Joel Haddock and Chris Klimas from Two Fold Secret gather around the camp fire with TPG to tech us more about their turn-based 80s horror strategy game, Camp Keepalive.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Camp Keepalive.
JOEL: I’m Joel, and I’m one-half of Twofold Secret. By day, I’m a project manager at a publishing company, and by night I do art, music, and design for our games. As with all of our projects, both of us work towards our individual strengths, but we still share in the design process to help shape how the game comes together.
CHRIS: I’m a web developer by trade, but as part of Twofold Secret, I’m responsible for programming. In addition to coding, I also created many of the sound effects that made it into Camp Keepalive. Before I got involved with Twofold Secret, I wrote Twine, the popular open-source application for creating interactive stories.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
JOEL: Chris and I had dabbled for years with the idea of making games, but none of our projects ever really came to completion. It wasn’t until Chris was working on a project for grad school, which he had asked me to do some art for, that we really saw an idea through to the finish. That project is what grew into our first game, Where We Remain.
CHRIS: I first dipped my toes into the waters of game development by creating a few freeware text adventures back in the 90s. It was a lot of fun but I never found a good way to enter the realm of graphics until I encountered Flixel, which is a really great beginner-friendly way to create Flash games. As soon as we started using Flixel, things started falling into place — creating games together felt doable in a way it hadn’t before.
Where did the idea for Camp Keepalive come from?
JOEL: I had been fiddling with the idea of a team-based board game based on the idea of rescuing campers from a forest full of monsters, and at the same time, Chris was musing about his camping experiences and the strange things that go bump in the night. It was then that the idea took more solid shape, and the setting of a 1980s horror-movie camp came to the fore. I grew up spending summers at a remote camp deep in the woods of Maine, so this was a terror near and dear to my heart.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Camp Keepalive?
JOEL: One of the first major successes we had with Keepalive was building out a paper prototype before we even started any code. This really helped up focus on what was fun with the idea, and what wasn’t working. The next big success was in getting playable versions of the game into the hands of testers much earlier than we usually would. This gave us some incredibly valuable feedback early on that let us make some critical design decisions. With some of our previous titles, that feedback came too late to really act on.
CHRIS: To get technical for a second, I started off Keepalive using the callback pattern everywhere. The game would ask a monster to take a turn, for example, and then call a function to move onto the next turn once it was done. This eventually got problematic because we wanted to introduce exceptions and special cases — for example, if a monster moves into the mess hall on a particular level, extra monsters appear to give the player even more trouble! But I couldn’t find a good way to shoehorn those exceptions into the existing structure of callbacks.
I ended up rewriting the entire game cycle using a different pattern called promises, which turned out to be much more flexible. But the rewrite obviously took up considerable development time. For those programmers out there reading this, I’d recommend reading up on promises if you are using callbacks to any degree.
In its current form, how close is Camp Keepalive to your initial vision?
JOEL: Keepalive has come a long way from many of the initial concepts. Back in the beginning, counselors could carry weapons and there was an entire combat system, but we realized early on that all that was adding to the game was complexity… not fun. We also went through a lot of variations in the game view presented to the player. Some of our early concepts really restricted what the player could see, forcing them to act based on limited information. Again, interesting in theory, but not very fun in execution.
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 Camp Keepalive and if you faced a similar challenge.
JOEL: As I mentioned earlier, we were able to get the game into the hands of testers much earlier this time, and that helped mitigate many of these issues. Seeing how other people were playing, and the problems they were encountering, really helped us hone in on the proper difficulty.
CHRIS: The rule of thumb I’ve developed is to initially tune a level so it feels challenging but doable to me, and then back the difficulty off a little. But I agree with Joel, I think testing is absolutely essential to get difficulty right. You can’t figure it out on a vacuum.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Camp Keepalive would run on the various PC system configurations?
CHRIS: Absolutely. We use an open source engine called LÖVE which is cross-platform, but we still had to make sure things would work properly across Windows, Mac, and Linux. There are only two of us, so platform testing meant a lot of work. We managed to supplement our test platforms with our testers, thankfully, but even still it’s something that has been, and probably will continue to be, a considerable challenge for us.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Camp Keepalive.
JOEL: With the 80s theme, it was a pretty easy decision to go with a retro pixel look for the game. Originally, I was aiming to more accurately emulate true 1980s arcade graphics, but it just didn’t feel right. That led to the final look of the game, which is more about feeling retro than completely being beholden to technology limitations of the time. The music was also an interesting experiment, as I had never done a full soundtrack for any of our previous games. I had composed music in school as part of my studies, but I had never used a tracker before.
So, it was a simultaneous process of writing the songs while also learning the tool I was using (MilkyTracker). For reasons I don’t even understand myself, I decided that I was going to limit myself to only using two instrument samples (a synth bass and a harpsichord) and three drum samples to compose all the music. In the end, I think it worked out pretty well, and gives the game a unique sounds with a unified feeling.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
JOEL: Getting attention for your game. There are so many indie releases these days (which is great!) that it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. We don’t have a marketing department, we’re doing this part time, and we don’t have any media goodwill to play off of, so it’s really building up from ground level with a release. Obviously, there are a lot of things we would have done differently in hindsight, but such is the nature of the beast.
How did you go about funding Camp Keepalive and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
JOEL: We had no outside funding for our development process, nor any financial support from family or friends. Emotional support, on the other hand, was plentiful.
CHRIS: The wonderful thing about this era of PC games is that there are so many free tools out there. All it really takes to create a game is time and determination — well, some talent probably helps too. The flip side of it is what Joel just mentioned, that it is very difficult to stand out in the crowd.
Tell us about the process of submitting Camp Keepalive to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
CHRIS: Working with Desura has been pretty nice. It took a little to get up to speed on how their system works, but otherwise it has been painless, and they were receptive to our game. We’re considering whether to submit to Steam Greenlight. I feel about as ambivalent about it as I do about Kickstarter — I think to make either work requires a ton of grassroots support or savvy marketing.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
JOEL: Not really. We chose a price we felt was fair based on our work, and that was that.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Camp Keepalive?
CHRIS: I think it’s only fair to players to allow them to get a sense of what a game is like before they buy it. I think that’s one of the weaknesses of the iOS platform, for example — there have been some games released that sound intriguing but I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy playing them. On that platform, there’s no way for me to find out for sure before I plunk down my money.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Camp Keepalive from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
JOEL: It’s very valuable. We have a limited pool of “official” testers, and hearing from players directly about things both good and bad gives us the ability to fix bugs, catch errors, and so on very, very quickly.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Camp Keepalive professionally?
CHRIS: I think you should listen to all your reviews, but not too carefully. Meaning– you can’t let what you do be driven solely by reviews, but the only way you’re going to improve is by listening to criticism. The virtue in professional reviews is that they’re more thoughtful than say, a drive-by comment on YouTube, and the people writing them have been exposed to a lot of games. They have a better sense of the media and genres you’re working in than you yourself might have.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
JOEL: Well, frankly, I think the entire industry is handling it terribly. While I do love the convenience of digital platforms, I hate the fact that I don’t really own my games anymore – somebody can just flip a switch and that’s that. GoG is doing a great job, and I’m happy to be able to purchase certain titles from them. Piracy, unfortunately, will always be rampant no matter what draconian schemes companies come up with, and all they are really hurting are paying customers.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Camp Keepalive?
JOEL: I’m all for it. I think that fact that someone wants to show off playing our game is awesome.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
JOEL: I think most of the publishers won’t be happy until they completely nickel and dime us to death, and they will continue to cut down the “regular” content of games and put more and more into DLC. As long as gamers put up with it, they’ll just push it further and further.
CHRIS: I’m less negative on it than Joel is. I think it’s partially a reaction to the race-to-the-bottom mentality that is going on with pricing — players don’t want to pay as much for games as they once did, so DLC is a way to stretch out that purchase. It’s also a way for publishers to hedge some of the risk inherent in AAA game production, too — I would imagine there’s a lot less risk in creating DLC for an existing game than to try to strike out with a totally new game.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Camp Keepalive?
JOEL: Modding is what has helped make PC gaming so incredible for so long. I remember building DOOM wads back in high school, and pulling down other people’s maps from BBSes, and how many hours and hours of extra fun that added to the game. I mean, some amazing games have grown out of mods. If somebody loves a game I’ve created so much that they want to create something more for it, I think that’s incredible.
CHRIS: It would be fantastic if people modded Camp Keepalive. I’d love to make official level creation tools available to players, but it would take some time to do right, so we are taking a wait-and-see approach with sales to see if it is worth it.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
CHRIS: If you’re a programmer, think really hard about testability of your games. Bugs are difficult to track down and the process is frustrating, so anything you can do to automate testing or otherwise smooth that process out will pay off tremendously.
JOEL: Never get discouraged. It will be discouraging, but just make your games, love your games… that’s what’s really important.