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How making our community happy caused us big heartache

Following their fans Black Forest Games developed the multiplayer spin-off Giana Sisters: Dream Runners and got bashed for it. This is the story behind and the learnings we took.

How making our community happy caused us big heartache

30 – that’s our current metascore for Giana Sisters: Dream Runners on XboxOne. That hurts. Really badly. Still we would do this game again. Because our fans wanted us to do it. WTF?

History

2012: Black Forest Games releases the Kickstarter-funded Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. Soon our fans are begging for a multiplayer mode, but we don’t have a clear concept on how to combine this with our morphing dual worlds.

2013: After spending countless hours on Micromachines, Mario Kart and Speedrunners we are convinced versus game might work with the morphing.

2014: While working on overtime and weekends the team puts together a prototype which we show to the press at GDC 2014, then release it as free DLC at the end of the year. Loving Speedrunners, we ask the guys from Double Dutch if we may put one of their characters, Cosmonaut Comrade, as a playable character. They like the idea and give us permission. The add-on is local multiplayer only.

Development

What shall we say, the Giana Sisters community loved the mode and asked for more.  “Why can’t you play online? What about more levels and more characters? Why is it not available for console?” Well, we are, so we hope, known for listening to our community but what we’ve been asked for was quite some work. We are still in Early Access with DieselStörmers  and pushing for the final version there and as a small studio our manpower and financial resources are limited. Andreas- one of BFG’s founders – called the publisher EuroVideo and presented the concept. Soon they gave their ‘Go!’ and we were able to start.

 So we took the idea and created new levels, completely new controls, power-ups and characters. We were not aiming at an e-sports-ready sharply balanced experience. Dream Runners is about pure fun, where it might happen that you’re just overcome by your pursuers because you lost the way. That’s why we chose the camera as it is, giving the leader more of a disadvantage than an advantage.

We also changed the controls compared to those from Twisted Dreams. The characters handle differently with momentum and inertia, which are new but pretty key to the racing medium. As with Twisted Dreams we feel that it should be a goal to master the levels, and only if you played for a while will you be able to get into the perfect flow. Hardcore Giana fans appreciate this. Balancing the ‘familiar’ Giana feeling with the ‘steering’ behavior expected from a racing game was a PITA.

Implementing the networking took us much longer than expected and we smashed our timeline, ending up end of summer instead of mid-spring.  Also, we added a single-player mode, which might have been a mistake. It was meant to be a training area with bots but it was taken by some reviewers as the core experience.

Release

Finally in August we released the game, first on PS4 and XboxOne, a week later on PC. We love the game. That needs to be said. Unfortunately we completely missed something: We didn’t take care that enough players were on the servers at launch so that everyone could find someone to play.

Excited like you are as a dev with every release we watched the first reviews coming in. Most were within the 70s range like we expected and we are happy with this for the game. But then we were struck by the first review that really smashed the game. The test was done with the XboxOne version, saying it is the worst game of 2015 (http://www.gamesradar.com/giana-sisters-dream-runners-review/). It was followed by a few others with similar reactions (e.g. http://wegotthiscovered.com/gaming/giana-sisters-dream-runners-review/). As if this wasn’t enough, the guys from tinyBuild (those working with Double Dutch on the SR multiplayer) blamed us on Twitter for what they called a cheap clone of Speedrunners.

We were shocked. Damn, what was going on? Actually we still don’t know. What we saw is that all those smashing reviews played the game only in the singleplayer mode – probably because we only sent them one key and the servers were empty. You may ask, how stupid you can be, to develop a multiplayer game and not make sure it is reviewed in multiplayer? I have no idea. Maybe it is that we just were too indie here, really doing this project with our hearts and forgetting to use our brains. Or maybe we were too confident, feeling that thousands of players would be online by day one. Whatever the case, we ended up in a dev’s nightmare: a disastrous metascore, leaving us crying over energydrinkcan filled desks, hiding in the darkest corners of our studio, with our hoodies up and calls unanswered.

At least we have learned some things from that. Like: When you design your game to be multiplayer, make sure people understand that’s what they are playing. Or another key one: Don’t leave your players with empty servers on day one.

Meanwhile we got more and more coverage, most reviews are in the 70s (though the metascore still is on the ground level) and it looks like everyone who plays with real players has great fun with Dream Runners. Some of the team are starting to have some kind of social lives again, daring to peek forth from their darkened office space. As developers we will continue following our community…  just maybe a bit smarter than before when it comes to preparing the release.

 

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