Lee Perry left Epic Games last year to co-found a mobile-focused indie house, BitMonster Games. Since then, the company has finished two projects--Lili and a charity project called (THRED)--and is working on a third in Gunner Z. As he explained to GamesIndustry International, there's been no shortage of challenges in the process, some of which are well out of any single developer's control.
"Ultimately, the biggest challenge comes down to the fact that the industry evolves just so rapidly," Perry said. "I mentioned in a GDC talk how crazy it is that in the span it takes to create one AAA game, in the three years we spent working on Gears of War 3, how much mobile games changed. At the start of it, free-to-play wasn't really heard of. People were still excited about Doodle Jump, and everything was supposed to be simple enough to be played with one button. And by the end of that time frame, you had Clash of Clans and screenshots that looked like Excel databases, just incredibly complex games. That's the biggest challenge for any mobile developer, just trying to ride this incredibly wild bull as the entire market moves along so rapidly. We've only been making Gunner Z over the course of six months, and it already feels like there are trends that have changed in that time. It's just a crazy time to be making games."
"We've only been making Gunner Z over the course of six months, and it already feels like there are trends that have changed in that time."
Looking at BitMonster's still nascent body of work shows a similarly unpredictable range of movement. The studio's first effort, Lili, was a violence-free adventure RPG. Its next title, (THRED), was a one-off arcade-style game for the AIDS charity (RED) featuring music from Tiesto. Now the six-person studio is working on Gunner Z, a turret shooter with zombies. Perry said he's learned a lot in the course of making those three games, not the least of which was just how easy it was to take being part of a AAA developer for granted, from specialized support staff to focusing on just one skill set.
"Every day when there's only six of you in the office and there aren't departments to call on for getting a sound effect or a writer," Perry said. "Every task for a UI is something you end up doing yourself. Every day is like a giant learning curve to tackle. You don't get to just sit down, specialize and say, 'I'm going to be the animator.' There's nobody who's just the animator. The animator also cuts together the trailer and does the music in the trailer, stuff like that. I think mostly it's been refreshing a lot of very old, practical skills for just getting stuff done. And that's been pretty cool."
With Gunner Z, BitMonster's indie status means embarking on a new business model without having a horde of bean counters speaking from experience about what works.
"Just like everything we've done, it's going to be a big learning curve for us because we haven't done microtransaction games before," Perry said. "The ones that were in Lili were entirely optional, and it was never meant to be like a free-to-play game. With Gunner Z, it's very much about this being a learning experience for us in trying to figure out how to make an economy. Honestly, we don't quite know yet whether it's going to be charged for up front or not."
Perry said BitMonster will test market Gunner Z in some smaller countries for a couple weeks to see how people react to it, and will nail down the details after that. Speaking only for himself and not for the studio, Perry added he finds current attitudes toward mobile game valuation can be discouraging.
"[I]t would be great if you could just create a game that people would be happy to pay $5 or $7 for, but I think those are the exception..."
"We reduced Lili for a week to $.99 and there were forum threads saying, 'Hey guys, what's this game? Is it worth $.99? I don't know; I'm on the fence about it.' That's really frustrating because a lot of work goes into this. There seem to be some projects that are pretty successful doing premium stuff. Personally, I'm a little timid of that right now. In an ideal world, I think it would be great if you could just create a game that people would be happy to pay $5 or $7 for, but I think those are the exception in the app store right now."
Though he admits going indie hasn't been what he imagined, Perry isn't about to second-guess the decision.
"I try not to look back and have any regrets," Perry said. "I think it's just a very different experience. Everybody has to romanticize it when they leave a company to go start something else. I certainly don't regret it; it's just been a very different journey than I was expecting. You go into it thinking it will be a cool, working in the basement kind of environment. But it's still way stressful. It's much more stressful than I was expecting. You get a lot of creative freedom, a lot less people involved in any random decision, and you can put a lot more of yourself into any random project. But there's still a lot of cooperation and consensus required to do things. But all of those decisions have much more of a direct impact on your group of people."