Bucket o' Software

A software consulting firm in Seattle, WA

Clyde vs. The Maze Postmortem, Part 1: The Business

Clyde vs. the Maze (released October 2011) was my first major game project. I’d done game programming in the past, but never made anything substantial. As such, I felt particularly driven to deliver a quality game. I think I did that, but I also made an impressive array of rookie mistakes. I’d like to share some of my successes and stumbles with you, Game Developer postmortem-style. I’m going to make one modification to the format, though: instead of listing 5 things that went right and 5 things that went wrong, I’m going to go topic-by-topic, because so many of the things that went right also went a little bit wrong.

Retroactive prototyping

Clyde’s origin didn’t even involve me: my friend David Frankel, with whom I studied game development at Hampshire College, had designed and programmed a free Flash game called Sorcerer’s Maze. It was a clever game with a tight design and visual style that recalled classic games from the 8-bit era without being an outright clone of an existing game.

When we decided to do an expanded iPhone version, it meant new code and tons of new content. The existing Flash game, then, became a fully-realized prototype for the new project. I already knew that the central mechanic of navigating a maze, with doors and monsters serving as layered obstacles, was fun. Every programming and design decision from that point could be made based on whether or not it served the established gameplay.

Retroactive prototyping: A++, would take advantage of my friend’s talent again

The Apple ecosystem

I suggested an iPhone version of Sorcerer’s Maze because the iPhone seemed to be a fertile platform for games developed by smaller teams, with a built-in commercial outlet in the App Store. It seemed more viable to get noticed by releasing an iPhone game than by self-releasing a game for the PC or attempting to tunnel into the Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo ecosystems.

I wasn’t expecting magic, which is good, because none materialized. While the iPhone is huge as a gaming platform, from what I can tell, it’s huge because of people who want to play an occasional game of Angry Birds. They’re not really on the lookout for new games, and I can’t blame them; there’s a lot to sift through to find the gems. Android seems to have the same issues, with the added problem that Android users seem to spend less money on apps.

If I could do it again, I’m not sure I’d target mobile, even though the game itself is a good fit there. I think having a mobile game success, even a modest one, requires one of two things:

  • An instant payoff, like Angry Birds (“hey, you knocked something over!”), or
  • An undeniable hook, like the otherworldly atmosphere of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, that practically forces people to cajole their friends into trying it

Clyde vs. the Maze wins people over if they give it a chance, but you just can’t count on any level of investment with a mobile app. (Judging by the length of this post, I still haven’t learned my lesson.) If I could choose any platform to release Clyde at this point, I’d probably choose Steam, which has cultivated a pretty amazing community that supports niche games as well as the BioShocks and Skyrims of the world.

That said, we may have had more success on mobile if we’d understood all of the above and designed the game accordingly. We released a lite version of the game, which had the same levels as the original Sorcerer’s Maze, but we could have made the free version more substantial and integrated it into the full game, or added a few carefully-considered social features to assist word of mouth, or any number of other things. Unfortunately, we didn’t fully appreciate the importance of designing to the platform.

Apple ecosystem: excellent for the ease of getting a game into people’s hands, but you may get more buy-in handing out flyers on the street

To Be Continued

Of course, once I started building the game for iOS, I was locked into that platform without realizing any of the above. In part 2, I’ll talk about the process of developing the game, and why it took so much longer than I originally intended. Stay Tuned, if that’s something you can do with a blog!