Tag «Indie»

Splatter – An Interview with Thomas from Dreamworlds


I talked to Thomas from Dreamworlds about the German Indie scene, the problems of being indie, his game Splatter and the difficulties we both had with stories in games.

Hi Thomas! Please tell us who you are, and what you're doing at Dreamworlds.

Jo moin! I'm Thomas Ziegenhagen, currently 34 years old and married since 2 weeks. I founded Dreamworlds a long time ago together with my twin brother. I'm mainly a programmer, but also do everything else needed - graphics and sound to help out, game design, writing dialogues, organization, etc.

My brother and I have started at the age of six on a small GDR computer. The first game that reached the thin public on the Internet was a pure multiplayer spaceship shooter game called “Crossfire” in 1996.
Much later in 2003, when I worked for a year in Tübingen and spent too much time alone in the evenings, I started “Splitterwelten”.

How came the decision to become “indie” back then?

A good question! It was probably primarily this constant bumping against limits. I had so much fun developing games and invested a lot of my free time. But I realized that I would need much more time to implement all the things that I wanted to see realized. So I asked my former employer if he wanted to get involved on a part-time model. As this wasn't possible I quit and started to make a living through game development.
I was aware that this wouldn't be easy. But I hoped that the decades-long study of the subject would give me an advantage.

Is your brother still on board or do you work alone?

No, Stefan is not with me. He remained permanently employed, but hopes for my success to perhaps join later. It is very exciting to be able to work on your own project – you have a completely different motivation than in a profession with externally specified tasks. Of course, for all that the too much and sometimes enormously stressful side-work has to be done as well.

Thomas Ziegenhagen from Dreamworlds.
Thomas Ziegenhagen from Dreamworlds.

How is it to be "indie" in Germany? What is the game scene in Dresden like? And do you think that Germany is generally a difficult place for independent developers?

I know some amateur developers here, and there have been other notable indie projects as well. However, we have no regular gathering or something like that, the contact is more volatile, like in forums. Furthermore I do not get funding anymore, even if the German government has initially given me a start-up grant. After two and a half years you could say that I would have to stand on my own feet.
I think it's more difficult to live on Indie games here because of the Central-European typical high cost of living. On the other hand, the infrastructure in Germany is outstanding and the social system can intercept the worst falls - a luxury the world envies us rightly. It has advantages and disadvantages to work here.

And what do you miss, what would help you in the development of games?

To be totally honest: I don't miss anything. Game development is a very difficult field, but in my opinion that's mostly because of the extreme over-saturation of the market. There are quite a lot of game developers in the world who are all highly motivated and also very talented, resourceful and dedicated. Each of these people deserves to make a living from their passion as well.
But when I look at the whole thing purely selfish, I'd say any additional funding for me by the government would be useful. To make my game better, for example through the early involvement of testers and test coordinators. And to properly promote my games. Just working with the press and the public is a full-time career for itself.
Regarding developer tools we now live in a sort of paradise already. I don't think it can be easier and greater than today.

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How did you develop the idea to make Splatter?

Splatter originally started as a contribution to a game development competition in the ZFX forum. At that time I was only following my spontaneous impulse to develop a top-down shooter like in the good old times. Even the idea of using light radiation to chase around monsters kept running through my head back then already. I upgraded this light and shadow game mechanics to a core element of the current game when I took Splatter up again. It was also intended to be new aspect to the shooter genre, since I have played many games of this genre with great joy but felt a certain repletion after a short time.

What was your inspiration for the scenery? I especially notice the natural, down to earth characters that are rather uncommon for the shooter genre.

That is more of an issue of conflict. Stylistically I went more in the direction of “Max Payne” - one of my all-time favorites. Which is due to the black and white style in the cut-scenes and the brooding bouts of the main character. He actually is a photo model from the circle of my graphics-artist Michael. To use the photos of friends as characters was a spontaneous idea really and born out of necessity.

How important is story in terms of the level design to you ? Or NPC interaction?

Very important. If it were up to me only, all the characters had to tell a lot more, and I would have loved to implement a role-playing dialog options system to offer more choices. But I restrained myself as much as possible, because I suspected that most players of shooters have neither patience nor interest to have dialogues.
The level design was developed along with the characters. I usually have a basic idea of what should happen in every level - I wanted at least one new game element in each of them, so the game remains fresh and players get new experiences again and again. Characters and the level design are developed as a result of these ideas.

I loved the scene with this one girl totally pleased that she is now on an organic farm with no genetically modified organisms, while zombies are running around outside. Tell me more about this down-to-earth world!

The village was also such an obsession - a pure dialog level without shooting action in a shooting game. But I thought to myself: why being indie, when I don't take my freedoms that comes with it.

I had the idea quite early of a hero getting into almost everything by accident and growing stronger by that. But by following this proposition I found that the story runs entirely speculative until a certain point. Half of the game feels very much like “because the author wrote it”, while a real human being would have said a hundred times “no way I'm doing this, I stay at this nice farm now”.

You can destroy every desk, crate, car, basin, window andandand in this game.
You can destroy every desk, crate, car, basin, window andandand in this game.

Yes, you are right. Player motivation is a hard nut to crack. As a developer you just wish the gameplay alone would be motivation enough. With TRI we have also considered different stories to motivate the players. Which is especially difficult when the gameplay already works without a story.

Exactly. Then it needs some kind of brilliant idea to catch the people in front of the screen and drag them in. Any kind of story that you write for the main character often feels artificially constructed and constrained for the players.
I haven't found a solution for this problem that Splatter has, yet. And considering the fact that the game now has over 8000 words of text already that need to be translated into several European languages, I cannot change much regarding the dialogues.

You could have let the protagonist rescue his girl friend! ;)

No way!
But if I may suggest something from the experience I made with the development of Splatter: Keep the story low and rather deliberately reduced and vague. An extensive and bad story seems to be worse than none.

The engine is your own. How important is it for you to develop your own technology?

Very important. For a strictly personal reasons - I am a passionate programmer, who has big fun developing technical systems. Especially when they look good as well later. I wanted to also expand my USP. There are many fantastic tools for game creation that make it a lot easier, like Unity or UDK. However, I find that the resulting games usually look too much like their tools. My own technology might give me the opportunity to stand out visually from the myriad of excellent indie games.

What would you change in retrospect and what are you most proud of?

Looking back, I am of the opinion that the development would not run much different as it went. From today's perspective, I would freeze the development of Splitterwelten earlier – I tried to maintain two projects in parallel for a too long time. I also have some side projects and assignments adopted to keep me alive financially, which is nothing I could have changed. If possible I would probably wait even longer with the release and improve the story scenes, the voice recordings and many details. You just have one chance for a first impression, and this is gone now.


A first screenshot from the upcoming game project.
A first screenshot from the upcoming game project.

What do you plan next?

First, I'm currently back at employment. I have to live from something, and Splatter has not been shown successful sales to pay the bills. I will, however, move Splatter even further - more story content, more multiplayer content, maybe I can still get voice recordings for the whole story ... and more. And then there's Splitterwelten which I would love to extend.

Do you consider crowd-funding options for Splitterwelten?

For a successful crowd-funding campaign you need a good basis of previous public attention. And the biggest and thus most promising platform Kickstarter is unfortunately only available to Americans and the British.
I also believe that the crowd-funding platforms are overcrowded. There are a lot of highly motivated teams and projects that compete for the attention and the money of the public, so it is difficult to stand out.

The Splitterwelten - Dreamworld's amateur RPG project.
The Splitterwelten - Dreamworld's amateur RPG project.

Okay, so we are almost at the end, but one question is left: Do you still have time to play?

Yes, later in the evening I usually find an hour to play. And there is a lot of stuff that I enjoy, mostly games that I can play with friends. Battlefield 3, Saints Row Coop, long hours Terraria with my wife and many friends while talking via TeamSpeak. I also played Risen II through in many evenings; and I have many, many more games in the Steam library still waiting for an installation.
And as soon as I have a few weeks of time, I'll grab Skyrim :)

Thank you, Thomas!

Help Splatter get on Steam!

German Indies, where are you?


Because of the fact that most of us smaller developers face the problem of not getting enough attention I would like to take a closer look at my own country and its even more unknown indie game scene - Germany.
When it comes to games, Germany is foremost known for simulations (Demolition Simulator by Giants Software), engines (Cry Engine by Crytek) and board games (The Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber). In fact, we seem to consume more video games then we actually produce or sell outside of Germany.

Besides Crysis 1, 2 and 3, have you ever heard of the building game series Anno by Related Design, The Settlers series by Blue Byte, the beloved adventures from Daedalic Entertainment like Deponia or the RPG series Gothic and Risen by Piranha Bytes?
If none of the mentioned titles - which are known by every German interested in games - rings a bell you might get an idea of what kind of problems the German indie game scene must be facing. The purpose of this article is to introduce some of their specimen, to define some typical German qualities and their problems.


Education in Germany

To start with the German indie scene means to begin with the Indies' education and where they come from.

There are several possibilities to start your path to the German game industry. I suppose in most European countries and the U.S. it's also like this: you can study computer science to be a programmer or design to be an artist.
In Germany we have several private schools that educate students to perfectly fit in certain jobs like 3D modeling or character artist. Most famous representatives are the Games Academy, SAE, Quantm Institute and Media Design Hochschule, to mention just some of them.

Nowadays, even more public schools climb onto the bandwagon with their own programs. For instance, I studied "Multimedia Virtual Reality Design" at the University of Arts and Design in Halle.
According to the B.I.U. (Association For Interactive Entertainment Software) we have more than 144 schools and universities where designers, programmers and musicians can get their education or further training from. Not to forget a classic start as an trainee or intern in a games company!

But there is another scene, much older than the new generation of game students from any private or public school - the hobbyist scene.
When I did my research back in 2009 for my diploma about Indie Games, I had a hard time to find teams that work in a way that I would call indie today: independent, creative young start-ups that took the risk to work full time and not just for free, but to make a living from the things they love. According to my own definition of 'indie' there were just very few of them in Germany. I had to look under every rock to find them.
But to be fair, the indie scene as a whole became first popular to a broader audience with World of Goo by 2DBoy and Braid by Jonathan Blow in 2008.

Compared to indies, the hobbyist or amateur game developer scene was rich of examples. There were many people that teamed up to make the next Gothic or Command&Conquer, like Verbotene Welt by sechsta sinn (after 12 years they still meet up to work on their game from time to time), Dreamworlds with their RPG Splitterwelten (they are fully indie now with a different project) or Elite Software with Out Of This World (turned the project down). This scene flourished with the help of many huge forums (ZFX, Developia and its predecessor Deutsche Untergrundspiele, Softgames.de for different projects, specific websites for game engines like Blitzbasic and 3D Game Studio, etc.), their own festivals/gatherings like the Dusmania/Devmania and a booth at the Games Convention in Leipzig called IndiGo.


The characteristics of the German hobby scene

Typical for most hobby game projects isn't the experimentation with game design, but to emulate the idols whose games the makers adored. The teams often worked hard and passionate to assemble perfect copies with their own added features, ideas and stories. But projects like RPGs, MMOs or strategy games were often doomed from the beginning. It turned out that most of the projects from this time were too huge and ambitious to be finished. In most cases, the teams dissolved because of academic studies or to earn money with more 'serious' work than games. In some rare cases they still try to finish a game they started many years ago - still as a hobby while having a day job.

Another attribute that sticks out from this time is the overwhelming amount of programmers in the scene. This resulted in technology-driven games and the development of a lot of smaller engines the creators proudly presented at bigger scene events like Dusmania/Devmania.
I missed a more artistic standpoint or discussions about graphics beyond shader programming, sometimes. Although most hobby teams had their graphic artists, they seldom tried to create a new look which often resulted in beautiful and polished, but uninspired graphics.

In the last years the hobbyist scene became somewhat stuck. Many of the old forums are closed or merged together. Maybe the notion of the indie scene reached German developers and they tried to get more attention in international forums. Even pupils - the biggest part of the German hobby scene - want to be professional and sell their games. For many of them, 'Indie' might be a new prospect of getting into the industry like their idols did before.

But this is pure speculation. Today, most German indies I know since 2010 are graduated students from game schools.


The new generation of young game designers

And their number is growing every day! It is much easier to be aware of these teams, thanks to festivals like Amaze Indie Connect, Play, Next Level Conference or the increasing attention of the German media blogs like Superlevel. And their presence on Twitter and Facebook in combination with their own development blog.

Many German indies I can think of can be characterized by a certain professionalism. As much as they like to create fun games, they also want to secure their new business. And of course make money with it.
After graduation you have two chances to get money: First - check out the possibility of a design or start-up funding and apply for it. Second, search a publisher or investor to back you.

Here comes the first point where many of us had to think about business economics. To get any kind of funding (EXIST is the most common one or federal state specific funds like FFF Bayern for Bavaria) you need to write a business plan, calculate your future income/cost/investment and give a prognosis about your sales.
It is not typical for Germans to take high risks, planning is everything! And to be honest, it helps a lot to make yourself clear about what awaits you outside in the games market.

I often hear that many of the better known indies, like Phil Fish or Edmund McMillen, had debts to finish the game they wanted to make. I can't say if it's just lesser common or outright impossible for a young German start-up to get credits or be in someones debts. That's why most of us are looking for a publisher or investor to fund the project at first.
That's why I often tend to say that there are no 'real' German indies in the independent-from-publisher meaning of the word 'indie'. But whatever the clear definition of indie might mean to someone, it is more important to make interesting games!


Games that matter or games that sell?

German developers often tend to have the opinion that you are just able to produce good games with a high budget.
This attitude affects not only the games, but the style and design, too. Ingredients like technology, quality and perfection are very important to many designers I know.
On the other hand, there are very few games from Germany that I would describe as crazy, artsy, over-the-top manic. Games that often happen to be the opposite of quality and technology, but with a great emphasis on creativity.

Why is that so? The answer might be as easy as that: If you want to sell games, you need to look for certain trends in design and what players are looking for, in order to sell as many games as possible. Challenging your own future by taking too much risks with innovation or experimentation might be too dangerous in the beginning of a young studio.

But this is not the reason there are still German studios missing on awards or shopping wish lists. The mere reason for them to be totally unknown is that most of the studios I listed below are just at the beginning of their journey. There are very few studios that developed more than one game yet!
So, if you are interested in (German) indie games, look out for the upcoming generation of German designers.


German Indies

Andreas Illiger from Kiel, Tiny Wings (iOS)

Daedalic Entertainment from Hamburg, Edna breaks out (PC/Mac), Harvey's New Eyes (PC/Mac), Deponia (PC/Mac)

Knut Müller, the Rhem series (PC)

Dreamworlds, Splatter - Just Harder Times (t.b.a.)

Black Pants Game Studio from Kassel; Tiny&Big (PC/Mac), About Love, Hate and the other ones (iOS)

Mimimi Productions from Munich, DaWindci (iOS), Tink (t.b.a.)

Silent Dreams from Mühlheim an der Ruhr, Grotesque Tactics, Holy Avatar vs. Maidens of the Dead

Joyride Labs from Berlin, Nikki and the Robots (PC/Mac/Linux)

Jonas und Verena Kyratzes from Frankfurt, The Sea will claim everything (PC), Ithaka of the Clouds (t.b.a.)

Spaces of Play from Berlin, Spirits (iOS/PC/Mac/Linux)

Threaks from Hamburg, Beatbuddy (t.b.a.)

Brightside Games from Berlin, Zeit² (PC), Spin Wars (iOS)

Bit Barons from Munich, Astroslugs (iOS/PC/Mac), Tridek (t.b.a.)

Candygun Games from Hamburg, Dead Block (XBLA/PSN, PC), Dollar Dash (XBLA/PSN, PC)

Z-Software from Dortmund, Solar Struggle (XBLA, PC), Ambulance Simulator 2012 (PC), Rush on Rome (PC, iOS)

Wolfram von Funck, Cube World (t.b.a.)

Krystian Majewski from Cologne, Trauma (PC/Mac/iOS)

Bumblebee, Days of Dawn (t.b.a.)

kunst-stoff from Berlin, The Great Jitters - Pudding Panic (iOS)

Tinnitus Games from Hannover, Reperfection (PC)

Hammerlabs, Farm for your Life (PC/MAC/Linux)

VisionaryX, A Knight's Dawn (iOS)

Wolpertinger Games from Munich

Mediaguild from Kassel, Little Indie (Indie publishing platform), Spyaction (t.b.a.)

Media Seasons from Leipzig, Driving Simulator (PC), Pingvinas (PC, XBox)



Edit 13.0305, more devs added

Matthias Zarzecki, Unstoppaball DX

Frame6, Crysis Borad Game

Layered Mind, Colour Souls (Win,iOS)

Duangle, Nowhere

Tinytouchtales, Super Zombie Tennis (iOS), Muffin Munch (iOS)

Slip Shift, Reborn Horizon (Browser)

Decane from Hamburg, RC Mini Racers

Damian Thater, Argh! Earthlings!

Uniworlds, Caravan

Klonk Games, Mercury Shift

Golden Trycicle, Clark

Virtual Cosmonauts from Karlsruhe, Kraut Attack

Vidiludi Games from Munich, Highway Run


The Grey Studios, Pixel Towers

Black Goat

...and a lot more? Feel free to add your own studio in the comments! A discussion about the perception of the German indie scene is appreciated as well!

Day 2 and 3 – Amaze Indie Connect

Missed Day 1 of our Berlin adventure? Click here!

After I failed at being more business-like and professional, we really enjoyed talking to all the Indies. Especially what they are working on, where their secret jelly glass filled with coins is to be found and, of course, how their business works.

This whole Indie thing was some kind of conference meme everybody interpreted in their own way. Many people reacted a bit bugged out when it comes to the question what is "Indie" and what not.
Some don't like the discussion, because we all need money and partnerships, which doesn't necessarily mean that we are the marionettes of publishers.
Others loved the Indie label to keep out stiff business guys and get recognized even with smaller titles.

And many folks prefer to just call all the little game company start-ups Indie, without making a distinction what it exactly means to be Indie.
Even Thorsten Storno – the host of Germany's first Indie festival didn't come up with a manifest. Although he wanted to, but couldn't afford doing one due to the lack of time. Luckily! Because maybe too many restrictions would contradict with the Indie mind of being independent from stupid guidelines. At least this can be said, I think.


A fact is, that we all need money and that a pure Indie-fication seems to be only possible with sponsorship, waiting tables, freelancing, putting aside our own projects to work at errands or being purely commercial from time to time. So in the end, everybody is Indie and nobody is.

At this point Cactus from Sweden comes in. He held the first talk/keynote and gave us all a telling-off about stopping to be so commercial. After his 2-year sponsorship ended he now has to sell his games, too. Ironic!
I really enjoyed his speech, though, especially as a contrast to the Quo Vadis - he stood there somehow drunk with a canned beer at 11am. Although I was a bit unsure what exactly his point is, but I think he was as confused about him being business punk now, as I was.
Cactus' talk strongly reminded me of Anna Anthropy's book “Rise of the Videogame Zinesters”. Both complain that on the one hand making games is easier than ever, but on the other hand, it is harder to get an audience with free games or in other words, the barrier to gain a foothold is getting higher.
The funny thing about this discussion is that I – as somebody who tries to sell games – saw this always from another perspective: There are tons of awesome and super-creative free games and I never understood why the heck they gave them away for free. Because it basically means that I as an Indie dev who needs money has to explain myself for being greedy.
The developers of free games - on the other side - argue that they get no coverage for not having polished, super-functional games. They seemed to be the Indie Indies, the artsy ones, while we are the black suits.
The good thing is that most of us do both ways, which brings the whole discussion together somehow and makes it dispensable.

I have to admit that I didn't follow most of the talks, again. I think my attention span is extremely short and every talk was followed directly by the next one. A little pause to discuss what you heard just moments ago is very important.
Especially when controversies occur: Martin Nerurkar's talk was about to use every possibility to make and sell games - even free2play. This was followed by a discussion that our creativity should not be destroyed by, let's say, free2play. Like I mentioned in the post about Quo Vadis, free2play and social games are the end of creativity to many game developers. This kind of friction was fascinating.

douglas wilson

The talks on the next day were interesting and very inspiring, too. Douglas Wilson, member of Die Gute Fabrik and brain behind Johann Sebastian Joust, compared his game with the minimalism in Proteus. He pulled a metaphor about gameplay being the chips and the surroundings, graphics, atmosphere, etc, are the sauce. And Indies too often just think about the chips, which are flavorless alone, but he loves the dip and would be glad if the chips would be more often just used as a vehicle to eat more dip ... I think, that was what he meant!? Using tasty food pictures as a metaphor didn't work for me that well.

This speech was followed by a talk from Thomas Bedenk of Brightside Games about the Flow-theory by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the difference of player and designer perspective. Well – look at the picture.

Vlambeer rocked with a lesson about back story. Although it's fun to hear this from the masters of fast-paced arcade games, in my opinion everybody comes up with some kind of fiction. Some for the need of design ideas, while others have a vast epic story early before even knowing about the gameplay. But it's nice to see them playing their games and understanding how every piece fits together. (You can re-read the talk here.)

vlambeer The talks were followed by two workshops. Apparently there was even a third one, called "Lesson learned", but most people couldn't recall the content from the website and a rumor explained that it was about business ("About the art of staying independent") - I wonder if it took place anyhow.

The other ones were about sound and coding with libpd and location based games, the last one we took part in. It is extremely interesting to speak to people like Michael Straeubig, who is a game designer for board and location based games. I think our games belong to the PC, but it's always awesome to get some input from other genres, especially the offline ones.

Again I missed the outcome of this workshop. I think I was looking more for input then laying my hands on gameplay.

So instead we joined the others on a lawn enjoying the invasion of summer.


The summit closed with the award for the most amazing game, which was Proteus of Ed Key and David Kanaga.
I loved the decision, because I just bought the game some days ago and was fully inspired. I guess games like Proteus, that suck players into their world without any double-hint what is next or where to go now and what exactly is the point, was the perfect choice for the first award. It was in fact some kind of orientation which way the first edition of the festival should lead to.
Ed, your game is perfect for this, like the festival itself: Not too polished, leaving lots of room for own interpretation of what exactly will happen next.

The best thing, after the award, was the party with the mandatory 8bit electronic music and Proteus playable flashing against the wall. We sat there for a very long time and played it. The best thing: people came along and watched us.
After observing them, these are the five phases playing Proteus:
1. Skeptical look. "THIS won the award?" Erm....
2. Just fascinatingly watching, being completely silent.
3. Curiosity, what this thing exactly about. "What do I have to do, just walking?" or "Oh, I have to follow the frog!"
4. The deep wish to try it themselves.
5. "Oh my god this is awesome. I gonna buy this."

It's funny how people kept playing it, although being extremely confused about this "Notgame". I would love to achieve this one day, without a ragequit stopping people from doodling to find possibilities in the game out for themselves.



So, the big question from all, who missed the event: Was it worth going to Berlin? Just another Indie festival? "Germany? - I went to GDC San Francisco!" So, next year A.Maze, again?

Answer: Yes, YES, triple-yes. Just standing in the foyer and discussing different standpoints about business, money, gameplay or favorite beer labels made the thing awesome. Meeting many of the well-known faces in person and discover new ones you never heard of before. Or finally meeting the German developers in person, that seldom actively use Twitter or blogs - in most cases.
The talks were more an add-on to be inspired, provoked or initiated for further discussion. But I took home many good ideas, motivation and encouragement for our game-to-be TRI.

And it was fantastic to play all these games during the summit and nibble my nails about who is going to get the fantastic looking lolly-pink silicon concrete trophy. Great people overall … what should I say?

Thanks a lot to the organizers of the whole event! I miss Berlin, this whole communicative, relaxing AND exhausting event plus the international flair - Fuck yeah! In this scene I felt extremely welcome! Thorsten, this was amazing!!!

BTW: Next time with a game jam, please!