The Game Production Podcast is our new podcast about the production and business side of AAA and indie games. How do game developers manage ideas? How do they resolve team conflicts? How to they assess their market chances? This is the industry podcast by game developers for game developers.
In our first episode Riad is interviewing Jan Bubenik and Daniel Helbig from Megagon Industries. They just released their indie game Lonely Mountains: Downhill.
For feedback and guest recommendations please reach out to podcast-at-codecks.io
I’m here with Daniel and Jan from Megagon. Would you like to introduce yourselves? What’s your position in the company?
Yeah, I’m Daniel. Together with Jan I founded Megagon Industries six years ago. I’m mostly doing game design and level design stuff. Little bit of UI programming and also business organization stuff shared together with.
Yeah, I’m Jan and mainly working on programming, but also on shaders, animation, lots of different tasks. Our company is pretty small, so just three people. So in the end we have to share a lot of tasks.
Everyone wears a lot of hats.
Tell us a little bit about your company. So you already said how old it is. How many games have you done? Is this your first game?
So we founded Megagon Industries in 2013. And at the beginning, we were all freelancers at that time. So Megagon was more or less a legal entity for our hobby or pet projects. So the first game we did was “And then it rained” a premium mobile game, which was released in 2014. And we mainly did that on the side and it was kind of an experiment. It was surprisingly successful. And the reason why we kept on going was Megagon Industries.
We did another premium mobile game called Twisted Lines in 2016. In 2017, we started our biggest project, Lonely Mountains: Downhill, which over time turned into a PC and console game. And that one was released last year in October.
So you did two mobile games before. Now you’re doing, like you said, like a full blown PC/console game. How did that come about to be that where you like dissatisfied with the mobile market or what drew you to a new market?
Actually, in the beginning, it was a mobile game for the first year, something like that. Or half year. It was basically a mobile prototype, but the feedback was really, really positive. Feedback we got from social media and showing at game events here in Berlin. At one point I connected a controller and just tried out other controls than the touch controls, it felt like, yeah, that’s the way to go.
So did you kind of stumble into the project or like how dedicated where you from the start was just a side project to test out or at what point did you know that this is the one we’re going after?
I think there were two two major events. One was showing the gif on Facebook, getting a lot of positive feedback. And the other one was kind of I think we visited Ludicious and talked a lot about what our next project would be.
We actually we had actually had another prototype also at that time, which was a local multiplayer rockets game, very different. And we talked a lot about what project we should do because the rocket one was way smaller and it was kind of not finished, finished, but it would probably be not that much of a development time to finish it. But one of our learnings from the project before - Twisted Lines - was that no matter how small a project is, you need time to release it properly and to do the marketing. And we knew that we actually wanted to do that bike game. It got the better feedback. It felt like something very special.
So finishing the other project first would have meant another project which would create effort and work and everything. So we actually decided against it and went with the biking game and then it kind of cool. We got state funding from Berlin from the Medienboard, which allowed us to work on a project full time. So we quit our freelance jobs at that time, took a lot of our personal savings together with the funding and started working full time on it. And then we did a Kickstarter campaign. So I don’t think it was all planned from the beginning. It kind of evolved and got bigger and bigger and bigger over time. So when we started, we thought about maybe a year of development on one and a half years. Turned it was another three years, before it finally ready.
The game we promised during Kickstarter was way smaller than it turned out in the end.
You mentioned that one of the first important events in the development was basically going viral on social media. How much how long did you work on the game until that point?
In total, it was roughly a year, I think.But it didn’t work full time on it. Side project working every now and then. Sometimes on the weekend. Sometimes evening. It’s hard to say how many how many days I spent on the prototype until that point.
And you talked about freelancing. So back at that point, you did a lot of work for hire which you don’t do now anymore, right?
Right now, we’re working full time on Lonely Mountains since the beginning of 2017.
So you’re living the dream kind of.
Yeah. One hundred, 150 percent. (Laugh)
So how was that transition? Was it hard to get out of freelance and transitioning into a full-time-working-on-your-own-stuff?
It was easy once we figured out the funding. Before that, it was a bit tough. But I don’t really miss the freelance work at the moment.
Me, too. Yeah. I think it was not really the guys who wanted to work for hire stuff. If they can avoid it. I mean, it’s more fun definitely to work on your own project.
I mean, there are benefits of working for hire because you can jump from one project to the next one quicker. You don’t have to go through the whole bug fixing and finishing up phase of the game. Which is a good thing.
The payment is better.
Was the work for hire in related fields? Could you take stuff that you learned there to your current work?
Yeah. I would say so. It was not only games, but I worked a lot with unity, but also for events and shows.
Yeah, I worked as a freelance game designer so I could take a lot of the learnings. I worked on Albion Online before, before Lonely Mountains. For UI and interface design. That was also a good learning.
I can see that. So how did you come up with the idea? It was mostly creatively driven by you Jan at first?
I mean, we get different stories. We’re not really sure.
Give us the juiciest. (laughter)
Daniel had an idea for a offroad truck game on a stylized minimalistic mountain. We both played Skiing Yeti Mountain, a mobile game which had super satisfying minimalistic controls and I kind of wanted to try out a game which has this kind of satisfying controls. So I picked up the offroad truck game idea and replaced the offroad trucks with bikes…
Which was a very smart decision!
But this wasn’t really a plan. It’s just I prefer bikes. It’s that simple. And from that, it evolved. It never the plan to make a big game out of it.
So let’s talk about the exciting stuff. The project management. (laughter) Do you have a structured process or tell us how you work in general? So do you work off a task list or do you work spontaneously from week to week or with milestone sprints, scrum, kanban.. all that stuff?
We tried a lot of stuff over the years. We tried Jira. We tried different things, having boards with post-in on it. None of that really worked for us. And I don’t think it’s a failure of the two. It’s probably our mistake because every time something destroys our planning, which happens all the time, like there’s a new event coming up, you’ve got invited to a showcase. You have to make a new build for something. Features get differently prioritized because for whatever reasons, this whole planning goes to shit and we don’t have the time to always clear up our task lists and to rewrite everything again. So we always ended up in this: “What’s the point that we have this big backlog of stuff which isn’t up to date anymore?” And when that happens, we kind of like move on. We’ll just let it be the next to where we can with a clean task list again.
So we were pretty bad. But one of the things I believe is: whatever we plan, we cannot change anything. So like we know what we have to do to make the project finished. We cannot shift anything around. We cannot add additional resources. There’s really no freedom in project management for us. There is just this fixed amount of work we have to do to finish the game. And if the planning doesn’t work or if something else happens, then we have to either decrease the quality which no one wants or the quantity which at some point isn’t possible anymore. So in the end, we have to increase the production time. And that’s why I think slowly we went from one year of development to three years of development because every single step made sense for the game. There was no way for us to kind of like do it with other people or anything. So it’s really hard to plan when there is no flexibility in your company. We’re not good at it. But I also think it really doesn’t matter that much for us.
I think one thing which drove the whole development pretty much was constantly showing the game at events because we always had the next event coming up and we had to finish something. We wanted to show a new mountain, a new trail, a new feature. And this kind of made up our schedule, our milestones for at least long part of the development.
Yeah, probably the Kickstarter campaign was a big one where you had to deliver something for at a fixed date.
Yeah, more marketing materials basically. We didn’t spend that much time on development. We released the demo during that time..
Which wasn’t actually planned, it was spontaneous decision during the campaign to do it. And it was a lot of work, which was also a bad idea. You should definitely have your demo prepared before starting the kickstarter and doing it while you’re in it.
..It worked out well..
Of course, we did some planning for the Medienboard funding, which also isn’t really true anymore. But it seems that there’s a problem for them because we’re not the only ones who failed their planning. Now for new projects: can we learn something from the past? I think our biggest learning at the moment is that we have to have bigger buffer times. So just knowing that there are all these kind of uncertainties, we just have to make room for them.
Is there something looking back where you think, that was a detour stuff, where in a perfect world, you could have finished the game quicker or was it just like: it takes this much time, you just didn’t know in the start.
There are a few decisions we made - in hindsight - I’m not sure if the if the cost benefit factor is good. They are good features and people liked them. But the amount of work that went into them, I’m not sure if it was worth it. We have these big open world mountains, which is really nice because you can see other tracks in the background and you get a feeling for this whole mountain. But it was so much work to make that performant. To put that on all the controls, maybe in hindsight you could have also just done single trails because then they wouldn’t have been so much work to make it performant in the end. I think it’s a good feature in the game. I’m not sure I would do it again that way because it’s like our Unity scenes are extremely big, loading times, saving times, making a build. All that stuff could have been more efficient.
These mountains are basically your levels, right? How did you produce them? Did you create one after another? And then you were like: this one is completely done, now we start prototyping the next one. Or did you work on them in parallel or all at once?
So basically, Daniel and Noah worked on the mountains and Daniel did the rough layout and Noah went over the mountains and placed all the decorations and details. That could happen in parallel. After Daniel finished his part. We didn’t start all the mountains in parallel. So one after another I would say.
When we started with the game with a completely different approach to the terrain system and how we made mountains. At the beginning they were these single Unity scenes, which got loaded one after the other. And then at some point we noticed that just creating these levels and jumping between all these scenes, making sure that each is seamless within the next one, wasn’t that good of a pipeline. So we wrote our home terrain system, which just happens in one scene so we can work on them everywhere without reloading or doing anything else. But it also meant we throw away two whole trails which were still done with the alternate system.
We had another mountain, another trail, which was really bad. We threw that one away. We did one or two trails completely during development, but it was all a learning process. So without doing the first two trials, we wouldn’t have been able to come up with the way-better terrain. And the new trails. So although they are not part of the game anymore, I think that was an important step to create them at some point. I mean, it’s a little bit strange something you built and you put in a lot of work and it’s just not there anymore. It’s just like erased out of existence, but I think the learning was worth it.
Were they also features that you had to cut or that didn’t work out like that were like considerable amounts of work.
I remember one big session where I cleaned out code. Lots, lots of old stuff, lots of old features. In the beginning we had individual bike parts so basically the bike was made up from different wheels and transmission and frame. We never really had a big plan for it…
We just made it at some point and then it was there.
It gets really complicated so we kicked it out.
If you had like a different break, it felt so incremental to the way before that that, just adding these kind of like tiny changes didn’t really have a feel for it. Now we have different bikes you can get. Each bike feels very different than the other ones. We threw this whole system out and minimalized it.
I think it’s the third and fourth iteration of the bike physics. So that also went through multiple iterations.
We had a completely different UI system at some point. So we completely rewrote the UI system.It’s probably hard to find something in the game which hasn’t been rewritten at some point.
Basically the whole game.
Also the art style evolved over time. If you look at old screenshots from the game, it looks completely different. But you can hopefully see how it evolved.
Again, would would there be something about those features you would have done differently? Do you think, in your process there’s stuff you could do to prevent that? Or you just have to go down a certain path to a certain degree and just see what happens?
We could have been spent a bit more time on planning features like the fundamental gameplay. That might have reduced some work, but I think iterations are important. I think you can’t cut out all the steps in between.
I also think that we have this unique case where we don’t have any reference for the game. So we never started with, okay, you want to be like this game plus this game or we want to be a combination of these two games. There really wasn’t anything out there which kind of applied to us. I mean, we’re not a typical racing game, not a typical sports game. So we always try to watch some of these stereotypical features they have like.
We also always tried not to make the big game too big, which we didn’t succeed in, but we didn’t want it to be like Steep because we knew that’s Ubisoft. That’s a 150 person team who does such a game. We cannot go in that direction. In hindsight, it’s easy to say. I think at every point we made the best decision with the information we had at that point.
Definitely good outcome. You did a lot of stuff right. How quickly did you figure out then the core gameplay. As you said, there were no games you could look at. Was the core gameplay and the win condition there really early or was it something you iterated a lot on during the process.
I would say it was pretty early.
Yeah, I think that was one of the best parts of the production because we knew at an early point that the game is fun. Like we knew that the core gameplay, whatever you were doing outside of it, the core gameplay was fun at some point and everyone told us that. And I mean it made it easier over time and we rebalanced some things. But the core gameplay: I think we had that like a beginning of 2013.
I think the first time we showed the game was in 2017 at Quo Vadis in April. People came to us, played the game and said: “Is it released yet?“.
“Can I buy it is in a store?” Well, no this is the first prototype. (laughter)
That also gave us the confidence to to keep on going, to get funding, to spend also our personal savings into the game. If we didn’t have that feedback probably..
We spent a lot of time polishing the prototype. It already felt good. It had a good lighting. It looked like it could have been the final game. And I think that was important because it was this very solid foundation for the rest of the production.
Yeah, I remember the first time you showed it to me on the mobile phone when the mobile phone got really hot. (laughter) A few years ago or so. And already back then, there was just even with the empty level and just some basic geometry, just the feeling of the bike was already good. That’s a very mechanically driven game design approach you have. Is that important for you? Is that a conscious decision to chase the fun first and then build everything around it?
I guess you could actually say that. I mean, it probably was the same approach for the two games before that. They were also very focused on getting the core mechanics first before venturing further. It’s hard to say with only three games, but I don’t think we would be the people who would create a big setting or world first without knowing what actually to do in there. At least me personally as a game designer, would come more from a mechanical perspective. What can I do? What’s the challenge? What’s prohibiting me from reaching my goal?
It was three years in production with substantial extension. How straining was that to you? Usually that’s financially a big problem, but also mentally. How how did you perceive that time? Was it all fun?
Financially, the first year was tough because we didn’t have the funding from Medienboard. That took a while. We had the Kickstarter, but we didn’t have the money yet. At the end of 2017 we were both pretty low on. I think after that it was okay from a financial perspective. I mean we still had not really high salaries, but it’s enough to to work on it relaxed.
We have a publisher - Thunderful - which joined the project in 2018, shortly after Gamescom and without them, I think we wouldn’t have been able to finish it on our own. And they were also very respectful partners. They knew that we knew what we wanted to do. And they gave us the time and the freedom to actually finish the game. I wouldn’t have been possible without finding an additional publisher even after the Kickstarter.
Did you have to crunch a lot towards the end or the middle? How was your work life balance?
It felt like we crunched a lot, at least at the end. Definitely at the end. Because then you have all these console submission deadlines and marketing deadlines and the keys have to go out two or three weeks before you actually can release the game. There’s this whole stuff you have to do..
.. and it’s hard to move around those dates.
And you have these kind of like mystical you’re-not-allowed-to-release-a-game-after-October-deadline because after October till February, everything is shit. You shouldn’t release a game in this timeframe if you’re not a big publisher, if you don’t have big IP. It was always like, if we don’t make it until the end of October, we have to wait for another four months so we can actually release the game. And we didn’t want to do that from a financial as well as from a mental perspective. We had this really strict deadline and that meant a lot of crunch for us in the end.
The crunch is negative but the fact that you had kind of these milestones also during the Kickstarter and Gamescom and all these event shows. Did that help you a lot with scoping the game and deciding “This can go into the game, this can’t there’s just not enough time”. Did that facilitate those discussions when you talked about like which features to still do?
I’m not really sure we learned anything.. (laughter)
The good thing is that with the milestones we had to focus on features which had to be finished to a certain degree. So we always had had a running version. We never had building-big-features-over-a-month without testing them really, or bringing them into the game.
We threw away a lot of planned features over time. We wanted to do a ghost system which went overboard. We had this idea for all these different kind of animals which never made it into the game. We did streamline the game at the end, which was OK, because we never really felt like we need these features to be successful. They were more like nice-to-have features. Nowadays, it’s always very tempting to just say “we’ll patch that in” or “it will be an update” or “it will come in DLC”, because everything is this kind of games as a service thing anyway. You know you have to keep working on the game. At least if it’s successful you want keep working on it. So it is very easy to just push features into this “we will do it when the game is successful”.
So you talked about Thunderful your publisher, which is also our publisher at Maschinen-Mensch. So how did you how did you meet Thunderful? Did you pitch to a lot of publishers or did you go to events to meet with them or did you pitch directly?
We met Ed - head of publishing - at Indigo. It’s a very small Dutch games festival which took place in a prison at that time, which was very nice. It’s actually a very small thing and I think it’s only a day. And we went there after Unite in Amsterdam and then we just met him outside. He was at Nintendo at that time. It was just a discussion between people. And at some point, we met him again at the A MAZE Festival. And that was when we knew that he will change that position working at Thunderful. And because he already liked the game way back then. He offered “Hey, you guys want to talk? You still don’t have a publisher. We’re just a newly formed publisher. We’re looking for our first big title. Would you be interested in talking?“. And then it actually happened pretty quickly because we liked each other.
Everything was fine. We knew that they were motivated to actually do something new. If you talk with a lot of other publishers, if you look at their portfolio, you either ask yourself how much does their portfolio help me? They might be a big, big publisher, but they only have successful RPG titles. So how does this help my little racing game? Or on the other hand: if they sign our three men team but they actually have way bigger teams in their portfolio, then we’re the least important team in their portfolio. So you look for a balance in in this partnership. You want someone to be involved and you also want that your project is important for them. I guess I felt that this was right with Thunderful at the time.
We talked to a lot of publishers before, basically before Kickstarter, but I never really felt completely right. Then we decided to the Kickstarter. And at that point, most publishers were “Okay, we’ll wait. We’ll see how the kickstarter goes.” After that we didn’t really feel the need to talk to publishers until we met Ed again.
Yeah, we never actively reached out to publishers. It was always more like an opportunity at events or people reaching out to us.
These events were important for proving kind of your your game design. They also seem to be important for networking. What do you think about events like professional events which are developer focused or public trade shows? What’s what’s your opinion? Are they worth it? Do you go to a lot of them?
Public events are definitely more demanding. They’re also a lot of fun. I think they’re super important. We just talked about publishing: we get so much feedback and so much help from other developers, we knew from those events. So basically deciding if we want to go with the publisher or not, what are the contract details we should look out for? It’s always good to know other people that are in the same situation. And those events are perfect to get to know them.
I think we went to 14 game events over the last year. We really did a lot of them. But I think that was what actually what made it worth it. If you continue going to these events, you meet people again. And that’s the point where se some kind of a friendship or trust is formed. I think you should build these relationships before. You shouldn’t start building the network when you need it. You should actually start building it before you want something from them.
So I think going to a lot of events, meeting developers, being there, just being nice and helpful is the point where at some point later you might need their help and then they are there for you. I think if you if you go once to Gamescom and expect that it will be the biggest business thing of all times, then you’re wrong. You have to go to all these things and then at some point it will make sense.
Tell us your favorite event, that’s maybe not super well-known, but that you are really fond of that and you found very useful for yourself.
For me, definitely Ludicious is one of them. Maybe also because it was the moment where we decided to go all in with Lonely Mountains. But just generally, it’s a very nice event.
It’s in Zurich, in Switzerland, right? And it moved from from being in the winter to summer?
I think it’s now April or May or something like that. And it used to be in January or February. I don’t know. But it was it was it was really really cold.
I really enjoyed Unite back in Amsterdam. I haven’t been here in Berlin, but I didn’t hear good things.
It was, uh, different yes. (Laughter)
Amsterdam was really nice. The whole atmosphere was nice. Pretty relaxed. Awesome food!
Days of the Devs is pretty impressive. At least if you’re an European developer and then you’re meeting this just concentrated American indie scene and you realize like how much you have to learn and also the kind of networks these people have. Everything is sponsored by Microsoft and Sony and Nintendo and it’s kind of like: “My friend works at Apple and my ex-colleague is now lead programmer at Valve.”. Day of the devs was one of the points where I felt really small, but it was very impressive.
So your game is out, right? Are you happy with the reception? The reviews are very good.
Absolutely. The feedback is amazing. We got nominated for IGF. We won the German Developer award for best indie game.
It’s so much more successful than I ever imagined it when we started it because it started as this mobile game. And then the kickstarter and everything. I’m pretty happy with how everything turned out. Let’s see what the next step is now.
All right. Thanks. Thank you so much for joining the podcast. It was really interesting. Since you are in Saftladen, in the the same space as us this won’t be the last opportunity I hope.
Thank you very much for having us.