Jiri Kupiainen from indie studio, Shark Punch, talks to TPG about their recently Greenlit 1970’s-themed tactical heist game, The Masterplan.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of The Masterplan.
I’m a programmer who nowadays sends a lot of emails. This is year 14 working in the games industry. My first job was as a mobile game developer working on the very earliest J2ME mobile games, but since then I’ve ventured frequently into the dark side, or what we call “business”. I’m the CEO and founder of Shark Punch, and I’ve probably written close to half of the engine and game systems, as well as dabbled in the design occasionally.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Can’t remember the details, but my first PC game was written in QuickBasic over 20 years ago. My first actual commercial PC game is Trine from Frozenbyte, where I worked as a producer.
Where did the idea for The Masterplan come from?
We were drinking beer somewhere deep in the forest at an idyllic little Finnish summer cottage, talking about games and movies. We quickly got into 70s crime movies, and my theory that something similar hasn’t really been successfully done in games yet. Next morning we had the first concept sketches for The Masterplan.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing The Masterplan?
The core vision and the vibe of the game have resonated with a lot of people from the get go. On the gameplay side, we’ve iterated a ton, and made some fairly major changes on the way. I wouldn’t exactly call those failures – building interactive products always involves a lot of iteration, and we fully embrace that.
In its current form, how close is The Masterplan to your initial vision?
I think we originally envisioned the goons to be much more autonomous – you’d just point them in the right direction, and they’d do what you expected them to do. Turns out that’s not a whole lot of fun – as a player, I’d rather actually do something instead of watching a bunch of pixel guys do everything themselves. Other than that, in a way we’re getting closer to the initial vision every day, as things become more polished.
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 The Masterplan and if you faced a similar challenge.
It’s pretty hard. The first time we showed the game to people outside the company was at GDC, and most people ended up getting their asses kicked pretty seriously. Our plan is to go to early access soon, so that we can start figuring out the right balance with our players.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring The Masterplan would run on the various PC system configurations?
I’m sure there will be. However, it is a 2D game, so I don’t think we’ll be facing any serious performance problems at least.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for The Masterplan.
I think with the music everyone who hears about the game concept and sees any of the promotional art instantly knows how the game needs to sound. We were very lucky in finding the right guys to make the soundtrack – they’re actually two elementary school friends of mine who loved the idea and made a demo track.
Finding the right art style has been both easy and hard. The concept art has really hit home from day one, but the way the game itself looked originally was pretty far from that and didn’t really elicit any reactions from people. Luckily the fix was simple – we just revamped the ingame art style to be closer to the promotional art, and I think it looks gorgeous now.
Level design is going to be our next big challenge. We think the game plays really nicely now, and all the core systems are here – now we need to crank out more content. We’re hoping to involve the community in building out the game content, but we’ll talk more about that when we’re closer to early access…
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I think some very common problems are concept validation and discoverability. You can spend a lot of time working on a concept before having any idea whether people would buy the game or not. Of course, some would argue that whether an idea has commercial potential or not shouldn’t matter, but in reality people usually need to be paid salaries…
It’s awesome how accessible game development has become – anyone can now make games, the tools are free (or practically free) and really good, etc. Of course that means there’s an endless supply of new games hitting the Internet every week, and you have to spend a lot of time on promoting the game if you want to stand out.
How did you go about funding The Masterplan and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We are self-funded right now, which is great in that you have full creative freedom, but somewhat stressful. Hopefully the game will start generating some revenue soon. The emotional support has definitely been there, but we’ve already done one gaming startup with the same team, so our families know what to expect…
Tell us about the process of submitting The Masterplan to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
We’ve really only submitted to Steam Greenlight this far, and I’d say the process was rather easy. And luckily it also went very well for us, since we got Greenlit in a bit over a week. Our “other game” Kitten Getaway is also out on iOS and Android, and that process was much less painful than we expected it to be.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We haven’t settled on a launch price yet, but it’s obvious people already have expectations about what a Steam early access title can cost. We’re heavy Steam users ourselves, so I think our expectations correlate closely with those of our customers.
Do you plan to release a demo for The Masterplan?
So, the demo isn’t out yet. It will however be out by the time we do early access. I just think that buying an early access title from a young new studio is a bit risky, and obviously we can reduce that a lot by simply releasing a small playable demo.
How important is it to get instant feedback about The Masterplan from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Incredibly important. We love talking about the game, so naturally we get a lot out of interacting with potential customers all over the net.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review The Masterplan professionally?
Depends on what their opinion is… Seriously though, I respect game journalists a lot. It’s a really hard job, and gamers can be pretty vocal when they disagree with you. I’m looking forward to the first professional reviews of the finished game, but we’re still a ways off from that.
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?
We approach most things we do as a company as “experiments”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we also experimented with pricing and bundles sometime in the future. Probably not anytime soon, though.
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 that as content creators the best way we can fight piracy is by making it easier for our customers to access that content, and that’s why many DRM systems are counterproductive in my opinion.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos and receiving monetization of The Masterplan?
I don’t see why we would have any problem with that. As I said, discoverability is a huge issue, and every time someone posts a video of our game online, someone new hears about the game for the first time.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC is a tricky topic, especially when it comes to AAA games. If you pay $60 for a game, how many hours of gameplay can you expect, and at what point is it questionable to push that content into a DLC instead of including it with the game? I honestly don’t know.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for The Masterplan?
Modding is how a lot of people I know became game developers. I’ve spent a lot of time modding the original Doom back in the day. I think it’s a crucial part of the gaming scene, and we’re aiming to include level editing tools already during early access.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Work on something you love and be very open towards the community. The only way to stand out is by building a vocal group of people who really love the game. And accept the fact that your first game might not be successful at all. I’ve been doing this for almost 14 years, and it’s still really hard.