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Friday, February 16, 2018

Join the Heist: Launch Day (Part 3)

To celebrate the launch of Burgal's Bounty on iOS and Android, I have been publishing a blog series chronicling the development cycle of the game.  This is third and final part of the series.

Making a game is hard enough.  Aside from the development, the asset creation, the music, the sound, the game play, the level design, and the sheer creativity that is often required, you then have to try your hardest to market and promote the game.  There are various avenues you can take to try to succeed in this area and some of it depends on the platform you are developing for.  In short, this process is god awful.  Unless you have an epically large marketing budget, the only way you will make any money from a mobile game is an App Store feature.  Getting featured with Apple is a constantly evolving process.  In the early days, it was possible to just get noticed by Apple without any intense effort on your part.  Once you get featured it is theoretically easier to have future titles featured.  I do not know if this is still true, but you are assigned an Apple contact who you can work with on future apps to help get them featured.  Having that account rep is key.  And how does someone go about getting featured without an account rep?  There are various channels to basically ask Apple for a feature, but none of them are guaranteed.  The next logical step might be to find someone who has a contact already and ask them to publish your game.  That’s right, this next part in this epic story is about my failed attempt at finding a publisher.  I suspect it might be easier for non mobile games as mobile has become such a toxic market (in my opinion).  As of today, launch day, Burgal’s Bounty does not have a publisher.  My attempts to find a publisher started spring of 2016 and ended in November of 2017.  I reached out to numerous publishers.  Some were cold calls, and a few were not.  I won’t include every experience in this story, but I will include the the most memorable ones.  I unfortunately will not mention the names of any publishers.  I signed some NDAs along the way, but I can’t remember which publishers I signed them for, so to stay on the safe side I am going to just not mention any names at all.  I will use creative fake names though :)

Publisher One - WeGameYou:
WeGameYou enthusiastically approached me in early 2016 at a PlayCrafting expo.  They loved the art style and the game play.  We had a couple of meetings and stayed in touch for a few months.  I did some research on them before considering signing with them.  A typical publisher agreement usually has a 70 / 30 split - 70 for the developer and 30 for the publisher (this is of course after the App Store takes their cut).  WeGameYou wanted half.  That seemed a little ridiculous to me and off-putting enough to not want to sign.  Through PlayCrafting I met someone who did sign on with them.  I spoke with him, but unfortunately did not get a lot of information.  Ultimately, his game did not get featured so that was another blow against WeGameYou.  I stopped talking with them in 2017.  The person I was working with at WeGameYou had quit, and someone else from the company reached out to me on a Slack group.  I told them I would be interested if the split were a 70 / 30 agreement.  I never heard from them again which was probably a blessing in disguise.  Given their initial interest I was optimistic I could find others that would be interested in the game.
Publisher the Second - Supreme Leader China:
The next publisher I reached out to hit me pretty hard in terms of how it affected me emotionally and ultimately the course of the game.  I knew someone who had published two games with Supreme Leader China.  They are a Canadian publisher from my home province in Canada - They were recently acquired by a Chinese company, hence the name I gave them.  I literally had 2 degrees of separation from the founder of the company which also made me kind of optimistic as well.  I pitched the game to them using the relationships I had the best I could.  They played it.  They enjoyed the humor in the cutscenes, but ultimately the response was: “Sorry, I just really didn’t get into it.  Good luck with your launch!”  I had built them up a lot in my head.  In my mind I was already super excited about working with these guys, and they rejected me.  More than that - they rejected my game which had “a lot” of me in it.  Needless to say I was pretty shaken by this and needed to regroup.  

The words “Sorry, I just really didn’t get into it” stayed with me.  It really made me wonder if Burgal’s Bounty was a bad game or not.  I spoke with Harry about some possible changes and improvements we could make to the game to hopefully give it a broader base appeal.  Enter:  Panic Dynamic Mode (and as an extension, Boss Mode).  In an attempt to get a broader audience for the game, I took the existing strict puzzle mechanic where you plot Burgal’s course before starting each maze, and made it all real time.  This mode gave more of the addictive game play you might see in some endless runners, and I liked that - and the players liked it too.  I was successful in finding more interest in the game.  Some people ended up liking Panic Dynamic mode more than the Puzzle mode.  This was reassuring to me.  For whatever reason, as I had already let scope blow up, I decided to add in boss fights.  I thought about the boss fight idea for a loooong time - all the way back to when I was working on the previous Android version, but thought it was way too much effort and scope would blow out of control.  As I had already let scope go out of control I thought, “What the hell,” and decided to make some boss fights.  Good god man, it took so much effort to do the bosses in this game (as it does for any game that has complex boss fights).  I almost regret the decision, but they all turned out very well.  After introducing Panic mode, I resubmitted it to Supreme Leader China.  They gave the same response as before and I decided they could fuck off.  Onwards to the next one!

The Third Publisher of this story - N & N:
Not to be mistaken for the delicious M & M candies, N & N were another publisher I met through PlayCrafting.  And unfortunately like the previous publishers this one ended up being a negative experience as well.  In early 2017, Burgal’s Bounty was at two large video game expos:  MagFest, and PAX East.  MagFest was a very positive experience, but I met absolutely no publishers there and there was barely any press coverage on the game.  However between MagFest and PAX East, PlayCrafting hosted one of their demo and play nights.  At these nights, numerous local game developers demo their game to an audience and afterwards the attendees have a chance to play.  Here is where I met N & N!  PlayCrafting also partnered with this publisher to organize their presence at PAX East and N & N invited me to attend PAX East with PlayCrafting.  It was my first time going to PAX and it was pretty exciting.  It was also a somewhat overwhelming experience.  In any event, after showing strong interest in my game, N & N dropped me without a rational explanation.  I was told it was too far from being launch ready.  This wasn’t all bad.  They had a Project Manager assigned to me for a few days that did some testing and gave a lot of useful feedback.  Despite the helpful feedback, this was another rejection.  This rejection was more jarring than the one with Supreme Leader China.  I suspended work on the game for an entire month while I let myself have a break.  After the month off I decided to focus on just getting the game done and would not hunt for a publisher again until closer to launch.   And finally in November of 2017 I made one last attempt at finding a publisher...

The Last Publisher - The Ghoster:  
Have you ever been ghosted by a date?  Many people have.  But I have also been ghosted by a publisher too!  By the point I reached out to the The Ghoster, Burgal’s Bounty was virtually done.  All of the content was in the game and it was just series of polishing and fixing a few bugs here and there.  I had considered completely giving up on a publisher and just attempt to self publish (and also hope and pray that maybe it would get featured and get some downloads).  However, I was at another PlayCrafting expo (PlayNYC) and I ran into someone from the game dev community who recommended I reach out to this one last publisher.  So I decided to give it one last shot.  The first indication that something wasn’t right about them should have been that their website submission button to submit publisher requests was broken.  It was sending information to an e-mail address with a domain name that did not exist.  I changed the e-mail address domain to that of their website and sent it hoping that it would be correct.  This time it went to the inbox of someone that had quit the company… We are already off to a wonderful start here.  Fortunately, I had the name of a person who worked there as a result of my PlayCrafting contact.  I guessed her e-mail address and sent it directly to her.  I got an out of office reply, but at least it was a valid e-mail address.  Eventually they got back to me and had me sign an NDA and asked for a copy of the game,  I sent them a copy, and after a week of not hearing back from them I followed up…  They did not respond.  And that was anticlimactic end to my attempts of finding a publisher.

Just because finding a publisher was a crapshoot, it did not mean I gave up on promoting the game.  As the end of 2017 approached, PlayCrafting hosted the 2017 Bit Awards.  Burgal’s Bounty was not nominated for anything, but PlayCrafting was planning on playing game trailers for upcoming games between each of the awards during the show.  I submitted the assets that were requested by PlayCrafting and they confirmed it would be shown during the Bit Awards.  I attended.  I generally enjoyed myself.  I watched every award and every trailer that was played.  The trailer for Burgal’s Bounty did not play.  PlayCrafting apologized to me and said there was a technical mishap and Burgal’s Bounty was shuffled out of the playlist.  Despite being rather angry about this, I did sort of see this as “just another rejection” from the already exceedingly challenging promotional part of game development. 

Edit: PlayCrafting apologized profusely for the mishap and invited me to show at their Demo & Play night on launch day as a pseudo launch party.  It was a very enjoyable night.  Thanks PlayCrafting!

I want to end this on a positive note as this entire last portion of the blog has been defeat after defeat after defeat.  Game creation is hard work and it is not for the faint of heart.  I am fortunate.  While having a full time day job has made it very difficult to make fast progress on the game, it has also allowed me to invest in the game, go to expos, and spend some money on certain things.  Stringent discipline was required to get through this.  I can tell you I have not given myself a lot of time for fun over the last 2 years.  I have barely played any video games, I have committed, by and large, between 10 to 20 hours each week on game development on top of my full time day job which would take up 40 to 50 hours of my time a week.  It would not have been possible if I did not have the flexibility working from home has allowed me.  I truly feel for people who have the passion to do this and quit their day jobs and ultimately end up with a failed game.  I do not need to worry about where my next pay check will come from.  While I very much want Burgal’s Bounty to be successful, if it is not I will not be financially ruined.

This has been a positive, although challenging, experience.  I love making games and I will always love doing it even if I never see a success.  If you are a game developer, I want to tell you never give up on the pursuit of your passion.  It is my opinion that games are the ultimate art form.  Games combine so much talent from so many disciplines in a truly interactive, creative, and often beautiful form of artistic expression.  If you are a game player - please keep on playing and keep having fun.  Games are pivotal to the human experience.  It is how we learn, how we socialize, how we play, and how we unplug from the real world very often.  

Today is the iOS and Android launch day for Burgal’s Bounty.  The game is available on the App Store and on Google Play.  A lot has gone into this game.  It is a solid puzzle/arcade game with unique graphics, fun gameplay, entertaining story, great music, and has a fair monetization model.  I hope you enjoy playing this game as much as I have enjoyed making it!  

Thank you for reading and keep playing!  


Friday, January 12, 2018

Join the Heist: Behind the Burgal (Part 2)

With the upcoming launch of Burgal's Bounty, I wanted to write about the long history of the game and some of the challenges of the development process. Burgal's Bounty is coming to iOS and Android on February 15th, 2018. 

Join the Heist: The Story of a Burglar named Burgal and the Game he Starred in (Part 1)

In January of 2015 I put in a request for a leave of absence from work with the plan on quitting at the end of it.  Shortly after doing that I was introduced to Orian Livnat (real name) of Liv Games. Orian was someone who did in fact take the plunge and started making games full time.  When we first spoke, the first piece of advice he provided me with was this: “Don’t quit your day job.”  Unfortunately, as I was so burned out from my day job, I was at a point where continuing to live the road warrior life would make me more miserable than taking the risk of not making any money by developing video games.  I told myself I was going to ignore that advice. The next advice Orian gave me was that because Phat Professional Burglar was a mobile game, it needed a shorter name (maybe something with alliteration). This was taken into consideration and Tom suggested that we call the game Burgal’s Bounty. The final piece of advice was to replace the graphics. The style of the 2010 Windows Phone release of the game needed a serious update.  Tom was unable to do new artwork for the game at this point in his life and I was not a graphics artist - but I did know another one.  For the sake of this story we will call her Betty Anne. Betty Anne and I had talked about doing a game together on and off for awhile over the last couple of years. I approached her about Burgal's Bounty and she seemed to be onboard.  By this time, the game was largely done...except for the fact the entire thing needed to be graphically re-skinned which Betty Anne thought would take a few months to accomplish. 

Betty Anne created some very cool Phat Games branding and character design for Burgal’s Bounty. Further to that, Harry, the music guy, wrote 5 pretty awesome tracks for the game. The game had graphics, had puzzles, and had music. Everything seemed to be moving along pretty well and we are on target to launch for the Android finally in June of 2015.

April came along, and it was time to make a decision on my job. Heeding Orian’s advice, I decided not to quit. I was able to negotiate my way into a full time work from home position. It was manageable to work on my game and have a work from home full time job.  I don't think it would have been nearly as manageable if I were traveling weekly still, or if I had any lengthy commute.  It also removed all financial concerns from the process which was actually a pretty great feeling! 

June arrived.  I did it! I launched my first game since childhood!  I did it on a common and modern platform. Everything was great now. All I had to do was start the iOS port and then I would get rich from these versions, right...right? No, that definitely would not happen. But, I would get some downloads, right? Also, not really.  I would get possibly some downloads that weren’t by friends, right?  Yes, after I paid for some user acquisition there seemed to be a little bit of popularity in Brazil.  

Releasing a game taught me I had no clue what the hell I was doing. While Burgal’s Bounty had all the same puzzles as the previous 2 releases did, it lacked a good tutorial, UI, and proper difficulty progression. It also lacked any sort of financially sound way of reaching a broad audience to give it a chance for it to make any money. After all of this, I learned I had no idea what I was doing, and developing the game in a vacuum for all those years certainly did not help. Why did I not walk away at this point, and not bother with the iOS port? Largely because I think I was stubborn, and I was going to do the iOS port in a proper tool: Unity. I had never used Unity before, but it was time to learn. After all, how hard could it be?

Learning Unity was actually not that hard at all, but it certainly took a little awhile.  I started the iOS port with much of the Android version’s codebase. Good news was that a lot of the code was portable from Java to C#.

Shortly after launch, a friend from San Francisco and I met up at a bar in New York.  His name is Matt Conn - CEO of Midboss. He is the organizer of GaymerX and he invited me to show my game at GaymerX3 (GX3) that December. This would be my first major expo where I would be showing the game, minus a few New York PlayCrafting expos**.

In August of 2015, my then significant other noticed something peculiar about the artwork for Burgal’s Bounty.  It did not look original, so I did some investigation.  After spending an entire evening uploading images to Google’s reverse image search, I had found that all of the assets in Burgal’s Bounty were not original with the exception of the character art and logo branding!  Well… that night I downed an entire bottle of wine and did not sleep very well.  The next day I contacted my artist and asked her about these findings.  She denied it.  I presented the evidence and she proceeded to get upset with me because I had hurt her feelings or something.  Many of the assets she used were not licensable for commercial use - including the game’s core mechanic: The Arrows.  As a result, licensing was not an option.  After speaking to a lawyer friend of mine, I was advised to pull the game from Google Play.  Betty Anne and I never spoke again.***

Burgal’s Bounty had 1100 downloads by the time it was pulled (most of it through paid user acquisition).  It was live for less than 2 months.  I did learn a number of valuable lessons from the experience.  If you look back at some of my blog posts over the years (as sporadic as they may have been) I think I glossed over the Android release and tried to pass it off as some soft launch.  I have not previously talked about the graphic issue on the blog.

I had no idea what to do next.  I had no viable game to market to the masses.  I had no way to market to the masses.  I had no graphics.  I had learned that many of the game's levels were way too hard.  I had music.  But no game or graphics for the music to go with.  I definitely no longer had a game for GaymerX3. At this point I should have walked away and took some time off to figure out my next project.  They say failure is part of the learning process.  I never really saw this as a failure though.  I thought you only fail if you give up and giving up is also not really in my nature - It's the stubbornness thing. 

One evening while was sitting on the train making my way to an Indie Game Developers meetup, my mind was churning through the recent events as I brainstormed a way to move forward.  My mind, once again, drifted back to my childhood - as that always seemed to be the most creative time of my life.  I made these silly comic strips when I was in elementary school to waste time when I should have been paying attention in class - or some boring thing like that.  The art style was very basic, but for what the comics were, it worked.  From there, I started to think about taking a radical departure from the art direction that Burgal’s Bounty had used previously in all of it's incarnations.  I thought of doing a crude comic style.  The idea continued to grow in my mind throughout the night and when I got home I started some sketches of Burgal. Over the next couple of weeks I put together some stop motion paper crumple effects to go with the crude artwork.  After showing it to a few people and getting positive feedback, the fourth incarnation of Burgal’s Bounty was born.  This time, I would be the artist.

First sketch of Burgal and Burgette

With the change of direction with the art style, I decided I would also give the game a story.  I would create real time in game cutscenes that tell the story of Burgal’s Bounty, and why Burgal was stealing money.  This is how Burgal’s super sexy girlfriend, Burgette, was introduced into the game.  By this time I had wonderful ideas, and a small degree of confidence I might pull off the artwork, so it was time that I dive right in and get the game moving again.  What could possibly go wrong?

I don’t know how to draw!  For some reason I started with the thing you should do towards the end when it comes to making a game.  The game icon.  I had no actual game assets - just a few sketches of how Burgal would look.  When I finished the game icon it looked hideous.  That little bit of confidence I had going into this quickly vanished and a feeling of dread once again consumed me.  I remember texting the graphic to my brother (and former graphic artist for the original two versions of Phat Professional Burglar) saying: “This looks awful, doesn’t it?”  And that’s when I got my confidence back.  He suggested a few small changes to it, and all of sudden it really came to life.  I did not post this icon to any facebook / Discord / Slack groups.  I just decided that this was going to be the game’s icon without any real feedback from the public.  I have, however, used it as my profile picture in various Slack and Discord groups resulting in my getting the nickname Batman...  I guess there is a small resemblance.

GX3 was 3 months away.  I still didn’t have a playable game built in Unity, but I did have a lot of graphics designed now.  I had to quickly change gears and finish coding the thing before December.  I took 20 levels from the Android / Windows Phone / MS DOS release (almost all of the levels were the same across the versions) and reskinned them for the game.  I had my first ever public demo of the 4th version of Burgal’s Bounty ready in time for the expo.  This was absolutely the most personal version of the game.  The graphics were all me.  The sound effects were all me (previous versions used sound from stock sites - but largely the latest version was all made by me using the amazing sound of my voice ;) ).  And most of the levels in this build were designed by me.  I was ready to have my project torn apart - I mean shown off - to the public for 3 days in San Jose, California.

I won!  I won!  That is to say the expo was a lot of fun, and Burgal’s Bounty won Best Indie at GX3’s social media contest.****  The experience was extremely validating, and motivating.  Going forward I would begin working on the “overworld” / level select screens and move onto the game’s opening cutscene. 

As I previously mentioned, Burgal’s Bounty originally had no story.  Version four was going to get a deep and intricate story though with murder and intrigue!  No I am just kidding.  This game’s story does not take itself seriously at all.  The first cutscene is about 45 seconds long and it took me about 20 hours to complete with all of the assets, animations, audio, etc.  I enjoyed seeing reactions from people when they would first play it and laugh at jokes, and enjoy the art style.  It gave me some hope that I could continue to actually build an audience for this version of the game.

These confidence boosts sure helped me prepare for the soul destroying effort that finding a publisher would be…

Part 3 is coming soon.


**PlayCrafting is an organization dedicated to game development education.  They are setup in numerous cities throughout the US and also organize a number of game expos.  Find out more about them at 

***Perhaps, to give her the benefit of the doubt, she may have never taken the project seriously as a commercial endeavor.  She may have thought she was just helping out a friend.  In any event, none of that was ever communicated with me and I would rather not speculate.  On the plus side, Betty Anne was working for revenue share in the game.  I did not pay her any money.

****The Best Indie at GX3 was a social media contest.  I made a link on Phat Games’ Twitter feed and on the website that allowed people to send out a Tweet at the click of a button.  It worked, and Burgal’s Bounty won!  Apparently people will help you if you ask and make it easy.  Who would have thought? :P