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We’ve talked to Suncrash – a tiny (only 2 guys) game development company, which has been hard at work creating an intriguing mix of strategy and survival – Judgment: Apocalypse Survival Simulator. CEO and lead developer Tomer Barkan was kind enough to talk about the creative process, production, art-direction, financial pressure and other challenges, which developers have to face. A great tour into the life of the indie dev.
Suncrash is a small team, there’s only two of us in the core team. We have Yoni, the Art Director, who’s in charge of doing or working with freelancers on all our visual materials, for the game, company or marketing. I am the lead (and only) programmer, and also in charge of business, marketing, and everything else. We both come up with ideas and game design. Other than the core team we have a very talented freelance musician, Alon, and other freelancers on a per-need basis.
We got into game development after deciding that it doesn’t make sense to work on anything that is not your passion. You’ll be spending the majority of your waking hours working, either way, so you’ve got to make those hours count! I left my day job in Cyber Security, and Yoni was doing freelance architecture modeling. We created a small android game, just testing the waters out, with another partner, and we saw that making games is doable, and enjoyable, so we decided to make it a career. We immediately abandoned the idea of mobile games, and decided to only make games that we want to play ourselves. It’s not about the money, it’s about making a living from what you love.
Judgment was actually our 4th attempt at a game. The first 3 had some things in common, but what made Judgment more interesting was the detailed simulation game, where most previous attempts were more of a high level strategy sort.
It started as an idea, and we fleshed it out as we went. We didn’t plan well in advance all the different components of the game. This was our first serious project and we kinda learned on the go. The game went through huge changes during development, but surprisingly they were mostly balancing and adding more stuff. We didn’t have to change our core mechanics, only tweak and polish them.
We played with the idea of having a game flow similar to X-Com, where you have a greater goal, and to achieve it you need to combine strategy and resource management, with tactical missions. As much as we loved X-Com, we felt like it was all about the tactical combat, with a pretty linear strategic phase. We wanted to improve that concept by making the two parts (strategy and tactical) equally important, and having a strong, direct effect on each other. You can’t succeed in the strategy game without succeeding in the tactical missions, and you can’t succeed in the tactical missions if you are not well equipped, which requires success in the strategic section.
Another great inspiration for us was Rimworld. Not only did we enjoy the game so much, but it was also very inspiring see a game created by a similarly small team (at least originally) become such a widespread phenomenon.
We had a working game with the core mechanics of simulation and combat up and running in less than a month. We used placeholder graphics and keyboard based user interface. Once we saw that the core mechanics work, and are enjoyable, we started creating everything around them – graphics, user interface, content, balancing, and of course more and more mechanics. We did not use a prototype. I believe in writing organized, robust code from the get go. Even when testing an idea for a game, you should be able to add, remove or change components without having to re-write everything.
About two months after starting work on Judgment we had a chance to showcase it in Indiecade East, in New York. Watching players play and enjoy our game for the first time was an amazing, and motivating experience, that fueled our development process for months to come. Next was the private alpha, in which the game was played by a select group of players that showed interest in the game. We got their feedback, and kept polishing the game until it was ready for a public alpha – Steam Early Access.
We are completely self-funded. Through the first six months of the development I was working full-time to fund our development. After that it was half-time, and about 6 months ago I started working on Judgment full time. Yoni was working on art for Judgment full-time throughout the entire development period.
The income as a senior programmer and our savings from our days as hired employees were enough to pay for the limited expenses that Suncrash has, which is for the most part a small paycheck for us to live by, and freelancers. I’m happy to say that financial pressure was not a big issue for us, it’s more about making a great game, and earning enough to cover our costs, to live by, and hopefully enough to be able to make our next game even better.
Our art direction took quite some time to settle down. The hand-drawn style was there pretty much from the start, but there were many challenges in making a game with this style that feels natural enough, especially combining all the different characters so that they look different from each other, and that you can change weapons, each with its own animations. I actually gave a 90 minutes lecture just about these challenges in a meetup we attended.
In the end we chose to use 2D art for almost everything, except the characters which are 3D and drawn with a custom-made toon shader that makes them appear hand-drawn.
Publishing and Distributing
We didn’t really know much about this when we got started, we learned everything as we went along. We had no clear plan for publishing, although we knew we would distribute it through Steam. When our launch date for early access was getting closer, we decided to do the launch ourselves, mostly using Steam’s native visibility + Youtubers & Twitch streamers that enjoy this type of game. Judgment is a niche game, so marketing it is very different, you don’t need to reach everyone, you only need to reach those players that love, and are hungry for this sort of game.
We found that the best way to market such a game is creating a great game, and that is what we put most our effort in, hopefully doing a good job at it. Steam provides A LOT of visibility for your game. The trick is to convince the players that see your game to buy it, and for that you need a great game. It helps when you have lots of let’s play, review, and other gameplay videos out there. Not just for the traffic and visibility, but also so that players that see the game on Steam, have somewhere they can learn more about the game, from an independent source.
Again, this is true for a niche game like ours, where competition is relatively small, and players are enthusiastic about these games. If we had an action platformer, with a much larger target audience, competing with hundreds of other similar games, I believe our strategy would be completely different.
Tomer Barkan, CEO & Lead Developer at Suncrash
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.