Editorial | 7/24/2015 at 2:00 PM

Indie-Ana Co-Op and the Red Solstice Post-Mortem

Sometimes it takes a village

We first looked at The Red Solstice over a year ago while it was still in that Early Access phase and returned to it every so often to "check in". The game saw a full release earlier this month and we were interested in learning from the developers just how that much exposure (for so long) helped to shape the final product. Developer Hrvoje Horvatek shares with us a look back on the game's development and the community that helped get it where it is today.

The Making of The Red Solstice

It is often said that one of the most important factors that affect the success of any game is a carefully elaborated and consistently executed development plan. Straying too far off the roadmap - which is built with long term goals, budget limitations, and other factors in mind - will often result in losing the required pace needed to meet the deadlines. Time lost on non-important work and crucial tasks made in a hurry will have a considerable impact on the quality of the final product.

The Red Solstice's scope changed so dramatically that it could not be developed in a streamlined fashion. It started some 6 years ago when a couple of university students and gaming enthusiasts sat down and said, "Hey, let's make a game!" Over the first few years other people came from different backgrounds and circumstances willing to do some work on the project. Most of them left, either due to a lack of time or the loss of initial enthusiasm, but a few individuals remained and saw the project through to its first truly playable alpha version.

A number of alpha testers - mostly fans of the Warcraft 3 mod called Night of the Dead (which was an inspiration for this game) - were first introduced to The Red Solstice. Although unfinished and very rough on the edges, they genuinely liked what they saw. This positive feedback rekindled our hopes and dreams. While we still worked as volunteers, enthusiasm rose as we began to understand that The Red Solstice would enable us to make a living out of creating games. It was a year or so later that the project reached an even higher plateau. The trigger was the news that the community rewarded our work by voting us into the Steam Greenlight program. We ran a successful Kickstarter campaign soon thereafter and received a sufficient amount of funds to rent and equip a proper working space. Launch on Steam’s Early Access was a success and before we even realized it, five of us were in the office working on The Red Solstice as our full time job.

Looking at the original design document, it is obvious that we have moved far from the initial target; but then again, we managed to preserve the essence of what the game was supposed to be. This preservation of consistency, while at the same time embracing changes and unexplored potentials, might have been one of the most important reasons we’ve made it this far. The lesson here is not an easy one, or one that can be translated into an exact formula. It is certainly true that a serious project needs careful planning, but also, especially with small teams still developing their potential, circumstances will change and flexibility must be maintained. This need for balancing between [adapting on the fly] and stability has to be reflected in the leadership structure of a team. It is certainly one of our greatest assets that we managed to create an atmosphere of cooperation and respect in which every decision is discussed and every member contributes with his own opinion.

Working in a small game development team has proven to be one of the most demanding and exhausting - yet also one of the most stimulating and inspiring - experiences of our lives; and the reasons for both sides of the coin are often very similar. In such a working environment, every member’s individual contribution is reflected greatly on the shape of the product. Everyone’s personal failure or simply temporary inability to meet the current requirements is thus also greatly reflected on the collective success. This kind of responsibility inevitably creates a sense of pressure and builds up stress that everyone has to find a way to deal with. On the other hand, the feeling of accomplishment once a milestone is reached and once everyone can sit down, unwind, point and say, "I created this," makes it all more than worth it in the end.

Another, sometimes very painful, part of the job is surviving the crunch. Crunches are just a fact of the industry but greatly limited manpower makes things that much worse. The official release date was decided some 6 months beforehand. We knew we had an almost unreasonable amount of work in front of us, but financial concerns and other factors - such as other game releases - meant another date was not an option. So we sat down and crunched.

All-nighters were pulled off, eight to nine hour workdays rose to ten to sixteen or more; we gave up weekends, holidays. Although we could not afford anything but a minimum salary with which we could manage to live off, we never lacked motivation. What we quickly found out, though, is that when everyone makes an effort to follow everyone else’s tempo, soon an individual point of diminishing returns can be hit. It is for that reason we found it important to learn to recognize signs of fatigue and the need for rest as finding motivation to work long hours was becoming harder.

The Red Solstice, although controlled by the team, can in a way be called a community-driven project. If you look at every big milestone, it was always made possible by the community itself. It was the dedicated community that made the first contributions that in a large degree allowed us to fund the development in the early stages. It was the community that backed us during our Kickstarter campaign. It was the community that funded our company through the early access stage. It was the community that spread the word about our game and, perhaps most important of all, it was the dedicated members of the community who gave us the feedback and encouragement we needed. Many of the features in The Red Solstice are a direct result of someone writing us a message saying, "Hey, it would be really cool if we could...". This cooperation with the community went so far that some of the present and past members of our team started out as enthusiastic community members who demonstrated skills that we needed.

Being old school gamers at heart and participating in the industry both as customers and developers, we dare say that the lines between the two are often getting blurred very often to the benefit of both sides. Where before a user would go to a shop, buy a CD, play a game, and then go buy another one, now users have the opportunity to be involved in the process of evolution of a product, leading to a much more enjoyable and a longer lasting experience. We are very proud of the fact that some of our users have invested thousands of hours into our game.

In that regard, new alternative ways of funding were essential to our success. Finding a single investor or gathering the capital needed to fund the whole development on our own would be totally impossible. Finding a number of people willing to trust us just enough to make a small contribution on a promise we made proved much more realistic, both during our Kickstarter campaign and the following Early Access.

While some (likely fueled by bad experiences) claim crowdfunding is a failed model, we strongly believe it is one of the essential things that drive the current golden age of indie game development that has given birth to so many awesome bold projects that would have never been made by the bigger companies. It is unfortunately unavoidable that sometimes money will be spent on projects that fail, but the concept of distribution of risk (no one company might risk millions of dollars, where hundreds of thousands might risk ten dollars) makes much more daring attempts possible; and once they succeed, we often get true works of art. We also believe crowdfunding models will only gain momentum as more and more people latch onto the idea that sometimes funding projects that fail is actually investing in the survival of a market that in principle does deliver. What's more, a simple Google search makes it easier for individuals to do a bit of research and learn which developers have risen to the top while weeding out the more dishonest ones.

Balancing the Game

Thanks to my involvement in the Night of the Dead maps from Warcraft 3 and StarCraft 2, I already had an idea of what the balance in The Red Solstice would look like; i.e., which classes we would create and how would they fit their role. I am not a great fan of the holy trinity (tank, healer, damage dealer). I am not saying things shouldn’t be based around it, but it definitely should not be copied wholesale. In The Red Solstice the primary rule is that everyone has the power.

When I think of a class, I think first about a class skill; why would a certain skill fit into that class, how that skill can improve the class' role in a team, how can it make this class more fun to play, and how it will interact with other skills. On top of that, each class has to be different, has to be played differently, and players have to be able to approach that class differently when playing it. That way the player can enjoy a unique gameplay experience with a particular class and you can focus on doing things you truly love, like healing the group, or focus on taking down the bosses, or just sniping anything that poses a threat.

The other side of this coin is that the more skills you have, the harder it is to not break the balance and synergy between them. Naturally we had some failures where we had to scrap certain ideas and move along. It’s basically the constant testing in the early access that got us to the point where we can say that the game is beatable on the hardest difficult and playing the hardest map. One problem we are still having is that there are not enough meta builds, but since we’re improving the game continuously, we are improving in that area as well.

Balancing the Maps

Each map in The Red Solstice is changing along with the development. Some maps are harder, some maps are easier, some lack items, some have too many things going on or are so big that you have to play them differently.

We wanted to give each type of player something they would like. For example, the central map is very balanced in all aspects while the military map is pure carnage, consisting of heavily increased monster spawns. Maps also have various modifiers or different objectives, making them vary in difficulty when compared to each other.

Power to the Players

One thing we are still having problems with - and to me personally is one of the hardest things to do - is to empower the players without patronizing them. We want to give them a true sense of power for every action they do, for every skill or item they use, or simply for performing important actions on the map. For example, we look up to Dawn of War for doing this extremely well, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

UI Issues and Development

We had big problems finding the right UI for The Red Solstice because of the new mechanic we introduced (component-skills system). Since in The Red Solstice you can level up or level down a component to gain certain skills, you have to show both choices to the player. Our first UI iteration looked like this.

This proved to be inefficient very quickly because we realized players need to see which skills belong to which components fast, so we searched for another solution.

This solution was slightly better but still had issues. For example you can see the components on the right side, so they’re easy recognizable, and the skills you gain from them (blue icons just to the left of the components). Big problem with that UI was that it was not entirely clear to new players what was going on. All of this eventually lead to our current solution where we decided to hide the components almost entirely.

We realized there is no need to show everything by showing just the skills and ability to level them up and down, we found a way to blend in components with the skills themselves. By grouping together all the skills - regardless if they are active or passive - under one component "slot", players can more easily determine how they want to level up or level down the components.

In the end, we would like to mention that The Red Solstice would never have been made without the help and support of the members of the game development industry. Game developers especially, but not limited to indie ones, have shown tremendous collegiality and went to great distances to share their know-how, contacts, and so on. We could never name all of them without doing someone injustice, but they know who they are. A big thank you to all of you guys and gals!

Our thanks to Hrvoje for taking the time to share with us their development experience. You can check our co-op review of The Red Solstice on the site, and purchase the game on Steam.