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From Kingdom to Cloud Gardens

Post by
Riad
December 09, 2021
Riad is the product manager of Codecks. He is also the co-founder of indie games company Maschinen-Mensch and still believes that Street Fighter 2 is the most beautiful video game ever created. Coincidentally he also believes that Codecks is the best project management tool for game developers. Apparently he has been creating video games for over 14 years now and considers himself a productivity nerd: scrum, kanban, extreme programming, waterfall, seinfeld. He has tried it all.
Codecks LogoCodecks is a project management tool inspired by collectible card games. Sounds interesting? Check out our homepage for more information.

The Game Production Podcast is our game development podcast, featuring 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 game market chances? This is the industry podcast for game developers by game developers.

In our fifth episode Riad is talking with Thomas van den Berg, who managed to create a indie mega hit in Kingdom and its sequels. We talk about turning a failed Kickstarter project into a huge success, the challenges of following up a modern classic and everything in between.

To see all episodes please visit the Game Production Podcast homepage.

The Wandering Village by Stray Fawn Studio

Transcript

01m 03s
Riad

Hello Thomas.

Thomas
01m 04s

Hey, how’s it going?

01m 06s
Riad

Pretty good. How about you?

Thomas
01m 07s

Yeah. Good.

01m 08s
Riad

Has been some time since you last visited our place here at Saftladen.

Thomas
01m 11s

Absolutely. It’s two, almost three years ago since I was in Berlin for the last time and also in Saftladen. Happy to be back.

01m 19s
Riad

How long did we work together in the same office? Was it like two and a half years?

Thomas
01m 25s

Yeah and I started my previous game Cloud Gardens back in Saftladen and I just finished it right before I came here again. So it’s full circle.

01m 33s
Riad

Exactly. So it’s a good time to be recording this, but Cloud Gardens wasn’t your first game. So I would like to start at the beginning. In your career you worked on a couple of flash games initially uncommercially and then Kingdom, this huge, huge success was your first proper game. And I saw on your homepage, something, which I remember you also telling me about, which is a link to a failed Kickstarter project for Kingdom. So how did that work? This Kickstarter project failed at around the 4,000 Euro mark with the goal of around 8,000 and it looks pretty similar to the final game.

I mean, there’s a lot of polishing and so on, but you could tell that it is the same game.

Thomas
02m 20s

Yeah, absolutely.

02m 21s
Riad

It didn’t change completely. So how was that impossible, that you kind of don’t manage to fund your Kickstarter project and then it still turns out to be a huge indie success with multiple sequels?

Thomas
02m 32s

I think when we did the Kickstarter, it was kind of on the cusp of where you had to take it more seriously and be slightly professional about your campaign, whereas before it was in my perception, if you have something cool, you make a movie about it, you put it on Kickstarter and people will like it.

But of course it takes more marketing. And I think we kind of underestimated that. We also had hugely unrealistic stretch goals. I’m actually really glad that the Kickstarter didn’t make it because we would have to deliver on so many things for so little budget, like you mentioned, 8000 Euros for two developers, you cannot work for a long time.

03m 07s
Riad

That doesn’t seem like a lot of money. Are there features that you promise in the stretch goals that didn’t even make it into any of the Kingdom games.

Thomas
03m 16s

I think so, because we were not quite clear on where exactly it was going to be. Kingdom was of course, this game where you’re a guy on a horse riding around or a queen on a horse riding around throwing coins and then stuff can happen. And that’s also how we always approach the design, work out, where else can you ride? Where can you throw gold coins at and what’s going to happen? So I think we initially thought of some things and later, we replaced them by other things, but the Kickstarter was also actually the Kickstarter for an iPhone port of the flash game.

And I think that also didn’t really work for us. And it also made us realize that maybe there’s not so much demand for just an iPhone port of that flash game or an iOS port, and maybe we should be able to making a PC game. So that was also actually really good to notice that. And the thing with Kickstarter, you cannot even deliver the game on iOS as a Kickstarter reward.

You have no way to distribute games for free, a paid game for free on iOS, at least not back then. So that made it a hard sell where it’s like back our game, but you don’t get the game. You have to buy it.

04m 16s
Riad

Yeah, that seems pretty tricky. Yeah. So this was right after the time when you had the flash version of this game. W here was this in the overall process of creating this game?

How long did you work on this game until this point?

Thomas
04m 31s

Like all the way from the flash version all the way back? So. Yeah. So maybe two to three years on the flash version, just like messing around as a side project, but like two hours a week, just because I found it fun to learn pixel art, adding some stuff to this world and at some point I said, okay, let’s release it. Then after that, I think. Two or three years to build the first PC game out of it. And this Kickstarter was about halfway through that process where we decided to pivot and say, okay, you know what, it’s not going to be an iOS port of the flash game. It’s really going to be a full PC game.

And that’s also where the publisher came in.

05m 08s
Riad

At which point did you think this could be a commercially viable project.

Thomas
05m 12s

After the flash game Just because a lot of people played the flash game and it also got some review, I think, on indiegames.com or something that I was like, oh, people like this game, maybe it can be something.

And then I worked on it about half, half of my time. I also worked on some other stuff on the side. Yeah together with Marco. Of course he proposed let’s do an iPhone port. Maybe we can make some money. I thought, okay, let’s do it. Maybe we can make some money.

05m 37s
Riad

So it was the original team was made up of two people, how was your distribution of your skill sets?

Thomas
05m 46s

It’s interesting. I learned a lot about, how you should factor in skillsets into making a game. And what role you are pushed into if your skill sets overlap in a certain way. So in this case for the flash game, I did both the art and the programming, and I liked that a lot. Then when Marco came on board, he’s really a developer.

So that automatically pushed me more to art production and him more towards developing. And then I did notice that I missed also writing code. So that was interesting.

06m 11s
Riad

Interesting in a way that you went back to programming a bit afterwards.

Thomas
06m 15s

Yeah. That I realized I also liked this. I like doing both. If I do only one of the two, then I don’t like it as much. So I do like the balance of having a little bit of both.

06m 24s
Riad

What was the original idea for the game? Or how did the ideation of the game worked. Did you consider other games as well? I saw you have a couple of flash games on your website, right?

Thomas
06m 33s

I think it came from learning pixel art. I just did tutorials and I made little animation. And then I put these animations together in a world. That’s why I think the game also feels like that. There’s not really a grand scheme of design. It’s just kind of loosely coupled things that can happen and a little simulation, like an RTS and then stuff happens.

So it really came from that, drawing the pixel art, drawing some enemy guys or some friendly guys. Maybe they can shoot each other. Yeah.

06m 57s
Riad

Yeah that’s pretty amazing, especially considering that the game got so much praise, especially for the game design.

Thomas
07m 05s

Yeah. That’s, that’s crazy. I think though, you end up unknowingly discovering some rules and then you stick with them. So like in this case: we had this one interaction of throwing a coin, which was funny for the flash prototype, but then later you think, okay, what if we just really stick to it? Make that kind of a rule, you can only throw coins at things. And then everything has to flow from that. And then you, you do have a design.

You didn’t think of it beforehand, but once you kind of stick to it, it leads to fun constraints.

07m 32s
Riad

There could be also an advantage there. Approaching the game design so iteratively and just chasing the next thing that makes sense and that fits organically.

Thomas
07m 42s

Yeah. That’s also what we thought. Of course, as you grow up as a game developer, you also realize why you do need a game design document sometimes, and you cannot do everything organically because sometimes you just need to think ahead a little bit further, or you get stuck into dead ends, but for kingdom it worked out good.

07m 58s
Riad

It worked out so well that they were actually also sequels developed. How closely were you involved with those?

Thomas
08m 06s

It’s a little bit weird because there is Kingdom New Lands, which is what I consider the definitive 1.0 version. But then some players really liked the original PC game release which I would rather nuke and never see again, because it’s full of bugs, but Raw Fury kind of recognized this - Raw Fury is the publisher - kind of recognized this demand for this original version. So they exist side by side. And then after that, after new lands I said, okay, I want to work on some other stuff, because especially if this becomes a franchise, I think it could take up a lot of time.

So Raw Fury has worked on the sequels since new lands and I think those are - it was first an expansion called Dead Lands and there is now a sequel called Two Crowns .

08m 49s
Riad

There came a different team on board to help you with the process. How did your role shift then within those new projects?

Thomas
08m 56s

The hand-off was pretty sudden, I feel maybe I could have done more to help them, but they also didn’t reach out so much, maybe also, because I said that, you know, I wanted to move on and they didn’t want to absorb more of my time. Maybe I could have helped out more. But yeah there is a new team working on it.

And I think, I wrote some documents like, this is how the game works. This is how the code works. This is where you can find things. And they kind of just picked up on it. They had some experience also because they did porting before. I guess that’s a good introduction to a project. If you ported it, then you kind of know how it works and then you can start building on it.

And that’s what they’ve been doing .

09m 32s
Riad

I understand it was probably not a thing of where it was very hard for you to let go. Were you kinda glad to be done with it and explore new, exciting ideas or how did it feel. Letting your baby go.

Thomas
09m 44s

It was not too hard for me because after four or five years, I was kind of done with it and I felt like there are more exciting things to make from a blank canvas then if you have to somehow implement them into this little pixel world with Knights and some kind of fantasy world. And also because the world gets more and more established, it feels like you have less freedom because it’s like you’re writing this lore of how the world works and you cannot suddenly add certain things anymore because then it doesn’t fit.

It’s kind of filling out the details slowly and then limiting the freedom that you have maybe.

10m 14s
Riad

One thing that I noticed in myself is that when I’m working on a game for a long time, I get tired of it. It’s pretty normal, I guess. And I wish for the days where I was exploring new game ideas and being completely creative free, but once I do that and I go into brainstorming mode and try different prototypes: sometimes it’s not easy, right? There are always these success stories of people saying, oh, I hit on a, on the gold mine on the first try and so on maybe like Kingdom or you found the game design kind of landed on you naturally. How was that leaving that success behind you and starting a new prototypes. Did you feel the pressure of repeating your success and proving you are this wonder child of a game design genius.

Thomas
11m 04s

I don’t know about that, but I can 100% empathize with what you say about when you’re in the thick of a project you want to experiment. And you’re like, ”Oh my God, I wish I had this freedom to like, just do whatever” and then when you’re experimenting and doing whatever you can also sometimes wish for I wish I was just producing, knew exactly what I was working on and have this really focused mode where you’re working towards a release and after Kingdom it took a while to also come up with something. I thought it would go faster. I thought, I’m done with this now.

I I’ll have another prototype in a month. I’ll have another game out in six months. That was really on my mind. But it does somehow take longer to hit on something that’s good. I’m not even sure I did that now because I’ve now just released cloud gardens and it took awhile to get there. And it never really quite felt the same way where it was so obvious that this was going to be the game and it all went smoothly and came automatically.

11m 55s
Riad

I guess one thing that helps with having this feeling of that you’re hitting the gold mine immediately when looking for new ideas, the fact when you have a game already out, you can go into maintenance mode again. That’s something I did where whenever I felt stuck on the new game idea, they were, there was always enough to do on Curious Expedition to take my mind off things and still feeling productive. Did you also have that avenue or was it a bit harder because you separated yourself from the old game.

Thomas
12m 29s

Let me ask you first. Do you like that? Does it work for you to, go back into maintenance mode?

12m 33s
Riad

Sometimes when I’m creatively drained, that can be nice to have a list of bugs where I say, okay, these just need to be fixed and I don’t have to tap into my creative energy, which is drained. I can just work through these, get some easy wins, kinda build up my mental state again, to where it sounds kind of desperate, but for me, a lot of what the creative experience is about, managing my own mental energy and my self-confidence.

Thomas
13m 03s

Yeah, yeah. 100%. I can see that. I think that’s an interesting strategy. I haven’t tried it. Of course, at some point I was done with it and I was happy to be completely doing something else, but I can see how it’s nice to have this kind of maintenance. I would just worry for myself that I would get sucked into it all the time.

I’m not so good at switching tasks. Sometimes you just need to work on one thing, whether you make progress or not. Just struggle, struggle, struggle. And then maybe you have something good sometimes.

13m 31s
Riad

I think barely anybody’s probably good at that task switching that is a big problem. So this is probably the time after you released kingdom. And you were looking for new projects and brainstorming, this is probably the time where you also joined our coworking space.

Thomas
13m 47s

Right.

13m 47s
Riad

Tell us a bit about this period of considering different ideas and prototyping things . Did you have an idea or direction that you wanted to explore?

Thomas
13m 56s

Since you mentioned how many things did you try? The answer is definitely not enough.

I tend to dive into one thing quite deeply immediately, regardless of thinking where can it lead or will this be successful? I hope to not repeat this mistake. I always remember that in high school, when you had to make a drawing for art class, that they was always telling you, make four different sketches of the same subject.

And it’s true that you never decide to work with the first sketch, even though you think, oh my God, I know exactly what I’m going to make for a sketch. And then, so I hope myself to force myself in a similar way to try more things. I think after Kingdom, I pretty much got stuck on one concept immediately, which was this MMO game with plants.

And then later I thought it’s such a shame to throw away all that work that I thought, can I not just take the plants and make a game out of the plants? Just so it’s not wasted time, which then still took two years of time investment. So you can think , okay, what would have been the real more efficient solution?

14m 57s
Riad

Yeah multiple things that, something of course that sounds very reasonable and something that I would also like to try. I find in practice it’s sometimes a bit hard because I don’t know, maybe it’s my lack of game design skills, but I often have a hard time judging a game idea on the surface level and really, really well.

And my process, it often involves like banging my head against the wall and trying to really work hard on this idea until it works.

Thomas
15m 33s

So do you think it’s unattainable writing super small prototypes to see if something works?

15m 39s
Riad

No. I think it’s attainable. Some people are doing it, right. There are game developers like Free Lives that, try a lot of different games and that will pretty rigorously cancel things that don’t get the response they were looking for. So I think that can work. What I wonder is if those games result in a different game design kinda.

Thomas
15m 59s

Probably that’s a good point. There are probably some types of game that need some more work to show that they’re good and others that are very obviously nice in a small prototype, but maybe then you gravitate towards a certain type of game that lets itself be prototyped .

16m 15s
Riad

Especially with all the games that are coming out of game jams now I wonder if there’s a shared trait between them game design wise, that’s different from the game kind of more approached in the traditional way of really thinking through it from, from all ends and so on.

Thomas
16m 34s

Yeah, I think that kind of on the surface of it, maybe it’s games where a strong point is a lot of complexity or a very deep gameplay. Of course, they are hard to prototype quickly and games that would kind of rely on a gimmick or concept are more easy to maybe prototype quickly. For me personally, I would like to make more concepty games exactly because of this, because it will be easier to make something quickly that you rely heavily on the concept or maybe a gimmick and then see if people like it and then move on.

Yes or no, but purely because I do want to restrict the time that I work on one concept.

17m 07s
Riad

It certainly has the advantage that the game that you can prototype quickly. And that has very clear core concept built around it. It’s also easier to test, in terms of what the response of the people is, of the players of the marketplace and so on.

So it results probably in the long-term in higher chance of like really working on hits and not wasting your time in comparison to working five years on a game and going like super deep in and then hoping for it to come together all at the kind towards the end,

Thomas
17m 44s

Yeah. Crazily enough. It does pay off like that.

Sometimes, you know, games do work. You can work for five years without knowing anything. You know, at the end, it’s like, oh, it works. That’s crazy that it works at all.

18m 00s
Riad

Sometimes people ask me when we knew that Curious Expedition, would work out game design wise. And I always tend to say around one year after releasing it, because really until the point of release, we were still unsure, is this even the game, like what is this? It felt so we weird and so complex. Looking back at it, I can see the genre tropes also like the RPG mechanics and the roguelike mechanics and so on, but while we were working on it, we kind of had no idea exactly where we are going and which genre this game would land in. Yeah. So I guess it’s also hard for you to say, what kind of the genre of Kingdom is.

Thomas
18m 44s

Uhmm Its tower defense game would say, I mean, that’s the joy that I get out of it as well. Not being able to do anything yourself, but you were watching like your troops do some stuff for you. Like they’re fighting for you and you have to just manage them. So I think the joy of a tower defense game is for me the joy also of a combating kingdom.

Of course, there’s other stuff going on. And it’s also very much about the aesthetics and looking at the scene, but there’s a reasonable guess that if you enjoy that feeling of a tower defense game, that you also might enjoy Kingdom

19m 15s
Riad

So this game that you started and prototyping and working on after you joined Saftladen, that was Garbage Country.

So what’s what’s up with that.

Thomas
19m 28s

I feel so dumb because I am that guy who has a pitch for this is a game where you can do anything. That was pretty much. I thought I didn’t, I thought the pitch was better, but now looking back at it, it was kind of that, like, this is an MMO and everybody’s in the world and you can do anything you want.

I just was fascinated and I’m still fascinated by, let’s say you have a persistent online world, you know, things where people can leave their mark and it just stays there. And you’re not too worried about. You know, what’s the TTP or are people going to troll or whatever, because the stakes are not that high.

You know, you’re not, you don’t have some character with crazy items. And if you get killed, you lose 10 years of your life. You know, just kind of seeing what happens if you let people build things collaboratively in a world and it stays for the next person to see, but it was a little bit too ambitious.

Also technology wise. It’s not something that I think you can build as one person, not in that form, at least not as 3d multiplayer game. So I decided to let it go, which I think was good, but I’m still fascinated by these concepts.

20m 32s
Riad

For people that don’t know what TTP means.

You want to say it.

Thomas
20m 39s

I’ll say it. I mean, I don’t know what the rating is of your podcast. So TTP is the time to penis, how long it takes in a game before somebody trolls or builds a penis at which I think at which point some publishers have to pull the plug because they cannot justify that. I would like to make a game where you just kind of willfully ignore that fact until you are confronted with it.

And then maybe you also have to pull the plug, but you’ll will have had fun until then. Yeah.

21m 06s
Riad

How long was this game in development before you decided to turn it into something else.

Thomas
21m 12s

Yeah. Probably a year. It was also hard because I was at the same time trying to make a non-violence game. I wanted to see can I make a game where you don’t just rely on shooting stuff. So I could never really figure out what the gameplay was at the same time. I could never really figure out the technology.

If you’re working parallel, exploring gameplay and technology, it’s a recipe for disaster.

21m 32s
Riad

Yeah, that seems very challenging. Especially you were using a middleware, which was also new. So I guess there was not a lot of experience around it, not just with you, but if with anybody.

Thomas
21m 44s

Yeah. So I was using Spatial OS and I think, their pitch was great. It’s like we have an API and you can make these persistent online games pretty easily. And I think that was also for the most part true, but the API was developing pretty rapidly. So I had to keep up with their technology and I had to learn, I thought you didn’t need to know how a multiplayer game works, but you still do need to know how to do network programming and I also was learning that at the same time and network programming is pretty challenging. So I would not make the mistake of underestimating such a thing again.

22m 15s
Riad

I guess it’s especially challenging if you are approaching it as a solo developer. I imagine just even testing the game is hard.

Thomas
22m 23s

Yeah, true. I was walking around in this world by myself a lot, just assuming that everybody would see the same world.

We did a play test with about 30 people once, which was actually quite hilarious, which makes me still think that it would be fun. It was just 30 people building random stuff on top of each other, jumping off towers towards another tower. Stuff collapsing with physics. It was already so much fun.

That I feel you don’t always get from a more boxed-in experience where what you can do is fairly limited. But then after that the whole battle grounds hype happened. So then everything that was multiplayer is now Battle Royal.

22m 59s
Riad

So was there a situation that happened that made you realize you should move on and transition to something else? Or was it just a realization that grew over time.

Thomas
23m 10s

I was stuck in terms of game design. I didn’t know how to make this a fun game without shooting stuff or each other. Technologically, I had to do a couple of rewrites that was getting tedious.

There was a small conflict between Spatial OS and Unity, which made me just feel a little bit scared. Okay. I’m building a lot on this technology. What if they pull the rug and that all of came together and made me say, okay, I have to put this down.

23m 38s
Riad

Did you immediately know what to move on towards or did you consider a couple of new prototypes for new games?

Thomas
23m 47s

Because I put some work into the simulation of this world. And part of that work was a plant simulation, a small plant simulation that would run in this online world. I thought, well, if I just take two months now and just wrap up this plant simulation and just make a little game out of just the plants. At least I’ll have something to show for my time.

And that was two years ago. And those two years actually, I spent on making that game. I was also, again, wildly optimistic about how long that would take,

24m 16s
Riad

But you were able to kind of salvage what you had built and turn it into something quite unique again

Thomas
24m 22s

Yeah. But then, but that’s true.

It probably took me about two weeks to write the plant simulation that I salvaged. And it took me two years to build a game out of it. Also the code of the plant simulation is pretty much unchanged. That shows that sometimes if you have something while it is the most important part of the game, it’s not the biggest part of the work in the game.

If that makes sense.

24m 43s
Riad

Yeah, absolutely. All of these kind of unexciting things also like menus and so on - you can do cool menus - but it’s always surprising how much time that takes up. Just fixing all the edge cases.

Thomas
24m 57s

Yeah. Yeah. I wish I could work on a game where you don’t care so much and it’s maybe a little bit dinky. Maybe you have to press alt+f4 to get out of the game, but there’s a fun concept and people are down for that, but I guess that’s every developer’s dream.

25m 15s
Riad

Yeah, that would be interesting. So let me know if this is too personal, but I also tend to be game designer that really sticks long to ideas, and it’s really hard for me to give up on an idea, like how mentally taxing was it to just let that big idea go and be like, I’m going to move on. Were you relieved or did you feel stressed out? Or how did you feel in that moment?

Thomas
25m 40s

I was pretty stressed out. I think just being confronted with the fact that you’re going to have to let it go. It does feel in some way as failure because you think, okay, I’m going to make this and it’s going to be cool. So I think at that point I was pretty stressed out about it. I don’t know how I felt after.

I think I quickly kind of latched onto the salvaging thing, like, okay. But at least I’m going to salvage something and it won’t be for. And then you can set your mind to okay, then it’s good. You know, it’s not really giving up. And because of that, I also had a clear goal suddenly because the goal was okay, I just have to turn this plant simulation into something and that’s it.

And then you make peace with it. And then that’s what. I think it was most stuff in the phase leading up to it where I kind of already realized it was not manageable, but I didn’t want to give into it.

26m 29s
Riad

It can probably be similar to a relationship that you have with somebody else. And you realize that it’s not going well, but you don’t want to see it.

You Ignore the signs,

Thomas
26m 40s

The symptoms could very well be the same. Yeah. That’s true.

26m 43s
Riad

Then in the end you have heartbreak potentially.

Thomas
26m 47s

Yeah, but maybe also relief and room for something else.

26m 51s
Riad

So that something else for you became Cloud Garden. Yeah. Tell us a bit about that. That’s again, you talked about salvaging and reusing the plant mechanic in the game.

What do you do in this project?

Thomas
27m 05s

The core was this plant simulation, which basically you put down a seed and then some plant grows out of it, according to some simple rules and the plants can stick to surfaces or they can just grow like a tree. And the goal was okay, how can I make a game out of this?

Just with that plant simulation. And what I came up with in the end is you have some scenery in front of you and you have to cover it completely with plants. So you have to place the seeds in the right places. From the plants you can harvest more seeds and then you have to place those again in the right places.

And then you overgrow the scene. That’s kind of the simple pitch, but it’s very subconscious. It’s not a very thinky game. You can just sit down and play it in a very chill way, almost on autopilot. And there is there’s good sound and it looks good. And it’s very meditative.

27m 46s
Riad

It’s probably a bit, yeah, like you said, more on the experience playful experiences, direction of games, which I feel probably will also become more popular in the future. There seem to be more and more of those games or seem to be doing well.

Thomas
28m 03s

So yeah, we were really on two tracks because their game Cloud Gardens does have a campaign mode where you can finish the game.

There’s more than a hundred levels that you can finish, but then there’s also a sandbox where you can do whatever you want. And we kind of always built those two in parallel. But now, like you said, there is more of these types of games coming where it’s, you know, more of an experience or a sandbox.

So in retrospect, I’m thinking we should have just gone all the way and just built a really nice sandbox, maybe with different roads to explore, but nevertheless, just sandbox. Something like the success of Townscaper shows you that can be done, and people like it. If you are convinced of the concept, you really just go for it.

28m 41s
Riad

I guess it’s a big jump also for you going from a mechanically challenging game or a very complex game and then approaching the space of building something more, that’s like a virtual toy. And just about the experience and being there.

Thomas
29m 01s

In general I think game design is not my strongest skill.

So as soon as I have to come up with mechanics, I’m like, oh, how do you even come up with, you know, loops and mechanics and that kind of stuff. And Kingdom is also in that sense, more iterative just ad-hoc things added to the game and Cloud Garden is a little bit the same in the sense that we just added more scenery and more plants and came up with some rules, but there’s no really strong thought out game loop.

29m 27s
Riad

And then Cloud Gardens you did without a publisher. Yeah. So how was that? Going from a, doing a first game with a publisher and then also the sequels to going to the new game and doing everything yourself how did you find experience that?

Thomas
29m 48s

I will say right off the bat that I would definitely like to work with a publisher again.

I’ve learned my lesson. So to say, because it is a lot of work, actually releasing a game, especially coming up to release as a developer, of course, you’re busy with bugs. I don’t know what kind of like last features you want to implement. And that is actually the moment where the publisher can jump in and do help you out with all this stuff.

QA localization setting up the store pages. That’s actually a lot of work I found out. Cloud Gardens was meant to be smaller. So I thought it wouldn’t be that much work, but in the end it was quite a bit of work. So yeah, I do. I do actually think that it would be nice to work with a publisher again. The smaller your team the more it makes sense even.

30m 31s
Riad

Because you have less people,

Thomas
30m 34s

I mean also answering emails, you know, like requests from streamers, other kinds of requests, also requests from over other publishers. It’s a lot of stuff to do for a small team, I think. Yeah. But doing it the first time with a publisher, I didn’t quite realize that yet.

It was all magic. Like, oh, this team page is up. Nice

30m 54s
Riad

So now you got to see.

Thomas
30m 55s

I got to see how the sausage is made yeah.

30m 57s
Riad

One thought that I have also about this publisher relationship is usually they invest into your company and your game project. Right. And it feels kind of reassuring that somebody would do that, that somebody would be on board with this project with you.

Same for us, for Curious Expedition 1. When you don’t go through that experience and you release the game, there’s always even more doubt in you. I s this even feasible? Like will anybody care and being able to pitch the game to a publisher and kind of sell it to them in the first stage already feels kind of relieving and like there is somebody taking off that kind of mental pressure off me that.

Thomas
31m 42s

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s it’s 100%. As you say, when you have a publisher, you can think, well, if they think this game is going to make money, apparently the game is going to make money and also they have a stake in it, so they are going to help you or help the game to make money. Whereas if you do it by yourself, there is that there is that doubt. They do certain things to push it, to actually, you know, get, get something out of it. .

32m 06s
Riad

And they usually invest money as well, which is always very helpful during the creation process.

Thomas
32m 13s

Yeah. That is true. And it’s also reassuring that you’re not burning through funds, you know, I guess I’m saying it’s fun to work with on someone else’s money.

32m 26s
Riad

Yeah, that’s understandable. That’s also interesting to go through the whole process yourself. What were big surprises for you when you approached this self published?

Thomas
32m 40s

I think a lot of small surprises in the sense of that this, all this stuff is a lot of work and also that publishers are quite good at it. They have good channels to market. They know how to make trailers. Obviously that’s their craft. I would say one of the things that I learned with Clouds Gardens is that, it’s also fine to trust someone else.

Even if you share a part of your revenue with them, that makes total sense because they, more than make up for it. And you want to focus on building the game also mentally it can be nice to have this separation, you focus on the creative process and the publisher focuses on the commercial process.

And that I think is a nice balance. Whereas if you have to do both at the same time, it gets in the way sometimes.

33m 18s
Riad

So you had built up, a lot of reputation, after working on kingdom. I assume that you had some name recognition with the fans, but also inside of the industry. Did that help a lot with setting up deals and store presence and so on or since you went through the publisher at first, is there maybe an effect of like that you didn’t develop those relationships that you could then lean into afterwards?

Thomas
33m 44s

That’s definitely, that’s definitely true. I think when you work with a publisher, but it’s also what you want. You want them to deal with all these contacts so that you can focus on building a game.

And when you work with a publisher, they do have these contacts. I could leverage some reputation I think. Not entirely because Cloud Gardens was a pretty vague concept. If I had said, oh, I’m building another pixel art RTS. I think it would have been easier than if I have what I have, what I did with Clouds Gardens.

So yeah, I did. It was easier to talk to steam. Of course. Apple is super hard to talk to in any case, like even with Kingdom, it was, I think it’s hard to talk to apple. So that was less successful. And other than that, I really did everything or we did everything ourselves. So we didn’t really use our contacts for a lot.

It could have done more. I guess.

34m 35s
Riad

You didn’t work completely alone on Cloud Gardens. You had a couple of collaborators.

Thomas
34m 41s

So the core team was four. There was Amos Roddy who did the music and sound for Kingdom who also did music for Cloud Gardens. And there was Elijah Cauley who did the level design and then Tom Kitchen who did 3d art.

34m 53s
Riad

Did you formed a new company for that, or was this under the guidance of your company and then they were freelancing.

Thomas
35m 00s

They were freelance yeah, but we have a freelance agreement. Yeah, I think especially being a small company, it seems less risky that way. Also they were very flexible, but I constantly underestimated how long the game would still take.

So I approached Eli the first time I said, Hey, do you want to help me with some level design for three months that also took a year and a half. So I’m happy that they were that flexible where I thought I would need them for a couple months. I needed them quite a bit longer in the end, but I think they all enjoyed working on it.

So I’m happy that they did.

35m 31s
Riad

It seems a lot of people are enjoying the game. How are you feeling about the reception? Are you happy with people? I see you are sharing a lot of user generated content and so on, so people are really taking to the game.

Thomas
35m 44s

Yeah, there is. I think if you make a sandbox game, there is always this share of players who just go nuts and build things that you could never imagine. And it’s, it’s amazing when you see that and you feel a little bit bad because you’re like they had to build this in a game with tools that are less than perfect, but they still just did it.

And it’s just amazing. Reception is good. Is has a good rating on steam. Commercially it’s a very niche game. So I think the player base is very small. But I’m happy creatively with what we did. I think mostly.

36m 14s
Riad

Do you already know what you will be working on next. Are you prototyping four ideas at the moment.

Thomas
36m 19s

I really want to, before I dive into something, come up with some way to trick myself to have to trick myself to do that, to, to have multiple prototypes or to work on things for a shorter time. So I’m really going to sit down and think, okay, what are my personal flaws? Why do I get drawn into one project and wake up five years later and see how I can force myself to have a different workflow?

I think that’s that’s number one, because I noted once I start prototyping, I will be so charmed by the first thing that I get sucked in and then regret it that I did that. I, again, didn’t listen to my own advice.

36m 51s
Riad

I think this is also around for the game development world, where people commit themselves to release 12 games in a year.

For example, they force themselves quit after a month.

Thomas
37m 02s

Yeah. I would like to do that, but I don’t know how I can force myself. It’s hard to force yourself because who is gonna, you know, what’s the penalty. If you don’t, if you don’t listen.

37m 13s
Riad

I guess you could establish some social accountability where you announce that a contract.

You can announce it here on the podcast. How many games you will be doing.

Thomas
37m 24s

Okay. I will make a three games a day. No, I’m scared to say one a month because it’s scary. Yeah. But it would be so good. I think also for your skills as a game designer to really grapple with new concepts. And not spend too much time, you know, just programming.

So I think that would be so useful.

37m 45s
Riad

And I think one month is kind of a compromise where you can explore a game idea a bit more than for example in 48 hours.

Thomas
37m 54s

But do you not think it’s crazy that you can make a game in one month, but you can also make a game in five years and what is in between?

38m 03s
Riad

That’s true. I don’t, I think any game that I worked on, so far if I would have reviewed it after a month, it shouldn’t exist. I worked on Spec Ops: The Line that went through many years of kind of development hell and rework and rework, but in the end turned into something pretty interesting and is still loved by a lot of people. Curious expedition as well. Even when we started the company we had quit our old jobs.

And we had worked on the game for one year and a half. We were still not certain that this would be the game that, that we should finish or not. We eventually did. But yeah, for me, that that would be probably good good exercise to try to go there and finish games quicker, assessing them, decide to keep working on them.

Thomas
38m 57s

But so you are saying that in those cases, the game did actually improve over time and at one month would not have been enough. To show the concept to, to sell it to someone.

39m 06s
Riad

Yes. In those specific cases. Yes.

Thomas
39m 09s

That’s reassuring.

39m 12s
Riad

It could also be come down to luck. Right? Well, I don’t know of a recommendation that is for people to try and to say, oh, just, just keep working.

Thomas
39m 24s

And yeah, because the risk is also bigger. I often think, you know, after one month, the game wouldn’t have been as successful as it is now. After one month, would you be able to earn, I mean, it’s a very capitalist mindset, but after one month, would you be able to earn the cost of one month of month of game building?

Could you convince a couple hundred people on the internet to buy it?

39m 48s
Riad

Maybe if you’re doing or certaintly if you’re doing a hyper casual game and you are lucky with its release b ut otherwise it’s would probably be hard. Because the expectations of players and also just in terms of the playtime and so on are extremly high at the moment.

I have a final question about your company name, which I think unless you changed it I found very interesting, because it is an emoji right. Or is there - did you form multiple companies in the mean-time?

Thomas
40m 25s

So that’s true. There is a that’s so there’s noio games. And then there’s a mountain emoji because my last name is Van den Berg, which is a mountain.

40m 37s
Riad

How is that even possible to have an emoji as part of your official company name.

Thomas
40m 44s

Well it’s because in Holland, at least they allow all the characters to form like a Unicode character. So it’s not the actual emoji. Unfortunately it’s just a written out Unicode’s code point for the mountain emoji.

40m 59s
Riad

Now that must be pretty funny when you get forms or reports by the state.

Thomas
41m 03s

When it would be the actual emoji,

41m 05s
Riad

That would be great too but its also funny to see it printed out at the unicode.

Thomas
41m 10s

And then somebody hopefully Googles it and then they see the mountain emoji and then maybe they get it.

41m 13s
Riad

I’m wondering if you’re the first person to ever do that. Maybe you go into the Guiness book of records for that.

Thomas
41m 21s

Yeah. Maybe I should quickly register company names with all the different emojis so that I can sell them. It’s also a business, the new URL business yeah.

41m 30s
Riad

Awesome. Thank you so much for joining the podcast.

Thomas
41m 33s

Thank you. It was fun.

41m 35s
Riad

Good Bye.

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