In this article, I’ll try to give an overview of the process behind the creation and release of an indie game, from idea to digital stores. To go through this process, I will take into account the game “Textorcist” (formerly Ray Bibbia), born at the Global Game Jam 2016 and released on Steam, GOG, Kartridge and Humble Store on 14 February 2019, on Valentine’s Day. My name is Diego Sacchetti, I work as a game developer and under my Indie label Morbidware I have designed and developed ”The Textorcist: the story of Ray Bibbia”.
Developing a game is a job and a passion; it means making sacrifices and it means producing a piece of art that becomes taken and judged in its depths. It means taking responsibilities at the level of design choices and creativity and answering to an increasingly demanding market. It is a job that begins in a very creative way, but in the end the resulting product must be a very concrete piece of software covered by signatures and contracts and shares on its revenues: a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster of creativity and bureaucracy. Now, this story begins in the most artistic way, in the place where creativity, exchange, and inclusivity are the sole values and where many of these “dreams” were born during the years: the Global Game Jam.
The Global Game Jam is an annual event, distributed in various cities across the globe, inspired by the Nordic Game Jam, where a number of people with different skills and experience meet in order to form a team and develop a game based on a globally given theme within 48 hours. The Jam starts at 17:00 on a day and ends at 17:00 two days later. This event can be seen much like a crunch of one week’s worth of work into 48 hours. To us game devs it is is more like a big party – it’s the Christmas of the game dev’s calendar.
There are three words that stay true to the spirit of the GGJ: innovation, experimentation, collaboration.
I think it would be futile to explain the meaning of the words but I can tell you these ideas are the backbone of a very big global community, aware of the weight and the reach of their products, which assumes its responsibilities accordingly and pushes on a spirit of free, creative, inclusive development, in order to create new friendships, collaborations and possibilities.
The biggest issue when attending a Jam to me is time management – more specifically, your perception of the time you’ve got. If you think about making a game in two days, you’ll only feel a great limitation and too much hurry, but if you think that with an eight hour day job it would make for six days of work, you’ll understand that you have in fact plenty of time to plan things and make a decent and funny product. Perceiving your time in one or another way can really make a difference in how you approach the different steps, from the brainstorming to the early prototypes to the playtesting and so on. What I’m trying to say here is that your mindset can make the biggest difference in how you approach a problem, and that’s what has happened to our team in a slightly different way and possibly lead us to create something better without knowing it. That year, I was part of one very small team: it was me and Danjel Ricci, a really skilled programmer. We told each other that we wanted to make some artsy game, something deep and full of meaning. We were daydreaming because we were confident the theme would have been the usual open theme, that could fit lots of different interpretations, a task we always failed at, but this time we felt like we were ready to let the creativity flow. That year, instead of the much-expected abstract theme, we got one single, precise word: ritual. We stopped dreaming and all we felt was a little disappointment for this theme. That’s when things changed, but we didn’t really notice what we were doing. We decided that, since all our dreams were broken, we:
- would have slept
- would have done things with no rush
- would have made the first nice idea that would eventually come to our minds
- all of this after taking a walk in the historical centre of Rome.
It was during our walk that I come up with this idea of performing an exorcism; more specifically I told Danjel about having to type a prayer to kill the enemy. Danjel found it a cool idea but it wasn’t enough for him to create some tension.
“And then what?”, he asked
“And then…you dodge bullets”, I replied.
That was our easy idea, the first nice thing that came to our minds. We rushed back to Adrian’s temple, wonderful location of that year’s Jam and we began the development process without ever forgetting to make this task as easy as possible and have a good time while at it. It was probably that specific mindset that helped us in the development of such an idea that felt coherent and solid overall.
We took things lightly and all that happiness got transferred in the gameplay and in those who played.
Good ideas come and go on a daily basis. The real difference is in the implementation of such ideas. The parts that I remember the most of those days aren’t the shoot patterns nor the art or the animation but the design choices we made. The best design choices are the ones that with a small effort bring a whole lot of improvement to the experience. In our game, you have this small character and another small enemy, the enemy shoots tons of bullets and the player must dodge the bullets and type the exorcism at the same time. Now the exorcism was a long phrase drawn on the bottom part of the screen. We had this problem that every player had to look in the bottom part of the screen to read and by doing this they didn’t look at the character anymore. I will always remember the help that came from Marco Giammetti that day, he’s a GGJ veteran gifted with huge skills and never-ending creativity. His suggestion was simple: put the current word above the character’s head. That choice needed ten lines of code and one minute of our time and the game become way more enjoyable. This was the first in a long series of design problems we had to face during these three years of development. The point is that we made a game that is somewhat the first of its kind. Even if this is basically a 50% typing game and a 50% shoot-‘em-up, once you put all the elements together you find yourself in front of a whole new thing that has a need for unique solutions and doesn’t allow any more to solve its design problems by looking at its ancestors. At the end of the 48 hours, we had a product that made everyone laugh and have lots of fun, so when the time for deciding the best game came, we got the majority of the votes. We were speechless at first but above all, we were happy and proud of the result.
Product and promotion
At the end of a Jam there’s always the same question: what to do with that software you have produced. We decided that it wasn’t worth our time to bring this idea to development and sadly we just stopped working on it. After a couple of weeks, I got a message from Matteo Corradini, who later became the writer of the game because he saw some videos about the game and he wanted to talk.
Matteo is a well-known writer and an actor and he’s known especially for his work in the comic trio “The Pills”. He is definitely a peculiar writer and he had the right mindset to tell such a weird story.
We met, and he told me that he wanted to write a story for a game with a unique gameplay mechanic. He believed that this game was really unique, we made our evaluations and once we were ready we started working on a design document. After six months of thinking, we had found our pixel artist: Giuseppe Misbug Longo, who is one of the best Italian pixel artists and animators and has worked on a number of beautiful projects across the years. The core team was formed, we were ready for development and we had defined roles, the roadmap and the overall contents of the final product.
It was my first project for desktop platforms and that meant jumping into a huge market with its own high expectations. For this reason, we had to start in the best possible way. We made a well-refined prototype with one big boss fight and we began to attend events to showcase our product around. We went to the GameOver in Milan, Comicon in Naples, various events in Rome, and Codemotion Amsterdam. We were slowly and steadily collecting all kind of feedback but, generically speaking, everyone agreed that our game was pretty unique, maybe fit for a niche of gamers, but most probably the first of its kind.
Codemotion Amsterdam was our first approach outside Italy and our first encounter with a different audience, very different from Italian players. We faced our first talks and even if we were complete newbies we did our best. We got to know many different programmers in all fields who gave us all sorts of advice and someone suggested us to add online leaderboards, one thing that players would have loved, especially if the plan was to publish a free demo on Gamejolt and Itch.IO and that was our case. At the end of Codemotion Amsterdam, we received a prize and we won a booth at the Casual Connect in Seattle.
Casual Connect is an event that lasts for three days and it’s held at different times during the year in different cities across the globe. During this event, we had the chance to arrange a number of meetings with the other exhibitors, so that was our first time trying to pitch our game to publishers. There were a few but everything was very relaxed and we had plenty of time to arrange our meetings and to talk to publishers with ease and no hurry. At the same time, we had reached 30% of development and we sent a demo to many other publishers and we were collecting their feeds. Many of them asked if we could arrange a meeting at the upcoming Gamescom, so we decided that after Seattle we would have planned our trip to Koln.
Gamescom is the biggest exhibition in Europe centred around games, a must for devs and players alike. It lasts for five days and has visitors’ areas and business areas, there are tons of developers, tons of journalists, and lots of publishers of course. We didn’t get a booth, instead, we decided we would walk endlessly inside the exhibition with our laptop and pitch our game to every publisher we could. Now try to imagine pitching your game in three minutes with loud music, a crowd pushing, down on our knees trying to hold the laptop while playing.
At some point we reached Headup Games stand: a renowned German publisher with a certain bias for creative and somewhat courageous indie games. When we arrived they already knew us, everybody knew our game, they said they were big fans of our product, it was a unique idea but there was only a problem: it was unplayable! I think this was the worst thing we had heard, but in the end, they became our publisher.
Our biggest mistake in that phase was not worrying at all about a gamepad version of our game, we didn’t see such implementation as a problem and since our game was primarily a typing game, we just did our pitches with the keyboard version. This became a huge problem since all publishers had no clue about how it would feel with a gamepad and they just declined our game because it wasn’t playable on consoles. We tried to get in touch again after the Gamescom by sending a gamepad version of our game but it was late. Headup Games were the only ones that said: “OK, it’s missing gamepad support but we can think about that at a later stage”. So we started discussing every detail and we signed our contract after a few months.
We didn’t ask for any funding for the development since we all had our day jobs. Instead, we requested funds for marketing and to create an OST with the help of some known composer. We opted for GosT, a dark synthwave music producer. He was really interested and, after some time, we got an agreement. We finally had our OST. The game was at 60% of the development cycle and another year had passed. At that moment, our publisher submitted our game to get a small booth at the Gamescom 2018, at the Indie Arena Megabooth. The Indie Arena is an area inside the visitors’ area where you could find 80 indie games selected by a committee. We were looking for some feedback from players and, of course, we found it. It’s been a very tiring experience, we talked with thousands of players and we received an impressive number of feedbacks. We were really excited and satisfied with the results and now the only thing missing was completing the game and promoting it.
Once we got back from the Gamescom, we began an endless crunch time phase. It was like a never-ending 90% of the development cycle. I’m aware that while I was developing night and day, I couldn’t find any time to follow all other fundamental aspects of the game. Without Headup’s support I would have never been able to do a single thing to properly promote our game, to answer questions, to handle the press release and so on. We choose 14 February for release. One month before release, we started sending steam keys to streamers and the first articles began to show up: we had received some good coverage from websites like PCGamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Polygon, PasteMagazine. We’ve been working hard until the very end. On the release date we were all in a hurry and right after the launch, we began working again. Players made many requests and they also found some bugs – everyone was supportive. We had this small and loyal community, and they helped us refine the game. Since release we are updating the game once a week: we fix bugs and add features. This has created a very positive channel with our customers and they tend to say how prompt we are in listening to their feedback. In my opinion, even if this game is like a child of mine, and even if I have raised this child for three years, now it belongs to everyone and now our team is working for this game, but the creative process and the design belongs to us and to all players as well. All good ideas that came from the community are very good ideas and there’s no reason not to implement those. I think that working hard to add the requested features is the least I can do to make this game really complete. That’s my way to keep those three ideas true even at this stage: collaboration, experimentation, innovation.
Making a game is an activity that requires big sacrifices. In the small and the big things, there’s much tension and many beautiful moments; it makes you grow, it always takes away something from you but replaces this thing with something new. This story began among friends in a Jam in Rome and in three years it brought us all over the world and let us exit our local reality to dive into something that’s bigger than us. It gave us a lot and I can definitely say that it’s been an incredible adventure. The only thing we didn’t take into account is that the release would have been just the end of a chapter instead of the end of the story. So now I think I’ll get back to coding, still dreaming about the end of this project and the beginning of another, that may bring us growth, satisfaction and that may keep fuelling our will to dream and make every player out there happy.