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October 6, 2013

Dave Pottinger on Cavamania post-mortem

Dave Pottinger, founder and CEO of BonusXP has posted his Cavemania post-mortem blog on Gamasutra. Post-mortems are always very interesting reading and Cavemania’s is no exception. In the post we learn about how Cavemania started off as an RPG game as opposed to the “match 3” game we see in the finished product. The blog also talks about various highs and lows during the development and describes the studios design methodology.

Starting from the beginning just how did BonusXP end up with a match-3 Age of Empires esque strategy game? The project first started off and an RPG which was worked on by one full-time programmer.

The RPG got prototyped in a week with some cutting-edge programmer art. It quickly morphed into a crafting-based RPG within a few days. The game’s codename, Combo, even comes from that crafting focus. The week after, some Zelda-elements crept in. We were solving puzzles and doing mini-dungeon raids.

However the problem with RPG games is that they are quite ambitious and would need alot of development and resource to make. With BonusXP being a relatively small studio <15 people the RPG project was simply too big for them to execute at the high standards they were looking for with the staff numbers they had. Taking stock of things, BonusXP re-assessed and decided to pursue a tile based game which ended up being taking a “match 3” approach.

To this day, no one remembers (or is willing to take credit for?) the suggestion of making a Match-3 game with Combo. Who in their right mind would suggest that anyway? Can you think of a more crowded, bloodthirsty genre to enter?

Nevertheless, it was an easy game to prototype. We batted around some ideas for making it unique. We had all this code lying around that dealt with combat and moving guys around. Why not use that? The next day, we had characters on the board fighting in and around the Match-3 items.

It is quite amazing how ideas change so quickly during game development! The result of course was an excellent game that currently boasts a  4.5 / 5 rating on iTunes and the Play Store. So how did things go during the development? What were the highs and lows? Mr Pottinger provides us with the insight.

Win – Unified Senior Team

One of the benefits of having a smaller studio is that you don’t have to worry too much about corporate structure. At BonusXP everyone on the team gets design credit which means that everyone is involved in the design process. There are no leads at BonusXP which are usually found in larger studios which means there is no single person taking an over-riding decision on the way forward for the game.

Everyone is involved in decisions from hiring to the games we make. We don’t mandate crunch. We sync as a team twice a week and otherwise coordinate over email, chat, or our online task board. Everyone gets design credit. We don’t have leads. Everyone works from home on Fridays.

As it happens until their most recent hire the entire team at BonusXP was formed of Ex-Ensemble Studios staff, or ex Bonfire/Zynga Dallas staff. It must certainly help a new studio to get off the ground with previous friends and work colleagues.

Win – Iterative Development

At BonusXP each game goes through a new build every day. This means the project continues to grow day by day with visible changes being made available to the whole team. It seems the development process for Cavemania went very well. Dave points out that the team never got stuck on “grungy week long tasks”. This enabled the team to flourish and keep engaged. The studio also had development help from their publisher Yodo1 and had access to their team of alpha testers made up of friends and other trusted people. Throughout the development the team took the approach of trying to create workable concepts for ideas to see how effective each one turned out to be before spending a ton of time on something which in the end wouldn’t end up in he final product.

We encourage breadth-wise development. We’d rather see a shallow version of a complete feature before we invest a ton of time. Yes, this can sometimes take longer. But, that’s okay because we’re more unified along the way. We’ll always make that tradeoff. We pair that indulgence with a ruthless focus on re-scoping. If we can avoid doing something we don’t really need, we can redirect that time onto polishing something we already have.

Win – Great Partners

BonusXP have chosen to partner with many of the same great names we have heard before. Publisher Yodo1 has also enjoyed great success with Robot Entertainment’s Hero Academy and music partner Gl33k had also worked on Robot’s Age of Empires Online, Hero Academy and Orcs Must Die! Choosing the right partner is very important and it seems BonusXP have chosen wisely.

Cavemania is our baby, so we spent a lot of time searching for the right publisher. We wanted to make sure we partnered with someone who loved the game and understood our philosophy. Yodo1 has been a fantastic fit for us. Secretly, I think they like the game even more than we do. They’ve been aligned with us every step of the way on prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t. Like us, they’ve always put quality before monetization and even helped us with some of the code.

Not-so-Win – Mixing casual and hardcore is tricky

Cavamania is quite a unique title and does well at demonstrating how a game can be both casual and retain some of the more hardcore strategy elements at the same time. The trouble with this kind of game is that mixing the causal and hardcore expierencies can prove very difficult to pull off well. For these hybrid games if the game is too casual it may turn away many of the hardcore crowd and vice versa. Who would have thought Age of Empires could be mixed with a match 3 style. BonusXP have done very well to pull this off, this doesnt mean it was easy though.

Once we decided to go with the “Units plus Match-3” angle, we hoped to make a simpler, more casual game. Unfortunately, the very thing that made the game fun and different from other Match-3 games is somewhat at odds with a more casual audience.

Cavemania has a lot of combat. We enjoy that, but it’s possibly a turn-off for some folks. We tried several variants without combat, but they weren’t nearly as fun. Similarly, it’s hard to have a deep, upgrade-focused strategy game without showing numbers somewhere, so we did that.

In the end, we made the choice to stick with what was fun for us. I think we’ve done a good job blending that deeper gameplay with a straightforward freemium business model. I’m sure the players will tell us if we’ve made the right choice.

Not-so-Win – Localization

Localization is something that crops up every now and then in many post-mortems. It can be tough to work out when to start localization but luckily having partners on board can greatly help in this particularly difficult task.

It’s a rare game that starts localization perfectly on time. We are certainly not one of those! We knew we were waiting too long to dig into localization. But, with a small team, tradeoffs have to be made. We had to do a ridiculous scramble to get all languages in place for the worldwide launch. We definitely would not have succeeded without the seemingly infinite help from LocLabs and Yodo1.

Not-so-Win – Making games and business development at the same time

BonusXP is full of talented game designers. Unfortunately there is alot of extra headaches associated with running a studio that are unrelated to game development. Everyones favourite words like “Admin”, “HR” and “Legal” are all present here. BonusXP did hire a producer mid development on Cavamania to help ease the pressure these tasks had on the upper management, however as Dave points out the team did lose approximately 1 months worth of time to these arduous tasks.

We are a small studio. We don’t have dedicated staff to handle business development, legal contracts, HR, or admin duties. Hell, we even have to bring in our own snacks.

Jokes aside, we make no bones about putting things in the right order. We are building a long-term studio where the employees come first. When there is a conflict, the business concerns win out vs. adding another feature to the game. That’s the right cosmic order, but it does make the games take longer to get done. We easily “lost” an entire month on Cavemania due to those studio overhead responsibilities.

With a prodcuer now in situe hopefully these types headaches will be mitigated in future BonusXP games.

This pretty much sums up the highlights from Dave’s Gamasutra blog. Be sure to read the whole thing over at Gamasutra to read more. There is a ton more info on the full post on iterative development and the future for BonusXP so its well worth a look. Go check it out now!



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