I have to start off by saying this is a really good game. It’s brilliant in it’s simplicity and devious in it’s complexity. It’s the kind of game that makes you think… “why hasn’t someone done this before” at the same time as thinking “why would anyone do this to me?” I feel like I should explain. Something that seems to be a struggle for many indie games, namely, a tutorial is handled effortlessly in “Where Shadows Slumber”. The mechanics of the game are presented in an easy to comprehend way without feeling like you’re learning anything. It just leads you in nice and easy and then traps you! By the time you understand how the game works you’re already hooked. At least that’s what happened for me, and Kimberly, and my son, and my Mom, and likely for most of the (over) 300,000 people who downloaded the demo and the lucky few who nabbed a beta.
The reason I say “why would anyone do this to me” is because this is the kind of game that if you can’t figure out a level it will plague you. I mean, come on, all you’re doing is casting shadows and maybe pulling something from here to there. How hard can that be? Trust me, you’ll be thinking about it while YOU slumber. You’ll find yourself thinking stuff like…”Crap! I didn’t walk around that column to the right did I?” and then you’ll pick up your phone at 3 am, you know, just to make sure.
I have to say I’m very tempted to do a full review of Where Shadows Slumbers, but you came here to hear Frank and Jack’s story so I’ll turn it over to them!
So I’ve been playing this game on my phone for 3 days now and I have to say, I’m a bit addicted. I’m not the only one either. The limited number of beta downloads (2000) through Google Play sold out in hours, was this the kind of response you were expecting?
Frank DiCola: Recently we noticed over 300,000 people have downloaded our free Demo on Google Play, which is awesome. I’m glad people are still experiencing it and appreciate our commitment to the craft. The BETA is a different story: we’re looking into expanding it so more people can download it. We certainly never expected to fill up since I set it to 2,000!
What was your reaction to being nominated for Best Mobile Game Design (Gameacon 2016) and Best Mobile Game (16-Bit Awards 2016) and your recent nomination for the Gamer’s Voice Awards at SXSW this March?
FD: It certainly feels like a validation of our hard work! We’re against really stiff competition in Austin so I have no idea who might take home the big prize. But it’s an honor to be included and it makes us hopeful for the game’s future launch.
What do you believe draws the audience to Where Shadows Slumber?
FD: We have really deep and challenging puzzles along with a moody atmosphere and eye-catching visuals. There’s something magnetic about the colors and composition that communicates to people right away “this is the game for you.” I think the challenge keeps people interested. Other puzzle games go for quantity over quality – a mistake we made ourselves with SkyRunner – and we prefer to give people a solid, short, enjoyable experience.
How has the input from players on your “Secret Facebook Group” and the game’s test surveys influenced the creative process of the game?
FD: It’s a bit too soon to tell since our Facebook Group, The Chamber of Judgement, is quite new. We also have a private Discord for fans to give us feedback. I use it as a quick gut check when I’ve been working on the same piece of art for 12 hours and I need people to tell me “dude move on to something else it looks fine”. The most influential is when we build a demo and take it to a show. After hearing the same feedback from 50 people in the span of 4 or 5 hours, you know what to change and what people like. The online groups are great but they’re a bit too hands off for meaningful feedback. (Even so, everyone is invited to join The Chamber of Judgement!)
What has been the craziest or most absurd suggestion you’ve received?
Jack Kelly: I have two! After we’d been in development for a while, someone said “This should really be a 2D game”. While that is technically correct (since the shadow mechanics really only play in two dimensions), we would lose a lot of the visual factor that I think really sets us apart. Also “You could have certain objects cast shadows of different colors, which affect things in different ways”. This seems crazy to me because the on-screen elements are already a little too hectic, in my opinion, and differently-colored shadows flying around certainly wouldn’t help. The thing that really makes this seem ridiculous to me is simply how difficult that would be to set up in the backend.
FD: Someone suggested we turn the game into a free-to-play game with procedural Levels. I couldn’t comprehend how that would even be possible, or how it would look good, or how it would stand out from the other stuff on the market.
What challenges did you encounter during the games development? Were there any that made you want to give up? And how did you overcome them?
JK: We definitely faced a challenge that a lot of indie developers face – people not taking your game seriously. Game Development is seen as a sort of whimsical, fun, “oh, that’s cute” endeavor, and it can be a bit disheartening. Honestly though, I would say that the hardest challenge for me would be general busy-ness, what with having a full-time job and everything. The only thing that (briefly) gave me the feeling that I might want to give up on WSS was the whole cancer thing, which I wrote about on the Game Revenant blog.
FD: I still get bugged from time to time with stuff I have to do for Mr. Game!, a board game I created in college with a few friends. There’s still inventory floating around, shows to do, and plans for a reprint under a new publisher. I tried to do both for a while and I think both games suffered. I had to bite the bullet and bet big on Where Shadows Slumber, but that was definitely the correct choice. In general I’m bad at managing my own time, which is the meta-version of that problem. I need to work backwards from our internal deadlines rather than working forwards from where we are now.
You recently posted a survey to help determine the price of the game upon final release. Can you share the results with us?
JK: I think it’s a little early to share these results, since we want to get more feedback at SXSW. We can mention that we were pleasantly surprised by the results (at least I was), but that they lined up pretty closely with our estimates.
FD: Yeah that survey was just part of our data collection. There was also a survey we did at MAGFest and something we sent to a woman who works at Unity for a playtesting service they’re working on. It’s all being factored into our decision making process.
When do you expect to release the final version of Where Shadows Slumber?
FD: We’re targeting the very tail end of Q2 2018, but that’s more of a target than a release date. With so few staff working on the game, every part of the game takes a long time to polish.
What platforms will it be released on?
JK: As of right now, we’re only targeting iOS and Android (and, by extension, Amazon devices). Any future releases are still pretty up in the air – if the game really takes off and people are clamoring for it, we would consider a Steam or Switch release.
FD: For sure we knew going in this would be a mobile game, so it was designed with that in mind. The transition to Steam or Switch is a big design hurdle, so we would need to see a lot of demand before committing another year or two to porting this game. Think of our mobile launch as a Kickstarter for later platforms – if we don’t hit our goal, we can’t do it. It’s all or nothing!
The title Where Shadows Slumber sounds a bit creepy. Can you tell us a little more about the storyline and what inspired it?
JK: Oh boy. While we both really love the title now, it took us a loong time to get to it, and we were both pretty lukewarm about it when we made the decision. We have a pretty detailed summary of that process in our blog, so let’s just say that we entered a CAGEMATCH – we sat down in a room, and neither of us was allowed to leave until we had decided 100% on a name.
FD: Many puzzle games in this genre have anodyne plots where nothing too interesting happens. They are designed not to offend anyone, and since that’s impossible they end up saying nothing. The plot of Where Shadows Slumber is polarizing by design, because I want every part of this game to be memorable: the puzzles, the artistic look, the sound design, and the narrative. We picked a name that was meant to hint at darkness but also sound comforting in a disarming way. People tend to associate sleep (or slumber) with comfort and safety. I think we nailed it!
The plot summary indicates that there is a ruler and other mysterious figures in the chaotic world the game takes place in, which makes me ask is there a combative aspect of the game aside from the puzzles and labyrinths?
JK: No – we’re still aiming for Zen-like, relaxed gameplay. However, the rest of the Where Shadows Slumber world didn’t get the memo – there are parts of the world and parts of the game that are indicative of combat, even if the player never gets involved directly.
FD: During the game, Obe’s travels take him on a journey through a fallen world that is covered in darkness. That’s literally true – the entire game is pitch black and you only have the light from your lantern to guide you. But it’s also metaphorically true. The world is covered in the kind of human darkness that leads people to do bad things. There are no combat mechanics, but the story involves an interesting take on the problem of “wrestling” with evil.
Each level in Where Shadows Slumber has such a unique aesthetic. Do you have a favorite one artistically?
JK: I think World 5, The Hills, is my favorite. The combination of colors and atmosphere is just really evocative.
FD: My answer keeps changing! Every time I prepare a Level for “primetime” it becomes my favorite. At the time of this writing, I’ll say “Docks”, the first Level in the River World. It’s gross and weird but also composed in a really artistic way. I just got it right and I feel really proud of it.
What was your favorite game growing up, digital or otherwise?
JK: My #1 favorite game was StarCraft: Brood War.
FD: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
How long have you been developing games?
JK: I knew I wanted to be a computer programmer when I started making games on my TI-86 calculator. I’ve been making games ever since then (so around 14 years), but mostly as a hobbyist. Where Shadows Slumber is my first foray into something that people might actually play.
FD: Not too long, I guess I started making video games in sophomore year of college – 2012? Before Unity and Unreal I really had no way to even start, so I owe a lot to those programs. I owe a lot to Jack too, since we were in class together working as a team and that was really the first video game I worked on. The funny thing is though, I used to make board games as a young boy. There’s an adorable photo of me as a 10 year old, playtesting a board game I made in school with the whole family during one of our vacations. I guess as an artist it’s easier to get into the field that way, because I’m a very visual person.
Did you go to school for what you’re doing and/or how did you learn to do what you do?
JK: Yeah – in high school, me and a friend of mine taught ourselves a lot of game programming and programming in general (thanks, Newgrounds!). I ended up studying Computer Science in college as well.
FD: I taught myself a bunch of 3D modeling / animation tools like 3DS Max while I was in high school. Iona Prep didn’t have any digital art classes and I was too excited to wait for college, so I dove in. That ended up being a great decision. At Stevens, I studied Art & Technology, which was essentially a modern art degree: drawing, sculpture, photography, videography, Photoshop, Illustrator, Web Design, 3D modeling, 3D animation, 2D animation and graphic design. I think I used all of them to some degree on this project. I also studied software management, but as Jack can attest, I didn’t really pay attention during SSW 533: Software Estimation and Management…
You used Unity 3D to create the shadow world of your game. Was there ever another option and how satisfied are you with what what you’ve created using Unity?
JK: Unity is really awesome. It’s not as powerful as other game engines in the strictest sense, but it’s also a lot easier to use in many ways, which more than makes up for it. As a two-man team, we would have had trouble making something like Where Shadows Slumber with a different engine.
FD: I have a lot of respect for Unreal Engine 4, especially now that it’s free. I’m dying to make a shooter in that one – but, we were both way more familiar with Unity so it was the best choice. I’ve learned it’s better to go with people’s strengths rather than the strength of certain engines. Unreal is also not really suited for an artsy mobile game, either. You need to pick your battles when it comes to engines.
Back in September, you asked for advice on dealing with negative online comments about your game. How have you dealt with those critiques since then?
FD: Fortunately, most of the reviews and comments on our Demo are positive (4.8 aggregate over 5500+ reviews, with over 5000 5-star reviews). But I would say it’s a blessing to get a negative review on our Demo or something like that, because it’s one less negative review on our actual game which hasn’t launched yet. This is something I can’t stress enough to young game developers – seek criticism, and seek it early. You can’t have a thin skin in this business. I have no patience for game developers who take a defensive posture when I make a constructive critique about their game. It’s like – “hey, I’m trying to help you! Don’t you want to avoid future bad reviews?” But I think it comes down to personality. Some people have the ability to humble themselves and treat every person as though they have something valuable to say. Other people tend to wrap themselves too much in the product and that’s why they get defensive. A criticism of their game is a criticism of themselves, and they take it as a personal attack. You need a modest amount of detachment if you hope to keep your sanity.
Do you have any advice for other indie developers?
JK: We have a LOT of advice for other indie developers! If you go to our blog, you can even read some of that advice! If I had to give some quick elevator-advice, I guess my best pieces of advice would be to always be honest with yourself (How good is my game? Can I finish this feature in time?), and, if you’re going to work on a game, commit to it, and be willing to put in the work and make the sacrifices to make your dream game a (virtual) reality.
FD: Jack is right. I also have to thank him for diligently shilling for our blog this whole time XD. I already mentioned the thing about feedback, so that advice is important. That’s one of my strengths. If I had to give advice for one of my weaknesses, I would say that you need to take your daily routine seriously. Especially if you are going indie full-time. There’s always this temptation that you have more time than you have because “you don’t have a 9-5 job”. That’s true, but you’re still a person who does useless things like sleeping, showering, and eating. Also people really only have a few solid “focus hours” every day, so don’t waste them! My daily routine is terrible and so all I can say is that you shouldn’t make my mistakes. I need a life coach or something, seriously.
Do you currently have any other games in the works that we should keep an eye out for?
JK: Not as of yet – since it’s really just the two of us (plus our audio contractors at Phoz), we don’t really have the capacity to work on other stuff (at least I don’t). Part of my mindset, in terms of “committing yourself to your game”, is that, if I were to spend time on another project, that time would be better spent on Where Shadows Slumber. So, until this game is done, I don’t really have any other project I’m working on. That said, I still absentmindedly think of designs for other games, so when Where Shadows Slumber is over, you might see something else from me (after a suitable resting period :P).
FD: This is going to be my main project for now, until it is out on all major platforms, in all regions, and I’ve run out of marketing ideas to promote it. When the fervor dies down and I feel like I can move on, I need to see how much money is in the coffers. Do I have enough to rent studio space? Hire employees? Pay for my own healthcare? Or is it chump change, meaning my business needs to become a hobby while I find a “real job”? If I end up having to get a job, my next game will have to be a super tiny little mobile game that I work on while I make a living and provide for a future family. I think also that since Jack and I have been working together for 5 straight years on two different games, it would be wise if we took a break and pursued our own projects for a while. You kind of get cabin fever working with the same people for so long! For sure, I’ll take my next game very seriously. Where Shadows Slumber has taught me just how much time goes into making a fully realized triple-AAA indie game on a tiny budget with a small team. My next game might be even smaller in scope just to compensate for that.
Is there anything we missed that you’d like to bring up?
FD: Definitely vote for us if you’ll be at SXSW this year and you care about the indie competition! We’ll see you in Austin, so stop by the table and let us know you found us through the interview. That’s about it for now, but be sure to follow our social accounts (Game Revenant) for timely notices regarding our launch video, our launch date, and other promotional things.