Bill Borman, developer of the first-person platform jumping title, Skylight, talked to TPG about the ins and outs of being indie. Bill also talks about the PC gaming industry, his inspirations and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Skylight.
I’m a software dev and hobbyist musician/audio engineer. I was the only dev on Skylight, so I did the design and modelling/art as well as the programming.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I was working at a place that did mostly touch-based PC apps, which included some small games. Recently they were having some trouble finding enough work, and that and some other factors made me decide it was a good time to leave and work on some stuff I’ve always wanted to do. There’s a game I’ve been wanting to make for years which I’ve actually started working on now. Skylight isn’t that game, but was more of a stepping-stone to it.
Where did the idea for Skylight come from?
I originally just intended to make something small as a learning experience, for getting used to Unity but also for 3D modelling practice etc. I started making something like a 3D Doodle Jump clone because that seemed simple enough but also a good challenge.
As these things go though, it just kept going and going as I was never quite happy with it. I had ascending piano note sounds as the platform sounds, but I decided to expand that into a full-on generated musical ambience. Eventually my time working on it was going from weeks into months, and people on TIGSource seemed to think it was cool, so I thought I better work on it even more and release something so I could actually earn a little of my time back.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Skylight?
It took me longer to make than it should have because the development process was a bit rambling, but from the start, the gameplay was always good. Challenging but fun. You look at the problems Introversion had with Subversion and you realise you’re lucky when “the fun” appears spontaneously.
Marketing was interesting. When I released an album of music at the end of last year, I contacted maybe a hundred music blogs and got a review from precisely none of them. When I finally released Skylight, I contacted a bunch of places and most of them responded. If anything, the biggest sites were some of the first to post reviews.
So that was awesome, but then in reality, even a review on somewhere like Rock, Paper, Shotgun might get a few thousand views, which will translate into a few hundred hits on my site, which will translate to a few people actually deciding to buy the game. And Skylight is $2.50, plus it costs me a tiny bit of money each time someone plays the demo. So it’s not like I’m really going to make any money from this one unless a miracle happens; I think you really need a constant stream of news while you’re developing a game to keep getting exposure to the public as much as possible. But that also extends development time even more and annoys people with your game spam. Plus of course, you still need to make a great game.
In its current form, how close is Skylight to your initial vision?
It’s way above my initial vision of a simple learning project, but it’s still way below what it could be. There’s always so much I could add, but I had to stop sometime or I’d never get to make anything else.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Skylight and if you faced a similar challenge.
Checking out the All-Time High Scores on the Kongregate version (which is a cut-down version of the full game) certainly backs up the former comment. My score of 26,655 dwarfs the next best at 9,977 and I only had one go at it. But then only 300 people have played.
Skylight isn’t meant to be easy to complete, otherwise you’d only get like 15 minutes of play time out of it. And most people haven’t played it enough to get really good at it. I have seen people who aren’t me get to 100% on the full game, but I do think I probably made it a little too hard in the end. The controls are quite floaty (because you’re floating…) which can take a bit of getting used to.
It was really hard to get the balance right and I constantly tweaked it throughout development. Bunny-hopping CS players aced it if I made it too easy, and others fell off the first platform when I made it harder.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Skylight would run on the various PC system configurations?
One of my reasons for using Unity is that I could pretty much assume everything would just work, and it did. I noticed that the colours seem slightly different on Mac, but it’s always built and run perfectly without any tweaks from me.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Skylight.
Art: I tried to keep it minimalist because let’s face it, I’m not very good at art. I’d like to think I know enough to tell when things look bad, but I’m terrible at working out how to make those things look good. The cel-shaded-ness with black outlines helped make the minimalism look good, and made the platforms easier to spot. The platforms are also mostly simple shapes because I was learning Blender as well.
Level Design: Originally I had the platforms going upward in a cylinder shape, but it was way too hard looking around all the time and still keeping track of where things were. The “long path” style of the final game works a lot better. There’s only one “level”, but it’s randomly generated each time, and the level generator knows to make things harder as it goes along, without ever creating something impossible.
Music: The music system isn’t actually so complicated if you know the rules. I have a whole bunch of samples (that I recorded) which are labelled with the note they play. The “music engine” has a set of chords it can select from, and it chooses to play samples based on the chord it currently wants. The rest is details like how and when different notes fade in and out, and volume and panning. As you progress, the music becomes more and more dense and some changes to the rules occur.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
How did you go about funding Skylight and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
I have quite a lot of savings from my previous work to keep me going. My family is also helping out a little bit and hopefully I can pay them something back eventually. At the same time I tried to keep costs to a minimum and didn’t hire in or purchase any outside work for this project.
Tell us about the process of submitting Skylight to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
I only submitted to Desura and a cut-down version to Kongregate. Kongregate was fine (including integrating their API), although I had to mail a bunch of stuff to the US to get a US tax code to reduce the amount of tax on my earnings, and I haven’t got a response. My current Kongregate earnings are 29 cents though (20c after tax), so it’s hardly a big deal.
Desura accepted me right away as well, though I then had a bit of trouble getting everything to work right with their publishing system. But that’s probably more my fault than theirs. I didn’t submit this one to Steam because it’s just a little casual sort of thing. I’ve seen worse games on Greenlight, but that doesn’t mean they should be there.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
I did, and I basically just chose I price that seemed fair when I considered all the factors.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Skylight?
Mostly because everyone asks for a demo. But it’s always good to let people see if they like something before buying.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Skylight from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It was important for balance, and also helped with some ideas. While Skylight was in development I had the dev version available for free, so anyone could try it and give feedback.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Skylight professionally?
I take all reviews seriously, maybe a bit too seriously. But to be honest I think the industry is too nice! When people get sent a free copy of some guy’s game, they seem to really try and do a positive review, but that’s not very trustworthy journalism. Of course I’m not saying they should’ve said Skylight is a bad game – a lot of people seem to genuinely really like it. But I wish the industry wouldn’t be so afraid to criticise. The commenters under reviews sure aren’t!
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Yeah, I might be getting into one actually. They’re a great way to get some extra funds and exposure. The only issue I have is that the bundles, and casual apps in general, are pulling down the price that people expect to pay, which in tern increases the amount of people who have to buy a game for the dev to break even, which in turn means more marketing is required, and more luck. I’ve had multiple people tell me that Skylight should be a lot cheaper, or free. It’s $2.50!
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
It’s a mess. Piracy sucks, and so does DRM. Luckily, I have identified the problem: The Internet. We need to shut down the Internet.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Skylight?
It’s great to see how well (or badly) other people do, plus it’s free marketing of a sort. I’m actually wondering whether I should have an explicit note somewhere saying that posting video footage of the game is OK, since I know it’s technically illegal in many places.
It was also really useful to hear other people’s comments and see them play while I was still developing the game, although I’ve always found other people’s responses to stuff I’ve made pretty stressful to watch for some reason, whether it’s music or games.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I prefer the old way of releasing a finished game and then later maybe an expansion pack or two, but maybe I’m just old. I don’t think DLC is bad as long and features aren’t being cut from the game just to be added back as DLC, and let’s face it, it seems like they often are.
I don’t really like the common microtransaction system either, but it seems to be becoming more and more the done thing. I like Path Of Exile’s “ethical” microtransaction system where it’s only for cosmetic or minor stuff. I hope they can get enough funding from that.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Skylight?
The modding community is great – it always adds value to games. But Skylight is too minor to be part of a modding community. Maybe for my next, as-yet-unannounced game, which would suit that sort of thing more.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Try to get your stuff out there as soon as you think it’s worth people seeing, both for feedback and exposure. You can make the best game in the world, but if no-one knows about it, that doesn’t really matter. Similarly, you can get too close to something and not see obvious flaws, whereas the community will.
We would like to thank Bill for his insightful and detailed answers. You can pick up Skylight via Desura.