I recently talked with Mary McKenzie and Gene Kelly from Volcano Bean studios about their new mobile game, Sleepy Kraken. It’s a fun whack-a-mole type game, that Mary calls a “tap and smash”, that’s simple and charming. The game draws inspiration from old school arcade games. Gene further elaborates.
Gene: “We definitely pulled influences from the old school arcade style games like Tetris or Space Invaders. Sleepy Kraken focuses on smashing things for the fun of it and racking up a high score along the way. Pretty simple mechanics that anyone can get into pretty easily and it really lends itself to a mobile platform where kids or grown ups can just tap away.”
You play as the titular Sleepy Kraken as he tries to get some sleep, but unfortunately for him, his napping spot is a prime spot for pirate activities. Slap those pirates with your tentacles before they ring their bells. Beware the explosive ships! Smacking those will cause an explosion, robbing the kraken of precious Z’s. Passing sheep float along in barrels. Thwack these even-toed ungulate to keep that kraken sleeping. Once the Z’s above your head are depleted, the game is over, and your score will be counted.
Sleepy Kraken is fantastically charming and beautifully drawn. The colors are vivid and appealing, and the character design of the pirates are silly and fun. When I asked about the inspiration behind the artstyle, Mary had this to say:
Mary: “Our team kind of started as a site called Unicorgi.com. Myself and Matt Seniour (the third person behind Volcano Bean) realized that we had a really whimsical art style. Our content was very silly and irreverent. We decided we wanted to make games using that same art style. It all kind of evolved from there. I had the general idea and we let Matt go crazy on it, making the beautiful stuff you see in the game.”
This isn’t the first game Volcano Bean has released. Their first game, Where’s My Goblin, is a fun matching game that utilizes the same kind of whimsical art style. I asked Mary and Gene how they got into games development.
Mary: “Through UnicornU, we had come up with a coloring book that we sold at shows. I was looking through it once and thought this would make a really fun app one day. It would be a pretty big project to turn into an iPad app, so we decided to try making a small game to see if we even like working on something like this or if its just too big of a process for us. That’s where “Where’s My Goblin” came from. It’s just a really simple matching game that we could kind of wrap our heads around and actually complete. We wanted to get it done in three months, though it took us five to get totally shipped and out the door. It turned out we really loved game development.”
Gene: “Like a lot of developers, there are a lot of big ideas and larger games we would like to make but we aren’t going to do that right out of the gate and spend like two to three years on our first game. That’s just a huge undertaking. We’re building something smaller to build up knowledge of things like what gaming framework we want to use. We used Corona SDK for Where’s My Goblin, but then we researched and found that Unity would be a lot better for the larger projects we wanted to get to. Even though this game is a smaller one, we were able to learn the framework to use on larger projects down the road.”
Most gamers that read the articles on this website on a regular basis don’t likely play games from their phones and tablet devices nearly as much as they do their 3DS handhelds or their PlayStation 4’s. There is usually a pretty clear divide between “gamers” and “filthy casuals”, at least from the former’s point of view. Video games are becoming more and more all inclusive, an activity that people from all age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultures engage in. A lot of gamers adamantly believe that video games on mobile devices are absolutely NOT “real” video games. This is kind of a silly train of thought. The Oxford Dictionary defines video games as “A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen.” If that doesn’t define games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush, then I’m really not sure what to tell you. Mobile games are just as much video games as Fallout 4 or Call or Duty. There is definitely a bias against mobile gaming, and I really wanted to see what Mary and Gene had to say about the subject.
Mary: “The perks of mobile gaming are that the barriers to entry are much lower, but also we have small children and we play games with them on mobile devices. It began as what kind of mobile games do I want to make for them? So many children’s mobile games are predatory and awful and they try to take advantage of kids “It tells me to buy this thing for $15.” So for me, those are the games that our children started playing first, and we wanted to create a better product for them.”
Gene: “I think mobile is like any other medium where you will have examples of the best a medium has to offer, and you’ll have plenty of examples of some real garbage. Just like how you’ll have great movies and bad movies, you’ll have great mobile games and bad mobile games. You could argue that the scales are tipping in favor of bad mobile games because there is just so much saturation. As far as that platform to play games on, it’s super fun. If you’ve got a good game like Monument Valley or Broken Age or anything by Toca Boca, it’s a good platform to play games on. It’s just a question of what games are you playing.
Mary: “It’s really being heard above all the other noise. I really enjoy mobile style games as well as traditional style games.”
It’s interesting how many garbage mobile games can make it out to the hands of consumers, so the process for getting games onto the app stores can’t be too tough. For Google and Kindle, there isn’t a very strong barrier to get games onto the app stores. That means a lot more shovelware titles to dig through to get to the good stuff.
Mary: “Google and Kindle are actually surprisingly easy. It’s incredibly straightforward, the hoops to jump through aren’t numerous, but it also allows a lot of bad content to get through. With Apple there are so many more hoops to jump through.
Gene: “The documentation was certainly more confusing and complex with things like getting your certificate set up correctly and make sure you have all the correct checkboxes filled in.”
Mary: “I feel like making the game was almost the easy part. Publishing the game, at least to Apple, was the biggest learning curve for us. It’s definitely doable, it just takes attention to detail, though it’s definitely worth it.”
Differentiation is something a lot of mobile developers need to strive for to get their apps seen above all the others. Following and watching trends can be lucrative, though. How many different “Flappy Bird” knock offs flooded their way into the virtual marketplace after the unexpected success of the simple and needlessly controversial title? Does Volcano Bean plan to follow these trends and try to capitalize?
Mary: “It’s always good to pay attention to what’s going on, but coming from being artists and storytellers, our games came from ideas that we were already really excited about.”
Gene: “I wouldn’t say we are up on trends by any stretch. We pay some attention but we’re not actively market researching. We’re more concerned with making a game we’d enjoy and making a game people will enjoy. Admittedly, we need to get better about our marketing.”
Marketing games is a hard task, especially in a world where bigger companies can drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on a marketing campaign where a small part-time company such as Volcano Bean has to rely on much cheaper methods.
Mary: “We’ve done pretty well with word of mouth marketing which we didn’t do on purpose. Really what we notice worked was bringing our games to the local development scene and we’d take our games to local craft and art shows which is kind of a new venue for games. That’s helped a lot. People like to meet someone who has made a game that they can put on their phone or their iPad.”
Gene: “Marketing in general is building a community and audience a bit at a time. It’s not like we’re going to do a crazy million dollar ad buy at this point. You keep putting your name out there. Over time you hopefully build up that fanbase that recognizes that they like the games that your company makes, they met you at a convention and want to check out the latest game.”
Of course getting games onto the virtual market places and app stores was tough, as is marketing, but what about actually making a mobile game for the first time? Especially for potential developers that have absolutely no coding or programming experience? Volcano Bean started off with a couple of graphic artists that had, at most, experience with website development, which is very different from coding a new game from scratch. The interesting thing is, Volcano Bean’s hardest task wasn’t learning the code. The major challenges were business related.
Mary: “Time management. The three of us never made a game before so some things you think aren’t going to take long, but they do, and the thing you budget out a week to do take two hours.”
Gene: “With us doing this in our spare time, learning how to manage an asset pipeline, making sure there’s no process bottleneck and making sure we can figure out process and not trip over each other were the hardest parts. Generally making games is messy, but a fun messy. We can still have fun but we need to treat it like a business so we can get our project done on time so we can continue to make more games.”
Getting into developing video games is something a lot of people dream of doing. Volcano Bean (and my last interview with Ginger Labs LLC) is a great example of a studio of people who have successfully developed video games when they had no prior knowledge of how to accomplish this task. Mary and Gene had this advice to all newcomers.
Mary: “Make something really small and finish to start off. Move on. Make another one and finish it, then move on. Every time you finish something you learn something new. As a creative person, you have to learn to reign it in and keep everything within the scope of your game so you can actually finish it.”
Gene: “We had to find that place where this game is fun, it is what it needs to be, there is more stuff we’d like to put in there, but it’s what it needs to be. People want to make their dream game, and you probably shouldn’t do that first. Also, meet other developers if you can. Having peers is helpful. You can get tips and share advice. It’s so much better interacting and sharing.”
I’d like to thank Mary and Gene from Volcano Bean for meeting with me and taking time out to answer some questions. Look for Where is My Goblin in the iTunes, Kindle, and Google app stores. Sleepy Kraken is currently available on iTunes and Android with the Kindle version forthcoming.