Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Fatal Theory.
My name’s Adam Carr and I work with my brother Matt making games with loads of character. Fatal Theory is our first title and I wrote the script for it, helped the design, did a good portion of the pixel art and covered the PR side of things. I also coded the health bars, which I’m sure anyone would agree are the best thing in the game.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
It all started with RPGMaker 95. I’d been playing games all my life and always had a deep fascination for them, but that’s where I first got to see my own stories being played out on screen. I was maybe 10 or 11. After that I made bunch of highly embarrassing games with Game Maker and then just stopped making games until I talked Matt into doing a game jam with me, and I liked working with him enough to jump on board with Fatal Theory.
Where did the idea for Fatal Theory come from?
Matt was making a fighting engine with the goal of making a game like Street Fighter or Guilty Gear, with some pretty hi-res sprites at first. But when he crunched the numbers on how many frames it would take to animate all the fighters, it was way too much to ever finish with a small unpaid team. He still wanted to test the engine though, so he devised a plan to make a quick and simple beat ‘em up with characters inspired by No More Heroes and a crazy storyline, and things just spiraled from there.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Fatal Theory?
Oh man, that deserves a full post-mortem but in a nutshell: the scope was out of control because of some bad design choices that left us doing a lot of hours of work for features that barely affected gameplay functionally; we hardly talked about our game in the beginning or did anything to promote it; we didn’t show it to people early enough to take their feedback under consideration without major rewrites and all of the game’s crunchy feedback, i.e. screenshake and freeze frames on hit and so on, were complete afterthoughts.
In my opinion though, the biggest success of this game is that we took a gamble on how far personality would take it – the pixel art is pretty rough (well, ALL the art is pretty rough really) but we put as much character into it and the dialogue as possible – and it seemed to pay off. It’s been called “charming” pretty frequently. We also just made and released a damn game and hey, it might not be GOTY material, but it showed us what we’re capable of, and that alone is a huge success.
In its current form, how close is Fatal Theory to your initial vision?
Well, I joined about a year into the project so it was all Matt’s vision to begin with, and all he had in mind at the time was a super simple beat ‘em up and a vague outline for a story. In his words “I didn’t think the gameplay would be half as good.” He was really just going to make a throwaway title to test the engine, but we took it further and made it into something a lot cooler than that.
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 Fatal Theory and if you faced a similar challenge.
Difficulty was something we adjusted constantly based on player feedback, and you’re right – that definitely does happen. We saw a lot of people struggle with stuff we breezed through, and probably the hardest part was getting players to understand the game’s slant towards aerial combat and specials aimed at disabling lots of enemies at once so you don’t’ get swarmed. Nobody was jumping, everyone just wanted to walk forwards mashing the attack key.
Which I think comes down the fact the game doesn’t explain itself very well – we didn’t do a good enough job of teaching the players to be experts at the game like we had become. We worked on it for release, but I still think there’s more we could have done in the introductory stages.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Fatal Theory would run on the various PC system configurations?
Not particularly, we coded it in C++ with an SDL library which basically means it’s as simple as it gets. No flashy tech or complicated shaders, just the bare basics. Of course, we paid for it in dev time, things would have been much easier if we’d just used a framework, but at least it runs everywhere pretty happily, and on a lot of weaker machines too.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Fatal Theory.
The art style was all Matt. He wanted to strike a retro look that was at the same time colourful and upbeat, he didn’t want people to mistake it for a darker, survival-horror type of zombie game. The Scott Pilgrim game influenced the palette a good deal. The hand-drawn cut scenes probably seem like a bizarre choice against the pixel art – some people think it works, others aren’t convinced. To be honest, Matt just chose the option that let him draw his characters and took the least amount of time. We had constraints and we just did whatever worked. I think a lot less conscious thought went into this game than people imagine haha.
As for the level design, we didn’t give ourselves much to work with really, being that it’s a beat ‘em up. We just tried to get the pacing right, giving the player time to catch their breath between waves of enemies but also not relenting until to keep the blood pumping.
And the music, well, Matt just put that in the hands of his musician friend Jamie Pye-Respondek, giving him directions for tone where he wanted something specific. Jamie did a great job – the synth industrial vibe really suits the game.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
For a long time it was just finding the time to actually do it, and I think between having a baby and a full time job Matt still feels that way, but since going full time indie the hardest part for me is the emotional toll. Even on a small-scale game like this, the amount of work you have to do is enormous, and waking up every day thinking “okay, today I’m going to keep pushing this big boulder up this hill and see if I get anywhere” is hard. Especially when you have no proof people are even going to like your game when it’s finished. Big projects tend to mess with your head a bit, you really need to be careful not to get too wrapped up in it all and appreciate it for what it is.
How did you go about funding Fatal Theory and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We managed to raise $1000 from a Pozible campaign, which was about the only crowdfunding platform available in Australia at the time. Looking back on it, it’s amazing we even raised that much, the campaign was terrible. That all went to a convention appearance, merch and paying our sound artist, who bless that man, was willing to work for chips. The rest is self-funded, but it hasn’t cost us much besides time really.
As for support, I’m living with my parents while I try to make something of this studio and my girlfriend has been there every step of the way since we got together, making sure I get out enough and all that, so yeah, it makes a big difference. If this studio becomes profitable and I manage to keep my sanity along the way it’ll be entirely thanks to them.
Tell us about the process of submitting Fatal Theory to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
I don’t know if resistance is the right word. Submitting to Desura was nice and easy, they took it at alpha level (I think because we had the playable demo and a trailer out at that time). GOG didn’t take the game because they said it looked a little too small-scale in terms of production value for their core users, and fair enough, it is a bedroom-made game after all. But they took the time to play it and were very nice about it. As for Greenlight, well, that’s a whole other story. We’ve had some great feedback but also our share of inflammatory comments, and that first week of having thousands of people suddenly passing judgement on your game can be extremely stressful. But we weathered it and it’s slowly climbing.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Yes and no, we did some research but the price mostly came from what we thought it was worth and what our beta testers told us it was worth. Game pricing is pretty broken these days though, being so sales-centric, whatever you want to sell the game for you have to mark up a bit, so that when you run 75% off sales you’re making more than fifty cents. Thanks Steam!
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Fatal Theory?
Until we released that alpha demo it’d only been kicked back and forth between Matt and I, we really just wanted to throw it into the world and see what came back. I wish we’d been more proactive about circulating and getting it seen, but we did get some great previews and feedback, and it opened the doors to inclusion in a bundle package and that was really cool and uplifting for us.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Fatal Theory from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It hasn’t really helped us so far, to be honest. We seem to have a pretty silent player base. We’ve had quite a few people get the game through sales and bundles and the like, but we’ve had zero feedback – no reports of bugs, no complaints about the weapons, no suggestions for improvement, nothing. It’s almost eerie. All anyone wants to know is if they’ll get Steam keys when it makes it onto the store.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Fatal Theory professionally?
Our motto when it comes to reviews is “the only bad review is one we can’t grow from,” because that’s essentially all we want – to make better games. Criticism is necessary to get there. So we value reviewer opinions highly, because these are people playing games day in and day out and really know what they’re talking about. That all said though, we do value the opinions of average gamers who get their hands on even higher. Because that’s who we want to like it at the end of the day.
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?
Absolutely! In fact, we have a pay what you want sale coming up very soon with Indie Game Stand. I like the pricing structure because it doesn’t exclude people of any income status from being able to play the game, and while I think some people will abuse it by paying 1c or nothing, it still just gets more people playing our game. I mean it’s our first release, we’re not really expecting to make any money, we just want people to play our 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 think certain publishers like EA and Ubisoft have dealt with it terribly by punishing genuine paying customers with useless and hindering DRM, which only makes people want to pirate it more. The fact is that pirates are going to pirate. The people who crack these games are wildly resourceful and WILL succeed in making it free, so attempting to fight them is just throwing money and time down the sink. Instead, find ways to reward paying customers with special content, and make buying the game a more attractive package.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos and receiving monetization of Fatal Theory?
We love it! Let’s Plays of the game always make our day, and we know YouTubers are just trying to scrape a living doing what they love same as anyone. Even if they downright hate the game (which hasn’t happened yet), it’s still just useful watching people play the game. We only ask they link back to our website and Greenlight campaign in their descriptions.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
It can be abused, sure, but when you’re talking whole new playable chapters released after the game for a cost – yeah I’m all for it. Fans who really want more of the games they love can get it, while developers can push their games a little further, make up for the compromises they had to make to get it out on release date. I think it sucks in multiplayer games sometimes, where not getting the DLC will exclude you from certain maps or leave you without the best weapons, but those cases are the minority I think.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Fatal Theory?
I love the modding community, just for the lengths they will go to see they’re weird vision come to life. There’s an exceptional amount of creative talent among modders, and I would love to see them get their hands on Fatal Theory. It want to see how our game can be improved or at least hilariously ruined. I think the barrier to entry is a little too high for the time being though: nobody would have a clue how to even start modding our game. When we get some time we’ll produce some video tutorials and online resources, see if anyone bites.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
I know it gets said a lot, but start small. Start something you think you can learn in a month, and watch it take six. Stick with a small game until you’ve finished it and try to release it. Don’t be afraid to fail: you’ll learn what it takes to actually manage and complete a project, how to talk about and pitch your game, what people respond to best (and worst), how to make a website for your game and contact press. A lot of fresh devs think skill in making the actual game is the most important thing to have, but it’s really only half the battle. Throw yourself out there and just learn by crashing blindly through it all.