I thought it would be fun to go back and take another look at those developers I covered in the early days of Electron Dance. In six years, what has happened to them?
In part two: Puppygames, Douglas Wilson and Michael Brough.
The tower defence genre was all the rage back in days of yore. A TD game is a puzzle where you’re challenged to find the right pieces that solve the level, but players often spend a great deal of time waiting for the level play out instead of being active. In Revenge of the Titans, developer Puppygames solved this problem by keeping the player occupied with some frantic plate spinning during each wave. Gregg B and I had a chat about this back in 2010.
I ask Cas Prince of Puppygames where the team went after this.
“So… we spent quite a lot of time on Revenge of the Titans even after it was launched, turning it into the best game we could manage to turn it into,” he says. Indeed, the game discussed on Electron Dance back in 2010 isn’t the one on sale today.
“We stuck in a new DLC mode that was a complete mistake – it cost us a fortune to make and will probably never make its money back, so we won’t be doing that again in a hurry. Then we developed our old mini-arcade games – Titan Attacks, Droid Assault, Ultratron – and gave them a spiffy hi-res makeover to make them fit for release on Steam in around 2012/13 or so. In the case of Ultratron we completely rewrote the game into something very different.”
But then in 2014, Rock Paper Shotgun reported that Puppygames was on its last legs. What happened?
Well, for one, a financial distraction – direct sales plummeted. Prince: “We diverted our attentions for six months attempting to rescue direct sales, which had nosedived in a trajectory that looked suspiciously like a mirror image of Steam’s meteoric rise. That was a total waste of six months and huge amounts of advertising money – nothing we did helped it at all, and Steam rose to utter dominance. We may as well have commanded the waves to retreat.”
In addition to this, the team kept flitting between ideas. “We sort of… floundered around trying to think of ideas that we liked. It turns out that settling on ideas that hit the sweet spot between capability, viability, and preference is pretty bloody difficult, especially when you don’t really have tons of actual capability.
“We had a few prototype ideas. We actually spent a year or so developing Battledroid then realised we needed two more years to get it released, so we panicked and switched our attentions to a smaller game we could finish inside 4-5 months.”
This game was The Skies of Titan. “It looked quite promising but we were suffering from a financial rollercoaster and always in a state of permanent panic. At the same time, Alli, our new guy, set about prototyping some ideas as well in Unity. After a couple of months it became apparent that the prototype idea was going to be quite interesting but also that it was going to probably need to be in 3D. At this point we had enough money to last about… four months probably. So that was the time limit for the new game to be released.”
So Battledroid was on hiatus and Skies was abandoned even though Prince confesses it probably would have been finished on time. “We found ourselves embroiled in a bloody complicated 3D game that was going to take a year at least to make, which became Basingstoke, but with just enough money to last a few more months. And naturally, a year and a half later it’s still nowhere near finished. Probably another year to go.”
But Puppygames still lives and the team are still working on these projects when time allows. “I got myself a contract doing boring work to bring in the money and keep everything ticking along,” Prince explains. “I work on Battledroid in my spare time – it’s coming along nicely, but very slowly! – and Basingstoke is still 9 months off of any sort of release. Phew.” You can also support the development of Battledroid through Patreon.
“My actual financial plans are to remain doing this boring work for the next three years or so and continue to develop Battledroid in that time – but at the end of it I’ll be totally free of all debt, including the mortgage, and able to work full-time on anything I please. Hopefully Chaz will return to Battledroid after Basingstoke is out the door, and Alli will then get on with prototyping a new idea.”
Doug Wilson is a big deal around here.
The Indie Games Arcade was my obsession during the years I attended the Eurogamer Expo. During my first visit, I mentioned an odd little party game called B.U.T.T.O.N., which used controllers in a way I’d not seen before. The game didn’t enforce it’s purported rules either, which turned out to be a deliberate act of game design.
Then this guy dropped me a line, said thanks for covering the game but he was also fascinated with my post on Marvel Brothel. His name was Douglas Wilson and was a member of the “Copenhangen Game Collective” which was showcasing all sorts of different titles such as Dark Room Sex Game (which I was compelled to post about).
This was the beginning of a long-distance friendship with Wilson, who I learnt a great deal from such as the conventional framing of a “videogame” as a pairing of screen and controller was limiting. He also introduced me to the idea of videogames as relationships between players and developers, which I described in ‘The Author As Content’ but has surfaced many times since. Like when I discussed The Stanley Parable, because that game is all about the player/creator relationship, and most recently in ‘Chekhov’s Collectible’. This all goes back to Wilson.
While working on his PhD at ITU under Miguel Sicart, Wilson experimented with the Sony Move controller and gave birth to the game he is most associated with, Johann Sebastian Joust. It kept appearing at gaming conventions and expos but fell under that special Nidhogg category of will-I-ever-be-able-to-play-this-at-home. (Wilson was also experimenting with another Move-based game called Beacons of Hope which seems to have been put to bed.)
In 2011, he formally joined Nils Denekin’s studio Die Gute Fabrik and, while I was taking a break from writing, I was cheeky enough to rope Wilson into writing an article in my place. He interviewed Martin “grapefrukt” Jonasson, Petri Purho and Ramiro Corbetta to chat about games of the “raucous party variety”. Wilson, although fascinated by local multiplayer games, was troubled by how difficult it was to sell them. They could have unusual controller requirements and the lean nature of these games rendered much of the protracted balancing work invisible, making them look poor in comparison when pitted against glossy AAA works.
In 2012, I interviewed Wilson twice. Once for a series in which I advocated for academic game studies, during which Wilson declared he would go full-time indie after his PhD, and also once for my short video interview series “Cat’s Away Chronicles”, where we talked more broadly. He’d started talking about a potential solution for selling these quirky local multiplayer games: several developers could get together to make an anthology.
Once his PhD was behind him, Wilson devoted his energies to making this idea a reality. As 2012 came to a close, he launched the Kickstarter funding drive for Sportsfriends – a package containing Joust, Hokra, Barabariball and Super Pole Riders. This is the only Kickstarter I have written in support of (soon after I implemented the house rule not to talk about Kickstarter projects).
It took two years for Sportsfriends to become reality. Gregg and I played many of the Sportsfriends titles during the first Side by Side series: Barabariball, Super Pole Riders and even the rarely sighted JS Joust on Windows. Sportsfriends lived up to its hype.
But it took its toll. After being in the blinding spotlight for such a long time, Wilson retreated from the public eye. There’s little new to report right now. Denekin is still working on Die Gute Fabrik’s next title, Mutazione, and Wilson tells me he is currently researching a book in “social-physical game design”.
- Doug Wilson on Twitter (@doougle)
- Die Gute Fabrik
- Doug Wilson’s PhD thesis: “Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation – or – How to make friends by trying to kick them!”
It was probably a title called Vertex Dispenser that first brought Michael Brough to my attention, who was going by the handle “brog” at the time. I say probably, because I recall I also played some of his prototype works such as The Sense of Connectedness without realising he was behind them. I wrote a little about Vertex Dispenser in 2011 and Brough’s work has been a frequent presence on these digital pages ever since.
In 2012, I was so taken with his brutal roguelike ZAGA-33 that I wrote a fictionalisation of one session called ‘The Alien Cortex Must Die’. In 2013, I described how his one-move-a-day game VESPER.5 was monetised in a parallel universe. In 2014, Gregg B and I fell in love with his local multiplayer game collection Kompendium. This doesn’t really scratch the surface of his vast portfolio of experiments, especially as there are some serious omissions here like the brain-bending puzzle game Corrypt and iOS title Helix. Brough has been a prolific creator… until recently.
Last year, I wrote a bittersweet love letter called ‘Brough Beaten: A Portrait of Success’, concerned about Brough’s failure to establish financial security even on the back of his masterful roguelike 868-HACK.
However, Brough recently confessed that 2015 was actually a good year for him although he tells me, “Not a whole lot has changed since your “portrait of success” writeup, no new releases.” But it’s not all bad news. “Somehow people keep on buying the old ones which is pretty amazing, like, without any extra work I’d have still been making a subsistence income. Success!”
There’s good news for the Broughphiles amongst us – or perhaps we’re BroughBros, yeah, that sounds like a label which is gonna work. “I have been working too, making a new game called Imbroglio, which I’ll hopefully get out within a couple of months. It’s a big small game, a tight roguelike in the vein of Zaga and 868 but with a lot more options – different characters, item builds, that kind of thing. It’s been my main thing since late 2014 with prototypes going back well before that so, yeah, long project.”
He jokes, “I’m a little worried it’s been too long and everyone will have forgotten me… that’s silly though of course, plenty of games take that long and it’s fine.”
As long as it doesn’t take seven years and millions of dollars, mentioning no high profile names.