July, 2014

How we tried hard but screwed up in a casual iOS game "Uncle Mole"

Olga Shavrina
After the first game design fail (Russian) we were upset but not defeated. We stood up, analysed mistakes and next time did it all correct... Huh, I wish that was true!

Well, we definitely analysed mistakes and realised we need not arcade but a casual intellectual game. It should be a friendly puzzle where a player will train a brain instead of fingers, have fun and feel a progress.

We desperately wanted something like Cut the Rope, Pudding Monsters or Plants vs Zombies.
The game based on a "Maze" paper game – something like a "Battleship" but you should go through an opponent's maze to reach his treasure chest instead of killing all his ships. A player could play with an AI or in a multiplayer mode with other players.

Basic mechanics: a player makes a move to one square in any of four directions. If there's a wall he stops and it's an opponent's turn to move. If the square is empty – a player goes further.
I put my heart and soul into a game's character. Made a story and worked hard at a visual part. The main character is a mole and a game is named after him – Uncle Mole.

Uncle Mole is in an age when you can't confidently say how old is he. He is a life of the party, lively and curious, wise and funny, he knows a lot of stories and has enormous experience.
Uncle Mole story fragment
I had a hard time with moles appearance. First versions looked clumsy and nobody liked them:
First versions of Uncle Mole
After several iterations I found a style everybody liked. He was not too old or too young, evoked empathy and it was clear how to animate him and change his clothes.
Uncle Mode. Final version
Costumes, progress and monetisation
A player got clothes as a reward. He could combine full costumes using them, but they also look fine in various combinations. One costume consisted of four parts: a hat, a jacket, glasses and an item in a hand.

The higher players level was – the more interesting clothes he got. It was fun to change mole's clothes, it was interesting to see what you will get next and it was cool to show yourself in a multiplayer mode in an advanced level costume :)
Mole's costumes
I think, here was my first mistake. I drew costumes for myself – created images familiar and special for me: Elvis, Biker, Slash (Guns N' Roses guitar player), a strange guy with a fish, Bob Marley etc. But I didn't think about how my audience will respond to them.

However it was awesome to create costumes! You start with an idea – try to find something interesting and emotional, look everywhere for inspiration and suddenly – bam! Idea! Then you draw it on the paper – looks cool, than you make it digital – awesome.

Then you slice it to sprites, add some technical details for animation, combine everything in animation tool and – magic – the mole in a brand new costume smiles at you from the screen. It's amazing.
During a game, a player opened pictures of Uncle Mole's adventures one by one. It helped us to tell Uncle Mole's story, build an emotional connection between a player and a character and gave us an additional opportunity for monetisation.
Art gallery – Uncle Mole's stories
During this highly emotional part of work I got close to a character and felt like he's alive. Maybe that's the reason I love the game more than everybody else in the team.
Emotions and animation
I was deeply inspired by Om Nom from Cut the Rope and that's why I wanted to make the Mole lively and emotional.
The Mole was a heart of the game and showed himself on every screen. He engaged a player into a game process, explained what to do, revealed as a character and told his stories. I couldn't cut corners on details.
Animations sprites
Uncle Mole could breathe, show different gestures, made funny faces, walk, jump and even swing in a rocking chair. And I had to consider he could wear any costume. It was a pretty challenging and interesting task.
Many thanks to guys from esotericsoftware.com for their awesome 2D animation tool Spine. It helped me to work with a skeleton, to use different sets of sprites, download JSON file with animations and texture atlases.
I highly recommend this easy, pleasant, comfortable, stable Spine tool for everyone who uses 2D animation.
A first prototype was pretty simple. A player could play only against AI. Both mazes generated so that ways to the treasure chests had an equal amount of steps.
A first Uncle Mole prototype
We had two additional devices on the interface – pedometer and depth sounder. Pedometer showed a number of steps required to reach the treasure chest. E.g. if you are standing near the chest but a pedometer shows 10 it means that there is a wall between you and a chest.
Playing field, multiplayer mode
Depth sounder showed how many walls are around your square. If 0 – just go anywhere you want, it's safe. If more – you better think.

That made a game a little bit like a "Sapper". It was amazing but hard.

Here I see a second mistake also related to the audience. It was not clear who was our target. The game was hard for schoolkids, college students were fine with difficulty but Mole wasn't that cool for them. Adults got tired pretty quickly.

The playing field looked like this:
Playing field, multiplayer mode
Maze was generated dynamically, walls glued together seamlessly. Moles (yours and opponent's) wore costumes, moved and reacted to game situations.

Half their time players spent in the wardrobe – opened gifts and customised a character.
Wardrobe where a player could customise the Mole
We made a cool thing – primary education. It was a set of 10 mini-tasks that explained game mechanics.
We used a smaller playing field for education tasks and introduced game mechanics one by one. At first, a player learned how to use navigation arrows, then we showed him a pedometer, а depth sounder etc.
And suddenly we realised it was the most engaging part of the game. Even we ourselves passed tasks again and again. The problem was that we were not able to create a lot of tasks.

Now I think it was a huge growth potential at this point. We should have try to think outside the box and find the way to build many interesting small tasks. But we didn't do it. It was a third mistake.
70% of the game was ready. All we had to do was to finish content, debug multiplayer mode and finish few other small things. And then we wondered how we would sell the game. Seriously, we didn't think about it before that moment.

We found out there were millions of games in AppStore and if your game is not in the TOP – nobody will find it. To get to the TOP you need a budget or in some rare cases a genius unique gameplay but it was not our case.

So it turned out we had to find money or look for a publisher for a slave-owning relationship and most likely to add ads in a game. We were absolutely not ready for this.

Honestly, we had to think about it from the very beginning and develop marketing skills in the team. But we didn't do it and it was our last mistake.
This game was definitely better than the previous one (Russian) and we nearly finished it. But "nearly" is a key word here. We made four mistakes that cost us the whole project:
We didn't understand customers' background and interests so made a character, visuals and story according to our own point of view.
We tried to reach a wide audience and that's why had troubles finding the correct difficulty level. One part of the audience found a game too easy, others – too hard. Precise positioning is crucial to software development and games are not an exclusion.
We brushed aside a potentially breakthrough mechanics – small tasks that could be quickly solved just because it was hard to come up with many tasks. Now I think it was essential to pivot in this place.
We did not think about the market entry, did not look for partners / competencies / opportunities.
However, I believe the project could have been successful. A story, character and mechanics are pretty interesting. But... that time we were young and inexperienced, problems seemed unsurmountable and we didn't know what to do. Then we had to move to the other city etc. etc. and the project was frozen.

Anyway, I don't consider time lost. Game development – is an awesome emotional experience that helps you to absorb new technologies, and go beyond your usual interface solutions. It is Art – you create a story and a character, you work with sound and animation, you communicate with a player on the emotional level.

It is hard. It's way harder than websites or applications but way more interesting. Game development is worth trying it. But be careful – it's like drugs – highly addictive and won't let you go.
Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being