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Tycho / on Wed, Mar 16 2011 at 1:21 pm

Slam Bolt Scrappers

Eitan Glinert from Fire Hose Games came by the office right before PAX, and it was nice to see him.  We were overjoyed to have Slam Bolt Scrappers in our Boston Indie Showcase last year, and it clearly turned a few heads, including a head or two over at Sony.  Also, Eitan is a Hebrew name, meaning “strong.”  I was curious about that too.

When he was telling me about the process of making SBS, I was struck by how many games they explicitly didn’t make - how many games they destroyed - during its production.  Since the game out now and he has time, I asked him to talk about it in front of the class.

I was visiting Seattle a few weeks ago and met up with crew at the PA-dome.  After showing Tycho our new game, Slam Bolt Scrappers (out today in the PSN Store with a free demo, w00t!) he suggested I write up a post about how I got from point A to… well, right now.  I thought it would be a fun challenge – write up an entertaining story about how we made the game, while (hopefully) inspiring those of you with similar dreams to roll up your sleeves and say “I can do this, too!”  Because if you’re willing to work hard, find an amazing team, and follow every single opportunity, you really can make it as an indie game developer.

Three long years ago, I was wrapping up grad school at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab when I realized that I desperately wanted to make my own games and start up an indie game shop.  I knew that successful entrepreneurs usually had years of experience or amazing connections… and I knew that I had neither.  I heard many criticisms about not being able to make it on my own, not having a biz guy, and not being special enough to succeed.  I’ve never been one to wait for permission to do something, though.  Arrogantly/naively/correctly, I brushed all these comments aside, grabbed two friends from school (Sharat and Ethan), and convinced my family to give me a very small amount of seed money.

In September 2008, our new studio, Fire Hose Games, opened its doors for business. Well, at least we figuratively opened our doors. The tiny back corner basement office we moved into didn’t actually have a door. It did have acid and lab waste pipes running overhead and on the sides of the office, and a low ceiling we were told not to touch because of overhead chemicals, but no door.

Despite being poor, we were having fun. The three of us were jamming on some ideas for a game about architecture and quickly came up with a prototype that had some early promise – you played as a superhero that built a tower while simultaneous protecting it from a marauding T-Rex (we even stole Ryan North’s dinosaur for art!). The game was pretty fun, and in what was eventually to become the way of the Fire Hose, we began seriously iterating on this early concept.

Months passed by and we suddenly had a third generation prototype in which flying superheroes assembled a building with odd, triangle shaped tangram blocks while battling ice monsters. Stop laughing, I’m serious. We only had one level but it was four player co-op and it was somewhat fun, though it was unclear what the final game was going to look like. The biggest problem was that the fighting and building were entirely disjointed, and the building was very difficult – nothing like the fast paced action we were trying to create.

But that wasn’t our biggest problem – we were running out of money fast, and knew we would go out of business if we didn’t find a source of revenue immediately. I was following every lead possible, talking to angel investors and VCs, trying to get publisher money, and looking for contract work. After searching for many, many weeks, we were approached by Harmonix to help them out by doing some R&D work creating prototypes for a new dancing game they were thinking about making. Figuring this would be a fun diversion we decided to put our original project on hold and go for the contract gig.

All was well, once again. We had money coming in the door, and working with Harmonix was a blast. The 2 month gig grew into 6, and we spent the better part of 2009 creating a series of increasingly complex and fun prototypes. We grew a little, hired some artists and even a dancer to help with choreography (apparently my knack for “the running man” was not enough). As a side effect, we learned a tremendous amount, emerging as a far more talented and experienced team. Looking back I now realize how lucky we were.

Our work on what was to become Dance Central finished soon enough, and we shifted back to our in-house game, re-energized and full of ideas. We ditched the tangram building method for a simpler building mechanic that was better tied in to the fighting. We spent four months creating extremely polished level in which superheroes patched up holes in a bursting dam while fighting spiked geckos and a giant electric eel monster. I’d tell you it made more sense if you played it but I’d be lying.

New game in hand we entered into several competitions, including the IGF and Indie Game Challenge… and lost them all. We also approached several publishers about bringing the game to consoles, and were similarly turned down by every single one. Disaster! Meanwhile we had many internal nagging doubts about the gameplay; deep down, I personally felt the game we had was very mediocre. And when’s the last time anyone got excited about a mediocre game? All of these problems fed on each other, and 2009 ended with a whimper and a sense of impending doom.

So I did what any responsible, semi-burnt out game developer would do - I took a vacation. And I spent time by myself. And I thought. I knew what the problems were, and I knew what we were trying to solve. And late one caffeine and sugar fueled night I came up with a pencil and paper design which would ultimately serve as the blueprint for Slam Bolt Scrappers. New design in hand, all I had to do was convince the team that we had to abandon the past 4+ months of work and start fresh. Easy, right?

When I came back from break in January I proposed the new design to the team, and was met with protests. There were hard questions to answer, like “How do we know this is any better than the dam level?”, “Are we just going to throw out all that work”, and perhaps most pointedly “What happens in another four months when we have another mediocre level and need to start from scratch again? When will this game ever get finished?”

We decided to give it one last shot and try again, and within a few weeks we had a new, unpolished, ugly level with bizarre mechanics. But something weird happened that I hadn’t seen before - people on the team were playing the game, not for testing or to fix bugs, but for fun. Other people in the office were watching them play and laughing. And suddenly I knew that we had found something different and special, and even though it was rough around the edges I was certain we had found our direction.

The next two months went by incredibly quickly. We got accepted to our first game competition with the PAX East indie showcase (who knew bribing judges with promises of pork chop sandwiches would work so well?), and were racing to make the new design as beautiful as possible. Meanwhile we had tapped out our cash reserves and in an attempt to avoid resorting to panhandling I was trying to convince publishers to meet with us. I discovered our contact from Sony Online Entertainment was going to be in New York City for a conference and I immediately told him I was going to be in NYC the same weekend (a lie, but he didn’t know that!).

I met him in the lobby of his crowded hotel and demoed the game on my laptop. “See, if you build red squares they shoot out missiles! Purple squares create automatically firing lasers. These bad guys are stand in, we’re going to replace them. Pay no attention to that crash bug, we’ll have it worked out soon”. The pitch wasn’t perfect, but the game was really good, and at the end SOE said we should talk more about bringing the game to PSN. I was ecstatic! However the feeling was fleeting with PAX East on the horizon. We would be showing the game publicly for the first time and had a slap shod build of the game filled with bugs, running on a computer held together with duct tape and chewing gum. Despite this I was confident that it was the best iteration that we had made yet. Our goal at the show was to pick up a few fans and get some little press if possible, and we could have never predicted what would happen next.

The PAX community LOVED it. Our booth was swamped with people the entire show. Stephen Totilo from Kotaku called us one of the two best new games from the event, comparing us in quality to Monday Night Combat (!!!). We even got a mention here, on Penny Arcade. We never expected that people would be so receptive to the game, and suddenly everyone wanted to talk to us. SOE quickly closed the deal with us, and we were psyched for bringing Slam Bolt Scrappers to PSN.

Suddenly it was the middle of 2010, and we went into full production blitz mode. We quickly took on a few more team members and we crunched and crunched and crunched, pulling incredible hours in a panicked attempt to get everything done on time. Some features we had to cut, and others made it in but faced last minute revision, right up until shipping. Have you seen with the weapon we call the black cannon (made from the black blocks)? We pulled an 11th hour redesign, totally changing its looks, making major last second fine tuning tweaks and praying we weren’t breaking the game.

And then we finished! We still had more work to do – most people had never heard of our game – and getting the game more coverage, talking to journalists, and raising general awareness was a full time job. But we finished, and now you can see the final result on PSN. Hooray for less crazy, anti-climactic endings!

That’s more or less the story of Slam Bolt Scrappers. I’m hoping, and I’m sure it will be the case, that for the majority of players this story will be transparent and irrelevant. They won’t see anything “indie” about the game, nor will they see the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears that went into development. And I don’t want them to! I just want them to see the final result, and have a great time playing it. Because that’s what we set out to do, make something fun that people would enjoy.

BUT! For those of you reading this, and thinking “I want to make a game too…”, I hope this story is helpful. If I could give you any parting words of wisdom, they’d be these:

- Don’t get too tied to your early ideas. Stay flexible and be willing to iterate if necessary, especially if it means making a better game.
- Being a starving artist is no fun. Find money, because everyone needs to eat.
- Take chances and follow every lead as if it were your last.

And most importantly

- Persevere. It’s never as easy as you think it’s going to be. Just keep going and working as hard as you can and, hopefully, it’ll all pay off.

Good luck to all of you! I can’t wait to play your games. Tycho and Gabe, thanks for letting me share our story here. And (in a move that I’ll probably regret after I get a gajillion e-mails) if you are just starting out as a game dev and looking for advice and you’ve read this far then you can contact me at FireChiefEitan[at]firehosegames(dotcom).

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