In the second article of this 2015 'Year in Development' series 13AM's Managing Director, Dave Proctor, talks about a big year for the studio that saw Runbow arrive as a Wii U eShop exclusive.
Runbow seemed to start gaining momentum in 2014, but how would you describe the first three months of this year for you? Was development progressing smoothly, and how significant was the increase in exposure as Nintendo stepped up its own interest?
These last two years have been completely bonkers. I think we're just now emerging from the haze of what actually happened... we launched a game. That's nuts. I mean, I know a lot of people probably speak like this, but when you look back on exactly how these two years panned out for us, this is a miracle. Short answer is that the game development was progressing "as expected," but not at all in a way that I would call "smoothly."
At the time in question, we were in the middle of our second office move as we were shifted around in the incubator we were working in. We would go on to move again in these first couple months (and again the week of launch), so everything felt crazy and unsettled. On top of that we started having conversations with Nintendo about appearing at GDC as part of a private press event, at E3, and even started having our talks with Nintendo of Europe about coming to Gamescom. This was incredibly overwhelming and really exciting for us, but at the same time we were crunching all the time to get the features into Runbow that we knew it needed. Since Runbow started as a jam game, we never really had a "design document," of how it was supposed to be organized and play; all the modes, all the content, etc. We were building the plane as we flew it, which was a pretty harrowing experience for a brand new company. As a result, everyone was always working insanely hard on something new. We wrapped up the core experience, with all the multiplayer levels and modes, in the first few months of 2015 and we started iterating on more content. Online, Adventure, and the Bowhemoth were all built AFTER that core experience. To continue the metaphor, we had built most of the plane and while some of us worked on the wings the others were drawing the map. This is not how most studios do this, but we really believed in the game.
This started a really wild cycle of excitement, where we would finish up features and then get Nintendo excited about them, show them off at major events and start again. It was hard, but I can't be anything but grateful. We had an opportunity to take advantage of all this support Nintendo was ready to give us, so we had to swing for the fences. That's a baseball metaphor now. Baseball and Planes. This interview is going to be fun.
In April you confirmed a range of cameos from other 'Nindies'. Can you talk about how these came together, and share any particular anecdotes related to working with and getting in touch with other developers to use their IP?
Though we are looking back on 2015, I have to dig even deeper on this one. Our original art for Hue was this little dude with no facial features. He had a "T" for a face. I won't link to the promo art here because it is very early art (and yet still shows up in reviews). But we always joked that Hue just looked like Shovel Knight without the horns back then. We thought, hey, that'd be neat...
Alex and I went down to IndieCade to represent Runbow in October of 2014. It was a really awesome experience, to get to see all of these whole new fans checking out our game for the first time. It was, actually, our first real reveal of the game. It was like Runbow's Debutant Ball. Whoops, third metaphor. Anyways, we were next to some amazing developers (all of whom we are still friends with) and one of those just happened to be Shovel Knight. It's one thing to talk about how neat something would be and one thing to actually go for it.
It was a pretty special experience to have watched the success and meteoric rise of Shovel Knight over the course of 2014 and then be displayed right next to them in a tent. It was also right after Yacht Club Games and Dark Seas revealed that Shovel Knight would make a cameo appearance in Road Redemption. We started talking with Nick Wozniak about the possibility of a Shovel Knight cameo that weekend and he was pretty receptive of the idea. That's... pretty much it. Everyone that asks this question wants there to be some huge exciting story, but really we just asked politely. The neat thing about the independent game scene is that everyone knows what it takes, and they're almost always ready to help new devs get a leg up. Some of the other people we were demoing with at IndieCade like Over The Moon, TOO DX, and Frima Originals were also really receptive to let their characters join the run as well (A.R.I.D., Swift, and Princess, respectively).
We told Nintendo that we were trying to do this and they were ALSO really receptive. So when we presented them with a massive wishlist of cameos, they helped introduce us to everyone else. I think if we just cold called a bunch of developers it would have been a little different than getting personal introductions... but I also can't discount the fact that Nintendo told everyone that they like our game. You know, that it was fun. It's a pretty nice endorsement to have.
But even with the introductions it was just a matter of asking developers that we admired, devs who made games that we love, if we can support each other. That's the short version of our entire studio's history... be polite to people and make the most fun game you can.
As a quick side note, this might be a bit boring of a story, but anytime you or your readers find me saying "Man he just keeps saying positive stuff. This isn't exciting," please remember that we were working 12 hour days and yelling at each other every 4 days. Just remember, with great power comes incomparable amounts of stress. The benefit of stress though is that it ends, and I don't generally think about the bad stuff because it lead us to where we are now.
The middle of the year brought your participation in the E3 [email protected] promotion; can you talk about this and the exposure that E3 brought, and how that felt for you as a team?
We had never seen anyone do something like this before, on ANY console. We thought, hey, this might be neat (which, I'm realizing, has been the core ethos of our company). It also led to me being able to play Runbow on my own Wii U at home while we were about 3/4 of the way through development which, as you can assume, was a much needed awesomeness.
But this E3 thing is where a lot of these points start tying together... remember above how I said we were building the plane as we flew it? Well the [email protected] demo required a super tight deadline and there were a lot of things that we had not yet decided on. A lot. In game development we use the term "vertical slice" to describe a finished portion of gameplay. It's a nice way to look at a demo and a great thing to do at the BEGINNING of your development cycle. But we needed to figure it out, because we couldn't miss this opportunity.
Everyone shifted off what they were working on and made assets for the demo, tested the demo, built for the demo, and designed for the demo. Suddenly this game that had only ever been played with us present was going to be played with people we've never seen before. It had to work on its own. The whole team became a single, unified force. It was actually the best and worst thing that happened to us. Because of how experimental the program was we had a very short deadline to pull it off, but we needed to figure out a lot about our game and our team or we were going to crash that plane. It's a massive testament to the character of the guys at 13AM to tell you that we figured it out and worked our butts off to ship. The moment we shipped that demo we danced. Hard. There's a video of it in slow motion somewhere.
With this new, unbreakable union we went to E3 and got to really show off the game. Treehouse! Twitch! Everything that we did from there just kept reminding us that we were doing the right thing... making an awesome game and giving it everything we had. We even got a by-name mention from Reggie on the final day of Treehouse. With all this excitement, our E3 trailer where we announced Adventure and Online became a huge hit (and it's still our most viewed trailer). When we came back from E3 we felt like champions... but there was still a lot to do. It was like the perfect end of a second act of a movie. We've trained, now we had to defeat the dragon. Or, I guess, land the plane.
With a focus on when the game launched, can you talk a little about the crunch time to passing lotcheck, and some of the feelings and experiences of the launch day / week in North America?
Crunch was nuts. Again, massive days, working weekends, unending waves of bugs... it was hard to stay happy. But the thing to understand about 13AM is that we are goofs. For example, to alleviate the emotional difficulty of passing a lotcheck certification, we started worshipping a gorilla mask wearing a paper Burger King crown. We called it QA, the God of Quality Assurance, also known as QA the Scrutinous, QA the Unfair, and QA the Just. When we're overworked and beaten we get creative ways to stay energized and laughing. Justin, our level designer, just did an impression of a toothbrush. Literally, as I'm typing this, he is pretending to be a toothbrush. If you go through the gallery, if you've unlocked everything, you can see these little pieces of 13AM. Things like the build notes, the lined pieces of paper with 40 or 50 crash logs on it, we thought it would be hilarious to include those. So we did. We thought it would be funny to make an April fools video where our character tease was mashed into one ridiculous hideous abomination. So we did. Giving over to the side of ourselves that likes to have fun, the side that actually likes video games, that's what makes work worth doing. If games are supposed to be fun, then shouldn't you like working with people making games? I think it's important to remember.
The biggest irony is that we spent 18 months locked in the same room, working on a game that we were so excited about, 7 days a week some weeks... and on launch day Aaron, our Art Director, and I were the only ones in the office. Half the team was at PAX Prime, a couple of us were in New York at the Nintendo World Store, and I was answering questions on an AMA. Everyone started taking vacation and readjusting to normal life... life as people who had successfully shipped a game. This, of course, means bugs and issues, but if this process has taught me anything its that you take the good with the bad and you make the best out of it.
All that time together and the first time that we properly celebrated the launch of our game was yesterday, as I say this, at our holiday party.
Nintendo continued to promote Runbow fairly heavily even beyond launch, can you talk about the impact of this, and how it made you feel as a young team making your breakthrough release?
The team at Nintendo is really, really cool. There are people whose whole job is the eShop, some whose whole job is events, some online, and we've come to know them all very, very well. The great thing is is that it's not just a customer service capacity. They know Runbow. They know us, and they want to help us. We feel personally connected to the company because we are. That's important. As a new team getting started in the big scary console game space, this is something we needed. It helped us stay energized and even at the darkest times, we could look to E3, GDC, and even the Reggie Video, and say "hey, you know that massive company that is all about play and fun? Well they really love Runbow." That feels good and always will.
It also helped a lot to have them in our corner. People took us more seriously than anyone would have if we had just done all of this alone. I have this sneaking urge to just ask them one day "Why us?" but I'm worried I'll be awakened up from the dream. I can also speak on behalf of our whole team who came to game design as a way to pursue a passion, and leave our old careers behind. To have that pay off? To get to meet Shigeru Miyamoto in the same year that me AND Super Mario are both turning 30? For the universe to tell our whole team "this is what you should be doing. Keep doing it?" I cannot measure the impact of that. I can not put a number on its value.
How has the game been received by the public, and can you talk about the immediate months after launch? What challenges has it brought, what have been particularly memorable and exciting moments?
People seem to really like Runbow, which is awesome. I know that we shipped with a couple of bugs which was particularly challenging for us, because as our first game we really wanted to start establishing a company culture regarding community management and how we treat our fans. We wanted to give them the best game ever, and when there were a few hiccups in it we wanted to make sure that they knew we were working on them. We responded to every single email, tweet and Miiverse post that we could. On Twitter especially... every single one. Apparently it goes a really long way.
Figuring out why these issues were happening was the biggest challenge. We have a small but brilliant technical team, so we had to really prioritize what issues we were capable of fixing. They can solve anything, but they are only two guys. That's right. Two guys. Our best kept secret. Don't tell anyone.
The best thing this has given us is perspective. We crunched so hard to get the game out and still hit our target release window, but now we're starting to realize that there is a lot of value in taking care of our own health, mental and physical, and in communicating that with our fans while managing their needs with the game.
See, we set that up and all of a sudden we started getting rewarded for it. Grumpcade did 3 whole episodes on Runbow! AbdallahNation beat our entire game; he got 3 medals in the entire campaign. That is not easy... but it's so much fun to watch. We got to do a Skype call with a classroom of kids from the UK who really love the game. That was amazing. The first piece of fan art was probably the most memorable thing, and it reminded us that the game definitely belongs to everyone else now. People are forgiving and positive,especially when you let them know you care. Our reactions to my blog post about a delay in Australia was just people saying "thank you, I didn't know it was a challenge."
Because of that human element we get really rewarding responses from fans. We get really, really creative and awesome fanart, including some that I definitely can't link to here. Ultimately it just means that people are playing our game... and liking it. That's incredible.
Also everyone's a huge fan of Satura. I love that people are clinging to her because Alex and I wrote her backstory so that she would be loved. I like seeing that that works.
Are you still pleased with the decision, looking back on the year and beyond, to release exclusively on Wii U? Have you had moments where you've considered whether multi-platform should have been the choice, or alternatively have you remained happy with your eShop exclusivity overall?
Of course we've considered the alternate universes where we released on other platforms. We've always said we will do everything in our power to get Runbow played by as many people as possible, and that is still 100% true. That's why we're still cooking up crazy ideas that we'll be able to share with you soon. I don't think I'd ever do multiplatform at launch, because the support that I see independent games get from exclusives is something that every small developer needs. All the little bits count.
But honestly, I don't think I would choose any differently. Nintendo showed excitement about this game when it was still a crappy demo, back when there was no Val, no story, and nothing but Run mode. I believe in supporting the people that support you, right from the get go,even if they're one of the biggest companies in the world. It's the human element. They gave us everything and, while I'm sure that Microsoft or Sony would have done a fine job, that's not the universe we are in. We're in the universe where Runbow and Nintendo go hand in hand.
Though details for the 2016 update are yet to come, can you talk in broad terms about your plans for next year? Will you be wrapping up with Runbow and moving on to something else, or expanding Runbow for most of the year?
I mean... this game has been our whole life for the last two years, so it's going to be everyone else's for at least the next 12 months. We have a lot of plans for Runbow. We're going to start announcing these things soon, but suffice it to say you haven't heard the last of this little game and those scrappy Canadians that made it.
One thing we've never shied away from is admitting that there will be more content. We're putting the finishing touches on it now, and let me tell you we really think the fans are going to love it. We've also got a few more updates that we are pushing out, including some fixes to some issues that fans have been calling for since launch.
But we are also working on a couple other ideas, and seeing if we can bring that 13AM magic to new titles in the near future. We're not done with Runbow yet, but we are working on getting a couple more planes off the ground. Planes that are already built this time.
Do you have any standout memories or anecdotes for 2015 that best represent the year you've had, and a final message for our readers?
When we were demoing at IndieCade we saw this kid. He was young, and way too good at Runbow. He kept sneaking back in to play the game and wreck swaths of people at a time. We had to ask him to give other people a chance... But on the third day when our voices were shot and we were exhausted, he came back and we asked him to demo the game. He did. He explained the mechanics, the controls, and we just sat there and smiled.
This kind of thing happens at every show. Not just us being exhausted because demoing Runbow is a full body sport, but we get to see people step in and really champion the game. It's so, so amazing, and it actually makes it worth it. Again, I know this article isn't exactly filled with strife, but we can't be anything but grateful.
All game development seems to be like you're getting ready for a party. You spend a bunch of time getting excited about everything you're going to do at the party and you start inflating giant party balloons. The tricky part is bringing all of that excitement to the party.
So you cram all these big colourful idea balloons into an elevator and its the slowest elevator in the world, and you're stuck with all these people in this elevator who for better or worse are the best damn team you can imagine, and just when you think you're going to run out of air the elevator doors burst open and its the greatest party you've ever seen, because everywhere you look people are having fun.
Sorry, another metaphor. TL;DR: this was the best year ever.
We'd like to thank Dave Proctor for his time; be sure to check out our first article in this series - A Year in Development with Shin'en Multimedia.