Last year, I co-created a game that broke my heart. I released Elevator Joe with Kuyi Mobile and we were hoping that Kuyi's previous success with Streetfood Tycoon would somehow carry over to this new game. It didn't, and frankly speaking I've soured on the idea of making mobile games for now. Around November last year in the grips of that depression, I reached out to my friend Julius to see if he'd like to join a gamejolt contest with me. We'd always talked about making some dumb game together, and I knew I was in a funk and I wanted to do something light and funny to get me out of my mood. Then right before the contest began, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. Julius's home town is in Eastern Samar, just a few hours away from Tacloban City, which was ground zero for this disaster. Suddenly my depression seemed rather silly, and making the game took on a new dimension. Julius was having trouble reaching his family, what with communication lines cut and cellphone carrier capacities stretched to their limits. He needed to work on something to keep himself from worrying about his family, so we threw ourselves into the game.
One month later, we found out two things. One, Julius' family was safe, but parts of his town were flattened. Two, we didn't win the gamejolt contest. That's all right though. A game jam tends to favor very specific games : platformers, puzzlers, etc. where the interactions are fairly simplistic and gameplay is usually shooting something or fitting a block into the right hole. Picking a political strategy game was probably a poor choice, but it was and continues to be the game we wanted to make. I was terrified of committing myself to what might be another financial flop by pushing forward with this game, but a few factors swayed me to make this choice. Any recognition I gave in the gamedev world comes from my work on Indie titles like Spacechem and Prison Architect (in fact, it was Space Chem that caught Chris Delay's attention and led him to contact me). None of that matters to the mobile market, but I'm hoping that'll have some sway with the indie market. Games like Cart Life and Papers, Please have also proven that there is some interest in subject matter that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of game genres. If we can help to push those boundaries and make a decent living I'd be very pleased.
As we hunkered down to start figuring out timelines and changes to the game design, an interesting opportunity presented itself : Bitsummit 2014. The second annual Bitsummit had just been announced in Kyoto, promising a bigger venue and most importantly for us opening up registration to foreign devs. Even more opportune was the fact that Cebu Pacific Airlines was holding one of their regular seat sales. As I nervously scanned the available seats, I found round trip tickets from Manila to Osaka for roughly $130 dollars. Bitsummit was free for indie devs and is one of the few conferences in our region that attracts Western press. There was no way I could waste the opportunity to have some face to face time with press. So despite feeling financially fragile at the time I pulled out my credit card and within a few minutes I had tickets to Osaka. I was going to Bitsummit.
Japan's hotels are traditionally quite expensive, especially to someone from a developing country. Accommodations are even trickier for someone like me because I'm such a light sleeper. I would have roomed with a friend but that was a bit of an imposition and I don't know their sleeping habits. Hostels are generally out of the picture because now you're in a room full of people with different sleeping habits, and you're not even friends with them so it's harder to kick them because they're snoring. Hotels were way too expensive, though I did consider staying in a cheaper one since the breakfast buffets might offset the cost. Ultimately I chose Airbnb, particularly because I was able to maximize a promo they had and saved $100 on accomodations.
The place that I ultimately found on airbnb was going for $35 a night. That's already pretty cheap by Japanese standards, especially since it comes with bikes, which cuts down on your transportation costs. But I noticed on my credit card bill that my bank had a deal with Airbnb to shave off $25 per transaction. I'd already used this promo on a previous trip to Bangkok, but I wondered if I could use it again. The promo specified that you input the first 4 numbers of your credit card as the promo code. I tried using my credit card again and was informed that the code had already been used up. But I also had an "e-credit card" that the bank gave me, and I tried its numbers : they worked. I quickly realized now that the promo codes were dependent on the different credit card numbers, and that theoretically you could keep using the promo as many times as you had credit card numbers. I scanned the rules and regulations of the promo and could not find anything saying that there was a minimum amount or number of days that you needed in order to use the promo. I had just discovered a loophole. Fast forward to a few days later after some discussions with the Japanese owner of the space, I had made 4 separate transactions at the place, saving me $25 dollars per transaction, totalling to $100 worth of savings. I felt like a bootstrapping genius.
Trial By Fire
Now that everything was all set, all that remained was to try to craft a playable demo within two months. It seemed simple enough at the time, but it turns out we vastly overestimated our capacity to do this. I spent December and January were mostly spent working on Prison Architect, which is basically my bread and butter at this point. I would have most of February to commit to the game, apart from a 5 days vacation in Thailand. Too much was going against us. Aside from the time constraint, Julius was working with a cutting edge SDK called Loom that allowed rapid deploy/live reload workflow but was new and buggy. To be short, we weren't actually able to make a proper demo, but we were able to cobble together a prototype of our sortie system, which will be the main interface in which the player tries to gather votes for his campaign. It made sense for us to focus on that since it was integral to the game that it works. If the sorties aren't fun, then there's no point continuing to develop around them. Additionally, they are also the part of the game that has the most moving parts and animations, which is much more exciting to show off on the show floor compared to showing a character moving across a map screen.
To compensate for our lack of a demo, I decided that making an "explainer" document of some sort would help me to at least communicate what we want to do with the game. In essence this would become a Kickstarter marketing pitch in PDF form, and in my mind I visualized it like an old school SNES Manual. Not only would this be useful to explain the game to press, it also helped crystallize some of the ideas we had into words and pictures so that we can reference them in the future, kind of a like a loose design doc. Since we are planning to crowdfund this some point in the future, this will all be very useful marketing material somewhere down the line.
In fact, it's already proven it's worth. Pecha Kucha Executive Director Jean Snow is inviting gamedevs to do live presentations during Bitsummit. The idea of putting together a Pecha Kucha in a day is terrifying to someone like me, who likes to plan out as many details as I can before getting on a stage. But since I had the manual as a guide I essentially crafted the presentation around the points that I brought up in the manual, making it far easier for me to plot it out. Anyway the great thing about a Pecha Kucha is that at worst you only look like an idiot for 7 minutes onstage and then it's done!
Since there's no sense showing off a prototype during the public days, I also decided to make efficient use of my table space by turning it into a de facto "Philippine Indie Games" table. I rounded up a bunch of local indie developers that I know (Kuyi Mobile, Keybol Games, Quickfire Games, White Widget, Mochibits, Studio Kontrabida)and said that if they could put together a brochure of their games and companies I would stack these on my table and share it with reporters and the public. Getting Philippine games in front of a wider audience is an enourmous task, so I'm happy to be able to help them out while I can. I even bought a Philippine flag and some local candies to entice people to drop by the table!
Hello Again, Kyoto
When my wife and I visited Kyoto last October, we met up with some awesome devs from Q games that invited me to attend Bistummit. At the time I was skeptical, since it was mainly geared towards Japanese indies. That all changed when they opened it up to foreign devs. As I write this I am one day away from flying to Kyoto for Bitsummit. I wish I had more to present, but my tickets and accomodations have been booked and there's no backing out now. At the very least I will see some old friends and make some new ones too. Opportunities like Bitsummit don't come along everyday for folks in my region, so I've resolved to absolutely throw myself into any possible marketing opportunities that I find, even if I'm already exhausted just thinking about it.