Ever wanted to play a zombie game ... from the zombie's side? We talk to Rod Green of Lonely Few, whose brand new game, Brainsss, sees you working to increase the population of the shambling undead.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Who are you, and how did you get into mobile gaming development?
My name is Rod Green. I'm an Australian game developer currently working at a new game studio I founded with another developer, Yeong-Hao Han. Our studio is called Lonely Few, and we're about to release our debut game Brainsss, for iPad and iPhone.
While Yeong-Hao and I have history in game development, this will be our first foray into mobile game development. We both have come from development on larger games and teams.
Though we're located in Los Angeles, I started out in the Australian game-development industry at [a] small Melbourne studio, Tantalus. I, first, was primarily focused on modelling and texturing, though one of the best things about smaller studios is that you get to try your hand at a bit of everything.
From here, I worked at varied size studios, Atari Melbourne, BioWare Corp, Offset Software (another start-up) and ultimately one of the largest companies in the world, Intel.
Lonely Few is a chance for us to get back [to the] basics, but we're bringing our experience of the larger studios to hopefully produce a significant contribution to the mobile game platforms.
Is Brainsss your first game? Can you explain it a bit &mdash what is it about, and what does the player do?
As a company, Brainsss will be Lonely Few's first real game [that] we've released. Brainsss is a zombie game, though not your typical zombie game. We flipped the roles and, rather than play as the humans, you're now in control of the zombies. Gameplay-wise, Brainsss borrows a lot from some of the more hardcore strategy games, like StarCraft, Syndicate or even chess, but delivered in a form that makes sense for the handheld market. You control groups of zombies to hunt down and convert humans to add to your swarm.
Despite its roots, Brainsss can be played very casually. The controls are as simple and as intuitive as we could possibly make them, while still allowing the depth and complexity to satisfy the more hardcore gamers out there.
There's massive competition in the mobile gaming market. What does Brainsss offer that other games do not?
We felt like, in order to stand out, we needed to push towards a game with great engaging content and lots of replay-ability. We really didn't want to create "just another casual game". You know, the abused "freemium" game model that requires constant in-app purchasing to stay fun. Instead, we are providing the players with deep and challenging gameplay, different objectives (catch 'em all, tower defence, survival, time trial, etc), different strategy mechanisms, loads of levels and free content each week. Plus, the usual star completion ratings makes Brainsss really fun, with a lot of reasons to keep coming back.
What has been the biggest challenge for you so far? How did you overcome it?
As far as a technical limitation, I would have to say the Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the humans. From the outset, the goal was to have 100+ humans/zombies running around, all able to path independently. This was a huge challenge for mobile devices, so I had to come up with a clever way to pre-calculate a lot of the "brains" into the level. The humans are very smart — they won't just run into dead ends ...[but] look for "safe" areas to hide from you. This made our levels a little larger, but makes it possible to do some pretty amazing stuff with the mobile devices. It's pretty fun to run around with 120 zombies smashing up the place!
On the business side of things, it has been the marketing and promotion. It's a real saturated market out there, and everyone is fighting for a piece of the pie. Being small and indie, with a marketing budget in the three-figure range, we've had to be much more guerrilla and direct with our marketing techniques — reaching out to people personally, and trying to get the word out. We're a couple of guys who are very proud of the game we have created and all we want to do is to share it with everyone we can.
What do you think is the essential ingredient in a truly awesome mobile game?
For us, as gamers, I think the replay-ability and addictiveness of a game is pretty critical. A lot of mobile games are casual games and are fun for an hour or so, but there's nothing in them that really makes you want to come back and play. I know they have high-score mechanics (like the old arcades), but, apart from that, there's no real depth. So I think you're onto a winner if you can master both, get people hooked while also getting them to keep playing for months because they enjoy the personal challenge.
What is the best thing about working in mobile-gaming development? What is the worst?
The best part of it is, really, that you get to have a true personal connection with your game and ultimately with the people playing your game. At any big studio, you lose a lot of that personal attachment. Don't get me wrong; some studios are great at building teams and projects that people working on love like their own children (ie, BioWare Corp). But nothing quite beats that direct control and input you have with an independent game. Also, if you do it right and plan for it, you can cut out the publisher/developer relationship altogether!
The worst is pretty much as you would expect. With the direct emotional attachment to the game, it can be pretty tough on you physically and mentally. As a small team with a small budget, you lack a lot of the support you would get normally, like IT, web services, legal, etc. The work hours can get very long and overall, the venture is pretty risky due to the highly saturated markets — it's definitely not for everyone.
Those trials and tribulations makes the whole experience that much more exciting — if it was easy, it wouldn't be as fun!
Do you have any advice to offer aspiring mobile games developers?
Make a game you want to play! Don't make a game that you think the market wants. It's very hard to make a good game when you're not even that psyched about it.
Keep it simple — I really can't stress this enough. Indie developers love to go out and plan a game that's going to take over the world. However, it's much better to be tight and focused with your project's ambitions and do it really well. Find the core of your game and make it the best you can.
Small team plus slow burn equals great success! It seems that a lot of people coming out of the industry (or coming into it), think they have to have five or more people to make a team when, in reality, two guys can achieve a lot. Outsource what you need, but keep it small. It will allow you to maintain development without hitting funding crisis points that will prevent you from finishing the game you wanted to make.
Marketing, marketing, marketing and um ... marketing. It's very important to plan and execute a strong marketing campaign. I don't mean like TV, radio, bus adverts, but identify dates in your project when you need to have certain things ready [by], ie, Game Developers Conference (GDC), Electronic Games Expo (E3). Plan at what points you'll start to approach reviewers and fans. From the start, you should be building contact lists and strategies for how you're going to deliver your baby to [the] market.
You can do it! Starting out, it'll be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. There will be points where it'll seem like all hope is lost. Push through and stick with what makes you passionate about games and you'll see that it was all worthwhile.
What's next for you?
Sleep? Hah, well, we're going to be supporting Brainsss all the way up until the end of the year. So really, I'm going to be working on the Android version and other updates, and Yeong-Hao is going to be churning out levels and zombies for everyone to play.
After that, who knows? If Brainsss is successful, maybe more expansions; if not, maybe a whole new game.
Brainsss for iOS (AU$2.99)