Playdew: Creating Indie Games in Pakistan

Playdew talked about the mechanics behind its puzzle adventure Lost Twins 2, discussed the technology used in the game, and shared the difficulties a small company has to face in Pakistan.


Hi, we are the Playdew team. Most of us have gained our education from local universities in Pakistan. Our CEO, Mohsin, is a UC Berkeley MBA and a Fullbright Scholar. Other members of the team have graduated from the top-tier universities of the country, like NUST, FAST, etc. The team is well-versed in their respective fields and has years of experience within the gaming industry, ranging from being a solo hobby developer to working on multiple projects, leading their own ventures, and promoting games. 

The management has experience working with companies like Trango Interactive and Lucasfilm. They have worked with big names in the industry, like Chillingo, PocketGems, Namco, BBTV, and Applovin to name a few, and shipped over 20 titles with more than 7 million downloads. Our recent projects are Robo Quest (Pocket Gems), Dream Chaser (Chillingo), and FotoFinish (Namco). Our most recent project was Explottens, which was published by Apple Arcade. 

The Team

We are a small indie studio based in Pakistan. We started as a game services provider back in 2010б providing game art, QA, and game development services to various clients over the years. While we were doing that and the company was growing, some people thought of developing their own games, and over the years, whenever we got time, we made several little games as an experiment.

I guess our first ever success was Run Sheeda Run, an endless runner game based on the local culture representation. It was well-loved by the people, but we still weren’t that sure if we wanted to officially start making games of our own. We definitely wanted to work on our own titles, but in terms of taking them forward full-time, it was still a big decision. We just wanted to make good games and show them to the public. So, these few people were doing it and testing the market.

In 2019, our title Explottens got selected by Apple Arcade, which grew our faith in the team. Playdew was officially founded in 2021 when we finally decided that the team is capable of making good games and should be operating separately from the services company. 

The current team at Playdew consists of less than 10 people. We got the team together to form a well-equipped studio with developers, artists, QA, and marketers so that they can operate separately and independently.

Lost Twins 2

First was, of course, our existing title of Lost Twins. The feedback we got was positive, and we felt that it should get a sequel. We wanted to revive the title once again since now we were more capable and skilled to make it much better. So, we decided to keep the basic mechanics the same as before and added a bit of arcade-style platforming – timed jumps and interactions, which were not present in the previous versions. For the puzzles, we increased the play area in each tile of the environment. While the whole level is a big puzzle, the single tile can have mini-puzzles to solve, which is an addition to the fun of the gameplay.

We have introduced newer puzzle elements in the game. Lost Twins 2 takes the game a step further with an added storyline, better graphics, and new puzzles to solve. With Lost Twins 2, we tried to keep that simple casual nature of a puzzle game and added a little twist with the interactive environments so the user is solving puzzles and exploring these mystical lands. The game gives you much more to do than just solving puzzles, you have room to explore and enjoy the surroundings within a very calming and relaxing environment. 

Each level is designed with a lot of thought and creative ideas by the team. The levels get increasingly more difficult as the game progresses further with some easier, breather levels in between so the players don’t get overwhelmed with all the puzzles. We divided the game into different zones and decided on the puzzle elements that we wanted to keep in a particular zone. We introduced one puzzle element with 2-3 levels at least so that the player gets comfortable with that particular element or mechanic. Then, we move on to another puzzle element. And later in the zone, we mix multiple elements from the zone making complex levels. 

 For each level, we start with a story in our mind – what should be achieved, which puzzle would fit in the environment, how easy would it be to learn a new puzzle element in that particular level, and the overall look. After all that, we make the environment and the puzzle pieces that serve that purpose. We playtested the levels and made changes to them to maintain a fair level of difficulty, discarding some of the harder levels that got very complex and, in turn, annoyed the users instead of challenging them and being a fun time to play.

Each level is divided into a grid of 2x2, 2x3, or 3x3, where each tile acts as a piece of the whole environment. The players can zoom out to see the whole grid or zoom in to see a specific piece in the grid. In the zoomed-out view, the players can slide the tiles in the grid back and forth until two of the pieces fit together. Sides are connected when all lengths of that side match exactly with the other piece. When two pieces are connected together, the players can zoom in and interact with the objects within those pieces and solve the mini puzzles in those environments. When connected, players and objects can pass through the door or holes in the walls unless that path is blocked, which would indicate that they might need to find another way to reach those places. If the pieces don't fit together properly, there is a force field preventing players/objects from passing through.

The game is based on the story of two twins who have been magically sucked into an unknown world while playing at home. They must work together to solve puzzles and find their way back through vibrant and mystical environments. Both twins can be in different places as the level starts and there are parts of the levels where the path is blocked and is only accessible by one of them so the player has to shift between the characters accordingly and bring them together. But that’s not the only part, the twins have to be together at the exit portal with the Fenghuang bird to complete a level. 

The biggest challenge was coming up with an art style that would suit both zoomed-in and zoomed-out views without looking awkward, creating clutter or confusion for the gameplay while maintaining the mood of the game that we wanted. In terms of design, we had to make sure that not only the puzzles were good in themselves, but also they matched the overall theme and art style of that particular zone so that they would go hand in hand, reinforcing each other, and that nothing looked out of place. Also, from the development side, we had to do a lot of research to achieve the look we wanted while also considering the performance of the game on different machines, especially with low specs.

Our goals aren't really that complex. We want to bring back the title we love and bring it to a larger audience than before and eventually grow into a studio that can work on bigger projects and inspire others to make games. We tried to create a poetic, relaxing, and visually breathtaking experience for the users. The game is challenging and yet doesn’t rush the player to reach for a solution. There is no time limit on solving the puzzles, no deaths involved. Everything is visual, and you can just sit back and relax and just watch the environments and solve the puzzle when you feel like it. Overall, we wanted to create a relaxing and calming experience for the players. Each frame is crafted meticulously with pride: specific lighting techniques, thoughtful composition, and immense attention to detail mean that every single moment you spend playing Lost Twins 2 will be a feast for the eyes. The original musical score is atmospheric, soothing, and thematic to complement the art style.

The Tech Behind The Game

The art is all done digitally. We started with developing mood boards and concept arts for the characters and the environments. We discussed among the team and selected what we thought would best represent the overall mood and feel of the game. The characters are hand-drawn. All the animations are done in Spine 2D. We spent a lot of time perfecting and refining them to bring a cool animation feeling. The Fenghuang bird took a lot of time to perfect. Our initial art designs are a funny-looking sparrow, and from there, it has really come a long way to looking like a phoenix or even an actual Fenghuang. We experimented with different colors and animations for it until we found the one we liked. 

For environments, we used a mix of hand-painted and procedural textures in Substance 3D Painter to get a nice hand-painted feel. However, the secret sauce to making these environments look nice is planning out the layout of the levels and adding small flourishes like plants and rocks with little animations to give it a lively feeling.  The skies are all hand-painted, along with some of the intractable items. It’s a mix of multiple shading techniques, where we leveraged toon-shading on 3D objects to mix them with 2D characters. 

To save time on repetitive tasks, our devs use pre-made modules, like Menu system, sound system, and others. We chose Unity as our game engine mostly because it's much easier to start with it. Most game developers have already worked with it before starting their professional careers, so getting a skilled resource for Unity is much less time-consuming. Secondly, it's multi-platform, so it enables us to take our game to various different platforms. With all the online support forums and tutorials, we would be able to train new resources or seek help, unlike with other available options. 

The Game Industry in Pakistan

For a long time, no one really thought about making games in Pakistan. We were mostly focused on playing games, and the youth participated in various e-sports competitions and even won prizes. Pakistan was on the consumer side of gaming for an extended time period. Only after the emergence of smartphones and mobile gaming, around 2010, we saw a few game development studios, the first ones to consider game development a worthwhile business investment. 

There was an estimate of a couple of hundred game studios working in the country, most of them based in Lahore or Islamabad, those being the two cities producing the largest number of IT graduates. The industry is mostly mobile-focused, producing casual and hyper-casual game titles. A lot of freelancers and studios are mainly stuck on providing services for other studios and attract a lot of interest from the other markets due to low development costs. Almost all of the studios are led by men and have a heavily male-dominated workforce.

Depending on the type of game you want to make, entry into the industry could be really easy or the toughest task ever. A simple hyper-casual title can be made within a week or so, but if someone is aiming for complex titles, acquiring the right resources and capital for such a project is next to impossible.

Another problem we face is platforms not offering support in the region. Especially for consoles, none of the console platforms operate or offer their services in the region. In order to make a game on these platforms, foreign collaborations become necessary. 

Gamedev-related education would solve a lot of problems for the industry. Unfortunately, we don’t have any formal education regarding the industry here. Most game developers come from a software engineering or computer science background, which gives them technical knowledge. However, there are much more technicalities in game making. We severely lack game designers, game artists, narrative writers, and business experts in the gaming industry. It's quite difficult to acquire a skilled resource in the local market and it's unaffordable to hire foreign talent.

Despite all that, we see gaming to be one of the emerging industries in the future. Recently, we have seen international interest in the market and academia has started to pick up and look for ways to introduce relevant courses. However, we still lack a full degree program oriented towards game development. The gaming studios are increasing in number with each passing day and hopefully, they will push the industry towards a better future. 

Business Challenges

For Playdew, it's the first experience dealing with the business side. Being a new name in the market, we face a lot of challenges and doubts from potential partners. Most of our budget remains focused on the development, leaving little to no amount for promotion. We certainly want to work on bigger titles, but even looking at our current game, its scope had to be limited because of budget constraints. There is always a struggle between offering enough features to maintain the players’ interest and having enough budget to develop the game. We have been pretty restricted on social media or other organic channels to seek attention towards our title. 

The main challenge for us has always been the costs. With all the major gaming events happening in the US or Europe, we don’t have much of a choice. Even if we do consider participating, the tickets cost hundreds to thousands of dollars and that doesn’t include the travel and accommodation costs yet. The ever-growing exchange rates add more and more to these rising prices. Getting capital for the development is also a struggle since there are very limited opportunities. In the international gaming community, local grants or some kind of angel investment is available for many developers, which is not the case for us, nor we could opt for crowdfunding. 

The Pandemic Influence

If we overlook the negatives, like our team members getting sick and seeing all the suffering around us, COVID has been pretty much a blessing for us since everything turned virtual. Due to that, we were able to participate in various events for free or at a very low cost. People were more open to talking and exploring other markets, and at many events, we found ourselves to be the only game developers from Pakistan, which was a great feeling but also a sad one since we want to see more representation from our region. We didn’t need to travel to the other side of the world to talk to potential partners, and networking was much easier compared to the normal routine. 

With lockdowns and everything, we struggled a bit initially to continue our work. However, with some effort put into setting proper routines and communication, we were all ready to make games. Previously, we were working from the office but now we follow a pretty flexible work routine. Some team members work from the office, some like a hybrid of office and home, while others work remotely. This new change has enabled us to offer the employees flexibility to make their own work arrangements depending on how they feel comfortable. However, proper communication is the key to such a working routine, and we make sure that everything is properly aligned and clearly communicated among the team members. 

Playdew, Indie Game Developer

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more