Life as an indie: Obscurity, triage, and trust issues
Witch Beam's Tim Dawson talks about Assault Android Cactus' slow burn of awareness, working with Unity on PS4, and why he insists on handling ports in-house
The broad strokes behind Tim Dawson's decision to leave Sega Studios Australia and co-found an indie studio are pretty universal. As he explained to GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference last month, he just wanted more control.
"I think mostly it just got to a point where it was frustrating to be working on teams where it felt like you didn't have the responsibility to actually make a good game, or not enough authority to make a good game," Dawson said.
He worked at a handful of different studios prior to co-founding Brisbane-based Witch Beam, and in that time had six separate projects he was working on cancelled.
"All I wanted to do was make it a great game, and I felt like I couldn't do that. It got to the point I just thought maybe I need to try this on my own."
"That's always bad because it comes from outside," Dawson said. "The game could be either in a good state or a struggling state, but either way the call generally isn't your call. It's external. Sometimes the game gets changed out from under you when you're not expecting it. For me, with that in particular, there was a sense of frustration. We knew we were pretty good at what we were doing, but we never got to see the outcome."
Despite that, the final straw wasn't a game that got canned; it was Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, a remake of the classic Sega Genesis platformer. Dawson said he'd actually thrown together the prototype that got the game greenlit at home in his spare time.
"It felt like a very personal project because I was instrumental to getting it going," Dawson said. "And obviously, at that point you hand it off to the team and it becomes a group thing. But it was also very sad to see it change direction in a way I didn't [agree with]. All I wanted to do was make it a great game, and I felt like I couldn't do that. It got to the point I just thought maybe I need to try this on my own."
The original Castle of Illusion may be remembered primarily as a good-looking example of the genre these days, but Dawson said it was a particularly inventive game as well, pushing the envelope and trying to do something new with each level, constantly toying with player expectations. He wanted the remake to be faithful to that ambition, but found it "very deeply frustrating" to see the game eventually developed as a more standard (although still generally well-received) 2.5D platformer.
"I look at it and think there was a missed opportunity there," Dawson said. "And that's a personal call, but that was a huge thing behind going indie, that ability to say, 'Let's see if we can make a game on our own terms.'"
Dawson and fellow Sega Studios developer Sanatana Mishra left the studio to form Witch Beam, and soon thereafter secured the services of another Sega alum, composer Jeff van Dyck. The trio set about work on Assault Android Cactus, an arcade-style twin-stick shooter for up to four players. And while they had braced themselves for the usual tales of indie hardship, one thing they underestimated was just how hard it would be to get people to pay attention.
"[W]hen you're going indie, you see Indie Game: The Movie and all the other coverage, and there's a perception that if you just make a great game, people will check it out. And it just doesn't happen."
"Anything a large company releases gets picked up by every site, even if it's just to post something sarcastic about it," Dawson said. "There's no such thing as an invisible Sega release. So when you're going indie, you see Indie Game: The Movie and all the other coverage, and there's a perception that if you just make a great game, people will check it out. And it just doesn't happen. So you find yourself really struggling to get anyone to pay attention or write anything about it, especially at the start when you're an unknown quantity... To begin with, we did the checklist, did what you're supposed to do where you send out the press release and work with someone to help you contact press. We prepared a trailer that was pretty good, but there was just an apathy about it."
That apathy dogged the game from its announcement through its debut on Early Access, Dawson said.
"If we were relying on Early Access to bankroll the game, we would have been out of luck," Dawson said. "Luckily, we were very cynical, so we were expecting to make do even if it didn't make us any money. So the trickle that came in was welcome. We were working out of our apartment, so you don't need that much to live, especially if you're living on noodles. Everything was below expectations in that sense."
As for Kickstarter, it was never really an option.
"We didn't [use Kickstarter] because we didn't want to fail on other people's money," Dawson said. "That was the main reason. We always had it in the back of our mind, 'What if we're just totally wrong about this? What if all of our grand expectations about how good we are at making games are just totally ill-founded? What if we ask these people for a bunch of money, and they give it to us, and we just drive it into the ground? That would be so embarrassing."
Since the team hadn't been planning on big returns through Early Access or crowdfunding, they were able to cultivate a gradual build up of awareness surrounding Assault Android Cactus. It never took off the way Early Access contemporaries like Rust did, but the game made headway slowly but surely. Dawson actually thinks flying under the radar may have helped its proper Steam release out because people hadn't even been aware the game was already available on Early Access previously. As discouraging as the lack of overnight success was, Dawson said the keys to generating momentum for a game starting from a standstill are simply persistence, a few lucky breaks, and understanding that you can't live or die with every little thing.
"Unity is a very interesting engine. The power is that it lets people who never could have made games on their own work in 3D space and make modern games, but you can also go wrong with it pretty easily."
"Sometimes it's the start of a snowball and sometimes it just moves the needle a bit and you keep going," Dawson said.
Persistence was also key in the actual development of Assault Android Cactus. While you might think talented craftsmen require tools befitting their skill level, Dawson said the earliest versions of the game were created with a very old laptop that did him no favors when it came to running the game smoothly. Not at first, anyway.
"In order to continue working on it, I had to keep optimizing systems to make sure [it could run]," Dawson said. "So we always had a core of a game that ran on surprisingly old hardware because of this stupid laptop I couldn't afford to upgrade. It's long gone now, but the legacy remains. That meant I had a performance mindset from the get-go, which was really useful."
The results of that mindset have not gone unnoticed. In a recent Digital Foundry video exploring frame rate issues with the PlayStation 4 version of Bro-Force, John Linneman noted a worrying trend of performance problems in PlayStation 4 games built using Unity. However, he pointed to Assault Android Cactus as proof that the engine can produce visually impressive chaos on the console without sacrificing performance.
"Unity is a very interesting engine," Dawson said. "The power is that it lets people who never could have made games on their own work in 3D space and make modern games, but you can also go wrong with it pretty easily. It's a difficult engine to always keep good performance because you can do a lot with it, but there are costs there... It's difficult because people want to read it as an implication of Unity or PS4. The thing is, all consoles and all hardware platforms have different bottlenecks and performance profiles. They're good at some things and bad at other things. And if you have a game that relies on a bunch of things the machine is not so good at, you get weird performance bottlenecks that were never there on the PC version."
Having handled the PS4 port of the game himself, Dawson said he ran into heaps of those problems. Sometimes they were his own fault, issues that could be fixed without a trade off by better coding. Other times work-arounds had to be found or compromises had to be made, and that's when the decision to handle the port of the game in-house really paid off.
"The idea of handing it off doesn't sit well with me," Dawson said. "It's a very personal game, and I have very picky expectations about where you can make changes and where you can't."
That approach can work on a three-person team, but Dawson knows it's one he may have to abandon in the future.
"I would like to get over my trust issues. That would be a very good thing for the future of Witch Beam," Dawson said. "Our aspiration is not to ramp up to a 15-person team or anything like that. Having a few more people would be useful in a lot of ways.
"Even though I do my best to make sure everything looks as good as it can, it's all compromises. It's all triage. Everything's about meeting that minimum quality because I don't want anything in the game that holds it back."
"I used to be an animator. And the animations I could make as a dedicated animator are just so much more nuanced and polished than what I could do with Cactus. Even though I do my best to make sure everything looks as good as it can, it's all compromises. It's all triage. Everything's about meeting that minimum quality because I don't want anything in the game that holds it back. But at the same time, I can't really push and make anything truly exceptional from a pure animation point of view, at least."
Dawson said that Witch Beam's growth or lack thereof will to some extent be dictated by whatever game the studio decides it wants to make next. Ideally it would be a bit smaller in scope than Assault Android Cactus (which had a three-year dev cycle), but it sounds like Witch Beam isn't in a hurry to commit to anything just yet.
"You don't want to be saving yourself three months of prototyping by picking the wrong project if it's going to be such a big time investment," Dawson said.
Fortunately, that discussion can wait at least a little while. Right now Dawson is still focused on Assault Android Cactus, specifically the game's upcoming ports on Wii U and PlayStation Vita. Witch Beam is once again handling the adaptation process itself, even if it doesn't expect those platforms to pay off in a big way.
"Honestly at this point, the main reason I want to bring it to the Vita is because I like the platform personally," Dawson said. "We said we were going to, and we have a lot of people following us because they own Vitas and they want to see it too. At this point, as brutal as it is to say, we don't have many expectations from it. We don't think it's going to be a massively profitable platform to us at this point, but it's also super-important that we do what we said we'd do."