a broad audience, lessons learned from the breakout success of 10000000 and how he feels about Steam and the mobile marketplaces after launching multiple games across them.
It turned into an interesting back-and-forth, especially in light of the news that PC has outstripped mobile as the most popular platform among European game makers, so with Redwood's permission I've taken the liberty of sharing an (edited) version of it below.
Let's talk about the design of You Must Build A Boat. How does it reflect your sensibilities as a game maker?
Redwood: One of the biggest challenges for me with YMBAB was that I was trying to make something that had… a bit more depth than your average match-3 game, but I still wanted it to be accessible to a lot of people. My goal is to try and make pick-up-and-play gamers happy, but also more hardcore gamers too. The risk is that you end up making it too complicated for the former, and too hand-holdy for the latter.
People seem to like it, so it sounds like I managed to pull it off, but I think there's never enough work you can do there; super smooth on-boarding tutorials in which you don’t even realise you are doing a tutorial is the biggest area I’m practicing for whatever i do next, and I’m looking around at other games now to see how they do it well. Even now, Half Life 2 is still a great example of this!
What lessons did you learn from the success of your last game, 10000000, and how did you apply those lessons to YMBAB?
10000000 was a massive success when it came out, and it led to a big boost in great puzzle-matchy RPGs coming out, which is awesome, but one of my bigger worries in the development of YMBAB was, that while I think YMBAB is a better game than 10000000, has the market changed much? Are people tired of this genre?
I looked back and said, "Alright, what made 10000000 different and unusual?" The answer was that the pace and speed of the game really made it stand out. So I decided to double down on that in YMBAB, changing the matching system so there are no delays which - aye - makes it slightly less strategic, but really drives home that rapid pace.
What technical and design challenges did you face in developing YMBAB?
Well, it's difficult to say without an A/B universe, but one of my biggest challenges was dealing with my decision to release on iOS/Android/PC/Mac/Linux all on the same day.
I like the idea of it, and it seems…fair to do it that way, but coming up toward the end of the project, looking at a gold candidate, then deciding to change one thing, means I’d have to go and test on four other platforms. And usually I’d broken something on another platform so I’d have to make another change, which then triggered a retest and it would waterfall on and on and on.
I don’t know whether I’ll do that for my next project because it was so painful. But on the other hand, It might be a net win financially to hit everything at once? I’m not really sure. The chances are, by the time I’ve finished whatever I’m doing next, I’ll have forgotten all about that pain, and do the same thing again.
How did you wind up getting into game development in the first place?
I had the typical story, played a lot of video games as a kid, wanted to make video games when i grew up. The thing was, I was never really good enough to pull it off; I made some games, but they were rubbish.
But these days you can stand on the shoulders of giants. I use Unity which does the heavy lifting for me, abstracts away the math stuff I don’t really get, and lets me focus on the making-a-game part.
And that’s how it worked out for my first big successful game, 10000000. I knew I wasn’t going to have any more free time after having a baby, so when we found out I crunched for 9 months, and with all the tools available, actually managed to make something people seemed to like! The rest is history.
So how do you manage the responsibilities of being a new father with your work as a game maker?
I've got it easy there, because now I can spend the day making games, but still I do work silly hours sometimes. Particularly during the last month before You Must Build A Boat, I think I was working 0700-2100 7 days a week, but in general I try to keep sensible office hours and leave separate time for family.
I just took a week-long vacation after releasing YMBAB, which isn't great business sense when i should be trying to do promotion, but it was necessary.
Fair enough! Now that you've done both staggered and simultaneous game releases across PC and mobile, how do you feel about the discoverability of games on those platforms?
Each platform has its advantages and its disadvantages, When I released 10000000 I think discoverability was an issue on mobile and on Steam it was binary: If you got on Steam, people are going to see the game.
It's different now, though; With Greenlight operating in full swing, it's tricky to keep up with all the releases.
Both on mobile and desktop, I think at the end of the day you do need to hustle a bit to get coverage for your game, but since there are so many good games these days, It's got to really stand out too.
So how has YMBAB's sales performance measured up to your expectations so far?
I couldn't be happier. I managed to pass my (admittedly modest) lifetime sales target in 10 days, and it's still going strong.
I think the ratios are interesting; iOS is the biggest seller, but i think Google Play will overtake it within a month. YMBAB on Steam has sold very nicely and I'm really happy with it, but it'll never match mobile. In fact, it won't even come near the Steam sales figures for 10000000.
And that's the interesting data point here - YMBAB is in my opinion a better game than 10000000, so if I'm right, why will it sell fewer copies? I'm pretty confident in my theory; at first blush neither seem like a "Proper PC Game" - but before Greenlight people were still willing to take a punt if it had got Valve's thumbs-up; not so much any more, even with Steam refunds in place.