Spilt milk Studios has been making games for over 10 years. It's about time we got back to sharing our experiences, so we can all get better at what we do. A lot's happened over the past few months and weeks, so I feel the need to summarise.
This first devblog is a statement of intent. A strong start because so much has been happening recently, and that just means I’ll have to really pull out the stops on subsequent entries.
We launched a Patreon. It took a lot of agonising, planning, and research, but we think it paid off. We'll see if it carries on growing (we're already super pleased) - we're fully committed to it. It's the reason I wrote this devblog, and the reason you're able to read/learn from/dismiss it!
A NEW CHALLENGER APPEARS
First up, and most importantly, we’ve added a new team member to Spilt Milk Studios! He’s an incredibly talented 2D and Concept Artist by the name of Jake Briggs, and we’re tremendously excited to have him join us in our little adventure. We announced his arrival on April 1st, but regardless... everyone believed us! We’ve very slowly grown over the ten years we’ve been in business. Partly due to caution, partly down to finding the right people, but also down to opportunity and focus. Right now we’re focused on stepping up, so that means bringing people like Jake on board, finding any way to get him in. With every hire we get more and more able to deliver the games we dream of making.
That’s Jake over there on the right!
Jake’s worked for some of the industry’s biggest companies... and us! I wish we could say who. But you just might know his skills from Portal Stories: Mel, that Hotline Miami print, and of course our very own Waterways. We’ve actually been working with him for years because he went to the University of Derby with Andrew Roper, our dearly beloved CTO. It’s a very small, very talented world. He’s the man who’s created all of the beautiful artwork you’ve seen for Waterways, Lazarus, Stargrave, A Verdant Hue, our company logo, and everything on our Patreon page. A little bird tells me he’s currently working on something we’ll be showing off soon… something we think really has legs. We can’t wait to show it to you!
We spent a chunk of time after we killed the Lazarus servers (sniff) working up Stargrave. It’s a mechanically similar game - roguelike structure, top-down view, shooting aliens, claiming territory, unlocking & upgrading tech, chatting to adorable robotic pugs - but most assuredly a singleplayer game. We love the world and the characters we built with Lazarus, and the amazing work the Lazarus extended development family did, and we wanted to get that work out there into the hands of people who can play and enjoy it! We built out a prototype over about 3 weeks from scratch in time for EGX in September 2019, so we could get some serious feedback. This was the first time we were able to get feedback on the ‘new’ game (we changed a fair bit from Lazarus) and so it was a bit nervewracking - it was also the unofficial unveiling of the new name and logo, so the fact that it repeatedly drew people over to play was really reassuring. It was at EGX that, after talking to all kinds of people, we settled on the one-liner pitch of “Stargrave is Dead Cells meets Cowboy Bebop”.
Trying to encapsulate a game’s vibe, market appeal and mechanics in one short sentence is always really hard, so we try our best to frame it in those kinds of terms - a Game Equation if you like - and talking to people is the best way to figure it out. Not least because when you finally nail it, the positive response is obvious! For Stargrave it’s the roguelike nature, the colourful world, the characters and tone of writing, plus the fast-paced gameplay and debt to Japanese games of yore that we wanted to try and summarise. We think it works!
Here’s yours truly next to the little booth space we booked with the wonderful Tentacle Zone. It was perfect for us. We didn’t want to announce anything, but we did need to test the key art, title, and game itself in the real world.
We took that feedback and built it into a new build that we took up to Manchester for Gamers Unite, and did the whole thing again. Fresh fingers on the game, scribbling notes, and then folding that back into the game, talking to the players and really trying to hone in on what got people excited, and what they didn’t care about.
Then early this year we worked on even more features, polish and bug fixes for the ‘final’ pitch build which we took to PAX East in Boston (just before the lockdown, boy was it cold over there) for a series of pitch meetings through the GI.Biz Investment Summit. This is an event that sorta latches on to bigger consumer shows (EGX in the UK, PAX East obviously, etc) and makes the most of the presence of so many companies by organising a business-focused morning of talks and panels, then an afternoon of pre-arranged speed-dating-esque pitches with publishers.
Like most things, it pays to be nice, and it pays to be available - we managed to spend all our spare time between our booked slots on location and got a freebie when someone didn’t show up for their slot - so I ended up cramming the already-tight 15-minute pitch into around 10 minutes. Pretty proud of that! This came about because I was there, but also because - I think - I have a really respectful and friendly relationship with the event's organiser. As a studio, I believe Spilt Milk has a reputation as being hard-working, and ‘nice’. So maybe when a slot came up, said organiser saw me there and thought “I know who’ll do a good job of filling it at late notice”. Maybe… or maybe we were the only ones not already in a meeting. Who can tell?
These events are exhausting and really take their toll, but are great for improving the pitch. They’re also - obviously - great for getting human contacts at companies you maybe don’t know. It’s one of the main reasons we wanted to hit PAX East, to get in touch with more USA based publishers. We’re pretty well connected in the UK and Europe (we think?!) but there is work to be done on our global presence! Also, because of all the publishers on the show floor at PAX East, I was able to do some hardcore grifting, going around, asking for the bosses, and getting business cards. They all get added to our big database where we track what budgets they’re after, what kinds of games, whether or not we’ve pitched to them (and with what), all that jazz - so we can be on top of this crazy thing called Business Development.
Since then we’ve also been pitching via Zoom and whatnot, ever since The Situation kicked off properly and everyone’s been working from home. All in all its been an amazing time, and really eye-opening. We’ve learned so much, met tons of amazing new people, hopefully impressed everyone regardless of if we landed a publishing deal with them... I’m not sure how much Covid-19 is affecting things, but it’s useful to look at some stats!
Weeks since first pitch: 36
Total pitches sent: 44
Total New Leads (un-pitched): 34
Total “No”: 30
Total “Conditional No” (budget, timeline, other): 7
Total “In Progress”: 4
Total no response (not even confirmation of receipt): 3*
*of those, how many we met in person: 2
Dunno what that means, or if it’s surprising to anyone, but it just goes to show the level of effort that goes into signing a project. That’s if we end up signing it of course - this might be how much effort goes into not signing a project!
KING OF CRABS
With any luck, you’ll have noticed that we announced a new game!
Well, it’s kinda new - we’ve been helping the wonderful folks at Robot Squid (who are stable/office mates of ours at the Tentacle Zone in central London) to bring their amazing and amazingly successful game King of Crabs to PC and Mac, via Steam! But what is it?
If agar.io and my favourite food got merged into a really fast, funny and cracking action game, this’d be it! Beat up crabs (and other types of seafood) controlled by other players and AI, eat them, grow bigger, find weapons, grow bigger, upgrade, grow big- you get the idea!
It’s bright, colourful, daft & fast-paced - it’s exactly the kind of game we’d love to make!
It’s been something we’ve been working on in the background for a couple of months in very close collaboration with the Squids, and we’re just so lucky. Lucky because it’s the kind of game we’d like to make ourselves (it’d be weird if we worked on something that wasn’t, but still, you get the idea!), and lucky because of how we got the job in the first place. There are regular social events held at the Tentacle Zone so that the various devs and studios can get to know each other a bit more, and at one of them, we were chatting to Chris and Toby (the founding 'Squidfathers') about their ambitions for the game.
On mobile it’s already going nuts so it would make sense to bring it to every platform right? They’d got some ideas but no real plans, and I basically volunteered us to try a Steam port. Fast forward a few more drinks and we’d essentially done the deal, and in the next few days and weeks we figured out the specifics of the contract! Hey presto, a fun project to work on! You can (and should!) wishlist it over here. This is not how most deals are done.
At least, not in my experience.
SUPER DOOM WALL
Oh boy, this one came out of nowhere for a lot of people! Not only is there a brand new Spilt Milk game coming out soon, it's on Stadia, a brand new platform! This one could be complicated too - but think of Crayta, the ‘first on Stadia’ game-creation game, as a AAA Roblox of sorts. The developers of Crayta opened a pot of cash to attract indie devs like us to try something out in their game, and this is our attempt!
Fun with Designer Art (which is better than Coder Art, but not as good as Artist Art)
It’s a PvP 3rd person action game, where you’re trying to blast other players off the edges of a small arena using a variety of explosive weaponry. To keep things interesting, a giant Wall (the titular Super Doom Wall) sweeps back and forth across the arena, and players have to blast holes in it and cross through to the other side at various heights to score more points. It’s completely mad, brilliant fun, and we had an amazing time making it with the brilliant Juju Adams helping us out with code and design. He’s so talented and lovely!
We’ve styled it after a completely over the top gameshow, and we can’t wait to hop in and play with everyone when it comes out! Sadly we can’t share any details like release date and other features, but it won’t be long till we can. We’ve got to give a shoutout to the team at Unit 2 Games who make Crayta as well. It’s a really amazing piece of tech, a fun game in itself, and full of wonderful games to play. You should keep an eye on it when it launches, I think it could be pretty huge. Not only that, but they deserve success, they’re genuinely one of the nicest and most sensible teams we’ve ever worked with.
We released Tango Fiesta on Steam, PS4 and Xbox One a very long time ago, even before Greenlight was a twinkle in Valve’s eye. It was published under Mastertronic, released out of Early Access just a few weeks before they very sadly went under. It was complicated launch, and a complicated time for us.
Remember this? If you do, you're one of the old school.
I feel like we sometimes give Tango a bit of a hard time. Suffice to say it was our first game as a team, first funded by a publisher, and first on Steam. We smashed it, and it’s really good fun, but it didn’t live up to our hopes in terms of quality, reviews, or sales. We do hold ourselves to a very high standard, and sometimes that can be tough, but we’re finally able to do what we feel is some justice to the game! We’re working on fixing a bunch of bugs (mostly around achievements), some quality of life issues (controls, pad support, polish) and bringing some of the changes and improvements that those lucky console owners have had back over into the PC version. There’s a bunch of small tweaks and presentational improvements, and excitingly a fairly significant rearrangement of the game! There’s a brand new mode called Arcade which sits alongside (rather than replacing) Story for those who can’t get enough of the amazing puns. Arcade takes you through a bunch of random levels from the game, fighting a mix of random enemies plucked from any World in the game, and then caps it off with a Boss fight. It’s an endless mode that gets harder and harder the further you get into it, and frankly is a much needed fast way to dive right into the fun.
We’ve got plans for more on the horizon, but this initial effort can be summarised as an attempt to reassure people who have bought it that we’re not the kind of dev to forget one of our games. We’d love the effort to boost some review scores - perhaps get it above the (deserved) Mixed that it’s currently sitting on right now. And to really, honestly, draw a nice line under it. If it results in no sales spike, or not a big enough reception, then we can say we honestly gave it the very best shot.