Daniel Cook, Lead Designer for the city building/match 3 title, Triple Town, speaks to TPG about all things indie, the PC gaming industry, shaking the casual stigma and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Triple Town.
I’m Daniel Cook, the lead designer for Triple Town. I was heavily involved in the prototyping, balancing, art and other general design tasks. If you want to blame someone for the bears, I’m your guy.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’ve been developing PC games since the early 90’s. My first commercial game was the vertically scrolling shoot’em up called Tyrian, published by Epic Megagames.
Where did the idea for Triple Town come from?
For many years I’ve been a fan of the Grow series of games by Eyemaze. In these, you slowly add elements to the world, the elements interact and the world unfolds and blossoms before you. With so many games being about destruction, any game that involves building something from nothing holds a special place in my heart. And they are so simple to play! Just click and go. So I gave myself a challenge: Design an infinitely replayable Grow-style game.
Yet the Eyemaze games also bugged the game designer in me. They are single-shot puzzles. You figure them out and then you are done. The delightful animations are consumed once. The cause and effect sequence is discovered once. Each new version of Grow takes months, if not years to produce. And the player burns through all that painstaking labor in minutes. Triple Town grew out of this original Grow challenge. It is its own game, but it keeps a simple UI, the delight of watching your map grow over time and of course the focus on building instead of destruction.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Triple Town?
A really great thing to see was how all types of players embraced the game. It looks simple on the surface, but it takes some serious brain power to build the top buildings in the game. We were seeing ‘hard core’ play patterns, but instead of having a relative narrow ‘hard core’ audience, a whole spectrum men, women and families playing with great skill and intensity. It makes me happy to look at the Twitter feeds and see people from all over the world feeling passionately about the same game.
One of the big difficulties was trying to adapt what is ultimately a very elegant, minimalist single player game to the new business reality of micro transactions and supporting online servers. I’m really happy we were able to come out with a version on Steam that is a traditional standalone game for a fair price and no extra purchases. I think it is good to experiment with a variety of payment options and see which ones fit the game and the players.
In its current form, how close is Triple Town to your initial vision?
Quite close. We ended up with a rather tight evergreen title and there’s something very pure about the final ruleset. We’ve seen people try to improve upon it and usually they end up just making it more complicated. Some have experimented with adding a story or missions, but you end up with a game you beat instead of a constant companion you can play for years.
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 Triple Town and if you faced a similar challenge.
The biggest challenge for most players is a cognitive leap from treating Triple Town as a random casual game to treating it as an intelligent strategy game. With casual games, players often just click semi-randomly and are rewarded with pretty colors. You can play that way in Triple Town, but you won’t get very far. Instead, the game is all about planning multiple moves ahead. Once that idea clicks, players tell us that it feels more like the Civilization of Match-3 games. I’m not quite sure how to teach this and we’ve gone through lots of tutorial attempts. I’m starting to think that some people love to plan and strategize and some don’t.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Triple Town.
For music, I wanted something very ambient so you could leave the game running in the background. So instead of music that players turn off after a few playthroughs, we went with natural forest sounds. Ideally, the game is part of your life that you just run in the background and pop into when you need a break. I’m a huge fan of cute, iconic artwork. There was a careful balance struck between making you want to hug that bears and turn their bones into graveyards.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
The two big issues that very few indies understand are distribution and monetization. You can have the best game in the world and if you just stick it up on your personal website, no one will ever play it. At the same time, it is also easy to get millions of free players by releasing on mobile or web portals and find that you’ve earned barely enough to buy a coffee.
Tell us about the process of submitting Triple Town to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
So far Triple Town has had a rather charmed life. Apple, Google, Facebook and Steam have been super helpful. I think the best thing you can do is make a game that people love playing. Often we’d hear that people were playing the game internally and recommending it to each other before we even got in contact. If you make a game players are passionate about and want to share with their close friends (and not so close friends) you’ve got a good foundation to work from.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We did, but really you just need to experiment. Pricing is crazy right now. There are players that feel ripped off if they pay a single penny. There are other players who will spend a hundred dollars on a hobby they love without even blinking. It varies per platform, per game and per player. The days of a single price that works for everyone seem long past. So we try different things, take our lumps when we get it wrong, try to listen a huge amount and eventually stumble on something that works for most.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Triple Town from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It is pretty important and we listen to forums rather religiously. We also have all sorts of metrics built into the games. So we hear the most vocal players and at the same time we see how the quiet majority are actually playing. I think of forums as an early warning system. They can tell you when something is not working, but they don’t always tell you how big a problem it actually might be, or what the solution to the problem might be. Often little things are screamed about more loudly than bigger issues that hurt everyone.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Triple Town professionally?
I personally think of interviews and reviews as an opportunity to have smart conversation about our games with people who have a really broad range of experience playing games across multiple categories. In one sense that’s rather cool. Instead of me being here to sell you something, I can just have a nice two-way conversation about games and what’s on my mind right now.
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?
Love ‘em. Indies need more options like this, not less. All the various bundles reach slightly different people and that just means more people playing the game.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I don’t worry too much about this to be honest. Most of our games are online multiplayer projects with shared world and they are literally unplayable unless you join a server. How do you pirate a service? You can sort of do it with pirate servers, but it usually means creating a whole new community and associate ‘tribe’ for the game. So for a huge category of upcoming games, DRM and piracy feel like concepts from last century.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Triple Town?
Love it. My dream is that any game I make is just a seed. And from that grows a community of people and a unique culture. Videos are a piece of that. Another big sign of success for me is if people actually write fan fiction for the game. Believe it or not there are some Triple Town Bear stories out there.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC is a bit of a missed opportunity. Many boxed titles were originally conceived as packages of content you beat. The only way to make more money is to put more content in a bundle and sell it to a player so they can chew through it. That’s form of game that works but it isn’t the only way.
I’m more interested in games as individual hobbies. Not gaming as a general hobby, but each game as a hobby like how soccer is a hobby or mountain biking is a hobby. What are things we can sell as game developers that improve that hobby long term? Like if I buy a nice mountain bike, it isn’t ‘beatable content’ nor is it ‘pay-to-win’. Instead, I’m buying an opportunity to take my skills to the next level.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Triple Town?
This would be amazing to see. Part of seeding a great community is the moment when they take control of the variations. On our previous MMO, Realm of the Mad God, we created a sprite editor so anyone could make sprites. We’d give them a theme like “Egyptian dungeon” and players would come back with hundreds of amazing monsters and tilesets. That creativity and sense of player ownership inspires me. Definitely something I want to do more with in the future.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
There really isn’t any concept of ‘breaking in’ any longer. That’s an idea from the bad old days when PC was ‘dying’ and big budget console owners sucked all the joy and money out of the world.
Right now, you just need to start making lots of games. Tools are cheap. Try Flash. Try Unity. Game jams are a good place to force you to something and release it. The communities around Flixel, Gamemaker, TIGsource or Newgrounds are very friendly places to share your playable efforts. Eventually after 10-20 games and a lot of hard lessons, you’ll know enough to do something most people would consider professional. It isn’t easy, but gates are wide open if you are smart and talented. If you aren’t there yet, practice till your finger bleed. In this sense, games are now just any other low entry barrier artform like painting, dancing or music.
We would like to thank Daniel for taking time out of his busy day to answer our questions. You can pick up Triple Town via Steam.