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
I stuck to that until I got to college, then stopped. School was way too time-consuming.
What's the story behind your studio?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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 Twitch.tv 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
it'd be really cool to have something unique as far as rewards go.
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
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
silver, gold, purple, or custom-colored name. Those seemed to be big
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.
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
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
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
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
get into the top Greenlight choices. The longer you wait, the more it's
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.