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Postmortem: You Have to Win the Game

A look back at the development, launch, and continued support of free indie platformer You Have to Win the Game, one year after its release.

Kyle Pittman, Blogger

May 8, 2013

12 Min Read

This was originally posted on my personal blog at http://www.piratehearts.com/blog/2013/05/06/you-have-to-recap-the-year/. The opinions expressed are my own and do not represent the opinions or values of my employer or their publishing partners.

One year ago, I released You Have to Win the Game. I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the development of that game and everything else I’ve been up to since then. Fair warning: this is going to be really self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, self-serving, self-etc. I’m also going to discuss ending spoilers. You’ve been (fairly) warned.

But before I get into all that, I need to give a big thank you to everyone who’s downloaded, played, shared, reviewed,  YouTubed, livestreamed, tweeted, commented, or otherwise made noise about this game. As of the time of writing, it’s reached over 24,000 downloads, which is pretty amazing to me. It’s been a really fun year thanks to each and every one of you. Thank you!!

You Have to Win the Game was conceived on November 9, 2011. At the time, I only knew that I wanted to make a 2D platformer, for the silliest of all possible reasons. For better or for worse, 2D platformers are often considered to be typical of the indie scene, and I hadn’t made one yet. So I figured, hey, why not try to make the best possible 2D platformer I can, just to get it out there and get it out of my system? I wasn’t exactly sure what it would be, but over the next couple of months, I tossed around ideas for a Bubble Bobble-esque arcade platformer before eventually landing on something closer to VVVVVV, an inspiration I continued to wear on my sleeve throughout the entire development of the game.

Here are some of the very first notes I emailed to myself in the first few days of the project’s inception. It’s pretty cool to look back at these and see how much of this initial vision manifested itself in the shipping game.

  • I’m thinking something in the vein of VVVVVV or possibly Super Crate Box.

  • Double jumping is always fun. I’ve been a proponent of this since forever.

  • Wall jumping is also fun, if implemented correctly (push against wall to hold/slide, and press jump again to bounce off…Megaman X and Super Meat Boy got this right).

  • Like, no enemies even? Just one guy running through a hard series of jumps?

  • Maybe a little open-world? Maybe with upgrades (double jump, wall jump)? Might be very Knytt Stories…

The next six months are a blur. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to get invested in a side project while I was already crunching on another game — you know, that one that starts with a “B” and rhymes with “Schmorderlands 2″? I spent most of my free time over the next half-year staying up late into the night, marathoning TV shows (mostly Community and Twin Peaks), writing code, and crafting a world.

By late February 2012, I felt confident enough in the game to begin teasing it via #screenshotsaturday and a TIGForums thread. At this point, I had most of the technical aspects of development sorted out and was transitioning to world construction. It’s interesting to note, however, that despite my early observation regarding its alleged fun factor, I didn’t pursue wall-jumping until March, at which point it was late enough to have potential ramifications on level design. (Ultimately, I did ship with at least two places where it was possible to wall-jump out of the world, as has been documented on YouTube for all eternity.)

By April, the game world was nearing completion, but I didn’t feel like it was gelling. I had game mechanics, and I had levels in which to exploit them, but I didn’t feel like it was really coming together into any sort of a cohesive experience. And while the game’s title coyly suggested an arbitrary “just reach the end” narrative, I wasn’t really happy with that, and I began searching for ways to bring a little more meaning to the game.

Around the same time, two things happened. The first was that Fez released on XBLA. After years of anticipation, I was thrilled to finally play it, and I was captivated by its world and the secrets it held. The second was that I picked up a copy of Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. An inspiring book from start to finish, what really stuck with me was a passage near the end which encourages the inclusion of uniquely personal elements over adherence to mainstream convention.

The retro aesthetic I chose for You Have to Win the Game was already modeled after the PC on which I learned to program back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but as I debated how to imbue YHtWtG with meaning, I considered its similarities to the games I played as a child and to the games I wanted to make when I was first learning to program. I remembered the sense of wonder and mystery I felt when playing games like The Legend of Zelda, Bubble Ghost, War in Middle Earth, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Prince of Persia, and many others.

I began to see YHtWtG not only as a stylistic homage to the technology of my youth, but also as a metaphor for my own journey as a programmer and for the DIY joys of overcoming obstacles. I’ve talked in the past about my preference for rolling my own tech and why I choose to do so, and to a large extent, I felt that the in-game parallels to this sense of a goal being its own reward eliminated much of the need for an explicit narrative. Why do you have to win the game? Because you can.

It was this train of thought that led me to the passive narrative I wove into YHtWtG via messages scribbled onto the walls. For those of you who have finished the game, you’ll know that this culminates in a rather obtuse fourth-wall-breaking puzzle. I had serious reservations about whether to include this bit. Even to this day, I sometimes wonder if it was the right decision. Ultimately, I feel that the game experience is the one I want it to be, and I think that's the best I can hope for. (Also, free game is free, so there's that.)

It’s worth noting that my original plan for the final puzzle was even more obtuse. Rather than immediately grant access to the final room, the secret console command would launch a web browser and link to a YouTube video of me typing on my mechanical keyboard. Close observation would reveal that I was typing a URL. Entering this URL in the browser would link to an image containing a message hidden behind a red transparency screen a la old school PC game copy protection. The message would be a riddle hinting at a secret code embedded in the game’s “About” text. Entering this code in the console would grant access to the final room. I had this entire thing implemented and was even debating whether to add a QR code somewhere in there for yet another layer of abstraction, but the whole thing was starting to feel a little too self-indulgent, unwieldy, fragile, and unnecessary, so I scaled it back to what’s in the shipping game. I’ve never regretted that decision.

On May 6, 2012, I released You Have to Win the Game via a blog entry and a Twitter announcement. Within hours, Terry Cavanagh had posted it on FreeIndieGam.es, and by the end of the week, it had hit IndieGames.com, JayIsGames, and Kotaku (which led to me freaking out on Twitter). Eventually it made the front page of TIGSource and TIGdb, which was especially exciting because it was the TIG community that really got me interested in the indie scene back in 2008.

On May 18, Indie Game: The Movie was released. I related to it.

Even after four years of development on my hobby engine, I had some anxiety about sending a game off into the wild. In order to better understand needs and address issues, I implemented some simple telemetry into my engine to provide optional anonymous user statistics. After two weeks and over six thousand samples, I collated and published this information.

Although I had implemented support for patching a year earlier while working on the indefinitely-postponed The Understory, I had made it a goal to not be too reactionary or hasty in developing patches. To that end, I waited two weeks from launch before uploading the first patch, which addressed a number of prominent issues, including adding the option to disable the CRT simulation.

Over the next year, I continued to support the game with graphical updates, localization and level editor features, and more.

Out of curiosity, I decided to put YHtWtG on Steam Greenlight as an experiment to see whether there’s a place for free (and already released) games on Steam. The answer was a resounding “…myeh??” Many users were confused as to whether the game had already been released (yes), whether there was an enhanced version in development (no), and whether it was a blatant rip-off of VVVVVV (sure). You can see the stats for yourself here.

Would I put a free game on Greenlight again? Sure, why not. With no expectations of ever actually reaching Steam, it’s still a little bit of publicity, and as I’ve already forked over the ridiculous fee once, I guess I might as well put it to some use. Do I think there’s actually a place for free games on Steam? Sadly, no. The mere fact that titles have to be designated as “Free to Play” (versus simply “Free”) in order to appear as such on Greenlight says to me that Valve probably just isn’t interested in supporting wholly free games. I don’t mean this to sound accusatory; bandwidth costs money and it likely doesn’t make financial sense to pursue or promote these titles. I would be very curious to hear from other developers whether they’ve had any success with putting free games on Greenlight, though.

Since I had something in a finished state for once, I submitted YHtWtG to IndieCade, PAX 10, and the IGF. Unfortunately, it was passed over for all three. I was a little disheartened, albeit not entirely surprised — innovation is not necessarily my strong suit, least of all on this title. It fared better within the genre, however. Towards the end of 2012, indie sites awards began popping up, and I was beyond thrilled to see YHtWtG make the cut on IndieGames.com (#1 free platformer), JayIsGames (#2 indie platformer), and FreeIndieGam.es (best of platformers).

That mostly wraps up the saga of You Have to Win the Game to date, although there were a couple of other Random Cool Things that I felt were worth mentioning.

Random Cool Thing #1: DeviantArt user Aurebesh made a map of the entire game out of screenshots! Seeing this took me back to the days of browsing maps in Nintendo Power.

Random Cool Thing #2: Someone put You Have to Win the Game on TVTropes! I was amused to see the player character described as a “…thing of indeterminate gender.” (I’ve personally described the character as something along the lines of “me in my teens, I guess, since I used to wear a backwards hat all the time back then?”)

Random Cool Thing #3: Commodore 64 programmer Kabuto ported YHtWtG to the C64! You can download it here. It’s uncanny. As mentioned here, we’re working with RGCD on doing a cartridge release of this version, too, so stay tuned!

So what else have I been up to in the last year besides supporting YHtWtG? Well…

In August, I contributed to the second A Game By Its Cover competition with a small sushi-themed match-3 game.

In September, I threw together a demo of geometry clipmaps showing off infinite Perlin noise terrain.

In January 2013, I made a tiny program to display a cycling loop of images from any folder.

In February, I released a very silly game that a co-worker challenged me to make.

In April, I made a small app to render media to a virtual theater screen using the Oculus Rift.

And I’m currently working on sand tech for a miniature zen garden simulation.

It’s been an exciting year, and I predict things will only get more exciting from here!

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter! @PirateHearts

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