Creator of the new story-driven scuba diving exploration title, Reef Shot, Łukasz Pleśniarowicz speaks to TPG about various aspects to development and the industry. You will learn about his love RPGs and tabletop war games, how a talk at GDC lead to inspiration, the process of pitching Reef Shot, plus much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Reef Shot.
My name is Łukasz Pleśniarowicz, at Nano Games I’m the game designer, so with Reef Shot I was responsible for the gameplay, story and just a bit of everything else. Privately, except from being a gamer, I’m also a member of a historical reenactment NGO involved in some education projects.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Before I started working in gamedev, creating game mechanics and settings for RPGs and tabletop wargames had been my number one hobby. Experience with those amateur and fan projects and a bit of luck – I already knew Nano Games’ co-founder Michał Litworowski who was looking for a game designer to join the team – let me turn the hobby into a dream job.
Where did the idea for Reef Shot come from?
We wanted Reef Shot to appeal to players looking for a different experience, who wanted to relax, or play with their families. The topic of underwater photography seemed to work very well with that, still letting us keep some action elements to make it all more engaging for the player. The idea to build the plot around the El Dorado legend and Mayan culture came next. Some discoveries were made where the game takes place, on Robinson Crusoe Island, and while most scientists are skeptical, some think that what was found there were traces of the Maya civilization. We felt some mystery would make the adventure even more fun.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Reef Shot?
I definitely learned that some decisions you have to make are surprisingly hard, like giving up on a feature that seemed fine at first but didn’t really fit the game. On the other hand it’s worth trying different approaches to problems, because solutions might come when you least expect them. We also found out that when you create a rather non-standard mix – a relaxing and mysterious atmosphere plus an action-adventure gameplay with a story taking place under water etc. – it might be hard to explain the game to your target audience, because it’s more difficult to define it by standard genres or find references easily.
In its current form, how close is Reef Shot to your initial vision?
To be honest, it’s pretty different. We did start off with the concept of an underwater adventure game, but during the development, it grew and changed quite a lot. The plot that was created later in the process influenced the whole game significantly, I think. Especially after we got inspired by a talk by Kellee Santiago at GDC 2011. She talked about thatgamecompany’s experiences with innovative gameplay and messages games are able to carry, so we followed that inspiration with Reef Shot’s Mayan prophecy theme. That also convinced us that it might be worth it to try some new and different things in our game.
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 Reef Shot and if you faced a similar challenge.
I have played Reef Shot so much I think I could give it a try with my eyes closed, so yes – I had to remind myself not to make it too difficult. Especially that difficulty was not what we wanted Reef Shot to be all about. That is why we introduced different types of cameras so that the player has time to learn, gradually becoming better and better before the challenges become more difficult.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Reef Shot would run on the various PC system configurations?
That was definitely one of the concerns for us in terms of technology. We wanted to ensure that the game would not be very demanding and run smoothly on older or weaker PCs and laptops. Testing took some time and effort, but I think we managed to check a lot of different configurations and the game’s requirements should satisfy you, even if your PC is not a typical gaming machine.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Reef Shot.
We wanted to create a realistic environment, make both the underwater life and sunken artifacts look convincing. So the development of art style and levels required quite a lot of research of marine life and South American history and culture, which turned out to be quite rewarding. We are also proud of the soundtrack which creates different atmosphere for every level, from cheerful to somewhat darker and mysterious. When you’re an independent developer, I think the hard part is getting noticed with your game. New great games appear all the time and various ways of distribution we have now make it easier to publish them, but it’s fairly easy to disappear in the crowd.
How did you go about funding Reef Shot and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Well, some of us are actual family and some were friends before Nano Games, and the studio was founded by two brothers-in-law, so in a way it was a family matter. But as a company what we are aiming at is on one hand remaining an independent developer, on the other building a professional studio, which did mean taking some financial risks as a business when developing Reef Shot. Releasing the game and building a team were our first goals and reaching them makes us very proud.
Tell us about the process of submitting Reef Shot to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Pitching your first game is quite hard sometimes, and a new studio doesn’t have that many contacts. We realized that digital platforms had some requirements and aimed at different audiences with different expectations, so some research and then negotiations helped us find the right ones. We have also entered Steam’s Greenlight and received a lot of support from players which we are very thankful for. But that is a very specific model of selecting games for distribution, which gives you lot’s of feedback but I think is less democratic and clear than it seems.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Underwater exploration games or more relaxed adventure games with some action mechanics are not completely unique, but still quite rare I think. But of course we did our homework and found some reference games we could compare Reef Shot to, also in terms of the price.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Reef Shot?
We wanted to give players access to a part of the gameplay and not just leave them with descriptions, videos and screenshots, because we felt some of the audience might not know what to expect from Reef Shot. We are still a bit concerned that the demo is a bit more casual than the rest of the game which doesn’t do Reef Shot justice, but we hope that after playing it people will have fun and become immersed in the game just enough to want to play more. Which is of course the purpose of demos.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Reef Shot from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Players’ fun is what matters, so we always welcome every opinion that can help us find out what they think about the game. We got a lot of feedback thanks to Greenlight community, which is very active and communicative. Also, every time someone posts videos or reviews of Reef Shot, many comments appear and we always take them into consideration, to make better games in the future.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Reef Shot professionally?
All feedback is very important to us and professional journalists have vast knowledge of new trends, the whole market and the industry and understand games very well. We can learn a lot from their opinions and find out what, from their point of view, is best about our game, what could be better and what we should be more careful about in our future productions.
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?
For players it’s obviously a pretty easy and cheap way of getting access to some wonderful games, for creators a way of reaching their audience, so it might be worth it. We haven’t planned on contributing to a bundle, but I don’t think we should rule that out. I have purchased some of the bundles myself and got to play games I might not have tried otherwise and that was great.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Piracy is a huge problem, but I’m afraid DRM is not the solution. To many players who buy games dealing with DRM feels like a punishment and those who download illegally are, in a way, offered a better service, without DRM and for free. Maybe it would be better to try encouraging people to purchase games by some bonuses, gifts, special offers, exclusive content, etc., available only for frequent buyers? And still, if games weren’t bought, we wouldn’t be able to make them, so pirates should realize that they are hurting developers and games which they often declare to love so much.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Reef Shot?
I think it’s great that some people want to share their experience with others and I’d be happy to see more videos like that. I try to monitor, read and watch everything regarding Reef Shot and hopefully there will be more. It’s exciting to see that someone noticed our work and wanted to show the game to others.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC can be sometimes abused, serving as a money grab and nothing else. But it’d be unfair to say that it always does and that all that developers and publishers look for in DLC is cash. When it really adds extra content to the game, when it enhances the experience, offers even more fun to the player, then I think it’s all right. It may serve as a great way of reminding a player of a game they loved and letting them go back to it, with new content, equipment and adventures to have.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Reef Shot?
I am not at all surprised some mods become so popular. People put their hearts into those projects, showing how much they love a game, and with talent and hard work sometimes get outstanding results. They also often take the risk a developer, having to deal with the market, cannot really take, for example create a very niche setting or weird features. If there was anyone who wanted to create a mod for Reef Shot, it would be great. Unless, maybe, if it were one of those really, really creepy ones.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
During development, I think an easy trap is forgetting about your players. You will probably like your own ideas, but if you want to make games professionally, try to look at them from your player’s perspective and always remember that your game has to be fun to them.