Joe Mirabello's indie success story started with a bug. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, the developer recalled the prototype that led to his bullet hell first-person shooter, Tower of Guns.
"It was actually entirely accidental," Mirabello said. "I was working on an early prototype of a much more traditional [first-person shooter], and I'd shown it to a few friends. But there was a bug in one of the turrets. Instead of spitting out a bullet every few seconds that was very fast moving, it spit out 10 bullets at one time that were very slow moving and spread out like crazy. A friend gave me feedback and he was like, 'This is OK, but I had a lot of fun dancing in and out of those bullets!'"
While some people might be discouraged to hear that the most entertaining thing about their game was an unintended bug rather than anything deliberately designed, Mirabello embraced the mistake.
"This is the equivalent of those old Bob Ross 'happy accidents' while you're painting," Mirabello said. "Like, oh yeah, that worked out much better than I thought, and now I'm going to take it and create something from it I never would have thought of otherwise. I came from an art background, and that kind of spontaneity is something that's cherished."
"While it was exciting and romantic to say it was a one-man project, it was also incredibly limiting about what you can actually do"
That mistake has paid dividends for Mirabello. Tower of Guns launched on PC in March of 2014, with PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One versions following the next year. Its success has paved the way for Mirabello to make a follow-up bullet hell first-person shooter, the recently announced Mothergunship. Appropriately enough, the biggest lesson Mirabello took away from his experience making and marketing Tower of Guns was that there's no single magic bullet, but instead more of a bullet hell swarm like the one spat out by his original buggy turret.
"The biggest thing about marketing is interaction with the people who are interested in playing the game, listening to what they say, responding to what they ask for, refining the game to make it better, showing that you're 'a real developer,'" Mirabello said. "That was very important for Tower of Guns, because people were quite literally following me when they were following the game because I was posting about it all the time and I wasn't afraid to inject my identity into the game a little bit, and into the marketing a little bit."
Mirabello didn't really have the option of handling that differently with Tower of Guns as the project was mostly a one-dev show. His wife and brother produced and provided music for the game, respectively, and he had a number of volunteer and community playtesters chipping in, but that was about it. For Mothergunship, he's building the game in partnership with Czech-based publisher Grip Digital, and working with Evolve PR on marketing.
"That's probably my biggest regret about Tower of Guns, the fact that it was only me. While it was exciting and romantic to say it was a one-man project, it was also incredibly limiting about what you can actually do," Mirabello said. "Realistically, games are fairly big projects, and they take a lot of people, a lot of hands-on to make it competitive with a lot of the incredible, polished games we're seeing these days."
For example, Mirabello said he tracked his time spent on Tower of Guns, and found that about 40% of his work leading up to the launch of the game was devoted to marketing. Even after launch, he was still going to shows to promote the game, posting on forums, and trying to push the word out in as many venues as possible.
"[Marketing Tower of Guns] still takes up time now, but not as much"
"That marketing push didn't really stop, it just faded from full force and half my time to maybe a quarter of my time to a tenth of my time, and that was a slow fade over a year and a half," Mirabello said. "And it still takes up time now, but not as much."
And of course, as any AAA or indie developer will likely attest to, launch is by no means the end of development these days.
"I thought that I'd be ready to move on to another project, but then I kept on finding ways to make that game better fairly efficiently," Mirabello said. "I was learning a lot even beyond launch about how to maintain a game, maintain a community, how to work with live content."
Mirabello estimates he spent somewhere between nine months to a year gradually winding down development on Tower of Guns as he began ramping up his work on prototypes. And while that may sound like a common tale in the games-as-a-service era, Mirabello suggested it's not terribly different from the way things used to be.
"If you wanted to know what people had in store for the original game, back then you'd always look at the expansion pack and say, 'OK, this is what they cut from the original game,'" Mirabello said. "So they were always supporting the original game after launch, they were just doing it in a way they could sell as a product."
He likened it to his experience with Iron Lore making the PC action RPG Titan Quest, and then rolling onto its Immortal Throne expansion pack right after launch. And while many publishers are finding success with the Games-as-a-Service model by working on titles indefinitely, Mirabello said that was never his intention.
"There's something a little bit more romantic in having a game that was a solid, 'Here's what you're going to play. You'll enjoy it and then you can move on.' I want to be more respectful of your time. I'm not trying to capture you forever with Tower of Guns. But I was getting to the point where I'd hit the limits of what I could do with the project because from here on out, I wanted to start exploring new thematic things or new things that would involve rewriting stuff from the ground up."
"Half-Life came along and was amazing and great, but it showed everybody a different road to go down, and we kind of lost sight of those other roads for a good decade"
For Mothergunship, that means online cooperative multiplayer and a create-your-own-gun crafting system that sounds a bit like Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, which allowed players to create their own free-form vehicles by placing engines, wheels, and other parts as they pleased.
"That level of freedom is something I think is a lot of fun," Mirabello said. "And I feel like first-person shooters have generally shied away from giving the player that level of freedom, and there's good reason. In my opinion, when you give that level of freedom to a player, they design really silly things. And most first-person shooters are designed to be realistic, serious, very grim affairs, which does not marry very well with silliness. And Mothergunship is designed to be over-the-top, and crazy, and to really welcome that absurdity, so the crafting system feels right at home there. Everything else is spitting hundreds of bullets at you, so why shouldn't you be able to fire hundreds of bullets right back?"
Despite the abundance of first-person shooters on the market, the genre format hasn't changed as much as it could have.
"I feel like FPS historically have been really, really underexplored," Mirabello said. "They've just been shooters. And I remember being really excited by things like Thief, a first-person sneaker, now that's interesting. Or things like Deus Ex, where it was blending RPG mechanics into first-person shooters. And then Half-Life came along and was amazing and great, but it showed everybody a different road to go down, and we kind of lost sight of those other roads for a good decade.
"And over these last five or six years, we've begun to re-explore all the different things you could do from a first-person perspective. So I feel there's a lot of ways we could play with the genre and do interesting things with it. I don't feel like I'll only make first-person shooters--I like a lot of different kinds of games and to restrict myself like that would be kind of sad--but for now I'm still really interested."