Ben Ward's Blog
Hogrocket: from porky launch to alien invasion (part 3)

Word to your mother. This post is part 3 of my write-up of a presentation I gave at the Develop conference in November. The presentation gives some of the background to our indie games company, Hogrocket, and also provides some advice to developers who might be thinking of doing the same thing. If you haven’t read part 1 and part 2 yet, I suggest you do so before tackling this one. Thanks for reading!

So, we’re about 3 or 4 months into our story. Hogrocket was still a brand new company at this stage. We were about half way through the development of our first game, a little prototype we had tentatively called Trains. The game was looking nice, but after a while we found a bit of a problem with it…

We noticed that there were a whole bunch of train-based games on the App Store already. It was a very popular theme, and a genre which we might have difficulty putting a dent in. Our art style was similar-ish to other games that had already launched, and we were starting to think that it might be difficult for this game to differentiate itself in an incredibly busy marketplace (the iOS App Store).

The reason we chose the trains theme initially was purely mechanical. We found a game mechanic which was well suited to the touchscreen (path prediction and high-speed tapping in multiple areas), and the most obvious theme was one that had fixed-size objects moving along a path - like trains along a track. That reason alone probably accounts for the large number of train-based games on the App Store I would imagine!

We also had other concerns about the theme. Would countries other than Britain be interested in this kind of theme as well? Obviously steam trains and sheep are well understood by a British audience, but how about the United States (up to 50% of the App Store audience). Or Asia? Or elsewhere? To have a success on iOS we really needed universal appeal, and we weren’t really confident that this theme could do that…

After quite a bit of discussion, we decided that we could find a better theme for our game. The mechanics were great, but visually we needed something that made us stand out from the crowd. That said, we wanted to ship a high-quality product and we knew that we would need some professional help to hit the quality bar we required.

We eventually found some artists who had the kind of credentials we needed. Two chaps, Ben Wright and Will Milton, worked as a duo to deliver broadcast-quality animation to the likes of Nickelodeon, the BBC, Channel 4, and more. They had even won a BAFTA for their work; a huge honour. This was the calibre of artists we needed, and luckily for us they were just as eager to get involved in video games too.

We explained the situation to Ben and Will, in that we had a game design that was pretty solid and we wanted a visual wrapper to maximise it’s appeal. We showed them the Trains prototype to give them a firm understanding of how it all worked, and explained the limitations of the hardware and the differences between making art for games and making art for broadcast. The chaps then went away for a couple of weeks to work up some pitches for us…

The first pitch was called Steamland. You played as a Steamboy-esque character in a steampunk world, facing off against all sorts of Victorian-era enemies in a train-based race. The character design was awesome and we loved the theme, especially the way it expanded on the steam train idea and turned it into a full game world. However, the in-game artwork (a paper map-style area) was a little sparse and, in our opinion, didn’t solve the problem of standing out in a crowded marketplace.

Despite some excellent plus points, we ultimately decided against taking Steamland any further. Whilst it was an interesting concept, it was the second pitch which really took our interest…

Viruz was a radical departure from the original Trains concept, and one which we believed had the ability to solve our problems. Ben and Will explained it to us: instead of train tracks, you’ve got the blood vessels inside the human body. Instead of trains, you control microscopic alien invaders. The theme is about a tiny alien invasion, presented in 1950’s b-movie style, with the aim to infect the President of the United States!

We freakin’ loved it. We could see the potential for the aliens to be worked up into recognisable characters, and the infected “hosts” to also have personality in their own right. An impromptu brainstorming session quickly kicked off, and we were discussing alien motherships, glowing “body essence” orbs, animated cutscenes, and a user-interface inside the alien’s craft. You didn’t just choose a level from a list, you tapped on a glowing monitor on which the aliens were planning their invasion. It all came together nicely in our minds, and we all quickly agreed: we had our theme.

Lesson #3 for aspiring indie developers is this: Let your experts be experts - if you can’t achieve the quality bar yourselves, find someone who can. We realised our limitations as a team when we decided to put the Trains theme to bed. It wasn’t hitting the visual quality bar we required, and we didn’t necessarily have the expertise on our team to achieve that goal ourselves. We needed to bring the likes of Ben and Will onto our team to achieve our shared objectives. Looking back, I can honestly say that it was a great decision and one which made Tiny Invaders what it is today.

Stay tuned for Part 4!

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