As Demons with Shotguns takes shape, Nicholas DiMucci uses the game’s first public play test as an opportunity to gather feedback and address concerns.
Chapter 2: Public Consumption
Written by David L. Craddock
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With a rough premise and gameplay model chosen, DiMucci began evaluating technologies he could use to build Demons with Shotguns. Many developers built their own engine, the means through which games display graphics, but he had traveled that road once before. Having written an engine for Deep Space Dog, DiMucci deemed it too much work for one developer to undertake. All developers, both the indies and the executives of monolithic corporations like Ubisoft, have to weigh the pros and cons of spending months or even years building proprietary tech versus writing a check to license readymade engine such as Unreal. In search of a toolset sophisticated enough to bring Demons with Shotguns to life, DiMucci decided on Unity, an integrated development environment (IDE) that gave him the means to create graphics, sounds, and code, and to glue all those assets together into prototypes.
“I’m still currently [using] the free edition of Unity. The only thing that the paid version has that I wish I had is the profiler, which would help me profile the game’s performance. I’ll probably save up for a pro license eventually, as I’ll want to profile before actually releasing anything. I’m also using Visual Studio 2013 Ultimate, which I managed to get a license through Microsoft’s Bizspark program, and UnityVS, which lets me code and debug Unity projects in Visual Studio.”
Laying the foundation, he built a simple 2D platformer with the basic trimmings: a few characters, controls for movement and shooting, and collision detection, the method of detecting when objects like player-characters, projectiles, and platforms came into contact. Then he concentrated on sussing out fun and quintessential details such as how many projectiles each blast of a shotgun would send out. Projectiles take the form of glowing white balls. The more projectiles make contact with a player, the more damage the player takes. Spreading out damage forces players to take risks: to get ahead, players must place themselves in greater danger by getting up close and personal.
Not wanting to bite off more than he could chew, DiMucci implemented two game modes: deathmatch, the classic-free-for-all where players blast each other to bits until the most devilish player reaches a kill count of 15; and Capture the Soul, a spin on capture the flag. “When a player is fragged, they will release their soul. This soul is up for grabs by anyone. However, there can only ever be one soul active at any given time, so when a player releases their soul, no other player will [release a soul upon death] until the [active soul] has been captured. Players must grab the soul and bring it back to the base in the middle of the arena. First player to five captures wins.”
Once he had written the code for deathmatch and Capture the Soul, DiMucci added team variants. Other game modes may be available depending on how much time he needs to build and test each one.
For power-ups, DiMucci drew inspiration from tarot cards. Picking up a card brings the player good fortune in the form of a power-up such as invulnerability or increased speed. The kicker: players don’t know what a card has in store for them until they pick it up. “Every 10 seconds, the game checks to see if there’s a tarot card currently [on-screen]. If not, it’ll randomly decide to drop one or not. Currently, only one card can be available at any time.”
Designing levels that offer organic experiences is DiMucci’s main concern. “You need to create levels that [lead to interesting] gameplay scenarios. For example, a level may have a spot that’s great for bunkering down to defend and pick off players, so players constantly fight for control of it.” One of his chief objectives in designing arenas is orchestrating opportunities for movement flow, or navigating smoothly around platforms. Players running low on resources but adept at sprinting and leaping around platforms and walls will be able to play keep-away until they get hold of a tarot card or ambush other players and pillage their souls and ammo.
Bringing Kyle Nunery on-board as the game’s artist allowed DiMucci to delegate visual design and devote more time to thinking about level aesthetics and construction. The duo settled on four environments spanning ten levels each. “We just finished up the cemetery levels and are now working on the Hell levels. Metro/city is one of the other planned environments. The fourth is actually kind of up in the air right now, but my initial thoughts were a dusty, Texas, western-like town.”
To distinguish each set of environments, DiMucci wants to imbue each setting with particular themes and gameplay tricks. Cemetery levels contain hidden pathways that act as shortcuts, while battlegrounds set in Hell spawn portals that instantly transport players to advantageous positions where they can throw grenades or fire at unwary opponents. “And of course, this wouldn’t be a platformer without environmental hazards to avoid,” DiMucci hinted.
After months of careful tweaking and vacillating on design choices, DiMucci came to a decision. He was pleased with the progress Demons with Shotguns had seen in a relatively short span of time. But he was also aware that he, like all creative types, wore blinders that prevented him from seeing flaws and gaping holes in his work. The time had come to garner impartial feedback from the public. He knew just the venue.
Every quarter, as many as forty indie developers based in New York City attend Playcrafting NYC — formerly known as NYC Games Forum — an event that emanates from Microsoft’s office in Times Square. Playcrafting’s organizers open the event to the public; anyone interested in trying early versions of games can buy a ticket and play the games on display. Developers, however, are hand-chosen. “To present, you simply submit an application. I don’t know how many developers applied, but thankfully I was chosen.”3
Playcrafting was the perfect stage on which to unveil Demons with Shotguns, but getting there necessitated a whirlwind trip. On Thursday, October 30, 2014, DiMucci cut out of work early, picked up Sarah, and drove the hour-and-a-half to Times Square. Upon entering the event hall, his mouth went dry. Over two-hundred-fifty gamers milled around the show floor. Later, event organizers proclaimed it one of the biggest turnouts in Playcrafting’s five-year history.
Resolution quickly washed away his anxiety. Deep down, he knew his opinions and preferences had taken the game as far as it would go. To evolve, Demons with Shotguns had to be exposed to feedback from nonbiased gamers.
Determined, DiMucci got to work. Show coordinators directed him to a table where he could set up shop. With Sarah’s help, he arranged his computer, monitor, Xbox 360 game controllers, and a small sign depicting a diagram of the controller and the function of each button. He had prepared only a single game mode, Capture the Souls, and a cemetery level rife with platforms and spooky ambiance. Offering such a small serving was intentional. In development, the term vertical slice refers to a chunk of content prepared specifically to demonstrate a game’s fundamentals. Developers carve out vertical slices to get an idea of how the full product will play before investing thousands of hours into development.
On the first day of the exhibition, DiMucci watched nervously as gamers flood the show floor. He fretted that he might have overlooked some game-breaking bug, or — worse — that gamers simply wouldn’t care for his spin on retro, twitchy shooters.
He needn’t have worried.
“The response the game received was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone that played really enjoyed it, playing multiple rounds. When I walked around the room I could hear people saying things like ‘Hey, go check out Demons with Shotguns!’ I even had a few people tell me that the most fun they had all night was playing my game.”4
Doctors make the worst patients, and creators the worst critics. While the game didn’t attract much criticism from the public, DiMucci noticed several glaring holes he needed to fill. Other than the printout he had brought along to list the role of each button, there were no tutorials that explained specifics such as how tarot cards worked. On several occasions, DiMucci observed as players picked up a tarot card and then stood around in confusion, unsure what the item they had just picked up was supposed to do. “Some people picked up [how to play] faster than others, but everyone had to play at least two times to really enjoy themselves and learn the mechanics and rules. That’s something I need to address as I’d like to have players be able to pick up the game right away and enjoy themselves.”
Camera placement posed another problem. Depending on the positions of players, the camera would roam beyond the borders of a level, cutting higher platforms from view. Play-testers unwittingly found themselves fighting on the ground, forgetting that the uppermost regions of the arena existed. “This has since been fixed,” DiMucci assured me. Correcting the problem entailed setting hard-and-fast parameters for the camera, preventing it from swooping out of bounds and showing the player as much real estate as possible.
His list of fixes and improvements aside, DiMucci viewed his first public demo of Demons with Shotguns as a success. Letting others try the game had given him the opportunity to make his pitch to professional designers, audio engineers, and legal counselors who were on-hand to scout up-and-coming success stories — a pitch he had rehearsed ad nauseam in the days leading up to the show — and the opportunity to watch others play and observe their reactions and behavior had been of paramount importance.
Sarah was arguably even more passionate about the game than DiMucci. She willingly kept watch at the table while he took a circuit around the show floor, enthusiastically explaining the basics of play and even jumping in to compete when testers needed a fourth player.
“If you’re an indie dev and there are similar types of events being held near you, I can’t recommend presenting enough,” DiMucci said. “It’s so vital to the development process and just a whole lot of fun. And I have to thank my fiancé who came along and helped out. She did an amazing job. She’s been very supportive and understanding during the entire process. It’s hard for both of us because having to develop the game at night takes away time together, so I’m forever thankful for how supportive she’s been.”
Red Light, Greenlight
Over the first year of developing Demons with Shotguns, DiMucci held down a comfortable schedule. Weekdays began at 6:00 a.m. He pulled into the 3M parking lot around 7:00, got home around 4:30, and fed his deep space dog. By 6:00, he was seated in front of the cheap desk he had picked up at Staples, eyes darting between his two monitors–one for writing code, the other displaying the frenetic, bloody action from the current prototype of Demons with Shotguns.
From there, his schedule fluctuated. If he felt peppy, he wrote code until midnight. On demanding days, he called it quits by 9:00. Saturdays were blocked out for the game and other projects associated with MindShaft Games, his indie company based out of the spare bedroom where he works. On Sunday mornings, he either got more work done, or rested up for the coming week.
The praise DiMucci received at Playcrafting did wonders for his confidence and belief in Demons with Shotguns. In January 2015, he took stock of his progress. He had two arenas near completion — Hell, and a gloomy cemetery. Several playable characters had been added; a lobster-red demon with curved horns, a fallen angel sporting a five o’clock shadow and a cigar dangling from his lips, a preacher who has lost his faith, and Death, who has traded his sickle for a shotgun.
With the game still testing well at other expos around New York, DiMucci decided the time had come to take the next big step. On January 21, he submitted his game to Steam Greenlight, an indie wing of Valve’s uber-successful Steam digital distribution platform.5
Steam created Greenlight for indie developers to drum up exposure, and as a way for Valve’s community of gamers to make their voices heard. Indie devs interested in Greenlight pay a submission fee of $100—an amount just high enough to discourage pranksters from uploading fake games and malicious files—and receive a page on Steam where they can explain their game and post screenshots and videos designed to entice. Gamers peruse the pages and vote on which games they would like to see Valve sell through Steam.
Launched in 2012, Steam Greenlight has been a roaring success for Valve, the gaming community, and developers like DiMucci. Valve gets to fill its catalogue with fresh products; gamers get to play an active role in selecting which games get published; and indie devs get an opportunity to convince one of the world’s most prolific game publishers to sell their game on the world’s largest digital-games platform.
More importantly, indies on Greenlight can release their game as an early-access title—a work in progress sent into the wild to garner feedback from players, and a critical step on the path to designing a fun and balanced product. Best of all, Valve donates every $100 submission fee to Child’s Play, a charity that raises money to stock hospitals with toys and video games.
Demons with Shotguns made a splash on Greenlight during its first two weeks of candidacy. “The campaign started off strong,” DiMucci said. “I earned about 1,100 ‘Yes’ votes [endorsements from visitors] in the first week with almost 4,000 unique visitors. The votes and visits have definitely started to plateau, which is expected, so it’s up to me to continue to self-promote to drive traffic to the Greenlight page.”
Online and at expos, Demons with Shotguns is amassing praise. Each warm reception reignites DiMucci’s passion for his project, but only temporarily. Over twelve months of coding, tinkering, and campaigning have taken a toll. “On a personal level, I’m constantly feeling burnt out. I try to sneak in small breaks to decompress, but the game, and everything else in life, is still there when I get back, waiting for me.”
When he began development, DiMucci threw himself into minutia like choosing weapon designs and deciding on color palettes for backgrounds. Now, thinking about small details causes his heart to sink instead of soar as the finish line recedes further into the distance.
Some days are worse than others. Those are the days when ideas for simple gameplay adjustments conceived in the morning as he drives to work seem herculean by the time he gets home that evening, his brain smashed into a fine paste after a long day spent solving programming conundrums at the office.
The bugs are the worst part. Blocks of code that worked fine one evening suddenly grind to a halt the next. Squelching one bug triggers the appearance of three or four more, like an endless game of whack-a-mole.
More than once, he’s wondered why he even bothers. The game, he believes, is shit. No one would ever want to play it. It would be so easy to switch off the monitor, close up the office, and sit in front of the TV until he falls asleep. Demons with Shotguns is not going anywhere. Better to return to it in a day, maybe a week, when he has free time and energy.
Invariably, DiMucci scrubs his hands over his face, hunches over the keyboard, and resumes typing. “There’s lots of work to be done, and it’s getting increasingly challenging to continue, but quitting simply isn’t an option, so I just have to push through.”
Fortunately, DiMucci is under no pressure to release his indie opus. Taking a page out of the playbook used by juggernauts like Blizzard Entertainment and id Software, DiMucci will release Demons with Shotguns when it’s done and not a moment sooner.
More than anything, DiMucci hopes to achieve two goals. “Fulfill a childhood dream, [and] release Demons with Shotguns at a quality that matches my vision. Of course, I would love to make it big enough where I can support my current lifestyle doing this full-time, but if I never do, I never do. I’ll always develop games either way.”
Choose Your Destiny
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Angels, Devils, and Boomsticks is available as an eBook from Press Start Press, the publisher of Episodic Content. Purchasing the eBook edition of the story gets you:
- The unabridged story as published on Episodic Content
- Bonus chapters covering more behind-the-scenes anecdotes and exclusive interviews
- To present, you simply submit an application: “Demons with Shotguns.” IndieDB. http://www.indiedb.com/games/demons-with-shotguns/news/nyc-games-forum-playtest-night-demons-with-shotguns-will-be-there.
- Nick received excellent feedback from developers and writers who play Demons with Shotguns at the event. You can read one such review here: http://nerdsontherocks.com/nyc-games-forum-october-playtest-night-impressions/.
- On January 21, he submitted his game: “Demons with Shotguns.” Steam Community. http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=375619883.
- 6. In February 2015, he: “Further Tarot Card Design Changes.” Steam Community. http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/updates/375619883/1423430867.