My name is Andrew West and I am the Development Director at Bungarra in Fremantle, Western Australia. We are a small developer and publisher who specializes in sports games.
We develop games in a genre that although is a staple of the game industry diet, can often be described as boring, uninteresting and in the PC space at least, almost irrelevant in respect to the rest of the PC market. If you find that you’re a personality type that is not quite “jock”, but then it’s not quite the 1st person-shooter-dragon-slayer dude either, then you could be in trouble! There’s not a lot of love around for the sports geek. Throw in a genre – surfing, a genre that has often been universally yet politely described as “limited” then you’ve potentially got yourself a recipe for disaster.
Bungarra has been around since 1998 and we’ve delivered 1 game since then. Yes that’s right, you read that correctly, just 1 game – The Surfer® Section 1 on the PC. We’ve had a number of false starts over this period working with big publishers in EA and Vivendi Universal and then smaller a publisher in XS games. It’s no one’s fault, but it’s also not unreasonable to suggest that we’ve been chewed up, spat out and nearly wiped off the face of the gaming map. We were once a 14 man studio to now a 4 man studio with the odd intern filling in the gaps. After three publishers, and numerous failed VC pitches we’d simply lost focus of what we were building. If we are brutally honest, we didn’t know what we were actually trying to deliver to people just like ourselves anymore. Failing a Sony approval process was one of the toughest things we ever had to face as it literally set us back five years – but in saying that, this actually helped us re-focus on what is important, well…focus. We had to start our design process again from scratch and during this time, Sony has been really supportive and on the whole, quite awesome actually. We’ve since had a little internal investment, managed to get PSN approval and in the interim we work second jobs to help keep the studio afloat and pay our bills. In short, it’s been truly difficult time. But is our story any different from a lot of smaller developers or publishers out there floating in their own boats tossed by the seas of the game industry? No of course not. Boo hoo. We’re not playing the world’s smallest violin here – and who’s listening anyway. The real question is when you’re in that position, what are you going to do about it?
Crowd Funding, Alpha Funding and MVP
We love the idea of crowd-funding with all its pros and cons. We also really like the idea of alpha funding – the idea where your community funds your playable builds at a really early stage and then actively engages in its development. But for us, neither option was viable simply because when we first found out about either option, we were too far along the code path for either crowd or alpha funding.
We decided to bite the bullet. Our plan was to split the original big game design into three parts. It’s a concept called MVP or “minimum viable product”. The idea is that you build a small product for everyone to get their hands on early, feedback on what you build, iterate, improve and add more content. MVP’s got some advantages. The file sizes are smaller (good for PC and PSN with its file-size limits) it’s cheaper to build and to put in people’s hands earlier and use the feedback to improve. Our main task was to focus on building an innovative core main game mechanic, polish this and then deliver it directly to you. In our case we had to deliver a bit more than that: as we are focussing on building an initial solid single player experience this means a tutorial, menus, game modes etc, but that’s basically the idea. So we struggled along for a few years till we got to a rough playable build together.
Then came the torture testing…
Our initial testing was one of the most horrible, uncomfortable experiences we’ve ever had to live through. Anyone’s who sat in on a test where people look confused, bewildered or just plain annoyed at having to come into contact with your life’s work, will know what I mean! No other way to gloss over that. We used the Microsoft usability testing method called RITE testing (which is marvellous) and hired a tester internally for a few months during the later stages of the initial build process. Strangely and thankfully, over time, the comments and feedback improved to the point where we actually had something that was fun in code, rather than some vague philosophy in a design document. We listened, faced up to criticisms and then slowly improved the code and game experience to the point where now, we’ve got something there. So for us, instead of asking people for money before anything’s actually built a-la crowd funding, the small developer takes the risk and delivers something for people to actually own and play upfront. For us, we find game development to be akin to a house of cards, you build something it breaks something else. You think something will work, but then it doesn’t. So for us, having this development experience meant it was always going to be a difficult moral choice trying to convince a true believer to part with their money when we ourselves don’t know whether the idea would truly work or not. For some people with a clear vision and focus, this is fine – no problem, it’s beautiful. For Bungarra back when we started along our path though, not so warm and fuzzy…
In his excellent recent Gamasutra opinion piece “Game Developers Remember Priority #1”, Aaron San Filipo says that developers need to focus on creating games of excellence and use this as the primary motive when developing interactive entertainment. He argues that games of high quality usually find a way to make themselves heard above the din. We enthusiastically agree with this notion. Money however, is usually one (perhaps main) method to attain this lofty development goal as one can afford the time to experiment and polish something (worth polishing – again another subject entirely) without worrying too much about how you’re going to pay the rent or feed your family. MVP won’t necessarily allow you to reach this AAA excellence benchmark off the bat, but what it should do is to allow a developer to walk the path toward this perceived perfection without stumbling too much along the way. Aim for one “A” instead. We didn’t know anything about the business model of MVP when we started down this MVP path – through necessity. But we did know one thing: it made best sense for us in our position.
So is The Surfer® Version 1 for the PC perfect? Absolutely not. Does it have the potential to be a great surfing game? Yes, well, we think that maybe it does, but then we are biased. We just hope that enough people agree so that we can be allowed to build more content for PC, PSN and other platforms. We’ve seen the numbers and we do know that there is a market for what we do, albeit small. We love sport games, but we especially love surfing games.