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.
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 www.playcrafting.com
***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