Interview: Exato Games' John Getty On Independent Development

On Monday, I had the chance to sit down for an interview with Exato Games co-founder John Getty. Getty and his studio recently released Guncraft, a voxel-based sandbox first-person shooter. The development of that game - as well as Exato's first (unreleased) title, Progenitor - has been a learning experience, both for Getty and for his fellow developers. He was kind enough to share some of the insights his time in the development field has given him. 

What first kicked off your interest in game development?

My first step into game development probably took place when I was modding Command & Conquer: Red Alert way back. I just played around with the units and made a few easy scripts. Back then, I wasn't very good at modding, but I did alright.  Where I actually got serious about it was with Starcraft. I made a lot of maps - some very complex, some very simplistic. One of them, Jail Tag, got kinda popular - at the time, I would see it up once or twice a week. 

I stuck to that until I got to college, then stopped. School was way too time-consuming.

What's the story behind your studio? 

I met my business partner Alex in college, and towards the end of my time there, we both decided we wanted to start a game company. Neither of us had any experience, and we both wanted to do it as a hobby, but it quickly escalated into a full-fledged effort with us; we found ourselves figuring out what our savings accounts were like and seeing what we could do. 

Exato started off slow, and progressed into the organization it was today. It was a lot of hard work in the beginning, and we made a lot of mistakes, but those mistakes gave us more experience than any formal degree possibly could have. Our first game was Progenitor; we started working on Guncraft after realizing how well a voxel-based sandbox title would work as a shooter. At the time, we didn't know any games of that type actually existed - we didn't find out about Ace of Spades until several months after we started development. 

Tell me a little bit about the development process for Progenitor.

The original concept for the title was a puzzle RTS. It went through several phases as far as the design itself went, but at the very first phase, we only had one programmer, my business partner at the time. He had a day job, and we hired a lot of artists, since the game required a huge volume of art assets. We ended up running into a lot of technical problems with the art assets not working with the game, with my partner's busy schedule, and with our general inexperience in marketing a video game. 

Later, we ended up getting a booth at E3 2010 - it was only a 10x10 booth, small but expensive. We were crunching the entire twenty-hour drive down to California, and Alex spent almost the entire time programming. When we finally arrived at the Expo and started setting up our booth, he was still trying to get Progenitor into a playable state. 

Usability was a major issue for us - we had a lot of people come up to us and say the game was fun, but not very easy to play.  That ultimately came down to our inexperience in game development and formal game design, and the fact that we were working with a from-scratch engine instead of mods built from the ground-up for usability. 

After E3, we developed some more, but ended up deciding that it was too hard to play. We eventually transferred it over to become a MOBA, just as the genre was starting to take off, but before it had become mainstream. Dota was huge at the time, but Heroes of Newerth was just starting to take control of the market. League of Legends was still fairly new. 

Again, we were inexperienced. We saw a good opportunity to take advantage of that growing market, but we didn't quite grasp how difficult developing a MOBA game actually is. You wouldn't think it difficult - you've just got one map, without much variety in unit designs - but the level of programming complexity that goes into those is insane, especially when designing for Xbox, which is what we were doing.

We ran into a lot of technical limitations, did a lot of optimization pushes, and kept pushing the game back farther and farther.  Overall, I wasn't happy with the project, and we ended up shelving it when we started working on Guncraft.

What's the main insight you gained from your mistakes with Progenitor?

Don't over-design. I always had these grand ideas in my head when I was modding for Starcraft. I could spend months on some of my maps. Fortunately, the game engine for Starcraft made it a lot easier to make such maps. With a custom-built engine, I felt like I could literally make whatever I wanted in my head, and tell the programmers to make it. I didn't fully understand how long that would take them.

There were also a lot of little things. With Progenitor, the big one was optimization and networking. I severely underestimated how difficult that was going to be on Xbox.  With Guncraft, it was all about keeping my expectations realistic and not overdesigning the game. I had to be willing to cut features if we didn't have time to implement them all. 

Getting back on track, what made you decide to go independent instead of seeking a publisher?

I guess it was the whole idea at the time that publishers control you; they have a say over everything you do. It was also 2009, around the time that indie studios were really on the rise. People were starting to respect independent developers more than they were the big companies that were under the heel of large publishers. We just wanted the freedom to be able to make whatever we wanted. That's what it really came down to. Progenitor never would have flown with a publisher.

That's the nice thing about working with Reverb. They aren't EA, they aren't going to force us to make huge game design changes. They work with us, instead of making us work for them.

What challenges would you say you faced as a result of being independent? 

I'd say marketing. If you have no previous games and no background as a studio or as a company, marketing is extremely difficult. Unless you're one of the one percent who gets lucky and goes viral, you are going to have a hell of a time getting your game out there no matter how good it is. You know how they say it's all about who you know, and not what you know?

That holds true in game development, too. You can know one famous YouTuber or Internet celebrity, and they can be the difference between a success and a failure. We didn't know anyone in the games industry before starting, so it was a long, slow process establishing our network, meeting people, and getting our name out there wherever and however possible in order to make people aware of us.

That push was even more important to us, since we're focused on multiplayer-centric games.

That's one thing I don't recommend anyone else do, actually: don't develop a multiplayer game as your first title. Community is what makes or breaks multiplayer games, and building one from scratch is extremely difficult. No matter how good your game is, if you don't have people playing it, no one will play it. It's a catch 22: you can get people trickling in, but if they don't see full servers or mostly-full servers, they'll probably just move on to another game. They're not likely to come back, either - most people don't play a game a second time. You hence need to make sure you have a strong community going into a multiplayer game.

Or just be Minecraft. 

You mentioned marketing as one of the toughest aspects of being independent. How did you market Guncraft? What avenues did you use to get the word out, and where'd you get your 'big break?'

PAX Prime 2012 was really where everything turned around for us as marketing went. We got a booth next to Mojang - that was kind of a publicity stunt on our part. It was mostly in an attempt to get the staff of Mojang to speak with us (which they didn't) as well as to show the people who played Guncraft that we are, in fact, different from Minecraft. We were hoping that Minecraft would be playable at their booth so they could directly tell, but unfortunately it wasn't.

People still understood the difference, at least.

Because we were there next to Mojang, we got a lot of exposure, and a lot of celebrity YouTubers came by our booth after stopping at theirs. We connected with a few of them, like KuleDud3.He's probably got around 250,000 subscribers at this point, and he's one of our good friends in the YouTube world - he's probably done quite a bit of the publicity marketing for Guncraft

Other than that, I'd say our recent marathon was a big booster. We went from 10,000 total channel views and about 30 followers to 1.1 million channel views and 360 followers. We did 60 hours of Guncraft and got the front page of Twitch, which was really awesome

Continuing along the same vein, Guncraft initially got its start on Kickstarter. What was it like using the platform?

Kickstarter was a very interesting process. It was kind of our first step into major marketing aside from Progenitor's presence at E3, which we considered a flop. The platform was still relatively new at the time, though was becoming bigger on the video game side. We started our Kickstarter right after Double Fine started theirs, so they kind of crossed over each other.

It wasn't a very difficult process. There was more that we wish we could have done on the marketing side - better page design, video, backer reports, et-cetera - but I was ultimately happy with the way it turned out. We raised a little over 16K; a little over our initial funding goal. We've tried a few kickstarters since then, but we haven't garnered the same attention. I blame that on the fact that we weren't released on Steam.

There's not too much else to say about the Kickstarter campaign. I'd definitely recommend people do it, but be careful on when they do it. Make sure that if you have a video game, you have gameplay footage. From what I've seen on a lot of other Kickstarters - and from my own - most people won't back a game until they've seen gameplay footage unless you're a studio with a huge reputation, like Double Fine. 

How did you design your Kickstarter rewards?  

I looked at a lot of other Kickstarters, and used them to influence what we did. Shirts and posters are common across almost every other successful campaign. Models were something that a lot of people weren't doing at the time; we implemented those because we wanted to do something different. I love 3D printing technology - and I really want a 3D printer myself, but they're still really expensive - so we decided it'd be really cool to have something unique as far as rewards go. That's where the 3D model came in.

We had some in-game stuff, too. We worked with what the engine could do, and gave out some professionally designed skins, as well as a map called Face-Off where the two backers had their faces put in Guncraft as a map. Of course, we had the obligatory 10K reward which offered all sorts of things like all our games forever, meet the developers, et-cetera; no one went for that one. We also offered colored names, so depending on the tier you back, you'd get a bronze, silver, gold, purple, or custom-colored name. Those seemed to be big selling points for each of the tiers. They basically put you higher on the chat list, and served as something of a mark of honor in the game.

Moving on from Kickstarter; Guncraft was recently Greenlighted on Steam. What was that process like? Do you have any advice for developers who are trying to get their title on the platform? 

As with Kickstarter, definitely have videos. They're probably the most important thing. Make sure you don't put a stupid image as your first picture- first impressions are everything. I've gone through every game on Greenlight, and I hate to say it, but sometimes if it's a really bad picture, I hit no and move on without a second thought, because there's so many other games that need to get through.

I want to stress again that it's very, very important to have gameplay footage. Do not put a conceptual game up on Greenlight. Yes, you can always take it down and submit it, but that's a waste of $100. 

You also need to understand if your game is good enough to be on Steam. Don't just tell yourself it is - compare it to what's already on there. I see a lot of games that you can tell are in the very early stages of development; you can tell the developers still have a great deal to learn, but they're trying to get on Steam. They probably won't, and they'll probably get discouraged. I hope they don't quit but...who knows?

I would say the body of the post barely matters at all. We have a lot of information in the body of our Greenlight page that most people never read, and they'd mention it on our comments page all the time. You still need to put some effort into your listing's body, but you should also be prepared to answer questions posed by people who didn't bother to read it.

As far as marketing a Greenlight page goes...there was an article that came out saying don't do a Kickstarter and a Greenlight at the same time. I would disagree - I'd say they feed into each other. I don't imagine most websites or press agents are going to do an article on your Kickstarter then do one on your Greenlight page. They'll write up a piece on your Kickstarter, then include your greenlight page. You'll end up with lots of votes coming into your Greenlight page, and you'll also feed lots of votes into the Kickstarter.

Also make sure you thoroughly plan your marketing strategy for Greenlight well in advance. One thing I've noticed Steam values highly is trending. If you can get a huge, steep curve right at the beginning, you might get into the top Greenlight choices. The longer you wait, the more it's about your rank.

Lastly, make sure you've some good selling points for press releases; make a list of some really unique things to get people to come to your Greenlight page.

No project is ever completed without a few stumbling points. What roadblocks did you encounter while developing Guncraft? 

Our number one hurdle with Guncraft was establishing a community where we previously didnt' have one. The Greenlight thing made it significantly harder to get it on Steam, which pushed our release date back more, and more, and more. That's a lot of time to polish the game, but ideally we could have had it out a long time ago. I didn't want to do that unless we were on Steam.

Marketing and overcoming the whole "Minecraft ripoff" perception a lot of people seem to hold about the game was another challenge. When people first see it, that's what they think, and that's not at all what it's like when you play it. The trick was getting people past that perception and convincing them to give Guncraft a try.

I think because of our experiences with Progenitor, we pretty much nailed down the whole actual development process, we haven't had a whole lot of major development issues with the game itself, which was nice.

What's the one piece of advice you'd give aspiring indie developers? What's the most important thing any developer should do?

I want to say something abstract, but I guess...just don't be afraid to fail.

You more than likely will, unless you're one of the lucky individuals who has that breakout success. Even Notch himself had several games he made before Minecraft, and no one knows anything about them. Don't let failure be a deterrant from making games. Use that knowledge from your failures to learn and make the next game better. I don't think Guncraft would be what it is today if we didn't have the failures of Progenitor to learn from.