Soulcaster: Part I & II Are On Steam!

Six years after their original release on Xbox Live, my first two titles have finally arrived on the Steam marketplace. Though available for PC for years, I only recently made time to Steamify them by adding trading cards, achievements, cloud saving, and full controller support. And with the help of Ethan Lee, we have a cross-platform launch of Windows, OSX, and Linux.

SC1a

The first Soulcaster was strictly a hobby project. I was still full time on video game soundtracks at the time, and I just decided to learn XNA by putting in a few hours a day at the coffee shop, and build a game from scratch. It had a very lightweight design document (just a page of plain text) and evolved as I made it.

The original concept was “what if you could play Gauntlet, but as all four characters at once?” I tried a few variations on this, and the one that stuck was the concept of summoning stationary heroes to do battle for you, while enemies used pathfinding to solve mazes and reach you.

SC2e

When I launched it, I told everyone I was going to ignore the star rating on Xbox Live, not pay much attention to reviews, and just be proud of having completed a game on my own (a lifelong goal of mine). Of course, I couldn’t help but watch sales, and it exceeded my wildest expectations–not that it made enough for me to retire on, but the revenue was great for a a 5-month project. And it spend several months in the top 10 rated games on XBLIG.

Not only did this game launch my career as an indie developer, it introduced me to friends I have to this day. The positive feedback I got from people whose opinions I truly respected was so encouraging that I set out to make a sequel, and eventually move full time from game soundtracks to game production.

SC2g

The first two games are bundled together at the $4.99 price point. I was urged to raise the price of these games by several friends, but I decided to stick with this, as it has been the price of the bundle on PC since it was originally launched. I also wanted to sell both games together, so there wouldn’t be any question about whether to play the first or second one first (something I heard a lot with the Escape Goat series).

And you know, after running through the games a few more times in the last month to test Steam features, I have to say, these games hold up very well. I hope you enjoy them!

The New Look of Soulcaster

Last week, I had the opportunity to show the Soulcaster pre-alpha at a MIX event hosted by Patreon. With my post-GDC recovery complete, it’s time to publish the reveal here on my site.

SC-key-2016march-50pc_600px

 

It’s been over a year since I last posted images or mentioned anything about production, so it’s time to bring everyone up to speed and answer the most frequent questions I’ve gotten so far.

Continue reading The New Look of Soulcaster

A Case for Closed Development: Why I Stopped Blogging about Soulcaster

Seven months. It’s a good interval for a yes-I’m-still-alive-and-making-the-game post. TL;DR: Soulcaster is still happening, and I work on it every day.

So what happened to the dev blogging and tweeting? Why did I go off the radar?

It started (ended) when the game got its first non-placeholder art, and showing screens would reveal our first steps towards the new look of the game. Originally, it was a marketing strategy: wait until we have something dazzling to show before showing anything. This is the first project I have built while thinking about marketing, and it became increasingly unhealthy obsession that built up in the first half of this year. I analyzed new releases, picked apart Kickstarter videos, reached out to successful devs (who were universally, amazingly generous with their time and eagerness to help me). There had to be a secret to what “works” in this exciting and scary post-2012 landscape.

The more I learned, the more unclear things got. It was so frustrating. No pattern emerged–everyone found a unique path to success, sometimes completely stumbling into it. If there was a universal lesson to be learned, it’s that nobody knows what works these days, beyond what has worked for them at a particular time and place.

These were the decisions I woke up every morning thinking about:

  • Do a crowdfunding campaign, which gives us funding and publicity, or use those three months to get the game done sooner?
  • If we run a campaign, do we reveal the project a couple months ahead, to build towards a strong first day–or do we keep everything secret until the campaign starts, when we have something actionable for when the media pays attention?
  • Do we launch in early access, where we can get valuable feedback and start making income sooner, or is it too toxic of an environment to outweigh this benefit?
  • Does blogging and streaming help raise awareness enough to offset the time it takes up? What about the influence the public might have on the game’s design?

It seemed like every time I committed to one decision, some new piece of data would emerge that cast doubt on that plan of action. It was paralyzing. Bottom line, I spent most of this year simply not enjoying working on Soulcaster.

If I were going to see this project through, I had to change my mindset. Here’s how I see thing now:

Nobody knows what works, so I might as well pick what I am best at.

I took a break from my focus on what others might want to see, and spent time figuring out out what it is I do best, what I enjoy the most. What I’ve discovered is that I do my best work when I can focus on making the game I want to play. Wait until the bones have gelled and things are where I want them, when comments people make on the new look or new gameplay won’t make me second guess the game’s fundamentals. This means no dev blogging or streaming, for the time being. If we do a crowdfunding campaign, it won’t be planned until the game is out of this critical prototyping phase.

Going dark like this might be a little foolish, since it’s already easy enough to get lost in the sea of new indie games appearing every day. But it’s what I have to do. Since committing to zero public announcements for the time being, I’m writing the best code of my career. I’m coming up with some of my most creative game design ideas. I wake up in the morning excited to get started, and keep energy well into the afternoon, instead of losing steam around lunchtime. I’m enjoying game development again.

Because of this, I’m confident the new Soulcaster is going to be my masterwork, the game I was born to create. Weirdly, despite all this inward focus, it motivates me to think about sharing it with the world–but only when it’s reached the right point in development. I’m so excited for that day. I’ll see you then.

 

The Detours of Prototyping

You know, it’s really time for an update on Soulcaster. The longer it gets in between these things, the more I feel like I have to write a long treatise on everything that’s been going on since the last update. And yes–lots of stuff has been happening! But I can’t get to it all in one post. For now, I’ll just try to shed some light on where the project is, and what it’s gone through in the past few months.

My concept for Prototype #2 was to focus on the micro game of combat, and leave the exploration, upgrades, and other metagame stuff for later. So I set out to make a single-screen “waves of enemies” scenario, which gradually added more monsters to the scene after each level. I got it functional enough to show a few people, and quite honestly, nobody found it that interesting.

The reason is that I am missing a key component of what made the first Soulcasters fun and different: combining summon-based combat with exploration and dungeon crawling. The exploration element–moving from room to room, dealing with traps and ambushes as they come up–is just way more engaging than sitting in the same room, waiting for enemies to emerge from predictable places, over and over. It devolved into kind of a lame quasi-tower-defense experience.

It was also a bit too… institutionalized. Soulcaster should be about quick decision making amidst chaos–not, “Okay, are you ready for the next wave?? HEEERE they come!” which is what my prototype became.

Side note: Secret of Mana is one of my all time favorite games. I remember back in the day when I could finally play the only-available-in-Japan sequel, which had been fan translated for the emulator (shhh, don’t tell Square). Now, there’s no question that the graphics in Seiken Densetsu 3 obliterate those of its predecessor. But the gameplay just felt sterile. Each battle had a start and end, kind of like a turn-based RPG, and it defeated the purpose of action-adventure. I missed being given the option to run past enemies.

Without realizing it, I had kinda done the same thing to my game.

But that’s what prototyping is for: to try new things, see what works, and keep the good stuff.  Even though the experimental new scenario didn’t work, there’s actually a lot of good stuff to keep:

  • A “windwalk” (phase boots?) ability for the summoner to escape when he gets pinned down. It lets you walk through enemies and become invisible to them. It’s also useful to slip into a new part of the room to begin setting up a “fallback” position
  • A mana meter that charges up as you slay enemies. I’m going for a Devil Trigger/Rage of the Gods type of mechanic with this one. There are a lot of potential uses, like powering up an existing summon, doing some sort of ultimate summon form
  • Procedural generation of monster populations. I can have the room use a “budget” for monsters and pick a theme for them, and it divides them into waves and places them appropriately
  • When you destroy a monster spawner, it tosses shards of debris into the air, which spin and bounce when they hits the ground (this is important)
  • Housekeeping code revolving around keeping an inventory between rooms, starting a new game, gaining new powerups, etc. It’s not exciting to read about, and even worse to code, but it’s just one of those things that makes it feel like “a game”

So for Prototype #3, I really am aiming for a sparse, functional version of how I envision the full game: interconnected rooms, wandering monsters, traps and ambushes, obtaining items, deciding when to retreat or avoid an encounter. There are lots of unanswered questions about item and character progression, and I think it’s best to address those once the nuts and bolts are all there. Start at the ground level and work our way up.