Blitz 1UP

Giving indie developers a boost


Developer Stories: Binary Tweed

I’d always been interested in video games – I wrote a program in Spectrum BASIC to print out the alphabet before I even knew the whole alphabet from start to finish (I believe I just typed the ones I didn’t know in the order they appeared on the keyboard). The first game I ever bought for myself was Treasure Island Dizzy on the Speccy when I was 6. I was the first secondary school student to be accepted to do vocational experience at Codemasters in the late 90’s, and at college I started A-levels in Maths, Physics and Computer Science.

… then that whole inforweb thing happened. I rapidly came to the conclusion that I knew more about website development than games development, and ended up switching disciplines. A few years later I was Head of Web Development (Europe/Americas) for a rapidly-expanding financial business, responsible for 7-figure budgets and a team of up to 18 web developers, designers, project managers and usability specialists.

As the company grew, my motivation was more and more lacking, and I was getting progressively more distracted by gaming and the games industry. I’d spend my lunch breaks reading all the latest industry happenings, often being more interested in the machinations of the industry than the actual games being released.


Come the summer of 2008 the world’s economy imploded. As the cost-cutting axe fell, I found myself chatting to my then-line manager. He asked if I might not be better off doing something more creative rather than frustrating myself with corporate red tape. At the same time, Microsoft had just announced Xbox LIVE Community Games (as it was then called) and that everyone would be able to sell their wares through Xbox LIVE. I chatted to him briefly about this, and to no one’s surprise, found myself redundant a few days later.

It seemed that the stars had aligned to provide me with an opportunity that would only come once. A chance to go back to what I’d always wanted to do, combined with a new market that would (hopefully) not have much competition, and a big fat wodge of redundancy cash. So, I set about tinkering with XNA.

At this point I’d completed two examples from XNA books, so was by no means an expert. Additionally I was well versed in Enterprise Edition Java, but had nary used C# or Visual Studio before, so almost everything was going to be an uphill struggle.

Having just left an incredibly stressful job, I budgeted my redundancy cash and decided I’d give making an XBLCG a go, and see how far I got. The plan was to release something of passable quality at XBLCG launch when there was little competition, and take it from there.

A Curious Tale

The XBLCGs announced for launch were almost exclusively shooters. I needed to think of something I could create with no games development experience, a very poor understanding of maths and geometry, and very little art resource. Rather than try and compete where I was weak, I had to take the fight to the competition’s weakest points.

I couldn’t do fancy graphics, so something hand-drawn seemed a good idea. I couldn’t do twitchy gameplay, so a simple platformer was sensible. All of the other XBLCG launch titles were action games, so something with a plot would stand out. All of these things culminated with a life-long obsession with the Oliver Twins’ Dizzy games to lead me to the conclusion that a reinvention of the collect-em-up genre would be my best bet.

I decided to code the game from scratch as a learning exercise. One of the most fundamental flaws in this approach was all the really core parts of the code base were those I was writing when I was most inexperienced. This would come back to nip me in the backside many times.

Artwork took a lot, lot longer than I expected. It seems ridiculous now, but we originally planned two weeks to get the majority of the game’s art done. The XBLCG November launch came and went, and come January we still weren’t ready. However we had enough built to send some press releases out, and so we did.

Giddy with excitement at being featured in Kotaku, Joystiq and Eurogamer, I came to the conclusion that making something that was only passable wasn’t an option now. And thus feature creep set in.

Not long after this I discovered rather unexpectedly that I was going to be a father. My other half had also been made redundant from her job in the finance sector, so we were in the rather uncomfortable situation of having taken a huge financial gamble and now having responsibility looming over our heads.

In April, I decided (perhaps foolishly) that enough was enough with the polishing and that I needed to get Clover out of the door. I was well aware of the most fundamental flaws in the game at this point, but had decided that it would be too costly to correct. I dare say this was the biggest mistake I made, and Nintendo made a point of this talking about the “Death Spiral”.

Clover released to moderate sales. A lot of other XBLCGs sold fewer copies and not many sold more. We certainly got a lot more press than the others. I also quite comprehensively won a bet with another XNA developer that I wouldn’t make £20,000 on Clover. Suffice to say though that it certainly didn’t cover the costs of two people living in central London with no income for 8 months.

The majority of the investment in Clover had been artwork, plot and puzzle design. It was obvious that with an investment that was portable to other platforms, it’d be mad to not try and pursue that route. At the very least, a PC port seemed like low-hanging fruit.

I found Blitz 1UP through games marketing magnate Bruce Everiss, after emailing him about the best way to contact the Olivers – I had previously thought I should at least show them my little tribute to Dizzy. Clover had received some pretty decent reviews, including an 8/10 from Eurogamer, so it was fair to think the game had more potential.

After approaching Blitz 1UP and getting NDAs signed, I travelled up to Leamington Spa for a meeting with Neil Holmes, Chris Swan and Phillip Oliver. It was quite evident that with Blitz’s resources there was a lot more that could be done with the game. We discussed the possibilities of porting to other platforms, and it was here that I really gained a lot of knowledge about the processes involved in various distribution services and the technical requirements of the varying platforms. As a lone coder with no prior games industry experience, this was knowledge that was previously unavailable to me and that I could never have gained on my own.

Together we thrashed out a plan of potential platforms, improvements that would be mandatory for each, and who would be doing what. From here on in, it was much like any other project. I had contacts at Blitz available by IM and email to resolve issues and answer dumb questions, and online collaboration software was used to overcome some of the hurdles of working in disparate locations.

Development Philosophy

My original intention was to look at old and forgotten game genres, and bring them back to life by stripping away the mechanics that didn’t translate well to modern times. This is reflected in the Binary Tweed brand, a mixture of old and new without using the infernal ‘retro’ word. I’ve never had a desire to try out mind-bending conceptual ground-breakers, and even if I did, I’d like to experiment from a much more secure financial base.

The approach I’ve taken has changed since the outset of this venture. Originally I was winging it a little, to see how far I could get. I wasn’t going to go seeking capital for an investment when I didn’t have a clue how challenging creating a game may or may not be.

Having seen through what could at worst be described as a folly, my opinions are changing somewhat. I’m still not writing up business plans to find a backer so I can hire a team, but I’m certainly not going to repeat decisions made when creating Clover. For instance writing all the code myself was a great learning experience, but not a good business decision – I’d have been much better off using an engine and cutting my development and debugging time considerably.

In engineering terms, I’ve suffered from my lack of games-domain knowledge and my Java background. A lot of my code is perhaps over-complicated by an object-orientation obsession, that’s not only made things hard for other people to understand but has also incurred some performance hits.

When we embarked on the new version there was no dedicated 1UP resource at Blitz, so more flexibility was required on my side. Over-engineered project plans simply don’t work in such a fluid environment, and a flexible approach to delivery that relied on mutual trust worked much more effectively than constantly revising an unrealistic project plan.

Most sadly of all, my approach is destined to change because of my renewed respect for the high risk/reward ratio of the games industry. As someone who spent his teenage years in music, I know all about toiling away on something that you think is great, but doesn’t have that magic factor that will propel it to success. I’d always known the games industry worked in a similar way, but I was slightly naïve in my view of the balance of the risk/reward ratio – I thought that a solid product produced on a budget would at least cover costs.

The most creatively intriguing ideas I have are unfortunately the least likely to get developed. Although I still take enjoyment from the challenge of designing enjoyable interactive experiences, some of the more off-the-wall and provocative ideas are going to have to get shelved in favour of being able to pay the rent.

Lessons Learned

If you’re coming from a completely fresh background, expect to make mistakes and learn from them. My approach has changed through necessity since I started on this little journey, and I’ve been learning along the way. It would be foolish to think I could’ve have avoided much of this learning process, but equally short-sighted to not at least try to sidestep issues.

However long you think development is going to take, add 50% of that time to the project for polish. I’d argue that anything less would be insufficient, and this partially led to the original Clover not being as good as it could be.

Immediacy is key. A simple change to the inventory system in Clover meant that far fewer players were being put off by a clunky menu system. More important than that is the immediacy of enjoyment – even if you’re creating a game about plot, puzzles and reflection, it still needs to be enjoyable from the offset. Borrowing from Donald Norman’s mental model, you need to engage a player on the visceral (how it looks and sounds; this is the part of your mind that enjoys big explosions in action films), behavioural (what you’re actually doing; the part of your mind that plays football or does the washing up) and reflective (what you’re thinking; liking Fight Club because you thought it was clever) levels in order to achieve success. Trying to appeal only to the reflective level means many gamers won’t persist long enough to have an experience to reflect on!

Plan for success. As you should be equally prepared for failure, it makes sense to at least cater for the fact you might be more successful than you thought. Most people are aware that was one of the major boom ‘n’ bust victims, but few realise this was down to the fact they were overwhelmed by their initial success. Use a multiplatform engine, and think how you can port. If your game does well you’ll certainly want to put it elsewhere.

Spin will get you a long way. One of the things that went very well with Clover was the amount of press we got initially. Have something aesthetically unique, and make sure you’ve got an intriguing tagline to back it up. Don’t be afraid to talk up your game, but avoid hyperbole. Remember that games journalists get sent hundreds of crappy, uninspired press releases full of PR-speak every day, so you’ve got to do something above and beyond that.

Last but by no means least, try and enjoy yourself. When the chances of making back your investment are so small, if you don’t have fun along the way you might as well take up gambling. Aim to enjoy the journey, and it doesn’t matter whether you reach your destination or not.

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