Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Tale of 54 Game Jams: Presentation & Panel

Presentation Night
Recently the team and I visited our project’s “alma matar”, the DC Chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), and gave a presentation on what it was like to develop Tumbleweed Express over the course of 54 Game Jams. The presentation, available on SlideShare, was high-level and designed to provide the audience with an overview of the many events that occurred during the project’s 4.5 year history; I dare to say that the presentation went fairly well.

Matthew Mauriello presents an overview of
the team's development process and history
After the presentation, several members of the team were on hand for an open panel discussion and the audience did not disappoint. Questions ranged from how we handled team members various creative ideas, how we worked together with so many team members, and what each of us thought was the most challenging part of the process. We also discussed how we hired other developers (e.g., artists, programmers) and how we unfortunately did not really consider recruiting people with other valuable skills (e.g., marketing), which was a huge mistake. We promoted the idea that the game jam model was very good for development, communication, and balancing our commitments; however, we also had to mention that at various points maturing the project required members of the team to put in more time than one weekend a month which included committing to daily updates when external deadlines were looming. Probably the most important thing we discussed was the importance of having these external deadlines and how production suffered when we failed to schedule these milestones into our development timeline.

Team members (L-R) Jacob Clayman, Matthew Mauriello, David To, and David Weiss
participate in a panel discussion about the challenges faced and successes achieved during the project
Avoiding Derailment and Splitting the Loot
The panel continued through “Last Call” and even outside the venue after the event was officially over. Walking back to my car, another indie developer asked me an important question: now that we have released our game on Steam, how does our team handle the money? Obviously, this is a tough question and the developer explained to me that he had been unable to find a satisfying answer. After a brief discussion this developer encouraged me to write a blogpost on the subject, but unfortunately, there isn’t all that much tell from our team’s perspective.

We believed that it was important to establish with the team some kind of agreement that detailed the expected commitments from each member and the expected rewards for that commitment. Our agreement included how we handled disputes, what happened when a team member did not meet their commitments, and provided team members with points where they could opt-out of the project and still receive credit for their work. This might seem unnecessary in the beginning of a project and indeed it was a full year before we established a formal agreement, but at many points in our project having this agreement was (and remains) valuable with respect to the continued health of the team.

Every year team members were offered a one year contract. If they completed the contract then they earned a single immutable share in the game’s future profits and expenses (assuming there would be any). Every active member (i.e., those with an active contract) received a vote in any decisions being made by the team during the course of that year. If there was an important issue that couldn’t be resolved by discussion then a vote could be called by any active team member. Finally, any vote on important decision needed a 2/3rds majority vote to go through. While this process wasn’t perfect, it did allow our team to handle relatively minor issues that came up during the years that we have been working on the project. Additionally, having this sort of agreement worked out and going through the process for establishing an LLC did allow us to have concrete discussions with other developers about joining the team which may have contributed to our success when it came to hiring new people when others had left the team. Finally, when we released the game shares became locked.

What’s Next.
The other big question we get asked is: what’s next? And, this is an extremely difficult question to answer at the moment as were still answering this for ourselves. I can say for certain that development on and support for Tumbleweed Express will continue for a time. Over the next year a few new features are likely to come out along with bug and user experience fixes. I can also say that we are beginning to reinvestigate some of the experimental content that we dropped after our Kickstarter campaign (e.g., VR Support); however, it is really too early to tell if any of these experiments will yield content that reaches the current quality standard set by the product that is now available on Steam. I can tell you that some of the things we were working on at our last game jam (#54) were exciting and I am really hoping to be able to share details with you all in the near future. Finally, another option we are considering is starting a brand new project (or projects) though at this time all I can say on that is: stay tuned! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Launching on Steam: May 31, 2016

Tumbleweed Express will be launching on Steam:
 May 31, 2016
Check out our Steam Store page and be sure to click "Follow":

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Steam Greenlight & Audio Contributors Needed!

Hello indie game enthusiasts!

The Dirigiballers are proud to announce that we have have recently been Greenlit by Steam! Thus, we are currently ramping up on production planning and execution in the expectation of hitting our internal release date. Obviously we are very excited about these recent events and we hope to make a formal announcement regarding our final plans in the coming months. However, we do find that we are in need of passionate people to provide audio contributions to the project. 

Do you have a desire to work on epic western steam punk music? Are you looking to boost your portfolio by contributing to an independent game development project? Do you want to work on rad stuff and help fellow indies get things done? We would love to hear from you!

Our team has several critical audio needs and were looking for an individual (or two) who can compose and execute several tracks that match the game's current score. Additionally, we're looking for someone interested in putting a critical ear to the game's audio portfolio (i.e., identifying where sound effects are needed, what's working, what's not, and executing on improvements for the game). If this sounds like something you (or someone you know) would be interested in doing, please send a resume and a portfolio to:

Our current score is available on SoundCloud:

Our most recent trailer is on YouTube:


The Dirigiballers

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Post Mortem: How to (not) get funded on Kickstarter in 30 days

                On Thursday, October 2nd at 2:00p.m. EST the Tumbleweed Express Kickstarter campaign ended unsuccessfully having reached ~22% of its funding goal. Firstly, I want to express my sincerest gratitude towards everyone who supported us during our campaign. The help we received from total strangers was powerful and surprising and the support we received from friends and family was heartwarming and encouraging. We met lots of new people, formed friendships and connections, and strengthened our ties with the communities that we came from. However, due to the all-or-nothing nature of Kickstarter we unfortunately will receive none of the amount that was raised.

Mostly I felt relieved at the end of it, as the negative emotions of frustration and disappointment had already run their course leading up to the final hours of the campaign. Despite the technical failure of the campaign however I do want to stress that this past month was the most successful, intense, and positive marketing push that our project has had in the three years we've been working on it. That said, I want to evaluate the campaign and give my impressions on what happened using the following categories:

What I Know We Did Right: Actions we took that tangibly benefit our campaign
What I Think We Did Right: Actions we took that, while imaginably positive, did not appear to tangibly benefit our campaign
What I Know We Did Wrong: Actions we took that tangibly hurt our campaign
What I Think We Did Wrong: Actions we took that, while imaginably negative, did not appear to tangibly hurt our campaign

What I Know We Did Right

Event Outreach
Undoubtedly, our team's strongest area of marketing is event outreach. We make it a point to be out at conventions, festivals, and gatherings as much as possible to get in lots of face-to-face marketing and feedback. During the Kickstarter campaign we were at the Boston Festival of Indie Games (FIG) and the Baltimore Innovate App Arcade where we built mailing-lists with fans and connections to other developers leading to pledge support and cross-promotional opportunities.

Public, Playable Demo
Having a public demo was very meaningful for our campaign because it meant we could give something tangible to interested parties and potential customers so they could get a real taste of what our game is about and the direction we're going in to reach a high standard of quality.

Event Journalist Outreach
Leading up to Boston FIG I made it a point to do some background research and send a personal email out with our info and demo to everyone on the Press list for the event. By the time it was time to drive up to Boston we had lined up five interviews throughout the one-day event which lead to a nice handful of articles and podcasts promoting our project and campaign.

Twitter Outreach
Halfway through our campaign I stepped up to take the reins on our Twitter outreach efforts. What I ended up doing was using software to scum the whole of the Twitterverse using search terms to find anyone talking about the tools or styles relevant to our project. If anyone on Twitter mentioned Unity Terrain I would send them a public message linking them to our branded Unity Heightmap tutorial on our dev blog. Did you mention #Steampunk? Maybe you'll like this game! And so on... garnering follows and likes and whatnot building tangible interest one user at a time.

Youtube Outreach
In the last third of our campaign I went on a mailing spree using a list of game-related Youtube personalities linked to me by another developer. Over three days I sent out a couple hundred personalized emails, with downloadable demo links, to the entire spectrum of youtube gamer popularity to see if anyone would make a video about our game. In the end we were able to connect with a handful of Tubers who generously filmed and posted Let's Play videos of our Demo while linking back to our campaign.

What I Think We Did Right

Campaign Crafting
To craft our Kickstarter campaign we sourced other successful campaigns and post mortems for inspiration while playing to the strengths of our theme. What we came up with was an art heavy campaign page with thematic designs for our sections, headers, graphics, and rewards. When comparing ourselves to other campaigns I would say that our biggest advantages were with our visuals, our video, our budget and the demo we put up.
We've seen other campaigns go by and get several times more than our funding goal while barely even having concept art to show for themselves. We thought to ourselves, "We have an actual playable project and a sweet trailer, we've guaranteed that this is a real project being worked on in earnest by real developers".
At the end of the day I can say we're damn proud of the campaign we built, but it's hard to say how effective it was without getting access to more exposure.

Update Crafting
Over the course of our campaign we put out 12 updates total, amounting to a little more than one update for every three days that the campaign was running. We made it a point to generate as much content as possible during the campaign to give as much interest to our backers as possible while also ensuring to them that we're serious about what we do and that we're working constantly to bring them new and valuable content.

IGM Partnership
Before our campaign started we actually partnered up with Indie Game Magazine, a digital publication which had previously featured our project in one of their issues. The deal was that in exchange for giving them a commission on specific reward tiers they would provide us with free subscriptions to distribute to our backers as well as run cross promotional efforts for them. Despite being hesitant we ultimately took the deal. During the campaign they promoted us on their social media accounts and wrote a couple of articles about us (despite misspelling our project name...). However, at the end of the day, it doesn't seem like much if any funding at all can be traced back to the cross promotion they ran for us.

Web Journalist Outreach
In the month before our campaign launched we put together a list of as many publications as we could think of and sent out a ton of personalized emails with our press release, some visual content, and a link to download a desktop version of our demo. Despite our efforts though we were unable to hook any big fish before or during our campaign.

What I Know We Did Wrong

Late Outreach
Despite our net positive response to our outreach efforts it seems that the majority of them came too late. Most successful campaigns seem to have had an effective  following before launching. In fact, you're supposed to have the first 30% of your funding ready to be pledged in the first week of your campaign. Obviously we were never able to hit that mark. Perhaps we over-estimated our support before launching, but we definitely didn't hit our stride in reaching out through Twitter and YouTube for example until after our campaign was in full swing.

Underutilizing Facebook
I believe that as a team we probably underutilized certain aspects of Facebook as a tool for funding. While we obviously did lots of 'Sharing' and 'Liking', I think it's safe to say that we didn't fully appreciate the power of simply messaging our friends for support. It wasn't until the final week of the campaign that I went and manually messaged everyone on my friendslist and in that process secured a handful of new backers while simultaneously getting the chance to reconnect with friends I haven't talked to in a while and who wanted to support our project. If more of our team was open to that process and if we had put our weight behind it earlier on then we would have been able to better frontload our initial funding amount.

What I Think We Did Wrong

Ignoring All Solicitors
We got a LOT of solicitors during and at the beginning of our campaign. I'm sure that there are companies that either scum Kickstarter manually or have automated systems that email their pitch to new campaigns. Regardless, we did some research early on but shortly after began to systematically ignore them. A lot of them offered services that seemed to overlap with work we'd already done, such as crafting content or creating press releases. On the other hand, they also made grand promises about the number of customers they were able bring our pitch to. Without formal marketing training it was hard to evaluate whether or not we would be taken advantage of , but I imagine that there are legitimate services that we passed up.

What We'll Do Now

As they say, the show must go on! We've received a majority of positive responses about our game leading up to and during the Kickstarter campaign and the continued support from strangers has bolstered our confidence in our design and art decisions.  Despite our lack of funding the team will continue to move into production with the intention of bringing the project into beta and wrapping up for release. The tools we need and our overhead expenses will continue to be paid for out of pocket and the team will contribute the time that's needed to make our project a reality.

Our continued marketing efforts will go towards improving and marketing our Steam Greenlight campaign so that we have a strong outlet to release from once the game is complete.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unity Heightmap Tutorial

Hey guys!

Jake here. So we've been working with Unity terrain for a while and have run into plenty of hurdles and challenges. One issue we had was that our heightmaps for a long time were imported as segments instead of solid pieces, meaning that each piece needed it's own texture pallet; which is fine for a once-over but quickly became very tedious when needing to update textures or terrain data. The solution was to combine the pieces into a single height map, but that was easier said than done. In fact it took a lot of digging and some experimentation to really get a grip on the import/export process for height maps with Unity. Below is a video tutorial I recorded to demonstrate the method I settled on so I could pay it forward with anyone who might be running into the same problem!