Postmortem from Regolith Games’ "KrissX"
Andrew Docking of Regolith Games gives a detailed post mortem of his game KrissX. What went right, what went wrong and what lessons were learned along the way.
KrissX (‘Kriss cross’) is a relaxing and engaging combination of puzzle and word game. It possesses the simple play mechanic of swapping pairs of letters to solve a variety of word puzzles. Players progress through a huge number of varied puzzles of increasing complexity, unlock new game modes, earn a wide range of badges marking their achievements, and get to create and share their own puzzles on PC and Mac.
KrissX was launched in late January 2010 and is now available on Xbox LIVE Arcade, PC and Mac, with more platforms likely to follow. The PC version was recently released on Steam and is now being launched on an ever-growing list of casual PC websites.
KrissX is the first title from Regolith Games, a small company dedicated to making nice games where nobody gets shot and are suitable for everybody. The company – and the game for that matter – began in 2007 as an experiment to ‘dip a toe’ in the rapidly growing casual games market. It was also an opportunity for the founder, i.e. me, to change gear away from a background of more typical game development.
The goal behind both the game and the company was to concentrate on very simple core ideas and execute them well; core concepts that can be grasped by anybody in just a few seconds, that offer rewards and relaxation in a short time span, but also giving a great deal of replay value for those that want to spend many hours with the game. KrissX achieved these goals in a lot of ways, but as with most stories of game development, not everything ran as smoothly as we’d have liked.
What went right?
Developing a game with very limited resources is a real challenge. Game developers are perennially optimistic about how much can be achieved within a given timeframe. The solution for Regolith Games was firstly to keep a tight lid on the scope of the game design and secondly to stack the odds in its favour by focusing a great deal of energy on building a high quality game engine and tools framework.
KrissX started out as a PC-only game. It was a key goal nonetheless to be prepared to take the game to more platforms if the opportunity came along. The software framework was designed to scale across multiple platforms and languages. The development process too was kept as streamlined as possible through the creation of a single-step data and code build pipeline, and a series of automation tools. We didn’t intend to break new ground in any field, but simply to be good at achieving a tightly focused set of goals. It was an investment that may not have paid off if the game was restricted to the PC.
Simple decisions such as creating an XML text database, UTF-8 string support, a build-time font generator deriving the character set from the text database and a simple flash-like XML-based interface design tool, among many other things, proved to be great assets in the long run.
When the time came to take KrissX onto Xbox 360, Wii and Mac, the result was a largely trouble-free development process. The game was playable very quickly on each platform, all of which benefited from any updates or fixes to the core game.
Of course, investment in tools and technology is standard practice for larger game developers, but it has been absolutely critical to Regolith Games’ ability to produce a quality product across multiple platforms, making the development process a pleasure.
2. Blitz 1UP
Although KrissX was developed to a releasable standard by Regolith Games on PC, its chances to fulfil its potential relied on getting the enthusiastic backing of a publisher. Casual games distributors were quite happy to distribute the game but few had any real impetus to take the game any further than simply adding it to their catalogue and seeing how it performed.
Largely by chance, through friends and ex-colleagues, a meeting was arranged with Blitz Games Studios, one of the largest game development studios in Europe and founded by the Oliver Twins. Their Blitz Arcade division was making great strides focusing on downloadable console titles and to their eternal credit they saw potential in both KrissX and Regolith Games as a company. In partnership we were able to take KrissX onto console platforms and so give it a much wider audience.
Blitz continued to build on this initiative and later launched the Blitz 1UP programme, which is an exciting enterprise to help independent game creators get their games to market. It has been a real pleasure to see the programme grow and to carry the flag for it in some small way with KrissX.
Throughout the ups and downs of development on KrissX, Blitz 1UP has been an excellent and supportive partner.
3. True to the original concept
Word games are popular with a huge variety of people. Just look at the ongoing success of games like Scrabble, Boggle, Bookworm and Words with Friends across a huge range of devices. However, to the mainstream games developer and the vocal hardcore video games player, it’s not the most exciting of genres.
It would’ve been easy to lose sight of the target audience and the quality of the core concepts during the long period of development and consequently for the design and content to shift, so it’s pleasing to see that the final product is very close to the original idea. KrissX has a simple, relaxing and well executed play mechanic that can be enjoyed by a wide range of players and is now available across an array of devices.
4. Text, fonts and localisation
Handling text in games is one of those jobs that’s very important but often overlooked. It’s not that interesting; especially when you could otherwise be making things explode violently. Handling text, as game content and the number of supported languages grows, has the potential to be an unnecessarily time consuming headache.
KrissX was originally intended to be a PC-only, English-only game. It was quite likely to be hugely text-heavy though, being a word game.
All text in the game is stored and handled as UTF-8 rather than ASCII, to avoid problems with selecting a supported subset of characters and mapping it to a font. The source text databases are in XML, which handles a wide range of character encodings, making importing, processing and exporting text simple. The word and clue databases carry meta-data to make generating puzzles based on an arbitrary character set much easier. The fonts for both the letter tiles and general text are generated automatically from the unique character set derived from the text databases. The import, export and change analysis as new batches of localised content arrived was also supported and automated by a tool. It’s not groundbreaking of course, nor is it that interesting, but the preparation and groundwork saved a great deal of time, effort and money in the long run.
The concept behind the art in KrissX was to create a beautiful and relaxing environment that you’d be happy to spend time with. For a largely static puzzle game it was important to create some interest and consistency, steering away from the temptation to set the puzzles on a completely abstract background.
What went wrong?
When looking back on a game development project the ‘What went wrong?’ section is often filled with things that could’ve been better in the actual production of the game. With KrissX, however, the real difficulties lay not in making the game, but in getting the game to market. Our problems largely boiled down to timing, timing and more timing.
Blitz found an excellent publishing partner for KrissX in Konami and they showed a great deal of enthusiasm for the project. Unfortunately, we ran into a variety of delays, which led to a setback with formally announcing the game.
During this delay, the PC Games market began to change and the downward price pressure on the PC casual games market started to kick in, which pushed us to come in with a price point that was less than we initially planned for.
The Wii version of KrissX has also fallen foul of this delay to a certain extent because of a general uncertainty over the quality of the WiiWare ecosystem, which has ebbed and flowed since the launch of the service.
2. Pre-launch Buzz
The problems with timing had an impact on our pre-launch marketing efforts. We would have liked to build up more of a buzz about the game ourselves before launch, but with uncertain dates and various pressures on the parties involved we didn’t manage to make this happen. As a games studio with limited resources, it’s difficult to contribute positively to the marketing effort. Follow-up development work had to take priority for Regolith Games during the post-launch period. Despite wanting to contribute towards marketing, it was almost impossible for us to find the time to do so.
On the other hand, both Blitz and Konami made up for this on the marketing side, with Blitz creating a Flash version of KrissX and both of them supporting the game with competitions and promotions on social networking sites, amongst a variety of other activities. From an initially disappointing response from press, we ended up getting some very positive reviews with many enjoying the fact that it is intended as a relaxing and engaging diversion from the titles typically available on the Xbox platform.
It was always intended that Regolith Games would be a small company, consisting largely, mainly and wholly of, well, me. I only ever wanted to use contractors for short periods. The idea was that having a good deal of experience across all aspects of making games over many years would give the company a chance of succeeding on small, high-quality games, while keeping costs to a bare minimum.
This has worked well in a variety of ways. The company has been able to produce a game across multiple platforms and respond well to changing conditions. On the whole it has weathered the difficulties created by the timing issues described earlier, which would have spelled the end for a company with a few more mouths to feed every month.
It doesn’t work so well when there are a large list of important yet ancillary jobs that need doing. Producing a useful website, assisting with marketing efforts, paying due attention to accounts and financial planning, project planning and dealing with equipment problems were all things that needed much more diligent attention than could be afforded. Where game development is the top priority, other necessary items receive scant and often inadequate attention.
A good deal of patience and support from Blitz 1UP certainly helped, but the frustration mounts when it is within your power to do a good job of something, but the lack of time simply doesn’t allow it.
KrissX was always designed to be an enjoyable and relaxing puzzle game, rather than an overly intense quick-fire battle of wits and logic. The challenge ramps up gently, but is never so great as to exclude a casual coffee-break player. This approach is well suited to a more casual PC and Mac audience but it may not serve the more challenge-hungry Xbox LIVE Arcade audience well enough.
A large number of the reviews of KrissX criticise the level of challenge the game provides in its early stages. The gentle introduction is perhaps a little too gentle for the Xbox audience. This, combined with the fact that the free trial game only provides a taster of the easier stages, means that prospective buyers are not aware of the range of complexity on offer in the full game.
During development we were aware of the likely differences in tastes between the console and PC audiences, though it was felt that the range of game modes KrissX offered (the Time Attack Mode in particular) would still cater to those players looking for a stronger challenge.
KrissX exists in a niche on the Xbox LIVE Arcade platform, attempting to embrace the wives, girlfriends, parents or children of the primary Xbox owner. Although in hindsight, it would have benefited from a less gentle introduction and a stronger difficulty curve so as not to alienate those players. The free trial game could have been improved to offer players a wider sample of the complexity of puzzles featured throughout the game.
5. Lack of Multiplayer
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity for KrissX is the absence of a multiplayer game mode. Adding a social aspect to the game would have been a big draw for lots of people. The game design is very well suited to allow players of all abilities to pit their wits and intelligence against one another.
The decision to concentrate on the single-player game comes back to KrissX’s start in life as a PC game and the limitations on the project in terms of manpower and budget. It was considered that the best course of action was that any multiplayer mode was something to be ‘saved for the sequel’.
A significant number of reviewers highlighted that KrissX would work very well as a multiplayer game, as do many other puzzle games. The social and competitive aspect is the core of success for many word games such as Scrabble, so it’s a shame that KrissX couldn’t feature a multiplayer mode of some kind.
The development of KrissX has taught me that while it is possible to produce a high quality game across multiple platforms with a staff of one primary developer, having just the skills, experience, a good game design and the will to work very hard just isn’t enough. You need good publishing partners like Blitz 1UP and Konami and the healthiest dose of good fortune.
Developer: Regolith Games
Publisher: Blitz 1UP/Konami
Distributors: Konami on Xbox LIVE Arcade, various for PC and Mac
Platforms: Xbox LIVE Arcade; PC, Mac, WiiWare (launch TBC)
Number of full-time developers: 1
Number of contractors: 2 (excluding further art and audio support from Blitz 1UP)
Length of development: All platforms, approximately 20 months
About Regolith Games
Regolith Games is a small developer dedicated to making games that anyone and everyone can enjoy playing. Regolith was founded in 2007 by Andrew Docking, an experienced game maker with an extensive background of well over 30 titles across a wide range of platforms.
About Blitz 1UP and Blitz Games Studios:
The Blitz 1UP initiative is run by Blitz Games Studios and was launched in 2008 as an outlet for small, independent teams to bring their titles - finished and unfinished - to market on XBLA, PSN, PC, WiiWare, iPhone and Flash. The scheme offers tailor-made packages to indie developers including PR, QA and access to its established distribution channels. The initiative provides a wide range of services, from design and production advice through to assistance with finding distribution and publishing partners. https://Blitz1up.com
. Blitz Games Studios is based in the British Midlands and was founded in 1990. Its varied divisions include mature titles (Volatile Games), Serious Games (TruSim), family titles (Blitz Games), and licensable middleware (BlitzTech).
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